Last month, I was part of co-organising a 100-musician strong team from staff, students, and alumni the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to attend the Global Climate Strike on the 20th of September. It was such a wonderful day and stands out in my memory as one of the happiest and proudest i've been to harness the power of our collective musical consciousness to generate action and awareness. Here are some gorgeous photographs by Tony Ling on what an exciting, and hopeful day that was for many of us, as we continue to take actions, and work to speak out for others who can't. Below the photographs, I include a small personal essay I wrote expressing the frustration that I was feeling in the leadup to the strike.
“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me,” we used to chant at school to “bullies”. I found it challenging to believe then, and I find it challenging to believe now. Words are powerful and dangerous and I have been hurt by them - indirectly.
The “bully” here is much larger, and more invisible. In this personal story, I attempt to give it form, but I am reluctant to blame or point fingers, because this issue is within our system.
When I was eight years old, it was the year 2002.
I was a new girl at school, a young immigrant in this country, Australia – I was shy, anxious and described as having social issues in my school reports. I was bullied at my first primary school in Singapore for not speaking Chinese well enough, then I was bullied when I moved to Sydney for not speaking English well enough. I had moved schools five times already, in Singapore & within Sydney.
It was at Cammeray Public School when I first heard about something called climate change or global warming. I was horrified and wrote it down in my school book, along with everyone else in my class – horrifying facts – and suggestions – which we all as students followed. “Turn off lights on earth day. Take shorter showers. Recycle paper.” Even then as a child I had a funny feeling – these were not very good answers, nor did they address the problem very well.
I made a picture book about the droughts in class. It was called: The Great Sponge – it was a big magic sponge in the sky that could absorb up all the water so that we could make it rain again, and save the endangered animals. I got a good work card, and class continued as usual.
I also wondered about where the Aboriginals in Australia were, who I knew to be the first inhabitants of this land. We did dot paintings about how they lived at one with the land, and learned that their art celebrated the land. But where were they in our neighbourhood?
Instead of answers to these questions, we moved onto other subjects, of which there are many in school – maths, science, etc. I studied dutifully but I already knew what I wanted to do – to play music – because it was the only thing that gave me pleasure, and made me feel peaceful, and helped me make sense of the noise – that is, the news, the facts that we were learning, the endangered animals, our burning and drying country – and gave me a purpose for connecting with people on a non-verbal level which I appreciated – words for me were extremely difficult.
The flute had a pretty sound, and it reminded me of birds, the wind, nature, and could tell stories about life, and humans. It turned air into good vibrations. You could play a song from anywhere in the world – it was like talking to grownups from the past who knew secrets about life who wanted to tell me something – You’ll be OK!
I wrote these stories in my diaries every night, and then told my parents that I would audition for the Conservatorium of Music High School when I was 10.
It was a very logical and conscious choice on my part - in my diary, I have written many versions of this:
“Music connects us to each other. Music tells stories about nature, and her beauty. Music organises the noise, and helps me make sense of the world.”
So when I was 12, I entered the Conservatorium High School. I learned more facts about global warming in my geography class with Mr Mew in textbooks in which horrific facts lay next to extinct animals, and then I went to go play more music. I did what I was told in school, and on the surface all was well - but my friends, family, teachers were completely unaware of what my inner world was like. When I went home from school, I watched the 6pm news - the tsunamis, the bushfires, increasing terrorism, and did not feel like eating. I lost weight, lost my period, and went to the doctor, but I knew exactly why.
“Art serves humanity.” My conductors and teachers from NSW State band camps, my flute teachers, our musical ancestors from all corners of the earth taught me this well. But going to the opera, playing in youth symphony orchestras, I could not feel more separate from the world around me, and steadily I also felt the burn of competitiveness in the department tearing down my love of playing.
When I was 16, I thought that music would not help me achieve the goals that I wanted, which were to do something tangible to help others. My parents, confused as to why I wanted to go to another school, suggested I audition for a music scholarship at SCEGGS Darlinghurst, an independent girls school.
I felt sad to leave the Con high. I wrote in my diary:
“I hate myself for leaving my friends. I don’t want any new friends. I just want to do something meaningful.”
At SCEGGS, I continued my learning, and my sadness grew, together with my guilt and shame. The dissonance that I felt inside grew on a steady boil. At SCEGGS, more wonderful teachers taught us about the inequality in society and the very recent history of feminism and racial equality movements, and the air continued to vibrate loudly around me, and I continued to play the flute.
The cracks we see now on the walls did not appear overnight – they have been here for millennia.
“Was art the solution to glue this back together?” I turned back to music for answers. She became my constant companion, and I played out my sorrow and joy in living, and felt pleasure in connecting the disparate facts of my privileged world with the world of pain of the voiceless ones suffering around me: via sound, expressing the inexpressible.
By the time I was in year 12, I had dropped all other subjects except English, Visual Arts, Biology and Music – Biology to continue learning about our beautiful planet earth, and Art, English and Music so I could continue to keep drawing, writing, and making music. I graduated in the year 2011 on the Dean’s list, and didn’t want to tell my friends about my good marks except the ones who asked because I felt ashamed, and frustrated. I felt like it didn’t mean a thing. Numbers don’t tell you about the quality of your life – your actions do, and so I continued to play the flute.
The air around me continued to vibrate with pain, ringing in my ears.
Today I am a freelancer and a musician teaching children, teenagers and now other tertiary students and adults in and around Sydney, the Con, the Australian Institute of Music. When I am together with other people, the family and friends I have, I feel peaceful, and strong – my life is meaningful, but I am dying inside faster than I wish to be. The dissonance in the air gets stronger day by day.
I feel like a phony – isn’t the role of a teacher meant to be to create the conditions for future children to thrive?
The world is topsy turvy right now, but even if I didn’t have the tools to speak out as a child, at least the school children of today are, and they are rallying on the streets (next Friday 20th September, exactly a week from now School Strike 4 Climate). They are joined by many other adults, including first nations people, migrants, refugees, LGBTQIA, and many of you have already shown your support. But one Friday is not enough to create the change that we need. What we need is an ongoing conversation.
I ask us to make sense of this noise, as artists, as humans with a common language.
If art doesn’t serve humanity, then what is the point?
How do we continue to live with this cognitive dissonance?
It is not enough for me to simply play music anymore, and so today I am adding my words and colours to the vibrations in the air. I hope you will join me.