Rhonda Davidson-Irwin: Teacher, Choir Director, Flautist and CEO

“There was a time when I woke up in the morning and went ‘this is the direction for me’”

Brisbane-based teacher, choir director, flautist and Music Australia CEO Rhonda Davidson-Irwin works across a range of music settings in a career which has allowed her to have a significant influence on the shape of the Australian musical landscape.

Raised in a musical family (“folk culture was ingrained in me at a young age”), Rhonda has always loved to perform. She holds an AMusA in flute and piano, as well as a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters (with Distinction) in Music Education. Music education has been a constant of her career. Not only is she herself a music teacher, but she has also developed music programs for cruise ships, music curriculums for primary schools across Queensland, and training programs for music teachers. She explains,

“The power of education has come through as one of the major reasons I’m still in that field today and will continue to be.”

For Rhonda, working across such a variety of educational settings is important to her. She reflects that while she could have been very happy working full-time as a classroom music teacher and conducting children’s choirs, she came to realise that by working across so many facets she could,

“influence more people and that people needed repertoire, needing skills, needed core toolkits to be able to implement music, particularly with limited musical skills.”

Rhonda credits her communications skills as playing a vital role in her success as a teacher and, more broadly, her ability to work with children (“I’m able to nurture the best results from children.”) She explains her communication skills have been particularly useful in nurturing children’s love of music:

“With children that I’ve taught and with children that I’m still teaching, I can see huge benefits in their lives, that music will be a part of their lives.”

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(Photo: Supplied)

Over the past 20 years, Rhonda’s compositions have been featured daily on Australian television. She has composed for a range of children’s television shows, a facet of activity she did not expect to engage in, but is one she finds to be incredibly rewarding:

“Writing for children’s television meant that I could influence even more kids with quality music and songs to sing, because sometimes it’s the only way that, with the national landscape in regards to music education – and only 30 per cent of schools in the country have music teachers – one source of getting good quality songs, and traditional songs, was television.”

Recent pushes to do away with mandates requiring Australian free-to-air stations to air a certain amount of children’s programming are concerning to Rhonda, as she explains:

“I think it’s important that we acknowledge that everyone in Australia who’s grown up in Australia, has grown up with Australian kids’ stories and kids’ songs, and that may not be in the future; as part of their licensing agreement they don’t have to make kids’ TV. However, we know that kids TV is a great platform to move into careers – music careers and television careers – as well as the fact that we have to acknowledge that, even though fewer people are watching television, it’s still a very important medium for families and lower socioeconomic families who can’t have a music teacher but they can hear some great songs.”

Another way through which Rhonda is able to advocate for the future of music in Australia, is in her role at the CEO of Music Australia, a position she took on at the start of 2018, as she reflects:

“That is a big role. It is looking at ways of improving music in all its facets cross the Australian landscape, which is a big ask; however, it’s something that I’m very passionate about to try to keep music alive, from government right to hands-on [sector activity].”

Working across not only a variety of roles, but also across teaching, community and music advocacy sectors can lead to an overwhelming workload. Rhonda explains that while she doesn’t normally suffer from stress, maintaining a good sense of emotional health is vital as,

“I’m really no use to anyone if I don’t look after myself […] I think the difficulty is to switch the mind off because there are so many aspects of my job that need continual thought and need consideration.”

The ability to generate an income solely from music is rare, however, Rhonda has been able to do this for the entirety of her career, getting a job as a classroom music teacher at the completion of her undergraduate degree. She recognises that this is not the case for many musicians, and a lack of understanding around career dynamics impacts negatively on the legitimacy of music as a career and the need to pay musicians,

“It’s so important because without the finance behind it, you can’t do anything […] I think the difficulty is that people sometimes do see music not as a career path; they see it as something that you just do on the side, and that’s always been the challenge for professional musicians. I think we have to value what we pay musicians.”

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(Photo: Supplied)

The digitisation of the music industry has presented one of the biggest challenges for not only Rhonda’s career, but the sector as a whole as she reflects,

“There’s a lot of challenges when it comes to copyright, when it comes to performance, and to creating music, and people are finding that difficult to navigate, and they’re also finding it difficult to make money from it. How do you value a song? And what does that song cost? With downloads and copyright and people being able to instantly get music without paying for it, it goes back to valuing what we do.”

For Rhonda recognising the value of music – both financially and culturally – is critical to supporting the industry into the future,

“People go to concerts; they don’t think about how it happens; they have no understanding; they go to a film; they hear this great music, they watch this great film, but I think it’s that awareness of music and what musicians do and what the aspects of the music industry they are.”