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Case Study: “A Magnet for High Achievers” – Bellingen High School

Case Studies

September 01, 2013

This case study was prepared as part of collaboration between Music: Count Us In and the Music in Communities Network. A Music Australia initiative.

Bellingen Youth Orchestra with David Helfgott - Education Case Study
Thanks to the team-work and vision of a few key people, the community of Bellingen, near Coffs Harbour on the NSW north coast, is working together to provide high quality music education and performance opportunities for young people. A constant cross-pollination of ideas, expertise and resources have made the area a lighthouse example of just what is possible when everyone plays to the same tune.

“A lot of the instrument teachers who come to the public school and high school also teach at the private schools so we tend to compare notes, keeping each other informed about what’s coming up and what school has which needs,” explains flute teacher Pru Borgert. “Instead of being in competition we try really hard to support one another.”

The measure of it all is the BYO culture of Bellingen. The Bellingen Youth Orchestra is run by parent and teacher volunteers and brings together students from five different local schools as well as home-school students.

Such is the musical reputation of the town that parents move to the area so their children can be a part of it and, increasingly, out-of-town music teachers are finding the move to Bellingen irresistible too.

“And we’re pretty big on lobbying people to come – if we need a new French horn teacher we’re not shy about blowing our own trumpet or asking for what we want.”

Pru speaks from first-hand experience. She was coaxed out of ‘semi-retirement’ a few years ago under just such circumstances and says she hasn’t looked back.

“Bellingen is a community-rich town – a great combination of artistic, inventive and open-minded people.” Nevertheless, though the environment may have been primed, seeds still needed sewing.

Seven years ago two music teachers decided to move to Bellingen, found work, created work – one at the high school, one at the primary – and collaborated to make music work really well here.

Before that there was minimal music happening in the local schools.

The two had the idea of a high school concert band that would rehearse before school. “Everyone pooh-poohed them, saying they wouldn’t get kids along that early – but it worked.” A before-school choir followed and then a jazz band. Success created demand as well as consensus amongst the community. It was decided to establish an after school orchestra so students from any school could take part.

And so BYO was born.

“The orchestra uses the high school music room for rehearsals and there’s a bit of blurring between BYO and the High School ensembles. Everyone has access to the equipment.” It operates under the umbrella of the Bellingen Music Association, which covers insurance and liability. In return, all the groups under this umbrella perform in a fundraising concert each year to cover the premium.
As it turns out, the school-to-community/community-to-school music links are so numerous; it is difficult to determine where the thread begins.

“Teachers at the High School volunteer at the Primary school, accompanying choir and assisting with the primary concert band, which is a valuable form of primary-secondary transition,” explains Pru.

“Feeder schools have concerts with the high school in order that younger players can see where they are heading, and make connections with older peers. And primary students are welcome to join before-school ensemble rehearsals at the high school, as a valuable means of extension.”

Behind the scenes, says Pru, making it all possible, is that open-minded philosophy at work.

Certainly having principals at the various schools open to collaborating is really important. They see that music changes kids’ lives.

“It makes the mystique of Year 12 music and professional music not so mysterious. The kids have relationship with music, so it’s not the untouchable reality. It’s definitely an achievable goal for our kids to be professional musicians. We have 16, 17 year-olds who have paid gigs every week. Growing up in a community of music coaches and mentors – suddenly they’re off and running.”

What becomes apparent is that Bellingen music making encompasses so much more than the just making of music. It’s a community effort. And it’s a social affair.

“Kids pay $50 a year for BYO. And that’s just for afternoon tea and that’s very important. It gives the kids a chance to socialise. We’d have a mutiny on our hands if we tried to miss it one week.” And it’s not just about the kids. The instrument and classroom music staff aim to get together once year for a dinner party also. “That’s just as important.”

When it comes to funding, Bellingen community collaboration again seems to know no bounds. Camp Creative is an annual week of artistic workshops and activities, which sees people of all ages head into Bellingen from all over the country. Utilising resources of the primary and secondary school, Camp Creative in return feeds some of the funds it generates into school resources and music budgets. Then there are the two old buildings the local hospital recently donated – one to the high school, one to the primary school – to use as music buildings, making room for an upgrade at the hospital.

And if between them the schools can’t find what they require within their immediate community – well, there’s always the worldwide community.

“We were running out of string teachers – so now we’ve started video conferencing through New England Conservatorium.”

Pru doesn’t have a chair in her office. “’Cause it’s always full of kids. Music students at school here have sense of place – it’s the whole open door policy and it’s the same with the parents. Even former students feel it. They return to perform at the primary and secondary schools, sharing their passion and experiences.”

And the occasional celebrity appearance doesn’t hurt the cause either. “(Pianist) David Helfgott is a local and he does at least one concert a year with BYO. He is generous, creative and unique – a local icon – and we love working with him!”

What’s in it for the school and community?

  • Local music association acts as an ‘umbrella group’ for inter-school and community activities, and fundraising
  • Local buildings donated to a music program with strong links to the community
  • Community-based youth orchestra has access to the school facilities, students and resources
  • School resources used for Camp Creative, funding for school activities in return
  • Local music association acts as an ‘umbrella group’ for inter-school and community activities, and fundraising

Pictured: The Bellingen Youth Orchestra with David Helfgott

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