Published 22 September, 2014
By Louise Upton
At 11 years of age Kathy Selby reached the end of the road in Australia. If she was going to further realise her talent and forge a career as a classical pianist and musician in the world, she would have to study overseas.
Eleven is very young to pack up and move overseas to study.
Kathy’s parents certainly thought so, and, as she notes, parents she comes across today are no different.
The trouble is, says Kathy, “if you’re talented you have to go overseas to study.”
Kathy set off for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at 15, which back then didn’t even have high school or a formal curriculum for younger students attached. It was just music study and performance.
“There were a few of us younger ones and we had to fit in as best we could. From Curtis I went to college and then Juilliard in New York and then back to Curtis to work with a particular teacher,” Kathy says of her early years studying for and forging her professional musical career.
A career which coincided with the rise of the piano competition, a phenomenon about which Kathy is scathing: “The competition circuit is like a bad piece of reality television. Some performers don’t have the stomach for it and others prepare a certain repertoire and nothing else. If they win they’re finished because they can’t sustain it.”
As time went on and decisions about career development loomed, Kathy knew she had to come to terms with her own character: “I really didn’t like travelling all the time. I like being home, having a home and I knew myself well enough to know I wanted a family, children.”
One of her other struggles is her love of people, something that is at odds with a musician’s temperament and life.
“Musicians, especially pianists, are a solitary bunch,” she explains. “They spend a lot of their day alone. I envied people with jobs where they could talk and interact with others.”
With drivers such as these influencing her, Kathy’s career was bound to take a different path. Firstly, she couldn’t see why she couldn’t perform and teach from Australia – not something many artists wanted to try in the 1980s. Secondly, but sometime later, she came to understand that if she ran a business and performed then she got the best of both worlds: to be with people and practice her art.
In 1988, Kathy returned to Australia from America. It was a watershed year for her. She became Macquarie University’s musician in residence, which led her to the formation of the very successful Macquarie Trio. She met her future husband, eventually settling down to have two children with him. She also began the process of moving toward performing and running the business she now has, Selby & Friends, in which guest artists perform chamber music with her in various venues.
“I have on two hats and they require very different ways of thinking. On one hand I am one of the artists. On another, I am not, because I am the business owner and manager.
“Artists by definition can behave in a certain way. A business person as a professional cannot behave in that way. Sometimes, I feel like Janus, like I have a split personality.
“I once had a temper tantrum. It was about 24 years ago and I have never done it again.
“People don’t know me like that [as the ‘temperamental’ performer] because it’s not the way a business person behaves.
“When performers are working for you, you need to be calm, happy and in control so the performers feel that way. Being stressed doesn’t help them. As a performer myself, I have to be calm for me. It’s a very hard thing to be when everyone is asking and wanting something from you,” Kathy explains.
One of Kathy’s other battles, which is becoming a little easier, is with the cultural cringe.
There is a perceived belief that if you are not recognised overseas you won’t be recognised at home, and although Kathryn believes this attitude exists in Australia, she says it is a “crazy” way of thinking.
“We have as much talent here as anyone else has and with the way things are nowadays we can work everywhere without having to be based away from home. It’s just a matter of changing how people view things. That’s been the hard thing to do.”
When it comes to convincing society of the value of the arts and artistic self-expression, Kathy worries about where we are going, both here and globally.
“I understand people value sport and we are a society driven by sport and by money and the accumulation of wealth – the need to have material things. My point is,” says Kathy, indicating the music playing in the café in which we sit, “if we didn’t have this music playing, there would be something lacking, the atmosphere would be different.
“If you look at sci-fi, especially when it’s trying to get across the feeling of an empty society, there will usually be no music, no art, no self-expression.
“I don’t think people quite understand the value of self-expression, art, and how important it is that we continue to encourage its production. We will regret it if we lose the skills of self-expression,” Kathy finishes.
The 2015 Selby & Friends season will present a variety of masterworks of the chamber music repertoire including duo sonatas, trios, quartets and quintets by Beethoven, Schubert, Fauré, Dvořak, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Martinů, Smetana, Ross Edwards and many more. Selby & Friends will also present an Australian première of American composer Joan Tower’s Big Sky in Tour 1.