Each year, musicians in Musica Viva’s In Schools program cover some amazing distances around the country as they visit schools and play to kids. In fact, it amounts to one third of the distance to the Moon: in 2017, they racked up over 124,000 kilometres in bringing live performances to some 280,000 students in all corners of Australia.
This makes it one of the largest music teaching programs anywhere in the world; probably in geographical range it is the largest. Only in Norway is there believed to be anything similar. “Theirs is a similar program, except the government entirely pays for it. It reaches every school, and two groups come in each year,” says Michael Sollis, Musica Viva’s Artistic Director of Education.
“In our program, the difference is that schools pay around half the cost for us to go out. However, in terms of the kilometres covered and our reach across the continent, we travel a lot of kilometres.”
Musica Viva In Schools began 37 years ago, and in the early days it operated within the NSW Department of Education before evolving into a nationwide program. Now it engages 16 groups, which comes to around 50 musicians; and it serves Foundation to Year 8 students in all states and territories, venturing as far as Broome, Wyndham, Croker Island and the Torres Strait. No longer is it all about string quartets and the like, either. They also play everything from rhythm and blues and gypsy swing to Indigenous music and Indonesian gamelan.
Recently, for example, eclectic rock trio Zeeko visited the tiny Mamaruni School on Croker Island, NT, and Musica Viva’s Chief Executive Officer, Mary Jo Capps, was there to witness what their presence meant for this remote community.
“If ever I needed a reminder of the huge impact Musica Viva In Schools can have, it was provided most forcefully on my recent visit to Croker Island, a small Indigenous community 200km north of Darwin,” she says.
“The remarkable school, catering for local children from age four to 14, experiences all the challenges one might imagine in such a context. The MVIS program has inspired these children and teachers alike, giving a creative focus to their curriculum, and helping them fulfil the school’s motto: ‘if you can believe it, you can achieve it’.”
An educational program of its complexity and scale carries with it great responsibilities, says Sollis, and he explains that its aim is to base everything on the transformative effect that live performance can have on children and school communities as a whole.
“For many kids, this could be the only live music experience they get to hear in their primary school years, or even their entire lives,” he says. “So it has to be the very best quality we can offer. It is about providing the best possible opportunities for students to discover music in their own way, developing skills and sharing their joy of experiencing music. They are the best audience because they have not had these experiences yet.”
Sollis mentions harpist Alice Giles and cellist Rachel Johnson as examples of the high calibre musicians who participate in MVIS with particular enthusiasm. “They say that going into schools is the most important thing they can do. It is really gratifying when you hear that,” he remarks.
Musica Viva In Schools is an artist-led program, meaning that everything it does is founded upon what the musicians themselves choose to play and share with schoolkids. Prior to making their visit, ten weeks of teaching materials are sent out to the school teachers so they can make the most of the experience.
“Roughly that’s a term’s worth of teaching, averaging one hour per week,” Sollis says. “Those 10 weeks are very adaptable, depending on a school’s individual needs. Some look in a lot of detail, others less so. So our program has to be adaptive to allow for that.”
A key aspect of the teaching materials is that they are designed to be used by general classroom teachers as well as specialist music teachers. This gets around a major problem for many schools around Australia which unfortunately lack music specialists – see Music Australia’s advocacy paper on this, and here for research data. The flexibility of class materials allows teachers to proceed according to what is comfortable for them.
“Often it is about finding zones,” says Sollis. “So in the materials there can be something you can do in five or 10 minutes as a starting point. This is invaluable, because as a first step it enables classroom teachers who have not taught music before to gain confidence in teaching music.”
“Ultimately, it is all geared around giving the kids the best opportunity to experience and play live music,” Sollis says.
Additionally, Musica Viva runs professional development programs to help teachers build their skills in teaching music curricula. These consist of both face-to-face and online programs.
Full details about Musica Viva In Schools, including its 2019 line-up of performers, teacher resources and professional development programs, are available here.