Meet Sophie Funston, who recently participated in our Words About Music program. This extended lockdown gave her the opportunity to examine her practice, and to reset her work ethic as a musician. Discover more about her shift in attitude in her final long form piece. 

AYO Words About Music Participant Sophie Funston
Sophie Funston, participant of the 2021 Words About Music program

I work and rest in Bulanaming: land which always was and always will be home for the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. It is a privilege to make music in this beautiful country, as First Nations people have for thousands of years before me. 

As professional musicians, when we aren’t able to make music with others, lockdown can be particularly isolating. It’s easy to turn inward; focus on your own sound too much; and lose sight of why music is important. This is how I reset my work ethic as a musician, in order to find joy in music-making during quiet times – or in times when I hear too much of myself!   

Over the years many people, including family and friends, have said to me something along the lines of: ‘Oh, I love listening to music, but I just don’t understand it’. In the past, my response likely would have been to laugh awkwardly, rub the back of my neck, and maybe say something generic about how lucky I was to have had music lessons right through my childhood. My response now I think is less self-focussed, and I’ll tell you (not that you must think this way too) how I came to this mindset as a musician: if you love listening to music, you have understood it. Music is meant to be listened to, and enjoyed! 

Of course, music-makers in all traditions also need to understand how to convey to audiences everything we want our compositions or instruments to say. Ironically, this knowledge can make it difficult for performers to enjoy listening to music, whether played by ourselves or others. When I feel demotivated, I know that means it’s been a while since I have sat back and listened to anything without thinking: How would I play that differently?  Sometimes it’s important to listen to music without trying to put ourselves into it. I found that this change in mindset lets me enjoy music and keeps me motivated – even now, when I feel I have nothing to practice. 

See, the tricky thing is that many of us are motivated to practice for the next gig, where we are often surrounded by other wonderful musicians, perhaps playing in a cool new venue. How long has it been since you performed with others, in the same room as a live audience? When the next gig isn’t there it can be easy to turn inwards, on your solo sound; to start begrudging each note if it isn’t exactly right. This can be a bit of a slippery slope to the unhelpful question: ‘Am I “good” enough?’ 

I have been talking to several inspiring music-making friends and colleagues about what they are most looking forward to once we are allowed to play with other people again. I also asked my colleagues for their thoughts on the classic musician-in-training question: ‘Do you need to be “good”, to make music?’ We have all asked ourselves this at some point. Hopefully hearing what other musicians say about why they make music professionally will help remind all of us that we’ll be making music together again (Though of course this still doesn’t address possibly the toughest question we’re all asking: ‘When?’). 

The wonderful Rachael Beesley – violinist, director and concertmaster and co-artistic director of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra (ARCO) – wrote to me about what she is most looking forward to once we are back to performing again: ‘Smiling across the music stands with my colleagues and feeling once again the powerful engagement on stage where we communicate at the deepest level without the need for words. Being immersed in a sonic world where the music, the venue’s acoustic and a live audience combine to create startling musical conversations, silences and emotions, all experienced ‘in the moment’ is truly something to look forward to.’ 

I think I speak for many of us when I say that I miss being within the sound of an ensemble. I miss the heat of the stage lights on us, the feeling that there’s a room of people trying to stay unnaturally quiet so that everyone hears everything. I miss things not going exactly as planned in a live concert, the little slips, speed ups, extra notes, coughs, and throat lozenges being unwrapped. I miss the secret looks across the stage and laughing with friends afterwards, perhaps over drinks or a late dinner. People, and our sense of place, are vital to our music-making identities. 

The Importance of People and Place in Music-Making 

My dear colleague, Nicole Forsyth – violist, researcher, curator, and editor – has such great stories from her extensive freelance career. Nicole works in educational and professional music-making spheres, including community cultural development, chamber music, and historical performance. She described how people and places have shaped her work ethic:  

Buses, red dirt, school halls on regional tours all over NSW… led by inspiring music educators that became colleagues in my career these days. It showed me parts of outback NSW that I grew to love – staying in school gyms, shearers quarters, back verandas, driving 11kms to the front gate to meet the school bus, on a sheep property outside Nyngan… Now, the thrill of the moment just before stepping onto stage, anywhere – mainstage city, or tiny community hall and the thrill of giving music to a live audience, as well as in teaching lots of places, extremely rich and extremely poor, and knowing the power of music education… Every place is made by sound and music, for me. Every memory… Music AND musicians AND audiences – the people and place attached to the music, always. 

