Meet Vivid Ideas panellist Dr Rita Crews OAM. President of the Music Teachers Association, NSW and Deputy Chair of the AMEB, and read all about her life in music education
As the countdown to Music Love's Vivid Ideas event Pathway to Platform continues, we have been interviewing the panellists to give everyone a head start on just how much gold there will be on Saturday 10 June in Sydney. (By the way, did you know The Sydney Morning Herald, Collective Hub, Broadsheet Sydney, Vice and Pedestrian TV have all highlighted our event as one to be at?). So far we have profiled Vicki Gordon, Jacqui Louez Schoorl, KLP, Shefali Pryor, and our performers, Iluka, and Sophie Koh. Today, we bring you Dr Rita Crews OAM
Rita is the President of the Music Teachers’ Association (MTA) of NSW, editor of The Studio journal and Deputy Chair of the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) NSW where she represents private music teachers. She has over 30 years teaching experience at private and tertiary levels, has been an AMEB examiner since 1988, and is currently Chief Examiner for written subjects in NSW and for online examinations for the Federal AMEB. Rita has published many articles and reviews, and some of her piano works are included in the AMEB syllabus. She is currently writing the history of the AMEB for the 2018 Centenary. Rita was named International Woman of the Year for services to music education by the Cambridge Biographical Centre in 1992-93, and in 2002 created a Fellow of the Australian Society of Musicology and Composition for her contribution to Australian music and composers. The 2008 inaugural edition of Who’s Who in NSW contained her biography as does the 2017 edition of Who's Who of Australian Women. In 2014 Rita was honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia and in 2015, the Distinguished Alumni Award of the University of New England. Here, she reflects on a life in music education, with some fascinating insights. Like the fact that the Music Teachers' Association has been negotiating with the Government for 88 years to properly recognise and register studio music teachers. We look forward to hosting you at Vivid and for our audience to hear from such an esteemed Australian woman. (Remember to subscribe and receive 25% off the ticket price!)
What does music mean to you?
I couldn't imagine a world without music, and it doesn't matter what kind of music. I'm a rock fan myself 'cause I play the drums (badly but who cares?) Seriously, music is part of civilisation itself and it says so much, and can be adapted to each and every occasion. We have music that reminds of us of events both happy and sad, music to sing to, music to cry to. And it doesn't matter if it's classical or contemporary music. Young people, in particular, seem to be very enthusiastic about music and of course these days, they can have access to every type of music via every electronic means available!
Tell us about your musical pathway and how you came to be where you are today
I was never particularly musically-inclined and there was no history of music in my family but when I was in primary school - and I'm going back over 60 years - we were taught to play the keyless flute which was a great introduction to music.
I took to it immediately and in fact, finished up being the leader of the flute band which was a lot of fun particularly on Empire Day when we marched the streets of Ashfield and I could blow my whistle! When I was thirteen I wanted to learn piano so my father bought a piano with a broken iron frame because he said, 'Well, she's only learning.' (With what I know now, that was one of the worst decisions he ever made). In 1971, my sister-in-law was a Director of Music at a high school and persuaded me to go back to learning and then eventually I took up teaching. I still remember my very first student. I did courses that gave me qualifications in studio teaching and eventually at the age of 32, enrolled at the University of New England where I majored in Musicology and Australian History eventually doing a PhD on three Australian composers. I knew I could teach - and teach well - but would never be able to perform. That was OK because I became reasonably proficient in the theoretical and pedagogical side of teaching and went on to write and lecture courses designed specifically for studio music teachers. In 1988 I became an AMEB examiner in written subjects and since then, I've had a lot to do with syllabus development, training examiners, introducing new ideas, leading teams of examiners and taking on the role of Chief Examiner in written subjects in NSW as well as for the federal online marking team. In 1990 I was appointed to the NSW AMEB Board, becoming Deputy Chair in 1998. I find the Board to be an exhilarating experience, consisting of a group of highly gifted individuals all with the aim of progressing the state of music education in this state and for the AMEB in particular.
According to your insight into music education, what is the most exciting thing about being a music teacher in Australia?
