Richard Gill: Award-winning Australian conductor and music educator

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Richard GillRichard Gill is an award-winning Australian conductor and music educator. His long career in music started when he was a teacher in Sydney’s western suburbs. He went on to become the dean at the Western Australian Conservatorium of Music, the Director of Chorus at the Australian Opera and, since 2005, he has been the Music Director at Victorian Opera.

Richard is a passionate advocate of music education in schools and has written and spoken extensively on the topic. He was also a regular guest on ABC tv’s Spicks and Specks.

Richard’s long-awaited memoir is Give Me Excess of It. In it he traces his life from his school days to the highs and lows of conducting and directing an opera company.

Click play to listen. Running time: 22.31

Give Me Excess of It

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Rose
Richard, thank you so much for joining us today. In a nutshell, what is Give Me Excess Of It about?

Richard
In a nutshell, it’s a memoir.

Rose
Yes.

Richard
Initially it was going to be an autobiography, but it’s not really – while it has elements of autobiography about it, I decided a memoir was a better form, because it meant I could jump around.

Rose
Yes.

Richard
It mean that I could start where I am now, for example, and then move back to childhood, as I went through various phases to jump anywhere I wanted to, without feeling that I had to stick to a timeline.

Rose
Tell me about that process of trying to fit a life into a book, was it hard to work out what made it in and what didn’t? Or where to start the story?

Richard
No, that wasn’t hard. I wrote well over the number of words, and in fact the book is about 140,000 words, I think, roughly, and I would have probably hit close to the 200,000 mark, but I had a very good editor, a lady called Sybil Malden in Melbourne, and this is my first book, so I said to her, “Just do what you have to do. You know, you’ve edited lots of books, I’ve been giving you by Pan Macmillan, they wouldn’t have given you the job had they not thought you were good at doing it, I trust you completely, just go ahead.” So, I wasn’t at all precious about what was left in and what was left out, because I’m not the reader, and Sybil has a great experience with this. So, occassoinally I’d say it’s a pity that way, because that was a good story, but she said, “Look, you’ve got so many other good stories, that one more is not going to matter.” So, what was in and what was out – I kept thinking about things that I had left out, so, but I don’t think anyone wants to read a two-volume memoir.

Rose
No, probably not. When did you decide to write the memoir?

Richard
When I was asked.

Rose
OK.

Richard
I didn’t ever think about it until Pan Macmillan asked me, and it was the result of
Tod Gillis of Pan Macmillan seeing my TEDx talk, and he said, “You should write your memoir.”

Rose
A huge thing in the memoir is music, is it hard to write about music?

Richard
It’s very hard to write about music because you can only talk about music in its own terms. And, the way we feel about music is subjective, so – and that’s not measurable. The things that are measurable in music are things like scales, and keys, and instruments, you can say, “That’s a trumpet.” “This is in D-major.” “This is in 3/4,” but that information isn’t endlessly interesting, what is interesting about music is the effect that it has on people and why people find music interesting, and you know that music, for example, with children, is something which obsesses them. Most of them have some sort of system whereby they play music, they’ve got things in their ears, or their iPads, or whatever they have, or their iPod, or whatever it might be, playing music.

So… and I spend an enormous amount of my time talking about music, which is almost a contradiction in terms. But, what’s interesting is I have found that people respond to having things explained about the music, that there are things in the music that you don’t necessarily hear on first, second, or even third hearing, and it’s rather like a well-written novel, or a well-written play. Shakespeare constantly reveals new things. Sheridan, Byron, Tennyson, Wordsworth, David Mallouf, T.S. Elliot, each time you read you find new things, and music operates like that. A lot of good music operates like that.

Rose
I guess we’re looking at a generation now that’s been brought up on Britney Spears, Spice Girls, Gangam Style, for people who haven’t experienced classical music before, how do you entice them into listening to it? How do you explain the value of it to them?

Richard
You can, for example, with our Discovery Series that we run with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, or in Melbourne a series called Ears Wide Open, where we invite adults to come along and I explain certain aspects of the music, that can sometimes help people get the point, but there is no substitute for genuine structured sequential music education, and that’s how you do it. And, it’s not just about say in classical music, it’s about music generally, because really there are two types of music, good music and bad music, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s good rock or bad rock, or good hip-hop or bad hip-hop, there’s good and bad, and again those judgments are subjective. But, the key to understanding any music is to get to the child as early as possible, and that’s true in all learning.

Rose
If, for example, you had an older person, perhaps an adult 35 who had little to no interaction with good music, especially good classical music, where would recommend they start?

Richard
They start with us, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and they come to our Discovery Series, or if they’re in Melbourne they come to Ears Wide Open, or if they live in the rest of the country, they fly over here. So, that’s where we would recommend they start.

Rose
Yeah.

