Guest Speaker: Ms Lyn Williams
Founder and Artistic Director Gondwana Choirs
Ms Williams commenced her talk with an engaging powerpoint presentation of photos from her days as a Conservatorium High School student. Classmates included Kathy Davis (mother of Marta, currently in year 8) and Kathy Selby. Her time at the school coincided exactly with that of principal Margaret Cunningham and as vice captain of the school she would often drop into Margaret’s office for a relaxed chat!. These were happy years, and being at Con High, her love and passion for music no longer made her the odd one out, but rather provided a daily life full of music, learning and joy.
Her parents moved to France in early ‘60’s where her father founded a veterinarian pharmaceutical company, and she was born in Paris. Her brothers Tim and Michael are also musical and her mother believes that being bilingual encouraged this musicality. An inspiration, she had a no-nonsense attitude and provided an exhausting schedule for her children, who were given an upbringing full of opportunity. Her father’s family nick name was “Toad”, (after the character in Wind in the Willows) because of the gleam in his eye brought about by his latest passion. He was not a musician but probably had perfect pitch
Ms Williams came to the school as a pianist studying with Judy Cassalas. In year 7 she took up the harp. In Year 12 she won the ABC conductor’s competition, though felt a level of bitterness at the coverage this received in the press, which focused on her being a female school student. She completed a B.Music at the Conservatorium of Music then studied in the United States.
Drawn to sound of children’s voices, heard in the Tapiola choir of Finland, she was in her 20’s when she realised working with the young voice would be her life, and in fact, the activities of the Gondwana Choirs are now so extensive that she has no time or inclination to undertake other work.
She confided that at school choir was a thing to be endured and an opportunity for pranks – for example Michael Keiran Harvey was the choir accompanist and would surreptitiously change key mid piece.
When she was a student the common view was that the heirarchy of musical careers was soloist at the top, then chamber musician, instrumentalist and finally, teacher. Being a conductor was not on the agenda. She affirms that all roles should be valued and respected.
While always striving for perfection, she concedes it is unattainable and now knows that music is about communication. Without communication, music is empty and meaningless. Performing is also about bringing pleasure to people.
As her career developed she discovered the power of the children’s voice, because it allows children to meet musical heights they could not otherwise attain. The advantages of choral singing are that it develops ear training, blend balance and intonation. It is cheap, is great fun and the shear physicality of singing is addictive. She noted that from the ages of 12 to 16 one feels emotion intensely and in great quantities. Her greatest joy is harnessing this intensity and turning it in to music. She further noted that many children associated with the choir don’t become musicians but develop a great social conscience because working in choirs develops a sense of community.
The journey to create the Gondwana Choirs began in an ABC studio in the late 80’s. When Ms Williams started the Sydney Children’s Choir in 1989, the advice from many friends was “don’t do it –there is no repertoire for children’s voices”. She has been told, however, that when some members of the SSO hear children sing, it reminds them of their own inspiration to be musicians. Now, 20 years later, there is a great deal of repertoire written for children’s choirs, and in Australia, choral music is very much commissioned and performed, and the choral scene is very much alive.
Her aim to offer young singers an enriching experience. The children in the choirs also write compositions and experience cross arts links with institutions such as the Powerhouse Museum. At the Dawn of the Millennium performance choir members had a sleepover at the Sydney Opera House. They sang for the opening of the Sydney Olympics, for “Bridge at Dawn” and with the “YouTube Orchestra”. The choirs perform at major events, record CD’s with ABC classics and have participated in the BBC Proms.
Tours have included Beijing and festivals in Finland and Normandy (with no sleep for 48 hours!) In London later on the same tour, a journalist asked about interesting fund raising ideas and one child shared that her father had sold 4 cows to contribute to her participation!
In 2006 all was going well for the choirs and Lyn was enjoying it all, but had a new “project” thrown her way. On the night she was performing for the Perth festival, she received a diagnosis of breast cancer.
She had a commitment to conduct the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, then undertook treatment followed by some months of chemo- and radio therapy. Lyn described it ironically as “heaven” because she had no responsibilities for a time, and people were nice to her! She shared, however, that it was a difficult time for her 15 year-old daughter, Carla. Having a life threatening illness gave Lyn a chance to realise there was an area which was unfulfilled, and without which there would have been no Gondwana National Indigenous Choir, designed to give a pathway to musical excellence to indigenous children.