Don’t our memories of particular places and communities weave themselves so tightly with the ways we make music? It’s natural then, to feel lost in times when we haven’t made music with other people for a while. We have all recently learnt the reality of lockdowns, but there have been quiet times in our lives before the global pandemic. We have all had illnesses and recovery periods; time spent caring for someone; travel. And music always manages to find us in whatever form we need it. 

Work and Joy 

Perhaps the first step in shifting to a kinder mindset is for us to remind ourselves that professional music-making can be both work and a joy. It might feel at times that it is only possible to be exclusively ‘good’ technically; or creative and joyful. We might think that, in working hard to make something sound ‘good’ expressively, we should not expect to find the process joyful. But this doesn’t have to be true! 

My friend Christine Pan acknowledges this, and raises some important points to reflect on in our industry. Christine is an emerging Sydney-based composer who has written for any genre of music you can think of, from video games to symphony orchestras, and for patients in a palliative care ward. ‘Everyone thinks that the moment you choose music, you’re just doing what you love all the time,’ she told me recently. ‘And that’s so not true. You have to be able to ask yourself: Can I handle this? Can I handle the rejection of applications?  It’s not only the creative strength but the mental strength to keep charging forward even when you are constantly knocked down. Composing itself is a joyful but also such a painful process, it’s both gruelling and so rewarding.’ 

Many athletes, while they might have the objective of winning the match or meeting their personal best, also try to balance sport being their work and passion. For instance the current captain of the Australian national men’s basketball team, Patty Mills, was asked a wonderful question by Leigh Sales on ABC’s7.30Report on 26th August 2021. Sales asked how Mills keeps the sense of fun when under immense pressure as an elite athlete: ‘You started playing basketball when you were four. Is it still fun?’ 

In response, Mills smiled, and looked almost a bit caught out: ‘Yeah. That’s actually a question I don’t get asked too often these days but it’s no doubt fun… I guess at the business end of it as well you start to understand what it takes to be a professional athlete, but at the end of the day it always comes back to fun and if you are enjoying it, that comes out in your play.’ 

Mill’s answer demonstrates that he isn’t concerned with winning the game or being ‘good’. His main motivation is that people watching him can see that he is enjoying playing. In reality, athletes and musicians aren’t so different. So, do we even need to ask ourselves if we are ‘good’ at making music? I’m sure that, as professional music-makers, we have all had the very reasonable-sounding response that, well of course we have to be good, we have to be at our best in order to be hired, especially freelancers, particularly within the Western classical music tradition. But is it a useful mindset to have? 

 To What Extent Do Musicians Have to be ‘Good’? 

Mary Oliver’s, Wild Geese (1986), one of my favourite poems, opens with: 

‘You do not have to be good/…You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves./…Meanwhile the world goes on.’ 

Routinely, I find myself amongst Western-classical trained musicians discussing how we hate the idea of technical perfectionism in music, and how striving toward it destroys one’s self-worth. This naturally evolves into talking about different performances by different people. How often do you hear yourself and others critique so-and-so’s performance for any notes they didn’t play true to the score? I think we would need to find something other than inaccuracy to focus our criticism of ourselves and others on, if we want to say: ‘Let’s all do away with perfectionism!’ 

I have found this especially the case within competitive learning environments, where we learn to think that our playing is never ‘good’ enough, and that we should always be pushing ourselves to technical perfection. That makes it easier and easier to become anxious that we will play something ‘wrong’. In the same way that music-makers might get caught focusing in a critical way on details while listening to music, we can do the same in our playing, and lose sight of why it’s important for us to make music in the first place! I asked my colleagues to what extent they believe music-makers have to be ‘good’ (and I deliberately left this loaded word for them to interpret).  

Nicole raised a critical issue: how thinking about being ‘good’ in professional music-making can exclude so many people. There are serious music-makers in our community with a range of ambitions! Focusing on technical precision for what may feel like its own sake, can exclude these music-makers: ‘As a music educator, and someone who also works in community cultural development with remote and regional communities, kids, elders, and people of all abilities: participation and fun are the aim. “Good” is definitely not the aim, and it is an exclusionary concept. The arts, particularly music, are for EVERYONE. It is just as good to be involved with participatory arts activities as a facilitating professional with non-specialist community members and realise that there are many physical and mental health benefits to just ‘having a go’ – at any age, at any ability, and anywhere! We need more people to participate in music education and facilitate community participation in music and the arts in general, in Australia.’ 

