Stephanie Eslake had an accident that ended her classical musical career so she became a music journalist and founded CutCommon magazine
Stephanie Eslake is from Hobart and was on a pathway to becoming a classical saxophonist when an accident at work in her casual job left her hand permanently damaged. But instead of letting her affliction inhibit her musical aspirations, she turned to music journalism. She has been published nationally in The Mercury, Limelight Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun, Courier Mail, Perth Now and more. In 2014, she founded a magazine called CutCommon to mobilise the classical music community for young Australians. Just two years on, the magazine has 10,000 monthly readers, and has been hailed “Australia’s most popular street publication for independent and new classical music” by Notable Values, and the “leading online gateway for young Australian classical musicians” by Warp Magazine. Stephanie is passionate about classical music, a tremendous leader and inspiration to many in her many roles as a radio broadcaster, writer, editor, tutor, and in marketing and communications. Plus she was just named the City of Hobart Australia Day 2017 Young Citizen of the Year. She took the time to talk to Music Love about her varied and busy life in music. Truly inspiring. Enjoy.
What does music mean to you?
Music to me is as much about coming together with others as it is about personal fulfilment. I believe that as musicians, it is important to play for our own pleasure. So when taking this philosophy and applying it to a group – from quartet to orchestra – the result is a combination of passion and individuality which can bring something magical to life.
Tell us about your life as a saxophonist before the accident
I started playing saxophone at ten years old. I was badly bullied during school but I found friends in the band and we made a tight team. I loved making music with others, so I went on to perform in community bands and the Tasmanian Youth Orchestra.
In 2008, I received a scholarship to the University of Tasmania Conservatorium of Music. During my degree, I joined a saxophone quartet and we played many gigs across Hobart and performed on ABC and 3MBS. It was a bittersweet time: many of us were more competitive than we were supportive of each other, and I allowed my confidence to dwindle. It took me years before I understood that allowing yourself to be intimidated is never ok.
What happened to your hand?
I’d been playing for about ten years and was stuck in a rut where I wasn’t really enjoying playing through uni, but loved the instrument too much to stop. So when I fell over one night in my casual hospitality job and smashed my hand against the floor, I wasn’t too fussed that I might miss out on a few weeks of playing. I thought a break to clear my mind would be good. But a few weeks eventually turned into years, and completely changed the direction of my life.
How much time passed before you realised the injury caused permanent damage?
I’m a positive person – so when I was injured, I was happy to push through the pain because I felt everything would eventually sort itself out. It took many months before I was advised to stop using my wrist, at which time I wrapped it in a brace. But becoming overprotective did even more harm than good: after years the joint had deteriorated, and that was that.
What was that moment like?
When I discovered the damage was permanent, it wasn’t so much of a surprise as it was [a relief] – I had to finally let go of my playing, and concentrate wholeheartedly on other musical dreams. So I became a classical music journalist, and in 2014 founded CutCommon.
What is CutCommon?
CutCommon has evolved into Australia’s leading online publication dedicated to the young classical musician. We aim to push boundaries: we want interviews to educate our audience, and we want to expose new talent in Australia. CutCommon places young and emerging artists as high on the pedestal as those who have been performing in professional orchestras across the world, sometimes for decades. It is this unique and niche angle that allows us to thrive and create a sense of community. It is my goal for CutCommon to rebrand classical music in Australia.
In the last couple of years, we have also launched an original line of manuscript paper for the environmentally conscious musician, a digital music store to showcase young Australian composers ; a subscriber section offering discounts to Australian events and a few other exciting projects!
What advice would you give to people who are too scared to listen to classical music?
Give it a go! Classical music is often stigmatised: if you perform or listen to it, you are categorised as geeky, stuffy, or boring. But these stereotypes hold little truth. There is nothing to be afraid of – pick up a CD, browse YouTube, buy a ticket to see a performance of music you’ve never heard. Explore and discover classical music in your own way. If you like it, that’s fantastic – if you don’t, so what? At least you can say you dislike it with the authority and respect of having given it a go.
