Tell us about your passion for music…… how did it all come about?
Well, when I was about three years old I asked my parents for a violin. I had actually never seen a violin and my parents, not being musical in the slightest, had no idea where I had got this idea from! According to my parents, the only time they think I may have had exposure to classical music was at the crèche I went to. So after much pestering on my end they bought me a plastic violin. I was disgusted! I knew it wasn’t the real deal and I was only about four years old. An uncle of mine had an old guitar and so he gave it to my parents to see if I liked it, but I was having none of it. I went to the kitchen, found a chopstick and thought ‘this would make a great bow’. I somehow lifted the guitar and propped it up on my shoulder, grabbed my ‘bow’ and began moving it across the strings. To my disappointment it didn’t make the prettiest sound…
Quite soon after that my parents thought they should enrol me in some music lessons, but they had no idea where to begin looking. They knew no one who had ever done classical music, so they opened the phonebook and eventually stumbled on a music school who just so happened to be having an open night for potential new students. Within a few weeks I was enrolled in one of the best music schools in Ireland, Leeson Park School of Music.
What’s your background?
I grew up in Lucan, which is a suburb on the outskirts of Dublin. I was very fortunate that the majority of my family lived there, including both sets of grandparents. I was an only child until I was eight years old and then my sister Isabelle was born, which made me quite upset because I didn’t have a brother! Just before she was born my dad jokingly said that if it was a girl that he and I would move up to the mountains and live in a tent. I didn’t think it was a joke…But when I met Izzy for the first time I changed my mind and was glad I had a sister.
I attended the local Irish speaking primary school, which I am thankful for. The Irish language ‘Gaeilge’ is a dying language with roughly 3-5% of the population that choose to speak it as their first language. My parents drove me to the city for private music classes 3 times a week for 13 years – unfortunately, the public music education system in Ireland is non-existent.
After finishing primary school I went to the Irish speaking Secondary School next door and was there for 4 years, until my life changed. We were moving to Australia! Within 6 months of finding out our visa had been approved, we were on a one way ticket to Perth.
How do you find the time to do it all? What’s your secret to ‘making time’ for everything?
This is by far one of the most challenging things as a musician. The key is to be organised and focused. You need to be realistic with your goals and you must make sacrifices in order to be able to make the time. A trap that many people, including myself fall into is the inability to say NO. It is never rude to say no! You must remember that you’ll never be able to please everyone. It is difficult to balance all aspects of life and it’s easy for someone to become a workaholic. What I find helps is if I dedicate 100% of my focus to a task in short bursts I will be more productive.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My days right now…and for most of my life have consisted of a lot of time isolated in a room practicing my instrument. I usually try to fit in 3-4 hours of practise into a day, 7 days a week, which can come as a shock to non musical people.
This allocated time does not include rehearsals, so my typical day starts around 9am. I only ever do practise blocks of 45 minutes maximum, with 15 minute rest intervals in between. After 45 minutes the body begins to struggle. It is the stage where people begin to lose focus on the task at hand, start making sloppy mistakes, and are more prone to injury.
I am attending the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne at the moment and they really go to great lengths to educate us on our physical and mental wellbeing, because believe it or not most professional musicians suffer pain at some point in their careers.
I also try to get to the gym or go for a run at least 3 times a week.
You took a creative leap of faith choosing music as a career. Did you ever wonder if you were doing the right thing?
I don’t think anyone ever knows if they are doing the right thing. Music is a particularly difficult industry to have a sustainable career in, but it is not impossible. In a lot of aspects it is far more rewarding as a career due to the flexibility and creative freedom. At the same time it can be the scariest because there can be months with an empty calendar. I personally love this and have learned to find it exciting.
Eventually though I want to play in a professional orchestra here in Australia. Many people ask if I want to study in Europe, but my answer to that is that I think it is over rated. Many fellow students have a romanticised view of Europe, thinking they’ll go and come back as a changed person with a unique perspective on music. They soon find out that many things are the same as Australia, there are excellent musicians but there are also lazy ones who aren’t giving 100%.
How did you make it happen?
Hard work, great support from my family and friends, and excellent teachers.
What were the costs of choosing to follow your passion?
Almost 18 years of music lessons. Thankfully my parents always supported me and continue to.
What was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
When I first auditioned for WAAPA it was on violin and I was sure I would get in no problem. I soon found out that other people had received their offers and I hadn’t. It was then that I received a phone call from the head of strings saying he wanted to give me a lesson and have a chat, so we arranged a time the following week. It was probably one of the most intimidating experiences of my life, and after I played for him and another tutor they suggested I should try the viola … this is every violinist’s worst nightmare.
When someone says that you should transition to the viola it is simply a nice way of saying “you are not going to make it playing the violin.” At the time I found it quite difficult to accept that I would not make it as a violinist. It would have been easy to ignore this suggestion and simply go to a different university, after all, I had an offer from another university that would take me as a violinist!
