I had the chance to speak to Leah Phillips, a multi-talented creative who currently works full time for Australian Music Education Board in marketing and communications. She is also an emerging soprano who has taken part in youth artist programs such as Opera Scholars Australia and performed in productions staged by Babirra Music Theatre. Leah’s career path is a great example of the advantages of versatility in the arts industry.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue music more seriously?
Throughout high school I was part of a choir which was really well run. I’m still friends with the choral director, a lovely woman named Beryl. We hang out from time to time! The choir was more classical and provided amazing choral training. During my year eleven and twelve music subjects, I sang more contemporary repertoire, so jazz, music theatre…
When I finished year twelve, I applied for a few different degrees (not including a music degree). I began an arts degree at Monash, and started taking subjects from a whole bunch of different disciplines to see what I liked the best: Japanese, theatre studies, music electives, business subjects and marketing subjects.
After about six months I realised that music was the subject that excited and motivated me the most. So I started having one-on-one lessons with the head of vocal studies at the time, Loris Synan. And after about six months of lessons with Loris I auditioned for the Bachelor of Music degree. After finishing the undergraduate degree at Monash, I completed my Honours year at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
So tell me a little bit about where you’re working now, and the role that you’re currently in.
I currently work for AMEB, Australian Music Education Board, in their federal office. The federal office handles the publishing of all the syllabuses, and the requirements for the exams that the state offices then run. I’m the Marketing and Communications Officer. I started in more of an administration role and moved my way into this. I’ve been there about two years now.
I work underneath the Marketing and Sales Manager who’s based in Sydney, so we work together by correspondence. Which is an interesting relationship but it works really well for us… we’re constantly doing zoom meetings or emailing each other or on the phone.
So it’s just us, but a few months ago we hired someone to help us out two days a week with social media scheduling and that side of things. I take care of all the email communications, website communications.
AMEB has been a really good place to start working, my first role at AMEB was my first official role in arts management. I also had a really positive interview experience. AMEB recognized that I had lots of different skills, because I had done a range of marketing things, admin things, sales stuff through my retail job… Of course, as an artist you’re often forced to be resourceful and pick up lots of different employable skills.
They saw that and said, let’s just see where this goes, and it naturally evolved into the position that I am in today.
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your current job?
I would say it’s rewarding to see music affect people. We do events and launches and things like that, and we recently launched a theory book.
It’s a ‘how to do theory’ book, it’s not that amazing or glamorous, but the launch was attended by a big group of teachers and students. It was lovely to see how engaged the students were. They were so interested, coming up to our theory expert after the presentation, asking questions like, ‘I’m learning violin now, I’m currently at grade five, should I start learning this particular kind of theory?’ Some of them even had the theory book signed by the presenter, it was really sweet.
We run other engagement projects such as the online orchestra, where students can submit videos of themselves playing a particular song, and we combine them all. It has been really cool seeing entries come in of musicians playing their instruments in amazing locations. The human interaction side of it is really rewarding.
This is the 101st year of AMEB. So we’ve been working at modernising the reputation, slowly but surely. Getting up with the times, seeing it evolve and people taking notice of that.
How did you end up in this position? Were you casting your eye over management jobs during your Honours year, or did the opportunity suddenly pop up?
The second half of 2017, my Honours year in Music Performance, was pretty hectic! I had all my assessments, and I took part in a university show outside my subject load, along with my final Honours recital.
I did keep my eye out for jobs in the industry, and applied for a few things at that time, positions at places like the Arts Centre. I had a few volunteer projects under my belt at the time, but not so much actual experience in the industry. So it wasn’t quite enough.
Then I applied for the Arts Management program at Australian Youth Orchestra’s National Music Camp. [National Music Camp is a two-week program run by AYO, involving multiple student orchestras, and programs in composition, music journalism, sound production, and orchestral management]
It’s a fantastic program, and was the biggest launching pad ever. Everyone has gone on to do the most insane things only a few months out from the program. I applied for it at the end of 2017, did another season of retail over the Christmas period, and then went on camp at the start of 2018. It was the most intense, hot, crazy, amazing, rewarding, fun time ever.
After the camp I applied for a fellowship role at Opera Australia. As part of National Music Camp, you could apply for a handful of fellowship programs in the arts management industry. There was one offered at Musica Viva, Opera Australia, and somewhere else I believe…
So I applied for the Opera Australia one. At the same time, I was applying for jobs at other organisations, which was when I applied for the job at AMEB. I went through two rounds of interviews and then I got offered the job!
As soon as I got the job at AMEB, I found out that I had gotten the fellowship at Opera Australia as well… I ended up being able to take it, because AMEB was so flexible. Six months into my brand new job, I left for the six week fellowship at the Opera Australia office in Melbourne. I left AMEB tentatively, they had said that I was welcome to come back, and I didn’t know what the fellowship would lead to.
During the fellowship, I worked with the philanthropy and fundraising team, as well as the commercial team who work on staging the musicals. They were planning Evita when I was working there, as well as the production of West Side Story which happened a few months ago. After the fellowship ended, I was able to return to AMEB, and my role merged into more of the marketing area that I am in now!
How do you see yourself potentially combining a management-based career with elements of a performance career?
That’s the endless question isn’t it! I see it as a sliding scale. The percentages will differ throughout my life. Right now I’m obviously I’m working a lot more than I’m performing. But I need to find that happy medium for where I am.
I suppose money-wise, it’s definitely at the point where my skill set for performing is not making money. So at the moment I have to give more weight to the job.
What does an average day look like for you as part of your role at AMEB?
It varies from day to day. There’s more of an average week than an average day. I have certain EDMs (electronic direct media) that I prepare on certain days, and I’m in charge of monitoring social media.
But things come up last minute all the time. So suddenly, there are five things that are urgently needing to be done that day! We also have a particular publishing schedule so things fluctuate with that.
What excites you about opera, and what’s your favourite part of the experience of performing in shows?
I think I love opera because it combines all the art forms. You’re not only singing amazingly, but you’re acting, and there’s an orchestra under you!
It’s rewarding peeling away all the different layers and developing your character. In opera there is always something more to learn, or try differently this time, or do from a different perspective… that’s why I love it. I feel like opera is something no one can ever master, there will always be something you can improve on.
Another favourite moment is the applause moment. Especially when you can tell it’s genuine! Last year in May I did a production of Sound of Music with Babirra Music Theatre company. The audience was filled with grandmas, little kids, parents… and every night the applause went for so long, and we did a sing-a-long at the end… Everyone was crying, on stage and off. It was such a pure moment. And we had fifteen shows of that, every night!
Meaty question- as someone working in marketing who is also a singer, do you think anything needs to change, for opera in Australia to have a lively future and engage audiences widely?
That’s a massive question! I think there is a lot of merit in collaboration. Collaborating more with ballet or with circus, having big companies and small companies working together… getting that funding spread across different places. Pulling in audiences from those specific areas of interest.
I think there have been some good examples of that recently, with the concerts held by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I think the opera industry could really learn from that. It’s about breaking down all the barriers that people perceive opera to be. Let people take a photo if they want to, within reason! Have more relaxed and accessible performances… Let’s not do the same productions in period costume, with the same directions from fifty years ago, all at the same time.
I think it’s interesting when things are done a bit differently, and that’s what brings in audiences. It also gives marketers, and PR people, a different angle on the same old story! It brings people in, if they hear there’s going to be a Mozart opera performed with a children’s circus company, for example! That will help bring opera to the people.