High note: How one school played on in the pandemic

Sydney Secondary College’s music program forged on during lockdown, even collaborating with one of Australia’s foremost pianists., writes Glenn Cullen.

28 October 2021
An ensemble of students performing with a conductor
Image: A Sydney Secondary College ensemble performs at Sydney Town Hall prior to the lockdown.

Sydney Secondary College isn’t getting the band back together – because they’ve never really been apart.

The college’s Instrumental Music Program that features across its three schools, has been running successfully online during COVID.

Early adopters during lockdown in 2020, the IMP quickly got its Zoom game down pat and could manage up to 52 instrumentalists playing in a virtual concert at any one time.

With Music Director Richard Brus pulling the strings (not to mention the woodwinds, brass and percussion) and Deputy Principal Libby Campbell (Balmain Campus) working behind the scenes, 200 students continued to perform during the second lockdown.

The program, which features 10 ensembles, has been garnering some serious attention and its students recently linked up with one of Australia’s best-known pianists, Van-Anh Nguyen.

Nguyen, who has performed sold-out shows from Sydney to Shanghai and has been No.1 on the Australian classical charts, gave students a 40-minute insight into her world.

She played Reflection from her new album, ‘The Princess & the Piano’, a homage to the many classic Disney movies she grew up with such as Mulan.

“(Mulan) was the first Disney film that I truly connected with, not only because there was an Asian female lead character and she was extremely strong and independent, but above all she was stubborn,” she said.

Nguyen spoke to the students about goal setting, “using your instrument as your voice”, and playing with a range of emotions. She also touched upon how she used her music and embraced different technology and ways to perform during lockdown – something particularly relatable to the student group.

And her most important advice?

“Don’t be afraid of the word no or getting knocked back. There is always going to be someone out there willing to help you or give you advice. Keep knocking,” Nguyen told them.

The session was rounded off with her duet of A Whole New World from Aladdin alongside departing Year 12 violinist Rosie Taranto.

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