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Remembering Richard Gill

Category: News & Views: Stories to Inspire

Richard Gill with students at Rosamond School in 2015

The public outpouring of grief with the death of Richard Gill over the past week is unprecedented in Australia. Yes, perhaps for a politician or a sportsperson, but for a musician, unapologetically classically-oriented in an age when the demise of such music is regularly touted? This outpouring is evident that so many lives have been touched, so many eyes and ears opened, so much laughter and music has been shared with this great man. I find it fascinating how so many of us have been compelled to share our Richard story – with the sense that this is exactly what he would have wanted.

I recall so clearly having lunch with Richard not long after I had been appointed CEO at Musica Viva in 1999. Richard was then Artistic Advisor to the Musica Viva In Schools program but his main point on the day, delivered with his typically passionate urgency, was that our key task was to find “the next Richard”. Over the years, this was a refrain often repeated… but, I realised, it was ultimately a futile search. No single person could ever encompass the depth of his musical understanding, the excellence of his musical pedagogy, and the breadth of his musical knowledge. There was, and will ever be, only one Richard Gill. 

When I first heard Richard address a schools audience, back in the 1980s when I worked at the Sydney Symphony, I feared that the audience would be put off by what sounded at first like a condescending tone, in which he deliberately articulated each syllable, gently poking fun at the more outrageous responses, urging people to avoid the glib and obvious. Instead, I was quickly drawn into the web he deftly wove, illuminating the music and encouraging all of us to listen with fresh ears. That was my first big lesson from Richard: that listening well to music, in and of itself, was important and that very act offered the active listener an array of intellectual and emotional responses of enormous value to their life overall. 

The second big lesson came many years later, observing him deliver a professional development day for musicians working in the Musica Viva In Schools program. He threw out the fundamental question to all of us: why do this? What outcome are we seeking for the children? For the teachers? For the performers?

After a series of stumbling responses, dismissed with typical Richard wit, he let us in on the answer: to get children to make their own music… and playing on that word, to own music in their lives. It was only when we succeeded in moving children beyond being passive recipients of music into active listeners and participants, that we will have achieved our goals. They would then understand that music is made by real living people, and it was something within the grasp of everyone.

When might that light bulb moment come? This part of Richard’s lesson was critical: it might be during the last concert of 15 performed that week, when the musicians were tired and were sick of travel, and maybe it would be in a hot and airless school hall. But it could be, in that moment, a child’s life would be changed forever.  Not necessarily the bright-eyed child in the front row. It could well be that space cadet in the back who suddenly embraced the moment and realised a new world was there for him/her to grab. Therein lay the responsibility for all of us – to change people’s lives through music - a responsibility Richard took seriously and lived out every day of his career, whether it was through conducting, mentoring, playing, teaching or advocating.

Thank you, Richard, for changing all our lives. I will not be surprised to see a slogan appear soon: ‘What would Richard do?’  It is now our responsibility to carry your legacy forward and never lose sight of the importance of music for everybody.

Written by Mary Jo Capps, CEO of Musica Viva 1999-2018