Thoughts of a Formerly Delusional Musician

By Benjamin Peška

A note from the editor: Ben and I met during the first year of our Bachelor of Music degree. He has written an insightful article for Fever Pitch Magazine on his experiences completely rethinking his approach to music performance. Ben is currently editing the manuscript of his first novel, ‘The Cellist’. If you enjoy Ben’s writing, you can keep up to date with his work through his website, Twitter, and Instagram. – Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

My name is Ben, and I dropped out of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music after less than a year. I started in 2013 and it didn’t take me long to realise I was in over my head.

Growing up, my Slavic parents pushed me to practice my cello every day. I had wanted to play in the beginning, but the novelty quickly wore off and by my teenage years I was totally over it. I would occasionally go through periods of intense motivation, usually after a stint in a youth orchestra, but mostly I spent my time mindlessly repeating pieces I already knew.

Around the age of 16, I suddenly decided that I would become a professional musician and no one could stop me. I can’t quite pinpoint what exactly set me off on this path, but it was probably a combination of Jaqueline Du Pre YouTube videos and a general reluctance to apply myself to anything else.

I worked hard to prepare myself for the audition — hours of practice each day, fending off naysayers who reminded me that there was no money in music, and finally, sweating through the audition. I never quite managed to convince my dad that I wouldn’t be out on the streets starving to death.

When I got my acceptance letter, I cried and thought all my dreams had come true. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I shouldn’t be so dramatic. My story is really about a naïve, over-ambitious 18 year-old who crumpled when the reality of a music education washed away his idyllic vision of being David Popper’s protégé.

I began studying, enjoying the first few weeks of theory and performance despite the intensity, but again, the novelty wore off. I had come from being the best cellist in my country-town school to the bottom of an exceptional class of first year cellists.

I very quickly realised that most of the other cellists were much better than me, and to say I felt inferior is an understatement. I struggled to come to terms with my newly discovered mediocrity and spent many hours agonising over the fact that I wasn’t good enough, when I should have spent those hours practicing.

My cello teacher questioned basic things like my left hand-position — something so utterly ingrained in a string player’s muscles that redeveloping it is like unlearning how to walk. I failed to get into the university orchestra the first semester and butchered eight-bar compositions in Music Language 1.

I was quickly losing hope in becoming a ‘successful musician’. I told myself I wasn’t a quitter, that becoming a soloist is tantamount to landing on the moon using only a pogo-stick, and that I should get used to hardship if I wanted to achieve my goal.

And I wasn’t wrong. Becoming a soloist is incredibly difficult, even for the best of us. There are plenty of virtuosic musicians out there who struggle to make a living out of nothing but solo performances. In reality, very few musicians do nothing but soloist work. The You-Tube videos we watch of Yo Yo Ma or Joshua Bell playing to sold out concert halls are small snippets of their otherwise (I’m assuming) well rounded careers. Chamber music, collaborations, and teaching are all part of the things they do.

At the time, forging a successful music career was my all-consuming goal. I was determined to become a soloist and didn’t consider any other pathway.

In hindsight, I can see that I was a perfectly capable cellist but had a completely destructive mindset. When I finally pulled the plug, I consoled myself by saying I didn’t want a musician’s lifestyle.

I transferred into a science degree and the $6,000 cello my parents had brought back from Europe gathered dust in the basement.

My fatal flaw was that I had no patience or respect for the long and slow process of development that is required to become a truly great musician. Soloists are formed after years of dedicated practice and a vast array of experience in the music industry. My assumption that I would be handed a soloist’s career on a silver platter when I finished my undergrad was pure, juvenile delusion.

Many of the world’s successful musician’s have never studied music formally because music is the type of discipline where you don’t need a qualification to take part in it. If I had really wanted to be a soloist, I would have been better served by the right cello teacher and enough stamina to practice eight hours a day.

The real value in a formal musical education is the context and breadth it covers. You learn about the history, theory and technique of music so that at the end of it you have a clearer idea of what specifically interests you about music, and where to point your attention from there.

