Small but nimble: that is how one could describe the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, not only in its performances but also in its particularly well developed educational program. It deserves a close look, because with modest resources the TSO has managed to devise an impressive range of learning and training opportunities that are well integrated into the Tasmania’s school system and wider community.
Two things have made this possible. One is a heavy emphasis on online resources. These have proved to work ideally for the State’s thinly populated towns and regional areas, in which 45 per cent of the population lives outside Hobart and Launceston. The way TSO has done this is by offering tiered, interactive and resource-rich programs that cater for preschool children up to Year 12 and beyond.
Another driver in the TSO’s educational program is its focus on composition. The orchestra stresses the importance of musical creation right from the earliest years of a child’s life through to the later years of schooling.
For many orchestras, educational programs are often limited to introducing children to the instruments and involving them in simple participatory experiences. However, the TSO considerably widens the spectrum, it is interesting to see how they do this. Music Australia spoke to Jenny Compton, its Outreach and Education Executive, to find out more.
“For children at primary school level, what’s important are the basics for how music works. Without this it is hard to achieve anything, and I believe all school children are entitled to learn this, especially if they want to go into composition, music technology in their later schooling.”
“The main thing we want if for kids hear music and be inspired to create. If instruments are in a classroom that’s great, or if they’re able to write a poem that’s great. It’s about being creative and it needs opportunities for kids to develop confidence to say ‘I can do this’.”
“So our teaching resources are designed to build that confidence – and the confidence of teachers too. We are trying to create a pathway for composers.”
The centrepiece is the TSO Composers’ Project, which Compton introduced in 2016. This free, state-wide project is open to students in Grades 11 and 12 and provides them the opportunity to compose their own chamber works in lessons and workshops involving TSO musicians and led by Maria Grenfell, composition lecturer and head of the University of Tasmania’s Conservatorium of Music.
Compton says the TSO Composers’ Project illustrates the orchestra’s “huge commitment to composition” and “has completely changed the level of learning for these children”. It works by the support the students that receive from teachers back at their schools during the six months that the project runs. A partnering organisation in the project is National Trust Tasmania, which is making available the historic house Runnymede as the venue this year.
At a higher level, the TSO Australian Composers’ School is a national program that gives composers who are on the verge of making professional careers the opportunity to develop their skills under the tutelage of leading composers from around the country.
Compton says that the whole educational thrust of the TSO is aligned around the Australian Music Program, which she describes as central artistic mission of the orchestra that has resulted in a remarkable collection of 35 CDs of Australian music on the ABC Classics label.
Equally impressive are the TSO’s educational offerings for younger children. Compton says the orchestra’s motto, ‘Catering for creativity: supporting composers from the classroom to the concert hall’, begins with pre-schoolers. Mini TSO, an ensemble comprising 15 musicians, gives performances designed for this age group based on close-up interactive storytelling.
Kindy Classics, also presented by Mini TSO, maintains the same immersive story-based but simultaneously introduces Prep to Grade 1 kids to the instruments of each section of the orchestra. “It incorporates a lot of singing along, which is really important and foundational for the early years,” says Compton.
Children in Grades 2-8 are introduced to the full orchestra through more developed storytelling experiences framed around particular works, such as Peter and the Wolf and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Each work is chosen for a specific age range, and schools physically unable to attend a concert are given full access to TSO’s online resources to give them the same experience.
“We don’t want to exclude schools that can’t come to the concerts,” says Compton, “So we always design resources around repertoire whether they can come to the concert or not.”
For secondary students, TSO holds open rehearsals that are preceded by a talk at their school about the works being performed.
TSO’s online resources are the jewels in its educational crown. These are superbly designed for schools that cannot access live performances or that are otherwise stuck for classroom-based musical learning options.
The resources range from ‘The Ugly Sound’ by Australian composer Gordon Hamilton, which is a clever and engaging story-based discovery of orchestral sounds, to specially commissioned sing-along arrangements of folksongs in the TSO Songbook series, and a wonderful set of videos featuring renowned conductor and educator Richard Gill. An extensive set of classroom activities on PDF accompany these and can be used for Australian Curriculum assessment.
Seeing education as central to its existence, and not an add-on, the TSO is a model of how things can be successfully done within a small population base and with limited means. Many other orchestras could learn from its lessons.