Why the future of music is collaborative


Traditionalist elitism has long plagued the image of classical music. It holds back our progress as an industry. Proponents of classical music elitism will argue in favour of genre superiority. They feel that sullying classical music with other artforms or new technologies will somehow be de-purifying. They feel that those who enhance the accessibility of classical music are sell-outs.

There’s a lot to unpack there.

On one hand, I understand where this comes from: a love for the truly spectacular artform. But at the end of the day, music is exactly that: an artform. And keeping classical music elitist, insular, and analog doesn’t serve any of the main functions of art. None of what I see as the purposes of art (to be a vehicle for self-expression, a way to communication beyond language, to provide hope and entertainment, and to exercise the emotions) would be hindered by a more futuristic collaborative approach. In fact, I believe creative collaboration would serve some of those purposes even better.

Dr Jamie Oehlers – the Associate Dean of Music at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts, and renowned jazz saxophonist – tends to agree.

“About a decade or maybe 20 years ago I started doing more interdisciplinary collaborations at festivals with dancers or theatre-makers. It becomes less about you, and more about the overarching project,” Jamie says.

“It was exciting, because you have these discussions with people who are working in what you may think is a completely different way, but then when you get down to it there are heaps of commonalities across disciplines.

“I had this great conversation with a dancer about improvisation. She was explaining how she improvises, and I just thought, ‘I would never have thought to do that. I can take that away and apply it to my musical practice, and come at it from a completely different angle, and vice versa’.”

If creative partnership is as rewarding as Jamie describes, then there really is no place for traditionalist elitism in music.

What if the passionate defence of genre purism was instead converted into passion for artistic collaborations – with fellow musicians, with painters, with theatre-makers, sculptors, street dancers or performance artists? What if we acted as ambassadors for classical music and brought the genre where it has never dared to go before? What if all musicians were equipped with the skills and flexibility that the modern industry demands of them?

These are the sorts of questions Jamie has asked and then answered with the creation of a new Bachelor of Music degree that launches in 2022. Jamie (pictured above) found that graduates were entering into an industry that had changed enormously in recent years.

Jamie remarks: “I think that the model for tertiary music education, especially in Australia, is still primarily built around the music industry in the ‘70s or ‘80s.”

“Over the last decade, especially, we have seen that our graduates are leaving without certain skills that are going to be required of them to create a portfolio career.

“It is absolutely time for us to get our act together, and make sure that students are graduating with skills that will give them the best chance at continuing in a career in music.”

And Jamie is right. The music industry doesn’t operate in the same way it used to. There’s now a stronger focus on flexible careers whereby a musician can wear many different hats.

“I see it all the time with classical musicians – the minute they graduate, they are working at the French festival, doing cabaret shows or multidisciplinary projects, or music in film. They have to draw upon different skills.”

However, not all degrees – particularly in Australia –  have changed to reflect this, leaving students graduating with a significant gap in the skills they have and the skills they need.

“To be able to continue with the thing you love doing, and continue to be creative, you have to think outside of [a] small frame.”

And if the mind is trained to be truly creative and flexible, as WAAPA’s new program aims to do, then thinking outside the box should come naturally – especially when the students are equipped with the practical skills to help them on the way.

Under the new degree, students across all disciplines will study essential subjects such as music business skills and home recording, the latter of which has proven to be incredibly important in the past 18 months.   

“Recording from home is essential. COVID showed that almost immediately. We were devising this program prior to COVID, and then when it hit we […] realised there were quite a number of students with zero capability to use technology and to develop decent sounding recordings from home.”

With or without COVID, Jamie predicts, home recording is the way of the future. Collaborating on, say, an album has never been as simple because thanks to the internet, geographic location is no longer an obstacle to artists accessing each other.

WAAPA’s music students will also learn to work across disciplines and to collaborate with other musicians, right from their first year.

“One of the most important skills a musician needs in this industry is to be able to move from one opinion to the next, and find compromise. The best artistic works come through putting all the ideas on the table and working out how they all fit together.

“Art can’t be dominated by a single person. Part of this degree will include developing the personality skills the students need to facilitate collaboration.”

As Jamie tells me of the plans for this new endeavour, I wonder about how it will be received by music education traditionalists. However, he assures me the response has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly for the students (whom, as he reminds me, the course is designed to serve).

“We’ve got so much faith in it – the course. The feedback from the promotional material has been amazing. We’ve had so many people getting in contact with us. Our current students want to switch over!

“We’ve heard lots back from the industry and the applications are skyrocketing. We’re very happy about it.”

Learn more about the new Bachelor of Music at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

We teamed up with WAAPA to bring you this story about music education. Stay tuned for more interviews about the Australian arts industry!

Images supplied. Featured image credit Stephen Heath Photography.