Educator Interview: Phil Pratt – Head of Music, Trinity College NSW

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Phil Pratt is originally from Bristol in the UK. He moved to Australia in 1991 and has become a permanent fixture on the Music Education scene ever since. He is now the longest serving Music HOD in NSW. Not only has he taught hundreds of children around the world, his own daughter, Jessica Pratt, is also an internationally renowned Soprano and his son Daniel has just been appointed lecturer in music technology at the London College of Music. Music truly is in the Pratt family’s blood.

So Phil, How did you get into Music before you became a Music Educator?

There was always music in the family. My Mother played the Piano, my father was a singer, although he passed away when I was only 6, but I can vividly remember him singing. At school, I had reading difficulties. And it wasn’t until my second year in Junior school, the class teacher I had was a music teacher. He realised I was really interested in singing, and through working with him on singing I started to be able to read, easily.

Music text or normal text?

Both. The teacher had asked my mum to get me singing lessons, and I sang in various choirs, and then my first instrument was the French Horn. But like many boys at the time, the Rugby field was calling me as well. I ended up in one of those beautiful situations where I was going to audition for a bunch of musical colleges on my horn, but I came out of a scrum with a broken nose, two teeth missing and a fractured skull. That was the end of my horn playing! So I auditioned for voice and conducting instead, and I actually got offered a places at a number of music colleges, but my mum decided that ‘No, that wasn’t for me, ‘ and took the advice school teachers who said “let him do teaching, good second string to his bow.’ I ended up in Devon on the old joint Music & Teaching course provided through the relationship between Rolle Exmouth College and Dartington College studying to became a teacher.. although I spent more time in the bar than the library.

Career Highlights in the UK?

At 23, I became the youngest head of department in the UK, at a social priority school of around 3000 students (but with a total retainment in the two senior years of 80 students). It was a re-housing area. We ended up having 400 in the choir because I asked  them “ Who wants 3 days off school for rehearsals?” We had a musical “Mary Contrary” written for the school and an Opera friend of mine, Gillian Knight,  an internationally celebrated ‘Carmen’ agreed to sing the lead role. To accompany the choirs we had the Royal Marines Staff band Flag Officer Plymouth and Richard Baker, the famous UK Newscaster and ‘Voice of the Proms’ came to narrate. So it was very successful and took on a life of its own. I went over to another comprehensive school where one of the alumni was Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols!

Fast Forward, How did you end up in Australia?

Mrs. (Margaret) Thatcher, bless her, changed the funding of schools, so they took the money from the local authorities and gave it directly to the head teachers so they could spend it on what they wanted, and most of the head teachers in the UK decided that Music and the Arts were frivolous and they weren’t going to spend it on that, so the positions of Music adviser and Music Services in Schools provided by Local education authorities disappeared like that! I’d been working my whole career towards working in the advisory field, so we took a gamble and  moved the family to Australia.
5 weeks before we left the UK, I got a call from a Father O’Neill in Toowomba and was asked to interview for the Director of Music position at Downlands College. Bit of a shock coming from a large metropolitan city to Toowomba but it was a great experience.
I sang in a locally produced musical playing a father, and luckily the woman who played the part of my wife was a speech therapist, so she was able to help me produce an Australian accent! I found the whole process really fascinating and it ended up influencing a lot of my teaching and singing.

Given that you have done all these things in schools, all around the world now, how do you keep yourself interested or motivated, how do you keep the inspiration up?

There’s one thing I noticed early on my career, there were teachers that taught for 30 years but had one year of experience, and teachers who had taught for 30 years, who had 30 years of experience, because they didn’t sit down and do the same thing the next year.  There is not one method to go through, for example, if I’m teaching voice, you have to listen to that voice, you have to hear what that individual student is doing, and ask yourself ‘what do we have to do to free that voice up?’.  I could use the analogy of a golf swing: There might be 28 different things you need to focus on in a split second. But there isn’t possibly a ‘perfect’ golf swing, because we’re all physically different, so we can’t possibly swing (or sing) the same way. It’s all about releasing the mind, which in turn releases the body.

What’s your method of engaging students that are perhaps not engaged?

Listening to them. Both their voice and their thoughts and opinions. A lot of people are quite defeatist. I use a mirror in my singing teaching like a lot of music teachers do. Mirrors are a powerful tool. Most of us go past a mirror in the morning, and we see things we don’t like. Why can’t we use the mirror to emphasise what we do like? I make students look in the mirror and say their name followed by ‘I love and accept you just the way you are’. We can use Mirrors in powerful ways as well as negative ways, and most of the time we use them in negative ways, so teach students to like what they see so it becomes a positive experience.

Despite your long association with the classical canon, and your reputation as an Opera Singer, you wholeheartedly embrace music technology. 

Yes, because it enables access. If Mozart or Bach had this technology available, they would have used it and just imagine the output they would have got. For students it supports experimentation, be it Classical, Rock, Pop or whatever you want to call it. We do EDM with the kids in year 8, I’m not a computer whiz but I can use the Ableton Live software, badly, but it doesn’t matter.  You go into a classroom, there might be 20 brains in that classroom, use them all! I get the kids to show me how to use it. You have to let the kids believe that they can do it. The teacher doesn’t need to be the most important person in the room.  With a year 10 class, I often just open up the room and let them get on with it.  The longer I’ve taught, the less teaching I’ve done!

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