I am chatting with Susan De Weger, a horn player originally from Queensland. You studied horn at the Queensland Con, and the reason why I thought you would be a great guest is you've done a variety of different things in your career so far, and you're a big advocate for things like innovation and entrepreneurship and you've worked all around the world with a variety of different projects. What are some of the projects you've done overseas before you came back to Australia?
Well, the reason that I'm interested in helping musicians find new pathways and new ways to lead flourishing lives is because I was a musician who had to leave music at the end of my undergraduate degree. I was completely locked down into thinking the conservatory was the end point and something magical would happen when I graduated, and like for most of us this was not the case, so I ended up moving out of music altogether and having a business career because I was never going to win a job in an orchestra. I'm a competent player, but the commitment and talent and sole focus it takes to be at that level was not who I was, and not who I am today. So I couldn't see any other pathways for me - the only thing that the music school presented as a success or an outcome out of my training was a job in an orchestra, and that wasn't going to happen for me. So I ended up walking away from music because I couldn't see any way forward. I began working in a big Tool Event Management company here in Australia, which was still a very creative job that pulled on the things that I'm good at like communicating with people and organising. Then I moved to the UK with my husband - he's in IT and had a very successful consulting business here in Australia. We moved to England for me to do my Tool Management job, but we could see that there was a bit of gap in the market for the sort of business he had here in Australia. So I jumped across and helped him grow that business. I was general manager of the business, which looks after all the back-end of the business, and he managed the front-end. He had all the credentials on the software that the clients wanted to see and then I ran the back-end of the business, and we grew that to a pretty successful enterprise over a couple of years. All that time I hid the fact that I was a musician.
What was that experience like?
It was really challenging! It was a period of 16 years where I was really conflicted about what my musical identity was, because my story was that I'd failed because I didn't get the job in the orchestra, so there were very few people I spoke to at that time when I wasn't being involved in music who I was open to about the fact that I was a degree-qualified musician. That was a really tough time actually, just keeping that locked down - the self-belief and identity that I am a musician. It's who I am but it's not what I'm doing right now. That was a really challenging period of about a decade and a half. And then we sold the business in England and came back to Australia with our young family, and at that point I really needed to work out who I was and what had happened to me because I just couldn't continue to live a life where my musical story was that I was a failure. I just couldn't live with that anymore! Because I had had success in other areas of my life, and I thought, I know how to apply some of the skills I've got to do different things, so what happened with music? Am I really just a rubbish horn player?
It's interesting, those thoughts, because they're something that's prevalent in music education. The dialogue around having those thoughts and talking about the reality of pursuing a career in the performing arts field - what should I think about this? What are the thoughts that I should be having if I want to move away into another field?
Is it okay for me to think about not being a performer? There are two thoughts out of that, one that musicians aren't just performers - all musicians do many things, though we only see the performance part. And that it's okay to train as a musician and derive your income doing something else and still call yourself a musician! We don't see that story being put in front of us very often. But there's lots and lots of very high-level musicians with day jobs as doctors and engineers and they are very fulfilled as musicians, and they are in control of their creative output and their involvement. Those who are struggling to try and carve out a full-time performance career are often not connected to the joy of their music - they're taking gigs that are not that satisfying because they "need the money", and so I see a real disconnect between those who are deriving their creative success out of high level music making and those who are really struggling to find a sense of balance between great creative output and internal satisfaction about the 'who am I and what am I doing', and control over what they're doing too! In a full-time freelance professional life there's often little control in having to take everything...
Exactly - you have to pay the rent and the bills are coming in...
Right, and instead of building that ownership of your creative output you're forced into taking everything. I have a rule of thumb for gigs: it's got to be great people, great charts or great money and if it does two of those three things it means I'm really happy, and very occasionally it's three of those three things! If it was all about the money, as in being paid to play equals success then I'd be taking a load of gigs that aren't very satisfying and wouldn't make me feel good. Having come back as a mature student and doing a graduate performance degree in my 40s, I've been able to work through this and think well what does being a professional musician look like for me? Am I going to be able to build income streams to support myself and my family? How am I going to be creatively satisfied? How am I going to have a good impact on the people around me and be a positive musician who is really happy and excited every time they pick up their instrument?
You mentioned that you came back to study the horn in your forties in Melbourne at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and alongside that I noticed you have a sentence on your website that says you're "healing your musical identity". What did you mean by that in relation to studying again?
When I came back to Australia, like I said, I needed to work out and unravel what had happened. When I finished my undergraduate studies I kind of slammed a door on Susan as a musician and I needed to work out who I was. Am I a musician and what's that going to mean? I had let two people's verdict on my playing on one day be my internal story about who I was. I let them telling me I was no good be the truth and I couldn't live with that anymore - I needed to own it again and be able to say success for me is this and I control it, rather than let success for me be something uncontrollable like winning a job, because there are too many variables in that. So it was a long process over that eighteen months of working out all the inner work. What does success mean for me? How am I going to balance high-level creative output with deriving an income? Because it's difficult to live indoors and eat food from playing your instrument. We're a small country, we only have eight full-time orchestras, it's pretty hard going! So I'm not going to be able to connect my sense of fulfilment as a musician or my success to other people booking me a gig.
Hear the rest of Susan and Ben's conversation here.
Double Depresso is a new podcast series featuring conversations with performers about mental health and negative thoughts in the arts world and beyond hosted by Ben Turner.
Ben is an Australian bass trombonist and an advocate for mental health awareness in the arts. He is currently based in Berlin, Germany and has performed with the Sydney Symphony and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra as a casual musician on many occasions. He has also appeared with a variety of ensembles in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
As a freelance musician, Ben has collaborated with many performers from different corners of the arts world and believes in the need for safe spaces for performers to feel a little less alone in managing the societal pressures of working in the arts world.
Double Depresso is available on iTunes, Omny, Stitcher or any other podcast streaming service.