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Musica Viva In Schools: A very big adventure

In 2000 we got the band back together. Anje West, Barbara Fordham and I had the chance to audition our unaccompanied harmony trio for the Musica Viva education program managers and their artistic advisor Richard Gill. We’d previously delivered three annual high school tours in regional Queensland for the Queensland Arts Council but now we had the chance to work in primary schools around Australia. We were so thrilled to be accepted, but looking back today, we did not have the least idea of the riches the years would bring. In 2002 we did our first shows as Gypsy Tober and have toured every year since then until one week ago, when we finally finished our involvement in the program.

I am hoping to check the actual itineraries that we followed over 14 years of metro and country tours but my conservative approximation is this:

  • 10 years of metro touring averaging around three weeks of 15 shows per week to a minimum of 150 students = 67,500 students at approximately 225 schools;

  • 14 years of regional touring averaging four weeks of 12 shows per week with an average of 100 students per show = 67,200 students at 504 schools;

  • Combined = 134,700 students at 729 schools (there are return visits in this number)

It began with a year of rehearsal, recording sessions and Musica Viva developing the accompanying book of teacher’s notes. The feedback from great educators started then and has never stopped. What we brought to the table were our lovely voices, solid harmonies and a nice selection of simple repertoire. In the delivery of the show we also brought unique skill sets, with Barb’s magical ebullience, Anje’s hostessing instinct and Brazilian percussion, and my gravitas and storytelling. Outside of the show each of us also stepped up to do what needed doing with Anje as producer, Barb the safety officer, and me, the enthusiastic roadie. I’m not saying pointy bits of people didn’t jut out of the car from time to time, but the level of intuitive give and take was outstanding, and another example of the magic of threes.

Last weekend, at the end of our final tour to Darwin and stations beyond, we were trying to reconstruct where we’d been each year and we realised how much we process our experiences as we go, how little we hang onto in the flurry and rush. Of about a year and a half we’ve spent on the road, the memories that pop out are the really exotic places we’ve seen, the really great schools we’ve been to and the handful of tours that we did with our wonderful deputies, Alison St Ledger and Erin Murphy. We needed these singers to step in and cover the times that our lives moved through big shifts, when we had to meet the needs of our families, our children and parents. The change of personnel always shook us up delightfully.

Of course we have always been happy when the program goes off without a hitch, the students prepared and engaged and the music teacher pleased to have the pay off for their own excellent work. But perversely this is so common an experience in the Musica Viva program that the memorable shows are the ones that are outside of the norm. We remember a school in the Western suburbs of Melbourne with a very multicultural student group and the speech that the Principal gave about the gift of music engagement in the lives of young people who live with constant struggle, because we all cried. And we remember the spirited singing of students at a school on the Southern outskirts of Brisbane: the classroom teacher had stepped in to facilitating music because she needed that to happen for her talented students. And a school in the centre of Darwin, where the Principal was teaching our repertoire to the students so that they could enter the eisteddfod even though he could barely sing himself. I have marvelled at the rich inheritance of culture and education around us, a boon to our children, and I have been stunned to encounter communities and schools so weighed down by trauma that we were forced to recognise our contribution to be functionally pointless and ourselves insulated by privilege. This is Australia, beautiful, resourceful and harsh.

I could write a very long essay on the art of comfortable touring because in our own lights we nailed it so many times (most recently in a the form of a house call by a kahuna masseuse) but I’ll just sign off by saying that what I take away in the end is the certain knowledge that people together are stronger than people alone. As a member of a strong ensemble, working for a company with a strong vision for their program I have had the most satisfying, rewarding and meaningful engagement with singing and music that I believe is possible for an artist with my ideas and talents. Last week we sang two shows in a primary school in a mining town in Arnhem Land and then had a brilliant exchange with a dozen indigenous teenage girls in the nearby community. As we flew back to Darwin I realised that I might never have that privileged access again. For me it has all been solid gold, and I’m thoroughly grateful to the management and administration of the program, to the teachers and students I’ve met, but most of all to Anje and Barb. We were together for the wins and losses, the running gags and the long miles, the thrift shops and curry pies. Love your work.

Prisma filtered image: Anje and Barb outside Gove Airport 2016

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