Inspirational Quotes Which Aren’t Utterly Irritating

Image by Jukka Niittymaa from Pixabay 

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

We’ve all experienced periods of doubt as artists, and questioned why we have to overcome so many obstacles to secure professional opportunities and funding. And truthfully, my periods of pessimism come and go (and I doubt they will ever stop completely)

We all must find our own methods of motivating ourselves. Different personalities are driven by different goals. Because of this, I have found some ‘inspirational’ quotes to be rather enraging. There’s one that goes something along the lines of “Don’t say that you don’t have enough time. You have the same amount of hours in your day as Muhammad Ali or Mother Teresa.” Or maybe it was Beyoncé. Regardless, that quote is simplistic, patronising, and the definition of selective logic. Mother Teresa was a nun who devoted her entire life to helping the poorest of the poor, which is super commendable and all, but hardly realistic for most of us. Sorry Mother Teresa. As for elite athletes or mega-celebrities, they have the benefit of a posse of dietitians and various professionals to help them realise their dreams without being weighed down by the (time-intensive) matters of household work and cooking!

I have learnt to embrace the idea of persevering through self-doubt, the sentiment of “Even if I don’t feel worthy of this opportunity right now, I’m going to stick at it regardless, and the feeling of having the ability and confidence will come later.”

This philosophy was influenced by a handful of quotes I have included below. These have helped me to remember that the path to success is paved with mundane and un-glamorous moments.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

“Feel the fear, do it anyway.” Carrie Fisher

“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure that you can do it, say yes, and work out how to do it later.” Richard Branson

“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.” Hugh Laurie

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” Cynthia Occelli

“Every day I discover more and more beautiful things. It’s enough to drive one mad. I have such a desire to do everything, my head is bursting with it.” Claude Monet

“Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.” Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men. You can read his full essay here

Inspiration From Representation

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

‘Representation’ is one of the buzz-words which have become much more common in the last decade. These days, the fact that Hollywood films and TV shows often resemble a sea of white faces is something that is openly discussed. If a movie is set in Hawaii and the mixed-race main character is played by Emma Stone, it no longer escapes comment.  

Like most buzz-words, I find ‘representation’ a bit of an irritating term. While it’s an incredibly worthwhile concept, the word seems to imply that people should find an identifying label, ‘Asian’, ‘Black’, ‘Gay’, ‘Disabled’, etc, etc, and stick to it. Once you’ve found a label, you are duty-bound to fly the flag on behalf of the community for as long as you live.

It should go without saying that human beings are more complicated than that. Even if we are limiting this philosophical conversation to TV shows and movies and laying aside the matter of human dignity, featuring a variety of human stories is an effective way of creating interesting and powerful entertainment.

When people discuss the importance of representation, it often comes back to the idea that seeing someone who reflects your own identity on the silver screen, can help you rethink what’s possible in your own life.

When Whoopie Goldberg was nine years old, she turned on the TV and saw a woman of colour on the original 1960s series of Star Trek. Nichelle Nichols portrayed Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the fourth in command on the Voyager. Goldberg apparently ran through the house, excitedly calling out to her mother because she’d seen a black woman on TV who wasn’t playing a maid. Nichols once met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr at a civil rights event, and he revealed that he was an ardent admirer of Nichols’ work and a ‘Trekkie’. When Nichols said that she might leave the show in order to come march with King, he encouraged her to stay, saying “We look at that screen and we know where we’re going!”.

I think many inspiring role models don’t think of themselves explicitly as such. They get on with their lives and show through their actions that they aren’t defined by their circumstances or the prejudice that’s thrown their way. That’s why I don’t think the word ‘representation’ sufficiently covers it. I was mulling over how I would put it instead, and settled on ‘visual manifestation of inspiration’. Would Whoopie Goldberg have pursued acting if she hadn’t had that first spark of inspiration from seeing Nichols on her TV? And in turn, I’m sure many women of colour felt empowered to pursue acting after seeing Goldberg in Ghost or Sister Act.

I don’t want to speak on behalf of cultures which I am not a part of, but I think it’s safe to say that that no one appreciates being exploited as part of a tokenistic gesture. It’s painfully obvious when a TV show or movie includes a character purely for the sake of winning ‘diversity points’.

I recently stumbled across a handful of European shows which have been illuminating examples of what the complete opposite approach can look like. Elite, made by Netflix in Spain, Skam, a Norwegian web series, and WTFock, the Belgium remake of the same show. It’s probably no coincidence that all of these shows were produced on an online forum (although interestingly, the Norwegian series was funded by a national broadcaster).

