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Every Student Podcast: The power of music education

Teachers Sarah Donnelley and Thomas Fienberg join soprano Deborah Cheetham to discuss the power of music education in connecting Aboriginal students to culture and engagement with learning.

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Mark Scott

Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. I am speaking here today from Cammeraygal land and I want to acknowledge the traditional owners and the land wherever you are listening to this podcast and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

Today we are celebrating music and I am joined by two very special public school teachers, Sarah Donnelley and Thomas Fienberg who were honoured recently with nominations for the ARIA Music Teacher of the Year award.

We are also delighted to have with us today one of the great Australian’s, Deborah Cheetham, a child of the Stolen Generation and a Yorta Yorta woman, a soprano, a composer, a teacher and the artistic director of the Short Black Opera company. Welcome everyone, wonderful to have you all with us.

We can’t start the podcast today without the breaking news of the week, not only were Thomas and Sarah nominated for the ARIA awards, Sarah you actually won the title of Music Teacher of the Year. Congratulations on that achievement. If you could reflect a little bit on what winning that award means to you.

Sarah Donnelley

Thank you so much Mark. I have to admit I am still blown away and a little bit shaky, I don’t think I can really believe it, partly because business here is usual. Very busy days at Wilcannia Central School with our kids in community but the outpouring has been absolutely incredible. I think what the award means it is not about me it is actually about our whole school community and our kids and the world seeing Wilcannia in such a positive light. I would also like to acknowledge the Barkindji people who are the traditional owners of the land on which I stand. I am so grateful to be in this special place and the award is just another nod to the kids, the community and how we work together here.

Mark Scott

You paid special tribute to them in your speech at the ARIA’s the other night, we will come back and talk a little bit about the work you have done at Wilcannia. Music is the heart of our conversation today and particularly I want to explore how we can use music to connect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to their culture but also to engage them with learning.

Deborah we have met in the past and we all know your renowned as an opera singer and a creator of operas but I am not sure I was aware that in your background you were a music teacher and that you credit your own music teacher at Penshurst Girls High School, Jennifer King, with putting you on the pathway to success that you have had.

Deborah Cheetham

That’s right Mark, hello to all those people out there from the Barkindji Country. I have spent a lot of time up there and some very happy memories and Wilyakali is just one of the very special parts of the world. I am talking to you from Boon Wurrung Country in the eastern Kulin nation, close neighbours of the Woiwurrung drawing energy on this land every single day. None of what I do would have been possible without my high school music teacher, Jennifer King. A wonderful school Penshurst Girls High as it was then Year 7-12, things have changed a little bit now and there is college where the Year 11 and 12’s go off to specialise.

Back in the day at Penshurst Girls High School I was so very fortunate to have a teacher who, it wasn’t just a job, it wasn’t even just a career but it was really a vocation, a calling for Jennifer. She saw potential in me very early on and before I knew it I was taking piano lessons and flute lessons and having musicianship lessons after school with Jennifer. It really was quite an important foundation for my life, not just as a musician but as a whole person. I think one of the great stories about Jennifer that I love to recount is when I was in Year 8, at the end of Year 8 we choose our electives in NSW, my parents, my adopted parents were trying to be very sensible about this, what tools will this child need for her future and so they insisted that I take commerce and any of my friends listening to this podcast will be laughing themselves into a fit right now that I could have contemplated taking commerce. Unfortunately commerce was in the same line as music. You had to get a permission slip so the permission slip was signed by my parents and the box for commerce was ticked.

Jennifer King was my year patron and she had to collate all the permission slips about the electives and when she saw that I had chosen commerce over music, well she hauled me out of the next class where she could find me and asked me “what is the meaning of this, why are you taking commerce and not music, I want you to change this”. I said my mum said I had to take, “leave your mum to me” Jennifer said and before I knew it my elective was changed to music, thank goodness and that was history.

It wasn’t about numbers, that was actually a very crowded music class, that elective music class I recall, it was about a teacher with a true vocation understanding that this was something that I needed to do for my own personal development.

