Editor's Note: This piece is our first in the brand new series 'Music for People', curated by Madi Chwasta. This monthly column will put the spotlight on members of the musical community using their talents to help others. We hope you love it! If you know someone who deserves a space in this column, please write to us.
When I went to interview David Ross-Smith a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a chat about ‘Music for David’, a program which provides personalised playlists to dementia sufferers who are cared for at home. However, it became a remarkably honest reflection about his life as a musician and as a carer for his late partner of 38 years, The Reverend David Hodges, AM. Starting with piano at an early age, and eventually finding his “calling” in teaching and accompanying, David chatted about the things that so many young musicians still grapple with: anxiety and depression, the pressure to succeed, realising his sexuality, finding love, and the importance of music through all these milestones. Our chat also showed me how music can touch people in special and unexpected ways. Music was so important to David when caring for his partner when he suffered from dementia. It lead to the realisation of ‘Music for David’, which was created in memory of David Hodges after he passed away in 2012, and has since provided support for dementia patients and their carers since its inception. It’s a touching legacy, one which continues David Hodges’ generosity and dedication to the community, the church, and to music.
Tell me about ‘Music for David’.
When David was in the early stages of dementia, this was around 2005, he started putting down his thoughts about Christianity and the church. These thoughts became a book, which he titled ‘Making Love Real’. Because of his dementia, he didn’t complete the book. But his older daughter and I believed it should be published.
In 2010 we published the book and made it available for people to take at David’s Service of Thanksgiving in 2012. People could make a donation, and I stated that I wanted any money donated to go to Uniting AgeWell, the aged care division of the Uniting Church of Australia. About $780 was donated, which was to be used specifically for a dementia program. Eventually, a music program was developed to support people living with dementia at home and their carers. The program was called ‘Music for David’, in memory of my late partner David Hodges. What I didn’t hit on was that because I share his first name, the name ‘Music for David’ is a subtle way of acknowledging the role of the carer.
In the later stages of his life, David experienced “sundowner’s syndrome”, a common condition for people with dementia. As evening approached, David would become restless and anxious. I used to give him a little bit of medication to relax and put on familiar and gentle music. I would then use that time, which would only be about ten minutes, to go for a brief walk. That time out was very important.
That’s what the whole ‘Music for David’ ethos is. To support the person with dementia, but also to support the carer. Music relaxed David, but also gave me time out from my role as a carer.
Did you come across the idea to use music by yourself?
Yes I did. Being a musician, I’m aware of the therapeutic effects of music. I put on music that had some appeal for him. Sometimes I put on hymns, as they are an important part of the Christian Protestant service. But sometimes the hymns would make him a bit upset because it would bring back memories of times past, as he was a wonderful minister of the church. Often I played Mozart, particularly the second movement of the Clarinet Concerto.
Did it have particular significance to him?
No, he didn’t know the piece well, but he responded to the beauty of the music. He also loved Elgar, especially Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. It was that sort of music that had a deep emotion, or a calming effect, gentleness. I would never play anything that was loud or percussive!
So let’s backtrack a bit. When did you start your journey in music?
I spent the first 17 years of my life in Ballarat, and I showed fairly prodigious musical talent when I was really young. I’m just recounting this, but I could hum tunes at the age of 18 months.
Could be exaggerated, but that's what I was told! So I started having piano lessons just after I turned five from a local piano teacher. Apparently I was so excited about playing piano, I burst into tears at the first lesson!
Musically in Ballarat, I was a big fish in a small pond. I did quite well in local eisteddfods, but by nature I’m not a very competitive person, so I was always very nervous and uncomfortable in competitions. I played better in exams.
After high school, I went to the Melbourne Conservatorium, and got into Ormond College. However, I didn’t feel like the Conservatorium was a comfortable place to be.
I found it difficult to develop close friends there. I didn’t feel an affinity with most of the music students like I did with my non-music student friends in College.
I also became increasingly aware of my sexuality during my years at university, and as a result felt very isolated. In the mid-60s, homosexuality wasn’t really discussed. I thought I was a freak of nature, because all my friends were heterosexual. There was no openness. It was a different world.
I think that was another reason I didn’t spend much time at the Conservatorium. Maybe I thought there would be more of a chance I would be discovered as a young gay person.
Did anyone have any idea?
No. I was very good at hiding. I would hide behind a smile, or by being funny. In fact, I was depressed. I suffered serious bouts of insomnia. After I finished university in my early adult years, I went to a psychiatrist who diagnosed clinical depression.
At what point did you come to terms with your mental health and sexuality?
I came to terms with both things many years later. By the time David came into my life, I had gone to the psychiatrist, who had put me on massive doses of anti-depressants. Once I had gotten used to the side-effects, it helped with sleep and improved my mood. When David and I finally acknowledged that we loved each other, I flushed the drugs down the toilet.
