Australia could aim for a lot more sophistication than it currently does in terms of the quality of musical entertainment on offer for children. Yes, we have the nation’s second highest paid entertainers in The Wiggles, and they are nonpareil for the kind of shows they create for kids. But in talking with those who program our arts festivals for young people, there is room for so much better. It becomes clear how vital is the need for delivering kids far richer musical experiences than those that are typically formatted for television.
There are four large festivals in Australia curated for young people that program substantial musical content. Melbourne’s biennial Next Wave festival embraces a wide range of musical styles and interdisciplinary practice in catering for the 16-30 age bracket. The other festivals are for younger demographics. Adelaide’s biennial Come Out festival is for kids up to 14 years of age and has had a long working association with South Australian schools through that state’s education department. Run by a private not-for-profit company, Perth’s annual Awesome Festival is another multi-artform event aimed at primary school children, while Brisbane’s annual Out of the Box festival, hosted by QPAC, is designed for 0-8 year olds.
The organisers of all four festivals emphasise the importance of offering young people intelligently conceived music events – shows, concerts and participatory activities – that are a genuine alternative to the more commercial type entertainment available on TV. They also speak quite frankly about how hard it is to actually find such events.
Jenny Simpson is Awesome Festival’s CEO, after having directed the National Folk Festival in Canberra until 2006. She says: “Music is not as strong in our program as I’d like it to be. The world is looking for good work – one can find good dance, good theatre, and all these areas are quite well developed. They treat children as intelligent and don’t dumb them down. But music is often the hardest thing to program because the expectation is for it to be loud, colourful and in-your-face. There seems to be this genre called ‘children songs’, and it’s about: we’ll sing at them like they’re deaf and stupid. It is all about ramping them up.”
“But what about having a sad song? What about expressing other emotions? It is not as if there isn’t a lot of mainstream musical entertainment already out there with The Wiggles and Lah-Lah’s [Big Live Band] and so on. Really good professional musicians are out there but they are hard to find. Some like Adam Page are superb – he’s a terrific performer. So is Mal Webb; his approach is clever, intelligent and inviting to children. Lindsay Pollock is another. These three artists do a lot of looping and can break a song down, cleverly and creatively for a young audience.”
Simpson mentions two other musicians she particularly admires for escaping the mould. Indie artist Holly Throsby wrote a children’s album, See!, that was nominated for an ARIA Award for Best Children’s Album in 2011. She describes its songs as “pensive and beautiful, opening up a whole palette of sounds and emotions”. Renowned jazz singer Ali McGregor is another. Her album Jazzamatazz! and stage show CabHOORAY!, says Simpson, hold great appeal across a spectrum of ages from early years to adulthood.
“With artists like these, we are really trying to set the bar far higher, to where children naturally are. It is important to know children are intelligent and don’t like being performed at.”
Brett Howe has worked for many years as executive producer positions at QPAC and presently directs Out of the Box. He believes likewise that children need rich artistic experiences that surpass what mainstream entertainment offers. He says very young children especially need this because their brain development depends so heavily on positive, interactive experiences.
“The question for us,” Howe says, “is how do we make an event that transforms a child. That might not be The Wiggles, but it might be something like Saltbush [stories from Aboriginal Australia told through dance, music, song and digital projections, in last year’s Out of the Box], which was a wonderful immersive and beautifully rich artistic experience. One could see that babies and children alike were totally engaged”.
“There is room for more flippant kinds of entertainment, and I wouldn’t say a bad word about The Wiggles or Lah-Lah’s. They are out of place for us as a festival though. We want to speak to children’s sense of cultural place, of cultural literacy, and sense of self. At Out of the Box we want to be sophisticated, be respectful, not be flippant in our approach. One of our principles is to treat young kids as people now, as civic members now.”
Over the years, Out of the Box has programmed the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, string quartets and a range of solo instrumentalists for 5-8 year-olds. “We know all those things work,” says Howe. “[Guitarist] Karin Schaupp she did a program about the language of the melody, and the kids were just transfixed. It was really engaging for a child because it talked to their emotive capacity.”
“Music from Asia-Pacific is also a focus for us because it takes a young audience to different cultural places and allows them to reflect on how we can engage with people from different parts of the world. Music is a really wonderful way of doing that.”
Come Out, Australia’s first youth arts festival, began way back in 1974 as an offshoot from the Adelaide Festival. It has only just recently been taken up by the Adelaide Festival Centre after many years of operating within the SA Government’s Department for Education and Child Development. It still claims to be the largest festival of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
Susannah Sweeney, Come Out’s new Creative Producer, says that music infuses most of the festival’s shows. She singles out as one of its most memorable experiences this year’s opening community event, in which 1,600 school children gathered on the Torrens Riverbank to participate in ‘A Bridge Across Time’. “It celebrated music across three generations,” she says. “The children sang the Australian rock classic Eagle Rock on one side of the bridge, while in the other side choristers in their 70s, 80s and even in their 90s sang Sing for Joy. It was fantastic, really moving.”
Sweeney picks out Adam Page’s solo show ‘Like It or Loop It’, Adelaide Youth Orchestras (AdYO) and Carnival of the Animals (with music by Quincy Grant) as exemplars of the kind of educationally valuable contributions that Come Out aspires to present. “They illustrate how powerful the arts are in the development of young people’s brains and expanding their minds to live creatively and successfully”, she says.
For older kids and young adults, Next Wave founds itself on the ethos that participation through the arts leads to intelligent and emotionally fulfilled members of society. The focus of its programs such as Kickstart is on creation, not consumption. Says Georgie Meagher, its Artistic Director since 2014: “At Next Wave we are a festival, but really we are an artists’ development organisation. Everything we do is about learning for young artists. We have various programs for developing their work and skills, so we work with artists across artforms including music and sound.”
“Our focus is on experimental practice, on artists pushing boundaries, and often it involves working across artforms or collaborating with different communities.”
Meagher says the kinds of projects Next Wave supports are typified by Fluvial, composed by Matthias Schack-Arnott and presented last year in association with Speak Percussion. “Fluvial was a really beautiful installation of objects made of glass, metal and tanks of water that have been turned into percussion instruments,” she describes. “It was really quite spectacular.” Currently, she says Next Wave is developing an opera about a scientist who gets stuck in the year 1997. “We see if a proposal piques our interest – whether an opera, a music gig or anything else – and after a conversation with the people behind it we try to help make it a reality.”
The main surprise is to realise how few presenters there are in this country who are devoted to young people and whose primary focus includes music. Beyond the above-mentioned festivals, there are our various youth orchestras (see them listed in the Australian Youth Music Council’s website) and organisations such as Artplay at Melbourne’s Federation Square, which does exceptional work for babies and young children up to 12 years old.
Neither would any survey be complete without mentioning the excellent work Musica Viva and our various Major Performing Arts (MPA) companies now do in the educational sector. Musica Viva direct considerable resources to its In Schools program (in which leading professional musicians travel out to schools), its Live Performance Plus school concerts, and its newer digital resources and professional development opportunities for teachers.
The country’s major symphony orchestras under the MPA umbrella (ASO, MSO, QSO, SSO, TSO and WASO) and the Australian Chamber Orchestra also offer an impressive range of educational experiences for young people, all the way up from kiddies cushion concerts to young artists programs and fellowships. MPA’s opera companies are doing likewise: Opera Australia, Opera-Q, State Opera of SA and WA Opera. A comprehensive look at all these and similar offerings by smaller companies must be for another occasion.