October 12, 2022

Burnside’s Specialist Music Programme

The Specialist Music Programme was established in 1996. It was the brainchild of Hugh Stevenson, Burnside HOD Music at the time, supported by colleagues from Westburn Primary School and the University of Canterbury School of Music; some years later, the UC Teachers’ College joined the partnership.

The programme is approved by the Ministry of Education as having specialist status, the only one of its kind in New Zealand, and therefore successful applicants can gain entry to Burnside High School from anywhere in the country, bypassing the school’s zone restrictions, in return for a minimum four-year-long commitment.

The programme’s aim is to provide a high-level music education for musically gifted students, particularly at primary and secondary levels, and is overseen by a council of representatives from each partner institution. Back in 1996, the initial cohort of Burnside SMP students comprised 29 students, however the programme has grown over the years and now has around 100 members, divided evenly across years 9-13. Entry is by audition; each year we welcome between 20-25 new members.


The programme follows a junior conservatoire style structure in its delivery, but within the confines of mainstream secondary education system – never an easy task! All SMP students therefore follow the same curriculum as the rest of the school, but SMP activities run outside of school hours and the course content looks like this:

• A weekly private lesson on their specialist instrument with a specialist tutor who can support the aims and standards of the programme.

• A weekly masterclass after school; these are in mixed age but instrument – specific groups and led by a specialist tutor – our SMP tutors are all highly qualified and experienced professional performers.

• Chamber Music for all SMP instrumentalists; we have around 20 chamber music groups running each year; all of them perform at the NZCT Chamber Music Contest.

• Mid-year and end-of-year solo recitals.

• Special “one-off” SMP masterclasses and projects; in 2022 we ran a masterclass and chamber music workshop day with Te Koki Trio; a collaborative project with Prof. Mark Menzies and UC students; jazz clinics and improvisation workshops with Hamish Smith and a conducting masterclass with Vincent Hardaker.

• Music as a compulsory curriculum subject through junior years and NCEA. We provide an all-encompassing academic programme that we see as fundamental in supporting performance work, starting in Year 9 with a particular focus on Theory and Aural alongside Music History and Composition. Currently, NCEA studies allow for further specialism with innovative
new courses available in Music Technology, Conducting and Contemporary Music.

• Co-curricular ensemble rehearsals and performances.

• SMP Pianists and Vocalists are encouraged to begin learning an orchestral/band instrument from Year 9.

The Specialist Music Programme is for the most talented of young musicians who wish to make Music their priority for the whole of their high school years and have the drive, commitment, and wider support network to sustain a five-year-long drive for excellence. To put this in context, there are around 600 students involved in Music in some way at Burnside, either taking music courses, having ITM lessons or playing and singing in co-curricular ensembles; SMP students therefore represent around 15% of this number. We are fortunate to have a full Symphony Orchestra, Symphonic Wind Band, Big Band, Funk Band, Contemporary Band, and a range of choirs, all of whom achieve consistently high results on the concert and competition stage, as well as a uniquely designed Junior Music Programme where the foundations are laid.

Much of this success is due to the relentless drive and dedication of the Burnside Music Department team of staff. It has always been our guiding principle at Burnside that Music be delivered by highly specialist teachers who are allowed to teach within their specialist area; we are fortunate that our student numbers and therefore staffing hours are higher than most schools which enables us to do this. The world is littered with SMP graduates who are forging successful musical careers, both here in New Zealand and overseas, as well as those who pursued alternative career paths but recognise the extraordinary value that being a member of SMP at Burnside High School added to their secondary education. SMP is a true gem of a programme that will undoubtedly continue to go from strength to strength.