I Want Your Job: Professional Musician

Image of Julian Smiles, smiling and holding his cello
Image: ©Keith Saunders

Have you ever wondered what it takes to make it as a professional musician? Australia Ensemble UNSW cellist Julian Smiles, one of Australia's leading musicians, spent an hour with the members of UNSW Orchestra and UNSW Wind Symphony answering any and all questions they had about establishing a career in the music industry. Interviewed by UNSW alumna and Strategic Advisor & Creative Producer at the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Tara Smith, this was a fantastic opportunity to learn from one of the best.


0:00 – 03:54 - Introduction

Tara Smith: Well, hi again everyone and welcome to the webinar 'I Want Your Job' where we will be talking with professional musician Julian Smiles. My name is Tara Smith and I'll be your host for this evening. I'm a proud alumna of UNSW, having studied music and education there, and I graduated in 2001. Since then I've had numerous roles in music and arts education in both Australia and the UK with my most recent being Director of Learning & Engagement at the Australian Chamber Orchestra. I'm really passionate about developing young and emerging talent so I'm thrilled to be hosting this conversation tonight with Julian.

Before we go any further, I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation on whose lands I'm sitting today, and the Bedegal people on whose lands UNSW stands. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are joining us for this session tonight. I acknowledge, particularly, during this NAIDOC Week, that this was and always will be Aboriginal land.

So, tonight's session will run for about 45 minutes. Julian and I are going to have a conversation about his pathway and his career as a professional musician which I hope is going to be enlightening, and we will be sure to leave 10 minutes at the end of the session for any questions that you have. Feel free to have your cameras on if you like, or off, but please do keep you microphones on mute. If you do have questions or comments, please type them in the chat function. We have Alex from the Music Performance Unit and Zia your SOAP representative online with us and they'll assist with any technical issues and moderate the chat questions for us. So, I'll come back to Zia towards the end and she can facilitate any questions you have that come up during the session.

OK, on to Julian. I'm just going to introduce Julian. Julian Smiles, who I'm sure needs no introduction, hopefully not, but he had over 30 - for over 30 years been one of Australia's most preeminent cellists. On graduating from the Canberra School of Music at the age of 19, he was appointed Principal Cellist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and rapidly gained prominence as a chamber musician. In 1991 he was invited to join the Australia Ensemble at UNSW and in 1995 he formed the Goldner String Quartet with colleagues Dene OldingDimity Hall, and Irina Morozova. With these two chamber groups he has performed to critical acclaim at major venues and festivals throughout the world, recorded over 30 albums on leading labels, and premiered many works by Australian and International composers. Alongside his chamber music career, Julian is active as a soloist and has performed many concertos with major orchestras. In 2018, Julian high standing as a performer was recognised by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra as their inaugural Artist In Focus, in which role he has performed recitals and appeared as soloist with the Orchestra. He has also premiered works for solo cello by eminent Australian composers such as Carl Vine, Mark Isaacs, and Ross Edwards. Julian is also well regarded as an educator and has developed a system of cello playing based on thorough and ongoing analysis of musical and technical issues that sees he is sought after as a chamber music coach. He has held teaching positions at the Australian Institute of Music, at the Canberra School of Music and is currently Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of Cello at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. So, hi Julian.

Julian Smiles: Hi Tara, how are you?

Tara Smith: Good, thank you. How are you? Do you want to, uh, make us jealous and tell us where you are right now?

Julian Smiles: Yes, I'm actually 3 hours south of Sydney at a place called Mollymook and I must hasten to add that I came down here more than two weeks ago, so I wasn't flouting any regulations and I might also add that the country here is the traditional home of the Budawang people of the Yuin nation.


03:55 – 05:45 – Choosing to play the cello

Tara Smith: Great, well, it looks lovely and cosy. We wish we were there. And welcome to everyone else who's probably sitting in lockdown. So, it's great that we can connect with you via Zoom for this session and keep everyone inspired while I know that you can't rehearse at the moment. So, I'm going to start with some questions for you. Can we start at the start and tell us about young Julian, the developing musician: Where you grew up? Where you went to school? When did you start playing? Tell us a bit about that.

