Richard Gill AO is one of Australia’s greatest music educators. He has spent a lengthy career working with the nations best talent at both ends of the spectrum, from students to professionals, and is one of the most inspiring educators I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. I was lucky enough to sit down with Richard and have a chat during a recent visit to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, where he was the first ever Dean of Music (of what was then known as the Western Australian Conservatorium of Music).
What is your advice for young singers?
My advice is practise scales, practise Vaccai, practise early Italian songs and arias, practise in French and German and Italian and English – simple, easy songs. No one wants to do that, no one wants to practise. They all want to sing Mimì and Rodolfo in first year, Radamés and Aida in second year and Siegfried and Brünnhilde in third year. And that’s why they burn out ultimately, because they’re not patient. So I guess you could say my advice would be – be patient and practise daily the very simple things. That way you will build a stamina, you will build good technique, you will build good language skills and you will be singing repertoire that suits you.
Why Opera/Classical music?
I guess it is fair to say that I am drawn to all sorts of music. I like a lot of music – jazz, pop, music theatre, opera, symphony ballet. But my training was classical. And what drew me to music was singing and the singing that drew me came from the Catholic church when I was a kid. We did the mass in Latin and I sang Gregorian chant, and that really excited me. That is what I call a chromosome reaction. I still like it, I still like doing music and doing opera, working with students and working with professionals. I guess it was inevitable for me, I really didn’t do anything else. I only ever wanted to do music… actually that’s not true! I wanted to be a ballet dancer! But that didn’t work out because I was too big and boys weren’t allowed to do that. But I was desperate to dance. In saying that though, music was always there. I didn’t settle for music, it was always there.
Music education in schools has changed dramatically in the past few decades from a traditionally classical approach to a hybrid of different genres including jazz and contemporary in addition to classical. What do you think about the use of multiple genres in music education?
I think if you are a musician and you’ve got a good basic training, all sorts of music is accessible to you. And you shouldn’t say “I’m a jazz musician and I’m never going to listen to classical music and I’m never going to play musical theatre and I hate pop, I hate Kylie Minogue and Beyonce.” That is a road you could take, that is a reasonable road and you can’t tell someone not to take that road. But I would say don’t shut the world out. Keep your mind open, otherwise that is just boring. My view is that the world is full of extraordinary things and you shouldn’t shut your mind to them. I always think of the character Auntie Mame from the Patrick Dennis book. She said “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” and I think this is a bit like that.
We are constantly told the death of opera is nigh. Do you think something needs to change in this art form and if so, what do you think needs to change to keep opera alive?
People have been saying the death is nigh since I was a student. Nothing could have been further from the truth because we as students used to line up on the street the night before a concert to get tickets – now they do that with pop concerts. What we need to do is address the problem that is perceived to be the issue at the root. And the root of the problem lies in education. School children these days are being cheated at a spectacular rate because people are only interested in what they call literacy and numeracy. We have really missed the boat when it comes to education in this country. And that is true for science and maths and it is particularly true for music. What I am trying to do is correct that balance. What I’ve done is start the National Music Teacher Mentoring Program – and it is working! We are gradually getting music into schools across the country, starting with singing. I’m trying to do something about it! And the survival of music education will mean the survival of genres like the symphony and opera.
How important is a good work ethic in a music student?
I think the work ethic here in Australia, generally, is low. I think there can be a certain sense of entitlement in students who think they have to have everything served on a plate for them. That sense of “the world owes me a living” can be very debilitating, because students start to believe it after a while. They ask, “why aren’t I getting straight As?” I remember when I was the Dean here at the Conservatorium I made it very clear to the students in first year that if they got a C in their work that was good. C is good. B is very good. A is amazing, and you probably shouldn’t be here. You had to be unbelievable to get an A. Now students think that if they don’t get As all the time they think something is very wrong. What I think students often lack is a drive and a hunger for what they’re studying. When I was a student at the Conservatorium in Sydney in 1959, we had a library which was just a tiny room. You were allowed to borrow two pieces of music a week and there were no records available. Records had just started to come into fashion and you could buy them but they weren’t available to us at university. We used to buy the records second hand because they were so expensive and have Saturday night record parties where someone would bring a record and we would learn our music that way. We had madrigal groups and sang regularly. We made our own music and we were hungry to learn. If you didn’t do that you failed. In my final year there were 22 people and only 6 of us passed. That doesn’t happen anymore. So you need to work hard and be hungry.
If you could turn any book/play/movie/TV show into an opera, what would it be?
There is a book that I would like to see as an opera and it isn’t my idea. It came to me by a man called Alan John, who wrote The Eighth Wonder and he also wrote Jonah, which was done here at WAAPA many years ago. It’s a novel called Thérèse Raquin (by Émile Zola) and it’s really black, but it would be an amazing opera because it is so dark. That’s not a fun answer but the drama is fabulous.
Students take heed, this advice is too good to pass up!
Interview by Louis Hurley