What genres of music do you listen to other than classical?
Lots! I have broad taste – I can get just as excited about Scarlatti’s harpsichord works as I can about the Dresden Dolls or They Might be Giants. At the moment, I am obsessed with K-Pop: my favourite bands are SHINee, Red Velvet, and BIGBANG. Korean popular music often draws on Western mainstream influences, such as R&B or bubble pop, and uses these to produce what I would argue to be the perfect songs.
What has been your most exciting discovery when profiling Australian classical musicians?
That classical musicians in Australia never stop surpassing expectations. When I started CutCommon, my main ‘real life’ exposure to new classical music had been through the Tasmanian community; particularly fellow students at the Hobart Conservatorium. But in the last two years I have been exposed to an enormous national community of musicians who are even more strong, inspiring, and dedicated than I could have anticipated.
Tell us what you have learned about young people and classical music
I’ve learnt there are so many talented young musicians working hard to achieve their dreams, and creating groundbreaking new art for all of us to enjoy. I’ve also learnt that this is the time for women in music to shine: regardless of industry, we regularly confront challenge and discrimination simply because of our gender. I personally spent five years suffering severe sexual harassment in the work place, feeling too scared to speak up and consequently resenting myself. What inspires me now is to see so many Australian women in the classical music industry coming together, unafraid to tell the world: ‘We’re here, and we’re not going to let anything hold us back’.
How many people write for CutCommon?
We’ve had more than twenty talented writers contribute to CutCommon since we started, some staying on through leading editorial roles. We pride ourselves on producing cutting-edge Australian arts coverage.
Where did you find these people?
In the beginning, I’d attended the 2014 Australian Youth Orchestra National Music Camp and joined six other budding music writers in the Words About Music program. I had such a fulfilling time that spending two weeks with them wasn’t enough: I wanted to continue writing with them for years. A few months later, and we were working together again, producing the wonderful stories that marked the birth CutCommon. Now that CutCommon has grown, people read the stories and come to us, wanting to be part of the fun. I haven’t met many of our lead writers in person – being in Tasmania, it may be a long time before I do. But I still consider them to be wonderful friends and their vision helps to shape the magazine into what it is today.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
To name a few who inspire me, Sally Whitwell takes the image of the ‘classical music composer’ and turns it on its head. Peggy Polias and Lisa Cheney are two composers working hard to showcase new Australian music through their monthly podcast Making Waves. CutCommon deputy editor Lucy Rash is an endless inspiration – the string player makes her way through classical and rockabilly scenes alike, all while working in education at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and helping to build CutCommon into the incredible resource it is. I also greatly admire Bourby Webster, who founded the Perth Symphony Orchestra and has been awarded for her success as a young entrepreneur.
What is your favourite place in Australia?
Scenically, Tasmania is my favourite so far with its natural island beauty, though much of it feels eerie and even disturbing. For stimulation and nightlife, I enjoy Melbourne. In general, Australia is a pretty good place to live, but I’d like to see more support to welcome people from other cultures who live here, too.
What is life like in Tasmania?
I’m from Hobart. Life in Tasmania can often feel isolating, so I like being as close to the action as possible. It’s a great place to set yourself up academically and creatively: there’s no distraction. And when you want to chase a dream, the community has your back. It’s also a terrific time to be here because our arts scene is exploding, and there is always something new to experience.
What is your favourite Tasmanian café or restaurant?
I couldn’t go past a little hole in the wall I visit too many times per week: Bury Me Standing. It’s discreet and hides away off the street, but they do the greatest bagels and coffee in town. I believe it’s important to treat yourself when you are working hard.
Who is your favourite Australian non-musical artist?
One whose work I love is Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, a Hobart painter who draws on suburban Australian landscapes to craft subtle and chilling representations of what can hide behind an idyllic façade. Also from Hobart, Kate Piekutowski produces stunning printmaking – especially her self-portraits that reflect her Polish heritage. Another fine artist I find astounding is Patricia Piccinini, who creates life-like and grotesque sculptures, which appear to be creatures that could have conceivably evolved in the world.
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