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  • Writer's pictureHolly Mathieson

NZ University Graduate's Association speech, 2019

It’s a pleasure to come and speak to you this evening. I am myself a NZ University graduate. I graduated from Otago, twice-over, and owe the university an enormous debt of gratitude for the grounding and early professional opportunities it gave me. My degrees at Otago were in composition and music analysis, as an undergraduate, and music iconography as a doctoral candidate. But I now work exclusively as a conductor, working with orchestras, opera companies and ballet companies around the world.

Are there any musicians here – professional, amateur, bathroom…?

Well, you will all have some idea of what a conductor does, but to most people, we’re the old white guy with a German accent at the front of the orchestra, waving his arms mysteriously and tapping a little white stick on the music stand irritably in rehearsal. The depressing thing is that the stereotype holds true for a great number of my colleagues.

There are two analogies that better represent what a conductor does. The first is a close parallel – imagine the work of a film director. They play a part in choosing the screenplay, research the period, surrounding culture, language, geography of the setting. They not only learn what every character says, but they also use a broader and deeper understanding of the script to form decisions on how those lines will be delivered, filmed from which angle, in what kind of costume, with what sort of lighting and how subtle facial expressions and gestures might communicate a subtext to the viewer.

The conductor does the equivalent with a musical score. We are silent, in performance, but we form as broad and deep an understanding of each piece of music as we can, and use that insight to enable the players to perform it not only to the best of their abilities, but also producing a performance as close as possible to what we understand the composer’s intentions to have been. And as complex as musical notation is, there is still ample room for ambiguity, and in most cases the composer is long dead. So at the end of the day, the conductor has the final say on how to interpret the piece. And you can guarantee that 60% of the musicians in the room will disagree with the decisions you’ve made, so much of your work will be persuading them. That work happens almost entirely in rehearsal. Depending on the budget, and the music being played, that rehearsal period can take anything from a couple of hours for a quick in-and-out gig or recording session at Abbey Road, to a month or so for a fully staged opera. The average orchestral concert at Festival Hall on a Friday night will have had 1 or 2 full days of rehearsal.

The second analogy relates more to the physical act of conducting, our gesture, in performance. It is most like piloting a modern plane. There is some active work to be done in getting the plane off the ground, pointing in the right direction and with clear information to the staff, and we need to control the landing very carefully. Funnily enough, like a plane journey, those are the moments in a performance where we are most likely to crash… But actually, once it is in the air, and on course, we are best to stay out of the way, to some degree, until we feel a wing dipping to the side, or something occurs that means we need to change course unexpectedly. At that point, we retake control of the metaphorical plane, put out the fire, get the flight back on course, and then let the engine do its work again until it is time to land.

My first conducting teacher had a far more succinct summation of the job: 1% music and 99% group psychology.


Going to University in the late 90s, it never occurred to me that a woman couldn’t do this job. I was surrounded by female leaders – the Head of the Music Dept; the mayor, Sukhi Turner; the Chancellor of my university – the extraordinary Judith Medlicott; the prime minister, Helen Clark. Every aspect of my family life was led by almighty matriarchs, as in many NZ families. And interestingly, of the four professional conductors to emerge into the international scene from NZ in the last 10-15 years, 3 of us are small, rather feisty women.

So it really came as a shock to me to discover that that situation really was not indicative of the rest of the world. Globally right now, in terms of fully professional conducting positions in the world’s orchestras, opera houses and ballet companies, an estimated 3% are held by women. And that is after concerted global effort to shift the culture. To put that in perspective about 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. That would be a luxury in my field. If we think about further diversity factors, the numbers dwindle even further – the vast majority of conductors – male and female, are afterall from the more comfortable end of the middle class, fully able-bodied and disappointingly monochromatic. It is very much in the consciousness of the industry, as are the number of women and minorities represented in commissions for composers. But, as a highly skilled and incredibly competitive profession, the process of getting those numbers up will take a very long time. Consider that from the time I started studying at university at age 16 (I’m a proud high-school dropout), to the time I could consider myself fully professional and financially self-supporting as a conductor, covered a span of about 18 years. That doesn’t include the piano lessons I was subjected to by my grandmother from the age of age three, or the private composition lessons I received at Otago Uni from the age of 14. If I consider those as part of that professional development, my formal education took 32 years. That is a very long pipeline to negotiate, before we will see anything like equal representation on the conductor’s podium.