Julian Smiles: I grew up in Canberra. The crucial thing, I think for me was that I grew in a very musical family. My mother was an amateur pianist, but a very, very good one, and she actually did a lot of professional work in Canberra. So, our house was always full of music and I was the youngest of two children, three children in fact and music permeated our house and it was sort of natural that I was going to take up an instrument of some description.

And purely by accident, they started an elementary string program at the Canberra School of Music. My mum said, “would you be interested in that?” I was about 13 years old. I said “yeah, I'll try anything” and we went in and there's three guys that seemed very old to me, but, well, probably about my age now. Looked at me and said, “yeah, he's a cellist”. So, they gave me a cello and it clicked, and I haven't looked back.

I found that from the very beginning that I was, it was very clear to me that I enjoyed the instrument very much, and that, that I was good at it, especially if I tried hard, which is a sort of a healthy attitude to take from the very beginning.


05:46 – 08:17 – High School and the Canberra School of Music

Tara Smith: And so, you started at 13 and then what was your study path from there? Were you at just a normal high school? Or when did you sort of kick into studying music more seriously and where did you study then after high school?

Julian Smiles: Well, the elementary string program was a new initiative of the Canberra School of Music at the time and that sort of channelled into another program they had, which was in Year 11 and 12 of high school in the ACT, they had what they called the Preparatory Course, which you could do a series of subjects at the, at the Conservatorium, including your principal study instrument and your marks in those subjects would be accredited to your Tertiary Entrance Score through the school system. So, my focus was very much on that, even though I was also going to a normal high school and college.

But, uh, yeah, so that so that, that sort of naturally, as itself describes, prepared me to go into the Bachelor of Music degree at the Canberra School of Music. I was learning at the time from a very fine cello teacher by the name of Nelson Cooke, who's very famous and produced a lot of very fine players, for example, Li-Wei Qin is a name that a lot of people would know. Howard Penny, who's a teacher down at ANAMSue-Ellen Paulsen I believe studied with him for a little while and so yes, he had a pedigree of producing very fine players and so I started with him. I learned from him from the age of 13. I learned from him through high school and then I went into the Bachelor of Music degree with him. By that time I'd been learning with him for about 7 years and he and I both felt that that that we’d worked together probably long enough and we should be sort of planning ahead for my potential overseas travel. So, I did an accelerated progress through that Bachelor Music degree. Normally it should take four years, but I did it in two, which was somewhat of an achievement and I don't know whether they'd let people do that now. But there was a mechanism by which my long period of studies at the Conservatory was recognised. And yeah, I got out of there as quickly as I could.


08:18 – 11: 15: Joining the Australian Chamber Orchestra and studying with Janos Starker

Tara Smith: And then did you go overseas then? Or what was the next step?

Julian Smiles: I didn't go immediately. I was fortunate enough that towards the end of my studies I started being noticed by professional musicians around the country. Principally in chamber music, actually. And I got picked up to play some chamber music with Kathy Selby, the pianist, and she had, she was setting up a chamber music series and a mutual friend of ours, Charmian Gad, who was a violin teacher in Canberra and actually was married to Richard Goldner, after whom the Goldner Quartet is named.

Charmian was very supportive of me and she introduced me to Kathy Selby and Kathy Selby had me play in her chamber music series in Sydney and that was when I met Dene Olding and Irina Morozova and people like that, and the other thing that happened at that point was that just before the end of my studies the position of Principal Cello with the Australian Chamber Orchestra became vacant and I auditioned for that and got the job when I was about 19 years old. So, that was very exciting for me and that immediately gave me a professional position which took me up to Sydney.

And then sometime during that year, the first year that I was with the ACO, I was invited to go and study overseas with Janos Starker who was a very famous cello teacher that, you know, everybody in the world tried to get to study with him and purely by accident again, I played for him and he thought it was an audition and I thought it was a masterclass and because he thought it was an audition he said, right, I'll see you when you're finished, so that was great. So, I went over and studied with him for a year and learned a hell of a lot.

