I’ve spent a few days now trying to decide what to write for this blog. In fact, I confess to having written and then abandoned not one, but two blogs, as well as a pile of scribbled brainstorming and notes scattered across my coffee table.
My first half-written blog describes moving to Amsterdam in my 20s, the difficulty of making that leap as an Aussie without guidance or connections, and the wealth of opportunities it provided. My second effort describes the extraordinary song masterclasses I took part in during my 8.5 years in Europe (I’m afraid it reveals an alarming masterclass addiction!) and the privilege of learning from those at the top of their profession. It would definitely be easy to wax lyrical about the exhilaration I felt when I discovered the world of Lieder, of the magical extra dimension borne out of combining poetry and music, the never-ending possibilities of exploring text and context, the challenge and satisfaction of language-learning, and the joy of making music in a collaborative setting.
Then this afternoon I coached two young singers and spent an hour working with a piano student on her first Beethoven Sonata. I realised that what I have come to be most passionate about is the constant dedication to learning that music requires of us. As a performer, teacher, or both, this takes courage, discipline, patience and belief, both in ourselves and in others. For me this has become the most rewarding part of it all.
Although I always knew I wanted a life in music, I only began to focus on piano when I started university in Australia. I had no idea that technique was something that could be built; I truly believed you either had it or you didn’t. I practised an enormous amount, but with no technical foundation being constructed, this was actually quite counterproductive. I knew that I had a lot to express musically, but I had no idea of how to do so.
In Amsterdam I undertook a second Bachelor of Music; I already had an honours degree and a University Medal for Music, but I wanted a new beginning. As it turned out, many of the international students there were also doing a second Bachelor degree. The student cohort was mature and the standard was high. The common philosophy was to study as much and for as long as you reasonably could. Our teachers encouraged us to attend summer courses, take extra classes with their colleagues, and to extend our studies if they felt it was warranted. The love of vocal accompaniment that I developed in Amsterdam led me to undertake a Masters in Lied Accompaniment in Vienna. After completing that degree, attending all those masterclasses and learning German, I decided to give Australia a go.
A few of my European colleagues and teachers clearly thought I was crazy to return to Australia and suggested various work opportunities in Europe. All the learning I’d done and the experience I’d garnered certainly didn’t feel like enough and I was definitely worried that I was leaving behind those who could provide the guidance I needed. Yet there was one thing that gave me confidence: I might not know all the answers, but I was starting to know what questions I should be asking.
Since returning to Australia I’ve done a variety of work including touring outback Queensland doing opera outreach, repetiteuring for operas, giving recitals, accompanying voice classes at the Conservatorium, teaching lyric diction, working as an examiner, and lots and lots of accompanying, vocal coaching and piano teaching. I’ve been lucky enough to get a scholarship to undertake a PhD researching best practice in the teaching of lyric diction to conservatorium level singers, and earlier this year I spent a month travelling in the US and UK to interview experts in this field. Still in the grip of my masterclass addiction, I’ve managed to attend two wonderful weeks at WAAPA with Graham Johnson, Deborah Birnbaum and Mary King, and spent fantastic months at the 2014 and 2015 Lisa Gasteen National Opera Schools. This year I was also invited to be an accompanist at Giovanni Reggioli’s inaugural ‘Bel Canto in Tuscany’ opera course in Chianti, Italy.
One of the most rewarding parts of my work has been the freelance coaching I’ve done with young singers. In their coachings I see a great willingness to take suggestions and try new things. But I also see that once they’ve completed a few years of formal study it’s not necessarily easy to keep learning. I think this is where courage, discipline, patience and belief really kick in.
One of today’s singers told me she was embarrassed to be struggling with the rhythms in the Puccini she was trying to learn. We discovered that there was a gap in her knowledge regarding the time signature, so she had no structural context into which to place the rhythms she was reading. A 3-minute explanation of compound time signatures plugged the gap and she was equipped to work on the part; she could find her entries with regard to the orchestra and other vocal lines, and both the language and music began to make sense.
Another young singer has asked to work with me on musicianship skills over the holidays. She’s making fantastic vocal progress, but she and her teacher feel her musicianship is letting her down. A month or so ago I made this poor girl sit at the piano for half an hour in order to prove to her that she was capable of note-bashing her own pieces. She’d never have believed it without the mild torture, but she totally was! She emailed later to convey her joy at the discovery.