So, in considering what kind of frame I could place around this talk, I decided to reflect on how I managed to get to this point, and whether there were any tools that NZ, specifically, had given me.

When I really sat and considered it, I was quite taken aback by how many of the survival strategies and self-styled professional tools I’ve employed over the years I could relate back to my cultural heritage in NZ.


Classical music is one of those pathways in life that is steeped in traditions, rituals and habits. On an individual level, we are the product of an ancient playing and storytelling tradition, passed down to us from our teachers in the latest link in a centuries-old chain. We all have our own private (and often slightly superstitious) behaviours. Players will have very specific and idiosyncratic ways of warming up before a concert, slightly different to how they warm up before a rehearsal. There will be lucky socks and bras for concert days, specific chinrests on violins, religious trinkets in instrument cases, ways of dealing with pre-concert nerves, very specific and habitual eating and drinking patterns before and after concerts to manage energy levels, nervous tummies, dehydration and even digestive noises, for wind and brass players. Never eat a curry before playing the tuba. Then within the concert, we nearly always wear concert blacks, or bowtie and tails for the men, the orchestra tunes to the oboe, the concertmaster comes on and bows to applause, they sit. Then they stand up with the orchestra when the conductor enters to a second lot of applause. Then they sit again. There is more formalised walking, applauding, standing, etc after each piece, and of course at the end of the concert there is the cringe-worthy pantomime of coming on for several bows and then – surprise surprise – pulling out an encore that we just happen to have pre-prepared. It drives me quietly insane, but it is as essential a part of the ritual of concerts, as the music itself for many players and audience members.

However, it is – in part – because of centuries-old traditions like these that it remains a heavily class-biased industry. It is a bit like academia, medicine and the clergy, in that it is often a profession handed down within the family from generation to generation. The instruments themselves are very costly items for families to buy or hire. And cuts to arts provision at schools exacerbate the issue, as the only kids who have access to the sort of music teaching that will prepare them to a high enough level to gain entry to tertiary study in their instrument, are those whose parents can afford private lessons. Yet the personal, physical, emotional and societal benefits of involvement in the arts are common knowledge to most of us, and the creative industries contribute over £100 billion to the UK economy per annum. That’s more than four times the contribution of agriculture, and only marginally less than that of the financial sector, which generates about £119 billion, I believe.

For all that, however, art music itself necessarily, and rather oddly, sits outside the commercial exoskeleton of our society. I have a distant family member, a very wealthy businessman and chartered accountant, who very proudly told me that he’d invested in a new west end musical, and believed he would get a very good return on his money, as it seemed assured of commercial success. I was sort of amazed that he’d even followed the thought in that direction, not least because the kind of capital in which the arts deal is not fiscal. It is social and societal. It’s about your emotional wellbeing, promoting or embedding your identity and marking the cornerstones of your life – first loves, first breakups, weddings, funerals, favourite TV shows, military occasions, political movements, helping you train for marathons, providing catharsis for unresolved grief. But also, I didn’t want to tell him that the more money music makes, often the lower its inherent quality – in the same way that independent films are usually far better than massive commercial studio releases in every conceivable way other than the final line of the budget. The arts are a privilege, in more ways than one.


So how does a girl from Dunedin end up at the current epicentre of the music world, the UK, with a few scars, bumps and bruises to show, but still enough enthusiasm and optimism to be getting back on the podium every day? Well, I owe a great deal to the hand of cards dealt to me in NZ.

Let’s consider the way the class structure of UK society predetermines the pathways of so many people here. I’m sure mine is not the only field of work to see the results of it first-hand. To be honest, when I first arrived here, I was naively surprised that the class structure still existed. I had assumed that it was a 19th C relic, something in period films. But it soon became clear that to me that the CEOs and directors in my industry came from a very narrow demographic, promoted those with the same educational backgrounds and values, and had I would say a certain conservatism in their attitudes and practices, if not necessarily their politics.

