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I have recently come back from directing the Young Composer School at Gondwana Voices National Choral School, a role that I have relished as it combined the paradox of creativity with the responsibility of quality choral education.
Creatives who are choral composers are always asked to straddle the line between imaginative possibility and what choirs are able to do for them. Write a work that is too specialised, and only the very best choirs with well-developed technical ability can perform them. Write a work that is too juvenile and simple, and choirs will find it unsatisfying on both counts. Even more than for instrumental writing, choral composition requires the composer to write as both a creative and an educator.
Write a piece that resonates with choristers of a certain age-bracket and ability, enhances their vocal development, and expands their performance confidence + sound, and you will have a sustainable and well-loved piece of repertoire which has the power to affect choristers long after the final performance of the piece.
And this is where I find complete joy; trying to find that sweet spot. I write like an educator, always looking for words that will stick, and what feels good on the voice, and how to create a choral framework whereby a developing choir will feel and sound good performing my pieces. I also seek to extend and develop quality vocal technique but in the “Mary-Poppins-spoon-full-of-sugar” kind of way, through embedding choral technique in a way that it is unnoticed until you have reaped the rewards of it through rehearsing and performing an engaging piece of music.
And this is what I have spent that last week mentoring and teaching to the young composers at Gondwana NCS.
I had an incredibly nostalgic realisation during the choral school; that when I was 25 years old, someone took a chance on me as a young composer. That someone was the artistic director of Sydney Children’s Choir, Lyn Williams, who saw something worth developing in my writing and in my love of choral education. Now, at age 37, I realise that my time for looking for mentors is being overlapped by actually doing the mentoring myself. Rather than cold-calling for mentorship, I am now cold-calling to mentor. When I see that spark of determination, uniqueness of voice, a love of the voice, dedication to developing as a composer, resiliency, and a talent that resonates with my own creative values, it is my job and privilege to offer to nurture that talent.
And so I did this. There were two stand-out composers in my small group of 7, and I wrote emails acknowledging the manner with which they embraced the composing school, their quality of work, and their ability to collaborate in a healthy and productive way whilst still maintaining their creative voice.
It’s now my responsibility to look for places where I can shine the torch on the brilliant and innovative young talent coming through. And what an honour to look at things so differently, whilst still having the chance to work as a creative myself.
It feels enlightening to be holding the torch and illuminating the journey from the other side!
Payback at its finest. The email I have composed for my darling kiddies who have been flaky with rehearsals this year.
Music teachers are bitter souls who like exacting revenge. 😆
I am chameleon. 😎
Heart: “I want to bawl my eyes out, these guys are killing me today. WOW, WOW, WOW…!”
Head: “Don’t you eff-ing dare. You don’t have time to lose it. You keep it together and fill in those damn assessment rubrics!”
Year 12 Music Class of 2018. I am so proud of you. 🙌
T H A N K Y O U. 😊
Moderation done + dusted! 😎
A chance catch-up with a very special Brighton old scholar who is making waves of the best sort here in New York. Hilarious that Australians can never get their act together to catch up when they live in the same city, but can do it on the other side of the world.
Such a joy to hear of all your successes + adventures, Anthony Zatorski!
Day 14: Charlottetown
“A moment to nestle with the heart”.
Today marks exactly halfway in my travels; I have 28 days on the road. And while I am so incredibly excited to be travelling, today’s post is a tender one. Travel is hard. Travel is not just tiring, it is exhausting in a way that you feel in your bones. While you can rest physically, the soul is always thinking, wondering, and on the go, and you are always trying to stay awake and alert to the places and people around you, because you want to take it all in, and because you want to be safe.
In addition to all of this, I have only been sleeping 5-6 hours a night since I have started travelling. I have been very gentle on myself and tried to rest in the middle of each day, but today, I am feeling the sort of in-the-bones tired that warrants a day of just “nestling with the heart”.
To be able to find that quiet still place inside you, despite the tiredness, despite the noise, despite the excitement, despite the joy; this has been my greatest challenge while I’ve been travelling. I want to enjoy and be present for every moment, but I don’t want to come home exhausted. I wanted to come home expanded, changed, and affected. To do this, you have to have access to that wonderful still place inside of you. Especially when your heart and mind are racing over what you should be doing in your free half an hour, and all the while your heart is yelling, “YOU NEED TO EFFING BE HERE TO ENJOY EVERY MOMENT OF THIS!”
I have also been keeping alert to all my Year 12s, returning emails and answering questions; and I KNOW that a holiday is not supposed to be about this, but it actually soothes me a little to commit to half an hour a day, just to make sense and order out of things. It’s what gives me peace and joy, so I do it. But actually getting into the zone for that half an hour has been the most challenging and gruelling request I have made of myself, and resulted in my feeling worn-out, down, anxious, unsettled, resentful, and a whole mixture of other things I do no normally feel at home when I tackle work. Solving problems whilst on the road is so much harder than when you don’t have “your people” around you. Problems and doubt are magnified, and solutions are harder to reach.
