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INSIDE THE MUSICIAN: Philip Pogson: Music can prepare you to do almost anything! Well almost …

Is there life after a terminated or failed music career? What does all the practice and study qualify an individual to do? Former musician, now consultant, promoter, writer and producer, Philip Pogson, reflects on 45 years of life in and out of the music sector.

Written by: Philip Pogson

Coming relatively late to music as a profession, and starting from a low base, I’ve always felt I’ve been playing catch up. Even now this is the case, which is strange given I gave up performing more than three decades ago. In a sense, I’m writing an Inside the Musician article about being a poorly equipped musician, who is no longer a musician in any case. But if I’ve learned anything from being a lapsed musician, it’s that music can prepare you for just about anything.

Rural beginnings

I grew up in in the 1960s in a country town south of Sydney. My professionally educated parents were interested in and supportive of music and had broad tastes. They ensured all five of their children had piano and other music lessons and regularly took us to concerts. We did have connections to music royalty, however. My father grew up with the pianist and conductor, Richard Bonynge, their families being related by marriage. So, alongside Karajan recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies, pride of place in our household LP collection went to Joan Sutherland’s famous The Art of the Prima Donna. In the mid-1950s my parents moved to London after Bonynge had rehoused there as a young pianist. There they met Joan Sutherland through Richard. She had time on her hands between roles in those days and even babysat my eldest sister before her legendary Lucia success in 1959.

Through my teens, nothing stuck with me musically until I met a charismatic classical guitar teacher, Mark Williamson. At the age of fifteen I had in my hands an instrument that I loved and a teacher who challenged me musically and intellectually. In the middle of lessons Mark would pull out a book of poetry and read a few stanzas, or ask me what I thought of Tolstoy, Marx or some Aussie poet called Les Murray. Heady stuff for a teenager attending the local public school. Williamson had a broad range of friends: from the poet, Les Murray, who I first met at Mark’s property when I was 17, to author and folklorist, John Meredith, who had founded the original Bushwackers band in the 1950s. Meredith lived not far away and sometimes turned up at my teacher’s mud brick house for a chat and a jam. One moment I was playing Bach on the classical guitar, and the next, I was strumming bush songs with Meredith – who is credited with collecting ‘Click Go the Shears’ amongst his many achievements.

Over the next two years I advanced quite quickly on the classical guitar and started to dream of taking up music as a career. My school did not offer HSC music, however, and in those days distance learning was not easily available for students like me who were not geographically remote. As a result, my music history and harmony knowledge were thin to say the least. At the end of year 12 my most advanced musical qualification was a grade III AMEB exam on piano. I held no such certificates for classical guitar. Despite not doing music for the HSC, propelled by the blithe overconfidence of youth I auditioned to study music education at the then NSW State Conservatorium of Music. I had no Plan B if I did not get in. I imagine my mother was terrified of my falling into a heap if I was rejected. I had no such concerns. But as I was to find out soon enough, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Ill-prepared and unaware

One Friday afternoon in February 1978 the Conservatorium phoned to say that I had been accepted into the music education program. But there was a caveat. The following Monday I was to front up for a week of remedial theory at the Old Government Stables in Macquarie Street. Getting in and out of the CBD for a few days is taken for granted by city dwellers, but for rural kids it means finding accommodation. Over the weekend we had to organise a place for me to stay. The solution was to pack my suitcase and guitar and spend that week at the YMCA in Pitt Street. I arrived in Sydney the weekend of the terrorist bombing of the Sydney Hilton in February 1978. There were police everywhere and it took me a while to understand why. My focus was on more important things: music theory. During those five days I discovered just a little of what I did not know. For starters, in addition to minor and major scales there are at least seven modes – who’d have thought that? Then there were leading notes, parallel fifths and so much more. My musical catch up had begun.

The joys of being Con-ed

It would be nice to say that the academic and musical standards of that era at The Con, our oldest tertiary music institution, were high, but in reality, the quality was uneven. Less said the better about those academic staff who were not up to the job; on the positive side of the ledger, twentieth century music classes with the globe-trotting musicologist, Richard Toop, were riveting. I looked forward to every lecture of his, every week. I camped in the library listening to LP recordings from Ligeti to Britten, Messiaen and Stockhausen. Why hadn’t I known about this wonderful music? What a gift it was to study a semester of Australian music with composer Don Banks. My slate was pretty much blank on Australian classical music, I don’t even think I had heard of Peter Sculthorpe. Entertaining and highly educational solfege classes with Richard Gill accelerated my ear training as did singing in the large choir Richard conducted. This was yet another tasty musical initiation, let alone performing with the choir and full orchestra at the Opera House. For some reason Richard Gill asked me to join his select choir, The Con Singers, despite my being a very average tenor. Here there were yet more revelations: renaissance madrigals and motets in four and eight parts, annual performances of Bach’s St John Passion and a first ever Sydney-based historically informed presentation of Handel’s Messiah with the Sydney Symphony’s Daniel Mendelow on baroque trumpet.