All three shows follow a group of senior high school students. Skam and WTFock share a number of characteristics with Skins, which gained cult status for its raw and unpatronizing depictions of the lives of a group of teens. While I couldn’t access the full episodes online, I was able to watch excerpts reposted to a YouTube channel for international audiences. The third season of Skam is focused on the character of Isak (played by Tarjei Sandvik Moe), and the corresponding season of WTFock on Robbe (played by Willem Herbots).

Left to right: Evan (Henrik Holm) and Isak (Tarjei Sandvik Moe)

The major story thread of Skam is sparked by a meeting between Isak and the handsome and charismatic Evan (played by Henrik Holm). The two start hanging out as friends while dating girls in the same social circle. As the episodes progress, they fall in love. Complications arise as Isak confronts his sexuality for the first time and Even experiences escalating manic episodes as part of his bipolar disorder. The story pans out in much the same way in WTFock, after Robbe meets Sander (played by Willem De Schryver) while on a camping trip with friends.

Left to right: Sander (Willem De Schryver) and Robbe (Willem Herbots)

In both cases I became completely absorbed in the unfolding love story. It took me a little while to work out why exactly I found this story arc so refreshing, especially considering that I am a fairly heterosexual person who didn’t experience anything similar in my own teenage years. I realised it was the compelling flow-on effect of simply giving the story of two teenage boys falling in love, all the dignity and nuance that a heterosexual love story is almost always given in mainstream media. (I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard Call Me By Your Name had a similar effect on audiences)

Both pairs of actors portrayed their characters with an incredible degree of naturalism and easy-going chemistry. Their scenes weren’t awkwardly cut short or censored with one-second kisses. Their story wasn’t framed as ‘alternative’ or ‘edgy’ in any way. Of course, parts of the story were devoted to Isak/ Robbe coming to terms with their sexuality, whatever label they ended up identifying with. But the relationship was not framed as only being important because it was a ‘gay’ love story.

If this was so compelling for me to watch, as a young person who hasn’t had to struggle with the prejudice which comes along with these issues, I can only imagine how it must felt for young bi/gay/queer teenagers to see themselves portrayed so masterfully onscreen. (I mean, I really can only imagine. A term that was bought to my attention on this particular topic is ‘allyship’. ‘Allyship’ refers to the practice of being a supportive ally to communities you are not personally a part of, with an open mind to experiences outside your own life. One striking point I’ve read on the topic of being an ally, is to “acknowledge that while you, too, feel pain, the conversation is not about you.”)

Left to right: Evan (Henrik Holm) and Isak (Tarjei Sandvik Moe)

My final point: the positive power of media representation has been proven in studies. A good example is another show I have been devouring recently, The X-Files. It is a fantastic show in so many ways: entertaining, skilfully paced, kooky and mysterious… The relationship between FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully is all the more lovely and modern for all the things that are shown, and not explicitly said: the respectful space for disagreement between the two, the fact Mulder never questions the validity of Scully’s ability or ambitions, the mutually complementary nature of their partnership.

For those unaware (please, do yourself a favour and check it out for free on SBS On Demand), Dana Scully is brought to life on The X-Files by Gillian Anderson. As an FBI agent she is intelligent, cool-headed, relentlessly thorough and utterly dedicated to her job. Not only is she great in an investigative officer, she has a medical background which all but makes her a fully qualified doctor. Scully’s presence on The X-Files (airing from 1993-2002) had a particular effect on audiences:

Women who watched The X-Files regularly were 50% more likely to work in STEM fields, and nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed who now work in STEM considered her a role model. Geena Davis Institute CEO Madeline Di Nonno writes, “In the case of ‘The Scully Effect,’ it shows that when, in media, we have non-traditional roles for women and girls it helps them envision these pathways for themselves.”

As quoted on the fantastic Facebook page A Mighty Girl

So there you have it. Despite being nicknamed ‘the idiot box’, television shows have the ability to genuinely inspire as well as entertain. Speaking of which, I’ve got some Netflix foraging to do.

