During AYO National Music Camp 2023, trumpeter and Words About Music participant Madeleine Hammond was struck by how a range of factors influence an emerging musician’s pathway to success: financial assistance, visibility of musical careers and geographical access, to name a few.

Madeleine spoke to harpist and composer Paul Nicolaou, bassoonist Tas Compton and outgoing AYO CEO Colin Cornish AM to gain an insight into their own experiences.  

Paul Nicolaou

AYO harpist Paul Nicolaou looks at the camera while posing with a harp.

‘The elephant in the room is that the harp is big… and it’s expensive. That’s often the biggest hurdle for a child that wants to play the harp… that was very close to stopping me as well.’ For Paul Nicolaou, harp came as a later addition to his portfolio as a violinist and pianist, at 16 years old. The decision involved a huge element of risk and a hefty financial commitment to what was initially, the unknown.

For any emerging musician, buying a personal musical instrument is vital. Though having ready access to an instrument is a privilege. For Paul, harp rentals were limited, given that finding access to a harp was a trying task. With the cost of renting harps rapidly increasing, Paul and his family made the decision to buy one, with the cost ‘equivalent to a decent car’.

‘I couldn’t try the instrument, I couldn’t see it in person… it hadn’t even been made at that point’, an unfathomable notion for a cost so significant. So Paul and his family purchased the instrument sight unseen. Paul’s story is uniquely tied to harp playing, yet is a comment on the significant financial sacrifice that all musicians face. ‘There aren’t many careers where the cost of a tangible object is the difference between pursuing something or not… that’s quite individual to music.’

In speaking with Paul, the issue of visibility was particularly applicable to his experience as a harpist. I wanted to better understand what opportunities Paul had in encountering harpists face to face. As Paul points out: ‘It’s hard to know that you want to play an instrument until you’re aware of that instrument’, visibility in this sense being crucial in showing youth that a particular instrument is an option. For many young musicians, school settings provide the opportunity to see and hear instruments for the first time. As a student attending a boys’ school, Paul notes that harp visibility was limited and was not presented nor encouraged as an option. Knowing of just four professional male harpists in Australia, Paul emphasises how important gender visibility is in harp playing particularly in terms of gendered stereotype.

Finding a teacher was another obstacle. Paul notes that for a more niche instrument like the harp, there were fewer teachers and mentors accessible to him. ‘Without teachers you have nothing… having some sort of mentor is essential in any setting.’ Having very few harp teachers, particularly teachers that are sparse (in a geographical sense) can lead to travel inaccessibility for students in more remote areas.

On the topic of youth orchestras such as the AYO, Paul emphasises the impact these programs have on young musicians. Paul highlights that donors and scholarships play a vital role in getting young, talented musicians to these programs. Financial support is crucial in this respect, in providing opportunities to musicians from all walks of life.

Tas Compton

AYO bassoonist Tasman Compton performs on stage.
Credit: Claudio Raschella

‘My school had a bassoon by chance. A wind quintet would go and do concerts at our local library that you would come to for free. I remember seeing the bassoon and not knowing anything about it and going… I like that one.’

I sat down with bassoonist and fifth AYO National Music Camp attendee Tas Compton, to discuss his musical trajectory. I wanted to understand what factors led Tas to success as a young bassoonist from Tasmania? How did a musical talent from that isolated state break out?’

Tas’ musical journey began in Memphis, Tennessee and has since flourished. On the topic of visibility, Tas spoke about that initial encounter with the bassoon at his local library in Memphis. The concert provided Tas with his initial interaction with the bassoon, sparking his ‘I have to play that instrument’ moment.

When Tas and his family made the move to Tasmania, geographical barriers and resultant issues of accessibility quickly manifested themselves. It struck Tas how limited opportunities were in Tasmania particularly for learning bassoon or, more crucially, how hard to find the instruments were. He notes that, ‘The further out you go, the more nonexistent the music programs are… the school I attended in Tasmania did not own a bassoon’. Being both an uncommon, expensive, and inaccessible instrument was a major obstacle for Tas, leading him to question, do I change instruments?

Being limited to a small group of musicians in Hobart, Tasmania meant that it was ‘hard to break out.’ Tas reinforces the importance of joining ensembles youth orchestras. He notes how important wind band participation have been for his development as a musician and how pivotal school music programs are in shaping the future of Australia’s orchestras and encouraging active involvement in Australia’s classical music scene.

