The success of my debut album came as a shock. But has it changed me as a musician and as a person? And how will it affect the follow-up?
Over brunch with Limelight's online editor Melissa Lesnie recently, I was asked how my life has been affected by the sudden success of my first album. "Has classical stardom transformed Sally Whitwell?" she asked. When my giggling subsided, I felt compelled to give some serious thought to the question of how my life and career has changed post-Mad Rush. Or indeed, how it hasn't changed.
First of all, let's think about profile — fame, infamy... Whatever you want to call it.
A part of me admits that it would have been nice to have become rich/famous/glamorous as a result of a best-selling, ARIA Award-winning album. Were I a pop musician of some description, I'm sure this kind of thing might have been on the cards, but in the classical music world, here in Australia? Hmm... Let's just say that even with the profile I have gained, life is still a cheerfully modest affair!
Perhaps, then, I should take this opportunity to count my blessings.
I am very lucky to have signed with ABC Classics, not only because they are wonderful people, but because being represented by them pretty much guarantees media saturation in the form of airplay on ABC Classic FM. The producers and I were unashamed to include a couple of Breakfast/Drivetime-friendly tracks so that the programmers of the stations' highest-rating and most popular shows would have some approachable, bite-size chunks to play. It is a bit of a popularity contest, a numbers game, and I had no qualms at all about playing it if it meant getting my interpretations of the music of Philip Glass out to the public ear. I have no illusions that, had I released an independent album on my own steam or signed with a smaller label (for example, the admirably adventurous Tall Poppies), I'm sure it would all have been much harder work. I am thankful and unapologetic about being in the right place at the right time.
I've rather enjoyed the attention that the 2011 ARIA Award for Best Classical Album has brought me, despite all the things that various people in the classical music community may think are wrong with the ARIAs (Check out Limelight's rather entertaining words on that subject!). At any rate, it was nice to receive some industry recognition for all the hard work I put into the album. For any artist, a vote of confidence from one's peers is a very encouraging thing. It's given me the strength to do it all again; to share a different aspect of my musical leanings, to share some different stories with the world and see what people make of them. Basically — and let's not beat around the bush here — it's a nice stroke for the ego.
Then there's the listeners' responses to consider. There is something of a recurring theme in the positive reviews and fan mail that I've received since Mad Rush was released. It's best summed up by a few words that Classic Breakfast's Emma Ayres had to say in her introduction for a track from the album on her show: "I don't like Philip Glass," she said, "But I like this." Another listener told me that he had "loved Glass too much too young" and was surprised, upon listening to my interpretation, to find himself "in tears at it's sheer beauty and flow". If my interpretation has brought Glass's music a few more fans or has welcomed others back into the fold, then I consider it a successful venture. Another nice ego stroke. Tick!
As a result of the increased profile I'm enjoying, I've received opportunities that even only a couple of years ago would never have come my way. Me, a soloist?! I never really saw myself as one of those — that's a thing that child prodigies do, the winners of piano competitions; people who sit in Conservatorium practice cells for eight hours a day every day working on Rachmaninov concertos. I mean, I always knew I wanted a career in music, but I was always a bit sketchy on the details. I never imagined that an Honours degree in Bassoon at the then Canberra School of Music, plus a Graduate Diploma in Accompaniment at the Sydney Con, could have propelled me toward the life of a busy soloist. Yet here I am, looking forward to a second album and to solo recitals dotted through 2012. I suppose stranger things have happened!
But what's the point of all this navel-gazing? I like to think of it this way: major events in the context of a life are often cathartic in some way. Thus the relative success of my debut album has recently caused me to reassess my professional priorities.
For some years now, I have worked at Gondwana Choirs, an organisation that provides "sensational opportunities for singers aged 10-25 from across Australia". The grand vision of Artistic Director Lyn Williams is a constant inspiration to me, and the kids are sensational — easily superior in their skill set to lots of professional musicians I know of! Working with young people as a conductor, accompanist and teacher is yet another thing I didn't envision in my formative years, but these days I wouldn't have it any other way. It led me on to working with the Department of Education Arts Unit, the Australian Children's Music Foundation, the Newcastle Conservatorium and a whole lot of other educational organisations with whom I can share my skills, passion and expertise. The experience of teaching is simultaneously an experience of learning, and I'm extremely grateful for that.
Likewise, sharing music with regular folks in a community setting is a precious aspect of my existence. Composing new works for (and with) community musicians is a powerful connection that I would be loathe to lose. Being involved in community music also keeps me from being trapped in social circle populated mostly by music or arts professionals. A chorister from my community choir Polyphony reminded me of this just last week by sending me the most entertaining sorry-I'm-late-for-choir text message I've ever received; "Leaving home shortly. The alpaca shearer came a bit late. I have photos."
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that, through working as a soloist, I have come to value even more the musical connections and interactions I continue to enjoy. If the business of being a musician is about communicating, forging connections, provoking thought, encouraging reflection, then I'm certain that I'm doing all the right things with my life, both as a soloist and otherwise. Fame, fortune and world domination can wait.
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Sally Whitwell is a Sydney-based pianist, composer and conductor with eclectic tastes. Her debut album Mad Rush was an ARIA Award-winning sensation; now she takes us through the process of recording the much-anticipated follow-up. Follow Sally’s new album as it comes together piece by piece, from concept to shelf.
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