Music and Me
(Picture: Then and Now – Helen playing 50 years apart)
I am the ultimate dilettante. I failed Art at school and I’m not going back there, but I’ll give almost anything else a go, from software to Shakespeare. And underpinning it all is a love of music.
There is music in the family. I still have my great-grandmother’s music books, with the dreadfully sentimental Victorian popular songs that she played for weddings and parties. And her volumes of Mozart and Chopin. Sadly she didn’t pass down her skills to my grandmother or mother, but my great-aunt’s house was fitted with the piano that all upwardly mobile homes aspired to. When she died her two children were in places distant from Melbourne (South Africa and Tasmania) so my mother purchased the piano from her estate. I was the youngest and therefore got the most out of this acquisition as I started learning at about 8 years old. By modern standards that’s still a bit late.
I progressed fairly steadily to Grade 5, but then decided to copy my brother who’d decided to play the clarinet. I thought then, and still do, that it is the instrument with the most beautiful sound. It’s also versatile as I’m now proving in my later years.
I went to a school where music was much more important than sport, which was great for me as I was a bit of a dud at anything that involved interacting with a moving object. Swimming and gym were OK, anything else, not. But I was happily singing in the choir, playing in the orchestra, continuing with lessons on piano as well as clarinet, and learning theory as well. By the time I left school I’d completed grade 5 in all three subjects.
This is where the story takes a turn for the worse. By the time I left school I was over it, dying to move on to University. I dropped everything that was related to school. Copying my brother again, I bought a guitar, learnt the basic 3 chords and joined the folk singing society (embarrassing, but true). I acquired a boyfriend who scorned folk singing and introduced me to modern jazz, and I began the gradual slide from player to listener. By the time I started work I wasn’t doing much of either.
After one year working in Australia I left for England, where I fell in love with a French horn player. This was a plus and a minus. He was a very talented musician, would have been a professional if working as a computer person hadn’t been more lucrative. With him I rediscovered classical music as we went to hear all the great orchestras in London, see opera at Glyndebourne. He was into early music, so I learned about that too. He played in semi-professional orchestras and chamber groups, and I dutifully went along to all the concerts, even a music camp where they played Wagner opera. So what was the problem? He was such a good player that anything I did seemed very second rate. Even after returning to Australia and reclaiming the family piano, I still didn’t play. My school clarinet gathered dust until I discovered, much later in life, that the significant other of the time had pawned it.
I continued to be an active concert goer. I subscribed to the ABC concerts in Geelong, where I lived when I first returned to Australia. I subscribed to Musica Viva concerts and have done so continuously for over 40 years. After my marriage to the horn player broke up, I returned to Melbourne. There I went to the opera with my parents, and various relatives and friends joined me as MSO subscribers from time to time, including the man who’s now my husband.
He encouraged me in a dream that I had: when I retired I would take up the clarinet again. He promised that he would buy one for me. It remained a promise until I started getting more actively involved in the chamber music scene in Melbourne. First I got a gig as the Jury Manager for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition (aka MICMC). This meant I spent a week shut up with some of the world’s best musicians, and with them listened to dozens of brilliant young ensembles as they competed. MICMC was a four-yearly event, but in between there was an Asia Pacific competition. I managed to do a good enough job to retain my position as Jury Manager through several competitions, and after one of these I decided I just had to start playing again. A week or so later, I shared this decision with a childhood friend I met at a concert, and then thought, “Right, I have to do it now.” On the way home from the concert I stopped off at the Music Place in Clarendon Street to try out instruments, which ended with my phoning my husband to ask him to bring his credit card.
Have clarinet, need teacher. Ask Google. Here I was extraordinarily lucky. From the web I selected a clarinettist who lived in St Kilda and was studying at ANAM in South Melbourne. I figured it wouldn’t be difficult for him to stop by and give me lessons on his way to and from ANAM. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He is a great teacher, now the Associate Principal clarinet with Orchestra Victoria, and through him I’ve become a supporter of his Melbourne Chamber Players group. And then a year or so ago I got a phone call out of the blue from a friend of my sister-in-law who was drumming up support for her daughter’s ensemble, Genesis Baroque. Long story short, I’m now the secretary of Genesis Baroque Inc and the keeper of their website. Somewhere along the line in the last decade I’ve also been recruited on to the Musica Viva Victorian Committee.
Much more exciting and important than any of that is the story that began in the days when I wrote the e-bulletin (in the era BK (before Kate) when it was just a boring fact sheet). José Simsa contacted me to ask if I would advertise for players to join the Allsorts. I put my own hand up instantly, and rediscovered the joy of playing with others. Fortunately they had had a clarinettist in the group before, so there were already parts for me hand-written by Zoe Hogg, but in those early days I also did a lot of sight-transposing (that’s sight-reading and transposing at the same time), very good for the ageing brain. And then I bravely, or foolishly, decided that it would be fun to try playing more jazz, and so the U3APP jazz group was formed. I had always thought of myself as someone who could only play with the notes in front of them, as I’ve never been able to play from memory, but to my surprise and pleasure, I am learning to improvise. One day, if (no WHEN) we get out of lockdown, you’ll be able to hear the results.
Lockdown has been a desperate period for us musicians, as you really can’t play together on Zoom. So I needed another music-related project. In last year’s lockdown I organised an on-line trivia quiz as a fund-raiser for Musica Viva, which some of you participated in. This year I started something much more ambitious: I founded a new organisation to support chamber music in Victoria, called Continuo Community. Unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances and my predilections, it’s main activity at the moment is a website. If you’re curious and want to see more, go to https://continuo.org.au. I’d love to have some more members.