It was good because it came from a completely different angle to the teaching that I had, had previously had from Nelson. Uhm and yeah, so I studied with Janos Starker for a year and during that year I was invited to actually, invited to join the Australia Ensemble UNSW because the position of cello with that group became vacant at the same time. So, all these little manoeuvres that set me up where I am now happened very quickly over about a two year period and took a lot of decision making away from me in a sense. I had to, I had to consider whether I would accept these invitations, but, people who are smarter than me, whose advice I asked said “yeah, you should do it, you'll gain a lot out of playing chamber music in this very high level with this very fine group of musicians.”


11:16 – 14:54: Planning a career in chamber music

Tara Smith: And so, did you have a plan for that career early on? Or, how did that career path take shape and how did you end up in chamber music? Did you always know that's what you wanted? Or was it just that those opportunities came up? Was there ever a consideration of playing in a symphony orchestra? How did that - how did your career path find itself?

Julian Smiles: My successes when I was young, you know the age of 14,15 and 16, were what you would describe as prodigious. So, you know, I was winning national competitions when I was 15 and 16 and younger, and because of that, I sort of felt like, you know, “I'm a superstar. I'm gonna, you know, be a soloist”, that was the natural progression from for me.

When you're that sort of age, you don't have a realistic appreciation of the rareness of a solo career, the almost impossibility of it, in fact. And that's something that, luckily I didn't sort of find myself following that dream and being forced into following that dream, and then there would have been the inevitable realisation that I had to have a job at some point because the jobs with the ACO first of all, and then the Australia Ensemble came across my path. And in both occasions it was obviously a very good job to have. And that that sort of steered me into the chamber music role.

I always have enjoyed playing as a soloist and in some respects I regret that I haven't done as much of that as I might have done if I'd, you know, chanced it all and gone, gone all out to try and be a soloist. But at the same time, the discipline in music making and the understanding of music making that you get through playing chamber music is so universal that it applies itself very well to solo playing, to orchestral playing, to, you know, any part of music making you can imagine. And I remember that, you know, when I was a student that people used to say to me “Oh you should play chamber music, you will learn so much in doing that.” Nice, obviously, “yeah OK, but I want to be a soloist.” Now I realise that wisdom in what these people are, we're saying.

By the way, I have to go back to the beginning because I totally misrepresented myself. I actually started playing the cello when I was seven not 13. Yeah that my research was a bit out of out of whack there.

Tara Smith: Oh well, that that. I think that might make some of us feel better that you didn't - weren't winning awards at competitions just two years after your started.

Julian Smiles: The thing that was in my head actually was that that I, I remember distinctly the at about the age of 12 or 13, I knew that that's what my career was gonna be: music, regardless of whether it was solo playing or orchestral playing, that that was my career path. And it was always interesting. It was even interesting to me at that time that my friends at school and none of them had any idea of what they were gonna do, but I knew exactly what I was gonna do.


14:55 – 17:59: Moving overseas versus staying in Australia

Tara Smith: Amazing and you have stuck now with our Australian music scene for most of your career. Was there ever the draw (and we're very lucky you have) - was there ever the draw to go overseas and follow, you know, potentially a bigger, a big, bigger opportunities in the in the big world?

Julian Smiles: Yeah, the closest I came to that was when I was studying in America because the first thing that happened to me when I went over there as I got that reality check where you go from being a big fish in a small pond to being one of many very fine fish in a much larger pond and especially in Bloomington, Indiana, because that was like Ground Zero for great cello studying at the time and so there were there were young cellists from all over the world who are all better than me by many, many factors.

So, you know, when I got there, Starker sort of pointed out to me very quickly that I didn't know how to play the cello, but then he spent a year teaching me how to think about it, and by the end of the year I was starting to think, “yeah, I can - I can stand shoulder to shoulder with these people.” So I was, I was once again getting this sense that I could do very well internationally.

If you look back on your life, which I can certainly start doing now. There are many points at whichyou took a particular road, but if you'd gone a different way, you know a whole lot of different things would have happened. And in a sense, I've always thought it would be great to be able to live your life about six or seven times, because I've been so fortunate to have been offered these forks in the road at so many points in my life that could have taken me in so many different directions.

