Mungindi Music Festival

Mungindi Music Festival with Margaret Harrison (Co-founder and Festival Ambassador)

Music in Communities Awards case study

Originally from Brisbane, Margaret Harrison has lived in Mungindi for 25 years. Having learned piano as a child, she was the natural - and only - choice to be the teacher/conductor for Mungindi's inaugural Music Festival. She started to teach herself clarinet and saxophone after the first Festival and now teaches those instruments voluntarily one day a week to adults and children. She brushes up on her own skills through workshops run in Mungindi, by taking part in other workshops run in other regions, and through personal music lessons via Skype, which she says are a "brilliant" way of learning.

In 2004, Mungindi in rural NSW was in the middle of a crushing drought. It had one woman who taught the piano, one day a week to a handful of children, and one woman who played the violin. There was no live music, no band, choir or festival. According to Margaret Harrison, "country music blaring from a ute was the most likely thing you would hear".

Margaret and other volunteers wanted to create something positive for the community to plan and look forward to. They started the Mungindi Music Festival, despite many thinking they were "simply mad”. It was a success, and adults and children alike saw that it could be fun learning music. Now music is part of the community fabric. The 'Bated Breath' woodwind ensemble has 17 registered members and the choir has 18 members. Workshops with visiting artists are held every three months and music students travel to other regions for workshops. At the Festival in 2007 all the children in the district sang on stage with the Sydney Youth Orchestra, and there were 150 Mungindi residents - 25 percent of the total population - on stage at the Festival singing or playing.

How did you get support for that first Mungindi Music Festival? And how did you build on that?

"We had fantastic support from Mark Walton, Chair of Outreach Performance at the Sydney Conservatorium. He convinced 300 high quality musicians to come and play at the first festival for nothing. As we don't have facilities or hotels they all stayed at our houses and we just about killed them with kindness, so many of them had an experience they simply hadn't had before. And word spread when they got back home. We had Don Burrows as our Patron, which gave us credibility. He has been a brilliant support.

We were successful in getting startup funding from the Department of State and Regional Development and Festivals Australia, which helped get it off the ground.

We had no venues but we do have natural beauty. So we thought outside the square and installed an enormous marquee in a wheatfield and developed another lovely venue near the riverbank. This created a very unique and stunning backdrop to the Festival which added to its appeal.

We also had enormous volunteer support, as logistically it was an enormous task. We had 70 male volunteers alone to set up the marquees and venues, plus there were tour guides, community groups doing the catering for nothing, people organizing transport, ticket sales - you name it. Everyone wanted to be involved and they were.

We then made the most of our track record, and our links with credible people, in our submissions for philanthropic and government funding and approaches for corporate sponsorship for the next Festival.

What do you think is the most important factor in the success of the festival and Mungindi's music program?

Our approach to volunteering has worked well for us. We have approached people to help out for small, discrete jobs that take a finite chunk of time. We don't pressure them to get involved in the committee, and their one-off commitment doesn't mean any longer-term commitment.

The Committee members each have their distinct responsibilities - marketing, or ticket sales, etc - which they rotate, but everyone uses all their contacts for fundraising and support. We don't have a strict structure for the Committee, as we need to evolve with the Festival as it does. I also used to make sure that our committee meetings ran for one hour only. People need to know that these commitments don't run on and on, otherwise you will lose them.

We develop and nurture our contacts. We keep the radar out for people who can help, we ask questions, we use existing contacts to get to others. People like to help out when they see that you're helping yourself - if you expect them to do all the hard work they won't go out of their way.

We aren't insular. We look at what others are doing and we learn from it; we take expert advice when we need it. We don't think we have all the answers ourselves and ask people who know what they're doing in music how to keep moving forward. We're unqualified but passionate about music and there's lots of people who want to help. We always want to learn from others.

A key to the success of our music program is that we learn musical instruments where people can play together. That's why we focus on woodwinds. People can play together and connect through music - it is their common ground.

What do you see as the future for the Festival and community music in Mungindi?

The Festival will continue to grow and so will our music program.

We realised that we couldn't continue the Festival on pure volunteer time alone, as it was an enormous task that, for some of us, consumed our lives for some years. That isn't sustainable. We were successful in securing funding for a paid music director and coordinator, who we're bringing on board now for the 2009 Festival. The music programs that involve the learning of singing and instruments remains in the hands of volunteers.

We are now getting to a point where we have enough music skills in the community that can start to be passed on. Some parents who have been learning music are helping out with a school music event, which is a great start. Others are getting to the point where they might be able to start teaching others.

We will continue exploring technologies that can help us learn music. Distance has always been our main issue, but I see this as being less of an issue as technologies improve. We're looking at having group lessons on Skype next year.

My lessons on Skype with Mark Walton simply amaze me. Here I am on a farm in outback Mungindi , learning from one of the best teachers in the world from his office in New Zealand. Technology is just invaluable for overcoming the challenge of distance. Like anything, you just need to be open to the possibilities and make it happen.