My first job in the UK was as the librarian at the Philharmonia Orchestra – it’s a sort of old-fashioned job, part-archivist, part-servant, preparing the music for every single rehearsal and concert. Repairing the decades-old sets of Beethoven symphonies that they’ve been playing from since Karajan was the Music Director in the middle of the 20th Century; creating bespoke scores and parts for live orchestra film screenings, sourcing obscure source material for conductors. I toured the world with them 365 days a year, it was incredible.

When I first arrived, it took me a very long time to decipher the various UK accents in the organisation – from the cut glass, BBC voices of the management, to the varied regional (though mainly Southern) voices in the players, to the thick Cockney and Essex twangs of the stage management crew. And if course, it took me a while to understand the significance of where all of those different accents ended up in the company structure. One of the great characters of the orchestra at that time was Steve, the stage manager and truck driver, a cheeky young chappie from Croydon who had a habit of swearing like a sailor in front of the visiting conductors but always seemed to get away with it. Brilliant at his job, always up for a pint after packing up from a gig, and hilarious fun on tour. I noticed, after some time, two things: first, his Croydonian twang increased in direct proportion to the perceived class of the people within earshot. And secondly, he treated me as an absolute equal, which was a source of great pride and relief to me.

There was another employee much higher in the management team, an older woman who had studied at a prestigious UK Ladies' College, was always impeccably dressed, sounded like a slightly softer version of Dame Maggie Smith and refused to talk to the players. She would have very formal conversations with the visiting megastar conductors about the weather, what time they would like their chauffeur to arrive, and other very British customary niceties. However, she seemed to encounter a strange predicament with me. She didn’t know where to peg me. I had a PhD, so she respected me. But I performed relatively menial tasks as the librarian, so I was clearly beneath her. I could tell rude jokes to Steve the stage manager and I came from the colonies, so was clearly lower class, yet could sit and analyse Mahler with the conductors she so revered, so I was to be respected. It led – actually – to a lovely working relationship. Not only did I have a sort of organisational freedom in that job, wearing jeans and sneakers day to day down in the library, which was then housed in an old bombed out crypt in a south London church, but I was also invited to dinner with the CEO and Chief Conductor, asked to conduct on occasion, once they knew what my training was in, and invited to consult on artistic and policy matters that were well beyond my contractual remit. I simply didn’t exist within their own social hierarchy, so they allowed me to float up and down, and sideways, in between the various firmly entrenched layers to which they were bound. It gave me access to opportunities, conversations and introductions I would never have had otherwise.

The classical music world is also shamefully nepotistic. My sister works in international and humanitarian law, and is mortified when I explain recruitment processes for orchestral positions. Yes, the players audition, but they then go on trial for anything up to 2 years, which can be cancelled at any point if they don’t play well, and even if they are technically the best player to audition, they won’t win the seat in the orchestra if the section players don’t get on with them. And no, they don’t advertise major conductors’ jobs, they just sort of get to know you, or know of you through your agent – which means your employability has less to do with you and more to do with the position of your agent in the pecking order. No transparency, no level playing field for newcomers. It is positively medieval in its HR processes. But, it actually works better that way. Like a sports team: the chemistry between players, and between the team and their coach is far more nuanced than mere skill. So the success of an orchestra relies, to a great extent, on being able to skirt around some aspects of employment law.

So how to break into this when you haven’t studied at the international conservatoires which form the gateways to the profession, if you haven’t studied under the teachers who act as the gatekeepers, and you don’t have a circle of colleagues already in the industry to throw you a key? How to gain entry to a closed system? Well, if you’re a kiwi, you submit your own funding applications, you run your own crowdfunding campaign and you put on your own gigs. There is a pioneering spirit in the way “outsiders” approach music-making in the capital. Rather than break into the system, we sort of create an alternative, system alongside it. And eventually, people look out the window and see what we’re doing. And often the genuine innovation happens on those outside ladders, so they have become an essential part of the industry ecosystem. We take the risk and act as little satellite petri dishes, and if it comes off, we gain entry to the establishment.