Of course, like there were many reasons that I decided to base myself in Australia, part of it was family life. I'd met a very lovely violinist by the name of Dimity Hall in the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and she was part of the many reasons that drew me back home. As I mentioned before, a lot of very experienced and smart people said, “Come back and join the Australia Ensemble. This will give you such a lot of experience” and it certainly has. And if I hadn't done that, we wouldn't have had, I wouldn't have been with that group as I have now for 31 years and I wouldn't have been in the Goldner String Quartet, which for a string player being in a string quartet, is such a valuable thing, and string quartets are always this sort of, one in 100 chance that they're gonna survive and ours has survived and has survived for 27 years and that in itself is a really fantastic thing to have been able to do as a string player.


18:00 – 22:39: A day in the life of a professional musician

Tara Smith: Definitely, most definitely so. So, you're here, you've been playing with the Australia Ensemble UNSW and the Goldner String Quartet now for better years. Tell us perhaps cast your mind back 18 months or two years, pre-current situation. Can you tell us what your kind of day-to-day or week-to-week looks like as a professional musician? What is it - what is it you do? What do you do with your everyday? What do you do with your practice? How often do you perform? Tell us about what it looks like.

Julian Smiles: How long have you got?

Tara Smiles: Two minutes!

Julian Smiles: Yeah, one of the things I've been very keen on from the very beginning of my career is to have my fingers in a lot of pies, actually. So, going back to some of the decision making that I've made on my career path over the years, I've tended to shy away from any sort of job that would say, “OK, you need to do this and this only”, and with all due respect to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which of course is a fabulous group and it's just gone, you know, internationally ballistic, I left them because there was a movement at that time to make the orchestra full-time, and I was concerned that if I was full-time with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, I wouldn't be able to do smaller-scale chamber music, I wouldn't be able to play as a soloist, and I wouldn't be able to teach. So, I've tried to keep that in my life, a lot of variety in what I do and my day-to-day existence, pre-COVID, would be to, you know periodically be working with the Australia Ensemble UNSW, we would get together five or six times a year to present particular projects, particular programs at the University of New South Wales, so, that's always something that was sort of mapped out through the year. The Goldner String Quartet does a lot of concerts around the country, some recordings, we have regular festivals that we normally go to, such as the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, which happens in late July. We, the Goldner Quartet, over the last 10 or 12 years have been going to the UK every year to do a recording project for Hyperion, so that's always a big thing.

And on the other sort of leg, if you like, to my musical career, is the strong teaching presence that I'm working on establishing, that I'm very interested in establishing, at the Sydney Conservatorium. And for quite a few years I was what's called a fractional appointee there, where I would teach like seven or eight students, which is considered to their 50% load. But over the last couple of years I've increased my load, now to a hundred 100%. And as of this year I've become the coordinator of cello there, which has a lot of administrative duties.

So, my weeks have becoming increasingly complicated and jigsaw-like. And I try to practice, I enjoy practicing and in fact the more difficult it is to find time to do something, the more you tend to enjoy it. So, the 1 or 1 1/2 hours of practice that I managed to squeeze in every day, I always love it, and I still interestingly feel that you know, 35 years later or 40 years later and playing the cello I can improve.

I found that in teaching, sitting, watching young people learn how to play the cello, gives me a sort of clarity to what they're trying to achieve, and then I turn it back on myself and I learn a lot from teaching and then apply it to my own playing, and in doing that I'm sure I've improved the way I play so, I know I'm a far better player than I was when I came back from Starker. And I was pretty good then, but I have a lot of understanding of how to do things now. So yeah, uhm day-to-day there's a nice variety of stuff that does tend to get really squeezed in, so I'm working very hard and there will be a couple of months a year where I just reel back in in exhaustion and come to the beach and try not to do too much for a little while.


