Improvising tradition: the expanding Conservatorium

An integral but often overlooked part of music, improvisation once again takes centre stage at the Con

An abstract drawing of a saxophonist with the conservatorium in the background Artwork by Annie Zhang

The Sydney Conservatorium of Music was established in 1915 by Henri Verbrugghen, a Belgian conductor and violinist. It was opened with the aim of “providing tuition of a standard at least equal to that of European Conservatoriums.”  In what was formerly the Government House stables, the ‘Con’ attracted musical talent from across Australia with its first intake of 320 students in 1916. “It was a purely ‘classical’ place,” said my former piano teacher, Gerard Willems, who studied there in its earlier years and continued as a teacher for a total of thirty-seven years. “Jazz wasn’t around.”

Australia first became acquainted with jazz after the international sensation caused by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1918. Already since the 1890s, Australia had been exposed to African American music, such as spirituals and ragtime, but it was in 1918 when the first known jazz group appeared, a comic vaudeville act formed by Billy Romaine with Belle Sylvia as the singer. It was also at this time that references to jazz began appearing in Australian entertainment journals as the ‘new American craze.’ Lacking its own roots in Australian culture, the popularity of jazz music grew alongside the rise of social dancing, despite vehement opposition from the conservative thinkers—even though jazz was the blanket name for popular music at the time, the very term seemed to evoke a sense of exoticism, and musical and social transgression, which conservatives considered to be morally crude and socially undesirable. But less diluted styles of jazz began to appear, largely supported by emerging jazz clubs and societies.

With the emergence of the record industry in the 1920s — the so-called “Jazz Age”— Australians began to have access to American records, from both white and black groups. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that Australians began to absorb the work of leading African-American jazz musicians. Having access to the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and later Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, exerted great influence over Australian jazz musicians — the Australian Jazz Quartet was formed in 1953 with American saxophonist and bassist Dick Healey, and together they recorded ten albums and appeared alongside Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, backed Billie Holiday, and performed at Carnegie Hall. Going into the 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll was gaining popularity amongst youth, and the public seemed to lose interest in jazz. But the 1970s saw a resurgence of jazz music.

There was one thing that had a lot to do with it—the inception of the jazz course at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1973. If not to further “legitimise” jazz as music worth studying at tertiary level, and pursue as a career, the course at the Conservatorium would help to streamline the sound heard throughout Sydney, which would later emerge as a distinctive Australian voice.

The Conservatorium continued to expand, offering musicology, music education, and composition as well as classical and jazz performance. This was realised by Rex Hobcroft, director of the Conservatorium between 1972-82, as a complete ‘Music University’ in which various musical disciplines enriched each other. Since then, the teaching methods — private lessons à la “master and apprentice” and traditional class structures — have continued, but an expanded curriculum requires a broader style of teaching. For example, the gamelan performance elective relies only on listening and imitating to learn the instrument; and jazz students are able to explore their own forms and styles during class performances. The Eurocentric focus of the Conservatorium, ingrained in its very conception, began to give way to other traditions. Reflecting this change, the jazz course, introduced as an Associate Diploma, was changed into a two-year diploma when the Conservatorium was remodelled in the early 1990s, and finally became a Bachelor’s degree around 1998, at which point further postgraduate options also became available.


At the core of any musical practice is tradition and improvisation. While classical music pedagogy has mostly weeded out improvisation, focusing instead on tradition and leaving “stylised” improvisation to the historically informed practitioners, the Conservatorium has again broadened to introduce the Creative Music and Improvised Music degrees. I was particularly interested in the latter, which, according to the course description, gives students with “a high level of musical performance experience and come from diverse backgrounds” the “opportunity to direct high-level technical and musical frameworks and contribute to collaborative music-making.” The necessity of the course perhaps lie in the growing divide between “free” and “traditional” jazz. Craig Scott, Senior Lecturer of Jazz Studies and double bassist, says that in in spite of the changing jazz landscape, the jazz course remains ever relevant, saying “it’s about developing a unique professional and artistic voice that is later retained or discarded, according to the individual”.