Tim Minchin’s Address to Class of 2013, University of Western Australia

A note from the editor- In 2013, composer and comedian Tim Minchin received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, University of Western Australia. He gave a speech for the graduates of 2013- it’s sharply observed and very funny. It’s also quite inspiring, despite his observation that he is not an inspirational speaker by trade. I thought it would be a fabulous thing to share with Fever Pitch Magazine readers. You can watch the video of Tim’s address here. Enjoy! Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

In darker days I did a corporate gig at a conference for this big company who made and sold accounting software in a bid, I presumed, to inspire their salespeople to greater heights. They’d forked out twelve grand for an inspirational speaker who was this extreme sports guy who had had a couple of his limbs frozen off when he got stuck on a ledge on some mountain. It was weird.

Software salespeople I think need to hear from someone who has had a long successful career in software sales not from an overly optimistic ex-mountaineer.

Some poor guy who had arrived in the morning hoping to learn about sales techniques ended up going home worried about the blood flow to his extremities. It’s not inspirational, it’s confusing. And if the mountain was meant to be a symbol of life’s challenges and the loss of limbs a metaphor for sacrifice, the software guy’s not going to get it, is he? Because he didn’t do an Arts degree, did he? He should have.

Arts degrees are awesome and they help you find meaning where there is none. And let me assure you… there is none. Don’t go looking for it. Searching for meaning is like searching for a rhymes scheme in a cookbook. You won’t find it and it will bugger up your soufflé. (If you didn’t like that metaphor you won’t like the rest of this.)

Point being I’m not an inspirational speaker. I’ve never ever lost a limb on a mountainside, metaphorically or otherwise, and I’m certainly not going to give career advice because I’ve never really had what most would consider a ‘job’. However, I have had large groups of people listening to what I say for quite a few years now and it’s given me an inflated sense of self-importance.

So I will now, at the ripe old age of thirty seven-point-nine, bestow upon you nine life lessons. 

You might find some of this stuff inspiring. You will definitely find some of it boring and you will definitely forget all of it within a week. And be warned there will be lots of hokey similes and obscure aphorisms which start well but end up making no sense. So listen up or you’ll get lost like a blind man clapping in a pharmacy trying to echo-locate the contact lens fluid.

(crowd laughs) I’m looking for my old poetry teacher…  

  1. You don’t have to have a dream.

Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams. Fine, if you have something you’ve always wanted do and dreamed of, like, in your heart, go for it. After all it’s something to do with your time, chasing a dream, and if it’s a big enough one, it’ll take you most of your life to achieve. So by the time you get to it and are staring to the into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you’ll be almost dead so it won’t matter.

I never really had one of those dreams and so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up. Just be aware, the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.

2. Don’t seek happiness.

Happiness is like an orgasm: if you think about it too much, it goes away. Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy and you might find you getting some as a side effect. We didn’t evolve to be constantly content. Contended homo erectus got eaten before passing on their genes.

Image by Jukka Niittymaa from Pixabay 

3. Remember, it’s all luck.

Remember it’s all luck. You are lucky to be here. You are incalculably lucky to be born and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family who encouraged you to go to uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy but you are still lucky. Lucky that you happen to be made of the sort of DNA that went on to make the sort of brain which when placed in a horrible child environment would make decisions that meant you ended up eventually graduated uni. Well done you for dragging yourself up by your shoelaces. But you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.

I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved, but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of attending lectures when I was here at UWA. Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures, will humble you and make you more compassionate. Empathy is intuitive but it is also something you can work on intellectually.

4. Exercise.

I’m sorry, you pasty, pale, smoking philosophy grads arching your eyebrows into a Cartesian curve as you watch the human movement mob winding their way through the miniature traffic cones of their existence. You are wrong and they are right. Well, you’re half right- you think therefore you are, but also you jog therefore you sleep, therefore you’re not overwhelmed by existential angst. You can’t be Kant and you don’t want to be.

Play a sport, do yoga, pump iron, run, whatever, but take care of your body. You’re going to need it. Most of you mob are going to live to nearly a hundred and even the poorest of you will achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could not have dreamed of. And this long luxurious life ahead of you is going to make you depressed. But don’t despair! There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise. So do it! Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

5. Be hard on your opinions.

A famous bon mot asserts that ‘Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one’. There is great wisdom in this, but I would add that opinions differ significantly from assholes in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

We must think critically and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs- take them out onto the veranda and hit them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous, identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies and then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

By the way, while I have science and arts graduates in front of me please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to write beautiful things. If you need proof – Twain, Douglas Adams, Vonnegut, McEwan, Sagan and Shakespeare, Dickens for a start.