Mark Scott

We have a line in NSW Education that we cite a lot about every student being known, valued and cared for. Clearly that teacher could see in you your talent and your capability and cared that you were put in an environment where you could flourish.

Deborah Cheetham

Absolutely and it wasn’t just that, Jennifer and her husband both worked at Penshurst Girls High, in fact I would have been learning commerce from Lionel so they lost that debate early on. The thing was that they invested in their students and in 1979, I can tell you the exact date, 19th February 1979, Lionel and Jennifer and a group of students from our music elective classes across the years went to what was my very first opera “The Merry Widow” in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House. I sat in row L seat 23 if you need to know, with Lionel and Jennifer on either side of me I experienced my first opera and that has led to pretty much everything I have done in my career.

As you mentioned when you were introducing us all I was a teacher first and foremost and that comes directly from the inspiration that I saw in Lionel and Jennifer and other teachers around me, my piano teacher Kay, for the inspiration and the guidance that I received I will be forever grateful.

Mark Scott

Thomas and Sarah listening to that and as music teachers’ practitioning today and influencing students today, what is your response when you hear that story about the transformational power of a teacher, particularly a music teacher.

Thomas Fienberg

Yes Mark, I would also like to acknowledge that I am on Darug here in Blacktown in western Sydney and listening to the words of Deborah just rang so true for the experience of so many students. Every year as music teachers we have difficult conversations with students who have been pressured to select other electives besides ours in music and we are constantly having to fight for the value that music education has in education.

Research is clear that music has so many benefits beyond just the connection to culture and enhancing your creativity and in particular the role that music plays in improving literacy and numeracy is so very well documented and from those early years through to the middle years and into the senior years, the benefits of doing music education is something that we as teachers are constantly fighting for to get our parent communities to understand the benefits of choosing that subject and continuing their passion and abilities that they show within the subject.

Mark Scott

I want to come back and talk a little bit about the work that you are doing at your school and with the local community. Sarah as you reflect on Deborah’s comments and you look at your own ambitions for your music program what do you see as the impact that music can bring in the lives of students and help in their engagement with learning and their life trajectory?

Sarah Donnelley

I am really lucky Mark that I am trained as a primary teacher but I am now in a position where I am working in a central school, a connected community school and I am working from preschool all the way up to Year 12. I think connecting to what Deborah says and when we think about knowing students and valuing them and making them feel a part of something bigger that is education and a positive experience, music for me is that thing that draws everything together. It is a tool that we can use to bring a sense of calm and order in the classroom, to bring a sense of fun, it is fun for adults, it is fun for Kindergarten children, it allows you to transfer into this other space where you can be thinking, relaxing, experiencing classical music which is something kids don’t necessarily experience at home. Sharing through the history and understanding in some of the anthems that are certainly things that they see at home. Draw them into literacy and engage them but it is number one for me it is building of a relationship and that connectiveness that music brings.

Mark Scott

Thomas you don’t just practice this during the day you have gone and done a PhD exploring these ideas in a research sense. Tell us a bit about that and tell us about the work that you are doing with the Solid Ground program.

Thomas Fienberg

Prior to making my way to Evans High School in 2017 I had been working at the same time as being a music teacher on a PhD as you mentioned Mark, looking at exploring ways of better understanding and experiencing and connecting oneself with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music and in that PhD I was gifted the opportunity to collaborate with some amazing elders from Ngiyampaa Country and they shared some songs with a high school music class of mine and we went on a camp together and reworked those songs and in that process the students were able to have a transformative experience where they realised that it was more than just music and that what they were engaging in was a relationship with those people and better understanding what it is like to be an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in Australia today.

For me as the teacher watching that part and experiencing the project at the same time it really highlighted the benefits that music education can have in bridging the gaps that we currently have between non-Indigenous and First Nations people here in Australia.

