It is a sad fact that one of the most important music programs in Australia gets remarkably little publicity despite its amazing scale, reach, impact and quality. A new opera production will be lavished with attention in the print media and on-line – and there is nothing wrong with that of course. Yet a once-off performance to a handful of kids at a remote school passes without so much as a social media ripple.
Why the relative lack of recognition? I get it, music in schools doesn’t really rate big time, not when it comes down to it. I would like to challenge that idea.
In 2018, The Musica Viv in School program (MVIS), of which I am a proud member, reached 291,063 students, half of them in regional areas. This staggering achievement represented a 6% increase on 2017. MVIS’s reach spread from remote Croker Island, 200km northeast of Darwin, to Wyangala Dam Public School – home to just five students in regional NSW. A month ago my group, Da Vinci’s Apprentice (https://vimeo.com/336035268), performed for seventeen beautiful children at Towamba Public School. Where is Towamba you might ask? About an hour out of Bega in the far south coast hinterland of New South Wales. As if often the case with remote touring, a good part of that one-hour drive was on dirt roads.
A visit by Musica Viva In Schools is the only formal music education many children get in any one year – whether they attend suburban or regional schools. The impact of the program is difficult to quantify. When touring the remote south east Western Australia a few months ago we decided to get out our instruments and play in the bar where we were staying. It was also the only hotel in town. A family sitting nearby came over and said, “You must be from Musica Viva, you are coming to our school tomorrow!” Sure enough, we did drive out to their school the following day, so what a privilege it was to meet some of the kids and their parents beforehand. I bet that it will be many years before the theorbo, cornetto and viola da gamba – our instruments of choice – accompany a sing along in that bar!
So why am I writing? The purpose of this article is to once again make a plea for philanthropists, governments, fine music lovers and even musicians to get behind MVIS specifically, and school music education in general. Ensuring all children everywhere have access to quality music education and quality performances is such an important goal. It should be a right. It’s as least as important as a new opera production and perhaps more so. Most of those who go to hear opera have heard great music before; for many kids, Musica Viva in Schools is their first ever engagement with professional musicians. I have appeared in almost 3,000 MVIS concerts over more than 25 years and I am still not tired of it. How can you get stale when you turn up at a school, as we did recently, and find that the kids have made models of some of Leonard da Vinci’s inventions as preparation for our concert? How could I hold back the tears when they gave me one of the Da Vinci models to take home? It now sits proudly on my harpsichord as I do my daily viola da gamba practice.
So, what’s with the number “200” in the title of this article? Well recently, Da Vinci’s Apprentice, one of the newer MVIS groups, had something of an anniversary: we gave our 200th performance. There was no media fanfare. Da Vinci’s Apprentice is an original Australian music theatre work commissioned by Musica Viva Australia especially for the MVIS program. The show revolves around a dramatic storyline that kids find gripping. It’s 1495. 15-year-old would-be inventor Roberta’s dream comes true when she’s invited by Leonardo Da Vinci to become his apprentice. However, when she realises Da Vinci thinks she is a boy, her determination to prove her abilities is tested. Interwoven with a superb score by Sally Greenaway, this exciting theatre piece tells the story of a girl who faces and overcomes huge obstacles in pursuit of her dreams. With a script by Catherine Prosser and Paul Bissett, and music performed on cornetto, viola da gamba and theorbo, it is genuinely unique. I am sure there is nothing quite like it anywhere. That is what I mean by quality – we are just one example of the high-calibre musicians that tour for MVIS.
I have been fortunate to perform professionally around Australia and across the world. I’ve worked with some amazing musicians. But nothing compares to the young faces that light up when the musicians from Musica Viva in School start playing.
So, here’s to 200 of the best – with thousands more performances to follow.