And in the haze of being semi-exhausted, I find that concentrating for any period of time can put me close to tears of stress. It’s such an unusual feeling for me.
I have had to practise working and being gentle upon myself in these last 2 weeks. I have taken one step at a time; reading a brief or an email, jotting down notes in my journal over coffee for a lesson plan, writing down dots points as to which 3 drafts I will edit and whose work I will put notes on in Sibelius, and even where I will go for lunch, to help look after myself. This sort of work + holiday combination takes the utmost of care and determination, but I know that after being on the road for a month, I will figure it out. This is just the very exhausting and emotionally demanding part of it, and I have to be gentle on myself and have faith. I have to also find new ways to energise myself, like taking a walk, or figuring out which places I’d like to explore while I am trying to get this balance right, and what I will eat whilst trying to enjoy all the local specialties.
I was in tears of joy and relief last night when I sent off my first draft-return to one of my students. It seemed in surmountable, but I just took one step at a time. And I guess the human spirit is far stronger than you realise; even when there is doubt and exhaustion, if you keep walking, one foot in front of the other, and gently, quietly, and simply get very clear over what you need to do, you can do it. Even if it drives you to tears.
So here I stand, very tired + tender, walking one step in front of the other. So utterly exhausted today, but so mindful of how very lucky I am to be here, travelling, being a teacher, and figuring out this working balance.
Let me be determined. Let me be gentle, but quietly determined.
Day 3: Vancouver to Toronto
Waiting, waiting, waiting…!
Flight delayed by just over an hour. Combined with me getting up super-early to do a final cleanup and get through security, and miraculously flying through that process, I ended up with 2 spare hours at the airport. Catching up on rest, reading, eating + movie-watching. Today was one of those travel days where you spend so much time in limbo that the minutes feel long and short at the same time. A transit day.
Steps taken: 15,593; mostly through sheer boredom and an absolute need to keep moving. I walked the Air Canada domestic terminal from end to end about a dozen times; receiving some funny looks from the Starbucks staff who were smack in the middle of the terminal. One started saluting me every time I made a lap, which is totally something I would do if I were in his shoes! It made me laugh.
One memorable meal or food item: You would NEVER EVER believe it, but I’m about to nominate AIRPLANE FOOD as my favourite thing eaten today. Let me put this into context. I was up at 5:00am. I got to the airport at 7:15am. My flight got delayed until 12:10pm. By the time I got ON that flight, anything sounded good I was so damn hungry, and I refused to buy the over-priced airport food because I knew I was getting a meal on the flight. It was chickpea curry with spinach and rice, which was all fine, but the dessert was a chocolate tart that tasted like they had scooped the insides of a dark chocolate Ferrero Rocher out and laid it into a shortcrust shell. And it tasted GOOD.
One special photograph: This kiddie watching planes, utterly engrossed, for almost 30 minutes while Mum + Dad looked after Baby No 2. She would run over to Dad to tell him something cool about the plane, then race right back to the window. I asked Mum + Dad if I could take one of the back of her as my favourite pic of the day, and remarkably and in the nicest way, they said yes.
One decent coffee: PASS. I was at an airport all day. ALTHOUGH – and please don’t slap me for this – the Starbucks I had was actually okay…!
One amazing moment: Not so much a moment as a feeling that I always get when I travel, and persist in getting even now. I was on my way to the train station this morning at 6:15am, and I cannot help but get that wonderful flutter of excitement that comes with early morning travel. Especially on mornings which are crisp, fresh, and full of potential. That buzz wears off the moment I’m at the airport, but I have always loved this feeling of readiness and impending adventure. I get it often on Wednesday mornings before hitting Grammarphones rehearsal, especially if I’m on a mission with my choir and I have things I want to do, share, or show them. And also when I am down at Henley Square when there are only a few other souls around and it’s still that translucent morning light between night and dawn. It’s a feeling of absolute, brimming potential; you’ve got things to do, and you’re excited to be on your way. How lucky to have this feeling, this sense of limitlessness!
One unplanned detour/adventure: The number of Australian accents I heard today in Vancouver Airport was extraordinary. And if weren’t so early into my trip, it would be totally homesick pang-worthy. This time, I was the one stopped by a retired couple from Perth who were on their way to Houston and, “just HAD to connect the dots as to why an Aussie accent was coming out of a little Asian body!”
One act of kindness: I stayed in this amazing Airbnb apartment right in the middle of Vancouver CBD on the 23rd floor, and the owners said just to leave everything and they would take it from there. But I decided to set the alarm for 5:00am so that I could load sheets and towels into the washer and start a load, and do a clean up of the kitchen. I’m normally neat and tidy anyways, but I thought I’d leave with a super-light footprint, and make it a pleasure for that couple to walk into their apartment and see that it had been left in beautiful condition.
20 minutes reading: This Times Magazine I bought on a whim, and for obvious reasons! I am engrossed!