Mark Scott

One of the challenges that has been set for us in NSW Education is to increase the percentage of Aboriginal students completing Year 12 by 50% whilst maintaining cultural identity. Deborah if you reflect on the work you have done, the operas you have created and the groups that you have created, how important do you see music as being a way of helping Aboriginal students connect to culture and to country and putting Aboriginal people at the centre of the stories that we are telling?

Deborah Cheetham

Music is our way of knowing, it is our way of understanding everything in the world and the arts more generally, I would add to that. It has been for some, for more than 2,000 generations, in fact for all Australians at some point their ancestors knew the world and passed on knowledge through the arts. Writing is relatively new, knowledge was painted onto the body, it was danced and it was sung and it was passed on from generation to generation through the arts and in particular music. Music is vital. If you want First Nations students to complete high school, make it more relevant and do not disadvantage them further by diminishing the amount of time they can spend in the arts.

It is not that all of the other subjects don’t have their value, of course they do, but what is not being realised right at this moment is that the arts feed into all of the other subjects. Any other body of knowledge is going to be out of date virtually by the time a Year 7 student completes Year 12. What we have to do is teach children how to learn, how to know themselves, how to discover, and the arts are the way of achieving this.

Mark Scott

I think we have got a lot of focus now on the requirement to create lifelong learners, the world is changing so quickly, young people are going to need to be learning for the rest of their lives. Deep knowledge will be important, deep knowledge of music will be important to be a gifted musician but the kinds of things you get out of music triggers to me a lot more of the discussion around the capabilities that we know young people will need. Creativity, communication skills, collaboration skills these are all things that clearly emerge out of a study of music and participating with others in the creation of music.

Sarah tell us a little bit about the music program and your ambitions for that program at Wilcannia Central School. You have had a big increase in the number of students that want to study music with you, I understand?

Sarah Donnelley

As a teacher use music in everything I do and Deborah I think you have made a really good point there with the way that we can use music in the creative arts particularly in a primary setting we are so privileged that we are looking at all the key learning areas and using music as a tool, as that entry point for students across so many different areas.

In our music program, as a classroom teacher, I used it to build up a student’s sense of identity and who they are. Also looking into history and storytelling, telling their story about their place, the connection to Country and then that has transpired into all of our learning whether it is in our geography and looking at Wilcannia and this place and sustainability and everything. Music was that entry point and the thing that underpinned everything and held it all together.

Most importantly particularly with the K to 6 music program that I have been running and now starting to work with the secondary students it is combatting that idea of shame that is so heavily felt by so many of our students and community. Music is something that people are able to stand up and go “no I am not going to have that shame” which is bigger than our non-Aboriginal sense of the word shame. I am going to break free of that and it has provided an opportunity for our kids to stand up and our community to be proud of them, for our kids to be proud of each other and that resilience, that understanding of who I am and being proud of who I am is the most important thing that I have seen as a result which has obviously had a positive impact on not only the engagement within classrooms but also attendance and school being a positive place for them to be.

Mark Scott

You got enormous attention for the work you did in the lockdown with students all participating in singing the Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody song from Little Things Big Things Grow. Tell us how all that came together.

Sarah Donnelley

It has been a challenging year for everyone and in all of our different locations, our different workspaces I think we have all had our own individual set of challenges within the broader ones. Out here in a remote community two hours from the major centre, our major centre Broken Hill, we had our own set of challenges and some of those included, that has been widely documented, our access to food, our river, the Darling River we have been lacking water over the last year and things like that so all of this compounded this year.

As a school all of a sudden we were faced with our biggest challenge which was while our colleagues in cities with access to internet for all of their students, not for all absolutely, but for lots more of their cohort able to access online learning it just simply wasn’t an option for us. Our students at home don’t have access to reliable internet. You walk into my house and my phone drops out so our phone reception is really terrible out here. So that provided a whole added layer of challenges but I have to say we have the most incredible and devoted and inspiring group of teachers at Wilcannia Central School. We have the most incredible group of school staff, support staff who work with us and we just banded together as a group to say we are not going to allow this home learning and some of the blocks to it, to mean that our students don’t have the continuity of learning that any students anywhere else have. We also one of the beautiful things about a small community is our connections with our local organisations. Our partnership with Wilcannia River radio which is something that we work on all throughout the year, all of a sudden our teachers were going to the radio station and delivering learning via lessons over the radio and we were delivering home packs so going out every day and checking in on our students and our families and making sure that they were okay and they were learning.

