For the third profile of the Working Lives series, Career Actually tells the inspiring career story of music education innovator Karen Carey. A country girl who won a place at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music (COM), Karen went on to hold the position of Director of Music at MLC School, Burwood, for 24 years. She was the focus of Bob Connolly’s much-lauded documentary film Mrs Carey’s Concert. With unfaltering strength of will, determination, and passion, Karen has given thousands of students the privilege of a musical education.
Growing up in regional New South Wales, Karen loved music from a young age. She learned piano from the nuns in her town, but found there were no opportunities to pursue a thorough musical education at her local school. Unable to take music as a subject for her leaving certificate, Karen immediately applied to the COM to pursue her passion.
I auditioned at the COM and was offered a place. I think they took me on potential, rather than ability. To be honest, when I first started I didn’t even know what my course was about: I just knew it was a chance to study music. But once I got there, I learned about being in choirs, orchestras, ensembles, and about directing shows.
When Karen finished her course at the COM, she began teaching. According to Karen, her initial motivation came from a determination to avoid failure, more than an enthusiasm for education. Yet her early years as a teacher proved to be a transformative experience, as she learned to cope in tough schools with limited resources.
I got landed in some very difficult places, and had to really reinvent myself in order to manage it. I was a very shy person. I don’t think the practice really prepares you for managing difficult children, but I learned on the job.
In her first two teaching roles, Karen encountered the people who were to shape her approach to teaching. First, Karen was working with a devoted teacher, who had assembled a core group of great kids who loved to sing, and challenged Karen to start another choir and a junior orchestra.
No one played any instruments at all, so I had to beg, borrow, and steal to start it up. I began to really enjoy the sense of satisfaction of seeing kids getting something out of the music they played. Although I was only there for 12 months, I learned her passion for the job.
Karen considers herself lucky to have had some great mentors throughout her career, many of whom she retains strong ties with today. In her second teaching role, she worked with a woman she describes as an amazing musician and close friend. Together, they challenged the children at their small, Newcastle-based school to perform Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.
I thought she was mad, because it was so hard: I could only play half the piano part. But what the kids got out of it was incredible. This tiny school was nominated for a big award and came second in NSW, and we didn’t dumb down any of the music. She taught me that if you aim really high, and you fall slightly short, that’s still better than aiming low.
The further Karen progressed as a teacher, the more she was driven by the benefits she saw musical education bringing to children from a young age. She describes “an added dimension”, which music brings out in the kids by improving their ability to focus and learn, as well as their literacy. Later, Karen witnessed the transformative value of music in her own children and grandchildren. These insights informed Karen’s egalitarian approach to music education.
I introduced my kids to music subconsciously, but they’re doing it for their kids consciously. At two and a half, it’s amazing seeing what my grandaughter can do with her voice and with language, and how many songs she can sing, and how free she is in her movements. You can’t tell me that’s not an advantage. But I also see so many kids who don’t have that, and they should: that really drives me forward.
In 1989, Karen arrived at MLC, where she was to build up and run an award-winning music programme over the course of 24 years. She gave students of all ages the opportunity to perform classical pieces and new commissions to a professional standard, in venues such as the Sydney Opera House, Peterskirche in Vienna, and Notre Dame Cathedral. As well as establishing a comprehensive music curriculum, Karen set up co-curricular choirs and orchestras, brass bands, string ensembles, musical theatre showcases and even international tours.
We were granted the resources to lay out a vision, and everyone in the school was a part of it – it wasn’t elitist. Everyone has to study maths and english and sport, and at MLC we were privileged enough to ensure everyone achieved a certain level of musical ability. That way, every student had the opportunity to get something out of it. I think it’s better to have 100 per cent participation, where maybe 10 per cent take nothing from it, than only 40 per cent participation.
Not everyone was convinced, at first. Karen found that 99 per cent of the job is motivating students, convincing them that performing music is a worthwhile thing to do. Some parents and teachers were also unhappy about kids missing class for violin or cello lessons. Yet Karen found that the tangible results of this concentrated area of study soon assuaged those doubts. She recalls one primary teacher standing up and addressing parents at an open day, saying:
I used to be the biggest critic of this program because I hated the kids missing my class. Since then, I have actually seen what it does for the kids, the way it improves their learning, their language skills, and their reading.
Karen’s struggles and successes hit the big screen in 2011, as the subject of AACTA award-winning film ‘Mrs Carey’s Concert’. When director Bob Connolly (‘First Contact’, ‘Rats in the Ranks’) approached Karen with the idea, she thought it was going to be a nightmare. But a week into filming, she found she didn’t even notice they were there anymore. The film propelled Karen to the status of ‘minor celebrity’, showcasing the painstaking and inspiring preparation behind one of MLC’s biennial concerts at the Sydney Opera House. Weekly assemblies, lunchtimes, hours before and after school, and a four day long ‘music camp’ in Collaroy were all given over to rehearsals.
If I make up my mind to do something, I’m going to do it, come what may. I take all these different paths to attract more students, and I don’t back off. There’s no formula: it’s sheer determination, there’s no other way of explaining it.
But Karen did not tackle these challenges on her own: she surrounded herself with an equally capable and determined team. According to Karen, the most important factor in her decision was musicianship, followed by a belief in the power of education.
Music teachers have to have the ability to learn all the different methods applicable in education, and be able to use them in your setting in a way that advantages the children. It’s also important that they have a passion for it: it’s not a nine to five job, it requires lots of hours outside of school. It requires teamwork and dedication.
After 24 years at MLC, a seismic shift took place in Karen’s career. With a change of leadership, the school lost not only its three heads of primary, middle, and senior schools, but also its composer-in-residence, director of composition, and Karen’s potential successor, Kimbali Harding. Karen resigned suddenly amongst rumours that she had been ‘squeezed out’ following confrontations with the new principal. Karen says the foundation for her success at MLC was support.
For almost 25 years, I spent my working life in a really good school. I was one hundred per cent supported, and that was crucial. Being supported means that those authority figures make room in the timetable and the curriculum to allow that development of expertise to happen. But it’s not just about time and resources: they also need to understand the educational value of the skills the kids learn on their way to a performance.
The impact Karen made on her students was demonstrated in a thank-you concert at Sydney Town Hall, performed by over 150 former students from as far back as 1989. Karen describes the concert – which featured her favourite pieces, chosen and rehearsed by colleagues and students – as a highlight of her career. Reflecting on her time at MLC, Karen says:
I most proud of having established a culture in the school where everyone was aligned behind the same vision, the same idea that excellence, and giving everyone an opportunity, were the most important things. That takes years.
Now, Karen has moved onto a new position at Santa Sabina. Rather than feeling daunted by the prospect of starting anew, Karen is once again demonstrating her resilience and determination to establish a program for exceptional musical education for primary and secondary students.
In a sense, I have to go in and start from scratch. But they want me there, they have made me feel welcome, and the headmistress understands what music can do for the cultural life of the school and the girls. Having done all that, I now know which strategies work. So, I’m still finding my feet getting to know everybody, but I’m achieving at a much faster rate, and it’s great fun actually being a mentor to other staff.
Karen has achieved national and international renown in her field, through hard-won music and education expertise, a dedication to equality, and sheer force of will. She is proof that resilience, passion, and self-confidence are learned on the job, and can carry you through all stages of your career.