Despite studying music education, I had never wanted to be a classroom teacher. I simply wished to learn my craft as a musician. I did well academically, however, graduating with merit. My guitar teacher, Greg Pikler, kindly organised a fee scholarship for me to continue private lessons with him while preparing for entry into a performance degree. By that stage, I had met my wife, Jenny Eriksson, who was a cellist transitioning to viola da gamba, an instrument she could not then study professionally in Australia. Rather than remain in Sydney where we knew what to expect from further musical training, we decided to chance our luck in Europe, settling on The Netherlands. In 1985 we literally sold everything we had and bought one-way tickets to Amsterdam. We told our families we could not afford to come back unless someone died. Fortunately, no one did. For the second time I packed my life into a suitcase and headed off into the unknown carrying a guitar. Except for a family holiday in New Zealand, I had never left Australia.

Philip Pogson, Amsterdam with Jenny Eriksson

Learning the ways of the Dutch

The first Dutch words I heard were the announcements at Schiphol airport, Amsterdam. The language sounded guttural and confusing. We had originally planned to go to Austria and taken a year of German, but a late switch left us linguistically stranded. We had the address of a place to stay for 10 days while Australian friends were away on their summer break, and were enrolled at Sweelinck Conservatorium, Amsterdam. From the first moment we loved this entrancing city of canals and history. Musically, Amsterdam in particular, and The Netherlands more generally, was famous for early and new music from the 1970s and 1980s to the present day. The city was the home, or part-time home, to towering early music figures such as harpsichordist, Gustav Leonhardt; recorder player, Franz Bruggen; and vanguards of the next generation like conductor/keyboardist, Ton Koopman. Although Belgian by birth, the three Kuijken brothers, Weiland (viola da gamba), Sigiswald (baroque violin) and Barthold (baroque flute) all taught and played in Holland and Jordi Savall visited regularly. The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Bruggen’s Orchestra of the 18th Century were already globally renowned. All this added up to why my wife wanted to study there. Beyond early music, the access to contemporary music and old and new art were also enriching. Our first apartment was a brief walk from the famous Concertgebouw, home to the Concertgebouw Orchestra and a fabulous small recital space, the Kleine Zaal (small hall). Just nearby were the Van Gogh and Rijks museums. There I got to see my first real Van Goghs and Rembrandts and still remember glimpsing a stunning exhibition by Marc Chagall. Amsterdam, home to fewer than a million people, was on the touring map for just about every musician, ensemble, or soloist across multiple genres. It was a smorgasbord …

Fees for foreign tertiary students were minimal in those days, the equivalent of $400 or $500 Australian a year, and the student population was very international. Despite English being the norm for postgraduate students, I persevered and learned to speak Dutch. In the 1980s, HSC equivalent students in The Netherlands had to study Dutch, English, French, German, Latin and Greek in order to matriculate. While we were living there the decision was made to allow students to study Latin OR Greek. For many traditionalists, such an intellectual compromise represented the imminent collapse of the education system! Few Dutch people can be bothered helping foreigners to learn their language, as it is easier for them to converse in yours. But once a foreigner gets to a reasonable level of competence they are often delighted. Having overheard a conversation I was having, a Dutch friend announced, “You can speak Dutch? That is wonderful. From now on, I will only talk in Dutch to you.” She was true to her word.

Philip Pogson, Dutch house concert circa 1987

Despite the great musical experiences and some good teaching, after eighteen months I decided not to continue. The choice was simple: the guitar is a solo instrument. I looked around at the quality of the players and knew I did not have the talent or the temperament to make it. I did not want to spend my life teaching. So I made the gut-wrenching decision to cease studying and took up a series of part-time jobs including teaching guitar in Dutch and English and commercial cleaning. I supported my wife as she undertook her exams on the viola da gamba. After three years away, we headed for home with two suitcases and two instruments.

