BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
This profile feature of emerging violinist Arna Morton is produced in collaboration with the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
When Arna Morton was a child growing up in New Zealand, she’d play make-believe.
Her mother was a professional ice skater, and her older sister a ballerina; so the sounds of classical music would flow throughout her family home.
It wasn’t until she was five years old that she saw a violin for the first time (on Playschool, no less). And after she “fell in love with the shape of it”, she would pick up her toy ukulele and, using a 30cm ruler as her bow, she’d pretend to play the instrument she’d seen on television.
Her mother soon witnessed Arna’s musical fantasies, and bought her a violin for her fifth birthday. Arna hasn’t looked back, and chose to pursue her passion and enrol in a performance PhD at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
It took Arna a few years to make the move from New Zealand to Australia, which she did in 2014. “I felt pretty isolated playing the violin as a child,” she says. She lived in an outer Christchurch suburb and hadn’t made music with a group until she was in high school.
“I would have to say that if I hadn’t gone to such a musically strong high school, I likely would have given up, because simply practising for hours each day all alone was not that fun for me at that age.”
But when she connected with others, the experience took her far: she started leading her Christchurch Girls’ High School orchestra, the Christchurch Youth Orchestra, and even joined the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra – all while “enjoying the journey towards becoming a professional musician”.
Arna moved to Australia after finishing her Bachelor and Masters in Music at the New Zealand School of Music. “My husband and I were just itching for a change of musical scenery after I had finished my studies,” she says.
“He too is a musician, so we decided on Melbourne because of its rich musical culture – yet it was still close to home!”
This was when Arna enrolled in a PhD in performance at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Though she found it a challenge to move away from her home music scene, Arna says getting involved in her Melbourne educational institution and its staff helped her to find opportunities and work in the industry.
“My first year felt a little like being a freshman all over again! I enjoyed meeting new colleagues, and making new friends, and lapping up all the new and exciting opportunities that were coming my way.”
She kicked off her PhD in 2015, and received an Australian Postgraduate Award on acceptance into her course. Her supervisor Dr Curt Thompson had seen her perform in New Zealand and recommended she study in Melbourne. “We kept in touch and he believed MCM and the PhD Performance Programme would be a great fit for me – he was not wrong!”.
I really enjoyed being thrown into this much larger pond
“I really enjoyed being thrown into this much larger pond, and I also felt an expectation to be at the very top because I was undertaking such a high level of study,” Arna reflects. “These two aspects really motivated me to work hard!”
So what’s Arna gained from her PhD experience so far? Along with Dr Thompson, the violinist is supervised by Dr David Irving, and is researching Britten’s Violin Concerto.
“I am producing a Performance Manual for the written component of my PhD, which examines the methodology I employed in learning and performing the work, with an emphasis on the interpersonal relationship between the living performer and dead composer,” Arna explains.
Her portfolio focuses on her own performance of the concerto with the University of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2016 after she took out the 2015 MCM Concerto Competition. She’s also focusing on other works by Britten and two 20th Century concerti she’ll record in 2018.
Grasping every opportunity she can, Arna also works as an academic assistant to “experience life both as a graduate student and as a staff member of the MCM”.
“Typically, my working weeks involve mostly physical practice, some mental practice, the odd class such as violin class and postgraduate seminar, emails and work for my academic assistantship, and a little yoga for the body and soul,” she says.
“The writing of my thesis tends to occur mostly during non-semester weeks, as I find it hard to focus on it daily. In fact, I’ve just booked my next writing retreat in New Zealand, which I do a couple of times a year, for the next mid-semester break. I’m really looking forward to smashing out that word count while mum cooks for me!”
The most valuable time for Arna during her studies comes during the weeks orchestra is in session. While she finds her workload manageable, she works harder to avoid isolation and involve herself in extra-curricular MCM activities “to broaden my experience and to ensure I’m interacting with enough humans in the week”.
“It might sound silly, but it’s absolutely essential for my mental health.”
Arna has also struggled with impostor syndrome during her PhD journey so far, and observes that – unfortunately – it’s a feeling shared by many students enrolled in similar areas of study.
“It’s so easy to see tremendous faults in your own work, while admiring the work of your colleagues, which can leave you feeling as if you don’t belong in the world of academia,” she says. “I think for performance PhD students, this can be particularly noticeable, due to our primary vehicle of research being through our practice, not writing.”
But it’s the support of her colleagues that sets her back on track, such as her “technical gem” supervisor Dr Thompson: “If I think about what I really appreciate about his mentorship, it would have to be his unwavering support of my performance ability”.
“Whenever I feel low about my progress and my playing, he is always there to build me back up and remind me why I do it all, and that, despite my insecurities, I will have an enjoyable and successful career in music.”
Be kind to yourself and enjoy the journey
The most important thing Arna has learnt through her experience as a student in MCM is a little more personal than you’d expect: “Be kind to yourself and enjoy the journey”.
“Self-compassion has been something I’ve struggled with ever since high school, when I had that light-bulb moment at age 13 and suddenly cared so much for music. I wanted to succeed so badly at it that I often forgot to step back and look at the amazing progress I had made.
“People think I’m this super-bubbly, enthusiastic woman, but deep down I can be an awful pessimist, especially when I’m reflecting on myself.
“The last few years at MCM have taught me to relish one’s failures as learning opportunities, and that it is ok to take some time out every now and again.”
But she wouldn’t hesitate to advise others to follow the same path. “I would tell them to throw themselves into it.”
“Be involved in as much as you possibly can, whilst also allowing time for yourself. Behave professionally from day one, because university is where the world and our industry begins to really form an opinion on who you are as a player and a person!”
If you are interested in pursuing further study, visit the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music website. Applications are now open for the new Master of Music (Orchestral Performance) program, in collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.