Susanne James – Director of Armidale’s New England Conservatorium

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Susanne James started as Director of Armidale’s New England Conservatorium Of Music in October last year, after a 30 career in music education and arts management in Sydney. She told FOCUS that she and her husband, Malcolm, “just slipped into the life here so easily – Armidale is the perfect solution to the insanely hectic lifestyle of Sydney”.

What does your position at NECOM involve?

My role is incredibly varied and certainly keeps me on my toes.

First and foremost, I oversee NECOM’s two campuses – Armidale and Inverell. As a regional non-tertiary conservatorium, we are really a combined music school and performing arts organisation, so my position is a bit like merging the roles of a school principal and a CEO of a small performing arts company. As the only full-time manager in the organisation, there is never a dull moment.

I seem to constantly move between: curriculum, concert and program development; marketing and publicity; fundraising through grants, philanthropy and sponsorship; strategic and business planning with the NECOM Board; and liaising with local and state governments plus the Department of Education and Communities – they are all the fun bits.

However, as with all not-for-profit arts organisations, ensuring the boat stays afloat financially is ongoing. We receive about 35% government and philanthropic funding, so that means we need to find 65% from other sources, mostly tuition fees. Even a 5% shortfall in either area can really effect programs, budgets, resources and staffing – that’s not the fun bit.

The best part of my role is meeting people (I wish there was more time to do that) and creating programs, and the pinnacle is to hear NECOM students perform – our Choral Concert a few weeks back was absolutely breathtaking. That’s why NECOM exists, and that’s why I am here. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A brief history on NECOM and the role it has in our region?

NECOM was established in mid-2003, thanks to the passionate commitment of so many community supporters and Board members, who really believe in the value of music and education. In 2004, its rapid development started off with choral programs, school, teacher and ensemble workshops, and fundraising for instruments. A satellite campus in Inverell was started in 2007, and we now have programs in Armidale, Guyra, Inverell, Walcha and Warialda.

Over the last 8 years, thousands of children, schools, teachers and community musicians have been involved in NECOM’s programs, and we now produce an estimated 22,000 + hours of music tuition annually – that’s a lot of hours for the small population of this region, our small teaching staff and our even smaller management staff.

Our role is focused on providing the highest quality music education, performance training and concerts (and everything in between) to as many children, young people, teachers and adults across the New England region as possible. Our core programs include: early childhood classes; choral, instrumental and ensemble tuition; school and curriculum workshops; professional development programs; masterclasses; and special projects such as Closing the Gap for indigenous students, New England Sings and Chamber Music in your Classroom that tours across the region.

We are constantly fine-tuning and developing programs, and this year we established a Music Therapy Program in Armidale, a STARZ Show Choir in Inverell, and our next big step is to use video-conferencing to take music into as many remote schools and communities in the New England region as possible.

How many teachers do you employ at NECOM, and what are their areas of expertise?

NECOM has 6 permanent string and woodwind teachers and over 10 casual tutors, conductors and accompanists. They are brilliant performers in their own right, and we are incredibly lucky to have these accomplished musicians and teachers here at NECOM.

Tell us about the Heritage Homestead Concert Series?

We will present 3 concerts of beautiful Chamber Music in private heritage homesteads this spring. Chamber Music was written to be performed in intimate and personal spaces, and the stately sitting rooms of the 3 homesteads are ideal for this. These venues are not open to the public, so it’s a pretty special opportunity to visit their gardens in full springtime bloom and to have an exclusive look inside their homes.

This Concert Series has another goal that will bring long lasting outcomes. Proceeds will go towards buying a much-needed piano for our empty ensemble and video-conferencing studio. Our community and video-conferencing music programs really need a piano to get ahead, so everyone attending a Homestead Concert will know that their ticket is going towards this worthwhile project. We will also launch ‘Friends of NECOM’ at our last concert, and I hope that many supporters will join up.

Describe the 3 homesteads that are hosting concerts?

There’s the 1840 Ohio pastoral homestead at Walcha (one of the oldest homes in the New England), the imposing 1908 mansion Chevy Chase designed by Mark Roberts (the architect of Armidale’s St Mary’s Cathedral), and the fabulous Great Hall of Petersons Winery Guesthouse, originally the 1911 Palmerston Homestead of the Dangar family.

The generosity and support of the present owners who have opened up their private homes for our series is amazing.

Have you invited any special guest musicians to play during the concert series?

Absolutely! The charismatic and internationally-acclaimed composer Elena Kats-Chernin will be our very special guest artist – this is a coup for Armidale, and her concert should not be missed. And NECOM violinist Alex Hiew has invited her String Theory colleagues, Patrick Murphy, Cello Performance Fellow at the University of Qld, and pianist Brieley Cutting of The Australian Chamber Musicians, to perform some of the most divine French Chamber Music at Chevy Chase.

How can our readers obtain tickets to the Homestead Concert Series?

As the series is held in small venues, seating is limited, so early booking is advisable.

Buy tickets at NECOM in Armidale (tel: 6773 6419), Dymocks in The Mall and at Frog Crossing at Walcha. Tickets $35 – $45 adults and $30 – $40 concession, with proceeds to the NECOM Piano Fund.

Thanks Susanne.

This story was published in issue 65 of the New England Focus

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