Transitioning out of music

Back in Sydney, broke and without savings, I did not know what I wanted to do. At 18 years of age, I had started tertiary education with minimal musical qualifications. At age 28, all I possessed were music qualifications which were a ticket to nothing outside the profession. After some time searching, I talked my way into a management job for a charity that trained long-term unemployed people in western Sydney. They hired me based on the fact that I had a tertiary qualification in education, even if it was music education. I had never held a full-time job and never worked in an office. But how hard could it be to manage a budget and a bunch of staff? (The answer of course is it’s far from easy.) Those who hired me should have been sacked. But I set to upskilling myself and filling the gaps. I completed a research masters degree in adult learning while working full time and leading a growing NGO in the midst of the early 1990s recession. I gradually got better at what I did. I moved on to a large not for profit with 5,000 staff, then to the private sector. In the late 90s, I made the decision to set up my own management consulting firm before being asked to join the advisory firm I now own. Music was on the backburner but was soon to come to the fore again. More of that later.

What does music enable us to do?

I have gone through several significant career and personal transitions over 40 years. At key life inflection points, I’ve had no alternative but to reflect deeply, including on what it is one learns from being trained as a musician. What literally was inside me as a former musician? Are there skills and attributes I could bring to a career outside the arts? I have never found the science-based ‘music is good for your brain’ rationale for supporting music education to be convincing. There are many ways to develop the brain other than learning a musical instrument: playing chess or learning a language, for example. Top level sport also develops a person’s cognitive abilities and even leadership functions. In my case, what music taught me, or perhaps reinforced in me, were two important but abstract attributes: passion and discipline.

Embedded in discipline, particularly intrinsic or self-generated discipline, is a capacity for long-term, consistent and focused work. I know this from personal experience and from academic investigations. My postgraduate research looked at how ordinary people, even those who are not literate, learn new, everyday as opposed to academic skills. The research into the acquisition of expertise across a broad range of areas shows that thousands of hours and years of effort will see most individuals become something of an expert in their chosen domains. It is the same for heart surgery, trainspotting, music, orchid-growing, and accounting. Hard work and perseverance play a major role in getting better. We forget at our peril, however, that expertise is not always correlated with IQ or so-called innate gifting. Recent academic research by Dr Angela Duckworth, as publicised in her book Grit shows the same: those who persevere, who show grit, will improve at just about everything they undertake.

But nobody pays to hear a hard-working but boring musician, we want emotion and passion, we want to leave a concert or gig uplifted. Music taught me how to cultivate and effectively channel my passions and energy. Music also showed me how tell a performance story, to walk into a room, sit down and have an authentic presence even if I felt uncomfortable or nervous. Music gave, and still gives me, a window to the numinous, that which is beyond the concrete world. I could never be a reductionist. Life – both musical and otherwise – is more than random atoms and DNA mutations.

Returning to music with new eyes and new skills

Around 2000 my wife’s solo career began to grow. We wanted some control and efficacy on what she did and when, to generate opportunities, not just wait for the phone to ring. In response we decided to re-purpose an existing Pty Ltd company we owned into a music promotion and recording business. We began to run our own concert series in addition to the Musica Viva in Schools groups my wife had organised and led for many years. In 2009 we released our first recording. Since then, we have released 10 more, with another in post-production. Over several decades we have presented more than 3,000 concerts through Musica Viva in Schools, and hundreds more through our chamber music group, The Marais Project. Several years ago, my wife formed Australia’s first and only electric viola da gamba ensemble, Elysian Fields. They have now released two CDs and had modest but consistent success on the improvised music and festival scene. Far from being stuck in what some dismiss as ‘the early music ghetto’, we have commissioned, paid for, and premiered more than 40 works by Australian composers.

The Marais Project, Jenny at the centre. Photo Chris Hayles

In the process we have learned marketing, producing, risk management and recording skills. We’ve also become adept at the flexible, just in ime logistics scramble that small arts organisations know all too well. ‘Can you do this?’, small ensembles and arts companies are asked. And the answer we and others like us invariably give is, ‘yes’. We then go away and work out how to make it happen with little or no capital. I am still playing musical catch up but am probably having more fun than at any stage of my musical life – COVID-19 notwithstanding.

Consulting and mentoring in the arts sector

Having a musical training, business and consulting skills and some personal skin off my knees as a small-time arts entrepreneur and promoter, has brought other opportunities. I have joined many Australian businesspeople and community members that support and advise arts companies and entities on a pro bono, or semi-pro bono basis. There are many complexities, legal and governance challenges in running arts organisations and often not the in-house resources that for profit businesses have access to. Those I have advised and engaged with include Hobart Theatre Royal, NIDA, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Hayes Theatre Company, Sydney Chamber Choir and, more recently, Hume Regional Conservatorium in Goulburn.

One of my great joys was being asked to join the founding board of Richard Gill School, Muswellbrook, by Richard himself, just before he died. Always a risk taker, Dick thought it was a great idea to have a school started in his name in an Upper Hunter Valley coal mining town. He wrote the school philosophy while very ill, in conjunction with our Chair, his former student and friend, Kim Williams. I was never one of Richard’s more talented students, but the impact he had on my life was profound. To think, I would never have met him, or so many other wonderful individuals, if I had not studied music. I am sure I was not the only one who wept at Richard’s memorial service at Sydney Opera House.