You don’t need to be superstitious to be a poet. You don’t need to hate Genetically Modified technology to care about the beauty of the planet. You don’t have to claim a soul to promote compassion. Science is not a body of knowledge nor a belief system- it’s just a term which describes human kinds’ incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome! The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated. The idea that many Australians including our new PM and my distant cousin Nick Minchin believe that the science of anthropogenic global warming is controversial is a powerful indicator of the extent of our failure to communicate. The fact that 30 percent of the people just bristled is further evidence still. The fact that that bristling is more to do with politics than science is even more despairing.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

6. Be a teacher.

Please, please, please be a teacher. Teachers are the most admirable and important people in the world. You don’t have to do it forever. But if you’re in doubt about what to do, be an amazing teacher. Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher. Just for your 20s be a teacher. Be a primary school teacher. Especially if you’re a bloke. We need male primary school teachers. Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher. Share your ideas. Don’t take for granted your education. Rejoice in what you learn and spray it.

7. Define yourself by what you love.

I found myself doing this thing a bit recently where if someone asks me what sort of music I like I say, “Well I don’t listen to the radio because pop song lyrics annoy me,” or if someone asks me what food I like I say, “I think truffle oil is overused and slightly obnoxious.” And I see it all the time online- people whose idea of being part of a subculture is to hate Coldplay or football or feminists or the Liberal Party.

We have a tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff, as a comedian I make my living out of it. But try to also express your passion for things you love. Be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire. Send thank you cards and give standing ovations, be pro-stuff not just anti-stuff.

8. Respect people with less power than you.

In the past I have made important decisions about people I work with, agents and producers, big decisions, based largely on how they treat the wait staff in the restaurants we’re having the meeting in. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room. I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful. So there!

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

9. Finally- don’t rush.

You don’t need to already know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. I’m not saying sit around smoking cones all day but also don’t panic! Most people I know who were sure of their career path at 20 are having mid-life crises now.

I said at the beginning of this ramble, which is already three-and-a-half minutes long, life is meaningless. It was not a flippant assertion. I think it’s absurd the idea of seeking meaning in the set of circumstances that happens to exist after 13.8 billion years worth of unguided events. Leave it to humans to think the universe has a purpose for them.

However, I’m no nihilist. I’m not even a cynic. I am actually rather romantic and here’s my idea of romance: you will soon be dead. Life will sometimes seem long and tough and god it’s tiring. And you will sometimes be happy and sometimes be sad and then you’ll be old and then you’ll be dead.

There is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence and that is to fill it. Not fillet, fill it. And in my opinion, life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can. Taking pride in whatever you’re doing. Having compassion, sharing ideas, running, being enthusiastic… and then there’s love and travel and wine and sex and art and kids and giving and mountain climbing, but you know all that stuff already. It’s an incredibly exciting thing, this one meaningless life of yours. Good luck, and thank you for indulging me.

Honesty

Taken after my third year recital, June 2017. Photo credit: Madeline Coco.

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

In 2018 I came to the end of my Bachelor of Music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, majoring in Performance with an Honours year in Musicology. I have been deliberately specific in the ways that I have discussed my music degree on this blog. I have limited my discussions to my own personal feelings, my inward thought processes which are obviously no one’s responsibility but my own. I never want to be that person who does not take ownership of their own wellbeing, and the myriad of things they can do to address their own mental and physical health. Basically, I hate it when people complain and whinge without doing anything about it.

But a few things have led me to consider publishing a less filtered reflection of my study experience. I recently began my first ever full-time job, which means over the next year I will be making my first contributions towards paying off my HECS debt. I no longer feel like I need to censor my thoughts because I was able to postpone my fee payments until after completing my degree (something I am deeply appreciative of!)

I went through multiple depressive periods during my university studies. I am not attributing that to anything but my own brain chemistry. But after eighteen months of being out of the university system, I have been able to think over those months with greater clarity. I have identified some of the triggers which I encountered during those incredibly stressful periods, where it occasionally felt like the life was being sucked out of me even though I was supposed to be studying something I loved.

After my second year recital, November 2015. Photo credit: My Mum, probably.