The song was my addition of course, the biggest thing that I was feeling was not only the lack of connection with not being able to see the kids every day but missing my music program which is the highlight of my week and what brings joy to everything that I do.

Like so many other amazing teachers and staff all over NSW, all over the world, I turned to “okay how can I make this work in my community” and Facebook is a way that our parents and school communicate because they do have access to their phone, they rely on credit for that access but it is a tool that we use. We put the song over the radio station and asked students to send in videos of them singing along so that they were still participating in the music program, which they did. We then set out to film our daily activities of dropping work packs, it was just a day in the life of Wilcannia Central School, nothing special about it. We wanted to show people what we were doing under the circumstances and I think it really resonated with people because it represented not only the challenges in a place like this but it connected to people and what they were feeling all around the country, all around the world.

Mark Scott

We all saw that footage and it was absolutely wonderful. Thomas one of the things that strikes me learning a bit more about your work is how actively you are engaged with the community and you seem to be tapping into expertise that exists surrounding the school and in the local community to make your program as effective as it can be.

Thomas Feinberg

I think that you asked earlier about what the research is currently saying at the moment in terms of this area but the key theme with Aboriginal education and education of First Nations peoples globally has been decolonisation and decolonising our classrooms.

With the program that I run at my school, or help coordinate, called Solid Ground, that is decolonisation in action, because in that program I make space for Aboriginal musicians to come in and share their expertise, choreographers, local community members to guide programming and to be the voices for the students to help guide them in their pathways to better understanding their culture.

Over the years I have had to learn to when to step backwards, and in that space I am not the teacher. I think that is a lesson for non-Indigenous teachers across the state, not just in music but in all aspects, in all key learning areas is that when we are sharing Aboriginal content that it is just such an amazing opportunity for you to work locally with your leaders in your schools, work with the experts in your field because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are everywhere in all key learning areas and the success stories that you see in business, the success stories within the arts, the success stories in the media are there and as teachers we need to harness the ability to show and share those stories to change the conversation about what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do in this country and the incredible contribution that they make to present Australia.

The Solid Ground program is an amazing place where students can come into a room, both Aboriginal students and non-Indigenous and feel safe and feel that this is a place where they can learn more about culture through the voices and the eyes of people who are successful in their fields.

We have been lucky to collaborate with people such as Thelma Plum, Emma Donovan, Evie J Willie, Neville Boney, an amazing choreographer who is an incredible emerging artist. When those people walk into the room it is really interesting that the students, they don’t have any kind of nerves in fact it is the teachers often who feel more nervous about these famous people entering the room. What they are interested in is ultimately someone who cares about them and as the teacher in the space you really do see that relationship that is developing between the mentors and the students. What that does is it just creates this incredible atmosphere not just within the program but the school as a whole in terms of seeing what can happen when we have Aboriginal people come into our school to lead education and to lead growth in learning and I just feel so fortunate that I get to have a seat on the side and contribute where I can to help connect those groups of people together.

Mark Scott

We are fortunate to have you working in NSW Education, Thomas and Sarah, I want to thank you both for the great contribution you are making, not just for your students in your classroom but the education giving all of us around the effectiveness and the power of music education for all of our students and in a way of engaging in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in our school and it has been wonderful having you with us today but also Deborah for you to join us as well.

I don’t think I was really aware of the time you spent as a teacher working in our schools on the pathway to your stellar international career. I understand you have got a new opera that is in the works for 2021 as well.