So I thought long and hard about the options I had and I came to the conclusion to give the viola a shot. To my surprise I instantly fell in love with the instrument’s sonority, and felt it was just meant to be. I persisted and had soon built my confidence back up. Before I knew it I had a bachelor of music!
Why is it important to be brave when you decide to do something like create music? Can you give us some examples of when you’ve had to dig deep and be brave?
Everyone I have spoken to has at some point felt like they weren’t good enough to be performing music. What is important to remember is that the musicians are there to serve a purpose, and that is to honour the composer and the piece that they’ve written.
I went through an awful period of self consciousness and doubt whilst onstage. It gets no easier and the feeling never goes away, but it becomes manageable the more you perform. I constantly have to remind myself that the music is not about me and that if I have prepared well then there’s no need to worry. Obviously people are there to hear me play, but they want me to succeed because they are there to enjoy themselves, not to watch me fail!
What are the tough aspects of creating music?
Working with other people in an ensemble can be particularly tough. Each person has a different view on the piece, and also have different personalities and personal experiences that can influence their view of a piece. For me, a tough thing to accept is that your view is not always the one that others will like, and in an ensemble the majority wins, no matter how emotionally attached your view is.
Who is your role model and why?
I have many role models in all sorts of different fields. In terms of music, Jascha Heifetz is someone who I admire because of his technical excellence and control of the violin.
Steve Jobs, founder of Apple has made me feel like anything is possible if I put my mind to it. He was also one of the best presenters onstage and was able to get the best out of people and encouraged them to achieve what they thought was impossible.
UFC fighter Conor Mcgregor has an unshakable confidence and I love when he speaks about how the body moves and how to believe in yourself.
Finally, Richard Gill is an inspirational man and a person who is making a huge change in musical education in schools in Australia. Not only that, but he has a unique talent where he can remember everyone’s name in a room, even if he’s just met them for the first time.
What is the best advice you have received?
In your ongoing adventures with our beloved art which we spend a lifetime trying to reconcile with what can be a brutal profession, choose quality over quantity whenever possible when the two prove to be incompatible, as it is the former which gives the greater satisfaction to both artist and listener – William
Why do you do what you do?
There are a few reasons. Music is fun and you get to interact with people, including fellow musicians but also the audience. I recently did a regional residency in a small town called Bermagui, NSW with my string quartet: Penny Quartet. It was such an amazing experience surrounded by inspirational people and beautiful scenery. We had the opportunity to do educational workshops at schools there and this helped me realise how important it is to inspire young kids.
What lessons have you learnt along the way?
Never to accept anything sub-par from yourself. Only you will know if you have given it your best shot.
What discoveries about yourself have allowed you to realise your passion for music?
I have realised over time that I can be quite impatient with myself. I just want things to happen there and then, particularly when it comes to fixing technical aspects of my playing. These things take time and won’t just happen over night.
What keeps you awake at night?
Not much. I usually get a good sleep.
What gets you up in the morning?
Guilt! I feel guilty if I am lazy. There always room to improve in my playing, so that usually gets me out of bed pretty quickly.
How has pursuing your art changed your life?
It has helped me to accept nothing but the best standard of playing in myself. I am very harsh on myself if I don’t perform to my optimum capability, or if I am badly prepared. I’ve also learned how to communicate with many different people and different personality types.
What’s next for you? What does the future hold?
Penny Quartet travelled to America in mid June to take part in a summer seminar run by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Stanford University. We then have a few concerts in Brisbane, and later in the year we play at Quartethaus, as part of the Melbourne Festival.
In the future I hope to have a job in a professional orchestra.
What’s the secret of your success?
I firmly believe that you must dedicate your entire focus to one thing at a time.
What advice would you give anyone who dreams of pursuing their artistic passion and talents?
Do it! But be warned that sometimes people like the idea of pursuing the Arts, but are not dedicated enough to make it a career, or soon find out that it is not for them. If you are willing to work hard for it then DO IT.
What advice would you give anyone who isn’t doing what they love?
If you’re not able to do something you love as a career that is understandable, but make time to do it as a hobby. There is a great TED talk that the cellist Michael Goldschlager presented, explaining about the difference between interests and passions.
How do you think each of us can live the fullest life possible?
I think Steve Jobs summed it up pretty well:
A Bit of Fun:
People who inspire you: Eminem
Happiest place: On stage
Biggest passion in life: Music
Most inspiring film you’ve seen: Once
Most inspiring book you’ve read: Inner Game of MusicBest light-bulb moment: Don’t think I’ve had one yet!
Anything is possible… what’s your wish? That children are exposed to proper music education, even if they don’t pursue it. Sticking on a Lady Gaga song is not music education!(yes that actually has happened)
Philosophy you live by: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Steve Jobs
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.