Most musicians who end up in a music degree, especially one at a Conservatorium which positions itself at the top of the academic pile in Australia, are perfectionists by nature. After all, you’d have to be a pretty high-achieving eighteen-year-old to have goals like performing with the Berlin Philharmonic, and playing pieces like Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Speaking from my personal experience, it takes a certain kind of deranged singer to daydream of tackling characters like Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, which is a fiendishly difficult role demanding the all stamina, flexibility and dramatic impact of several different kinds of soprano voice, all contained in the one body… And if that wasn’t enough, only a tiny percentage of professional sopranos get a chance to sing it! (Doesn’t stop me daydreaming, though)

Talk about self-inflicted pressure and the potential for neuroses. It’s no wonder that most Hollywood films centred around classically trained musicians show them having a nervous breakdown, or killing someone to further their career…

I’m aware that young musicians have the kind of personality and temperament that places them at greater risk of mental fatigue and illness. And that’s not the fault of the institutions that train them. But why, oh why, isn’t this issue being addressed head-on? Performance psychology is widespread throughout the elite sport industry. Some lucrative football teams in the UK employ a squad of performance psychologists to work with the athletes. I learnt this fact during an interview with Cailin Howarth, a classically trained singer with a degree in psychology, who recently established her own performance psychology studio. During this interview, Cailin articulated many thoughts I’d had in passing myself, enforced by the years of research she’s done on the subject.

In costume as Sister Claire, as part of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s production of Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogue of the Carmelites. August 2018.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being a perfectionist, or a degree that pushes young musicians to be the absolute best they can be. But I think it’s irresponsible, not to mention completely counter-intuitive, to ask young people to throw themselves into highly disciplined routines and subject themselves to rigorous self-critique, without teaching them a variety of cognitive techniques to develop resilience and a positive relationship with their instrument. This is the hill I am going to die on!

If music degrees incorporated performance psychology subjects into their core structure from the first year, it would effectively counter the huge potential for harmful mental habits forming in students’ brains. The fable of the otter and the hare rings true here: there’s no point reaching The Met if you immediately have a nervous breakdown and never sing again. Musical institutions need to produce performers who are able to function under immense pressure, and sustainably deal with that pressure over the course of their (hopefully) decades-long careers. Melbourne Conservatorium of Music offers a subject in performance psychology as part of the core structure of its Masters of Orchestral Performance, which is commendable. But why is this same content not included in an undergraduate degree?

This is one of the two major issues I take with the music degree I went through. Here’s the second- it should go without saying that you should leave a performance degree a better and more experience performer than when you started. Or, with the realisation that a performance career is not for you (which is completely valid). The degree that I went through barely gave us enough performance opportunities to work out whether performing was the career we wanted.

At my graduation of my undergraduate degree, July 2017.

I really hated recitals. That’s not the case for every singer, but I felt suffocated by performing in concert attire with only a single pianist accompanying me on stage, and nothing to react to. There’s a particular kind of adrenaline which floods your body when you are performing in a show with an ensemble- you feed off your energy, your fellow performers’ energy, the energy of the audience… This dynamism simply isn’t there when you are performing a recital of seven songs for a panel of adjudicators in a small room.

Because we spent fourteen weeks drilling the same seven songs in minuscule detail, and because there was no cohort-wide opera or showcase offered until the last semester of my third year (!!!), I often felt anxious and unfulfilled. (Disclaimer: I got on very well with my voice teacher and greatly respect the expertise of the individual teachers).

It was also disconcerting that the ‘conservative’ in ‘Conservatorium’ is alive and well, with many voice teachers taking the hard-line of being totally against young singers participating in any musicals or non-classical performances. (To the point where I had friends who would keep it secret from their teachers if they were cast in a musical). Obviously you should keep an eye on your developing technique as a young singer, but if you can’t sing fully-fledged operatic roles until your late twenties/ early thirties, surely there exists a viable and healthy ‘happy medium’, where you can perform a range of styles without damaging your voice.

I am not airing these opinions simply to have a vent. It’s because during the course of my degree, I constantly came into contact with bright, disciplined, intelligent musicians who felt drained as a result of a frequently baffling course. It really doesn’t have to be that way. With any degree there will always be a certain percentage of graduates who reassess their career goals after university. But if the vast majority of a cohort have had to undergo significant reverse-brain-washing to even think of playing their instrument with a small measure of joy and happiness, you have a serious problem.

Now that I will be getting deductions for the subjects which were thousands of dollars each, I think I have a right to roll my eyes at the slogans adorning University of Melbourne advertising, such as ‘The Bravery To Be You’ (yeah… nah) and ‘Come As You Are, Leave How You Want To Be’ (definitely not what I experienced). I guess that’s the result of multi-levelled bureaucracy and a very large marketing budget.

