Kathryn Selby has a few tips to help the individual resonate amidst the background noise of corporate music making.

Being asked to write a column on the subject of ‘thinking outside the square’ is actually harder than I thought given that, oftentimes, this is an intuitive activity. As a classically trained musician, my focus as a youngster was to absorb customs that had preceded me, especially those that had been perfected by great artists well before my time. Imitation, rules and traditions became the framework of musical life underscored by the need for pushing technical brilliance beyond what had gone before and, of course, devouring as much repertoire as possible. It was only as I grew older I realised that whilst all this training was incredibly important as a foundation on which to build, it was actually the need for thinking outside the square, creating an individual voice, that would allow me to make a career as a performer in real life.

I was first made aware of this by my wonderful teacher, Claude Frank, who only recently passed away in New York. As a teenager I struggled with an invisible concept that he could not explain in words but assured me I would recognise when it came. Two elderly conductors, Maurice Abravanel and Max Rudolf, told me similar things when I came across them professionally in my teens. Both bade me continue to seek that elusive ‘something’. I believe now they were all encouraging me to be bolder as an interpreter, to allow my personality to overcome the rules and regulations and break free. For many this comes easier and sooner – I had a lot of growing up to do before I knew it had arrived.

“It’s time music schools took seriously the need to assist musicians with vital career skills”

For some performers this may be construed as ‘thinking outside the square’ – it is not a simple task to allow yourself to be emotionally and intellectually open on stage. It is perhaps the essential quality that separates us as performers from each other – that spark of individuality that also allows us the temerity to step inside the minds of composers and assume we know how best to speak for them.

This is a highly personal and individual endeavour and one that quite honestly I believe cannot be taught. However, whilst trained musicians are assiduously taught the necessary technical tools to be performers, we are not taught the tools for managing a life in music. These are very different animals indeed. Much of what happens to us professionally is a matter of luck – being in the right place at the right time, hearing about a job on the grapevine or winning a competition that puts us in the path of conductors or agents who wish to manage our careers. 

But what of those who either do not wish the life of a travelling musician or are not able to have that life? Does that mean there is no future in music? Obviously the answer to that is a resounding no – ‘thinking outside the square’ now takes on a different significance.

From my own experience over 25 years, an exciting musical expansion in Australia has seen the few large organisations who control musical activities begin to share the landscape with a myriad of smaller, highly talented ensembles, individuals and organisations who have taken matters into their own hands and branched out on their own. 


Kathryn Selby, AM

With considerable assistance from the government, the corporate sector, individual patronage and enthusiastic Australian audiences, this desire to explore new territory has been nothing short of miraculous in a country whose small population of classical music lovers struggles to find the time to support these brave crusaders. For many it must seem as if we are performing a high wire act without a net. However the drive and desire to be independent – to create something from nothing – is all encompassing and most of us have to learn by our mistakes on the job. 

Therefore I am wondering why musicians are not also assiduously taught the skills to allow us to be artists who also run successful businesses in the arts – to venture into unknown territory and take risks. It is high time music school curriculums took seriously the need to assist musicians with these vital career skills which will allow current students to truly think outside the square, thus better equipping them for a life in music.

Selby and Friends will play Ross Edwards, Schumann and Fauré on tour from September 5-13

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