Being able to introduce children - and also adult learners - into the wonderful world of listening to and playing music. For a teacher, it's enormously satisfying to see students progress whether they actually sit for exams or not. That's not really important - it's instilling a love of music that will last all their lives that is so satisfying and exciting for a teacher. But there's also the exchange of information with colleagues and having access to new ideas and methods which is enhanced so much with the advances in technology.
What is the most challenging?
Convincing the government to have a clear-cut education programme where all schools - primary and secondary - have a trained classroom music teacher but unfortunately, we're a long way from that. We do however, live in hope as currently there are negotiations taking place that might lead to a better appreciation of the importance of music in the lives of children. My own experience of music at primary school is testament to the benefits of music from a young age. The other issue is government recognition of studio teachers as professionals and although the MTA administers accreditation for studio teachers having taken over that role from the Conservatorium is 1994, the government is reluctant to take steps to create a system of registration even though negotiations have been going on since 1929 when the idea was first mooted by the Association. But again I live in hope!
How important is the AMEB to Australian music education?
I can't underestimate it's importance, and over the years it has grown from strength to strength as the Federal Board recognises the changes in education around the country and responds to those changes. There are over 40 syllabuses in instrumental and theoretical subjects and NSW alone conducts over 40,000 exams a year. We have highly qualified and experienced examiners around the country that use their knowledge and expertise to assess students in practical and theoretical examinations. In fact, so successful is the AMEB that it celebrates its centenary next year and I've have the honour of writing a history of the organisation as part of that event.
Tell us about your role as President of the Music Teachers Association of NSW
I've had the honour of being President now for some considerable time and I guess the first thing I should say, is that it's entirely voluntary, and in fact if it wasn't I would be a millionaire! The role does require a lot of dedication in order for it to work effectively. I can't say it's not demanding and time-consuming because it is and I estimate that I would spend at least 20 hours plus a week in order to do the job properly and try to work for the good of the Association and its members. But I also have a very supportive Council and the Association has highly skilled office staff.
The MTA is the professional association for studio teachers, it is a not-profit organisation, a company limited by guarantee with a Constitution and any President needs to understand how that works. The President also needs to work closely with the MTA Council in order to make the Association run smoothly and organise the various events such as professional development sessions, scholarships, music festivals, conferences, and important social activities where members can meet in a friendly atmosphere.
The role does require a certain amount of negotiating skill as well as diplomacy and literally, 'calling in favours' from a variety of contacts in order to secure sponsorship for events and I must say that people are very generous in donating their time and expertise for the benefit of our members.
Tell us about The Studio journal
The Studio is the quarterly journal of the Music Teachers Association and is the modern version of what initially started out as a newsletter. Each edition of The Studio has four major articles written by a variety of people and we aim to have articles of interest to all teachers; then there is a review section where members can scrutinise the latest teaching resources such as texts, CDs, sheet music and so on and where the reviewer will give an opinion on the value of such a resource to the studio teacher; and then there is the section entitled Quarterly Notes that has information about upcoming events, fee structures, and any other news of interest to members. It also contains the President's Desk which is a platform for the incumbent President to address the members. Members can access the publication either via the members' portal of our website or in print form.
How did you feel when you received the Order of Australia?
Gob smacked! I've been in the situation many times of supporting nominations but I never dreamed I would be on the receiving end and I do think there are people far more deserving than me. Actually, I'm still reeling, three years later! It is such an incredible privilege. The ceremony itself was just stunning but my big regret was my husband wasn't there to see it - he had died in 2007 but I know he would have been very proud.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
One of my favourites is Professor Anna Reid who is the Dean of the Sydney Con and also the Chairperson of the NSW AMEB. She is a wonderful supporter of all things musical and is a talented musician and teacher herself. Last year she opened the MTA's Conference and created a wonderful atmosphere of learning and a real buzz in the audience. Another favourite is Australian composer Ann Carr-Boyd. She has an insatiable urge to write music which she's done all her life. She can write for any instrument or voice and in fact, there is a book being written about her. It's good to see Australian women composers being recognised.
What is your favourite place in Australia?
That's a hard question because I've travelled all over the country and particularly the outback but I really have two; Broome because it is just so different with such an extraordinary history...and the Birdsville Track which I've travelled down a couple of times....quiet, desolate, an unreal place and you really feel for those pioneers that tried to settle in such a harsh area. But when all is said and done, it's Sydney that has my vote and I can't imagine living anywhere else.