You may simply enjoy having a deeper knowledge of the music you play, and decide to enter a career completely unrelated to music.

But what we shouldn’t do, and something that is all too common among young musicians (exhibit A = Benjamin Peska), is to entertain the idea that music school is all you need to be ‘successful’ musician. Music school is the beginning of a musical career, the bare minimum in a thoughtful approach to music. Even if you stumble to finish line, feeling like you’ve achieved nothing, the knowledge and experience you have acquired is invaluable. Since leaving the Conservatorium, I have uncovered my passion for ethnomusicology, which coincidentally is one of the Majors available at the Con. Had I started my music degree with a healthier mindset, and stuck through the inevitable hardships, I would have most likely discovered my love for ethnomusicology and turned my attentions in that direction. My delusions prevented me from extracting the true value from my musical education.

Here’s a pretty cool story from my New Zealand trip: I was staying at an Airbnb in Christchurch with a lady who happened to be a musician and choir leader. We got talking and I told her about the music I do and the Slovak community in Melbourne. The next day she knocked on my door and asked if there are any Slovak songs which would sound nice sung by a 4 part choir. I racked my brain and settled on very well known song called “Na Kráľovej holi” which is perfect for multiple harmonies. She asked if I had the music, which I didn’t, so here’s a picture of me writing it out for her. She promised to send me a video of her choir singing it once they had rehearsed it. The thought of a community choir singing a Slovak song in Christchurch, New Zealand blows my mind!

A few years on from abandoning my music school and I have (mostly) cured myself of my sickness. I rediscovered my love for music, after years of resenting it, and pinpointed exactly what it is about it that excites me: playing with other musicians. With this knowledge, I realise why it was so painful to lock myself in a room to practice for hours on end.

Today, I play more music than I ever have before. I play accordion in a folk band with some friends, teach cello and guitar to a handful of students, and help organise productions and performances at the Slovak Social Club. But one of my all-time favourite things to do is to play Slovak music with my brother at parties. This intimate setting, where people yell out their favourite songs and my brother and I try and catch the key that the tipsy singer has started in, is where I feel music most speaks to me.

I feel connected to my ancestors through the lyrics which hint at what they struggled and triumphed with, and playing without sheet music allows me to immerse myself more deeply in the music and the magic of improvising with another musician. All the while, I get to experience this while in the company of my closest friends and family.

My reasons for playing music have changed vastly over the past five years. Where it used to be a source of intense anxiety and stress, it is now one of my life’s serene pleasures. It took a lot of pain and a major mindset shift, but being clear about why I play music is undoubtedly the most important question I ever answered for myself.  

Benjamin Peška

Instrumentalist (double bass, cello, accordion, guitar), writer

Benjamin is a musician and writer from Melbourne. He loves to perform, improvise and write stories on the side. He enjoys teaches cello and guitar to young musicians, and loves to perform the music and dances of his ancestors to eager audiences. He plays and dances in a folk group and travels to Europe to perform at events and festivals. He also loves to write, and is working on his debut novel, a story based on his time studying at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

The Kingdom of Strings

By James Hodson

A note from the editor: The piece you will be reading below has been written by James Hodson, guitarist and composer. James contacted me after seeing Fever Pitch Magazine mentioned in a Facebook group for Melbourne University music graduates and current students.

James is the creator and director of a successful YouTube channel, The Stringdom. Through his channel, James has interviewed masters and inventors of string instruments from all over the world, and had the chance to learn about the stories behind these unique instruments. Currently The Stringdom has over six thousand subscribers, and some videos have amassed over 180,000 views. You can keep up to date with James’ work through The Stringdom Facebook page and YouTube channel. Please enjoy this engaging taster of his work.

