Story: Arts education and training

Page 3. Musicians and singers

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New Zealand’s very active 19th-century musical community included local orchestral and harmonic societies, brass and military bands and small dance bands. There were numerous church choirs and choral societies at which many were taught to read music and sight-sing. There were also voice teachers, among them choir masters, and numerous private teachers of music. From the early 1890s students could sit the exams set by London’s Trinity College.

The lost chord

By 1844 Auckland’s Harmonic Society was up and running, and being appealed to by Major Thomas Bunbury. Bunbury had mislaid a folio volume of music, destroying his complete set of ‘valuable Overtures and choice Orchestral music’.1 In an 1844 newspaper advertisement he alerted the harmonic society’s committee to his loss.

Study overseas

Like artists, dancers and actors, musicians and singers travelled to Europe to complete their training (a pattern that would continue in the 2000s). From 1906 New Zealanders could win scholarships to the Royal School of Music in London, and from 1948 government bursaries were available. Those leaving to study often held benefit concerts to raise money, and in some instances benefactors provided financial assistance.

Many returned and taught, including pianists Janetta McStay and Ernest Empson, singer Irene Ainsley and composer Douglas Lilburn. Musicians and singers touring New Zealand also offered master classes to senior students.

Music teachers and music schools

Many music teachers worked from their own homes. Although interest in learning to play an instrument was high, many teachers did not earn a great deal. Notable schools included the Nelson School of Music, set up in 1894 and still in existence in the 2000s. Notable teachers include the three generations of the Towsey family – Arthur, Cyril and Patrick – who taught piano.

In 1946 a summer music school, the first of many, was held in Cambridge. Its workshops provided budding composers and musicians with an opportunity to meet and learn together. The school was organised by the Community Arts Service (CAS), which existed from 1946 to 1966. CAS not only supported the annual Cambridge summer school, but also provincial theatre groups, ballet and cultural dance.

University teaching

Although composition was taught at university level (notably at Victoria University from the 1940s), it was the 1960s before performance was added.

In 1975 members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra set up the Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium of Music. Under founding director Harry Botham it taught classical and some jazz papers. In 1998, when Wellington Polytechnic was absorbed into Massey University, the Conservatorium was given a permanent home.

New Zealand School of Music

Set up in 2006 by Victoria and Massey universities, the Wellington-based New Zealand School of Music (NZSM) teaches classical and jazz performance, composition, music therapy, musicology and ethnomusicology. It united the Massey University Conservatorium of Music and the Victoria University School of Music.

In March 2014 the two universities proposed a new structure, with Victoria running the current school of music and Massey developing a new programme focusing on popular music practice, music technology and business-based music education. A decision was likely to be made by the end of 2014.


Voice training was available but limited in New Zealand. Aspiring performers could join touring companies, helping make up the chorus, but to go beyond this, overseas study was essential. Rosina Buckman, one of the great opera singers of the early 20th century, was typical. Born in Blenheim in 1881, Buckman had her ability recognised by a local choirmaster, who arranged tuition for her in Birmingham.

The Mobil Song Quest (1956–), later known as the Lexus Song Quest, became an important stepping stone for opera singers, bringing them to the attention of the public and potential benefactors.

Formal tertiary study

It was the late 1960s before teaching of singing began in New Zealand universities. In the 2000s most universities offered performance courses, with the main university schools for vocal and opera studies at the University of Auckland and the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington.

The National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art (NASDA), part of Christchurch Polytechnic, is prominent in teaching popular vocal styles, including musical theatre.

  1. Daily Southern Cross, 23 March 1844, p. 1, (last accessed 26 May 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook and Caren Wilton, 'Arts education and training - Musicians and singers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Megan Cook and Caren Wilton, published 22 Oct 2014