Maestro passionate about the value of education to music

THE conductor, pianist and educator Richard Gill had a musically stunted childhood but somehow ended up working with virtually every opera and orchestra in Australia. After 50 years in the business, however, he's still wondering where he fits.

''I'm basically a peg for which no hole has been found,'' he writes in his memoir, Give Me Excess of It.

The insecurity has its roots in childhood. For the first son of a salesman and a housewife, there was initially no money for the music lessons he craved. At school, a sadistic Catholic brother caned him for tinkering with a piano. Then, aged 13, he received his first piano lesson.

But when the eager Gill took his place at the keyboard, the teacher looked at his hands and screamed - they were covered in warts. ''It was the closest in my entire school life that I had ever come to crying,'' he says.

Gill did manage to learn piano, accelerating through the syllabus and battling his way into the then New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, only to have his dream of being a concert pianist snuffed once and for all. The best he could hope for was a career in teaching.

''It was all far too late,'' he says. ''I have spent the last 30 years trying to catch up. If you don't have the very early training in all the fundamentals, you do really start off behind the eight ball.''

Does he sometimes dream of what might have been had he started the piano earlier? ''Oh, yes. I think it would have been a completely different story. I would have gone down a different path. I wouldn't have been a teacher.''

Many might say that would have been Australia's loss. As an educator, Gill has been passionate, energetic and, at times, controversial. He has worked and studied in the US, Britain, and with the German composer Carl Orff in Salzburg. He has a clutch of awards for services to music. Right now he is vocal about getting music taken seriously in schools under the proposed national curriculum.

There is, he says, much support to get music into kindergartens. ''We are not interested in making Mozarts, but we want all children to have the opportunity to play music properly.''

He pulls no punches when speaking of the stupidity of standardised testing and the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy, which he labels ''complete rubbish''.

''It's a matter of what your priorities are. Investing in music is investing in minds, in creativity. Music teaches children how to concentrate, how to stay focused. If you invest seriously you give them productive minds and a productive life and the return to the country is tenfold.''

Gill's bluntness has its admirers but has made enemies, too. His memoir is dotted with old hurts, particularly in opera. He recalls conducting a performance of Puccini's Turandot in the early '90s, only to find an entire aria had been removed from the score; sabotage by an enemy, he believes.

Similarly, he felt his role as founding music director of Victorian Opera attracted backstabbing, though he insists they are parting ways at the end of the year on good terms. ''Seven years is long enough. The company is at the top of its game and I want to hand it over in good shape.''

Reopening old wounds for the memoir was, at times, ''very painful''. He wrote it on request from a publisher who heard him lecture on music education - it is what's igniting him now.

On the verge of 70 Gill still speaks like a teacher, answering questions concisely or with a simple, clipped ''correct!'' And educating is what Gill plans to do for years to come. On Monday night he conducted the Sydney Symphony as part of its Discovery series, taking the audience on a guided tour of Mozart.

''It's simply a matter of devoting time to it. We don't have background novels so why have background music?''

Gill is glad to be returning to Sydney, where his family is. ''We have a designated music room and the grandchildren come and dance and sing and play for hours in there. It's home.''

Give Me Excess of It is published by Pan Macmillan, RRP $49.99.

This story Maestro passionate about the value of education to music first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.