Music For Everyone with Vivienne Winther (Artistic Director)

www.mfe.org.au

Music For Everyone is dedicated to helping all people participate in music-making, regardless of background, age or ability. What began in 1983 as an informal collective of families interested in creative music activities that children, teens and adults could participate in together has grown to become the largest hands-on music-making organisation in the ACT region. Members travel from as far afield as Cooma and the South Coast to engage with professional tutors and experienced artists.

Music For Everyone was inspired and led by Australian Judith Clingan, a gifted composer, performer and teacher. Originally known as Gaudeamus, the collective worked on several workshop and performance projects together.  Participants then wanted ongoing weekly music programs, such as tuition in a small range of instruments, music groups for pre schoolers and music groups for people with disabilities.

As more and more people became involved, a bigger range of regular tuition options and performing ensembles was set up, depending on what sort of interest came out of each project. For example, the children's singing group enjoyed acting and singing in a staged musical so much that they stopped being a choir and became Act Up Sing Out, a unique youth music theatre training program that now presents three fully staged musicals a year.

What range of programs do you offer?

Music For Everyone offers more than 150 hours of activity each week. With 28 music tutors as staff, around 600 participants aged 18 months to 80 take part in one or more music activities each week. In 2008, across all programs and events, our active music making participants numbered 2,806, and our programs and performances reached audiences of 16,780.

Classes include:

  • Pre-school music groups for toddlers and parents
  • Music groups for people with disabilities
  • Instrumental and vocal tuition, group classes and individual lessons, for children, teens and adults
  • Adult instrumental ensembles in strings, wind and guitar
  • Youth participating in music theatre training, presenting three productions a year
  • Youth rock bands meeting to rehearse at Rock Academy
  • Drumming programs for ACT schools.
  • Participants in these programs perform in 35 or more performance events in the ACT region each year.

MFE also presents a range of special events or one off activities including:

  • Rock School holiday workshops for youth
  • World class visiting artists in hands on weekend workshops exploring music of many cultures
  • Workshops and events commissioned from MFE by national institutions, schools, community groups and social support networks
  • Commissioning music from composers for community musicians to play and perform.

Music for Everyone is like a community music school, which is a common thing in Europe, but not so much here. Were you inspired by the European model?

The beginnings of Music For Everyone was through the vision and leadership of multi-talented musician, Judith Clingan.  A composer, artist and teacher, she brought adults and youth together in a range of community performance projects that covered choral music, instrumental music and music theatre.  Out of that came requests from the people who had enjoyed making music together for some ongoing opportunities to learn instruments or add to their existing skills as community musicians.  Judith may have been aware of the European schools, but mainly the development of what Music For Everyone did was driven by the desires of the people involved, and bits and pieces emerged along the way.

Now Music For Everyone has grown to the extent that it is seen as a community music school and a centre of musical activity that is a little different to but also complements, other existing Canberra community groups like youth orchestras, bands, choirs and also the work done in schools. MFE is certainly now like the community music schools of Europe.

We get lots of emails from MFE members who have moved interstate, who can’t find anything like MFE in their new home.  There are very few similar organisations in Australia that encompass the variety of activity we offer, and mostly all run under the one roof, which gives a wonderful feeling of community also.  A great advantage of having such a broad-based program accessible in the same building is that people will often start one activity, and then enrol in other programs as well that they get interested in along the way.

For example, you might start off as the parent of a 2 year old enrolled in our pre-school program MusicPlay, and then decide to resurrect your guitar-playing for yourself as an adult, and then you’ll also encourage your kids to take up instruments as they get older, so that the whole family is involved with MFE over many years.  And we have parents and kids playing alongside each other in our performing ensembles, which is always great to see.  But I’m also really impressed with the large numbers of adults that take up instruments as beginners, or go back to playing after a 30 year gap.

MFE also offers great opportunities to professional musicians and teachers in Canberra to broaden their skills and take on new challenges with their music, and in this way there is a big ripple effect out into the community.  We support the development of our own staff, who are definitely our most important asset. I find a lot of musicians have hidden talents as teachers or project leaders that just need some support and encouragement to produce great results.  And with so many different programs running, there is scope for cross fertilization.  We have MFE tutors teaching news skills to other MFE tutors: for example, a classical guitar tutor adds to his skills with some lessons from one of our jazz and electric guitar tutors; a tutor in our program of music for people with disabilities learns guitar so she can accompany the singing her group does, a violin teacher with a folk background increases her classical violin abilities with lessons from another more classical violin tutor and by playing in one of our adult string ensembles.  The sharing of skills and knowledge, and having an openness to all styles, genres and skill levels in music-making are two things that are very important at Music For Everyone.