Coming to terms with my sexuality was a slower process. Because David was the minister in one of the most prestigious churches in Australia, and I worked at Scotch College, we had to put our heads down. He retired from the ministry in 1983. It’s still sad for me to acknowledge the fact he retired prematurely, but he did work part-time in different ways. It made it easier for us to establish our life as a couple.
When he retired, and we wanted to develop a circle of friends, we decided to hold soiree’s in 1988. It was a way to entertain our heterosexual friends and our gay friends, by providing them with music and then drinks afterwards. The soiree’s still continue to this day. We are in our 29th year.
The soirees were your joint project?
That’s one of the reasons I keep them going now. One of the things that gives me a great deal of satisfaction is that people leave looking happier than when they arrive. That gives me enormous satisfaction. I think that’s where music is very important in people’s lives.
So in the end, what did you gain from your music degree?
The music degree opened the door for me to teach at Scotch College. That led directly to meeting David. I had been brought up in a church in Ballarat, and wanted to find a church in my area. The parents of the students at Scotch said I should visit Toorak Presbyterian Church (now Toorak Uniting Church) as there’s a wonderful minister there called David Hodges. I went to Toorak, and eventually David and I became partners. That’s a spin-off of my music degree!
I didn’t particularly enjoy my music degree. I did well, even though I was depressed. I was joint winner of the keyboard section at the ABC Instrumental and Vocal Competition State Finals (now known as the ABC Young Performer’s Award). I actually quite enjoyed the various stages because I was playing for a small group of adjudicators, but when I was selected to perform at the finals, which was a live broadcast, I was paralysed with fear. I didn’t play as well as I could have, but I played well enough.
My fear was having a memory lapse! However, after I won this, I virtually decided to give up any plan to pursue a career in music. I had the opportunity to go to the Royal College of Music in London on a scholarship. I didn’t go because I didn’t have the temperament or the security to be able to cope with the pressures of traveling overseas as a 21 year old. I knew I would not have coped.
Did you have the goal to become a concert pianist?
It was mostly expectation placed on me by others. And really, solo performing didn’t have a great deal of appeal for me. I preferred to be collaborative. But I used to organise concerts at Ormond College, and I developed my interest in accompaniment through playing for people at these college concerts.
That’s the area I should have been encouraged to pursue. I should have done a lot of work on Lieder, because the song repertoire appeals to me more than any other. I should have had the opportunity to work with singers and learn languages. I wasn’t self-aware enough to know what I needed.
Ideally, I should’ve had a mentor to talk about my performance anxiety. In my time, you were just expected to get on with it or fail.
Was there anyone talking about performance anxiety when you were at the Conservatorium?
No. It was a very cold institution. It lacked warmth and vitality. I don’t know if there were any people there who would have made themselves available for me to talk to.
How did you cope with the idea that you could’ve been a concert pianist, but you chose not to pursue it at all?
I ended up finding what I believe I’m suited to doing the most. I could’ve been a singer, but my teacher tried to get me to sing in a way that wasn’t natural for me, so my potential as a singer was thwarted. However, Melbourne Grammar needed a singing teacher, and even though I was very reluctant, I discovered teaching singing was something I really enjoyed. It combines my love for the human voice, my interest in accompanying, and the repertoire I love. I’m best suited as a teacher and encourager of others, while doing some playing from time to time. I think I have my life in a secure and happy balance that I would not have achieved if I pursued a career as a concert pianist.
Back to the years before David passed away. What was it like caring for David when he suffered from dementia?
It was a wonderful time. Although some people change with dementia, David remained basically the same from when he starting showing signs of the disease in 2005. He remained loving, trusting and gentle. Sure I got tired, and certainly I had fractured sleep getting up to him several times in the night. But for me, it was a privilege being his carer.
In early 2012, David had to go into hospital. After tests the doctors there recommended that palliative care should begin. He had forgotten he was beginning to die, and I reminded him. He then said “I trust you to do what you think is best.” A wonderful memory. I wanted to fulfil David's wish to die at home. During this whole process of dying, David remained trusting and loving and helped us all cope.
How does David’s memory live on?
The soirees are a part of his legacy. ‘Music for David’ is too. He had a great sense of service towards and care of others. The program is a community project, and David was a great believer of the church helping the community.
People who know me know of the very deep love we had for each other. Although he is not physically present, I still have a sense of his love. So I think in those ways, David’s memory lives on. He was a man of great vision and compassion for others. I am glad that these legacies exist.
Learn more about the work at Music for David here.
First photo of David Ross-Smith at the piano by Eva Alegre.