The Bellingen Youth Orchestra will be hosting ‘Fighting Fires with Music’ on February 1st as a fundraiser for the people who have been so severely affected by the bushfires. The Orchestra’s Sinfonia, accompanied by international pianist David Helfgott, have planned a repertoire to delight the senses, spoiling the audience yet again with their inordinate talent.
If one wants to comprehend the extraordinary talent of our musical youth, one need look no further than the passionate Head Teacher of Creative and Performing Arts at Bellingen High School Annie Phelan and her team of dedicated music teachers. Annie has been in this role for fifteen years and has quite simply revolutionised the local youth music scene in that time. “I never would have guessed what was possible. It blows me away when I think of it,” says Annie. It was time to discover the secrets of this humble musical leader……
Annie have you always had a passion for music?
Yes ever since I was little. My family wasn’t all that musical but when I was small- I would walk home from school and stop at a house several doors up where a little girl was learning the piano. I would sit on her fence and listen to it for ages. My mother decided it was worth getting piano lessons for this child.
I always had an ear for music. You don’t need to be born into a musical family, just a supportive one.
Have you been involved in music since those early days?
Yes, I was only six when I started piano lessons. Piano was my first love but I picked up the French Horn in High School as my orchestral instrument. I was lucky enough to go to a school with a school orchestra, which meant as soon as I entered high school I was part of the orchestra and the school jazz band. These opportunities were so important to my development. And it was so much fun to be part of an orchestral ensemble.
This was my first taste of playing alongside professional musicians too. Our school jazz band played with Don Burrows and Ray Price.
How important is it for developing musicians to have the opportunity to play alongside professionals?
The ability of all the musicians in a band or orchestra is lifted when working with professionals. The younger players aspire to what they are hearing. The listening tool is so important. When they listen very carefully they will adapt to what is happening around them. That is why we have our tutors playing with our orchestra. It lifts the players.
Did you always plan a career in music?
I spent the final two years of high school at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. When I finished my schooling I thought I’d had enough of music. It seems funny now.
My final year teacher encouraged me to fill out a teachers’ scholarship. I wasn’t interested, so my teacher filled it out for me. I’m so glad she did. It was only after the short break between finishing school and University commencing that I realised I did want to do music and I wanted to teach.
Throughout my uni course I continued to play in orchestras and had the opportunity to play in a lot of musicals.
Have you taught music ever since leaving University?
I taught for 14 years and then migrated into the Performing Arts Unit, which is a section of the Dept. of Education that does high-end performances with kids in school. I was in charge of the Ensembles Program for 8 years. We auditioned students from all over Sydney for ensemble groups. It was a wonderful time working with very talented youth. During this time I was part of the Opera House Festival Program and ran the State Music Camps.
What made you leave?
I was invited into the Sydney Youth Orchestra to be their General Manager. I only stayed in this role for 18 months as it proved to be more of an administrative role and I craved greater involvement with the kids.
I realised my real passion was to work in schools. Unfortunately I had resigned from the Dept. of Education, so wasn’t able to get a teaching role in a state school. I needed to teach so joined PLC Armidale, which was a lovely job but I missed teaching the boys. I really wanted a teaching role in a state school.
Is that why you came to Bellingen?
It wasn’t quite that easy. I still couldn’t secure a full-time role in the state school system because I’d resigned so many years before. Fortunately a casual position became available at Bellingen High. When a full-time position became available some local women advocated quite fiercely on my behalf with the Education Dept. The rest is history.
Is it true that you managed to shake up the musical education in Bellingen overnight?
I certainly wasted no time. During my earliest days in Bellingen, (prior to my employment at the High School) Lizzie Scott and I were igniting the primary school music program. So when I started in my role at the High School I would literally ‘nab’ any year 7 students who came through the younger music program. There was some scepticism about my chances of getting the local music to any real level of success. This only piqued my determination.
What is your secret to success with the students?
It is a team approach. We have such a wonderful team of music teachers in the Bellingen Shire. We have so much support, mutual admiration and respect for each other. This is a key to our success. We are working together on this exciting musical project. There is no room for the ego- it would ruin it all.
These days our musical project has more than 15 music teachers across the many primary schools (Bellingen, St Marys Bellingen, Urunga, Orama, Chrysalis, Raleigh and Repton) and then into Bellingen High School. The younger children are being infused with a love of music- the high school teachers pick up these children and run with it. My high school team has grown as our musical project attracts good teachers. The team includes Susan McGowan,Pru Borgert, Peter Morgan, Jacquie Gill, Natasha Dyason, Kate Butcher and Amber Davis, formerly of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Do you think Bellingen is quite a unique region in which to teach music?
Absolutely. This town has always supported the arts. It was waiting to happen. The culture here was artistic. I was just the lucky one who walked through the door at the right time. And there is a culture in the town of learning instruments. This culture means we have the essential support from the parents and peers and the kids realise they are part of something big.
So after 15 years are you satisfied with the music project you started?
I’m blown away. It has definitely snowballed. We now have 70 members of the Bellingen Youth Orchestra, 36 in the String School and a Sinfonia Group made up of a smaller section of our orchestra.
This is all my dreams come true. I love working with these kids. If I tell them its possible, they trust me right to the end. I’m honoured to have their trust. Now when I put together the program for this year, I think to myself: “We will do Dvorack New World Symphony.” To be able to pull off such major works in such a small town with kids is extraordinary. But they always rise to each new challenge, so there is no reason to believe that the performance will be anything but fantastic.
You must be very proud of the achievements of the senior students?
They are phenomenal. We are only one of two state high schools in this area that offer the more advanced music course to our HSC students. This is only possible because we have established such a wonderful standard of performance. Our students are true musicians.
This last group that did the HSC formulated their own programs and designed everything that they were doing. They were fully engaged. They also act as mentors to the younger students, which is so important to the cohesiveness of an orchestra. They become true leaders.
Can you tell us what to expect at the ‘Fighting Fires with Music’ Concert?
You should really be asking the talented members of our Sinfonia Group. They have out together the program and along with our administrators Sonja Stephen and Rainee Heron, have driven this initiative.
I do know that the night will be thoroughly entertaining. The students have been working so hard. The program they have designed is wonderful. The musicians will be joined by the Bellingen High School HSC Drama Group, who will perform their group piece, which was nominated for ‘On Stage’.
There will also be an Online Auction that has dozens of items donated by local businesses. We are living in a wonderfully generous community.
So can we expect many more years with you at the helm?
I certainly have no plans for retirement. I love what I do. Mind you, my mother always said: “Darling, one of the most important things in life is to know when to leave.”
I think we can all agree, it isn’t time yet!!
‘Fighting Fires with Music’ Tickets: CLICK HERE
On-line Auction closes February 3rd: CLICK HERE