22:40 – 26:50: Personal attributes for career success

Tara Smith: Great. Sounds wonderful. So, look, there might be some people with us tonight who are thinking about pursuing a career in music, there's probably quite a lot that aren't necessarily thinking that, but I want to talk to you about what helped you to get where you are and, and I'm sure there's things in this kind of conversation that will be relevant to those, you know, thinking about any kind of career path. So, what personal attributes do you think you have which have aided your career success?

Julian Smiles: Well, you mentioned luck. There have been a lot of fortunate things that sort of happened to me, and that I've been able to take advantage of. But you cannot take advantage of these things unless you’ve put a hell of a lot of hard work in there. And one of the things that I found in my myself from the very beginning was a competitive streak. And again, it was interesting that I started in a small group of cellists, we started in a class of eight cello players and there were a couple that were competitive, and I just felt that if I worked really hard, I could be better than them. So, I've always known at the beginning that if I work very hard I can do well.

There's also I, I think, you know, it's very seductive to, when you, when you do easy things like, you know, play pizzicato line with an orchestra or, you know, when, when no one can hear you, to say “OK, that's easy. I don't need to work on it”, but everything I've ever done, I've tried to do it as well as I possibly can. And I've spent time thinking about, you know, “what's, how do I achieve the best result?” So, I enjoy striving for quality - whether it's heard or not, and I think that that sort of philosophy, if you just permeate everything you do with that, that people end up noticing that, you know, if we get this person to do something, they're gonna do it really well. It doesn't matter how simple that task is, it's going to be very well done. All instrumentalists they need to of course, hopefully have had good teaching, but as I said, you know, keep striving for that next step. Keep trying to improve yourself, because I'm here to say that you know you can improve in indefinitely.

And I practice a lot. I practice more - I shouldn't say this - but I practice more than some people I work with and you know, I often even ask myself the question “why? Why do I practice so much? Why don't, you know, why do I grab every minute and keep practicing when I'm when I've been playing for 40 years and I probably wouldn't get that much worse if I didn't practice?” But the answer is that when I practice, I get better. And if I practiced and I didn't get better, that would be the point at which I'd stop. But the, it intrigues me that I can still improve. So yeah, I mean this is, this age old expression that that being successful in music is, you know, 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, so it's hard work you know. Put in the put in the miles, work on technique. I think technique is such an important aspect of playing that that we tend to want to sort of practice everything. We want to practice Dvořák Cello Concerto, but you can't play Dvořák Cello Concerto unless you've worked on the techniques involved.

And I always had this feeling, for example, with Janos Starker that he - I don't think he -  I got the impression he never practiced repertoire. He just occasionally did a bit of technical work. And then the repertoire was all in his head, but because he had such a great command of the instrument, he could just play anything at any time.


26:51 – 30:52: Dealing with criticism

Tara Smith: What about - I'm interested in how you respond to knockbacks or setbacks or negative feedback or bad review or criticism? Have you had many of those in your life? And what's your - what's your way of responding to those? How do you personally deal with that?

Julian Smiles: I've had some knockbacks, I've auditioned for positions; I've not been given them. I've had bad reviews. I think, I mean this is an answer to many questions, that you're only as good as your last performance and you're only as bad as your last performance, so you just say, “OK, well, that was that one. How do I do better next time?” To be honest, I'm very hard on myself, and there are very few performances that I come off stage and think, “Gee, I did well.” I'm always down on myself and I think in a sense, again when I look at it in retrospect I'm happy with that, because it's a bit like the practice thing. If I came off stage and I was happy then I wouldn't be challenged by you know, how the heck do I do better next time?

Tara Smith: It does seem that your response, then, to, you know, to setbacks or potentially negative feedback is to actually, just, then work harder, which is obviously, you know, what's one of the things I think that's led you to where you are now, rather than giving up. Or you know, to think “well, OK, work harder and get it, make it better for next time.”

Julian Smiles: Yeah, and I've been very fortunate in in the this. You know, I'm conscious that there are lots of great players through the world who don't have a job. And these auditions that they're doing are to get a job. I've always been in a situation, because I do this sort of multi-pronged career thing, that I have, you know, this job currently with the Australia Ensemble UNSW that's always been boiling along in the background, so if I, for example audition to be principal cello with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and I don't get it, it's not that I don't have a job at the point that I don't get that job. When I've, you know, toyed with the idea of doing this other part of a career and then decided myself not to do it, I've always got that back up, so I've been incredibly fortunate to have bases, professional bases, on which to build my career that are sort of, some sort of support. 

