BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Since COVID-19 was first declared a pandemic, the entire nature of our industry has shifted, with artists forced to rethink their projects and reschedule live events. Yet Australia’s musicians are proving they have the power to adapt with ingenuity, determination, and creativity.
In this interview series, we document the COVID-19 impact on the Australian arts industry while facilitating a candid discussion about what it is like to work during this difficult time. We hope this series will bring hope and solidarity to our creative community – things we need now more than ever.
Needing help during COVID-19? Contact your GP, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or the Support Act Wellbeing Helpline on 1800 959 500.
In this interview, we chat with Grace Gallur. The classical soprano has had an extraordinarily successful year — and an extraordinary disruption to her plans and dreams. In 2021, she joined the Australian Contemporary Opera Company’s Gertrude Johnson Young Artist Program. And this year, she’s slated to perform at the Liederfest Finals, though they’ve been postponed. She was also cast for the first time in an opera, The Friends of Salamanca with Victorian Opera, though the production itself has been cancelled.
It’s also been a time of change for Grace more personally. After years of hard work and achievements — from founding co-artistic director of Candelight VOX Chamber Choir, to choral scholarships, soprano solos, and study at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music — Grace has used the pandemic as an opportunity to step back. After experiencing ill health during her second lockdown, she started to reflect not only on what she does in her career, but how she manages her workload. And as a consequence, she’s been able to share her knowledge and love of voice through a new avenue — teaching.
Grace, a few years ago you wrote an incredible blog with us called ‘Growing my confidence as a leader in music’. Dare I start the interview with a difficult question: How have your confidence levels been since COVID forced so many cancellations?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my confidence hasn’t been wavering. I’ve had a lot of wonderful opportunities come up this year that have rapidly disappeared, or been postponed, or cancelled.
The excitement, and the subsequent disappointment, of gaining my very first operatic role with Victorian Opera’s youth production The Friends of Salamanca, then having the rehearsals and shows cancelled, was very hard. I had a bottle of wine that I bought myself a long time ago and said ‘I’m going to keep this in my cupboard until I hit that first milestone’ – and I drank it with my dear friend Amanda Hargreaves and my boyfriend shortly after the castings came out. That’s not a moment I’m going to get to do over.
It’s difficult to watch gig after gig get pulled, but I think I’ve found a sense of peace with it that’s just come from taking a significant mental step back. The only thing that really shakes my confidence is just how crucial these first few years of your career are, and I don’t yet know what it means long-term for me and my cohort to be missing out on gaining the practical skills that come in the first few formative gigs. It’s the whole, ‘you can’t get experience without experience, but no one will give you experience because you don’t have experience’conundrum. I’m just trying to keep in mind that everyone is in the same boat with this!
I’m also very worried about getting my ‘busy’ stamina back. I don’t seem to be able to hold an awful lot in my brain in one go right now, and I think it will take lots of practice before I’m any good at juggling different commitments again.
Thank you for sharing this, Grace. Let’s go back further to 2020. How did COVID change the game for you from the get-go?
Eighteen months ago, I was someone who felt deeply unhappy and guilty if I wasn’t being productive. I had to very actively and consciously work to undo that. Where before I could just push down that feeling by ‘being productive’ or ‘doing more projects’, starting with March last year I actually had to face up to where those feelings came from and pull them out at their roots. That was a very healthy thing to start doing – and the process of doing it will probably never end – so I’m thankful that the opportunity to work on it presented itself!
During the second lockdown last year I also had some really nasty health concerns spring up, which necessitated that I go in and out of hospital from about November last year until about May this year. Initially, I tried to keep up things in between admissions, but when I physically could not hold up the sheet music in the choir stalls because of how severe my tremor was, it became clear that I needed to keep resting even when I was at out of hospital earlier this year.
Since March last year, I’ve spent nearly all of my time in my apartment! I’m potentially a little too used to it now: thoughts of incidental conversation, getting dressed every day, and not constantly being inside my pile of blankets do not exactly make me happy.
I genuinely need to use all my willpower to force myself to go for a walk. So if anyone sees me in public, don’t be alarmed if I introduce myself as Cloudy, and mention that the weather is very Grace today. I’ve forgotten how social interaction works.
Grace, I’m interested in how you say these changes made you reassess your priorities in your music career.
Due to the time alone during lockdowns, and due being very ill, I needed to sharply reassess my relationship to music.
When it was obvious that it was going to take quite some time to achieve remission, I completely reorientated my goals for the year: 2021 has been the year I learn how to take care of myself, before anything else. Even above answering an email, health is my utmost priority now. When it’s time to clock off at the end of the day, it’s time to clock off: that’s it, even if it’s leaving work unfinished.