Richard
Because that’s a non-threatening easy environment with an orchestra on stage, right behind me, and I could talk about the music, and engage the audiences, and the feedback that we get from those audiences is that they really love it. So, it’s a good starting point. And then they can follow that up by visits to the Opera House, go down to Bennelong Point.

Rose
And if someone wanted to start exploring classical music on their path, which composer would you recommend they begin with?

Richard
That’s a tough one, I mean there are so many good DVDs now of orchestras working and operas, so sometimes rather than, say, a composer, it might be better to say, why don’t you try a symphony of Mozart and Brahms and Beethoven, which you buy on DVD, and watch the orchestras play them, that’s just as interesting. The visual is often as interesting as the oral.

Or, say, most people know something from Carmen, grab a DVD of Carmen, have a look at that. And, again, it requires work, anything worth having requires work, and that’s the most difficult thing with education these days, is that we work with children who are instant gratifiers, they want things instantly – they SMS, it’s instant. They do things on their iPods and Facebook – it’s instant. So, the concept of searching for knowledge and taking time with knowledge is something we need to instill in these children. So, the answer to the question is it’s a long process, it’s not something that is going to happen instantly or immediately.

Rose
In your book you talk about, I guess your childhood that was full of music, because it was always naturally a part of you, what are the moments that stand out from your childhood youth, the musical moments that helped you work out this is what you wanted to do forever?

Richard
Certainly church, there’s no question about that, although I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. The Catholic mass in the 1940s was in Latin, and there was incense and bells, and smells, and priests in vestments, and the alter was at the back of the church, so to speak. Like, you know, you didn’t actually see inside the tabernacle and there was a lot of mystery with the chalice, and the water and the wine, and all of that sort of stuff. So, that was theatre, to me that was real theatre. And that, for me, I think was the beginning, that was the turning point and that’s where I found the love of singing, because I love to sing hymns, I love to sing the chant.

Rose
In your book you wrote that even though you’re no longer a part of a church there is one God for you and that’s Bach, and you also wrote that while some of the catholic education system and catholic people in your life were a little harsh, that you didn’t begrudge them that because they were living in a way that had little grasp on reality. How do you think music changes the reality in which we live?

Richard
I don’t know whether music changes a reality, but what it does do is give you the capacity to think differently about reality. So, what music does is take your mind to the abstract, and of all the arts music is the most abstract. So, it is meaningless, it has no meaning in and of itself, it doesn’t describe, so when you’re listening to music the imagination can run riot, even when it’s opera, where on the stage characters are being represented by music and all sorts of things are happening. The imagination can still work on a very, very, different grade from, say, a drama, or observing a painting, or watching a dance, so that’s why I place music at the top of the arts food chain. So, as for a reality I think I would have to say music is its own reality and you have to find that reality by coming to the music.

Rose
OK. When you were writing were you listening to music?

Richard
No, I never listen to music. I rarely, rarely listen to music, I read scores. I’ll listen to something for a specific purpose, but now we have music everywhere, there’s music in transport, there are people sitting next to you on the bus, or the train, or the tram playing music, often interrupting your thought, so I don’t see music as an all day commodity.

Rose
OK.

Richard
So, my best time with music is reading scores. I love reading scores, and trying to hear the score in my head.

Rose
Tell me a little about the conducting process. I think for a lot of people who are watching, it looks like it’s this wonderful world all of its own, tell me about what it’s like to do that.

Richard
It’s very scary, and it is this sort of wonderful world of its own. It’s the most difficult thing to do, I think. And, the most difficult thing to persuade musicians to come to your point of view, and all of those musicians have a point of view, or not, but you have to convince them that what you’re doing is the way to go. And, so what I try to do is to hold on to the integrity of the music as far as possible, and remove me from the equation. It’s not what I think about the music, it’s more about what is in the music that I haven’t found yet, what is there in that music that we’re looking for, that’s my approach.

Rose
OK. In your book you wrote that the world ‘career’ feels alien to you, and that you seem to be wandering. How do you take a life like that and put it onto paper, especially as someone who hasn’t written before?

Richard
Well, I’ve never sought a career in the sense of, “I must have a career.” I’ve just gone from place to place, and from thing to thing, so I guess that was just an easy thing to do, because there was so many things that I’ve seen, different things that I’ve done, it was just remembering the order in which I did them, more or less. And, obviously, when I was writing the book I didn’t remember all of it, because I kept thinking, “Oh, I need to talk about that,” or, “That didn’t come out,” or whatever.

Rose
You mentioned you chose a memoir rather than an autobiography so you could jump around, what’s the core of your memoir to you, what’s the emotional…?

Richard
I think the heart of the memoir is about music and its power in education, because I talk quite strongly about education, and I talk quite strongly about how I feel we’re failing in Australian education, despite the fact that the government is talking about doing – and I applaud the fact that the government is trying to do something about it, but you’ll notice I talk about standardized testing and that plan, I think that’s a complete waste of time. So, there are all sorts of things that we need to fix about education in this country, but one of them is acknowledging teachers, and I really believe that’s the crux of it, because we really don’t… I don’t think we value teachers as we should.

