Katy, please tell us your story! How did you get to where you are today?
I started composing when I was in my late twenties. I was a musical kid going from instrument to instrument but didn’t study music at school. It was more for enjoyment. As a super quiet kid who stared out the window at school, I didn’t have a drive when I finished school and started a nursing degree then moved into a teaching degree – almost by accident. I’d call myself someone who ‘floated’ along.
When I decided to do composition my then husband and parents said ‘What, you mean like music composition?’. But I went back to Uni, did three more degrees in order to get my training. I started my PhD with no kids and finished on-time with three kids (including twins) but because I had support and I was really organised with my time, I got the learning I needed and my career grew with my kids. They’re young adults now and I think composing made me a better parent.
Over time, I took commissions, wrote music, made recordings, enjoyed collaborative relationships and the specifics of my practice emerged over time. I took a part-time academic position at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music where I grew into myself as an artist and the merging of my education background, my weird way into Composition and the other particulars of my life became what is now writing large concert and festival works as well as mentoring established and mid-career artists and Arts leaders which brings all the things I love to do, together.
What does your day-to-day entail?
No one day is the same but includes a mix of composing, meeting with artists, coffee, doing something with one or more of the three teenage boys, dreaming and developing strategy or teaching my post-graduate students. And I ALWAYS leave time for simply staring at the wall. I can’t help it. When I’m staring into space or out of the window, I’m processing conversations, ideas and music and although it feels (and looks) like time wasted, it’s usually the most in-flow I get. I also try and do some form of exercise each day. The most enjoyable exercise is strength training and I’d like to up that this year.
Do you feel that higher education is a necessary step to enter the music industry?
Although I’ve taught in higher education for many years it’s not a necessary step, although that totally depends on where your focus is. People enter the Arts in all sorts of different ways. Every story is unique.
Higher education was good for me because I didn’t start music seriously until my late twenties and as I already had an undergraduate degree in Education, the only way to get the kind of training I wanted, was through post-graduate study. I laugh because I never wanted to go to Uni when I finished school. And now I have four degrees. But it was the training I wanted. Higher education helps refine and develop technique and craft which was imperative for me, but there are many things higher ed doesn’t cover too.
Have you had to overcome any challenges or adversity in your career, and if so, how did you approach them?
The two main things I had to overcome was starting very late as a composer with little music background and being a non-performing person. The other thing was my own mindset; I felt very intimidated when I started out. I felt so far behind and I thought starting late was going to be a huge roadblock.
Who are your role models in the industry be they international or locally-based?
My role models are people who lead with personal courage. Musicians, artists, and people in general. Those that live lives that don’t settle. I’m like a magpie – I pick up models from all over the place (I do this with words for music too). I take models from the Arts and outside the Arts, in Australia and overseas, people I know and people I don’t. And integrate the helpful things I see in other people’s worlds and integrate those things into my own practice in my own way.
Let’s talk about the highs vs the lows of your career, what is your greatest achievement? Are there any moments you’d like to share that you learnt greatly from?
Gosh – yes, so many wins and lows. I think the lows for me are when I don’t have balance. It can be feast or famine. Famine doesn’t feel good but feast doesn’t either. When I’ve learned to balance – I get more and I have more to give to the people and projects at that time.
The highs are often listening to a piece performed by world class artists who take the dots on the page and use their inherent musicality to bring life to the music for the audience. It’s so satiating to hear a performance or recording of something you’ve devoted time and care into and see it impact people. One of the highs is having a sense of achievement on reflection – the awards, commissions, fellowships and five solo albums and importantly, the connections with the artists who perform my work – all add up to a career I am deeply proud of.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Self-trust is your greatest asset. Foster it.
Who has been your greatest champion in your career, who has helped you along the way?
I’m fortunate to be able to name many champions. I have had and have wonderful mentors across my career and other people in the industry who have looked out for me.
Composers Stuart Greenbaum and Brenton Broadstock in particular in the music industry but also my parents who looked after my children on and off when the kids were little. I couldn’t have done anything much without them. My close friendships build me up and my current mentor (in Canada) and collection of small biz women I connect with – they dream bigger than I do and keep me inspired.
And it’s hard not to mention the performers who perform my work – my biggest champions; some of my collaborators in Syzygy Ensemble, Ensemble Three, Roland Peelman, Zoe Knighton – Flinders Quartet, ABC who broadcast and record my work and The Australian Music Centre who represent me. Amongst many many others. What good fortune I have.
What do you think is the biggest threat to artists or the industry and what would you do to change it?
I meet the most incredibly talented artists who are also fantastic humans but sometimes they are following the career they think they should have and not the one they really (sometimes secretly) want. I work with established artists who are at the top of their game yet come to work with me so they can integrate that soul-stirring thing they want to do but are not sure how to.
Strategic and practical mentoring is absolutely underrated for artists. We need to develop a normalised deep mentoring practice in Australia. Like the sports industry. Often established artists feel alone in their careers; feeling they should be able to get where they are going because they ‘should’ know better – but they are not taking action. So they plod along wishing for more even though they look good on paper.
What would you tell your younger self if you can tell her anything?
I would tell her to not lose sight of her seven year-old self. Even though I was a super quiet kid and a seemingly distracted/vague child, I’m learning to go back to the essence of that seven year-old: gritty, imaginative, courageous and intuitive.
Do you have any activities that you do for self-care that are non-negotiable?
Having a mentor and daily time to myself are non-negotiables for me for self-care. As such, I’ve always worked with flexibility in my schedule – because everything is better when I get quiet time. My decisions are better, my health is better, and it helps me keep connected to the things and people that are important to me.
I’ve always sought out mentors who keep me honest, and who are in my corner and now I do the same for others. I love the trio of strategy, practicality and creativity. Time to myself and mentoring fits beautifully into that trio.
How firm are you with boundaries between work/life balance and how do you try to enforce them?
I’ve learned my internal peace is the most important thing. I don’t do well being ‘busy’. I measure the things I say yes and no to against my capacity, my values and I’ve learned to say no when I’d like to say no (not easy), so that I am saying ‘Hell Yes’ to the stuff I really want to do.
I’m mindful of my limitations and I love to be fully ‘in’ what I’m doing so although I don’t like saying no, I can – because I’ve less and less tolerance as I get older for being crazy busy. Therefore, it means that the projects I choose to do are really meaningful to me and I don’t need to find motivation. I get pulled though.
Any tips for a quick ‘pick me up’ if you’re having a bad day?
Yep. Dance, get a hug, eat a carrot, look at a flower and notice how incredible it is. I sometimes watch myself from the outside and talk to myself out aloud: ‘Look at me having a crap day’. It’s silly but it makes me smile when I lean in and not resist it quite so much.
What is your go-to Karaoke song?
Nope. No Karaoke. (Yep, know, I know). But I’m quite into Aurora’s Different Kind of Human this week for home Karaoke.