Phillip Sametz will teach you how to write about music | CutCommon

Phillip Sametz will teach you how to write about music

skills you will use

BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE


According to Phillip Sametz, communication is the Swiss Army Knife of industry skills. The ability to put music into words can serve artists who must craft biographies, write program notes for their ensembles, or sell a concert in a space that’ll fit 50 words or less. Good communication can do it all.

Communication is an art, but it can be picked up with good training. Luckily, that’s exactly what Phillip is about to give emerging artists when he tutors the Australian Youth Orchestra Words About Music program.

Phillip has dedicated his life to writing and speaking about music, having taken on impressive roles with ABC Classic FM, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Musica Viva, and the Australian National Academy of Music, among others. Here, Phillip explains why written communication skills are useful to every artist, no matter where they may be on their music industry journey.

Phillip, words and music. Why do you think it’s such a beautiful combination?

When you love something, you have an urge to find words to express your feelings; that is as true for an artform as it is for another person.

For something that exists only in time and not, as the visual arts do, in space, music benefits hugely from communicative, well-organised commentary. Writing about music well is a skill and a privilege, because great writing can be a bridge between the artform and the audience.

Let’s talk WAM. I attended this back in 2014, and have since ventured into the career of music journalism. But beyond this more obvious path, what do you feel is the importance of learning how to write about music no matter what career you follow? This may be whether you’re a musician, you’re planning to write program notes, working for an arts organisation, or any other industry career.

Whatever path in music you follow, this skill, like a Swiss Army Knife, is basic kit. What made you choose to perform this piece? What does a listener need to know that will enhance their enjoyment of the music? What might motivate someone to attend a performance or watch it online? An ability to write compellingly is bound to benefit your working life in and around music.

What do you feel to be some of the challenges — particularly for musicians — in putting sound into words?

The biggest challenge is thinking empathetically. Who is in your audience, and what do they want to know? If you’re a musician, does your audience for a particular performance comprise those who’ve supported you financially? Or will it be a room full of people who’ve never heard you play? If you’re creating a program note or your biography, ask yourself who is going to read it and how much musical knowledge you should assume.

Another challenge is ‘the conquest of brevity’. Can you say in 500 words what, in your initial view, should take 1,000?

Outside your work for journals, broadcast, and even leading tours, you have also spent about a decade in the role of communications manager of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. How did you navigate the challenge of converting the organisation’s vision and programs into content that would be exciting and digestible for the public to read?

The fundamental question a copywriter has to answer for the audience is: ‘Why should I come/listen/watch?’

In a brochure or on a website, you may have fewer than 50 words in which to capture the essence of a concert program and, simultaneously, make the potential audience for it feel that their life would be incomplete if they didn’t attend.

I am exaggerating, but only slightly.

To get the best outcome in a situation like this, I found the best strategy involved finding consensus on the communications approach within the company before the detailed work commenced; I also learned — I hope — to put my ego to one side.

So when did you get involved in the AYO program, and why — among the incredible portfolio of your career — did you decide to dedicate your time to teaching others about the craft?

I have been, mostly, exceptionally lucky in my career, and have learnt a lot about how to alleviate creative anguish when you are writing and talking about music. I had been asked to tutor WAM on a few occasions, but life and career always intervened, until my first WAM in 2019. My children are older now, and the chance, through WAM, to give back some of what our profession has given me, has been incredibly rewarding.

With portfolio careers now a virtual certainty for people in the classical music world, you can understand why I’m keen to pass on the knowledge I’ve acquired, to the musicians and administrators who will be the future leaders in our profession.

Tell us a bit about the upcoming WAM program, and how it’ll be structured. 

The aim of the course is to help participants succeed as communicators; to be articulate in their writing, on stage — as presenter or performer or both, to camera, and behind the mic — for radio and podcast. The parts of the course dealing with writing will cover everything from artists’ biographies to program notes. 

We’ll be structuring WAM online into discrete units, with webinars and workshops covering each subject area, some of which will involve tutors who are craft specialists as well as myself. And each participant will be given writing to complete, which will become publicly available supporting material for a forthcoming AYO season.

In what ways is this structure different to previous years, and how might this reflect the needs of participants today, in our digital era?

WAM traditionally takes place around National Music Camp; this online iteration is itself a response to the dramatically changed circumstances in which we find ourselves.

The 2021 course will explore the continuing role online music-making will play in our lives, and how support material needs to be tailored to suit. It will also explore how attitudes to live performance have changed over the past few months; after all, what was once taken for granted by urban music-lovers is now a precious commodity. How does that affect the way we write and talk about music?

So, we’ll also be looking at the fundamental skills you need regardless of the medium in which your work will be delivered.

What do you see for the future of writing in the music industry, in its many forms?

The keys to future success will be flexibility, self-reliance and clarity of thought. You often hear the phrase ‘the complete musician’; one of my aims as WAM tutor is to bring that to life. This could mean writing about a Brahms sonata as well as you play it; being able to introduce a performance to a room full of people as well as take part in it; fundamentally, understanding that to succeed – as a musician or as an administrator – you must communicate clearly and, in most cases, more succinctly than ever.

To that end, I would say that the days of the ‘one size fits all’ program note are over, and I’ll be addressing that as part of the WAM coursework.

Do you have any parting words, or words of advice?

It seems like an understatement to say that 2020 has been fraught; it has also demonstrated that the more skills musicians and administrators can draw on, the more quickly they can respond to swiftly changing circumstances, and the better the chances of survival and, indeed, success, for a company or an individual.

What communications skills do you need to make a life in music work now? Answering that question will be a central concern for WAM 2021.

Thanks Phillip!

My pleasure. Thank you for asking me.


The Australian Youth Orchestra’s arts administration and composition programs are now open for application. Stay tuned as we team up to bring you more interviews with artists who work behind the stage!


Images supplied. Phillip captured by Pia Johnson.

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