Equally, the mentorship of his parents – both orchestral musicians – played a significant role in his development as a musician. Having his parents as role models highlighted that his dream was possible, the greatest form of visibility for an aspiring musician. Tas’ parents were able to connect him with high quality musicians from an early age. Tas notes that his tutors were the likes of John Panckridge and Tahnee van Herk, both outstanding orchestral musicians in their own right. This provided him with a unique opportunity to work closely with members of his state’s orchestra, an opportunity that might be less common in Australia’s more densely populated capital cities. Tas highlights the ability to form connections with professionals and how greatly he values these interactions.

Colin Cornish AM

Departing AYO CEO Colin Cornish smiles at something out of frame. He is wearing a black suit jacket.

When he was in Grade 3 Colin Cornish had his world changed by a school incursion. It was at this moment that Colin first laid eyes on a violin and, more crucially, where he first heard one played. Many musicians can relate to Colin’s experience, as we’ve all experienced some kind of pivotal, awe-inspiring moment which first introduced us to an instrument that has shaped and coloured our lives ever since. The ‘I need to play that’ moment.

In speaking with musicians at AYO National Music Camp 2023, I wondered how each musician had made it, what was their path to success? I wanted to better understand how factors such as visibility, teachers, financial assistance, geographical access, and connections play a role in ensuring the success of aspiring young musicians.

For Colin, it was visibility. Getting professional musicians to schools, whether that be at primary school age or secondary, provides students who may have never encountered classical music with that opportunity. It’s easy to assume that everyone knows what a violin or a piano looks and sounds like. I encourage you to transport yourself back to your younger years and remember how important this first ‘close encounter’ was – or had the potential to be – in your musical development. Visibility is often the first step in a musician’s career, so why aren’t we ensuring visibility for all Australian youth? It is our responsibility to ensure that Australian youth have the opportunity to better understand and play music, for what is a deeply enriching experience in life.

‘Getting to an elite level demands personal growth and encouragement’, Colin reflects. He highlights that music was ‘not considered to be worthwhile’ as a career pursuit, and there was ‘no measure of success related to music’. Colin’s remarks point to the importance of support from not only schools and educators on a micro-level, but from the larger institutions and governments. The appreciation of music in Australian culture, requires advocacy and education in order for cultural attitudes surrounding the worthiness of music to change. Colin’s story highlights the stigma surrounding music, as something that isn’t worthwhile and not worth pursuing. Today in Australia attitudes have changed, though few are aware or understand the benefits of music in the development of youth.

Colin rejects the general public’s view of classical music as being ‘exclusive and hard to connect to’. Rather, Colin points to how much music has allowed him to personally connect with others, whether that be with teachers, friends, and members of the community.

I asked Colin about the expense of instrumental tuition and participation in camps like AYO’s NMC, as a cost that can be a deterrent for many young musicians whose family may not have the means to support their child’s musical ambitions. Acknowledging this, Colin states, ‘Apply no matter the cost’. Prospective participants can apply for scholarships and financial support where needed. Colin makes it clear that institutions like AYO are committed to assisting musicians who are deserving of a place in orchestras and camps like NMC.

‘It is really in our educators’ hands… teachers are so important in the process of visibility… they provide the opportunities’.

Music educators are responsible for forging this appreciation, they are the creators of opportunities and instillers of passion. Incursions and excursions are vital, they open students up to new ideas and possibilities. I believe that for many, classroom and instrumental programs are the beginnings of a musician’s career trajectory. It is the initial interaction with music and can be the difference between a student forming a passion and love for music or losing interest and potentially being deterred.

‘State orchestra involvement is vital!’ Colin’s message to Australian youth in music is to join a state youth orchestra. This involvement will allow youth to connect with other like-minded musicians, gain experience, keep your ‘chops up’, and provide further playing opportunities.

Above all, ‘hard work and dedication should not be overlooked’. Colin acknowledges that as crucial as visibility, teachers, and financial assistance are in playing a role in ensuring the success of aspiring young musicians, it’s the drive of the individual that will guide their success.

We live in the lucky country. But it’s important to remember that not everyone has access to that ‘I need to play that instrument’ moment. It’s our responsibility change this.

Madeleine Hammond is an alumnus of the Words About Music program, AYO National Music Camp 2023.