Beat of the Bush ends on a high, with plans to return

Those among the 750-strong audience at the Beat of the Bush final concert at the Tenterfield High School MPU on Friday night are well aware of the fantastic opportunity the Cuskelly College of Music handed Tenterfield.

It was standing room only in the packed hall, which is probably still buzzing from the performances from the college's pupils young and not-so-young and its instructors. They came from around the world to our little town for one week to deliver international-grade teaching to music students of all levels in a variety of genres.

The concert was the finale of a week of events which included nightly free concerts and other opportunities for community members to join in, including the Big Chilly Sing community choir on the first Sunday.

Director James Cuskelly said the college convenes a number of 'Big Sings' around the traps, including the Big Sing in Brisbane and the Big Spring Sing in Toowoomba. This was the inaugural Big Chilly Sing.

He would liked to have seen more locals participate, to sing along with the choirs that travelled in from Toowoomba, Caboolture, Brisbane and elsewhere, but appreciates that this year people would be a little uncertain of what Beat of the Bush was all about.

"Those people (the visiting choristers) now have a connection with Tenterfield," he said.

Just about to move into a weekend retreat he's building in the far north of the shire, Dr Cuskelly was seeking a way to bring the highly-popular Brisbane week-long music schools to benefit a community struggling with the drought. He was also keen to give rural children the same access to world-class music instruction and, fortunately for us, Tenterfield was chosen.

A huge volunteer effort made the event possible this time, along with some grant funding to drastically reduce tuition fees. Through her role as community liaison officer for The Sir Henry Parkes Memorial Public School, Kim Rhodes met Dr Cuskelly and his team and volunteered to be the onsite liaison person for Beat of the Bush.

With the challenge of feeding 160 people a day and countless other organising tasks still fresh in her memory, she said next year's event would require a committee effort, but has been pleased by the number of people keen to participate.

With a year's worth of planning and grant applications ahead to bring the event back to town, the committee will hit the ground running so anyone wishing to help should contact Mrs Rhodes.

Dr Cuskelly is also keen to see Beat of the Bush return to Tenterfield next year and said he has already booked the teachers, a necessary step given their busy schedules.

The UK's Peter Churchill is a regular jazz instructor at the summer schools and admitted he had to look up Tenterfield when informed he was coming here for the winter school, but the way he engages with students makes him a valuable resource.

He has a philosophy of teaching the kids 'musicianship' regardless of the genre or instrument they choose to play.

"You don't put music into kids by giving them an instrument," he said.

He orchestrated the entire school body's rendition of Tenterfield Saddler to close the concert (as well as performing a jazz concert, along with vocalist Kate Schirmer, at the School of Arts earlier in the week), bringing a tear to the eye of many including Dr Cuskelly.

The series of free evening concerts at the School of Arts was very well-attended, with what Dr Cuskelly called 'the groupies' coming along for many if not all of them. Dr Cuskelly thanked council, saying it was the perfect venue for these sorts of concerts.

Inverell farmer Helen McCosker was instrumental in making Beat of the Bush a reality. Her children are veterans of the summer schools which have been running in Brisbane for 30 years (nine years under the Cuskelly banner) and she was keen to see it come to a rural area, and put in the hard yards to make it a reality.

Some funding was secured through Hunter New England Health's People's Bank for drought relief, with more through the FRRR (Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal). It was $20,000 as opposed to the $150,000 requested, but Mrs McCosker said this was understandable given the event was an unknown quantity.

She said they will be reapplying and, given the success of the inaugural effort, hopes to receive the support the event deserves.

It was all well-worth it, she said. Compared to their city counterparts the students here may have been starting raw, but she said they blossomed by the end of the week, achieving a similar standard. She feels they benefited from being drawn out by the quality surrounding them, in both their instructors and visiting students.

Dr Cuskelly agreed, saying the city kids are no more talented, they've just had access to talented teachers over the years.

The benefits were multi-fold with several of the teachers coming to Tenterfield also commenting that the experience expanded their repertoire and built on their skill set.