And that's the big difficulty for musicians, is that we could have this desire to be a soloist or chamber musician or whatever, but at some point you have to be pragmatic about, you know, we - I have to support myself financially, and that's when it becomes “OK. You gotta have a job somewhere.” If you're a good player, you're gonna need to get a job in an orchestra, hopefully. I mean, that's such a great thing to have. You might get a job teaching at a high school, teaching music. You might get an admitted administrative job at an organisation like the ACO or Musica Viva, or wherever, and still leave yourself that scope to perform, to play instruments. And I often work with community orchestras, and I think it's wonderful. There, I find the enthusiasm of players and community orchestras often, you know, far out strips that of the people in the professional orchestras. The standard might not be the same, but that the enthusiasm and the joy that people get out of playing their instruments with, you know, a group of like minded people is such a wonderful thing to experience and be a part of.


30:52 – 37:15: The role of Charmian Gadd, John Painter, Ken Tribe and Richard Goldner

Tara Smith: What about people who have contributed to your success? Have there been some key people that have helped you along the way? And have made a difference in in your career, who were they? How did you find them? Tell us a bit about other help you've had.

Julian Smiles: Yeah, I'd have to say, like I mentioned earlier on Charmian Gad, Charmian Gadd, and her husband Richard Goldner came to the camera School of Music when I was midway through my studies there and Charmian had this tendency to draw the available, good and enthusiastic young musicians around her and she we would have, you know, private concerts at her house, and you know, she was very supportive and as I said, she was the one that introduced me to a lot of the networks in Sydney: Kathy Selby, the members of Australia Ensemble, and got my presence known, in that sense. She was also, by the way, the one that introduced me to Janos Starker and got me to play for him. And again, that there was this sort of miscommunication, so I don't know if she actually knew that I was auditioning, but I didn't know I was auditioning. I just thought I was playing for him for a lesson. 

Another person that really supported me and I think very highly of and was actually associated with the Australian Chamber Orchestra was John Painter who was one of the founders of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and John, while I was studying in Canberra, became the director of the Canberra School of Music and he also noticed me, and he and I got on very well. He was one of the people I sort of obliquely referred to in helping me come to the decision to basically join the Australia Ensemble. He was advising very strongly for it, and he said “you'll gain a lot from that”, and I've remained in contact with John up until this day, and he's always been a great supporter.

There's another gentleman by the name of Ken Tribe, who's not with us anymore, but he was a great supporter of music. He was one of - he was the Chairman of Musica Viva for many years, and Ken supported, among other things, my career. He often was - I found in retrospect, that he was often the person that would sort of support my candidacy for certain things, or sort of throw my name into the mix, and with getting people to be aware of me and he was a great supporter of the formation of the Goldner String Quartet. So, he was very important.

Richard Goldner as well. Richard, it was just great to know Richard and Richard and Charmian were this team that really transformed the enthusiasm and the excitement that surrounded music in Canberra at that time.

And then my colleagues in the Australia Ensemble UNSW, the people that were there, when I joined and the people that have become members of it since then. I've learned such a lot working with them. I was very conscious when I joined the group that I was the youngest member of the group and you know, we used to make jokes about having a glass of milk for me in the corner and toys to play with because I was about 20 years old when I joined. But no, I've learned such a lot from them, whether directly, you know, them offering information to me or just, you know, learning how to interact with other people because working in a chamber music setting, there's a hell of a lot of communication involved, and it's like, you know, board meetings everyday, and learning how to give feedback and take feedback and not be offended by it and be diplomatic, but strong in your convictions and all these sorts of things that are high level negotiation skills. And it's very interesting to me how different I am in that respect to the way I was 30 years ago. I could be really obnoxious back then.

