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Regional Youth Orchestra NSW

Study Addresses Systemic Inequalities in Australia’s Music Scene

Researcher Mandy Hughes shares ways to offer rural classical music students similar music education experiences as those in metropolitan areas


Published in December 2023, Mandy Hughes’ paper “Countering inequality: The role of music opportunities in promoting well-being and belonging for young Australian regional classical music students,” considers how programs made available through local regional conservatoriums can support rural music students in achieving their goals.

Documenting the experiences of non-metropolitan classical music students in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, Hughes’ research centers on a case study of the Regional Youth Orchestra NSW (RYO), where advanced regional and rural classical music students develop their skills and collaborate with young musicians across the state.

According to Hughes, a senior lecturer at Southern Cross University, regional and rural music students face challenges unlike those of their city-based counterparts.

“Inner-city, private school kids are often the most likely to access music education. Kids living in rural areas are the least likely to have music opportunities,” Hughes writes in The Conversation. “Music inequality also exists between states. Queensland has had a long tradition of offering accessible instrumental music lessons and ensembles, but most other states fall short.”

As Hughes explains, non-metropolitan students often face the additional time of traveling long distances for lessons or rehearsals, and may not have close access to large-scale professional performances; they also have more to navigate when sourcing instruments, supplies, and services, such as booking rehearsal spaces.

Additionally, participants of the study described feelings of isolation and stressed the need to connect with other like-minded musicians, who play at a similar level to help share ideas and skills with.

In her interviews with music students in the city, Hughes found that from their perspective, non-metropolitan students are even more passionate about the craft — perhaps reflecting their need to be self-driven in an environment where a classical music culture may not be as integrated or valued in their community, as well as the impacts of being in a less competitive space.

A music equity initiative, the RYO was established by the Association of NSW Regional Conservatoriums in 2016. The group helps bridge the gaps between metropolitan and non-metropolitan music experiences by connecting talented young musicians with professionals from top Australian and international orchestras.

The audition-based orchestra has offered projects with ensembles including the Australian World Orchestra, Staatskapelle Berlin, Opera Australia, London Symphony Orchestra, and Sydney Symphony Orchestra. RYO members also have the opportunity to perform at the Sydney Opera House and City Recital Hall.

Many professional Australian orchestras and music institutions have also included regional tours and education programs as part of their annual schedule of events, such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras.

Further, NSW has 17 regional music conservatories that are unique within the landscape of Australian music providers — established in the 1970s, they are run independently with some state government funding, unlike any other Australian state or territory.

Located in diverse communities to facilitate high-quality music education, the conservatories are often the principal provider of music education in their respective region, helping provide equity for students in remote areas to have access to the same educational opportunities, as their counterparts in city areas.

To create networks for its students, the conservatories have drawn on their faculty’s social capital to support participation in masterclasses and further mentoring experiences.

“I’m determined to prove that it doesn’t matter where you come from,” an RYO alum told Hughes in the study. “Music is something everyone can do. Being in a regional area shouldn’t make a difference. So, it does motivate me a little bit more, just to show that it doesn’t matter where you come from.”

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