Elissa Seed
Orchestral Management Tutor, AYO Autumn Music Camp 2021

We are lucky to be working with an array of incredible conductors, instrumentalists and arts administrators in 2021, many of whom have been a part of the AYO community throughout several decades. Elissa Seed, Fabian Russell and Matthew McDonald chat about their AYO journey and their successful careers within the music industry throughout Australia and across the globe.

AYO alumnus and Orchestral Management tutor Elissa Seed smiles at the camera. The Sydney Habour Bridge is visible in the background.

Were you always heading towards a career in orchestral management?

I think I was always destined to be in a position that involved organising and logistics, but I don’t think anyone would have guessed it would be with orchestras. I grew up dancing and performing in musical theatre, which afforded me many opportunities to work behind the scenes in stage management, teaching and producing capacities. I was always jealous of friends and classmates at school who were set on their careers because I had so many things that I enjoyed that it was difficult to pick just one to pursue. 

I took a few years off study when I finished year 12, to ‘figure out’ what I wanted out of a career. For example, I worked out pretty quickly that I’m a team player. I don’t thrive well in roles where I’m siloed and don’t have a lot of interaction with others. And I prefer dynamic tasks that have relative short lead times, such as working on a different orchestral concert each week. I think this year or two were invaluable for my personal growth and finding my feet after the strict structure of high school.

What led to your switch from the stage to behind the scenes?

When I was graduating from my first degree (BA in Dance) and considering what to do next, lots of teachers and friends suggested I explore arts management as they could see it was an area that I was confident and proficient in. I applied to WAAPA’s Arts Management degree and arrived in Perth with zero expectations, but truly found a degree and group of people that were the perfect fit for me. On top of management, law and finance subjects, arts management students managed all front of house operations for WAAPA’s theatres from box office, bars to managing ushers and volunteers. I had the best 3 years of my life and I think my excellent academic results reflected how much I loved what I was doing. At that stage, I was thinking about moving into marketing or philanthropy, production wasn’t really top of my list. 

My first job out of university was as a Marketing Assistant at Queensland Theatre Company. The work was interesting and I learnt a lot, but sitting at a computer writing program notes and seeking out cross promotion opportunities wasn’t really the dynamic role that I was after. A uni contact let me know about a role that was advertised in Sydney for the Australian Chamber Orchestra as their Travel Coordinator. The role was brand new, so they weren’t sure exactly what it was going to entail, but I was lucky enough to get it and joined the whirlwind that is ACO. 

I had never worked with professional musicians or in classical music, so it was an incredibly steep learning curve, but I was able to mould the role to my strengths and passions. Pretty quickly, they asked me to start travelling with the orchestra on larger tours to assist with logistics, particularly at airports and hotels, but also on stage, and it was my colleagues at ACO that suggested I look into participating in the AYO National Music Camp Arts Administration course to build my production skills. 

AYO alumnus and Orchestral Management tutor Elissa Seed smiles at the camera. She is wearing a black shirt with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra logo.

Could you share some of your favourite memories from the 2013 AYO Arts Administration program?

I remember being very nervous. Although I already worked for an arts organisation, I was clueless about symphony orchestras. I had barely seen one live on stage, let alone set one up! And I remember it being busy from the first minute—first there in the morning, last to leave at night—it didn’t suit some people, but I thrived on it. It was such a collaborative, supportive environment. Students that had more orchestral experience helped me with string layouts and how to deal with music. And I helped other people with administrative tasks or other areas I was more confident with. 

The skills that I learnt on Camp are the foundation of my current job. All those technical eccentricities of setting up an orchestra, working with instruments, music and equipment are vital. But I think some of the most valuable skills that I learnt was how to work with people in a performance setting. Some of the best advice, which I draw on almost every day, I heard at Camp. One that particularly sticks in my mind was Lou Oppenheim, the then MSO Operations Manager, saying that when you work with 100 people, statistically two people are having their worst week of the year. Often it has nothing to do with you or their work, but patience and sensitivity when dealing with colleagues is a mark of a truly great, empathic arts manager.

What does an average day look like working with professional orchestras such as Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra?

Every day is different, which is what I love about it. But, a typical day at Sydney Symphony may begin at 7.30am to set up the stage at the Sydney Town Hall for an 11am rehearsal. I work with a team to lay out all the chairs and stands, lift all the percussion instruments up onto the stage, ensure the music is all set and perform all our work health safety checks. Whilst the rehearsal is on, I may have meetings to discuss upcoming concerts, or be trying to finish a stage plan to send to a conductor to get their feedback.

When rehearsal finishes, we will reset the stage followed by a bit of down time to check and respond to emails. By early evening, we will be preparing for the concert and ensuring the stage and auditorium are ready. There is that rush of adrenaline when all the musicians are filing on to stage and warming up, you have the conductor and soloist ready in the wings and you are waiting for the final GO. There is never time to relax as you need to be ready to respond to any issues that arise quickly and professionally to ensure that the whole operation looks seamless from the audience. Once the concert is up and running we discuss the live stage change. Everyone in the team will have a specific set of tasks and I need to have complete confidence that they are clear on their jobs so the change can happen in the most efficient manner possible. Then, once the last note of the symphony is finished, it’s pack up time. All the instruments and equipment have specific travelling cases which we pack and load on to trucks to send back to our warehouse, ready to do it all again the next day. 

AYO alumnus and Orchestral Management tutor Elissa Seed smiles at the camera against a grey background. She has long brown hair.

What are you most looking forward to about coming back to tutor the Orchestral Management program this year?

I have never experienced an atmosphere like National Music Camp. It has this enthusiastic vitality and energy that is contagious, and both the tutors and students are excited to be there. I feel deeply honoured to even be considered an ‘expert’ in my field and be given the opportunity to share my experiences with students. 

I love seeing all the students, both Orchestra Management and Orchestral, grow and develop confidence and friendship over the course of camp. I’ve crossed paths with many students from my various camps whilst at ACO and SSO and it is amazing to know that you were a small part of igniting or maintaining a passion to pursue a career in the arts. I know not everyone will become an Orchestra Manager, but the skills from camp are useful across many areas of life and hopefully I can help students towards a career they are truly passionate about. 

When you’re not listening to classical music, what’s on your playlist?

If you looked at my Spotify playlist, you would probably think I was about 13… actually, 13-year-olds these days probably have much cooler playlists! I’m a total pop princess. Anything from Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Pink, etc. I’m also a big podcast listener. I love 99% InvisibleCriminal and my new obsession is Sidedoor from the Smithsonian.