My Rehearsal Room: Sam Colcheedas

My Rehearsal Room: Sam Colcheedas

Learning music with colour. 

Sam Colcheedas
Melbourne, Australia

My Rehearsal Room: Sam Colcheedas

Learning music with colour. 

Your experience with music is somewhat unique, in that that you are currently studying Mechanical Engineering with a concurrent Diploma of Music Performance. Tell us about what led to the decision to study both, particularly at the same time.

Growing up and discovering my passions of music and science/engineering as school progressed just seemed so natural for me. I’ve been brought up in a very supportive and flowing household where I was taught to embrace my passions and interests no matter what they were. I was so self-motivated to learn and practice piano that it just became incorporated into my study schedule, especially towards the end of my high school years.

I was tossing up pursuing music on its own, but also contemplating following my passion for maths, science and engineering and just studying that. I put my offers in for various universities; all of them were for engineering courses. I remember getting accepted into a Bachelor of Science at The University of Melbourne and being surprised – extremely happy…but mainly surprised. It wasn’t until the start of the new year that I did some research into concurrent diplomas at Melbourne University. With a week or less to prepare for my audition, I eventually got accepted and my life has remained the same; nothing much has changed. Just like my younger years of studying, I’d balance science and maths with my practice and rehearsals, same ol’, same ol’. Studying both simultaneously seemed like the natural thing for me to do. I’d still be practicing and performing regardless of me officially studying music at university.

What interests you in Mechanical Engineering? What do you get from music that you don't get from engineering, and vice versa? Are there any ways in which concepts or ideas from engineering have helped with your music, and vice versa?

I’ve been told countless times by my mother that as a toddler on the playground, I’d just be fascinated by things that move and how they work. Again, nothing much has changed, I’m still as ever curious, but it’s the concept of describing everyday life and ideas using maths that really appeals to me. This crosses over to music where I find that I'm lured to it due to the fact that we can describe and communicate emotion using a language of sound.

The languages of sound and maths are universal but also interchangeable. Having a mathematical and systematic brain, learning music and performing music come so naturally – the same as working out a numerical problem: you have to look behind what’s on the page to fully understand its purpose. Looking beyond the notes and stripping it all back to its bare skeleton reveals the core desires of the composer on how and why the music should be played and interpreted. It’s the act of accepting that there are notes there, there are numbers there but looking beyond that to understand the concept and reason for it all. There’s no point in playing the notes if you are ‘just’ playing the notes.

Studying at institutions like the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the University of Melbourne, what have been your biggest challenges so far? Your biggest accomplishments?

Studying in general is a challenge, but it’s a routine for me, it always has been. Coming to university hasn’t changed that, it’s just changed how I study and how much I study. The demands of diploma students aren’t as strenuous as the Bachelor, so we are given some lenience with the demand to practice and perform well. I can tell you that it’s still an unbelievable workload studying for three three-hour mechanics exams and also preparing for a solo performance recital. Having the luxury of four- to six-hour practice days is something I’m not blessed with, but it has made me practice a lot more efficiently. It means that in my hour break in between lectures, I go down to the music basement to work on my Chopin etudes or simply play for pleasure. It’s a great relief and distraction from the demands of engineering, and without it there would be an imbalance in my life.

I’ve achieved a lot of things while studying by going out of my comfort zone. My biggest achievement was probably also my biggest downfall of performing experiences. I went out on a limb to perform a work by Beethoven that I knew wasn’t performance ready, but I was itching to see how comfortable I was performing it. Turns out…I wasn’t comfortable at all. It certainly wasn’t my best performance. But it’s my biggest accomplishment because of how I grew from this seemingly devastating event. It showed me what I needed to work on, what I can do better next time, but most of all it showed me that I am human, and I am able to learn from my many many (many) mistakes.

You've spoken of your passion for environmental sustainability. How do you intend to incorporate this into what you do, in terms of your music and engineering interests?

Much like the stigmatism between classical music and the younger generation, there’s a similar amount of hesitation towards learning about the importance of environmental sustainability in relation to our future. I hope to bring my love of music and passion towards sustainability into full view by presenting concerts that highlight the importance of sustainability by using pieces of music that reflect particular aspects of the issues I'm interested in.

For instance, I am extremely passionate about wind energy, and using particular Debussy preludes which reflect the many colours and textures of the wind would be a great way to demonstrate the potential of this natural resource. Many of Rachmaninov’s etudes tableaux (picture etudes) depict the harnessing of energy and the potential that it supplies to life.

By using music to explain the various aspects of energy and how it can better aid us towards a more sustainable world, it’ll not only open the many windows of the mind to new concepts of sustainable energy, but to the world of music too.

You experience synaesthesia - a phenomenon where cross-wiring of the senses results in some curious involuntary responses. I'm a fellow synaesthete: my letters and numbers have specific associated colours (my A's are red). What's your experience like? Do you find this affects the way you learn music at all? Does it interfere with or enhance your learning?

My synaesthesia tends to affect very specific but important aspects of my music. On particular but not consistent days, Beethoven feels blue: quite a bit of a navy blue, the kind you get as you go deeper and deeper into the depths of the ocean. Quite like his music; it explores the depths of the unexplored. Mozart has quite a more chipper and buoyant red or mauve hue associated to him. Within pieces of music there are hundreds of different colours, but when you mix them all together, you’re left with a palette of a single colour that represents the piece.

What tends to affect me even more are shapes. I’m able to touch and feel the shapes of music with my senses. Sometimes a particular passage in a Bach prelude and fugue tastes jagged and square, whereas a Debussy prelude may seem as though I'm feeling this solid but yet fluid-looking shape with my hands. Feeling these shapes with my eyes is another ‘cross-wiring of the senses’ that I experience. Eyes wide open, I’m able to see and feel these shapes in my immediate and peripheral vision. This enables me to memorise music so much more easily. I’m blessed to have a good memory for music, but can’t for the life of me tell you the more specific details of what I had for lunch on a certain day.

These abilities that I have gained from having synaesthesia do come with some negative effects. I like to think of it as making me somewhat more hypersensitive to sounds and environments. Listening to dissonant, atonal and clashing sounds can bring about anxiety and discomfort, while at the same time just listening to perfectly harmless major timbres has similar results.

Wednesday will always be the colour yellow to me, and the number 6 will always be red. However, when it comes to music, since it is such a fluid and interpretive art, by no means will Beethoven always be blue and Mozart mauve. Music has a subconscious, and since I was young, I have learnt to combine my own subconscious, my own heart with it. In turn, you have these two palettes of colours, of sounds and of shapes, mixing together to form unpredictable combinations.

You're certainly building up a performance history, with a few concerts under your belt already and a sweet-as website (pianomansam.com.au). What do you see for your future musically speaking?

I currently teach and perform and would love to continue doing so into the future. Eventually studying for my Master of Music (Piano Teaching) is a long term goal after I’ve finished my current studies. I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to reach it, but I’m putting myself out there, and going out of my comfort zone and taking up so many great opportunities and experience.

There’s no point in leaving little room and flexibility in goal-setting. As long as you see the big picture, it’s not when you reach your goals that matters, but the learning experiences you’ve gone through to get there.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently in the process of organising and brainstorming a recital project for the start of 2017 that will focus around synaesthesia and how it relates to music. I’ll be collaborating with other artists and premiering newly written works specifically for the project. Watch this space!