Making modern musicians

The School of Music revamped its programme this year aiming to turn out Auckland music graduates with different strings to their bows.

Head of the School of Music, Associate Professor Martin Rummel sitting at the virtual organ.
Head of the School of Music, Associate Professor Martin Rummel, sitting at a virtual organ donated by a philanthropist. Photo: Elise Manahan

Associate Professor Martin Rummel hopes that in a decade there will be recognition that recent changes at the University of Auckland School of Music will go down as a turning point in music education in New Zealand.

The school, in Creative Arts and Industries (CAI), underwent a redesign of its Bachelor and Honours degrees and a well-publicised staff restructure. Martin, the Head of School, acknowledges the changes were challenging, but says they were essential to devise a music degree that creates a versatile music graduate.

“The school was frozen in a time warp,” he says. “The University has now set up a curriculum that is structurally flexible enough to not have to fiddle with it. You can fiddle with the content. You don’t have to touch the structure.”

Martin, an internationally acclaimed cellist who has been Head of School since 2016, is leaving the University in February 2020 and believes the school is now well positioned to attract more students to a higher-quality degree that prepares graduates for today’s music world. Associate Professor James Tibbles has been appointed to take over as Head of School when Martin leaves.

“Our entire education system was based on the conservatory model, developed in the 19th century,” says Martin. “The model definitely works for a certain type of musician, but that’s maybe about 5 percent of all the people working in the industry. We therefore left 95 percent behind. And we constantly added content without taking anything out, but the degree duration hadn’t got longer.”

The redesigned curriculum began in Semester One 2019 and Martin says the programme aims to give students skills in all areas of music from composition and production to performance, and proficiency with the relevant technology.

“People don’t need to learn to play every single Beethoven violin sonata just because they play the violin,” he says. “For example, as well as playing in a symphony orchestra, a freelance musician might be gigging in a film orchestra, teaching or performing with electronics.”

Martin says it’s also important to bring down ritualised barriers to performance so that the audience don’t worry about not knowing when to clap or what to wear, for example.

“If, after a performance, musicians sit with the audience and interact socially, the performance becomes a part of our communication from one human to another. The big task for the next generation of musicians is to finally throw out the tuxedo.”

New appointments

A number of new appointments have been made, some from overseas, including internationally recognised composer David Chisholm, a specialist in 21st-century composition training, who is a senior lecturer and composition convenor. He has created long-form works ranging from orchestral to chamber, choral, electronics, film, theatre, dance and installation and web projects as well as curating festivals in Australia.

Another is Dr Fabio Morreale, a lecturer and co-ordinator  of music technology. Like David, he began in January 2019 and has been researching and teaching courses, such as sound synthesis and generative art, and preparing new courses for 2020. His areas of expertise include music and artificial intelligence, digital musical instrument design and human-computer interaction. He wants to take students beyond the traditional means of music making.

Dr Fabio Morreale, lecturer and co-ordinator of music technology.
Dr Fabio Morreale, lecturer and co-ordinator of music technology.

“Computers are used for composing, performing and also analysing music,” says Fabio. “They can be used to analyse quantitatively and are especially useful for pieces that don’t have a typical Western notation that relies on scales. We have a very good musicology department here.

“Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help trace the evolution of a genre to help you understand the practices of performers and composers.  

The big task for the next generation of musicians is to finally throw out the tuxedo.

Associate Professor Martin Rummel, Head of the School of Music

“While that’s great, we are also making students aware of the pros and cons of using AI. For instance, some videos on YouTube have AI-generated soundtracks so people don’t have to pay royalties on real music. They’re not well composed or produced but we’re so used to hearing them.

“Our students need to learn what is good production because we are submerged by very badly produced music all around us.”

Fabio is creating new courses in music computing and musical interface design.

“For example, students will make a physical instrument by themselves through coding and physically crafting. We also have critique of music technology at honours and masters. It’s important students develop an understanding of when music technology is to be used and when we should resist some innovations.”

But when would we resist innovation?

Fabio points to the likes of apps sold on the internet that claim to be able to teach music. He’s undertaking research on some of those apps to understand whether they are effective ways of learning music.

Fabio came to New Zealand from Queen Mary University of London, and previously the Interaction Lab of the University of Trento in Italy, his homeland.

He says composers will never be replaced by AI, but do need to learn what they’re up against. “So, a simple production of a song can be done very well by an AI system. You just drag and drop your raw track on a website, and then after a few minutes you pay a few dollars and download the produced one.”

But Fabio says the difference in quality is dramatic and one of the reasons students need to learn about the capabilities of AI.

“If a student is going to be a music producer, at some point they’re going to have to justify to their clients why they should go with a human producer rather than an algorithmically created production.”

Soprano Dr Morag Atchison did her music degree at the University. She’s now lecturing in classical voice after years studying.
Soprano Dr Morag Atchison did her music degree at the University. She now lectures in classical voice. Photo: Elise Manahan

Bringing home the talent

Lecturer Dr Morag Atchison knows all too well the benefits of working overseas and then bringing your knowledge back home.

The leading soprano, who this year appeared to much acclaim in New Zealand Opera’s The Barber of Seville, spent seven years in the UK, doing postgraduate study at the Royal Academy of Music then working in London. Now she’s teaching classical vocal performance at the University and is also a vocal tutor for the New Zealand Youth Choir and the University of Auckland Chamber Choir.

“It’s very hard to just do the pure classical performance degree because, for most people, solely performing is not going to be your entire life,” says Morag.

“There’s going to be teaching, admin, music technology … so much more in your portfolio.

“This new degree is a modern degree. You can still do pure performance or composition but you can dabble a bit more. You don’t have to stick to classical … if you want to take a jazz paper or something, that’s there too.

“It’s really exciting to see the opportunities students are getting and how that’s going to knock on to postgraduate study as well.”

Martin also sees great benefits in students going away on overseas scholarships and bringing back valuable knowledge.

“We are blessed with a relatively high number of scholarships that support our students to go abroad for short or long-term postgraduate studies, master classes or whatever. They come back and add their new knowledge to the local music scene.”

But he says he’d like to see more scholarships available for overseas students to come here to study, for good reason.

“It would be great to see more recognition of what overseas students bring in. If you have a cohort of 120 first-year students, some will be from South Auckland, some from Northland, some from Christchurch, so the socialisation is different but still all Kiwi.

“But if you add a couple of North Americans, a couple of Asian kids or students from anywhere else in the world, you get a completely different cohort.

“It leads to different conversations in lectures, different experiences when they make or compose music together and when they talk about how they create music.”

He says despite what some may think, a scholarship for an international student doesn’t just benefit that student. It benefits their domestic peers and the school as a whole.

“It means lecturers need to think about how to deal with students from diverse cultural and social backgrounds, so it’s a win all round to have different cultures learning here. We end up being more informed and it’s richer and more inspiring for everyone.

“And there are more connections to be made in the world. People of different cultural backgrounds work together to create music, musical theatre and other musical genres.” Martin says it’s knowledge like this that is needed in a modern music degree, with musicians needing to become skilled at more than one thing.

“That’s the fundamental change to what was done for the past 100 years, where people were forced into one choice and told this is who you are for the rest of your life,” he says.

“You would get a job as an academic or a music teacher or an orchestral musician, or in a jazz ensemble or, if you’re lucky, a solo career. But that’s not how it works any more.”  

This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Ingenio

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