Jessica and Olivia Ellis, are twins in Year 12 at Riverside Girls High School, they play the cello and viola respectively and bought their instruments and an open mind for recent masterclasses at the Sydney Opera House with world renowned chamber orchestra Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Olivia tells Limelight about their experience…

Jessica and I have just finished a three-day composition masterclass run by the NSW Department of Education’s Arts Unit, Sydney Opera House Creative Learning and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) orchestra with 36 other high school students from public schools around NSW. Jessica and I have been studying and performing music since starting on the violin at age five. We’ve since found greater loves; Jessica plays the cello and I play viola. We’ve completed AMEB Grade 8 and are in Year 12 at Riverside Girls High School, studying Music 2 and Extension Music for the HSC. Plus, we are members of the Arts Unit and Lane Cove Youth Orchestras.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields Composition MasterclassOlivia and Jessica Ellis at the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Composition Masterclass. Photos © Ken Leanfore

We came into this workshop experience with different mindsets. Jessica, though she loves to perform, finds the greatest fulfilment in composing, and is planning to study composition at the Sydney Conservatorium next year. On the other hand, I love teaching music and performing in orchestras and ensembles, and plan to continue my musical education through orchestral work. This workshop has greatly influenced my future plans and inspired me to consider performance as a career.

We were so thrilled to work with Academy of St Martin in the Fields during their Australian tour. John Webb, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Animateur led the workshops. Before beginning this composition workshop, Jessica and I wondered if we would have time to compose anything. I was firmly convinced that we couldn’t possibly compose our own piece in only three days.

I was wrong! At the end of the first day I was surprised to see how much we had all put together, and excited about the sounds we were making. We started the composition with eight bars of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (that we then heard in full as part of Academy’s concert on Saturday night in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall) and created simple rhythmic responses inspired by that well-known melody. I did start the day doubtful and tired, but by the end we were hardly able to stop ourselves.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields Composition MasterclassHigh school students at the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Composition Masterclass workshopped and performed their own composition

Everyone was buzzing to finish our piece the next day, and excited to meet the three ASMF players who would perform with us and help us develop our ideas: Jo Hensel on the Horn, Rachel Ingleton on the Oboe and Alexandros Koustas on the Viola. On Saturday, after working on the composition in the morning, we spent the rest of the day at the Opera House.

We attended a Q&A session with Joshua Bell and some of the members of the ASMF orchestra. This gave an enlightening insight into the life of a professional performer and life on tour.

The flautist Sarah Newbold spoke about exploring the cities she travels to – she had visited a local swimming pool that day, in between doing short practices in her hotel room. Joshua Bell told us how he still gets nervous and that he uses that energy to enhance his performance.

The truly inspirational aspect of this was it made the lifestyle of a professional musician seem more realistic and obtainable, which was a push I feel I had needed, to realistically consider a career in music.

At the ASMF open rehearsal, the players were all in their normal every day clothing. But there was still an atmosphere of professionalism. as the orchestra worked efficiently with Joshua Bell controlling the rehearsal whilst radiating talent, demanding respect and embodying confidence, that inspired me on a deep personal level.

I hesitate to admit we were having trouble staying awake through the rehearsal and I was worried that this would be the same in the performance. Thankfully, my fears were completely unfounded.  The energy and passion radiating from the ASMF orchestra during the performance made the music undeniably enthralling. I enjoyed Joshua Bell’s solo in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, and we were all impressed to hear the original version of Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal’s Cave’ on which our composition was inspired.

For me, Saturday afternoon was the most impactful part of this workshop experience, and has massively influenced my ideas and plans for my future. Hearing the stories of professional performers has made a career in music seem more attainable.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields Composition Masterclass

The workshop concluded with our own composition, pulled together just hours earlier in the last three-hour rehearsal on Sunday. We performed for our family and friends with the help of some of our teachers as well as Jo, Rachel and Alexandros from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields orchestra. The concert was a great success. John Webb, who led the workshops and then conducted the performance, spoke to the audience about how we created this piece from a foundation of five chords, a simple rhythm and the idea of call and response. We then demonstrated some of the melodies and rhythms which we developed from this core idea, and concluded with the premiere performance of our piece.

Everyone was proud of how our piece came together – after starting with eight bars of established classical music repertoire from Mendelssohn, we ended up with a classically inspired contemporary piece featuring diverse techniques to create new textures in all the sections, such as rhythmic cello body percussion in the string section and a sound reminiscent of wind blowing through trees created in the woodwind section by breathing through instruments. The overall sound of the ensemble was enhanced by the percussion section which used a variety of instruments and techniques to create different textures, contributing to the atmosphere as a whole.

The audience was so impressed they gave us a standing ovation and requested an encore.

I came home from this weekend with brand new ideas for my life and I think that’s what marks it as a successful workshop. I’d recommend workshops of this kind to all musicians. Lane Cove Youth Orchestra has been inspired by this event and is hoping to provide a similar opportunity to their budding young musicians, and I hope other community and school orchestras are also inspired to do the same. The creative enlightenment and the amazing feeling you get from having written and performed a piece within such a short time frame is an experience you will never forget. When you’re pushed to create in a short time frame – magic can happen.

Sydney Opera House and the NSW Department of Education Arts Unit have an arrangement that aims to deliver educational programs, events and attractions encouraging innovation in arts learning. Previous masterclasses have seen students work with London Symphony Orchestra, Mark Morris Dance Company, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company during their Australian tours.

The Arts Unit provides students and teachers with highly motivating and engaging opportunities that inspire their creative potential. The Unit delivers programs throughout NSW in dance, drama, music, visual arts, debating, public speaking, reading, spelling and special events.

Cultivating creative minds, the Sydney Opera House’s Children, Families & Creative Learning program offers performing arts, digital and creative learning experiences year-round. It’s about deep learning opportunities that playfully encourage creativity for life.