In Conversation: Shefali Pryor

In Conversation: Shefali Pryor

Career development and essential skills with Sydney Symphony Orchestra's Shefali Pryor. 

Shefali Pryor
Sydney, Australia

In Conversation: Shefali Pryor

Career development and essential skills with Sydney Symphony Orchestra's Shefali Pryor. 

As well as being the Associate Principal Oboe for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, you also wear a number of different hats that see you working as an artistic director and a mentor to young musicians. Can you tell me about the non-musical skills that playing an instrument have allowed you to develop, and how working away from your instrument inform your performance and vice versa? 

I think it’s impossible to separate musical and non-musical skills. Of course, the fine motor skills required to play our instruments on a purely technical level are very detailed and specific, but they would be meaningless without the ability to communicate and express ourselves.  Listening, communication, problem-solving, teamwork, self-analysis, patience, perseverance, resilience… these are all crucial to being a musician, but also quite universal. I do think that perhaps as classically trained musicians we don’t always recognise how these skills that we develop and hone in rehearsal and the practice room have a much broader application than we might imagine.

What I’ve learnt from the other hats I’ve worn over the years does now colour the kind of musician I want to be. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do what I do and make music for a living, but am also acutely aware that it takes a small army of people to get us on stage every night! So I feel that as musicians we need to engage in the processes that facilitate what we do, and understanding and contributing to all that goes into running a not-for-profit arts company in Australia is terribly important.  

Working with young musicians is constantly inspiring. It never hurts to be reminded of how it felt to play Mahler or Beethoven for the first time; to see the dedication and enthusiasm of the students and the remarkable progress they make, and to play a part in bringing it together can’t help but energise my own music making. As does something like our Vanguard program, which introduces new audiences to what we do in the orchestra. To be able to connect with someone who has never previously even thought to come to a concert is incredibly exciting.  When we’re putting together the programs it’s a lot of fun to be able to look at everything that an orchestra has to offer and try and see it from the perspective of someone who has zero preconceptions about what they’re going to hear. You can have a program with Berio, Gabrielli and a New Orleans funk arrangement and somehow it works, there’s something in there for everyone.  It gives us a lot of freedom to play with!

What does a regular day look like for you as a full-time orchestral musician, and where do you spend the few hours you have away from rehearsal and performance? How do you make sure you're striking a balance between work and life commitments? 

Every day is different, but the weeks do have a general plan of rehearsals towards the start of the week and concerts at the end. Rehearsal days run from 10-4 and there’s a general rehearsal in the morning before the first performance. For the rest of the week the time around performances is free for practice, preparation, teaching and any other personal projects like chamber music. It’s really healthy for us to keep an active musical life outside of the orchestra as well, as the energy you get from working with other players, styles and contexts comes back with you into the orchestra.

I’ve learnt (slowly) that I don’t have to say yes every time I’m asked to do something. So these days I try to make a bit more space for time off outside of the rehearsal schedule. And it’s just for the regular things, teaching, family, cooking, walking my pooch, plus I try to get out of Sydney hiking as often as I can. I also do quite a bit of long distance running which serves the double purpose of keeping me fit and helping clear my head and manage my nerves. 

It’s a balance that constantly fluctuates, but in the end being a musician is who I am and I’m more than happy to have this mould the way I live my life - it’s a privilege!

You'll be speaking on the upcoming Music Love panel about creating a career in music as a female performer, and the difficulties and hurdles that one must jump to get there. What challenges do young musicians and music students face in the classical industry? 

I am very lucky to have had a fairly direct path into an orchestra job, and also to work in an industry where I have never felt limited as a woman. But I know from speaking to older colleagues, or looking at an orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic, that this is relatively new and it’s certainly not something I take for granted!