Parents raved about how much the school did for their children. Jenny Petrie said her youngest balked at the idea of attending any sort of school during the holidays, but one day at the Cuskelly music school had her itching for more.

Andrew Bates thanked all the teachers on behalf of the parents, saying he wished there had been such an opportunity when he was younger. As it was he had to restrain himself from joining in rehearsals when collecting his children.

"I was singing down the back," he said.

Mrs Rhodes said one of the most endearing sights was world-renown pianist Professor Gilbert de Greeve helping a starting pianist perfect her rendition of Mary had a little lamb during class. Prof de Greeve now heads off on a national concert tour.

"I would open up the MPU at about 5:30am every morning and in would walk Gilbert, firstly to practice but mainly to give half-hour private lessons to the children," Mrs Rhodes said.

"A world-famous pianist from Belgium right here in Tenterfield, taking the time to share his magnificent skills."

Other noted international tutors making up the team of 20 included tutors Lucinda Geoghegan from Scotland and Vicky Sayles from England.

Although she said she'd never worked so hard in her life, Mrs Rhodes appreciated the friendships made with people from all over the world.

"But most of all it's the smiles as the children faces running in off the buses each morning, and the playing of music and singing during their lunch breaks that really let you know just how good this idea really was.

"Gee I'm glad I jumped on the bus."

Some of the teachers involved have already committed to monthly visits to Tenterfield and Stanthorpe, with woodwind lessons to become available.

The NSW Education Department's educational leadership director Matt Hobbs is himself a veteran of music schools and concerts in his youth, and said he would also welcome back Beat of the Bush for next year.

"Tenterfield High School needs an extension for next year for the influx of people," he said.

"We'll see what we can do."

He complimented school principal Sandra Rosner, deputy principal Toni Skewes and general assistant Chris Coker on the enormous effort they invest in hosting the winter school.

CWA, Lions and Rotary volunteers assisted Mrs Rhodes with catering. Peter Harris and Brad Phillips managed lighting and sound at the various venues, adding to the professionalism of the outcome.

You certainly didn't need to be the parent of a student to enjoy the entertainment on offer.

Mrs Rhodes is confident that any surge in student numbers can be accommodated, with the resources of the public school also available. This year groups secured accommodation throughout the motels in town, and local businesses reported a lift in sales over the course of the week.

"This event is going to come back to Tenterfield if we want it to," Mrs Rhodes said.

"We will fill the motels and have everyone buying petrol and buying food.

"I certainly wouldn't mind a dollar for every coffee and hot chocolate purchased at our coffee shops over the last eight days."

Dr Cuskelly said bring the right people, and the people will come.

"My heart lies in the country, and it's a privilege to be back with you," he told Friday night's audience.

He was impressed that only four of the young students who signed on for Beat of the Bush decided it wasn't for them and withdrew before the end of the week. He was expecting more, given how foreign the whole experience would be for the uninitiated.

Of the final count of 126 students (not counting 21 from the University of Qld) they came from Brisbane (6), Mudgee (1), Cessnock (2), Texas (5) and one each from Mudgee, Emerald and Bonshaw and another half-dozen from Glen Innes. The remainder came from Tenterfield and the Granite Belt surrounds.

There were also mature-age students, extending the age range from seven years to 50 (although a few even younger seemed to have slipped in).

"In fact one of these students flew in from Kenya to join," Mrs Rhodes said.

"He told me as soon as he saw the winter school music program online he started making arrangements to come to Tenterfield. Ryan had been taught by Dr Cuskelly some 10 years ago in England and had learnt so much, he knew these workshops would once again assist him to become a better musician and music tutor back home in Kenya."

A highlight for Dr Cuskelly was the rendition of Tenterfield Saddler which closed the week.

"Tenterfield Saddler is deeply personal for me," he said.

"It tells the story of all of us country kids who couldn't do what we needed to do. It's full of nostalgia and angst."

Dr Cuskelly said he anticipated that the community may not know what was in store for it, hence all the free events. Now they've had the free taster, however, start saving pennies to fully enjoy next year's program.

"I expect it to become a regular event, and I hope more and more will want to come."