– Stella Joseph-Jarecki (stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

It’s not every day that you get to meet the person who invented a musical instrument. I found myself driving through sloping snow-covered hills outside Baltimore in the United States to meet Tim Meeks, the inventor of the Harpejji. It’s an instrument that looks like an elongated chess board, covered with strings running away from the player over a matrix of frets. The instrument benefited from having a sleek design, being instantly appealing to youtube-savvy music makers, and also had the endorsement of the incomparable Stevie Wonder. It was only eighteen months earlier that I’d started interviewing musicians who played interesting string instruments, and I was quickly amazed at the variety, enthusiasm, mastery and generosity that my guests provided.

I was able to travel widely for work, and I wanted to have something to show for the places I’d been, something more tangible and documentary. Growing up in the Western Classical musical tradition, I had only a passing appreciation of folk music and how it worked. The backdrop of suburbia compounded the lack of knowledge of this way of making music: the organic, flexible and dynamic nature of “folk music”: the music of the “people”. And honestly, it didn’t much interest me. I listened to a lot of different (Western) music, and I was also excited by language, culture, history, and travel. Looking back, it was inevitable that music and international cultures would intersect at some point.

James (left) interviewing Johanna Dumfart, pictured with her raffele. Linz, Austria, 2018. Video interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe1UXhanBrw

My first interview for The Stringdom was prompted purely by my own curiosity. I was in Italy, and I managed to get the number of a mandolin player. The mandolin is a familiar instrument, but I wanted to know more: about the history, about what kinds of music are played on the mandolin in Tuscany, and about the musicians themselves, and their relationship with the instrument and its culture. I reasoned that other people might be interested in the same kinds of interviews, so I set up a camera and microphone to record as I sat down with Mauro Redini, who would be the first interviewee for the then-untitled interview series The Stringdom.

Finland was next on my itinerary. Having been there multiple times and even at some point torturing myself with attempting to learn the language, it’s probably fair to say I learnt more about Finland than most Australians care to know. However, I had no idea about the Finnish national instrument, the kantele. Asking other Finnish friends, it was clear they knew little about it as well. When I sought out Pauliina Syrjälä, one of the modern masters of the instrument, I was truly astounded by her passion and energy for promoting her overlooked instrument.

James (right) interviewing Johannes Geworkian Hellman, pictured with his hurdy-gurdy. Stockholm, 2017. Video interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEk_DbLMbLI

This openness, generosity and evangelical enthusiasm for these instruments was present in every interview I recorded, from Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden, to Sri Lanka, India and South America. Most of the musicians were very aware of their inheritance of a tradition, and an identity, such as the saz player Ulaş Özdemir in Turkey. Others were buoyed by the excitement of reinventing the tradition with their own style and their own music, such as cigar box guitarist Joe Jung in New York.

Posting anything on the internet to do with culture and national identity is always inviting a flame war. I quickly realised it was best to find passionate players of interesting string instruments and let them share their own story of their music, their instrument, and how their musical environment works. I’m sure you’ll agree that their energy, and music, is contagious.

James Hodson

Guitarist, composer

James studied guitar with Lucas Michaelidis, and composition at the University of Melbourne under Dr Stuart Greenbaum and Dr Elliott Gyger. He won the Trio Anima Mundi International Composition Competition in 2010 with his piece Ardipithecus.

Under the direction of Professor Stephen Lias, James participated in the inaugural program Composing in the Wilderness in Fairbanks, Alaska. While living in Edinburgh, Scotland, James completed a quartet for steel-string guitars.

In addition to his composition work, James runs the online interview series The Stringdom, featuring interviews with musicians from all around the world who play interesting or unusual string instruments. The Stringdom has now covered four continents, featured thirty interviews, and clocked up almost one million minutes of viewing time on YouTube.

Currently, James is working on trio arrangements featuring 10-string mandolin, as well as exploring pieces involving live looping and electronic manipulation.

Behind the Curtain: Caterina Turnbull

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Inquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I had the chance to speak to Caterina Turnbull, who established her own music business in 2019 after completing a Bachelor of Music and a Masters degree in Arts and Cultural Management. Panoramic Music is a concert provider focused on empowering emerging university-level performers. To date, Panoramic Music has presented recitals from young artists such as pianists Jenny Lu, Chloe Lee, James Zhong, and clarinetist Laura Campbell. You can keep up to date with Panoramic Music through their website here, Facebook page here and their Instagram page here

So you run Panoramic Music- have you recently started the business?

