ANU Music Student and Harp player Melina van Leeuwen practises in the halls of the university.

ANU music student and harp player Melina van Leeuwen practises in the halls of the university. Photo: Jay Cronan

TLike a bung note in a symphony, proposed funding cuts to the Australian National University's School of Music have resounded throughout Canberra and beyond with a most discordant effect.

It's been a fortnight of emotional extremes on campus, with Vice-Chancellor Ian Young backing away from a plan to cut $40 million from the university's budget and to axe 150 jobs. But within four days he was back - announcing that the School of Music was undergoing major reforms, the bachelor degree programs were being rewritten and 32 staff were having their positions spilled - with the option of reapplying for 10 fewer jobs.

The small and extremely select School of Music community is in shock. But with a swift ferocity, the wider Canberra community has taken up the cause. A planned rally on Monday promises to be a major community event with a Facebook page spruiking the ''Save the School of Music Protest Jam'' and more than 800 people promising to attend.

A petition has gone viral and is close to receiving 10,000 signatures.

Staff, students and members of the community have been jamming the Vice-Chancellor's inbox. A formal concert on May 22 will bring staff and students together on stage - an ominous photo of empty seats on the Llewellyn Hall stage used to promote it.

It will be very difficult indeed for the Vice-Chancellor to block out the sounds of these musicians. Although, through accident or design, he won't be there for Monday's rally. Neither will Deputy-Vice Chancellor (Academic), Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington who, as a Monash University recruit just weeks into her new job, has become the public face of the music school cuts. At the end of a tumultuous week, the school's head, Professor Adrian Walter, has taken indefinite leave of absence. Staff members say he was asked to leave by 5pm on Wednesday afternoon, while the Vice-Chancellor's office said he was under enormous stress and had taken leave ''with support of the university''. Professor Hughes-Warrington conceded there was ''enormous passion'' in the community both for the school, and in reaction to the changes.

While there is some optimism among staff and students that the Vice-Chancellor can once again be backed away from his initial position, the proposed cuts to the music school are far more targeted and advanced than the previous amorphous call for belt-tightening to produce $40 million in savings because a $14 million surplus was not enough with which to feel secure.

The school has never paid its own way, has been whittled back where possible, and the ANU begrudgingly covers its annual deficit - which last year reached $2.7 million. While Hughes-Warrington said a $1.4 million cross-subsidy would continue for the next few years at least, the school would need to come up with the remaining $1.3 million.

It's no wonder Walter has found it too difficult to carry on under current circumstances. He has spent years addressing ways to make the intensive and expensive music subjects less of a drain on finances.

Anyone wondering why it's so expensive need only flick through the pages of the federal government's Lomax-Smith Base Funding Review to see how performing arts and music courses stack up against the cost of your average accounting degree. Exorbitant studio and equipment costs are coupled with demands for small learning groups and individual attention. Student bodies are tiny and specialisation is key. This is increasingly an anathema to the modern university whose success depends on churning as many students as possible through the lowest-cost courses they can cobble together.

As Walter was quick to point out - not one of Australia's seven conservatoriums covers its own cost. If the School of Music were to break even, it would be the first to do so. Sadly, no one even speaks of the potential for the Commonwealth to heed the recommendations of the Lomax-Smith report and better fund the universities to teach music.

Whatever hope Walter had of demonstrating the benefits of a more vocational degree course - which reduces one-to-one teaching by half and focuses less on producing world-class musicians and more on job-prepared music teachers, writers and administrators - the message has been lost in the anger of job cuts.

The decision to ''spill and fill'' some of the country's most accomplished and elite musicians from their tenured jobs - such as the Aria-award winning jazz musician and composer Mike Bukovsky, flautist Virginia Taylor, guitarist Tim Kain, and percussionist Gary France, to name just four of the pre-eminent 23 targeted - has been seen as particularly callous.

While Hughes-Warrington emphasises that the university has been working within its industrial framework, the National Tertiary Education Union has lodged a weighty notice of dispute and it's highly likely Fair Work Australia may be the final arbiter.

Meanwhile, the Canberra community - reeling this week from a ghastly federal budget - is gearing up for a big fight.

In 1965, when Ernest Llewellyn based his grand vision for the Canberra School of Music on the Juilliard School and hand-picked staff to focus on training soloists, chamber and orchestral musicians, he was also conscious of the need to infuse the sleepy national capital with some cultural capital. Ideally, he wanted to develop a national symphony orchestra based in Canberra. While we ended up with a professional part-time orchestra, there is no doubt the Canberra Symphony Orchestra is a great achievement.

If the CSO falls over, what will the domino effect be on Canberra's choirs, music societies, youth orchestras and even the standard of local school music teaching? The CSO's chief executive Henry Laska said the new curriculum might provide new opportunities for students to study music research, management, administration and education. But ''these future students will not graduate as highly trained performers ready to develop their professional careers through the CSO [or] other orchestras in Australia and the world''.

And the school will no longer skim the cream off the crop of young Australian musical talent - such as 21-year-old harpist Melina van Leeuwen. With a university entry rank of 99.1 and a God-given gift for music, the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School graduate could have chosen just about anywhere to pursue her dream to become a professional performer.

As is the case with many of the current student body - half of which come from interstate - Melina chose Canberra because of the school's reputation as the best place to study harp in Australia. She received an ANU scholarship and made the wrenching move from Melbourne two and a half years ago.

Melina is devastated by the proposed changes and said had she known what was in store, she would never have committed to the ANU - choosing instead to regularly fly to Canberra for private tuition with her teacher, internationally acclaimed harpist Alice Giles.

Hughes-Warrington said the course changes were partly the result of student requests to broaden their performance skills with more vocational offerings, but Melina is adamant: ''Getting a job at the end of the degree is something I am simply not focused on.

''For me, education is a journey of self-discovery and that is why I came here. Music students do not want a life with music. Anyone can live a life with music. But no one, excepting those who make music, can live a life of music.''

She'll be lugging her harp across the road to Union Court on Monday to take part in the rally, join in the jam and make herself heard.

Emma Macdonald is Education Editor.