Deborah Cheetham

I do for Education Week in Victoria. One of the most exciting things that I feel I wanted to share with you today which is a national program and that is the One Day in January scholarship that Short Black Opera has established and that is a scholarship for a First Nations musician who is studying an orchestral instrument to come and be mentored by Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and I can say that quite truthfully because we have almost balanced numbers of each – Australia’s First Nation orchestra Ensemble Dutala.

The One Day in January recipient for this year is indeed a young man from Nundall in Northern NSW, he studied for a number of years at the Tamworth Conservatorium and I have got to hand it to you NSW your regional conservatorium are absolutely magnificent, I love them so much, I wish we had them here in Victoria. This young man Jackson Worley, a Kamilaroi man, a beautiful celloist, auditioned for the One Day in January scholarship and is the inaugural recipient and out of Quirindi High up there, I know they are very, very proud of him. He will be travelling down to Melbourne, now that the borders are open, in January for our intensive training program and there he will mentored by the director of Ensemble Dutala, Aaron White and other members of the ensemble.

I am really proud that the first recipient comes from a state high school in a regional part of NSW. I am a product of state education in NSW, as are a number of our musicians in Ensemble Dutala. I am really proud to be giving this young man, Jackson, the opportunity for self-determination on his instrument. He will bring his culture to his playing whether he is playing Mozart or something by Brenda Gifford. Obviously the group Ensemble Dutala champions First Nations composers but we also say that this does not have to be mutually exclusive and to ignore the rest of the western cannon, we are not interested in that, we want to give all opportunities to First Nations musicians so that they are not excluded from any endeavour in life. If they want to play in one of the nations great orchestras then they have just as much opportunity as anybody else if they go through the rigours of their training and stay the course.

There is a famous saying that “you can’t be what you can’t see”. I am not sure that I 100% agree with that because there have been many pioneers, and I certainly stand on the shoulders of giants, sometimes I had to be something that I couldn’t see but it is certainly much easier and as Thomas was saying when First Nations leadership enters into a classroom you will see those children quite naturally respond because this is part of a community. The culture that is being shared in classrooms of a traditional nature is a very precious commodity and we must always strive to understand that across this vast continent of ours not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will have the same knowledge of their own culture and that is as the direct result of colonisation.

I am very encouraged by what Sarah and Thomas have both said and particularly in terms of decolonisation. The weight of responsibility actually I would say here is on the 98% of our population rather than on the 2%. On the 98% who haven’t received the education that you are giving these children now, we have to make up a great gap in the knowledge of non-Indigenous Australians about the longest continuing music practice in the world, the longest continuing culture and that will build a valuing and a love for Indigenous cultures and First Nations cultures and that’s half the work done right there.

Mark Scott

Thanks so much for that Deborah and thanks for joining us today and thanks for creating the opportunities for someone like Jackson, we are thrilled of the world that will be opening up for him through experiences with you and the team in January, that’s wonderful news. Thanks for you continuing commitment and leadership in this vital area of work.

Deborah Cheetham

Applications for the 2022 One Day in January scholarship are open now, you need to go to the Short Black Opera website and that is open to anybody from 14 years of age up to 26 who is studying an orchestral instrument. You are ready to talk about your connection to music and to culture, you are ready to play and audition, then come and see us because we would love to hear from you.

Mark Scott

Terrific and we will put that link up on our website where people came into this podcast. Sarah and Thomas a big week for both of you but simply the next stage in the important work that you are doing, I want to thank you for joining us today also on the Every Student podcast. I’m told that if we ask nicely there might be a way of letting our wonderful leading music teachers take us out of this podcast today with a song.

We’re going to pass it over to you. Thanks so much for joining us today on the Every Student podcast.

Song 'From Little Things, Big Things Grow' plays

[Song features Sarah Donnelley and Wilcannia Central School community in collaboration with Evans High School music staff: Thomas Fienberg - piano; Luke Chapman - drums and bass; Hepisipa Liku - backing vocals]

Female voice

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Mark Scott

Thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter @NSWEducation, on Facebook or email everystudentpodcast@det.nsw.edu.au.

Thanks again and I will catch you next time.

End of transcript.

Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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