30 minutes composing: Mostly listening, editing, listening again, trying to say awake, more editing…! Managed to get an entire section of vocals edited, to a point where I don’t feel at creative war with it and that it’s done its final evolution. Looking forward to mucking into some haphazard and raw creating, now that I’ve done a day of detailed work.
The Kwokkie Diaries: A Tiny Chinese-Aussie Abroad
Day 1 + 1.5: Adelaide to Melbourne to Auckland to Vancouver.
Flying Backwards In Time
I love these days. The Virgo sensibilities in me find it indescribably satisfying to effectively time travel and gain back time. See, look?! I made it to Canada and did it in 6 hours! I am invincible! Well, not so much, as I found out in Auckland Airport, somewhere in the TSA screening line…!
Steps taken: 15,347, quite extraordinary seeing as my bare minimum per day was 15,000 on non-flying days, and I flew. For many, many hours; 18 hours + 26 minutes, to be exact, spread across 3 flights.
One memorable meal or food item: The CHAMPAGNE I received when I was UPGRADED to BUSINESS CLASS, AWW YEAAAAAHHHH! This peasant guuuuurl’s goin’ places! Does lightening strike twice?! Apparently so, as in 2014, wearing my very non-business class “I Love Vegemite” t-shirt, I was upgraded on a flight from Tokyo to London. I must have looked like a complete country broad and overly excited as the air-hostess came out specifically to show me how to use the seat controls, and brought me out a Cathay Pacific teddy. Today’s upgrade was to Business Premiere in Air New Zealand, and AH-MAY-ZING! To actually be able to sleep horizontally as opposed to some wierd-arse yoga position is the difference between arriving at your destination in a pissed-off, jet-lagged haze, or some semblance of a normal functioning human being. But I still smell, and I’m rocking the Astro Boy hair. Nothing’s changed there after 18+ hours of flying!
One special photograph: I have two for today; the sunrise as I was flying out of Melbs, and the moon coming into Auckland.
One decent coffee: The exemplary flat white that I had in the Melbourne International Air New Zealand Business Class Lounge. Yes, there is a theme here. Yes, I’m an over-excited peasant girl.
One amazing moment: I have Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” as my ringtone. Very, very few people, if any, will have this as their ringtone. Over-enthusiastic and nerdy music teachers like me, and Stevie Wonder junkies, maybe. And never shall the two come in contact. Until today! The lady sitting next to me in the Air New Zealand lounge had it as her ringtone. Her phone rang and I instantly thought, “My God, my phone is loud!” and immediately startling rummaging around for it. And she took hers out, hurriedly apologised for the volume, and raced off to take the call. Upon return, I find out that she is a Year 7-12 classroom music teacher from Auckland who also thought that no-one else in the world would have that ringtone.
One unplanned detour/venture: When Nick Brice had to message me from Pulteney to ask me for my Year 12 Music marks that I’d done weeks ago, but didn’t go into Synergetic. And I got this message in right in the middle of the epic TSA line check in Auckland, when I was trying to do the whole “liquids-laptop-rubber-glove-pat-down” shit and had a minor hernia going through that screening checkpoint, while already hating life because I was GOING through that checkpoint. Fast forward an hour and I read those marks out to Nick from the floor of the transit lounge with my laptop propped up on my backpack. I yelled out marks while concerned passengers made a wide berth from me, all the while listening for the announcement for this one connection that I couldn’t miss. Yes, this was certainly a new and unplanned experience for me, and one I would like not to repeat.
One act of kindness: A pair of absolutely gorgeous 4-year-old twins were looking at my stripy beany + scarf and decided to say hello. I went trekking around the plane with these two beautiful girlies so that Mum + Dad could have a little bit of dinner. And honestly, I wouldn’t sign up to do this with any kid. These were seriously lovely girls from a lovely family who were a healthy balance of curious, confident, playful, and polite. The only thing that hit me to the very core was when Little Miss Twin No. 1 proclaimed, “Excuse me, but you have a funny accent!” To which Little Miss Twin No. 2 replied, “Shhhhhhhh! That’s impolite! I think it’s lovely. And anyway, she can’t help it.”
Oh man. I’m dying.
20 minutes reading: Strength in Stillness [Bob Roth], a book on the art of transcendental mediation + focus. Very interesting!
30 minutes composing: Complete fail. Stared at the screen, squeezed out 16 crappy bars, put Sibelius away. I’ll survey the damage later.
Because I am first generation Chinese Australian and we don’t DO inside heating and cooling, I am presently wearing a beanie, several merino wool pullovers, down jacket, polar-fleece blanket, Explorer socks, Ugg boots, thermals, lined trackkies, and fingerless gloves. If you dropped me, I would bounce from all the padding.
Old habits die hard.
On the upside, I look like Maggie Smith in “The Lady in the Van”! She’s cool, so I must be!
I pulled out a white hair this morning and discovered that it was going “back to black” (reference totally intended 😁) at the root. 😎
I felt AWESOME! 🙌
I felt INVINCIBLE! 👊
And this feeling of invincibility lasted until approximately Lesson 2, Year 7 Prac. 😂