If I notice that I’m running out of energy, I stop what I’m doing immediately, eat something, and potentially take a nap. If a task I’m being asked to do feels extraneous or I can’t see myself being able to make time for it, I say ‘no’.
Whilst I’ve been sick, the academic staff have gone out of their way to make sure I’m doing all right. In particular, my teacher-mentor has been extremely kind, and has kept insisting that it’s perfectly all right to slow down, and that we have all the time in the world.
I’ve arrived at this amazingly peaceful place with music that I really didn’t think I’d be capable of finding. I now feel as though I can still have ambition and big aspirations, but without feeling super intense about it all the time.
It’s not that my goals have changed, it’s just that if they need to, I don’t think I’d need to feel really awful about it. Now, the purpose of each goal is for the goal itself – not the goal plus my self-esteem and self-worth. Whatever happens, I have the capability to deal with it, and ‘it’ will be okay. Whatever kind of future I find myself in, I think I can trust my newfound sense of peace and contentment.
It sounds like you’ve occupied your isolated time in a way that’s balanced a continuation of your practice with the need for self-care.
I wouldn’t say I’ve balanced my time expertly by any means – and I think it’s a lot healthier to be honest about that. I still spend a lot of time in procrastination-purgatory between two different tasks. I’m working on it. But it’s also okay if I’m not, you know?
The best thing for my health has been to maintain a slightly ambivalent attitude towards anything music-related right now. Disengaging by a few degrees feels less painful than the deep, special-interest-y kind of work style that I’m normally inclined towards. I feel okay about going through the motions in a more neutral way right now.
I know that might sound depressing and anti-Romantic of me, but that’s so much healthier than putting up some kind of ultra-productive, career-perfect front. As a young singer, I’m part of a cohort where our careers are in the hands of directors and conductors and coaches who are choosing not only to hire us, but then to hire us again – so therefore we want everyone to think that we are as close to perfect as possible. I’ve had to make peace with the fact that right now, my ‘best’ is not going to look like my regular ‘best’. Even though not being extremely polished in my preparation makes me feel quite yucky and vulnerable, I can only do what I can do right now.
The energy I would put into berating myself could be better spent by gently asking my body to get out of bed and do some yoga or go for a walk.
Despite these challenges, you’ve recently made a big move in your career that will help others as they experience lockdowns: you’re offering your skills by way of free music lessons. Why did you want to gift your music lessons to the community? And has this experience given you hope for your future in music?
That’s a really lovely way of putting it Stephanie, thank you so much! It’s a gift to me too, my absolute favourite thing to talk about is the voice and how it works – and it’s been a real joy seeing people’s delight at finding themselves making sounds that they didn’t know they could make.
I’ve wanted to start teaching for ages. At the moment, there’s an understanding between me and my students that I am learning as much as they are, which makes it feel less scary for me. Also, I think that has helped them feel less intimidated, because it’s very clear we’re on an equal footing and that we are going on this journey together. It’s my way of putting on some training wheels for a little while.
What I love the most about singing is the honesty and vulnerability of it – that if you can give your all to serve the character; and allow the sounds you’re making to come from this very deep, raw, and human place within you – you might just facilitate a little lightbulb moment for somebody else.
It’s very evolutionary; we all yearn so desperately to be seen, because we want to know that there are others like us, that others have the same experiences and feelings that we do, and that we are not the ‘other’, but are instead ‘part of the tribe’and are worthy of inclusion and love.
Not only that, but the use of the voice is so fundamental to being human. There are so many amazing psychophysiological things that happen to us when we unlock our instrument.
If there are ways in teaching that I can help people come back to their own sound, use it with ease and efficiency, and tap into that evolutionarily magical kind of communication, that would be a dream and an utmost privilege.
And absolutely – those kinds of feelings give me hope that I’m in music to stay.
But that’s probably setting the bar too high to start with! For now, I just want to help my students learn to breathe deeply, and for them to have an hour of fun each week.
Do you have any parting words with those in the vocal community?
Please look after yourselves! If there’s no you, there’s no music either. If you don’t have the life in you to practice right now, make a cup of tea first, go for a walk, then see how you feel later. Just move with gentleness – for others and yourselves.
And hang tight! I’m excited to see you back in the rehearsal room soon.
Grace Gallur’s free vocal sessions are now full – but she is keeping a waitlist. Email to get in touch at email@example.com, and keep up to date with her work on her Facebook page and website.
For more Australian stories in our COVID-19 careers series, click here.