Why I Will Always Believe in Opera’s Future

Interior detail of Opera de Paris in France. Image credit: Alessia Cocconi on http://www.unsplash.com

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

Many people believe opera is a ‘dead’ art form, a dusty old relic only meant for the ears of affluent senior citizens. I disagree. However, I completely understand why people view it that way. Many people my age have never seen an opera before. This is probably due to the very expensive ticket prices and the consistently fancy-shmansy way opera is marketed. (Diamonds and ball gowns are a non-negotiable, apparently)

As a feminist and a musicologist (a more pretentious introduction has never existed), I am the first to admit that the plots of popular operas are often deeply problematic. After all, the vast majority of them were written by privileged European men during a time where a certain level of bigotry was accepted as normal. Many of these popular operas are like James Bond films made in the 1960s – very entertaining and casually sexist and/ or racist. Vintage Ferraris! Weapons cunningly disguised in household appliances! African servants and sexually harassed women!

During the nineteenth century, European composers set their operas in far-flung locations to give them an exotic, sexy edge. They usually did this without any meaningful research into the cultures of these places and the people who lived there. After all, Georges Bizet wrote Carmen without ever setting foot in Spain.

Despite this ridiculousness, Carmen is actually one of my favourite operas and one which actually fares very well when compared to some of the other operas written in the ‘exoticism’ style (to name a few, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, Léo Delibes’ Lakmé, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Sampson and Delilah, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, W.A. Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail). This is probably because the libretto was adapted from a novella written by a Prosper Mérimée, a French historian who actually did spend time in Spain and took inspiration from a story told to him by a Spanish aristocrat. The genuine interest in Spanish culture at the foundation of Carmen sets it apart. 

The ‘noble savage’ was also an inherently problematic trope which would appear in operas at the time. Eastern cultures were somewhat patronizingly viewed by Western cultures as seductive, wild, and savage, an example of a baser form of humanity.

Another obvious issue widespread throughout the operatic canon is the treatment of women. It is a running gag among female opera singers that if they successfully forge a soloist career, they will be dying on stage every second night. However, this issue is no longer being treated as a light-hearted joke. To quote Deborah Cheetham OA in her Peggy Glanville-Hicks address last year: “The death of a female character on stage must be an absolute tragedy, not merely an inevitable and strangely fulfilling experience.”

Why is opera so absurdly melodramatic? It comes back to the age-old concern of show-business: to put bums on seats. Composers had to make sure their piece became a hit so they would be commissioned to write another one. The head of an opera house wanted to feature storylines that were heart-wrenching, uproariously funny, scandalous, shocking (or a number of other adjectives). This led to the tropes we see so much: murdered women, whores who are punished, couples going to extreme and illogical lengths for love, and really silly depictions of cultures that the composer and librettist knew nothing about.

If you think your favourite symphony or choral piece has transcended the passage of time, let me tell you something: that’s because the composer didn’t have to find a popular novel and set it to music. You can let the sonic waves of a Beethoven symphony or Bach concerto wash over you, without any of the sobering reminders of how humans used to treat each other. (Not that things are perfect now, of course)

When we stage an opera today, there are many ways we can frame its plot. After all, operas used to be presented in a far more fluid way, in collaboration with the living composers. New arias were constantly being written and old ones were constantly being scrapped. Rossini did this all the time! So why do we feel so chained to the opera score?

We can respect the intentions of composers while exercising an interpretive voice with what is on the page. We can also simply use accompanying material, such as pre-concert talks and program notes, to frame the issues and highlight the themes in these works of fiction. Art is not simply a flashy method of shocking and provoking an audience. Art is a powerful force, which should be used discerningly and consciously. There is no need to blindly sensor any challenging material, but we must confront it openly.

I have discussed opera’s uglier side in detail now. So why do I still love the art form, with all its warts? Why do I believe in its future?  

Well firstly, operatic singing showcases the absolute limits of the human voice. I remain flabbergasted every time I listen to recordings of Maria Callas, or currently-reigning stars like Jessica Pratt and Joyce DiDonato. Maria Callas is a unique case- she undoubtedly changed the course of operatic performances forever with her electrifying stage presence. It’s also fascinating that her voice was hardly most ‘pure’ or ‘beautiful’ soprano voice to ever exist. At times it sounded pure, at other times it possessed a fiercely raw power, dizzyingly paired with incredibly precise technique. Many people take the opinion that Maria actually permanently damaged her voice by singing every kind of soprano role, from Wagner to Mozart, sometimes only a few nights apart (again, proving the limits of what’s humanely possible!)