40 years of musical sector change

What has changed in the almost 45 years since I left home for a week of theory at Sydney Con? Firstly, I think the music scene across our nation is broader and more diverse than it was. More women have come to the fore, somewhat more musicians from diverse backgrounds are rising to the top, and classical music is no longer the only game in town for the seriously gifted and ambitious. Recorder, oud, ta, and didgeridoo players now have a place on the podium, which is great. The business is also more competitive: there are many talented artists out there who are worth hearing but do not have enough performance opportunities. We are more diverse, but also more fragile as a sector. COVID has shredded any belief we had in our underlying sustainability, but it only accelerated several longer-term trends. For example, all kinds of gigs and opportunities are paid less in real terms than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Venues are closing and those that survive are more expensive to hire. In the past there were more cheap, perfectly acceptable venues for small ensembles in Sydney: places you just rang up, booked a date, were told where to pick up the key, and warned to leave the place tidy. That was the extent of the ‘contract’. Musicians now have to carry their own public liability insurance in addition to carrying their instruments. They also require marketing and social media skills as never before.

The value of recordings has diminished with the introduction of the convenience of streaming. We used to sell $2,000 to $2,500 of hard copy CDs at a launch concert, now we are lucky to sell $200. The world has changed and there is no going back, but it is not easy to close financial holes like these. In addition, government funding has fallen away and become more complex to obtain. It is an open secret that some musicians and other artists now employ grant writers on a percentage of success basis. That is, the scenario is: ‘win me this grant, and I will give you a cut of what I get.’ Finally, risk is all too often pushed from promoting and sponsoring organisations that have funding and a balance sheet, to musicians and music ensembles that have neither. This forces artists to leverage their own social media following at their own expense and encourage them to buy tickets. If an audience is forthcoming, the venue, festival, or promoter, give the artists a cut of the profits. No audience, no money.

A more sustainable future must be on the agenda

What can be done? In brief, we need long-term schemes in place to support quality venues and make those venues available at reasonable cost, particularly for up-and-coming musicians and small ensembles of all kinds. We must lobby for more government investment in music and musicians that is more evenly spread. It is no good having ten ‘top of the range’ national ensembles or festivals receiving millions of dollars a year each, if the rest of the music sector is barely able to feed itself. We should invest in a vibrant music ecology, not just a limited number of centres of excellence. We also require fair, sustainable pricing from streaming services. The Federal government changed the law to force Facebook et al to pay for local news content. We should do the same for music streaming. Finally, we must have programs in place to nurture the young and over longer time frames than we used to think was necessary. We have to help those with the talent, passion and drive to be still appearing on platforms in the second half of their 30s and even into their 40s. If we don’t provide support, the next generation will be forced to leave music, further diminishing our lives and that of our communities. I spent a lifetime bluffing my way through, as did others of my generation, relying on picking up tricks as we went. It is much harder to do that now.

But for musicians, I believe the future will always be yours. Music taps into some of the deepest wellsprings of what it is to be human. There will always be another gig over the horizon because humankind needs music. Inside us, inside the musician, is passion and discipline. These – plus a few others – are our creative super-powers.


Philip Pogson studied music education at Sydney Conservatorium and Newcastle University and performance at Sweelinck and Rotterdam conservatoriums, The Netherlands. He holds a research degree in non-academic intelligences, two postgraduate qualifications in governance and is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He has produced or been Executive Producer for a dozen recordings and many music videos as well as co-commissioning new Australian music in conjunction with his wife, Jenny Eriksson. Philip chairs a K-6 school, is a founding director of the Richard Gill School, Muswellbrook, and Managing Director of The Leading Partnership, a strategy and governance advisory firm.


  • Lockdown challenged us and the whole music sector. One of our responses is our ‘Two’ project, which existed as a 50-minute concert broadcast on Australian Digital Concert Hall and as a recording. The You Tube version here is free


Philip Pogson studied music education at Sydney Conservatorium and Newcastle University and performance at Sweelinck and Rotterdam conservatoriums, The Netherlands. He holds a research degree in non-academic intelligences, two postgraduate qualifications in governance and is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He has produced or been Executive Producer for a dozen recordings and many music videos as well as co-commissioning new Australian music in conjunction with his wife, Jenny Eriksson. Philip chairs a K-6 school, is a founding director of the Richard Gill School, Muswellbrook, and Managing Director of The Leading Partnership, a strategy and governance advisory firm.

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