Tara Smith: I've got one more question and then we’ll (well, I've got lots more questions) but I'll ask you one more. Leads us to - to before we see if there's some student questions. With hindsight, are there any choices or decisions about your career that you would have made differently? Given another chance, is there anything you wish you'd done or didn't do?

Julian Smiles: Well, not to say I'm not happy where I am now. I'm very happy where I am now but as I said, like you know, half an hour ago that, you'd like in a sense - I've been so fortunate to have been offered so many potential, other shiny things along the way that I'd like to be able to. Wouldn't it be great fantasy to be able to go back to the age of 20 and say, “OK, this time I'm going to do that? This time I'm going to do that.” And there are several, you know junctions at which for example, I was at one point, offered the principal cello position for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra quite early on, but you know, if I had done that, I would have been in a very different place now. If I'd stayed in America, study with Starker, and potentially got to Europe and studied, I'd be in a very different place to where I am now. There at one point I was considering joining the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra as principal cello. Again, different place now. So, it's looking back at your life saying, “OK, this is the tributary that I've gone down”, but there are all these other tributaries that one might have gone down and, you know, none of us are lucky enough to be able to live ones other lives, you know, six or seven times, but wouldn't it be fascinating to do that and see where you ended up?


37:16 – 39:44: Career highlights

Tara Smith: Would be! Well, I mean, flip side then. Is there something that's happened in your career: an event, a performance or a moment that you are exceptionally proud of? What's your kind of - do you have one? Do you have a proudest moment you can tell us about, something you're really proud that you’ve achieved?

Julian Smiles: Yeah. Interesting one for us is, again as string quartet players, the everest for string quartets are the Beethoven String Quartets and there are 17 of them, and in 2004 we did what's called a Beethoven cycle. Where we performed all of those string quartets. We performed them in six concerts over three weeks and that, if, by any, you know, recognition of what it takes to be a string quartet, everybody will tell you that that's a real achievement to do those 17 string quartets over three weeks. 

And I remember at the time that, you know, I was what? You know, 35 years old and I thought I've just done something that I could stop playing now and I could be proud of and I've achieved something. That was a really special moment. 

The other really enjoyable - well a couple of other ones. First one was in the Australian Youth Orchestra. We did a tour in 1988 and I was the Principal Cellist and we did some amazing concerts in places in Europe. We played in the Concertgebow in Amsterdam. We played music festivals in the South of France, outdoors, and that was a really exciting period. The Australian Youth Orchestra at that time and still is a fantastic orchestra of the best musicians from all around Australia who are so enthused about what they're doing and they all practice their fingers off. So that was really magical. 

And the other one for me was, I played a Dvorak Cello concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, which is this natural amphitheater in Melbourne. And I played to about 15,000 people and the audience went up to the horizon and it was on a hot, you know, January night. And there were seagulls flying overhead and that was such a memorable occasion. That I'm very happy to have in my memory banks are wonderful.


39:45 – 42:25: Dealing with competitiveness and pressure

Tara Smith: They all sound wonderful and I wish I was at all of them. Sure others feel the same now. Now, it is nearly quarter to, we started about 5 minutes late, so we will - I think we've got five or maybe 10 minutes, if you don't mind Julian, to see if there's some questions from some students. Zia, are you there or Alex who's gonna give us those questions? Otherwise I can - I know there's one in the chat.

Zia Bohm: Yep, I'm here. I'm happy to give the questions. OK, hi Julian. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule, obviously, to come and speak with us. The first question that we received, prior to this webinar, was how do you deal with competitiveness and pressure in the music industry? I know you talked about you having a competitive streak, so I guess that would help. But otherwise yeah, how do you deal with that pressure?

