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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Mandy Hughes, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Science Course Co-ordinator, Southern Cross University

The pursuit of the dream of classical music is not an equal playing field.

My recent study looked at the inequalities rural and regional young classical musicians face, which are unknown to their city-based counterparts.

There are systemic music inequalities in Australia based on where you live and where you go to school. Inner-city, private school kids are often the most likely to access music education. Kids living in rural areas are the least likely to have music opportunities.

Music inequality also exists between states. Queensland has had a long tradition of offering accessible instrumental music lessons and ensembles, but most other states fall short. Many children cannot access instrumental music education.

Rural and regional kids face multiple layers of disadvantage. These include the lack of specialist teachers, resources and opportunities, and the time and expense of travelling long distances for music camps and auditions.

These challenges compound and these students may be less likely to go on to tertiary education and careers in classical music.

To support young people’s musical aspirations, we need to understand how location and disadvantage can create music inequalities.

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‘Right from square one’

In my research I spoke with nine classical musicians from regional areas aged 14–21 to better understand the particular challenges they face.

One person I interviewed described the difference between city and rural music journeys:

To compare my journey to some of my peers who’ve grown up in the city, some of them learned from a teacher who had reached an elite level, a professional level, on the instrument […] right from square one. So, they were set up with amazing technique and they had the opportunity to go to schools that had an amazing music program.

My study participants often struggled to find a sense of belonging in communities where classical music was not visible or popular.

One musician reflected on their feelings of isolation and lack of understanding from their non-music peers:

I am really into classical music. I just love the music. I love all of it so much. I go so deep into it. I don’t think I know anyone who’s really like that.

The absence of like-minded peers can be an obstacle to young people’s musical advancement and potential careers. One person told me:

The key way to advance your skills is to make music with people your age, and also people your age who are a lot better than you are […] it really pushes you to be more like them.

‘My first experience with a real orchestra’

Successful initiatives to reduce institutional inequality must recognise the particular experiences and needs of young non-metropolitan classical musicians. They must be tailored to develop skills, foster a sense of connectedness and create a bridge to what might otherwise be an inaccessible network of other musicians – both fellow students and professionals.

Small towns may not have the capacity to attract large-scale professional orchestras, but increasingly new education initiatives are being developed to fill this gap and break down location-based barriers. And regional chamber music tours have become the norm for some organisations.

One initiative to address music inequality is the Regional Youth Orchestra NSW, created by regional conservatoriums. The NSW regional conservatoriums are located in diverse communities and aim to address disadvantage by offering inclusive music opportunities.

The youth orchestra program brings together young musicians from across rural and regional NSW several times a year for intensive residential music camps.

Youth orchestras support musical development and increase confidence, social connections and wellbeing. Increasingly in Australia and internationally, youth orchestra programs aim to address inequality and make classical experiences available to a wider population by responding to local contexts and connecting students to music networks.

Regional Youth Orchestra NSW links talented young musicians with professional classical musicians to perform at iconic venues. As one participant told me:

You go from not even having a theatre in your hometown to all of a sudden you’re playing in the [Sydney] Opera House.

In my research, I found Regional Youth Orchestra NSW had the benefit of connecting young musicians who shared a regional perspective and so faced many similar challenges. They were supported to play challenging repertoire not available to them in their region and were mentored by world-class classical musicians. This fuelled their passion to pursue musical futures.

One study participant commented that they were the only young violinist in their town. Despite being an advanced player, they had little experience of playing music with others:

It was actually my first experience with a real orchestra […] I’m very fortunate for that, and I’m really glad I got to do that […] I’d never really even met an oboist before.

Another participant said:

Some of the opportunities we got were quite amazing […] I don’t think any of my city peers have ever gotten to work with Australian World Orchestra or Staatskapelle Berlin […] I would go so far as to say that [Regional Youth Orchestra NSW] changed my life.

‘It doesn’t matter where you come from’

Participating in Regional Youth Orchestra lit the fire for these young musicians and prepared them to follow their music dreams.

The five Regional Youth Orchestra alums who participated in my research are studying music at city-based tertiary conservatoriums, and all mentioned how this orchestra shaped their future music pathway. As one told me:

I’m determined to prove that it doesn’t matter where you come from. Music is
something everyone can do. Being in a regional area shouldn’t make a difference.

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The Conversation

Mandy Hughes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from’: regional youth orchestras help fight music education inequality –