Now she works with indigenous children across Sydney. (She notes that the greatest number of indigenous people in Australia live in south-west Sydney). Also she travels to Cairns every 2 weeks to work with 40 children In the Cairns Choir.
She is now involved in many outreach projects that have proved life changing for many of the children involved, including, this year, a project in the Auburn area, inspired by Jeanie Baker’s book “Mirror”.
This year is the inaugural year for the vocal stream at CHS, where inclusion is now based on musical potential rather than instrumental ability. Ms Williams believes that the current intake of Junior Vocal Stream students are remarkable. They are children with spark, passion, ability and personality who are waiting to see where musical journey will take them
Linda Cumines thanked Ms Williams for sharing her remarkable journey with the meeting and Ms Williams kindly remained to answer questions.
Q – LC: Should we not have a con high school song?
A – IB: We have a school piece of music we commissioned – Andrew Howse wrote it and the music is on the website home page.
A – RC: We should work together and come up with a composer – it would be lovely to have. There was general agreement from the meeting.
LC presented Ms Williams with a bunch of flowers to a round of applause.
Q – Are you working with JVS on a regular basis?
A – LW: All JVS students are members of Sydney Children’s Choir. At school they work with Liz Scott and I see them once a week.
A – RC: In essence choir used not to be musically rewarding. If not for LW the JVS would not have got off the ground. She has sown the seeds for growth and the potential to change lives because vocally based training adds greater depth to musical training.
Q – KD: what proportion of 2013 students are JVS students.
A – RC: There is no quota, nor is there a sense of esteeming these students over others but the manner in which they are being educated will give them a special musical educational sense. The enthusiasm they bring will spill over – the sheer love of it affects other students.
Q – Do JVS students do level exams?
A – RC: Children tend to build level exams up out of all proportion. A level exam is a snapshot in time.
KD: But kids who do well are held in high esteem.
A – RC: It is just a pat on the back.
KD: Then it is a contradiction if it should not be so important
A – RC: Whenever you set up a generalised assessment activity some do better but it doesn’t mean others are laggards. And other things are celebrated in the school. The school uses the level exams to see if things are working, if the students have the right teacher, if they are progressing. The school does its best to not make too big a deal of these exams. For some students beginning at the school is a major adjustment, and they need to do remedial work. The desire is for Year 7 students to experience the many things the school offers, to discover creativity and to be able to explore. He is mindful of labels stuck on level exam process.
Q – AA: Do Con high staff now sit in on level exams?
A – RC: Yes, it is how CHS staff can find out about this crucial side of the student – how well connected are they are to music, is it just a chore, is the teacher bringing out the musical personality of the student? The previous SCM Dean wasn’t supportive of the school involvement but the Current Dean, Dr Karl Kramer, is. It enables what happens in the studio to be integrated with what is happening in the school. Level exams are an opportunity to hear a conversation with the tertiary colleague and he hopes that this will reinforced in a meaningful way that no longer can music tuition float in a vacuum. It enables the school to have some insight into what is going on.
A – IB: The school is responsible to ensure that students have performance opportunities across a number of periods. How can we offer the direction we need to if not aware of repertoire the student is covering?
AA noted a side benefit is that it is good for students to have a familiar face in the examination room.
Q – directed to MS Williams – She has heard of children singing in musical theatre, damaging their voices. Is it the case that this style of singing does not suit children’s voices?
A – LW: The choral route is the best one for young voices. Teachers are ruining children’s voices by teaching the musical theatre “belting it out” style of singing. The way they teach in Sydney Children’s Choir will not damage young voices. They teach children to take care and talk about choral health, drinking water, etc. For example, now when boys voices are changing, if it is well managed, and done gently boys can keep singing while their voices change.
Q: Do all your choirs perform?
A – LW: Everyone performs, but mainly our senior choir, which also gets most of the opportunities ie they go to Europe next year. The senior choir includes children aged 11 – 16 years.
Q: For most of the children in the choir, is their only training with the choir?
A – LW: Most children also play instruments, some at very high levels. The indigenous choir members don’t play instruments but she is teaching this group sight reading and other skills.
Q – VS: Will boys with breaking voices still have a place in the choir?
A – LW: Yes the hope is that they will remain. The children often have better skills than adults singing in adult choirs, because they can read music.
A Kalo noted that the plan is to keep JVS for just Years 7 & 8 students.
A – RC: Yes, but this is still unclear.
A – LW: students can remain in Sydney Children’s Choir in their later school years.,
Linda thanked Ms Williams for taking questions and noted that next year we must invite Liz Scott to speak at a meeting.
