Written by: Kiri Koubaroulis
That old tape ran on loop in my mind again: Is my voice/my perspective valuable? Am I the right ‘fit’ for this?
I’d just finished reading about the Sydney Con’s new Bachelor of Music (BMus) when I was invited to write an article for Loudmouth. I was really heartened by how diverse and inclusive the new programs at The Con sounded and it made me reflect on my own experience as a BMus student 20 years ago. I thought this might be an interesting topic and began writing. And that’s when the tape began to play. Old insecurities around belonging and worth were stirred – insecurities fastened to my sense of identity.
I decided to brave it. So, here are memories and reflections drawn from my lived experience all those years ago, feeling my way through a Western classical music degree as a student from a culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) background.
‘Exotic’ and not from Killarney Heights
March 1996. I sat in a room full of other first year BMus students in one of the (now historic) music huts at UNSW, waiting for my name to be called from the roll. It was the first lecture of the degree. The subject was Music History.
‘What an exotic name!’
I think I smiled politely but remember being embarrassed and a little confused.
There were other interactions where such points of difference seemed to be highlighted. Once, a fellow student asked me where I lived. When I replied she said ‘Oh, that’s really nice’. I responded with something along the lines of, ‘Yeah… it’s ok’, surprised she even knew where Canley Heights was. It turned out she thought I’d said Killarney Heights. She quickly placed Canley Heights when I explained it was close to (the then notorious and now somewhat trendy) Cabramatta.
The truth is I was different to many of my peers. The list of descriptors runs a little like this: I grew up speaking a language other than English at home; we never listened to classical music – never attended any concerts; I was the first generation in the family to go to uni; the only person to learn an instrument and I lived ‘way out west’. There were others like me studying music of course, but we were the minority. I made good friends, felt included and accepted by my peers and lecturers and didn’t feel discriminated against. But at that very young, impressionable age when we are all forging our way in the world as young adults, I did feel different and often like I just wasn’t quite the right fit.
Belonging and achievement
This sense of ‘not-quite-belonging’ didn’t only manifest itself in the subtleties of interpersonal interactions. I appreciated the course content itself for the most part: Music History, Orchestration, Harmony, Early Music, 20th Century Music and Performance class, for example, were interesting, challenging and broadening in all the right ways, academically. Music was the only thing I could imagine spending three long years immersed in at the time, but I had to convince my parents it was worth studying it in the first place and it took a lot of energy to resist three years worth of their pleadings to tack on the extra year of a Dip Ed so as to come out with the guarantee of a “good job” afterwards. This is a pressure not uncommonly placed on children of the diaspora by parents who left their homelands in search of opportunity, security and economic stability. I enjoyed my studies, but at times it was a real slog and one I sometimes felt I’d started on the back foot, just because of who I was.
I can’t remember where the desire to learn the piano came from as a child, but I do remember asking my parents for lessons for years before they found themselves in a position to afford the $100 a month in tuition fees. As a first generation Greek-Australian, I grew up listening to my Dad’s tapes of traditional Greek folk music and its contemporary counterpart, a popular form of urban folk. It was a musical inheritance based on Eastern modal systems where melisma and improvisation were key features and where music played a strong functional role in community and life; quite a contrast to the Western Classical tradition I was learning about in my music studies.
The effects of this disparity showed in some of my marks of course and more obviously in the critique I received at times, like when my Performance lecturer concluded I didn’t ‘get’ Bach from the way I played the Inventions. She was right of course, but it wasn’t for lack of study or lack of practice. Perhaps it was for lack of exposure and connection to such repertoire. For me, that well known, universal and non-discriminatory insecurity we’re all faced with at times – that ‘not-good-enough’ tape that plays in the mind – was amplified in my music studies by my own feelings of cultural displacement.
Happily, there were two subjects where I felt able to stake a little claim of belonging in the BMus landscape. Music Technology was one. With the subject’s focus on innovation, the creative playing field was levelled enough for me to feel a sense of achievement in composition. Ethnomusicology was the other. In Ethnomusicology I experienced non-Western/non-classical music traditions for the first time in an academic context. This conferred a new type of value (in my mind) onto my own musical inheritance and led to me to choose to explore it further in my final year major assignment (and to continue to explore it after graduating). I hold the fondest memories of my Ethnomusicology lecturers. It helped that they were brilliant teachers of course, making lessons engaging and relevant. It also helped that their skills in cultural awareness and intercultural understanding were perhaps honed and heightened by their work in the field.
Recognising the challenges and creating change
Let’s unpack those memories a little. My experience highlights some obvious challenges faced by undergraduate students that are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds outside of the Western/dominant culture. Although I draw on my personal experiences of 20 years ago, and although the variety and choices music students of today have are greater, the challenges remain the same for first generation CaLD students. A more thorough list might look like this:
- Family/cultural beliefs and expectations: Studying or working in the arts may not be supported by the family, as it is sometimes seen as a luxury or hobby and not a sustainable career option.
- Financial impediments: including years of tuition fees, tertiary education fees and travel costs – especially if travelling a significant distance.
- Distance: long travel journeys to and from the chosen institution are time-sapping and draining. This may impact a student’s ability to participate fully and perform to their personal best.
- Representation and cultural competence at the institutional level: It’s empowering and inspiring to see people that look/sound/are like us in positions of power and esteem or enjoying success. This representation along with feeling seen and understood (especially when you’re a member of a non-dominant culture) brings a greater sense of belonging, confidence and agency on a personal level. And that’s also got to be good for academic performance.
- A ‘one-size-fits-most’ approach to course design: A greater choice of subjects and articulation options, as well as course content that is curated specifically to accommodate for diversity and to foster inclusion has to be a good thing too.
So, back to what inspired this piece in the first place… Recently I attended a ‘Vivid New Music at The Con’ event. The back page of the program was an ad for the new BMus and it tweaked my curiosity. Perusing the online descriptions of the different programs on offer, I was really impressed to see that they were future-focused with an emphasis on career readiness, highlighting multiple potential pathways. I was also impressed to see that choice and flexibility are key features and, most importantly for the discussion at hand, that the new programs embrace and encourage different types of musical competence, making the BMus more accessible and inclusive. It’s worth noting here that there have been and currently are other institutions offering similar courses of study – WSU, AIM and AFTRS immediately spring to mind. The Con updating their offerings and adding more choice to the mix can only be a good thing for all prospective music students. Personally, I’m really interested to see whether these changes will have an impact on the demographics of applicants immediately and over time.
Kiri Koubaroulis has worked in the creative industries in diverse roles within local government and the non-profit sector in both the visual and performing arts. She holds a Bachelor of Music from UNSW and a Graduate Diploma in Arts Management/Creative and Cultural Industries Management from UTS. Her long running interest in arts practices informed by cultural and linguistic diversity led her to establish Arts Diaspora Inc. (2011 – 2015), producing cross-cultural concerts, community workshops and a children’s theatre show in key venues. Kiri currently works in the ‘new music’ space. She writes about cultural diversity in the arts at: www.culturalomnivore.blog