Yes, it’s an idea I’d been playing with for a couple of years. I’m operating as a sole trader- I contract performers and people who help us out with photography, etc. The way I would describe it would a concert provider. I’d love to be able to branch out in the future and offer mentorship to younger performers.

I wanted to get performers out there, particularly university level performers. Entry-level performers seem to be more covered when it comes to the spheres of jazz or pop- or maybe they’re more proactive at organising their own gigs. Whereas I don’t see that happening as much in regards to classical concerts.

So can you give me a bit of an insight into your own musical background, and how that informed this idea?

I did my Bachelor of Music in composition at Monash University. Funnily enough I applied after my husband suggested I try writing my own music- I had auditioned for the performance streams in both piano and voice and hadn’t gotten in. It kind of fell in to place once I gave composition a go. It felt surprisingly comfortable.

During my time at Monash, I ran a student concert alongside their composition students at the time. That year, we hadn’t been given any performance opportunities and one of our lecturers had said, if you want some, go and get some! So we did. Actually, that concert has become a tradition, it has run annually each year since at Monash.

I’ve just finished my Masters in Arts and Cultural Management at Melbourne University. You could describe it as a ‘bit’ course- they teach a range of different subjects and the idea is instead of being exceptional in one area, you have the ability to say, talk to lawyers and understand what you need to know, or talk to accountants and understand what you need to know.

What are sone of your aims?

I want entry level musicians to be able to have work. To get there, involves a few other aims- I want more people to attend classical music concerts. Or to even be present, we’ve been experimenting with live-streaming concerts.

In the future, I’d love to put on a series of new music concerts.

So how does Panoramic Music work in terms of programming- do you help curate programs in collaboration with the artists, or do they come to you with proposals?

For the first few concerts in our calendar, I approached the musicians myself. I essentially recruited my friends! But it’s one of those things where knowing people is important, networking is important… I hate the idea that you only get jobs because you know people, but I’m guilty of the same thing.

I think as long as you do your work with dedication and skill, it’s not a bad thing to use the connections you have! Especially as in the classical music world, it’s a bit of a fishbowl and everyone knows everyone. So you might as well use that! 

I need the artists to be paid first, so the model is the artists get a set rate, as well as a percentage of any profits on top of that. So essentially if I break even, I get paid.

What are some challenges that you can come up against in events management?

Generally, the money! But that’s nothing new. It’s really a matter of, do enough people want to come, do I have enough of an audience, is there enough funding out there for us? That’s been my biggest challenge.

The actual putting stuff out there isn’t too bad- I suppose knowing how effective it is can be challenging. Having proper evaluation processes in place is something I want to work on. it would be a matter of working out where the audiences are coming from. There’s a method I haven’t used yet, where you can create a number of unique links to buy tickets, depending on which website the audience member came from. So you can see exactly which kinds of social media are connecting you to an audience.   

Caterina Turnbull

Concert producer, composer

Videomaker turned digital designer turned composer turned arts manager, Caterina Turnbull is the founder and director of Panoramic Music. Having studied composition at Monash University and arts management at the University of Melbourne, she enjoys utilising all of her skills in order to give other creatives the opportunity to do what they do best. She has taught private music for over 10 years, was the president of the Monash Music Students’ Society, has been commissioned by Julian Burnside AO QC, and is currently teaching ear training at Monash University. In her spare time, she designs websites, sings with choirs, and plays far too much sudoku.

Behind the Curtain: Cailin Howarth

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Inquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I had the chance to speak to Cailin Howarth, who established her own performance coaching studio The Performer’s Edge in 2019. Cailin has a Bachelor of Music in classical singing under her belt, along with Graduate and Post Graduate Diplomas in Psychology. This background gives her an insight into the unique challenges faced by developing performers. Cailin offers a free ninety minute coaching session to anyone curious as to what coaching sessions with her might be like.