Julian Smiles: Yeah, it's a difficult thing. I think the moments where I felt the best about what I've done is when I don't look at what other people do, I don't compare myself with others. So, because I can, you know, just hypothetically, you might say, OK, there's a person that I studied with in Bloomington who is now playing solos all across Europe all the time. And I can say, “oh, if only I'd done that”, I can feel regretful about not having, you know, competed with that. But at the same time, if I just look at what I've done and say, “OK, I've been in the one of Australia's finest string quartets for 26 years. I've been one of the most famous chamber groups with the Australia Ensemble for 31 years I've got all these recordings. You know, I'm very well known here”, I'm happy if I look at what I have achieved. So, I think you can sort of get trapped in sort of comparing yourself with what other people have done. But success in music, just it's not so much, being competitive, it's just being persistent. If you're going to audition for orchestras, you just have to do it over and over again. It's the reality is that it almost becomes a lottery at a higher level because it's very difficult for the orchestras to decide between 16 cellists are all fantastic, but you just have to make sure that you're doing everything you can to be up at that level. So, I guess that's how one deals with competitiveness.


42:26-43:59: Studying beyond a Bachelors degree

Zia Bohm: OK, thank you so much. I think that's very much applicable to a lot of industries as well, not just the music industry, just have persistence. What are your thoughts on further study and music beyond a Bachelors degree?

Julian Smiles: Well it depends on what you're trying to do at that particular point. In my experience at the Conservatorium, the people that are going beyond the Bachelors degree are usually not the best players. The best players tend to get snapped up and get a job somewhere. So, it's this this funny thing that you you end up, the people that end up, getting a Masters degree or PhD, they're not necessarily the best players, but they might become the best educators. They might become, you know, important within a university. So, I think in a sense, it's a different career path for musician, that. like it or not, is generally very well respected in all realms, apart from the, sort of, the performance side of things. You know, an orchestra is not really interested in whether people have a Masters degree or a PhD. But a university is, and a high school is, and so I think it's an investment in your marketability in an education setting.


44:00: If you didn’t play the cello, what instrument would you play? 

Zia Bohm: OK, thank you. That's very interesting. Just one last question, if you could go back, right back to the beginning and pick a different instrument, which one would you choose and why?

Julian Smiles: That's an interesting one. Unlike, you know, one of the things that you know, people say, you know, “isn't it great that you're a good cellist?” I think I always think, you know, I've found the cello and it worked well for me. I had studied the piano for a couple of years and I was hopeless at it, I was a really bad pianist. I was a good cellist, but maybe there's another instrument there that I would have been really fantastic at. I'd be quite interested in a brass instrument, actually, because I've got a good set of lungs. My sister plays the French horn. She's in the medical profession now, but she still plays the French horn and enjoys it very much. And she plays in a couple of community orchestras around the country, and she's very well respected. And yeah, I thought I think playing a brass instrument might be cathartic.

Tara Smith: Is that the retirement plan? Then I was gonna ask you which we run out of time for, but could you see yourself playing a trumpet in a community orchestra? Or what's the plan? To stick with the cello?

Julian Smiles: I will play the cello until I, my friends tell me not to. The education side of things, you know, teaching at the Conservatorium is, I enjoy it, but it's also a really wise decision, I think for my career path in the future, because if there if there is some point at which I become less desirable on the concert hall stage, my experience and my ability to teach hopefully won't be lessened. So, that's a backup plan, as well as something I really enjoy doing.

Tara Smith: Yes, wonderful. Well, we have unfortunately run out of time. There's so much more we could have asked. Thank you so much Julian and for giving us your time and for speaking to us. I'm sure I speak on behalf of the students. If anyone wants to unmute and give Julian a round of applause, I'm sure that would be welcome so that we know you're there but certainly – can we hear anyone.

Julian Smiles: Thanks Tara and yeah, you're a fantastic interviewer. Thank you very much. I've really enjoyed talking with you.

Tara Smith: You're very welcome. It was a wonderful thing to do on a cold, locked-down Tuesday night. So, thank you very much. I hope you've all got something out of that I certainly got lots out of that conversation, and I'm well into my career as well. So, thank you again, Julian, and thank you to the students. Thank you to the Music Performance Unit for setting this up, and if you do want to know about any more events that the Music Performance Unit are running. Make sure you go to the website, which is, I believe, music.unsw.edu.au and they're looking for more events and opportunities for all of you students there. So, thanks very much and hopefully we'll see you again soon, and hopefully all rehearsing and playing together in the near future as well. Thanks everyone.