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Regional musicians and their maddening quest for the hustle

Interviewing student musicians who moved to Sydney for their craft.

Of the 68,673 students who took the NSW Higher School Certificate in 2020, only 688 sat the Music 2 course and 400 took Music Extension. Studying music in school is rare to begin with, let alone in regional towns. According to the University of Melbourne, “rural and remote communities have less access to specialist music tuition than students in cities, which limits their musical careers.” In such a limiting environment, regional musicians have, out of necessity, developed a wide array of powerful learning methods to help carry themselves through to higher education. Whether they relish or resent the time they spent under these limitations growing up, many say that they’re proud of the resourcefulness, hunger for knowledge and resilience they had to draw on which they still, either consciously or subconsciously, draw upon today.

Interested in this phenomenon as a regional musician myself, I decided to interview three regional conservatorium students. Emma Russell, a second year, first began learning classical trumpet in Bathurst, NSW at the age of 10. Estelle Shircore Barker, who grew up in Apollo Bay, VIC is a third year studying classical piano. Oscar Eager is a fourth-year jazz trumpet player from Bellingen, NSW.

Tell me about the country town you grew up in.

Emma: Bathurst is a rural town approximately three hours away from Sydney. The majority of residents are agricultural experts or car racing enthusiasts, so a passion for the arts hasn’t really developed there. Educational resources are limited, which results in a higher education system that excludes any students looking to study anything niche.

Estelle: Apollo Bay is a beautiful little beachside town with a population of about 1500. About a three-hour drive from Melbourne, it is quite isolated, but an idyllic spot and somewhere I love to return to.

Oscar: Bellingen’s high school had an amazing music teacher who ran several ensembles, including a town orchestra. We had a yearly jazz festival and local musicians would happily mentor anyone.

What was your experience like growing up in the country as a musician?

Emma: I didn’t have a very good experience. I had to do all of my music subjects through distance education. I also had virtually no opportunities in Bathurst to perform – because I didn’t have guidance, I had to resort to picking apart every aspect of my playing myself. Although this helped me progress, it also formed a perfectionist outlook which still affects me today. I had no like minded peers at school and none of them understood what I did. However, it pushed me even more and gave me a goal to get to the Sydney Conservatorium.

Estelle: I grew up in a small and supportive community, but it was difficult at times as I was the only one doing classical music. I was very fortunate to have parents who would drive me to eisteddfods and lessons hours away; without them I don’t think pursuing music would have been  viable .

Oscar: I was very lucky to grow up in a town that heavily embraced the arts, although I feel that I missed out on the city gig scene. I would’ve thrived off being exposed to a variety of musical niches, genres and ideas, which is much broader in bigger cities.

Would you say overall that you enjoyed growing up in the country as a musician?

Emma: I think that it gave me a lot of resilience, however in terms of opportunities and experiences it is very lacking. Musicians from cities have so many more advantages in regard to teachers, ensembles and also just having like-minded musicians to talk to and grow with.

Estelle: I did, in the sense that growing up in the country gave me a broader set of life experiences from which I have been able to draw from to add to my music. I didn’t, in that it was much harder to access opportunities.

Oscar: Yes, I definitely got a lot out of it and was gladly humbled moving to the city. I think in a country town you have to be more self-motivated and have a deep connection to music. I also think having to search for opportunities in a new place is very rewarding, and maybe living in the same city your whole life might not be as thrilling or inspiring – you need new experiences to grow as a musician.

Do you think that musical opportunities in the country are generally smaller in number and value than the city?

Emma: Yes, I do. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have if it wasn’t for having extremely supportive parents who would often drive me to Sydney for lessons. They also supported me when applying to higher level youth orchestras from around the state.

Estelle: Yes. In a way though, some of my small-town music experiences were really beneficial. I was able to hold full-house solo recitals fairly regularly growing up. They helped me become a much more confident soloist today.

Oscar: I have spoken to a few Sydney people who have had fewer musical opportunities for being in a certain school or suburb. It’s definitely still a lottery about which particular area you end up in.

Do you think the lack (or abundance) of opportunities in your country town led to a sense of opportunism in your work ethic today?

Emma: The lack of opportunities definitely led to me becoming proactive and taking as many opportunities as I can get.

Estelle: I think so. I am definitely much more aware of grabbing any opportunity that presents itself now, as they were so much harder to access when I was beginning my musical journey. 

Oscar: Sadly, this is something that I don’t think I really got out of my town, although I still did create a lot of opportunities for myself by forming bands and playing gigs at festivals and restaurants.

Would you call yourself a jack of all trades or a master of one? Which do you think is more important for the modern musician?

Emma: I definitely specialise in orchestral music. However, I am always open for other experiences as I think it is important to be flexible.

Estelle: I think it’s too early in my career to say. I believe the modern musician needs to have a diverse skill set, but not where you compromise other aspects of your playing. There is such a thing as spreading oneself too thin, and I think it’s something to be conscious of, especially if you find yourself leaping at every single possibility that goes by.

Oscar: Definitely a jack of all trades, although I’ve been specialising a bit more since my degree only focuses on jazz and not so much classical music or music of other cultures other than African-American music.

Overall, do you think growing up in the country has helped your learning style and motivation levels?

Emma: It was great for motivation and has made me eager to learn. However, I don’t have many positive feelings towards the country and I much prefer the city.

Estelle: Early on I knew I needed a serious work ethic to achieve anything from where I was. This has had a positive impact on the musician and student that I am now.

Oscar: I think definitely positive.

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