But more than traditional jazz, non-Western musical traditions are taking an increasingly important role in free improvisation. Speaking on the ethno-musical influences on the jazz course, Craig says they’re especially prominent in the postgraduate level, recalling back a student’s thesis exploring how Arabic music modes could be applied to jazz. “There is nothing formally studied in the way of improvisation from other cultures in the jazz degree, but we encourage familiarity and it is about developing a unique voice.”

But maybe it is where the jazz course lacks formal study does the improvisation course find its relevance. Reflecting on the new course, Craig says:

“It was developed, as far as I know, to give people an opportunity to look at a cross-section of improvisation across different cultures. There isn’t the same emphasis on jazz improvisation, of course, as there is in the jazz course, and there are different approaches to improvisation…If you were learning to play Indian music, for example, you would probably spend about five years learning mantras before even touching an instrument, and you’ll sound like you are playing that music. The significance is giving people the tools and knowledge to bring something unique to the table.”


To find out more about how traditional study can lend to students the ability to self-actualise their own interests, I spoke to Jack Stoneham, a graduate of the Jazz Performance Honours degree who focuses on free improvisation. I know him as someone who methodically isolates the elements of music, whether specific rhythmic patterns or harmonic possibilities, and practices them as tools for improvisation. Talking about practice with him, you cannot help but begin to question the common perception of jazz being a totally mysterious performance of frantic romance. Rather, you learn that the illusion of improvisation is conjured by structure and a continuous process of conscious decision-making, based on years of learning and practice. I learnt that improvisation is not necessarily “random” and only heard from musical geniuses, but that it is learned and fundamentally requires a deep understanding of harmony and solidity of rhythmic feel. Speaking about the Improvised Music degree and about moving away from strict traditional forms of improvisation, Jack admits:

“It is difficult to say but maybe the thing about playing either of these two languages [traditional and free jazz] in Australia is that both have their origins in a time period and historical context that is quite removed from living in Australia. As an Australian playing jazz I don’t think I can ever have the same connection to jazz as someone from its origin who has experienced the context that gave rise to it.”

He mentions how many Australian classical musicians seem totally invested in recreating the European sound and influence as much as possible. I have found this to be true. While a student has some autonomy in their choice of repertoire, the process of learning the music is more about exploring the composer’s experiences and intentions rather than one’s own.

“I think it is not possible to do in the same way that the people did at the time it was created in their own context. Perhaps the benefit of a degree that does not seem to focus on a genre, rather the act of improvising, is that rather than try to teach students to position themselves in a language that they may or may not be connected to, geographically and contextually, it may instead encourage students to create their own shared language which is perhaps more directly related to their current experience and context.”


In the walls of the Conservatorium, one often forgets one’s own context. It is, of course, a place of tradition. But it is not quite Australian tradition, but rather an adoption of others. In the style of European institutions, the classical stream of the Conservatorium preserves the music of past geniuses, carried on by generations of new performers, who learn to communicate the composer’s voice and intentions, seemingly forgetting that the composers themselves were formidable improvisers and studied composition as well as performance. You need only listen to a Chopin mazurka or certain Beethoven sonatas to feel the strong presence of improvisation within the composition. Even the stream of continuous development in Bach’s works can be understood simply as an improvisatory exercise. It is perhaps presumptuous, but certainly not unreasonable, to hope that the classical students of today could also learn to be composers and improvisers and performers, or anything they would like to be in music, much in the way the great composers were taught — the only difference being that they would be developing and functioning in an Australian context and experience. The Conservatorium may be a complete “music university”, but does it provide a complete “music education”? In choosing a particular discipline of music, one largely misses out on other aspects of music, or at least, they exist only to serve and ‘aid’ the main course of study. In a classical-stream performance degree, the most compositional study a typical student encounters is the weekly harmony homework. Perhaps, then, the value of the Improvised Music degree is that it opens up possibilities of developing Australian jazz and improvised music as a whole in a way not previously entertained by the established pedagogy.

