Classical Music Futures Summit: Quick Points

I spent today (July 12) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at an event importantly titled the Classical Music Futures Summit, having scored a lucky last-minute invitation to be part of the talkfest.

So lately invited was I (somewhere between 6 and 2 weeks ago, depending on how you interpret the invitation) that the sheet listing the participants, explaining who they worked with/for, what they did/had done, along with their email addresses, didn’t include me. Which was fine – I’m very well-accustomed to people asking me who on earth I am.

This was my first experience at an event run by a professional facilitator, and I’ve come away from the day with a sense of awe at the quick-witted skillfulness displayed throughout the event, quickly sifting ideas into themes, managing the time-ego tug-of-war, and working to deliver both forward momentum and a sense of ownership to the participants. Truly inspiring work.

I’ve also come away from the day thrilled to have met some fabulous people in the flesh – people I’ve been tweeting with, like Yvonne Frindle who works with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, or blogging about, like Julian Day who works with Classic FM, or reading the blog of, like Gregory Sandow who works as a critic and writer and teaches at Julliard and the University of Maryland, or who were completely new to me [and I’m so glad I got to meet them] like Euan Murdoch of Chamber Music New Zealand.

And of course, it was equally fabulous to see familiar faces too – Rita Crews, John Colwill, Rachel Hocking and Sonny Chua from my experiences in educational piano music, John Davis from the Australian Music Centre and Matthew Hindson (probably only just recovered from the marathon that was the ISCM World New Music Days held in early May here in Sydney) who shares a publisher with me, amongst many others.

Greg Sandow was the keynote speaker, and there’s not a thing he said that didn’t make me nod and murmur with appreciation. His ideas are deceptively revolutionary, and it was interesting to see how warmly he was received, how rapt was the attention during his presentation, how enthusiastic the applause after, and yet the fundamental observations he made were routinely ignored in the remainder of the day. If this was a keynote speech the form of the day was atonal variations; most of Greg’s themes were inverted in further discussion and many of the comments from the floor were clear efforts at retrograde.

A statistical overview was then given, with what felt to me like too much detail at times along with some interesting philosophical perspectives emerging from some data. I’m just not convinced that statistics are best delivered aurally – I would have preferred an A4 page with numbers, graphs and conclusions that could have been taken into any and all discussions throughout the rest of the day. By now all I can remember thinking is that the statistics from Japan and China and other Asian nations simply couldn’t be lined up against European data without a broader economic and policy background, so I wiped that information immediately; I also recall most countries reported roughly a decline of 3 percentage points in concert attendance, so it depends where you started as to how truly appalling a statistic that is, and that education was attributed to the success of numbers increasing for concert attendance in some countries. Now this last issue struck me as a confusion of causal and casual links, but there was no time to query methodology before we moved on.

We then were facilitated into producing a vision of what success might look like in 2013, and it was at this point that I realised what a very difficult task the day would prove to be: instead of addressing the task immediately at hand (envision and describe a new world where our dreams for classical music have been realised) discussion easily devolved into anecdote or soapbox. And this is where a better preparation of participants would have been ideal, maybe with every participant needing to email in ideas addressing this question in advance, so that the small group discussion would be starting from somewhere beyond personal bugbears and old chestnuts. But even small advance preparations take considerable man-hours to marshall: this was the best we were going to manage today.

After a bit of synthesis we were let loose to collect our lunches and find our break-out discussion groups. I was in a group discussing audiences, and this is such a large issue I’ll leave the ideas emerging from this discussion for a separate blog post.

After 30 minutes we had a break to listen to Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Arts and Politically Damaging Stimulus Programs and former Midnight Oil front man, reveal that he’d been a chorister, could read music (although he phrased it ‘learned the difference between the black notes and the notes with white in the middle’) and had had a thoroughly decent music education that had laid a solid foundation for his work in the rock circuit and political life. When Peter left his prepared speech he was passionate and articulate and connected with his audience; left to follow the script he seemed destined to an unsatisfying end as yet another not-so-well-thought-through-Labour-recruit. He recited the dollar figures granted in subsidies to various music organisations, and this really was funny – some numbers were so low that they were in the ballpark of a politician’s annual salary – hardly impressive largesse. But he could name three Australian composers right off the bat, and even if his idea about the importance of classical music to the history of Australia was wildly exaggerated, his heart was clearly in the more-or-less right place.