How do you feel you are improving community life?

MFE programs contribute so many positive community outcomes for the ACT and region.  As well as its own successful programs, MFE develops and facilitates music activities for other community organisations, especially social inclusion support groups for the disadvantaged and marginalised such as people with disabilities, youth at risk and the ageing.

For example, MFE has just started a training program for disability support workers from a community organisation that operates in South East NSW.  Their CEO was brought to tears when he attended an MFE music groups and saw what we achieve through music participation for adults with disabilities.  He immediately set up training for his non musical staff with MFE tutors, so that their organisation can provide music activities for the well being of the disabled in regional NSW.

A recent survey of MFE members provided these comments:

"I can’t begin to express the impact that MFE music groups has on each and every disabled client. The participants gain confidence, self esteem and feeling of well being which is invaluable.  My husband John has a profound acquired brain injury & has been attending these sessions for 5 years with amazing results."

"lt has been a delight not only for the disabled participant but for the others in the session to witness people who were apparently mute start to sing words, people glow as they joined the dancing and learnt new steps, people concentrate so hard as they maintain a rhythm on a drum.”  Parent of adult participant.

"It is a considerable challenge to find meaningful activities that combine a respectful way of working with people with disabilities and opportunities for development of individual skills. Music for Everyone consistently meets this challenge by providing skilled tutors and activities that are inclusive of all abilities. Clients also have a great time.” Queanbeyan Respite Care."

"MusicPlay and MusicCraft classes are brilliant  The entire family has been made to feel welcome to learn and participate in music.”  Parent of pre schoolers.

When we ask people what they most enjoy about being involved in music and MFE, they provide a wide range of answers:

  • the challenge and satisfaction of learning to read music and play an instrument
  • to have musical and performance opportunities regardless of ability
  • easily accessible, good value for money, embracing, with a great staff
  • seeing children sing and dance and play musical instruments
  • a supportive and non judgmental environment

Is there something peculiar about Canberra which is a key to success for a venture like this or could it work anywhere?

There are so many things that have made it easier for Music For Everyone to grow and flourish in Canberra compared to other bigger cities or to smaller regional centres.  We’re definitely lucky in many ways.  Support from the ACT government through its arts, health and adult education grant systems has built up gradually over the years. It took a lot of hard work on the part of MFE staff and its volunteer board. MFE also provides incredible results for the amount of public money invested in us, so that helped us persuade the government to fund us better!

Funding support is critical for many of our programs, particularly those for people with disabilities, as for those programs we can’t recover the costs through what we can charge for fees.  The Australia Council has also funded us for special projects with composers and visiting artists, and have provided some support for our youth and disability programs, and that federal support is very important for Canberra, as surprisingly few arts organisations here have successfully accessed federal funding.  Without direct project funding from some source or other for specific creative ventures like commissioning a composer, we just wouldn’t go ahead with the project at all, as the costs are too great and in some projects, there is no commercial income involved at all.

The Snow Foundation, a wonderful local philanthropic group, has just started helping us financially with our programs for people with disabilities. They are our first philanthropic supporter, and we are their first venture into the arts.  It’s a great new relationship that was much needed. Our disability programs had been in deficit and eating up our reserves for many years, but we couldn’t raise the fees as those participants just couldn’t afford to pay any more.

The ACT Government has also provided important support in another way by providing a centre for MFE and other community music groups.  Our home is the Ainslie Arts Centre, a lovely old building that was one of the first ACT schools - it’s right in the heart of the city centre, but surrounded by parkland!   Very few cities have such a great centralized venue dedicated to the use of community music-makers. It has a large school hall for performances and for weekly rehearsals of orchestras and bands, plus eight or so classroom-sized spaces for other music-making activities.  We and other music organisations also have our offices in the same building, and very importantly we are able to rent rooms for storage of all our musical instruments and other equipment, to keep everything on site.  So the building is a luxury that would be very hard to find matched in other major cities.

Certainly the Canberra population is unusually interested in music-making opportunities, with parents prioritising their children’s participation in music both in school where possible and out of school, but also in Canberra so many adults make music their priority leisure time activity.  I believe Canberra has the highest number of people learning a musical instrument or singing in Australia, and certainly the demand for our tuition and ensemble programs bears that out.  We prepared for some down turn in enrolments due to the Global Financial Crisis, as we do charge fees for most tuition programs, but this year, as in previous years, numbers just keep building. This year we have seen a 20% increase over last year, and we thought it wasn’t possible to grow more than we had last year.

