When Richard Gill stood at the “pulpit” of Shearer’s Bookshop on Wednesday night, and looked down upon the faces of adoring past students, colleagues, family members and admirers, his first words were, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Of course he was making a joke about the position in which he stood, yet the priestly blessing was also indicative of the tremendous influence his Catholic schooling has had upon his life’s “vocation” – as Australia’s great musical educator.
Richard Gill was there to discuss his memoir, Give Me Excess of It, a title plucked from the first line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a title which Gill went on to elaborate with great humour, was a long time coming. In fact so difficult was it for Gill to find a title for his book that a competition was held on Radio National one day in which such gems as “A Boy and His Piano” and “My Life in Music” were suggested. When he asked his colleague, Mary Vallentine, previously Managing Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and currently Chief Executive Officer of the Melbourne Recital Centre and Chairman of The Australian Youth Orchestra, for title options, she suggested “Tell Someone Who Cares”, indicating the depth of camaraderie and respect they both have for each other!
With his signature self-deprecating humour, Gill regaled us with the story of just how influential the Roman Catholic education system has been in directing the course of his life. The Traditional Latin Mass held him in awe with its pure theatre – the mysterious language, the vestments, the tabernacle, bells and incense smoke, and the choir singing hymns and the plainchant – and all rote learned. This led the young Gill to be desperate to learn the piano and in the absence of one at home and the unlikelihood of one ever appearing, he filled this creative gap by building an altar of his own out of bricks, decorated with jam jars filled with lantana, and seven steps below him, his neighbour, a female, was relegated to Tabernacle duties by banging on some corrugated iron and the chooks became his congregation. When his maiden Aunt Josephine actually genuflected as she walked past his altar on one visit and Gill, feeling his power, suggested he perhaps ought to hear her confession, his mother decided to call a swift end to the altar.
The other influence his Roman Catholic education had on Gill was the harsh teaching methods of the Brothers which Gill referred to as “hit and miss” – the students were hit when they didn’t know an answer. Discipline was based on fear – especially the fear of punishment in hell. To this day, Gill takes umbrage in the lack of opportunities for students to make mistakes and learn from them, to be allowed to improvise, rather than to exactly reproduce a piece of music each time. He attacked the Victorian Department of Education building for the words inscribed above its doorway – “Failure is not an option”. This idea is anathema to Richard Gill and has shaped his whole pedagogical philosophy.
It was because of his relatively late introduction to the piano, and his impatience to amass an extensive repertoire at the expense of technique, that Gill came to eventually acknowledge that he was too far behind his colleagues at the NSW Conservatorium to become what he had always dreamed of becoming – a World Famous Concert Pianist.
But his heart-rending realisation has come to be a blessing to us all. Through Gill’s love of music and his belief in its potent ability to transform lives in education, many students have been introduced to the wide world of music and many teachers have become more confident and emboldened to teach music in Australian schools. He has learned not to be a crusader for exclusive music. As Gill was taught by his own experiences as a teacher, there is good music and bad music no matter the genre. He, himself, once played and sang in a Rock and Roll band, belting out chords whilst standing at a keyboard, and he loves Cabaret. It is his enthusiasm for all music that inspires young children to learn.
Gill chose to write a memoir rather than an autobiography because of his desire to “wax lyrical” about the state of music education in Australian schools, and his dream of one day emulating the fabulous success of Scandinavian schools where the learning of music is mandatory and their music teachers are competent. Gill wants to see the study of music in Australia move away from the proposed National Curriculum towards a National Institute for Music Learning. Gill emphasised that this was not about buildings but rather a network of truly competent musically trained teachers so that children can learn to make their own music. In this he is tireless and his resolve may be seen in the words of a poem frequently quoted by Gill, Tennyson’s Ulysses, especially the last lines which read:
But strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Gill concluded by saying that he was still not sure what he wants to be “when he grows up” but he won’t rest until all children have good access to music education in this country. And I’m sure that all of us seated below Richard Gill’s “pulpit” at Shearer’s Bookshop all responded to his high aims with a resounding inward “Amen”!