Posted by Elena Phatak
Monday 21st October, 2013

After a long morning and a very bumpy flight from Armidale in yet another tiny plane, I am finally writing this blog 12192m up in the air, on my way back to Perth – rather a different setting to the comfort and safety of the little Armidale cottage in which I wrote my first post. If we had thought the first two days of Regional Residency were an adventure, the next ten days only became even more exciting, enjoyable and exhausting. Our days and nights were packed with six main activities: school and youth orchestra workshops, tutoring, public concerts, road trips, long hours of rehearsal, and getting to know the three amazing musicians I have been lucky enough to work with in this program. While the volume of what we have done could probably fill a small novel, I’ll try and pick out some of the highlights of our tour, and how touring in a chamber group was one of the most rewarding experiences any of us have ever had!

The four of us agreed that working with schools and youth orchestras provided us with some of the most memorable moments of our trip. In the ten days following my first blog, we put on about twelve concerts and workshops for many different schools and youth orchestras around regional New South Wales, including Black Mountain Primary, PLC Armidale, Ross Hill Primary, Tingha Primary, Bishop Druitt in Coffs Harbour, Armidale High, Duval High, and Armidale Youth Orchestra. In these concerts, we alternated playing excerpts from our repertoire with talking about our journey as musicians, explaining what it was like being involved in AYO, and interacting with the audience. In these sessions, what struck me the most was that I’d never come across kids as curious as these; they were willing and enthusiastic to learn as much as they could! With this curiosity, however, came some rather interesting questions and observations – we soon learnt the value of thinking quickly on our feet! Some were utterly unexpected, such as “I have a violin made from cow bones”, “Did violin strings used to be made out of humans?”, “Are your parents as famous as you are?”, and “Do the vibrations from playing the strings feel like a neck massage?” Other questions were so surprising and so clever that we learned just as much from answering these questions as they learned from our actual answers. Some of our favourites were “How does a violin work?”, “What was the name of the person who invented of the cello spike?”, “How do you know how to play notes?”, and “Why isn’t a cello called a bass violin?” These concerts were incredibly fun, and it was wonderful to be able to play for and talk to these kids and their teachers.

During the trip, we also had the privilege to play in, and tutor, chamber groups and orchestras from schools and youth orchestra groups around the area. We found it challenging, yet exciting, to learn and teach pieces to others, especially when we hadn’t necessarily played the works ourselves! Our own experiences playing and being tutored in AYO programs definitely came into play in these sessions, and much of the knowledge and stories that we shared we had learnt as part of playing in AYO.

The Residency program featured four public concerts – in Uralla, Glen Innes, Tamworth and Coffs Harbour. Each town and venue was as fascinating and quirky as the next, and we thoroughly enjoyed playing in all the venues, from the chapel converted into a cinema in Glen Innes, to the flour-mill-turned-beautiful-old-gallery in Uralla. In each venue, we had an hour-long sound check before each concert. We learned their importance quickly, as we had to adjust our sound and technique to best suit the acoustics of each of the different performance spaces, in a very short space of time. All of our concerts were well attended – either filled to capacity or the largest crowd the venue had attracted for a concert series – and we loved talking to our audience members post-concert, hearing about their own musical journeys, and their support and love of music in these regional towns.

We wouldn’t have been able to get to all of these wonderful places, however, if it hadn’t been for many, many long hours of road tripping across the beautiful Australian countryside. Important lessons were learnt: make sure not to drive away with the boot (containing all the instruments) open, you’re not on a regional tour unless you have to stop for five minutes to wait for a herd of cows to cross the road, and yes, Armidale really only does have two traffic lights in the entire town. Car games were invented and played for hours on end, and we cannot thank the amazing Meredith Potts and Sam Torrens enough for tirelessly accompanying us everywhere… and for putting up with some rather loud and interesting music choices. 

It wasn’t always fun and games though – some days we would be rehearsing and preparing for up to seven hours for our concerts and sessions. The New England Conservatorium of Music (NECOM) was our host for these rehearsals, and we are incredibly grateful to them for providing a place to rehearse, and for helping us with any problems we had along the way. Michele Walsh joined us for two and a half days, and imparted to us invaluable advice about our repertoire, and about learning to work musically in a quartet in a very short space of time (as well as other pearls of wisdom, such as “As long as you eat your haloumi Pat, your spiccato will be fine”).

In a chamber group however, you can’t just work together well musically; you have to be able to get along with one another outside of rehearsal time (especially when you’re spending every waking hour with them, talking, cooking, shopping and relaxing). I was lucky enough to be working with, and getting to know, three marvellous musicians. Our spare time was spent going for runs with one another, having dance parties (you really need to see Joseph’s medal-winning Irish dancing), sing-offs, footy matches, juggling, and showing off our cooking prowess (or BBQing, in Pat’s case). We went on adventures through the countryside, from the breathtaking Dangar Gorge and bushland in Armidale, to toboggan races at the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour. Together, not only did we overcome learning a program of demanding beautiful music – we also conquered a snake encounter, gigantic burgers, and all losing our voice at some point during the program.

Even though I’ve only parted from this whirlwind journey a few hours ago, I am already starting to get homesick for our little Armidale cottage, and missing the people that became both my musical colleagues and adopted family for almost two weeks. This experience has been humbling one; I have learnt so much about working and travelling in a chamber group, and how much joy bringing music to other people can be.

- Elena Phatak (violin)

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