The downside of course is the bewildering and blood-draining amount of personal risk you take to establish some track record on your own, and I have to say there are a few forms of revenue gathering in my history which I probably won’t ever disclose to my mother. Most people give up after about 5 years of that. I’m stubborn. Or stupid. I’m not sure which. But I’m certainly glad I persevered as long as I did. The rewards more than make up for the years of privation. The knowledge and experience I gained through that process are gold dust, and the interpersonal skills and alternative mindset I needed to develop, are often lacking in my colleagues who sailed through public schools and the conservatoire system with no institutional barriers in their pathway. What we lack in connections, institutional endorsement and local experience, we make up for in resourcefulness, openness, and a freshness of approach to some of the problems caused by the traditions and hierarchies I mentioned earlier.

To that end, the hot words in arts provision in the last 5 years or so have been outreach and engagement. The standard approach for orchestras steeped in the European tradition (including those in countries like North America, NZ and Australia) goes as follows. We know the value of the arts, so we will bring it into your low-decile school, and take many photos of our musicians teaching your students from non-white backgrounds, or with disabilities. It is genuinely well-meaning, and always has a positive effect to some degree. It is, however, fundamentally and clumsily colonial. It has rankled with me for years, though it has taken me a long time to really get clear in myself about how I think it might be done differently.

One of my side projects at the moment is sitting on the board of directors for a company called formidAbility. It is recently incorporated and its entire premise is to make opera accessible to the (D)disabled community, not by adding accessibility elements like sign-language interpreters at the performance end of the process, but by using creative forms of expression for the disabled community – SignDance (which is like a heightened form of sign language into really expressive gestural language), touch tours, braille, and really creative audio description – as stimuli for the entire creative project. It is utterly unique in its approach and is already drawing attention from the wider industry as an exemplar for how we could all be better serving that portion of our community through performance. Its founder and brainchild is – surprise surprise – a small, feisty woman from NZ, Joanne Roughton-Arnold. She has an extraordinary voice, an enormous heart and just happens to be partially sighted. She is producing, singing, writing the funding applications, running the crowdfunding campaign, and doing all of the HR work from home to get the company off the ground. She won’t make a penny from it, personally, but there can be no argument that the project doesn’t have enormous value for many people.


So, do those years of hard graft as a freelancer in the arts pay off – and not only in the financial sense, as we’ve discussed, but taking into account every other marker of health: physical, emotional, mental, social? In my case, the answer is yes. I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be doing what I am, and with a level of financial security that has been hard fought for. And yes, I use the word lucky very deliberately – for all the strategizing, luck still plays an enormous part in success in my field, and quite possibly in many of yours. I work with the best orchestras in the world, call the most stunning concert halls and opera houses my workplaces for the week, and get to spend a decent amount of time preparing at home, and enjoying managing my own time to a degree. Funnily enough, an essential step in achieving that was leaving London. I know that is probably sacrilege to say to all of you, and Jon and I were both very concerned that in leaving we would somehow drop off the radar and lose our freelance contracts. In fact, the opposite happened. When we moved to Glasgow our quality of life improved so dramatically, in terms of how much of our income we managed to keep at the end of the month, how much time we had at home, cooking proper meals etc, and how little time we were spending on public transport. It meant that the quality of our work immediately rose, because we weren’t battling burnout. Stepping out of the capital gave us time for the underappreciated tool of relaxed pondering, an impossible fantasy in London, a guilty pleasure when you first leave, and – three years on – I now realise an essential part of my working week.

I am also in the privileged position of being able to pick and choose a little more – to take on projects that I feel very passionately about, even if they aren’t as rewarding financially in the short term as my everyday concerts. One such is a street orchestra in Scotland which Jon and I – he’s also a conductor – co-direct, the Nevis Ensemble. Our very simple motto is “music for everyone, everywhere”. We take a 40-piece orchestra of very good, but volunteer musicians to homeless shelters, psychiatric wards, children’s playgrounds, shopping malls, factory floors, tesco superstores and even up to remote highland villages. We play them symphonies, jazz charts, 80s pop hits, and new avante garde orchestral music, and then we stay for a cuppa, sometimes a meal. We encourage the players to actually go and sit with people, talk to them, hear their stories, and we aim to have every audience participating, dancing, clapping, creating some content with us in some way. Some of the concerts are planned; others are guerrilla-style pop-ups in supermarkets and malls, with security guards chasing us. In the first tour we did – which took in about a third of Scotland, over 2 weeks, we did 70 concerts to a combined audience of over 10,000 people many of which had never heard a live orchestra, and most of which were isolated in some way – socially, physically, geographically, psychologically, legally…

