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26 June 2009

From a student musician to a professional performer

Hannah Reardon-Smith and Janet McKay Image: Hannah Reardon-Smith and Janet McKay  
© Marisa Cuzzolaro

Janet McKay writes about her role as a mentor in Youth Arts Queensland's YAMP program. Both Janet and Hannah Reardon-Smith are regular Resonate contributors.

As music students, we spend countless hours learning about our instrument in great detail, about music history and performance practice, about music theory and compositional techniques, and about rehearsing and performing as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player. One crucial aspect of the music profession that doesn’t seem to appear in any ‘traditional’ music degree program is how to move beyond simply having a great idea for a concert, to successfully and confidently managing and performing our own gigs.

Independent musicians have to be incredibly diverse in their knowledge and skill base. Not only do we have to be excellent interpreters of the music we choose to perform, but if we want to get out there and make the music happen we need to know about venue contracts, public liability insurance and APRA royalties. We need to be able to produce publicity material and know how and where to distribute it, including inviting VIPs, reviewers and the ‘movers and shakers’ of our chosen genre.

Formulating strong and realistic timelines, budgets (urgh!), grant applications and performance proposals are all part and parcel of putting on a gig as an independent musician, as is knowing how to communicate with fellow performers, venue staff, the media and our audience. Actually playing the music starts to seem like the EASY part!

All of this can seem somewhat daunting (I’m feeling overwhelmed just looking back over the last paragraph!), largely because we are never taught these things alongside the more traditional elements of music study. But with a lot of determination, it can be a hugely rewarding path to follow. And, for me at least, it’s far more fulfilling than sitting around waiting for an orchestral job, or playing 'My Heart Will Go On' for the umpteenth time at a wedding.

One young musician who has chosen this path is Brisbane flautist Hannah Reardon-Smith. A recent graduate of the Queensland Conservatorium, Hannah approached me last year asking if I would consider being her mentor for the Youth Arts Queensland Young Artists Mentoring Program. I immediately accepted her invitation, and our joint application was approved by YAMP. Knowing what it’s like to graduate and suddenly think 'ok, what do I do now?!', I realised that this could be a chance to help bridge the gap between being a student musician and being a self-sufficient emerging professional performer. Whilst there was no official mentoring program when I graduated from the Con – back in the dark ages – I did have someone who took me under their wing and guided me into the mysterious world of new music. I’m ever-grateful for the interest she took in my ambitions, and for the insights she gave me into the nuts and bolts of life as an independent performer.

During the largely self-directed YAMP program (February-October) the mentorees must formulate a ‘project’, to take place at any time during the mentorship. Hannah has decided to create a project focussed around her newly-formed collective 'Musicians Against Complacency'. We plan to work on developing and implementing systems for performance project management, leading towards a concert later in the year.

As a ‘pilot’ project, Hannah recently produced an impressive concert of contemporary music in Brisbane. Entitled ‘Big MAC’, it demonstrated the potential of her collective to make an important contribution to contemporary music in Australia. The program was a deliberate potpourri of styles and instrumentation. Performers were simply given an open invitation to sign up and play the music they loved (I’m assuming that there was at least one stipulation – that the music was from the 20th or 21st century). What emerged was an eclectic mix of such composers as Bernstein, Ford, and Adams, alongside three brand new works by young local composers. The performers themselves were mostly Conservatorium students or recent graduates, and whilst occasionally a glimmer of under-preparedness was evident this was more than compensated for by the tangible sense of energy and delight exhibited by performers and audience alike. It was a joy to watch and gives me confidence that new music is in very safe hands in the coming decades.

To make that last statement entirely true, however, I believe that more emphasis needs to be placed on the practical aspects of managing our own music career. Balancing the time and energy devoted to practise with that devoted to management is a difficult one to accept, and to sustain, but one that is necessary to ensure a thriving and diverse culture of independent performers in this country.

Further links

Youth Arts Queensland - YAMP program (http://www.yaq.org.au/yamp/)
Big MAC June concert details (AMC Calendar)

Janet McKay juggles a busy and diverse music career. She is an accomplished solo performer of new music, presenting recent works by established composers as well as commissioning new works from emerging Australian and American composers. Janet teaches flute, presents workshops for composers and performers, directs large-scale performance projects and administers Brisbane ensemble Clocked Out. She plans and presents her own performance series as well as interstate and international solo tours under the umbrella of her own music presentation organisation 'Random Overtones'.


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