Johnny van Gend: What I look for in a mentor

The young violinist tells us what he needs

BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE

 

Johnny van Gend started violin lessons as a five-year-old kid growing up in Toowoomba. Seven years later, he achieved both AMusA and LMusA – and he’s been in the education system ever since: he started his Bachelor of Music at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in 2015 as a Sir Samuel Griffith scholar, and won a string of prestigious awards while he was there. Next up, he’ll continue his studies at the Australian National Academy of Music.

So what does all this mean for Johnny?

Well, aside from the obvious – that he is one talented young artist – it also indicates the experience Johnny has had being tutored, guided, mentored, lectured. And now that he’s worked through so many years of education, we want to know what he’s learnt about being a student. We want to know what emerging performers like Johnny expect to receive from teachers and mentors.

This month, he’s been working with Ensemble Q directors Paul Dean and Trish O’Brien as he undertakes a mentorship with the group. Here’s what he’s experienced, and what he thinks young musicians need from established artists in order to develop their craft.

 

Tell us how you got involved with Ensemble Q and the mentorship program.

I’ve been a rabid fan of Ensemble Q since its inception; a regular awestruck face in the audience of their concerts. Their ensemble line-up presents many of the absolute finest chamber musicians from around Australia, and I was consistently left inspired and invigorated by their world-class performances.

A big part of Ensemble Q’s vision is the mentoring of young musicians, so in each concert there is at least one lucky mentee who rehearses and performs with the ensemble. I remember dreamily thinking, ‘oh, wouldn’t that be nice!’, but never expected the co-directors Paul Dean and Trish O’Brien to ask little old me to join them for their last concert of 2017! But, they did, and so I excitedly evaded any other clashing commitments and now here I am.

Talk us through the mentoring program so far – how has it worked on a practical level?

The heart of the mentoring program lies in the rehearsal time with the whole group. Short of being thrown in the deep end, the ensemble conducts the rehearsal as if I too was a professional, which in itself is such an incredibly valuable experience for someone like me.

Initially, I must admit a big focus was on keeping up with them and not being a nuisance, but soon I plucked up courage to start asking some questions, which of course they were only too happy to help me with. This participation and observation is where the mentorship program really shines.

What have you gained from being mentored by Ensemble Q?

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve gained from being mentored by Ensemble Q is learning what it’s like to be in a professional chamber ensemble, which is a career path that has always enticed me. Observing how they conduct rehearsals, how they interact (with a healthy balance of seriousness and banter), and how they arrive at musical decisions have all been enlightening.

Also, I’ve gained so much simply from working with the world-class musicians of the ensemble. As you might imagine, you learn a thing or two when you have the concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on your right and its principal violist on your left! I’ve learnt not only from watching their physical playing, but also from witnessing their incredible musicianship. Finally, I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the moving power of chamber music; all seems good in the world when Paul is floating through the beautiful slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.

You started learning your instrument at 5 years old – so you’ve experienced many different styles of teaching. As a musician now, what are the biggest things you’re looking for in a mentor?

Personally, I learn best by observing and imitating; more so than having a concept explained verbally. So a big thing I value in mentors is their ability to demonstrate. I also find it inspiring when a mentor has retained a true love and enthusiasm for music; when they are so excited to help you improve simply because making good music is an inherently good thing.

Perhaps a more fundamental thing that I look for in a mentor is that they’re easy to get along with. It’s hard to be motivated to serenade a cranky grouch! Of course, everyone in Ensemble Q gets a big fat tick for all these boxes, which is part of the reason why this mentorship program has been so fantastic for me.

How do you think mentors can better serve young musicians in a learning and development environment? 

A lot depends on the context of the mentoring, be it a weekly lesson, a once-off masterclass session, a week-long music camp, or something like Ensemble Q’s mentoring program. But in whichever scenario, one thing I can say is that I think mentors should aim to recognise when particular pearls of wisdom or ways of explaining a concept really ‘click’ with young people, and remember these for future use.

Will you be performing alongside your mentor in concert? How are you feeling about this?

Yes, I will! Although the usual niggling worries about getting the dreaded ‘shaky bow’ or playing an absolute shocker of a wrong note will never quite disappear, I’m so excited to be able to perform with such an amazing group of musicians. So I think I’ll probably forget all about these and just enjoy making beautiful music with them!

Johnny will perform with Ensemble Q at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, 3pm November 12. They’re set to premiere a work by composer Catherine Likhuta (check out our story with Catherine about her Scraps from a Madman’s Diary, which had its premiere at the con last year).

 


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