I digress. I could talk about Maria Callas for pages and pages but that’s not what I’m here to do. The point is, listening to opera can be a life-changing, soul-shaking experience. While it might take some getting used to, it possesses something incredibly special that deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible.

Secondly, we can look to music theatre for inspiration on how a musical art form can be adapted to a wide range of human stories. There are already many encouraging signs of what is possible. In 2011, my high school singing teacher Angus Grant wrote a one-act opera called Contact! about the trials and tribulations of a suburban league women’s netball team. I saw it performed at the Melbourne Arts Centre when I was sixteen and a complete newcomer to opera. I wasn’t used to hearing operatic voices sing in English, but I thought it was very funny and full of zingy one-liners. (You can read more here)

Last year, I attended Gertrude Opera’s production of chamber opera As One. Through a series of fragmented scenes, As One charts the gradual transformation of protagonist Hannah as she navigates a male to female transition. As One is written for a string ensemble and two voices: a baritone (Hannah Before) and a mezzo-soprano (Hannah After). As One was refreshing in a number of ways- the worthy and underrepresented story, the interest and simplicity of two voices interacting, and a tailor-made video projection which functioned as an immersive set design. Composer Laura Kaminsky worked with librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed to illustrate many moments she had experienced herself as a transgender woman.

I’m not suggesting that opera should replace musicals, rather that the two should happily co-exist. The diversity of musicals is something that opera should take a cue from. Musicals represent a rainbow of genres… the homage to Motown of Dreamgirls, the glorious and affecting Jewish folk of Fiddler on the Roof, the orchestral insanity of West Side Story, the 1950s rock and doo-wop of Grease, the power-ballad fantasy of Wicked… Undoubtedly, some stories are best complemented by more contemporary vocal styles. But the art form of opera gives composers and librettists the chance to juxtapose of kinds of human stories, with the technical mastery and power of the classical voice.

So let’s write some new operas! Write early and write often. As much as everyone worships Puccini, let’s stop programming Madame Butterfly six times a year at the expense of anything else. The best way to guarantee something stays a ‘dead’ art form, is to give up on its future and live in its past. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

Sometimes, I Don’t Even Like Music

Image by Ratfink1973 from Pixabay 

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

Some Monday afternoon thoughts-

Sometimes, I don’t even like music. Those reading this will either instantly know what I mean, or will be really confused. What do you mean, sometimes you don’t even like music? You’ve done a degree in music, you work in the industry, and you maintain a music blog in your SPARE TIME! How could you possibly not like it, you liar!

Saying that sometimes I don’t even like music is hardly as controversial as bringing up politics at the dinner table or debating the meaning of life. But I think it’s a bit of an open secret- when you live, eat and breathe music, sometimes that means you really, really don’t want to go to a classical music gig. (Or any gig.)

I guess the more correct way to put it is, sometimes I don’t have the energy to immerse myself in music. That’s how I function normally. I listen to a piece of music and if it rustles my jimmies, aurally speaking, it really gets into my bones.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay 

But if I am exhausted, which has been my usual state during this pandemic, I don’t want to listen to richly layered or challenging music. I don’t have the space in my brain to process a Bach cantata or a Verdi opera. As much as I love that kind of thing when I am in the mood!

For many musicians, the act of learning and performing music is one of their major life passions. But funnily enough, this exists alongside listening to music to simply unwind. I know that many classically trained musicians listen to other genres when they want to relax, because if they listen to classical music, they inevitably put their ‘I want to dissect and perform this piece’ thinking caps on. And because variety is the spice of life!

Anyway, long story short: Please don’t feel like you are any less of a motivated, insightful, considered musician if you enjoy listening to structurally-simple pop music to unwind. Or if you find yourself definitively not in the mood to listen to a piece of music incorporating guttural sounds and experimental non-linear landscapes. You’re only human.

Mind Over Manuscript: Natalie Nicolas

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

I had the chance to speak to Natalie Nicolas, an emerging composer, performer and music educator. I first came across Natalie’s work during my time interning with the team at Making Waves New Music, a website promoting the work of Australian composers. Natalie’s lush and filmic piece for string quartet, The Rose That Wept, was included in a monthly playlist. If you’d like to keep up with Natalie’s work, you can follow her through her website, Instagram or Facebook page.