Canberra is unique in that it is really a large country town with some of the advantages of a big city and very few of the disadvantages, and I think that has certainly worked in our favour. Traffic and travelling around Canberra is a breeze compared to Sydney or Melbourne, so it’s a lot easier to commit to driving kids to music activities after school and for adults to make time to do music after work.  Everyone in the music scene knows each other and are used to working together as it’s a small city compared to Sydney or Melbourne, but we’re also big enough to have a university school of music and a part-time symphony orchestra, so there is a reasonable body of professional musicians living and working here, certainly more than in a regional country centre.

Did you begin with a more commercial imperative? How long before you were self-supporting?

MFE's activities are funded by a hard won jigsaw of arts, education and social inclusion grants from the ACT Government and sometimes from the Commonwealth Government.

MFE has never had a commercial imperative.  However, as a government funded organisation, MFE is expected to be very business-like in its operations, and we certainly have to work very hard to spread our funding resources a long way. We have to prepare business plans, detailed budgets and meet all sorts of criteria to get funding.  It takes a lot of time and energy sourcing the funding, then keeping it and then meeting all its requirements. But I think it’s very important for organisations like MFE to tap into government funds and thus make sure at least some of the taxpayer’s money is spent on worthwhile community cultural development, as other wise it just wouldn’t happen, and it would all be spent on sport and defence!

I don’t think community organisations like ours should ever have to be self-supporting, as that would radically change the focus of what we offer.  We give incredible value for money for every taxpayer dollar invested in us, and we certainly pick up the pieces and fill in the gaps of cultural development and opportunities that are just not being met by commercial businesses or by government agencies. Our efforts are most important in the disability sector (who always miss out), and in the education sector where, sadly, music is just not resourced and prioritised the way it should be.  If we see a need in the community for a program or activity, we rustle up funds and just make it happen, in a way that commercial businesses wouldn’t even consider doing because it wouldn’t be profitable.  And government entities often don’t have the grass-roots connection that we have that is essential in making community programs successful and relevant to the needs of people.

Would MFE be able to be sustained on tuition fees alone, or is the local government and other funding support a critical part of the business model?

If we were able to keep our great venue, we could certainly run our tuition programs for youth and adults on a cost-recoverable fee basis, but it would be without all the extra opportunities we currently offer those people who learn instruments with us – the chance to perform in our concert program, to learn and explore new styles of music, and to work with visiting artists. We’d be just another commercial music teaching business.

Some of our most important programs could not be sustained at all on tuition fees alone; all our much needed programs for the disability sector, our programs for schools, programs for talented youth like Rock School and Act Up Sing Out, visiting artist workshops that increase the skills of teachers and arts workers out in the community, commissioning new music from great Australian composers for community musicians to play.  And wouldn’t our community be so much poorer if all those great programs ceased?

I wouldn’t really be interested in working for a purely tuition-based commercial organisation, as the main interest for me and many of our staff is in the special creative projects Music For Everyone produce. We bring really different cultural experiences to people in a hands-on way, and we provide music opportunities for people who would otherwise miss out.

How has your program grown or changed over the last three years?

MFE prepared for some slowing of the rapid expansion of membership and participation we have experienced for the last four years, due to the economic climate, as our programs do charge fees. BUT 2009 has record enrolments with NO vacancies in most programs.  I’m delighted to say that people have not given up their music when making budget cuts.

MFE has seen an explosion in the number of adults taking up music for the first time. In 2008 our end of year adults' concert had 86 adult performers on stage. Sixty of them had only been learning their instrument for less than 18 months.

We’ve added the Rock Academy program for 11 to 16 year olds. Five youth bands rehearse each week in an ongoing program and they perform more than 20 times a year at community festivals and youth events. We’ve had 120 youth participate in this program.

Other new initiatives begun in the past 18 months in partnership with other organisations include:

  • School drumming music program, North Ainslie Primary
  • Music and drama program for after school care, Ainslie Primary
  • Drumming performance ensemble for disabled children, ACT Special Schools
  • Music workshops for adults with disabilities, National Museum of Australia
  • Weekly drumming workshops for disability clients, LEAD support agency
  • Drumming workshops for youth at risk, Ted Noffs Foundation
  • Professional development seminars, ACT Dept of Education music teachers.

How you will use the prize money to advance music making in your community.

MFE is committed to expanding our award winning programs of music for people with disabilities as an area of high need. These programs provide amazing well being benefits plus positive outcomes for the whole community. We will support additional music activity groups for adults with disabilities, including new groups for regional communities who have requested this from MFE for several years. We will also use the money for our new drumming performance troupe of students from ACT special schools. This initiative starts in October with a six month pilot program, but it will need more support to become an ongoing opportunity for disabled children to achieve their potential as musicians and performers.

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