Interview with Richard Gill

The Sydney Chamber Choir will be performing on Thursday 3 May at Lazenby Hall, University of New England. Described as Sacred and profane, ancient and modern, imported and homegrown: join Sydney Chamber Choir on a musical journey into the heart of beauty. The human voice is the most expressive of all instruments, and this concert features some of the great masters of choral writing: Hildegard of Bingen’s ecstatic melodies, written for the nuns of her 12th-century abbey; exquisitely passionate madrigals by Monteverdi and Gesualdo; the lush harmonies of Brahms and the delicacy of Debussy; and three thrilling Australian choruses for a mighty finale.

We recently spoke with the SCC’s conductor, Australian icon, Richard Gill about his thoughts on music education, the importance of singing and what we can expect from the upcoming performance:

In your career as a conductor and music educator, you have worked in many contexts: with orchestras, choirs, opera companies, schools, Musica Viva, live television, and many more. Is there one of these contexts that have been more rewarding for you than others?

My favourite gig is the one I’m doing right now. My favourite work is the one I’m rehearsing at the moment. All music-making has its joys, sorrows, challenges, difficulties, hardships and rewards. I’m happiest when I’m working and wish that I were better at it. I still have time to improve.

In a 2013 article you started with the statement, ‘Music education does not just make children more musical; it unleashes their creative powers.’ Five years later, do you feel that schools are moving towards or away from a focus on musical education and experiences?

While ever we have the stupidity of NAPLAN hanging over the heads of teachers, children and parents and while we still have this ridiculous push to teach the unteachable: e.g ‘we are doing literacy today’, ‘we are doing numeracy tomorrow’, our education system will continue to decline. Literacy and numeracy are not subject areas. They are states or conditions at which one arrives as a result of being educated. Many schools have cut back all programs which appear to stand in the way of delivering good NAPLAN results such as Music, Art, Dance, Drama, instrumental programs and the like. Our education system is a mess locally and nationally. It could be improved if the authorities who know nothing about education stopped telling teachers and principals what to do and allowed the teachers to actually teach.

The time spent on pointless assessment is time wasted. Children are sick of being taught rubbish and teachers are sick of teaching rubbish. Time to wake up, Australia.

You continually stress the importance of early music education; what are some examples of musical activities that can be shared with very young children?

All those related to a very young baby can contribute to its musical development from birth onwards. Humming to the baby, singing to the baby, dancing with the baby, saying nursery rhymes in imaginative ways all contribute to musical development. Playing recorded music to children in which a parent also plays a part as far as the direction of the listening is concerned is also incredibly important in the development of hearing and listening and subsequently in the child’s capacity to discriminate.

Can any teacher be trained to teach music in our primary and pre-schools? Do we need specialists here in all NSW schools?

Part one. You can teach some classroom teachers to teach aspects of music and this is being done very successfully in the National Music Teacher Mentoring Program. There comes a time, however, (Part two), when a specialist has to take over and I hope that time is not too far away.

You are currently the Music Director of the Sydney Chamber Choir which is especially renowned for its interpretations of Renaissance and Baroque works and as a champion of contemporary Australian choral music. What can we expect to hear in the current concert tour?

Renaissance music, Australian music, early Baroque music, some gorgeous Brahms and Debussy. It’s an aural feast.

In a recent TED talk you said, ‘When in doubt, improvise.’ What advice would you give to young musicians wanting to explore this important aspect of musical expression?

Improvisation is gradually coming back into music-making and many studio teachers are employing techniques of improvisation in the early stages of children’s lessons. My advice would be to start with very simple patterns which children can rearrange by altering the rhythm, for example, then adding a simple accompaniment and then extending the patterns. It should be part of every lesson and should always be grounded in a simple idea which can be developed.

You are a champion of developing the voice as the first instrument. What are the benefits of singing especially for young children?

Very young children are natural song makers. All my granddaughters made up songs from about the age of 2 until the age of 5. When they start this singing, humming and making up songs, they are developing memory for rhythm, pitch and text and the patterns associated with rhythm, pitch and text. It is from this memory bank that we can teach musical concepts of a formal nature when children have a large body of repertoire including nursery rhymes, all sorts of chants and songs, games and dances. This tends to stay in the memory bank for life, so it would seem.

Alternately, what importance is there in encouraging elderly people (especially those with special needs) to continue singing?

Singing is almost the same as a physical exercise such as walking. Singing induces feelings of pleasure and joy and many of the songs we learn throughout our life tend to stay with us. I can recall word for word and note for note almost all the hymns I learned as a five-year-old at St Anthony’s Clovelly. The singing is much more present in my memory than any other form of lesson we had.

Sing on and sing always!

Richard Gill will conduct the Sydney Chamber Choir in concert for Musica Viva Armidale and NECOM

When: Thursday 3 May, 7pm

Where: Lazenby Hall, UNE

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