5. Principal’s Report
Dr Curry advised that he would be discussing financial matters and protocols this evening. He proposes that in the future the financial arrangement for music tuition be between the parent and the tutor, rather than CHS and SCM.
For the last 12 months he has been working to establish an accurate cost for the different parts of the music program and also to establish a rate of pay that would be acceptable to the tutors. He proposes that he ask SCM tutors to continue to teach CHS students and be paid at the rate of $95 p.h. a rate he thinks will be acceptable to many.
Currently a student’s music tuition is subsided by the non-tertiary music grant of $1000 p.a. ($500 per semester). Parents pay $2700 p.a. for a music major, less the $1000 subsidy, so $1700 p.a. Currently this is paid to the school. Dr Curry proposes that process will be that parents will pay the tutors up front for the semester. Students and tutors will sign a register for every lesson attended. At the end of semester the register is brought to the school office, and Dr Curry will then reimburse parents $500 (the semester amount of the subsidy).
He noted that students would be able to have a tutor not associated with SCM and may have lessons outside the CHS.
Discussion ensued regarding normal rates and it was noted that many tutors will charge less than $95 p.h.
Q – VS: How will this impact on students in the Junior Vocal Stream?
A – RC: He is negotiating use of facilities, the choir is legally able to make use of SCM facilities so he expects to defray costs passed on to parents. He does not want there to be a disproportional cost to fall on children in JVS.
Q – what makes up the music program and what are its costings?
A – RC: It includes composition, keyboard skills, harmony and there is a cost differential for one on one versus group lessons. He has been working with Jan Saunders to work out the costings.
Q – LC: I understand there are also unpaid school fees. How do we handle the parents who do not pay for their child’s lessons?
A – RC: He has sought legal advice, but the problem is that some parents just won’t pay.
Mr Barker noted that for a number of parents the new arrangement will be considerably cheaper, for example for year 7 parents, due to group teaching.
Dr Curry informed that the new arrangement may further enable what happens in the studio to be connected in a meaningful way with what is happening in music at school. He wants tutors genuinely committed to the ideals of the school and the music program. This is an opportunity to work with tutors who want to work well with teenagers, and who are sensitive to the needs of children, especially the junior students. Further, his job as principal is to ensure that every teacher is interested in the qualities of each child and he wants tutors with an excellent track record of getting the best results for students.
Dr Curry requested parents provide feedback on this proposal. Will this be a set back and will it generate adverse publicity?
6. Treasurer’s report
In the interests of time the Financial Report was not discussed in detail. It was noted that a lot of money has been raised through Café Cantata and the Voluntary Family Contribution, and that the P&C is doing well financially.
Full report kept on file.
9. New Business
9.1 Proposal for Year 10 students to earn senior status
Mr Barker informed that there is a lot of evidence that when students are given the title of “senior” there is a sense of development and stepping up to the role.
At CHS the main differences between juniors and seniors are timing of lunch hour, different uniforms, and the privilege of accessing the Music Café at SCM.
Currently Years 7 – 10 comprise the Junior School, and Years 11 and 12 comprise the Senior school. He proposes that commencing Term 2, 2013 Years 7 – 9 will comprise the Junior school and 10 – 12 will comprise the Senior school. He suggests the school trial this for a year. Apart from the impact on behaviour, he believes this new division will also make it easier for the tutors to deliver music lessons, and thinks that having 60 – 70 students at a time at the Music Cafe is manageable.
HJ noted that she can see a rebellion from the current Year 10 students. A negative is that it will dissipate the experience of becoming seniors for this year group.
LC noted that in Term 1, during the “probationary” period, should we expect more of this year group in terms of manners and ethics?
Mr Barker informed that he would hope that good manners and ethical behaviour were practices across the school. The idea is that as a Senior students become “a leader”. Joining in Year 10 gives students an opportunity to demonstrate they have those leadership skills and they then have a year to become part of that “Senior team”. He noted that he has just completed a leadership course for Year 11 students and thinks this could be brought in, in a different fashion, for Year 10.
HJ questioned the effect this may have on Year 12 students, if Years 10 and 11 were also seniors.
Mr Barker informed that Year 12 students have the privilege to leave the building, and they can come in at 9am and leave at 2pm if they don’t have classes.
Mr Barker moved the CHS trial for a year the change in designation of juniors. LC seconded. Carried by the meeting.