We have a strong relationship with refuweegees - the Glaswegian refugee support service – and the Glasgow night shelter for asylum seekers, a vital and severely under-resourced lifeline for asylum seekers who are in limbo and without accommodation. At one such gig, we were playing the great Scottish pop hit – I use the word great loosely – 500 miles, by the proclaimers. And, as we usually do with that song, we got someone from the audience to get up and conduct. He was a scrawny little man, with huge eyes who hadn’t spoken a single word since we got there. It took a great deal of coaxing to get him up onto the podium, and I can’t tell you what a vulnerable place the podium is even for a seasoned musician. The orchestra on one side, the audience on the other (and in his case, an audience of his fellow asylum seekers and support volunteers, with all of the complicated relationships that that scenario could contain). Jon, my husband, is a big northern bloke, so he wrapped his arms around this little guy, held his hand and helped him get started. Little by little he was able to step back until the man was literally leaping up and down on the podium, sweat flying, massive grin, laughing out loud while the orchestra played and danced around him, and the audience sang the chorus in full bellow.

I found Jon struggling to hold back tears afterwards, and asked him why. He said that when the man came and hugged him afterwards, he could feel every rib and vertebrae under his thin shirt. According to the staff, in three years, they’d never seen him smile.

Another concert found us playing a private concert for the Glasgow HIV/Aids support centre. We were playing in one of those lovely gated Georgian gardens, surrounded by a circus of houses, with the service users and staff sitting around on the lawn. I was conducting a very soft gentle piece by Judith Weir, the first woman to hold the role of Master of the Queen’s Music. It’s a very intimate, reflective piece. As we played a man went and sat on his own a little way off, under a blossom tree, and wept quietly. We of course, left him to it, and just kept playing. I asked the manager of the centre what his story was, and if he was ok. She said she had no idea. He’d come from somewhere on the West coast of Africa, as far as they knew completely alone, a few years earlier. He had never discussed his illness, and barely communicated with the centre. Just came for his health supervision, and attended the odd group event for the chance for a hot meal and some contact. This was the first time she’d seen him emote at all about his illness.

Sometimes the moment of the day that catches us off guard is as simple as a factory worker allowing the look of practised boredom to drop off their face for a second and close their eyes to listen. Or a teenager in a park in South Glasgow who is seemingly ignoring us while they play on their smartphone, but after a while you’ll see a wee foot start tapping in time, or hear a soft humming of the tune. Often they’re completely unaware they’ve engaged, and you just think, my work here is done – for that one moment. Most people, however, connect in a most visceral and enthusiastic way. Interestingly, almost without exception, the people who break down in tears, or cling to us at the end overwhelmed by having had been in such close contact to the music, full of emotions that they need to talk about, are older men.

One of the most important lessons we’ve learnt through the project, and take into our mainstream conducting work, is that it isn’t just about engagement and access for other communities: it’s a project in access, engagement and learning for the players and us. Pop up concerts on bleak, run-down highstreets in the central belt of Scotland have spawned conversations, cuddles and online connections that we would never have had otherwise, and a number of our young conservatoire players have decided that rather than following the traditional route of orchestral training, they want to move into music therapy working with troubled young people, adults with learning difficulties or advocating for music provision in low income schools.


So, has NZ played a part in that journey? I feel unequivocally, yes. I have a life of learning ahead of me as a conductor – they say, most conductors don’t really finish their training until they are about 80 – but many of the tools I have in my toolkit, which have helped me forge a way through this far are very closely linked to the values I grew up with in NZ. They play out especially in in the projects I shone a light on this evening, but also when I do the walk of death into a rehearsal room with a new orchestra on a Monday – it never grows less terrifying – and try to hold those values in my heart and head while I try to build a relationship with them in those first moments of putting my hand down for the first beat of music, and in the way I can both facilitate and learn from their music-making. Most of all, I hope in the coming years, I can be an outpost over here for the next generation of young musicians making their way over from NZ, and trying to orientate themselves in the UK. I hope I can teach them to value their otherness, and use it to their advantage, and to the advantage of the industry.

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