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Quit your job, become an... oboist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Written by
Meg Crawford

Ever wondered what it would be like playing with a major symphony orchestra? Ann Blackburn, a full-time oboe player with the MSO gives us an insider's perspective.

How did you come to play the oboe?
When I was about 12 I was in a clarinet lesson and there was a poster on the wall of an oboe. I had no idea what it was or what it sounded like, but I loved the look of it. I didn’t get the chance to play it until I got to year nine, but I fell in love immediately.

How did you get into the MSO?
I joined the MSO when I was 35 in October 2013. It’s a gruelling and very competitive three-staged process. Each stage is completely screened, so neither side can see each other. I went to 18 professional auditions before I won a job.

What does it mean to be a full time member of the MSO?
We have a different program weekly and there are usually one to three concerts at the end of the week. We do about 90 concerts a year. There are usually about 12.5 hours of rehearsal time for each program. There’s also a lot of preparation at home – either listening to the music to get to know it or practicing. Also, I make my own reeds, which is time consuming.

Do you need to sacrifice a lot for this job?
When I wake up on concert days, at the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘right, I’ve got to be my best for tonight, so I can’t do too much and wear myself out,’ so I try to lay low. I plan all of my sleep and meals around it. I do some preparation, but not too much in case my mouth gets tired. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t perform – prior to a concert you’re going to be feeling a little on edge and want a bit of space to get in the zone. You have to say no to a lot of social things.

What’s something we don’t see behind the scenes?
There’s a lot of pressure all the time to play at an extremely high standard. Plus, there’s no grace period for learning the notes. Then there are concert nerves. Good preparation is key – it helps you to feel more confident. I try to stay centred, I concentrate on my breathing and I use key words to bring me into the zone. The ideal is to be absolutely in the moment and not thinking at all. A sports psychologist helped me with some of these things.

Is your oboe like your baby?
I’ve named my oboe – her name is Nadia – I don’t know why, but it just felt like it fit. I take her everywhere I go. It’s like an extra appendage. When I don’t carry it, I feel strange.

Do you have to be extra careful of your hands?
I ride my bike a lot. I’ve heard about people losing the end of their fingers coming off a bike, and I don’t really need that, but at the same time, I’m not going to live my life in a bubble.

Starting income: as a freelancer, it was about $100 a call.

Study required: it doesn’t come down to how you’ve studied, it’s really a matter of how good you are. Some people have won jobs without having any degree. Most musicians in the orchestra will have done about six or seven years of study.

Hours of work each week: practising, listening, creating reeds, calls, concerts etc – approximately 30 hours per week.

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