In Conversation: Stewart Kelly

In Conversation: Stewart Kelly

Creating your own opportunities, making the most of feedback, and being yourself on-air. 

Stewart Kelly
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Stewart Kelly

Creating your own opportunities, making the most of feedback, and being yourself on-air. 

What do you see as the role of The Talent, in terms of encouraging and mentoring the upcoming solo performers around Australia?

Any opportunity for young musicians to perform is something to support and encourage. So much is learnt about a piece and your level of understanding of it, not to mention the fact that the way you react under pressure in one ten minute performance can teach you so much more that that which could be gleaned from many hours of practice. Up and coming musicians need the chance to be heard in public as much as possible, and need the chance to receive feedback from more experienced performers. The Talent does this in a special way through the medium of live radio which poses its own challenges and provides a very different but still high-pressure performance environment. The Talent helps give exposure to these promising talents while allowing them to learn and develop their playing. 

Finding mentoring and advice on your playing and career is important for the entirety of your life as a musician, but completely integral in the early days: what should young musicians be looking for in terms of mentors or teachers?

I believe the most important thing is working with someone who possesses the skills to build you up both technically and psychologically. This doesn't mean someone who is endlessly positive or overly nice necessarily, but someone who understands the way you tick and understands what is required to execute at the instrument themselves. If you are wanting to be a performer, look for someone who's playing what you love and then see if you click with their manner of passing on their knowledge. Through my own studies, I've found that my best teachers were those who weren't prodigies or unusually gifted themselves. I've had one or two teachers who would fall into that category and they often struggled to explain what they were doing and sometimes even struggled to understand why I was having trouble with a certain passage or concept. Look for someone who has obtained a mastery through hard work and a true understanding of what they are doing and you will find it much easier to extract useful information from them. 

Aside from required performance classes and examination recitals, it can be hard to find the opportunity to perform for an audience as a young musician. What are some of the options available to developing performers, and how important is the ability to create your own opportunities to be heard?

It's essential these days to create your own opportunities. And its never been easier! Get your phone and record something and put it online and you are on your way to finding an audience for your work. Park your ego somewhere and be prepared to do anything in your early years. Offer to go and play for nursing homes or small music clubs. Seek out eisteddfods and other competitions which can be a great chance to play in public. Contact a church or other venue and offer to perform if they will offer their space and assist in bringing an audience. The road is hard and relentless but potentially endlessly rewarding if you work hard enough. 

What is different about performing on radio compared to a life performance? What should musicians new to performing live on-air be aware of?

Radio performance can be a very sterile experience. You are in this very acoustically dry studio, are given the signal and then have to play without any sense of audience energy or feedback. It can feel like a soulless environment and a rather unforgiving one. That said, it can also be very liberating, feeling like you are alone in this silent space that allows you to surrender entirely to your thoughts. Summoning the adrenaline to perform can sometimes be a little trickier. When Arthur Schnabel became the first person to record the Beethoven sonatas, he apparently insisted the record company pre sell the albums and he then kept a copy of all the names of people who had ordered on the piano during the recording process to feel like he had an audience. I love that story! In terms of a young performer approaching radio performance for the first time: remember that the crew around you are your best friends who only want to help make you sound better on air. Trust the crew that they know what to do to make you sound your best. Never forget you're surrounded by microphones and one small accident could have you unknowingly on air so always be professional and don't say anything around a microphone that you don't want the world to hear.

And the scarier bit - talking after your performance! What advice do you have for people who have never spoken live on air before? 

Be yourself! It's amazing how any fakeness about you is immediately perceptible to the audience. You must be natural and just chat like you would with a group of friends. In a setting like this there aren't likely to be any trick questions or things you shouldn't know so there is no need to stress. In the particular context of The Talent, an important thing to remember is that even if you were unhappy with how you performed, it almost certainly came across better to the panel and audience so you must put those thoughts aside and leave any negativity at the door when you enter the studio so you can maintain a bright and friendly demeanour on air.

For the people listening from home, what can you take away from tuning into an episode of The Talent, even if you weren't performing in it yourself?

I think people who love music always find the deconstruction and constructive criticism of it interesting and educational. Certainly students can learn a great deal about their own instrument and repertoire but music lovers can perhaps be opened up to new genres of repertoire and ways of thinking about interpretation. One thing I often find interesting is that well read music lovers who are not trained musicians often have very finely honed ears and can identify very quickly what is really good playing and what doesn't grab them as much but often don't have the language to express why they react in this way. Hearing professionals criticise the performers can often provide revelations as to why they think the way they do about something. Of course there can also be fantastic opportunities for listeners to disagree strongly with what we as panelists thought! Occasionally there will be a great disagreement between the panelists too and that certainly makes interesting radio!

As a performer yourself, what advice do you have for the young musicians starting their performance journey?

Be prepared to fight for what you want and know that to really master what you are doing will take years and many countless hours of blood, sweat and tears. Know that there will be many, many days of disappointment and that they are the most important days in shaping who you finish up as. And know that what you are doing is important, special work that has the ability to transform lives. The world more than ever needs those whose preoccupation is on creating meaning and beautiful things...so get to it!