Community music is an exciting and active space but under-utilised in the tertiary training of musicians, and David Francis, Head of Wollongong Conservatorium of Music is passionate about bridging this gap. Francis sees the real value that community orchestras play in helping conductors to gain authentic experience in working with different orchestras. ‘There is a clear flow between tertiary education and community activities in music. Music educators should place importance on students engaging with the community and working with different groups outside of their university or college setting, including in regional contexts,’ he explains. Mikaela Wu, Master of Music student at Excelsia College has been able to benefit from her exposure to community music, working with the Wollongong Conservatorium Community Orchestra as part of her training and studies to become a conductor. She also works closely with the Strathfield Symphony Orchestra under the instruction of Sadaharu Murumatsu, artistic director of the ensemble. As part of her research, Mikaela is looking at ways to improve ensemble communication in rehearsal contexts, a gap she has noticed in her research.
Wu is conducting research with community orchestras Hills Shire Symphony Orchestra and Penrith Symphony Orchestra. ‘I’m seeing what verbal instructions are useful in those contexts, how people respond and what they think of it,’ Wu explains. ‘The approach can be different in community ensembles compared to professional ensembles, not necessarily that the quality is worse so you care less about the outcome, but more the approach where the focus is on enjoying the music rather than being accurate to the time period. The reason behind why you’re doing it or what you’re aiming for in the final performance is different so the environment you’re in is different.’
There are key differences between community music and professional orchestras which Wu shares. ‘In community music contexts, conductors have to work hard to understand each instrument and what notes are going to go out of tune naturally. In professional contexts you can work on the artistic style of the piece rather than just getting the notes right. In community music, you can be more specific with developing technical knowledge because there is a variety of levels and skills within the ensemble. As a conductor of a community music ensemble, you have to remember that these people are here to enjoy the experience as well as improve their playing and musicianship, so managing expectations in this context is a good learning experience,’ she explains.
Wu has seen firsthand the value of collaborations between tertiary institutions and community orchestras. ‘One funny experience that sticks in my mind was standing on a milk crate in the park conducting! I attended a few rehearsals to learn what the conductor was doing and when he was double booked for one of the concerts this year, he asked me to conduct Strathfield Symphony Orchestra.’ Wu used to play flute in the South Pacific Concert band for many years and conducted with the band on a few occasions. ‘I learned a lot about what conducting is like from being in the band, watching the conductor, learning what you like and what you don’t like, and this informs how you conduct.’
In order to address this gap between tertiary institutions and community music, Dr Christine Carroll, Music Program Director at Excelsia College, has introduced an exciting stream within the Master of Music. ‘Excelsia College’s proposed Community Music Stream is unique in Australia, providing students postgraduate level skills in managing small and large performance ensembles of varying standards, as well as developing musical initiatives for work in a range of other community settings from prisons to aged care and healthcare settings. It will also help to bridge the gap in the market and as part of the training of up-and-coming young conductors,’ explains Carroll.
Wu is now in her final semester of her studies, working towards the realisation of whole concert programs with community orchestras to a professional standard.
Within the next five years, Wu hopes to continue working in community ensembles as a conductor. ‘It would be nice to do more professional ensemble work as well but I like music for the social aspect, and I enjoy working with people who are there to enjoy making music together,’ she explains.
If you are a musician inspired to go into regional areas and become a future leader in community music, why not explore what Excelsia College’s Master of Music has to offer?