It’s important to reflect on our practices, and whether they are exclusionary. What Nicole says is relevant to so many of the issues we are all aware of in the Western classical music tradition, including elitism toward different traditions of music-making; ableism; classism; sexism; and discrimination against people in regional and remote areas. 

In this reflection, we might even realise that we rarely ask ourselves what being ‘good’ means. And how can we decide what it means to us? My friend and colleague, James Armstrong – the current concertmaster of the Sydney Youth Orchestra and co-founder of the Forelle Ensemble – gave me a beautiful, philosophical answer:  

‘I think that it’s very important to consider what “good” means. Given the universal nature of music, we are all inherently musical beings. Music is a part of humanity! Our backgrounds influence the ways in which we connect with music, so naturally we have different ideas of what we value most when it comes to music-making. If we ask ourselves where “goodness” is found in any skill, we might see that being good at something takes lots of time, hard work, experience… but most importantly, “goodness” comes from our connection to the skill, and finding the love in it. Music and communication go hand-in-hand, and it is the role of the musician to connect spiritually with the music to communicate it to our audience.’ 

Rachael also suggests focussing your attention on communication and expression of music to your colleagues and the audience, rather than judging yourself or the music:  

‘I’m not sure being “good” has anything to do with performing well or making music. It’s like asking ‘what’s your favourite piece?’ It’s not your job to decide if you’re good or not, or if you like the piece or not. Your role is to engage with the musical score, the composer’s intentions, your instrument’s capabilities and affect [emotional character] the audience by telling the story of the music with as much passion and inspiration as you can muster.’ 

These answers shed light on how our relationship with music, as professional music-makers, could be much more dynamic. Like many parts of our identity, music shapes us as much as we shape it. I don’t know about you, but I used to be petrified of committing to the idea of ‘cellist’ being my identity, because I thought then that my playing would have to be ‘good’ all the time. This is misguided on many levels, not least of which is that it reduces music to the level of my capabilities. I was gatekeeping my own enjoyment of music as a professional art. 

Sitting Back to Listen 

A second step to a kinder work ethic: listening to music differently. 

I hadn’t chosen to listen to it, it had started playing automatically. Actually, for a few months I’d been avoiding listening to cello music. Especially solo cello music. See, like most of us, my musical identity is primarily built on ensemble playing. At the start of the June lockdown in Sydney, I’d had an unwelcome thought that by the time we were back in person, I would have forgotten how to perform with others. I thought, what if all I have left is solo cello playing? For a while, this thought clung parasitically – as much as I didn’t want it to – to the notes I played. I felt it when I stretched out my wrists before practice. I felt it after every small achievement. 

And then late one night, sitting up in bed, I watched Kristin von der Goltz play Dall’Abaco’s Capricci for solo cello. It was the most intimate recording I’d ever watched. In fact, her playing is so personal that you feel as if you shouldn’t be watching. It’s completely captivating. And the things that I know I would criticise in my own playing – the scrapes of her bow, and the readiness of her gut strings to respond – don’t sound ‘wrong’, when I don’t listen to them as imperfections. At some point, I realised that I wasn’t listening with myself in it. I wasn’t thinking: oh, would I have phrased it that way? or would I use that fingering, there? 

Wouldn’t you agree that it has been wonderful that music-makers have been creating new digital concert spaces to perform? They are, collectively, a hopeful product emerging from global pandemic lockdowns, amidst incomparable and silent distress for so many people. Perhaps there is more self-forgiveness in these online platforms, as ‘perfection’ isn’t always the goal. It would be wonderful for this kinder mindset to transfer into our industry and competitive educational institutions, when we are back in person. 

In the meantime, it is completely understandable if you feel isolated in your solitary music-making. I hope you know you aren’t alone! 
Let me leave you with the beautiful ending of Wild Geese

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination, 
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –  
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things. 

Sophie Funston is an alumnus of the Words About Music program, AYO National Music Camp 2021.

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