In conversation with… Tom D’Ath, clarinet

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

I had the opportunity to speak to Tom D’Ath, a clarinetist who is currently completing his Masters of Orchestral Performance at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. As part of this degree, Tom has had the chance to perform in several concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to playing in traditional chamber groups and orchestras, Tom performs newly composed works in six-four ensemble, alongside five other instrumentalists. Tom has amassed over 7,000 followers on his clarinetist Instagram page, where he chronicles his progress with repertoire and drilling his technique.

When did you realize that you wanted to pursue music a bit more seriously? When did you have a moment of realising, I want to do a music performance degree?

I don’t know if there was a specific point where I went, okay, I’m going to apply to a music degree… it was sort of just the thing to do. I went to Eltham High, which has a very strong music program.

So I got towards the end of high school and the decision was, was I going to take the jump into the music and study music properly, or follow IT, which was the other thing I could do. And really it came down to, I could do IT whenever I want… and I do. My IT job is the job that brings me money regularly. But I knew I needed to focus on music straight out of high school if I wanted to make it work.

In terms of when I got really, really serious about things- that didn’t happen until second year. After I went on a trip to the States to study saxophone. During that trip I met a whole lot of people that were really good at the saxophone and I made the assessment that I couldn’t do classical clarinet and jazz saxophone at the same time. So I had put the foot down on clarinet.

It was also around that time that I read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which is the book that really made something click. It made me think, if I’m coming up with excuses to not work on the clarinet, then I shouldn’t be pursuing it. And that’s a book that I try to read once a year because every time you read it, you’re like oh, yeah, yep, just click that back into place it sets things off.

And so, once that happened people seemed to be like, ‘Oh Tom’s in practice rooms at dumb o’clock in the morning’. I’m a little more lax on it now that I’m further away from uni. But generally if I’m having a good day, I’m in a practice room at 7:00 a.m. And then I’ll clock off at midday. And then I’m done. It’s not necessarily that I’m insane and practising 7:00am till 7:00pm.

If you set your priorities, the practice comes first. Then you’ve gotten the stuff you need to do technically out of the way, and then rehearsals can come up in the evening after you’ve had a rest.

You play in orchestras, chamber groups which explore more standard repertoire, as well as an ensemble dedicated to playing newly composed music, six-four. Do you have an idea of how you might like to combine these different kinds of music performance in your future? 

I would hold some sort of orchestral position… To some extent, you have to take what you’re given. I’d love to take a principal clarinet job if I’m offered one, but I wouldn’t be against the idea of a smaller, second clarinet positon or bass clarinet positon. Or even a job in a smaller orchestra where I am not necessarily required full time, so that I can do things like travel, have a chamber music series, or put on solo recitals, or teach… I really enjoy doing all of them!

I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but there are things you need to be conscious of. Like getting a job in Melbourne would be very different to getting an orchestral gig in the middle of the United States, where there isn’t as much funding for the arts, or their aren’t tonnes of musicians around who are prepared to invest in a chamber music concert series with me.

In Melbourne, obviously, I can be like, ‘I want to do gigs, I want to have a weekly residency where I play chamber music outside of orchestra gigs’. And I’d say that’s a fairly tangible thing to achieve if I wanted it.

One thing that has been amazing recently is, alongside the Melbourne University orchestra and doing a bit of work with ANAM and the MSO, I’ve still managed to take part in chamber music gigs and solo recitals, with something almost every week. Which is really fun. How am I going to make it work long-term? I don’t know. Part of it is, how seriously do I pursue the orchestral job, alongside regular chamber gigs.

six-four in 2018. From left to right: Alex Clayton, Chloe Sanger, Oscar Woinarski, Ollie Iacono, Thomas D’Ath, Anna Telfer.

So you have a thriving Instagram account as a clarinettist, with around 7,500 followers. I’ve seen that you post videos of you playing, you’ve done question and answer segments, and its built up quite the community! Has that account challenged you in particular ways, or encouraged you to do things you wouldn’t normally do, or meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise? How have you found the experience?

I would say it’s a double-edged sword. That’s not to say that I don’t like it, or don’t appreciate the fact I have a cool following of people that are interested in the stuff that I do… But there are definite challenges which come up, in choosing to be so public about everything that I choose to do.

If you read the description for that account, it’s a generally as a means for me to document the progress that I make on the clarinet. And already, I’ve found it very interesting, every once in a while a video will pop up that I posted a year ago, and I can go back and see how different my playing is… so it’s generally a bit of a selfish thing!

But then it turned out that people actually liked seeing stuff that I was working on, or the repertoire that was playing in orchestra or solo repertoire. And I started gathering a bit of a following, which was super cool.