Rose
I understand, at least from my own experience, that music is only compulsory years 7-8, which is quite late, that’s 13-14, how would you like to see music taught?

Richard
My view is that music should be mandatory from kindergarten, and if we have music mandatory at the kindergarten level, you would have children at the age of 12 being able to sit for the current high school student examination in music. Now, that’s just a benchmark, it doesn’t say anything about what they might know about music, but it does say that the mind of a child is capable of extraordinary things, musically – capable of remembering an enormous amount of musical information, and that requires focus and listening. And, that focus and listening transfers to all other areas of learning, so that’s why I would see it as mandatory.

Rose
So if we’re talking about a group of 30 five year olds, is it that they would sit and listen altogether, because it can be hard to even get them in the same room?

Richard
No, they listen, of course they listen, but they don’t listen to music, they make music. The singing, the playing of instruments, the writing of music, the improvising of two instruments, the improvising of singing – that’s active. I’m not advocating that you give five year olds a listening program, of course they need to listen to music, but the younger the child, the more engagement they need with the music, and that comes from singing, moving, and playing instruments – and the moving is vital.

Rose
When you were writing the book what was it like to try and translate decades of love for a complicated, abstract art form into something that would be accessible for people who perhaps didn’t have a strong background in music, or had never really talked about their love of music much?

Richard
Tom Gilluit of Pan said, “Talk about music, but talk about it as if you’re talking to laymen, don’t talk about in a way that the ordinary reader won’t get,” and I think I have tried to do that. I’ve tried – when I’m explaining musical things, I try and talk about it in very simple terms, without patronizing the layman, but at the same time trying to get the point across.

Rose
When you were writing it was that difficult to not be able to talk, I guess to the point of your expertise, was it challenging to try and make it as accessible as the book is?

Richard
Yes, it was. And, I think that’s good. I think it’s always good to be challenged about your thought, and I think it’s always good to reassess what you’re saying, and it’s always good to say, “OK, I need to be able to explain this to someone in terms that they’re going to understand without having the advantage of conversation.” So, I think that’s a good thing to do.

Rose
In the book you share a lot of different experiences with music, there was one where the score for the aria went missing.

Richard
Yeah.

Rose
Tell me a little bit about that.

Richard
That was very scary. I was conducting Tourendot for Opera Australia, and I was there at the Australian Opera and I turned over the page for the aria and it wasn’t there. I have no idea how that happened. I have suspicions, obviously, but I have no idea how that happened, but the entire aria had been lifted from the score, and it wasn’t loose, it wasn’t as if it was a loose leaf score or anything like that, the score was bound. It’s a big, thick score too, we’re not talking about a little book like that, we’re talking about a significant score. So, it was an incredibly frightening moment, but I survived.

Rose
It really gave a lot of insight into the process of conducting, because it often looks so organic and natural. I remember that you said that Leona Mitchell, the signer in question was quite nervous about going flat.

Richard
Yes.

Rose
How much do you rely on the written music as you’re conducting, because it would have been a score that you knew extremely well. How much of it is off the score and how much of it is…?

Richard
It sits somewhere between the head and the score, and the more you do it, the more  you get to know it, the more you feel comfortable with the music, and with conducting the difficult thing is for conductors in this country is going to be the opportunity to be in front orchestras all of the time, and that’s really how you learn your trade. You can practice in front of a mirror, you can practice the score a thousand times, you can practice beat patterns a thousand times, but you’ve got to be in front of the orchestra, that’s where it really happens. It’s like doing – imagine learning the violin by correspondence without a violin. So, until you get in front of the orchestra, then you don’t really know, and they’re the great challenges.

Rose
The next five to ten years will obviously hold lots of wonderful opportunities, is another book part of your plans?

Richard
At this stage, no. Look, Sybil Molden said I should write children’s books. So, I have three granddaughters, and they would be a perfect audience for children’s books, but I’m really keen about this music education thing at the moment because I want to see that through for them.

Rose
Yeah. I understand the national curriculum is not kind to any of the creative subjects.

Richard
No.

Rose
What’s the plan there?

Richard
The plan is to revise everything in the national curriculum, and that will happen. The draft is out, and teachers have responded significantly to the draft, and the response has been overwhelmingly in favor of a complete new curriculum. They find the current draft curriculum less than satisfactory.

Rose
How hopeful are you that we will see the kind of changes in music education that you need?

Richard
Hope is all we have, Rose. Hope is all we have. So, I’m eternally hopeful.

Rose
Finally, what’s your advice to someone who’s starting their own memoir or working through a book that describes their love of something that may be hard to put into words?

Richard
Get a good editor.

Rose
Excellent advice.

Richard
Get an editor you trust, and let them do the hard work.

Rose
Thank you so much for joining us today, Richard.

Richard
Pleasure.

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