Established in 1985, the University of Tasmania’s community music program is one of Australia’s most enduring. The first rehearsal involved just one ensemble and 50 musicians. Today, five conductors lead more than 200 musicians across six groups.
“There are university students, as well as community members from all walks of life, aged 12 to 65+,” says Vanessa Clark, administrator and musician. “Many older people, who’ve never played an instrument before and think they’ve missed the boat, show incredible appreciation and delight at realising the opportunity hasn’t passed.”
One of the differences between the University of Tasmania’s program and other community projects is its focus on process. “For beginners, there’s a big emphasis on posture, correct embouchure, good technique and building a strong foundation,” Clark says. “We use our best teachers and best tutors at this level, so no bad habits develop.”
The six ensembles are graded. So, after mastering beginner-level skills, participants can audition for places in more challenging groups. Positions in the highest ensemble, which is semi-professional, are by invitation only.
Sight reading is a significant component of the syllabus. “Rather than playing one set of music to death for six months, the players are used to having music for eight to ten weeks. This means they’re sight-reading all the time, and their skills become tightly tuned.
“There are 840 scores in the music library, covering all genres. We might play baroque or jazz and we’re not phased at all by experimental contemporary music. Some composers who provide music for us are on the fringes. The clarinettists are used to taking their instruments apart and playing them in weird ways.”
Participants pay an annual membership fee of $160 and attend rehearsals weekly. Performances are held four times a year in a variety of spaces. Previous venues have included historic houses, barns, churches and the Albert Hall.
“There’s a lot of social isolation out there,” Clark says. “Music is very good for mental health. It’s perfect for anyone who might find it difficult to communicate with words, but feel comfortable sitting next to someone and playing an instrument … One of the really precious things about our program is we don’t separate players based on age. So, we might have an 80-year-old learning next to a 12-year-old. That 12-year-old will be teaching the older person that it’s okay to make mistakes, that it’s part of everyday learning. Meanwhile, the older person will be teaching the younger one to focus and concentrate, to be respectful and listen … It’s a lovely exchange. There’s so much to be gained from sharing across generations.”