It’s a pity that they haven’t yet developed these musicianship skills, but I admire both of these students for their courage. I keep saying that we can’t beat ourselves up for things we don’t know, but once we suspect that there’s something important we’re missing, we have an obligation to reach for it with both hands. Sometimes having completed a degree or being a certain age gives us the feeling that we should already know something we don’t, or be able to do something that we can’t. This is how I felt when I finished my degree in Australia. A sense of embarrassment can make us hesitant to take the next steps. It’s why courage is so important.
The other singer I coached today first came to me early this year to learn a role for an Italian opera. At that point he felt that language was an almost insurmountable hurdle for him and we spent many sessions on text alone. Our work was painstaking and in the beginning I had to correct every second sound, yet as time went by the speed with which he was able to fix things increased. Then I discovered I only needed to draw his attention to something and he could self correct. We worked on meaning, syntax, inflection, character and the text came to life. Today we worked on some Lieder. We first looked at them just two days ago, yet almost everything I’d mentioned had been corrected. He felt one Lied didn’t flow and we found how the idea of each verse carried through and how this helped the phrasing, we found vocal colours and contrasts. It’s really a joy to now hear a love of language manifest in his singing. He’s had discipline, patience and belief and it’s really working!
In Amsterdam and Vienna I made vast improvements musically and technically, but I have to confess I still felt somewhat frustrated. Two years ago I discovered the Taubman approach to piano playing while I was researching ways to solve a piano student’s technical problem. It was a lightbulb moment. With the help of master teacher Therese Milanovic and watching lots of videos, I’ve begun to explore this approach (albeit yet superficially) and I see that it will help me develop far more. Around the same time I met performance psychologist Amy Radford and from her advice and my own reading I’ve learnt a huge amount about how the brain works, how skills are developed on a neurological level, and the power of a growth mindset. This has changed both how I teach and what I expect of myself. I see on a daily basis that my belief in a student’s ability to develop any skill I can teach them fosters their belief in themselves. This inspires their trust and allows me to be demanding because they start to realise they can achieve much more than they thought they could.
I know the work that I’m doing on my own playing is really making a difference because people I’ve worked with tell me they can see and hear it happening. Last year when I played for Graham Johnson, whom I first played for 6 years ago, he commented on a huge improvement in my capacity for tonal colour. Graham attributed this to settling into a happy relationship and while I’m reluctant to entirely dismiss my partner’s extremely positive contribution to my life (!), I knew it was actually because I have found some answers I’ve been looking for, technically, musically and psychologically. That, and a good dose of hard slog.
My experience studying in Amsterdam and Vienna has strongly influenced the advice I give to the students I work with. I think we owe it to ourselves and our commitment to music to seek the best educational opportunities we can and not let insecurity hold us back. These opportunities may lie overseas or on our very doorstep. The geographical isolation of Australian cities sometimes contributes to a sense of insecurity because we may be uncertain of where we fit in the larger musical landscape. We often don’t know what it is we’re missing, which is why it’s so important to constantly seek to expand our horizons. Of course we need to be ready to take that step, but at the same time, the very experiences that will help us improve are also those that will challenge us and force us to confront our limitations. And that’s scary. Singing students I’ve coached in the last few years have now gone on to study interstate and overseas. I miss working with them, but I’m proud that they’ve had the courage to take that step.
Amongst all the opportunities I’ve had to study with people from the pinnacle of the profession, whose playing and singing I remain in awe of, I am still most struck by their dedication to continued learning. This might be exploring new repertoire, searching for a style, colour, phrase, nuance or character in their own music-making, or finding new ways to communicate with their students. The magic of music is that the possibilities are endless and being a musician, whatever our level, demands we strive for the absolute best we can. When we do that, we inspire those around us to do likewise.
On the weekend I had the privilege of performing a violin sonata with a musician and person I hugely admire. As we drove to the concert she described improvement as requiring us to look into a crevasse, climb down and then up the other side. She mentioned that wonderful quote from Pablo Casals who was asked why he continued to practise at age 90. He replied: “Because I think I’m making progress”. We might not be Casals, but there’s absolutely no reason why we all can’t do the same.
Written by Penelope Cashman