Sit down with a soloist

By Stephanie Eslake, TSO News, March 2022

Andrew Seymour has performed with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for about a decade.

Yet, some of his mates have yet to see him play.

“I’ve got friends around Tassie who haven’t been to the orchestra. And for all these years, they say: ‘We should come and see you one day, we should come to the orchestra!’,” Andrew laughs.

Now, with a solo concerto performance in the works, the clarinettist’s smiling face is printed in concert programs, published on the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra website, and is even spotted on roving inner-city buses.

Needless to say, his friends are beginning to look up.

“It’s funny now – having my face on the bus has done something to shift their perspective. All of a sudden, they’re coming to the concert.”

This imagery places the TSO Principal Clarinet as a virtuosic instrumentalist in his own right. As the pandemic barred international and interstate acts from entering Tasmania, the orchestra started looking closer to home and launched into a celebration of the island’s own talent. Though borders have reopened, the sentiment remains strong: concertgoers needn’t travel far to see world-class musicians on their local stages.

“The way they’ve promoted us now, we’re the main event – we’re the big attraction,” Andrew says of this bold shift in focus. And far from feeling nervous about his moment alone in the spotlight, he says it makes him feel proud.

“It’s a chance to reflect and say: ‘Wow, this is how far I’ve come. I’m now at a stage in my career where someone’s putting my face on a bus – like, wow!’,” he smiles.

“That’s pretty amazing – and to be able to look back over the career, and see how it’s developed to that point.”

His role with the TSO is the peak of a career that had already reached impressive heights. Before becoming principal in 2012, the clarinettist worked as a freelance musician, performing with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Melbourne; and also touring nationally with Opera Australia’s company OzOpera.

As a guest principal, Andrew has performed with major orchestras across Australia and New Zealand – and in 2016 played his first solo event with the TSO, the Copland Clarinet Concerto to rave reviews.

Though Andrew’s life as a performing artist is undoubtedly full, he doesn’t forget where he came from: he continues to invest his time in music education. When he’s not playing on the Federation Concert Hall and Albert Hall stages, or touring across regional Tasmania, Andrew is raising skill and passion among burgeoning clarinet players from all walks of life.

Since 2017, Andrew has coordinated woodwinds at the University of Tasmania Conservatorium of Music (School of Creative Art and Media). Having pursued his own studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, he was surrounded by a larger pool of players who would “push each other onwards and upwards” with healthy competition. In light of his educational experiences, Andrew also notes the benefits of studying music in a quieter environment like Tasmania.

“People stay here because it’s such a great place, and it allows them to be able to have the time and be in the right headspace to focus on what they love about the music.”

Outside academia, Andrew also spends Friday afternoons welcoming adult students into his South Hobart home studio. He shares wisdom with more experienced musicians who find themselves called back to the clarinet after years away, and wish to rediscover all the instrument has to offer.

“Talking about the music in a more mature sense, you can really work on things in a different way to school students,” Andrew says of his returning adult students.

“I’m very much of the approach that every student is different. What works for me isn’t always going to necessarily work for a student.”

To Andrew, teaching is about self-discovery that extends beyond the parameters of technical performance. It’s a process he needed to experience during his own time as a student. He recalls a difficult lesson with a former teacher, which focused on just one aspect of clarinet performance: Andrew’s hand position – including the precise angles at which his fingers “should” rest over the keys.

“It just didn’t work for me. It really cemented for me that not everyone is the same. So, I approach teaching as guiding students on this process of what works for them,” Andrew says.

It’s through such flexible and expressive approaches to music that we can begin to see Andrew’s intuitive leadership style. In the TSO, he performs as a principal player leading a section. But as a soloist in a concerto performance, he leads orchestra and audience through his unique take on the musical narrative.

“Being the soloist, you’re totally in charge of your interpretation of the music, and really have the complete freedom to play in the way you want to play,” he explains.

“It really is a bit of a daunting thing to get up in front of your colleagues and play your concerto.

“I find that the most nerve-wracking thing – how it’s going to be received by your colleagues. What are they going to think of your concerto?

“That, in many ways, is more nerve-wracking than the audience.”

These nerves – which can become serious to some musicians, and may develop into performance anxiety – are not easy to overcome. It takes years of practice, live performance experience, and personal and professional development to play in front of an audience with confidence.

For Andrew, though, it all comes down to preparation. And if he does start to feel the nerves creeping in, he’ll tell himself: “I’ve prepared this. I can do this. It’s where I’m meant to be. I’ve got it.”

Andrew says it’s a “mental game” that can take place through the course of a performance.

“If you’re worried about something going wrong, then your mind fixates on that.”

That’s why he comes in well-prepared, dismisses any negative thoughts, and chooses to “focus on the music” instead.

“If I’m worried about playing it wrong, I’m doing a disservice to the audience,” he notes.

“I’ve got to focus 100 per cent on communicating the music, and what I’m trying to say through the music. I find if I can really do that, then the nerves don’t bother me.”

Of course, it doesn’t all take place on the stage. In between rehearsals and performances, Andrew keeps a healthy lifestyle and enjoys the sense of calm that comes from regular cycling.

“I find that it’s really good to be out on a quiet road somewhere – a good time to think and reflect. I ride to and from work a little bit, and I find it a good way to finish the day.

“You start to focus on the rhythm of the pedal, and it clears the mind for me.”

Trust a musician to sink into the rhythm of the pedals. It’s not the only crossover from cycling to clarinet performance, either – the exercise, Andrew reckons, may also help support his lung capacity on the wind instrument.

“Playing the clarinet has developed my lungs, and I’ve had to think a lot about how I breathe, the physiology of that, and maximising my breath. And I think staying fit on the bike contributes to that.”

When Andrew next performs – from his role as principal, or soloist in a concerto with the TSO – he hopes to bring you along for the ride.

“My goal as a musician is about communicating some sort of emotion. I really hope the audience feels something.

“I’m not just there to show off: ‘Look how good I can do this on the clarinet’. I hope to connect musically, on a deeper level than just getting through the notes.

“That’s what it’s about for me.”

Andrew Seymour appears as soloist with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Weber Clarinet Concerto, 25 March (Hobart) and 26 March (Launceston).