Further information can be found on her website here, Instagram page here, or on her Facebook page here. In response to COVID-19 isolation measures, Cailin will be releasing a number of talks through Instagram and Facebook live feeds on a variety of topics from Friday 27th March. Cailin recently accepted a place in a Masters of Science (Performance Science) at the Royal College of Music in London, to deepen her knowledge in this area.

What prompted you to establish The Performer’s Edge?

During my music degree, I didn’t fit the classic mold of what a quintessential classical singer was supposed to do. I always had a range of other interests. And I got the impression that because I had other interests, I was less of a singer, or something like that… Because of that I started doubting whether it was the right path for me. I know a lot of people have gone through a similar experience. Some of the people I work with say things like ‘Oh, but I have other interests, I like comedy, or finance…’

It’s taught in musical institutions is that there’s only one ‘proper’ way to do things. Perhaps it needs to be that way if you want to be right at the top tier, I don’t know. But I knew it wasn’t quite the right path for me.

I’m quite a practical person, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t pigeon-holing myself into an area that realistically, you probably have very little chance of getting far in, unless you absolutely dedicate your life to it.

The main reason I started the business is when I was in university, there was almost nothing taught about the psychological side of performance and how to deal with the pressures that are apparent when you pursue a career in this area. No one is really prepared for those issues. It’s fantastic that I got so many singing lessons, and masterclasses, and got to learn all about singing singing. But so much about being a performer is the idea of, can you deal with the life which comes along with it, which is not like a ‘normal’ life.

You have to learn your resilience skills in the real world, but you absolutely should have some training in that beforehand.

Exactly. I know a lot of sports psychologists, and if you look at the industry of sports, some AFL teams have three sports psychologists who exclusively work with the players! I’ve been living in London up until recently, and all of the big soccer teams over there have so many people working for them, just focusing on the psychological side of things. And somehow it’s not in any way a focus for the performing arts industry! It’s really strange.

I want to shake up the university system, and make what I am working on with my individual clients, something that is taught in the very early stages of performance careers, so performers can go on to have prosperous and successful careers. So many people burn out. They don’t pursue it to the extent that they want, and that means the world doesn’t get to see what they have to offer.

People working in the arts industry tend to have a higher rate of mental health issues than the average population. Which makes the fact there aren’t many targeted resources available is kind of baffling to me!

One of the first specialists I encountered in this field was Dr. Don Greene. He presented a one-off workshop at the Melbourne Conservatorium back when I was a student there. Later I took part in the Lisa Gasteen Opera School in Brisbane in 2013, and they had Dr. Phil Jouncey come in, another expert in performance psychology. He had worked predominantly in the sports industry. He did a workshop with us on personality types and how your personality might affect your performance. I found that really interesting. It was from there that my initial interest in the area turned into, this is something I could actually see myself doing.

At the Royal College of Music in London, they have two core subjects for the undergraduate students that are wholly devoted to performance psychology. That’s probably as good as it gets anywhere in the world. And even though that’s fantastic, that’s still only two subjects out of their entire degree.

I know the Masters in Orchestral Performance at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music has a performance psychology class called Peak Performance Under Pressure. I believe it was devised by Dr. Margaret Osborne. I’ve heard from friends of mine who have taken that subject, that it has really transformed their approach to their instrument.

Yes, Dr. Margaret Osborne is a major figure world-wide in the field of performance psychology. My hope for the future is that performance psychology is not seen as an additional nice extra, but rather as an integral part of forging a successful career in the arts. The people who I’ve been working with have said it’s made a big difference in their approach.

So what experiences did you gain over the years that led you to the field of performance psychology?

Starting the business was something I had wanted to do for a long time. A few years after I graduated from my music and arts degree, I went back to uni and studied psychology. I did that with the long-term goal of working in performance psychology. So I finished in 2015.

