Grow The Music: Meet The Pair Teaching Music to Outback Communities

Emily White (L) and Lizzy Rutten


SOME of us end up in work that we could never have imagined when we were younger.

Emily White was a music teacher in Melbourne and Lizzy Rutten was an operating theatre technician and musician in Canberra.

Both Lizzy and Emily separately took on jobs in remote communities in the Kimberleys, and both held music lessons after working hours.

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After finishing their respective jobs, they returned to Canberra, and, after six months, became restless.

They developed a program together to allow them to travel and teach music, but, as Lizzy said, “We knew what we wanted to do but we had little idea how the program would be executed.”

Luckily, a phone call took them to Balgo in the Tanami Desert in Western Australia for five weeks.

Emily and Lizzy sold up everything to go, and took two band members and a trailer full of donated equipment with them.

Those five weeks became three years of work and set the scene for establishing “Grow the Music”, a program designed to grow music leaders and support musicians in regional and remote communities.

Emily said the idea came from a dream for a system for music education.

Working with remote community members led them to realise that Aboriginal children learned music by jamming and listening, or “learning by doing”.

They conducted ‘participant-led’ programs which attracted community members from preschoolers to Elders.

One very successful initiative involved working with children aged 14+ to increase school attendance rates.

Emily said there is now a huge demand in schools for workshops to engage Indigenous and migrant kids.

Grow the Music has also been offered in schools on the Coffs Coast and across New South Wales.

Classes range from creating and playing recycled instruments (with “tyre drumming” now a signature workshop) to nature walks.

The programs are usually in response to community requests and each program ends with a community concert.

Lizzy and Emily still gather instrument donations and they often leave a stocked band room behind.

Instrument care and maintenance are part of their programs and they train community ‘music leaders’ who keep the programs going.

Recently, Grow the Music travelled to the Northern Territory to conduct workshops at the Gunbalanya School.

Primary school students practised drumming and vocal skills while improving their collaboration skills.

Secondary students learned about the fundamentals of rhythm and melody using the rock band instruments and were invited to develop skills in songwriting and recording.

Some performed original songs at the culminating community concert.

The process of writing to performing was filmed as a resource for other programs.

Locally, Grow the Music has recently finished the outfitting of a purpose-built studio in Toormina to bring music leaders to record.

Lizzy said that they began with a makeshift vocals booth, in which Jack Thompson recorded an advertisement, the money from which enabled the construction of a permanent booth, followed by the rest of the studio.

They are currently recording an album for one of their Aboriginal bands called “The Docker River Band” and country music artist Warren H. Williams is recording an album in collaboration with Julianne Croft.

They feel that Grow the Music is becoming a production house for Indigenous and migrant musicians and sound technicians – one of their aims is to encourage women to be sound engineers.

Emily said, “We call ourselves an inter-generational music development program, from preschool through to adulthood.

“It’s a community well-being program,” she said.


By Andrew VIVIAN

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