The groups had another hour to work through their area of focus and then nearly two hours was spent reporting back.

This was again a time where I reflected with some degree of sorrow on the value that might have been achieved through a more thorough preparation of summit participants; some reports met the designated criteria (highlight 4 key points) while others didn’t even try (4 pages of densely scripted A2 sheets of butcher paper, with extra notes on the back of the final page), and this formal discrepancy created a lack of balance in this reporting process. This could have been minimised if everyone present had developed basic skills in following instructions at any point in their tertiary, secondary or primary school education. The personality of the designated reporter also made for wild differences in the dissemination of the ideas and insights from each group.

But the facilitator was worth her pay: she quickly found useful correlations between the discrepant reports, and rapidly shaped something workable with which to move into the future. Simply achieving an acknowledgement from the floor that an overarching strategic directions committee was needed to drive the next few months was a substantial feat, for this is where territory begins to be staked! Who is to be on this committee?, and who appoints them? dominated debate in a somewhat tiresome way, but then I don’t feel as if I have territory to protect, so that’s an easy observation for me to make.

So a real outcome, with measurable milestones: a good achievement for the Music Council of Australia.

Now for an update in three months to actually measure those milestones, and a new blog post from me in a day or two unpacking the ideologies and narratives in play throughout the summit.

3 thoughts on “Classical Music Futures Summit: Quick Points

  1. Thank you for that initial overview. It is worrying that the world at large, after so many years of running conferences and the like with breakout sessions and reporting back, we seem still to not have refined the process. Your suggestion for preliminary work to be done before the conference is very sound. The most successful strategic development workshop I ever attended had a facilitator who had rung all the participants beforehand to get a private view of their key issues. Of course this is only possible in a small group, but it underlines the value of getting the participants focussed and providing the facilitator with some prior knowledge of where participants really want to go.

    Your comment on the Garrett intervention is somewhat worrying. His speech will have been written by a arts bureaucrat. The inference might be that said bureaucrat had little idea what you were all there for. After all the best ideas for strategic development of a key sector of the arts should be coming from the Canberra arts bureaucracy, shouldn’t it? Or am I just being a bit cynical?

    That there is an outcome at all is positive, even if it is yet another committee. At least you did better than the usual cry for more government support. (The film industry are the masters of this.) Milestones sounds good, but all depends on what they are. The most vital role in any committee is that of chair. Hopefully the chair is a good one.

    I look forward to the more meaty post in a few days.

    • Thanks John!

      I think with the number of participants the event didn’t go too badly – but many participants didn’t quite ‘get’ the discipline required to make the event deliver/function, with comments sometimes being opportunistic rather than addressing the relevant issue at the time (for instance). I’ll write more on this….

      Clearly the bureaucrats behind Garrett’s speech couldn’t quite wrap their heads around what the day was about – but then it might be argued neither could some of the participants (haha!!). The facilitator certainly had a very clear grasp of what needed to be accomplished throughout the day, and maybe the speech-writer should have been in touch with her prior to writing the blurb.

      To be honest, I can’t see what other outcome was ever going to emerge than a committee to oversee action, but the process confers significant ownership on the participants, and that is a value beyond measure. And no, no one bothered to mention funding, but maybe I just filtered that out because it’s such a lame response to a problem.

  2. Nice to stumble across this. There are small but growing efforts around the globe to more honestly and generously tackle the “situation” facing classical music.

    Not surprisingly, many efforts are of the stumbling-around variety.
    We have much to tackle.

    Michael Stepniak, Dean
    Shenandoah Conservatory

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