Over the past few years I have been working more so in business psychology- doing similar things to what I do now, but with a different audience. It turned out that way because I wanted to go overseas and work in London, and I was getting to the age where I wasn’t going to be able to do that anymore. So I decided I would investigate the performance psychology on the side, while spending most of my time doing something that was more profitable in the short term. But then it got to the point where I realised that performance psychology was really what I wanted to do.

So I ended up going to see a career coach of my own! He’s a serial entrepreneur and helps people get their businesses off the ground, that sort of thing. And that was really, really helpful. I don’t know how I would have gone about doing it if it wasn’t for that support, because there was so much stuff I just didn’t know what to do!

Over the past few months, my business has gone from being a pipe dream, to something that I am earning an income from. And I am really enjoying it, and feeling like I’m making a positive contribution to this community that I’m so passionate about.

Over your first six months of being a coach, what have been some rewarding moments in helping your clients?

A lot of people come to me with similar challenges that they are experiencing in their performances, which are also apparent in their general life as well.

I think the most rewarding thing is hearing that people feel as though they are more able to pursue the things, that they thought they weren’t good enough to do before. As performers we’re put under so much pressure to be perfect. It’s an impossible goal.

I want to help people to be kind to themselves. People often see themselves very differently to how other people see them. We tend to be our own harshest critics by far! What I’ve found rewarding is helping people see that they’re actually doing a lot better than they thought they were. And when they see that, they gain the bravery to try things they perhaps haven’t done before.

Do you feel that artists in the classically trained realm are particularly susceptible to these issues?

Up until this point, I have mainly worked with classically trained musicians or actors, purely because that’s the community I come from. Eventually I want to be working with a whole range of creatives: drag queens, writers…

But in answer to your question, yes, I do think this particular area has its own stresses. There is such a focus on perfection, and not necessarily as much creativity afforded to people. There’s such an emphasis on the idea of, it’s always been done this way, this is the right way…

Whereas with other kinds of music-making, there’s more of an openness and ability to explore. I wouldn’t say classical music is any more stressful than any other performing area, but there are very specific challenges that are apparent in only the more classical world. As long as you play well, that’s the only thing.

It’s okay to talk about the challenges you are having. The conversations I have with clients really vary. Some people have specific problems with concentration, others with their levels of performance anxiety. Others have had some more personal things which are impacting their ability to perform. There’s no specific right or wrong as to how coaching is meant to go. As I see it, my work is to help people work out what they want to achieve and create a plan with them, and support them in order to help them get wherever they want to be.

That goal might be, they want to perform and not feeling like throwing up from anxiousness beforehand, or perhaps they want to simply enjoying performing more. Some people have specific things, but other people have come and they’ve said, I don’t really know what the problem is, I’m just looking for someone to help me figure out what it is I need to do to fulfill my potential.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to feel quite similarly to how I felt. They say things like, I feel like I don’t really feel like I fit in here, so should I stop? Having a place where people can speak openly is so important. And being able to assure people that despite what they might be told at uni, there is no right or wrong way to pursue a career in this area.

As the world changes, so too will the way people interact with arts and culture. The old school way of going to see an opera at the opera house is not as much a part of the culture as it used to be.

Cailin also writes a blog which can be accessed on her website. I found her post on the concept of cognitive interference theory particularly interesting. I have included a snippet of this post below:

Throughout university, no one ever really spoke about what to do about performance anxiety. I knew everyone was suffering from it, but the extent of the advice I ever got was, “Take a few deep breaths; you’ll be fine.” I wasn’t fine.

I would go into a state of panic, and that panic would only subside about three-quarters of the way through a performance, by which point I hadn’t sung anywhere near my best. I would leave the stage feeling like I’d let myself down.

Cognitive interference theory proposes that cognitive anxiety, in the form of worry, is resource intensive; in other words, it’s mentally exhausting.”

Cailin goes on to describe how a session with a performance coach identified the fact she was a natural ‘over-thinker’. If she followed the conventional wisdom of sitting by herself without any distractions before an audition, she would only increase her own performance anxiety. After experimenting with other methods such as completing a distracting puzzle or talking to a friend on the phone before her audition, she experienced far more positive results.