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Q&A with Director of Programs, Deborah Nicolson

The Song Room’s Director of Programs, Deborah Nicolson was recently interviewed by Artshub for their Education sector news. Below is the Q&A which demonstrates how The Song Room team stand out as performers in their own crafts. What draws them together is the vision that they can be instruments of change. Deborah Nicolson is one of these change-makers. The Song Room’s Director of Programs sheds some light on why she shines a light on Australian children that need it most.

ArtsHub: You are the Director of Programs at The Song Room. What does that mean and what do you do?

Deborah Nicolson: I have overall responsibility for the planning, co-ordination, evaluation and delivery of our programs nationally. I’m also responsible for the support, direction and management of the programs team. That’s the big picture.

In essence it means that once the funding has been approved, I set about turning the idea into reality. I work with our program co-ordinators to instigate the programs, select the Teaching Artists, see how we can develop or enhance the program by linking it in with other opportunities such as performances, look at capacity building such as professional development for the generalist teachers and how we can help each school to sustain its own ongoing arts program. There’s also quality assurance, assessment, reports, liaising with our program partners and getting lots of invitations to see school performances!

How did you get the job and how long have you been doing it?

I was an original member of The Song Room Committee ten years ago and have been involved with the development of the organisation over this period of time and so my role has grown along with the organisation.

What is the secret of the success of The Song Room?

The secret is in “engagement”.

Our strap-line is “engaging young people through creativity” and that’s our core business in all of our programs. I also believe that our program model has a strong foundation. This has three key elements:

Firstly by selecting a diverse range of Teaching Artists whose commonality is an innate ability to engage through the arts with the skills to build a sequential learning, inclusive program. They are people who have an affinity with children and childhood itself. They are perhaps true artisans: practitioners of their craft who have both the expertise and passion for their art form and follow the old “master/apprentice” style of learning by doing. It’s a magical combination.

Secondly, we support our Teaching Artists with program co-ordinators, who build strong relationships with the Teaching Artists and the school staff so there’s a three-way channel of communication to ensure the best possible outcome for the program.

Thirdly, we tailor the program to each individual school taking into consideration the student cohort, the school’s previous experiences and their aspirations.

What is the hardest part of what you do?

Saying NO to a school that asks us for a program in an area or region where we don’t have funding. We know that there are around 7000 schools that meet our criteria in having cohorts of students from disadvantaged backgrounds without access to high participation in the arts; we know that unless pre-service primary teachers have a background in music, for example, the few hours provided to them during their undergraduate degrees cannot adequately prepare them for teaching music in schools.

This means that there are hundreds of thousands of Australian children who do not have access to regular, quality arts education or artistic experiences of any kind. This is very hard to digest, especially in a country like Australia.

What keeps you going in tough times?

It’s the notion that the arts are integral to a child’s whole development and wellbeing and that all children should have the right to artistic experiences.

There’s the constant flow of anecdotal feedback from teachers who surprise themselves by becoming firm advocates for the arts in education having seen our program in action; going out to a visit a school; seeing workshops and performances; the smiles of the children in the photos on my wall.

Personally it’s being grateful for the fact that I was fortunate to have a family who gave me many opportunities to learn to appreciate the arts and the knowledge that the arts do sustain you; the arts have a greater power than sheer entertainment, they fill us with hopes and dreams and take us outside of ourselves and our daily grind!

What stands out as memorable successes in your time at The Song Room?

I’m glad you said successes because it’s too hard to point to one example as there have been hundreds on a continuing basis.

There’s the work with our new arrival and refugee students; seeing how music, dance and drama assists their settlement needs and counteracts the tremendous upheaval including trauma and even torture that they’ve witnessed, giving them opportunities to lift their emotional wellbeing and express themselves.

There’s also the work we’ve done with Indigenous children, tapping into their wealth of cultural heritage and giving them opportunities to enhance their confidence and self-esteem, particularly through story-telling, song-writing and performance.

There are individual students who have found their talents or niche in the arts, children with physical or mental impairments and others with behavioural issues that have discovered a way to express themselves and develop a new-found confidence. We are in the business of good news stories, which is very rewarding.

We’ve been delivering arts programs in schools for many years and now we reach 20,000 children every week around the country. But it’s one thing to instinctively know that these arts programs are benefitting young people, but to have evidence is another thing. That’s what motivated us, several years ago now, to embark upon commissioning the independent research project, and it was a shared appreciation of the importance of evidence-based practice that led to the generous support from the Macquarie Group Foundation to make it possible.

To see the results released this year in the Bridging the Gap in School Achievement through the Arts report was incredible. More than halving school absenteeism, improving literacy by the equivalent of a year and significantly improving social and emotional wellbeing, was more than Brian (Caldwell) or even we expected to see, particularly with the rigorous scientific design of their research.

If you had to pass on the wisdom of experience to those who would follow you in your work, in one word what would that be?

Innovate!

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