How did you first find yourself composing music? When did you first realise performing and composing was something you wanted to pursue more seriously?

I’ve been writing music since I was a young girl, though it was predominantly in a popular style- because that made up the bulk of what I was listening to at the time. I learnt piano from a young age, and loved listening to artists like Alicia Keys, so naturally I started learning her songs on the piano and found I also loved to sing along. This seemed to progress really naturally for me, and my ten years of piano and theory tuition kept me accountable. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I knew I wanted to compose full time. But I always knew that music had an insurmountable hold on my attention, and it was something I would be silly not to follow through with to spend my life’s work on.

Photo credit: Paul Stanhope

What styles of composition are you particularly attracted to? Related question, who are some composers who particularly inspire you?

I’m really attracted to composing music that emotionally evokes, and/or drives the listener- whether rhythmically, emotionally or both. I’ve been particularly inspired by composers like Ludovico Einaudi, Peter Sculthorpe, Johan Johansson, Hans Zimmer, Yann Tiersen, but all for really different reasons. Also, I have to say that my musical background is incredibly diverse, and I’m equally inspired by musicians like Asgeir Trausti, Gang of Youths, Radiohead, and Sigur Ross. Music of almost every genre inspires me, and I love to draw influence from anything I align with. I have a pretty mixed bag of inspirations, and it seems to nary follow a pattern! I actually feel pretty lucky about that.   

What do you think are some of the essential qualities required to be a resilient composer? (Not necessarily to keep churning out pieces, but to keep creating and putting your work out there)

Some of the essential qualities to being a resilient composer I believe, revolve around authenticity, grit, and staying on top of your headspace. Composition is largely an expression of self… if you don’t take care of yourself, that has the propensity to terribly inhibit your creative output. Authenticity and intent are qualities that shine through in your composition, and I believe audiences are really perceptive to these things. Every note, gesture or sentiment in your music needs to be real and purposeful.

Photo credit: Joseph Franklin

Some of the most incredible music I hear addresses the composer’s own voice foremost, and the performing ensemble/performance situation next. Both facets are so important, but make sure not to sacrifice the former for the latter! It’s an easy pitfall to encounter as an emerging composer.

I think as a composer you need to strive to find your voice. This is your ultimate tool in your career, and something that will enable you to be gritty through the inevitable criticism, highs and lows of your compositional career.

Lastly- always work on your craft. You will never stop learning as a musician, and this is such a wonderful aspect of what we do. I love learning from my fellow composers too- we’re all in this together. Stay humble, keep an open mind, try anything that interests you, and stay hungry for knowledge!

I noticed you have written a number of pieces for string instruments, whether for string quartets or chamber orchestras. What are some things that particularly excite you in composing for strings, is there anything unique about the experience when compared to writing for other ensembles?

I write a lot for strings mostly because I find them so incredibly versatile. You can create texture in ways seemingly unbounded, and I find it so exciting to try and emanate rhythmic drive, melody, countermelody, harmony and atmospheric quality that would often require a full orchestra or a sophisticated synthesised setup, with a surprisingly limited number and group of players.

I suppose I could also attribute this passion to some wonderful, early-career tuition I had in writing for string. I’ve always aligned with the timbre of purely stringed ensembles, but back in 2013, I won a place in what was then called the ‘National Composers’ Forum’- a competition run by the Australian String Quartet and mentored by Andrew Ford. Essentially, they gave an emerging composer the opportunity to workshop an existing SQ piece with them over a few days, and then premiered and recorded the work. It was a huge learning curve for me- confronting, humbling, exciting- and at such an impressionable stage of my writing career, really sparked a fire in me for exploring writing for these beautiful instruments. To date, the fire’s still burning! I’m up to my ninth string quartet, and I feel like the more I write for strings, the more I have to learn. It’s a wonderful feeling! 

Any projects in the works that you’d like to share?

I’m currently undergoing a PhD that revolves around music and virtual reality for emotional evocation (namely calm) for children. The idea is to use music and VR written specifically to help sick children feel better in various hospital environments- it utilises compositional concepts I coined in my Masters thesis. I really love the work! I’m also excited to be writing for the SSO’s 50 fanfares project. It’s a fantastic initiative for commissioning Australian composers, and I’m chuffed to be a part of it.