The reality is that the nature of our work is constantly changing and so the challenges faced by students will continue to change too. Where previously there was a standard trajectory of moving from university into a orchestral career, those careers are becoming broader and more varied. With a limited number of full time jobs available in the country, students are also needing to develop the skills to manage active freelance careers which very likely span musical genres and also include teaching. From within the orchestra we all wonder what an orchestral job will look like in 30 years and I’m sure this plays on the minds of younger musicians coming up now. But I’m actually constantly inspired by the creativity and flexibility shown by musicians in the pathways they pursue and the opportunities they make for themselves.  

Some challenges will always stay the same though. When it comes to being a classical musician there is an investment of time in the practice room and a kind of single-minded focus that just can’t be skipped. But the resources available to students now are quite astounding; there is such an ease of access to recordings, online performances and masterclasses.  Inspiration and knowledge are becoming easier and easier to find, and we need to make the most of this no matter what point in our career we’re at.

When you are rehearsing a new piece of orchestral music, what does your process of learning that work look like? Is it different to how you approach a piece of solo repertoire?

The process of preparation for orchestral vs. solo works is a little different, as the technical demands are often quite different. We work through new programs every week in the orchestra, so this repertoire needs to be learnt quickly. It’s generally (though by no means universally) not so technically demanding, but I need to maintain a good technical level to be able to respond quickly. I will start by listening, then work on any tricky bits, and spend some time making reeds (the curse of life as an oboist!!), as well as following a general technical routine to stay in shape. It varies for different instruments though; a first violinist for instance will likely spend more time working on their actual part, whereas I will work on basic maintenance and reed-making. Solo repertoire is a much longer process and works can be worked on over months, if not years. In this it becomes about immersion and refinement, really nutting out what you want to say and developing the technique to do that.

What does creating a sustainable career in the classical music industry mean to you? 

Oh gosh, where to start?! A sustainable career for me as a musician is one where I continue to grow and be inspired, hopefully inspiring others and finding fulfilment through connecting with audiences, taking risks, expression and education. But this is only possible by having a sustainable music industry. So we need to engage as much as possible with the people that make it all possible, our supporters and philanthropists, audiences, educational institutions, and the management teams behind every orchestra. I want to be as excited and fulfilled as a musician at 65 as I was at 20, but to do this we also need to ensure our own livelihoods by generating as strong a relationship with the community as possible. 

As a student, balancing technical practice while also trying to get out into the world to create a personal brand can be incredibly tricky. Do you have any advice for young musicians about how they can strike a happy medium between career development and putting the hours in so to progress technically?  

Those hours put into technique are impossible to disconnect from the investment in a strong musical identity. The technique is developed in order to help us find our voice and share with the audience, not the other way round. It took me a while to realise this, I was always a little afraid to play what I felt in case it was ‘wrong’, but if you’ve done your homework properly then there’s no such thing!  Develop a strong sense of the musician you want to be through practising, listening, taking in as much as you can and making the most of every opportunity, and then draw on all of that to try to connect with the people you play with and for. Yes, it absolutely pays to be savvy with regards to online/public presence, but I think you need to start from the point of being the best musician you can be.

This is going to vary though, depending on the kind of career that you’re pursuing.  I was very lucky to join the orchestra quite young, and being a ‘member of the SSO’ fortunately has lead to many other opportunities. Orchestral career development is very much about performance on the job, or on the day of the audition, your ‘brand’ doesn’t’ really come into play. In fact I think there can sometimes be a conflict between the cultivation of a strong solo musical identity as we study and the teamwork required in an orchestra, which is why orchestral experience is such an invaluable part of musical training.

However, If you are working towards a career based on solo or chamber music projects then developing a strong public profile and marketing yourself successfully are very important.  There are many in the industry who could comment with much more authority than I can on this, but I’ve seen first-hand how smart marketing can make or break small ensembles. The ensembles and players that inspire me are those that are taking risks, looking for new connections, being creative about the way they frame what they do. It’s a hell of a lot of work, but I have to trust that if we always come back to being the best musicians we can be then this is what ultimately reaches our audiences.

Catch Shefali Pryor speak about creating a career in the music industry at Music Love's Vivid Ideas panel 'Pathway to Platform' on the 10th June. More information here! Images by Christie Brewster.