And from there, things opened up, like when D’Addario, the company, sent me the new mouthpiece which they released at the start of 2019. Along with a couple of boxes of their reeds that I use, to try out.

The tricky bit, is because you essentially turn something like that into a brand which is your name, a lot of criticism starts flying around, am I getting paid to represent a particular brand… so you have to be conscious of that, of not coming across like someone who’s just shilling for a particular reed or clarinet. So I’m careful of that. So I have to try to steer clear of too much ‘gear talk’, even though I genuinely love talking about gear, anyone who’s sat down to chat to me about it knows that.

There have been a couple of teachers around the place that I’ve been able to get in contact with and just talk about things. Which may or may not lead to something in the future, but no guarantees there. And being able to speak to other performers about their craft.

I used to use it as something that kept me really honest, as I would be trying to post something before 8am… so I would get to a practise room, warm up for half an hour, then try find something to play and post before 8am. I’m a lot less regimented about it now!

And now that I’ve had that account for a little while, the question becomes, how do I differentiate myself? How efficient can I become in producing things are relevant and coherent? I’ve been thinking that over and I have a podcast in the works…

What is your take on where classical music in Australia sits? Do you think there are younger audiences naturally coming in, or do you think some things need to change?

So it’s a difficult question, and I don’t think Australia is the only one struggling with it. It’s really interesting to see how it functions over in the US, because it’s such a commercial operation.

The stats I will give for the symphony orchestras here: There are three types of funding that people get. You’ve got public funding from the government, you have got private funding from business, so philanthropic, commercial, sponsorship. And you’ve got ticket sales. Now the MSO are aiming for funding to be split equally between those three sources.

All of the state orchestras would have similar goals. The only orchestra in Australia that is different, is the Australian Chamber Orchestra. They are 90% privately funded.

But in saying that, it’s really interesting to go and take a look at all the US orchestras, because they are all privately funded. There is very little government funding available for orchestras over in the States. And so they have to take a very hard look at what is and isn’t working.

So there’s a clarinetist over in States, Zac Manzi, who has done a whole lot of design thinking around concerts and audiences. He’s posted some of his findings online, about designing concerts for audiences. I would say that maybe the problem we have, is that we take ourselves incredibly seriously. Most of our venues have a very formal atmosphere. I believe there is an audience out there, but I think we need to casual-ise at least some parts of the classical musical performance experience.

Six-four ensemble have experimented with this, we had some concerts at the Classic Cinema in Elsternwick. I’m going to try and make that happen a bit more. It’s a lovely space to play in, and it can be formal or more casual. For some of those concerts we had really great turnouts.

Developing your audience outside of the stage is imperative. Invictus Quartet basically sold out the place when they came to play at the Classic cinemas. So I’d say it’s a two-way street with individual performers going out of their way to engage with people to come to their performance, and organizations choosing to engage with audiences in a more casual way through their social channels. To focus on actually engaging with an audience, talking to them about things, actively cultivating the art… not just churning out a lot of content.

When I played Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, we did a small explanation of some of the features of the work. Firstly, because it’s confronting and long. And because we wanted to contextualise the piece for the people who may only know it as the work that was written in a concentration camp. The instrumentation came from the instruments available, a whole lot of the thematic material came from the fact that Messiaen really loved birdsong. It’s not inherently that he was in that particular space, but it’s a feature of his composition. Talking to the audience about those facets of the work was really important.

So how do you persevere through self-doubt? And what do you think of the qualities that are essential to be a resilient musician and a successful musician?

I’ll take it back to that book The War of Art. In that book, Steven Pressfield explains what he does on a daily basis, the small things he does each morning before he commits to doing work. He has certain rituals, like pointing a toy cannon at his keyboard so it can shoot inspiration. And then he says that he sits down and writes, for a certain amount of time until the words stop making sense. Which is probably a little overboard…

His sentiment is, I don’t care what I’ve done, I purely care that I’m done. And that’s how I try to work through any difficulty that I’m having, and keep myself focused on ‘the game’.

I can be super excited about the concerts that I’ve done. And I am! The performances I have been a part of the last few months have been super fun. And I’ve been reasonably pleased with how I’ve been playing.

But at the end of the day, I have to get up the next day. And put my face up against the grindstone and keep improving. Part of me gets a little concerned that if I end up with a job, I might get a little lazy with trying to improve. Or the opposite might happen, that I might go way overboard and shoot myself in the foot.

I can have all the doubts in the world about auditions, but I know I will feel better if I know that I’ve done the work leading up to it. That’s what gets me through the darker periods. In terms of stuff on a micro scale, like messing up in auditions, you just have to let the mistakes go as they happen.

And breathe properly! If you breathe properly, you might have nerves but they won’t seriously affect you.

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