I spoke to Kevin Hunt, Director of the Improvised Music degree. He tells me about the popular Australian band The Necks, formed in 1987. Their set up is deceptively traditional — piano, double bass and a drum kit. But they are an experimental improvisation band that is primarily interested in developmental stasis. In concert they often stay on a single phrase for an hour. The pianist, Chris Abrahams, went to the Con, Kevin says. “He lasted about six weeks.”

Kevin goes on to tell me that Chris couldn’t contemplate playing just bebop or any strict form of improvisation. “He did everything for a while—rock ‘n’ roll, classical—but eventually found his own style of improvisation. He wanted to explore the harmonics in the piano with the pedal down, and how he could manipulate those sounds vertically.” In performances, he would stay on a single note for a long time, but it would all eventually develop, with the trance eventually deepening.

“He’s really the model for this course,” Kevin tells me. “We can no longer expect musicians to have a career in a single form of improvisation. Big bands are no longer important—even though they’re wonderful—and bebop is a bit of a novelty. We’re focused on the individual having a career. But it’s early days.”

What the course does is give an opportunity to develop the students’ individuality because the degree is not centred on a specific musical style or pedagogy. Students in the jazz course are often overloaded and in exams, he says — they tend to overplay. The jazz degree emphasises scales and arpeggios but the common result is “flash scalic patterns but without the rhythm being in line.” Instead, the improvisation course “teaches or works with the individual’s strengths.”

In the first year, students are involved mainly with free playing and clave rhythms — South American rhythms with African influence that form the basis of many musical traditions, from swing, to bossa nova, to salsa. There is a focus on folk melodies and simple songs, using a maximum of three chords in a year, sometimes in a minor key. Typical jazz pedagogy would involve deliberate inundation of harmonic possibilities and their customary usage, but Craig instead seeks to “encourage students to play what they hear.” In terms of free playing, the main focus is on the concept of development. There are six students in each class, and whatever is played is reciprocated or responded to. “In a way it’s like visual art, where you have a colour scheme, you have the essential character but there’s a main design.”

In the second year, students begin to look at specific styles. In the early weeks, for example, they focus on early jazz. The course avoids the predominance of scales in the bebop style —“students will grab a scale and forget what they’re hearing.” Input is purposefully kept to a minimum, unlike the jazz course, so students can focus on what they are doing.

And the third year? “We don’t know what the third year will be. We haven’t written it yet,” he laughed. “But it’ll be steered by the students.”

“The students are developing their own stream of music. It’s about creating phrases that you like, practising those phrases, and listening to how they sound in different areas on your instrument. You have a group of sounds you know before you play. Now, some people may ask, ‘is that improvisation?’ The answer is yes. You have a platform that is developed through improvisation. It’s like Bach extemporising from just six notes. It can be very clear and methodical.”

Essentially, what the degree tries to do, Kevin concludes, is develop the individual’s musical approach — what their own strengths and interests are. It’s not for everyone, but it’s an opportunity for a certain type of student to develop their individuality, because the degree is not centred on a specific musical style or pedagogy. “That’s where we’re going—it’s self-motivated, rather than style-motivated.” Certainly a product of moving times in the Australian jazz scene, the new degree is not just a study of stylistic tropes, but also of self.


The concept of education being structured according to an individual’s own strengths and desires is unbeknownst to me, a classical piano student at the Conservatorium, who has been taught with a strict pedagogy her whole life. I, and most likely many others, grew up with the notion that individual thinking must be earned. You are granted that privilege. The problem is, however, how much of your mind has been conditioned and, in some cases, indoctrinated by preconceived structures. Pedagogical structure is necessary, certainly, to develop the skills necessary to perform your individual ideas, but so often this overpowers the individual. Tradition is a beautiful thing. All musical forms seek to preserve their tradition. But to preserve tradition is not to impose singular mindsets upon individuals, but rather to encourage a mentality of exploration within their context. Tradition itself is formed on such a spirit. If the Conservatorium is to keep such a spirit alive, in any discipline, the Improvised Music degree is certainly a giant step in the right direction.