Richard Gill will speak at the ANU tonight. Photo: Leanne Pickett
Richard Gill is not a man given to understatement or holding back. The title of his new memoir, Give Me Excess of It, hints at this, and also at what his major passion in life is: it's taken from the speech in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night that begins, "If music be the food of love, play on".
Speaking before his Canberra Times / ANU Literary Event: Meet the Author Series 2012 yesterday, Gill had more than his book in mind.
"It's a very interesting time to be at ANU. I'm going to address the issues."
He was referring to the recent upheavals in the School of Music which saw a reduction in staff numbers and – worst of all in Gill's eyes – in one-on-one music teaching.
Even though he was a guest at the university, he said, "I feel I can speak about musical education at all levels using the concept of freedom of speech within a university and the expression of ideas and exchange of ideas."
He said he found the School of Music's situation "extremely depressing" because it had the potential to become systematic nationally and it was indicative of a failure to recognise the value of the teaching of music at tertiary level, particularly to people wanting to become performers or composers.
"That must happen with as much one-to-one as possible," he said, as it was a system that had been going on for centuries and had stood the test of time.
While he said he was not privy to the financial situation of the university – "I'm sure the Vice-Chancellor has his reasons" – he said, "I would urge the current dean and senior academics to seriously reconsider the decision, which is never too late to change".
Gill, who will turn 71 on Sunday, has been involved in music for 50 years and said, "I'm still teaching, still interested in teaching and giving hope to places like Canberra."
He was chief conductor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra from 2001 to 2005 – "I loved that" – and said its fate was linked to that of the School of Music, with broader implications relating to the city's international standing.
"Canberra is filled with diplomats, trade missions and cultural exchanges and the fact that the capital's orchestra is in serious jeopardy puts Canberra at the bottom of the heap culturally."
Gill was last in Canberra professionally with the Australian Youth Orchestra summer camp four years ago and said he didn't simply want to be a critic of what was happening – "that's easy" – but to offer hope. He said the School of Music's staff "should not give up the fight, because I'm here and I don't believe in acquiescence".
Hence his willingness to speak out despite being told by some he shouldn't.
Gill said he believed music education was "at the top of the food chain" educationally because of its abstract nature and the intensive listening required.
"It's at the highest level of consciousness and focus and that can be transferred to other areas of learning."
One of those was Asian languages. He believed the idea that every child in Australia should learn a second language was "wonderful" and that music education could help. Many Asian languages – including Cantonese, Mandarin and Thai – were based on vocal inflections and changes, he said, which music training developed.
But, he said, this was a "bonus" not a reason in itself for teaching music.
"The reasons are that music is good, unique, abstract and non-descriptive and encourages children to think at the highest level of thinking."