OHA Australia Wide – Graeme Norris (OH 2000)
Graeme Norris: The OHA’s maestro violinist
Years at Haileybury: 1992 to 2000
Current location: Perth
Other locations: Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Kuala Lumpur and Perth
Our first edition of OHA Australia Wide for 2020 is devoted to perhaps the best musician Haileybury has ever produced, Graeme Norris (2000). There’s certainly some competition for that title since Haileybury did produce the lead singer of Daddy Cool, Ross Wilson! Graeme is a professional violinist who has held leading roles in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and now as Principal First Violin in the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.
Graeme attended the Keysborough Campus from 1992 to 2000. In that time, he witnessed the completion of the aquatic centre, the retirement of Michael Aikman and the beginning of parallel education. But his musical education started long before Haileybury. Graeme started playing violin at age four. ‘My parents took me to a variety of music demonstration lessons’, Graeme says, ‘and I picked the violin but I have no idea why!’ Graeme showed talent early completing his AMusA and LMusA diplomas, both with distinction, while in years 9 and 11. Those who are familiar with these qualifications would know what a remarkable achievement that is.
Violin wasn’t the only field in which Graeme excelled at Haileybury. He was a member of the first hockey team, the diving team and an accomplished piano player. Graeme acknowledges the support of the staff and the facilities of Haileybury. ‘With incredible facilities and the support of some key teachers, I was given the time and space to grow and reflect on what was important to me as a person. Also, a driving sense of justice and fairness was instilled in me which probably grew to the point of annoying some teachers but still serves me well.’
Graeme thought of being a pilot for a while, but his talent and passion for violin made a career in music almost mandatory. After graduating from Haileybury in 2000, he studied with a full scholarship at the Australian National Academy of Music in Sydney in 2001 and 2002. He then completed a Bachelor of Music Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts before joining the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 2006 as Associate Concertmaster. To be made Associate Concertmaster, which is effectively the second most prestigious role in the orchestra, at age 23 was truly remarkable. Such a role is usually only achieved by musicians who are much older. Graeme then joined the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010 and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in 2016, where he currently performs.
Being a professional violinist is quite different to most jobs. First, you have one work tool which matters above all else: your violin. Graeme says that a professional violinist’s instrument will range in price from USD20,000 to multiple millions. The ultra-expensive instruments are antiques made by the likes of Stradivarius, Guarneri or Guadagnini. They’re not only tools but historical artefacts. These violins are often purchased by banks or foundations who then lend them to violinists. ‘I was a bit lucky when I found my current violin’, says Graeme. ‘Nobody knows who made it. It’s most likely just a Czech trade instrument from the 1850s but it has a wonderful sound. Because of a lack of historical importance, it was reasonably priced.’
Given the price and importance of a violin, insurance is essential. Also, violins travel in the overhead compartments of an airline, not the cargo bay!
Second, being a professional violinist comes with a lifestyle. ‘The lifestyle is what you make it, but our work does involve many late nights and weekends. Most of us try to avoid loud environments because we’re exposed to extreme noise at work. Most people are surprised when they see the decibel readings of an orchestra. We often cross the daily recommended noise intake in a couple of hours of rehearsals.’
Third, there’s the risk of injury. Being a violinist is like being an athlete except that you work muscles that most athletes don’t use. ‘Injuries for musicians are very serious like for athletes’, Graeme says. ‘If they don’t heal properly, they can cause permanent damage, endangering your career. You have to look after your body. Most exercise routines are fine, as long as you’re sensible about it. I have colleagues who do rock-climbing and martial arts but not too close to a concert because the muscle fatigue can have a detrimental effect on your playing.’ Through a mix of good judgment and good fortune, Graeme has largely avoided injuries. ‘I had a hand and arm injury a few years ago which meant I couldn’t play for two months and returned to work after three months.’ So, the longest Graeme has gone without picking up a violin is a mere two months!
Fourth, being a performer can be stressful but nerves is not something that affects Graeme.
‘I don’t really get nervous anymore. If you’ve done the work and are prepared, there’s very little to be nervous about. There’s sometimes a feeling of excited anticipation which I hope to never lose!’
There are challenges to being a professional violinist, but there are certainly rewards. ‘The best thing about being a professional violinist is playing the best music written over centuries at a high level. There’s a rush during a great concert that’s hard to replicate. At those times, it doesn’t feel like a job at all.’
Graeme has participated in making several recordings, including recording all of Sibelius’s symphonies with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, but he thinks that a recording can never match a live performance. ‘There’s a vibrancy and physical impact created by live instruments that just can’t be replicated by recordings. There is also a sense of spontaneity and a unique feeling of knowing that what you hear in that moment will never happen again. “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Also, recordings are often manufactured and rarely a fair representation of a performance.’
After more than 30 years of playing the violin, you might wonder whether there’s any room left for improvement. The days of being a 4-year-old, who’s just picked up the violin, are certainly gone! But Graeme says there’s always scope to improve no matter how experienced you are. ‘Improvements made at the professional level are more to do with maturity and understanding of music and mostly come with experience (both musical and life-related). While the improvements might not be as rapid as when you are starting out, they can be profound. With a constant search for improvement, you can definitely
continue to grow. Having said that, maintaining your current skill level alone is hard work and without a constant effort, it can easily slip. That’s easier for your colleagues and audience to notice!’
As for advice for current year 12 students at Haileybury, Graeme says, ‘Take your time with life. A gap year might be a good idea to allow you to adjust to the new world you’re entering. That one year off won’t hold you back and could actually be good for you.’
In short …
Have you met anyone famous? Many. For example, the Prince and Princess of Denmark, Paul Keating and John Howard.
What book would you recommend? 1984.
If you could meet anyone (dead or alive), who would it be? Edward Snowden. He has a unique story.
What are you looking forward to in 2020? The birth of my first child in March.
2020 is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. What would you recommend as a starting point for Beethoven’s music? That’s a very difficult question. Maybe one of the symphonies: numbers 3 or 7 or the 5th piano concerto.