Photo credit: Tim Geers
A few years ago I applied to be a presenter at the classical music radio station 3MBS. I was twenty-three.
3MBS is a certain kind of Melbourne institution: it may not be as well known as FM counterpart ABC Classics but devotees make up for this through the sheer force of their passion. 3MBS listeners put famously devoted Tori Amos fans to shame, and they have that same white-hot conviction about the rightness or wrongness of every little move their idol makes (‘Rachmaninoff on a Sunday night? If I wanted fluff I’d flip on America’s Next Top Model‘). You have probably never heard of 4:30pm weekday drive program Intermezzo, but for Melbourne’s classical crowd it is unmissable. Like Saturday poetry at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, post-cycling croissants at St Kilda’s Cafe Racer, author talks at the Wheeler Centre or booze–fuelled violence at Showgirls Bar 20 on King Street, a 3MBS program is either not important to you at all or an integral part of your week. Expectations of its volunteer presenters are high.
I was a fan, tuning in to the Contemporary Visions program before crawling into bed every Tuesday night, falling asleep to the strains of wild modern works I’d never track down without the help of an announcer’s dulcet tones (‘We’re playing Wyschnegradsky’s Twenty Four Preludes in Quarter Tones. Stay tuned for number twenty-two.’). I decided I would try to get involved after reading on the web that 3MBS were doing their yearly round of auditions. It was not a ‘normal’ thing for me to do – everyone my age who was involved with radio was a hipster interviewing bands on 3RRR, a metalhead blasting Cannibal Corpse’s ‘Hammer Smashed Face’ on PBS at 2am or a rake dedicating Boyz II Men songs to callers’ girlfriends on Nova 100.
I didn’t even tell many people about my classical music fixation – no one could relate. ‘A classical station?’ my mother said perplexedly. ‘Everyone will be older, Sandra. You won’t fit in.’
Undeterred, I put together a ‘music CV’ (seven years of piano, placed in eisteddfods, ability to speak coherently about the difference between Schumann and Schubert) and was invited to an interview.
The office manager, Janice, greeted me at reception, where a photo of her adult son sat amongst crumpled sticky-notes. The desk was otherwise bare and there was an air of tea, biscuits and Spray and Wipe. A vulgar notion or pop music hook would have withered this lily-like woman, so delicate she seemed after years of appreciating sonatas. I was not surprised to learn that she had been a concert pianist: decades of touching, stroking and emoting nurture an enviable refinement of spirit.
I was reminded of a scene from Seinfeld. ‘You think I have grace?’ Elaine Benes asks her future boss, Mr Pitt. ‘You don’t want too much grace,’ he tells her, after admitting she has ‘some’. ‘You won’t be able to stand!’ Well, I was Elaine Benes, and I needed to demonstrate to this woman that I had some grace. ‘You do a general knowledge test,’ she told me, explaining the interview process. ‘And we record your voice.’
The test was more like an excavation. I spent ten panicked minutes staring at a page of terms I was supposed to define. It had been a long time since Grade Six piano theory – Siciliana (‘a Sicilian dance in 12/8 or 6/8 metre’) was a type of pizza, as far as I was concerned. Abbandonatamente (‘play in a free and relaxed fashion’) was something that happened to warehouses or children rescued by the Department of Human Services. Ängstlich (‘anxiously’) sounded like the side project of one of the guys from Rammstein. But as I scribbled, sweated and furrowed my brow, things started to come back to me. It helped to picture the face of my childhood piano teacher, Mrs Penson. I visualised her music room, with its bust of Beethoven and smell of milky instant coffee. Ah! Feroce is to play ‘ferociously’.
Other challenges included ‘Match the composer to the operetta’ and ‘Place the following in chronological order: Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Fauré, Franck’. By the end I was coasting, recalling facts easily or taking educated guesses. Perhaps I had an edge – as a ‘modern’ woman – because of the People magazine format of the questions. It was ‘Identify these celebrity boobs’ with a highbrow twist.
Janice returned as I was drawing lines connecting dances (allemande, bourrée, mazurka) to their countries of origin (Germany, France, Poland) and shuffled me off to my voice test. I read the script in what I hoped was a soothing classical-music–station voice, stumbling over ‘Giacomo Meyerbeer’ and ‘Camille Saint-Saëns’. Janice listened expressionlessly and hit pause after five minutes. ‘You’re a bit fast,’ she told me. ‘Some of the pronunciation might be wrong.’ Her lips twitched, but then she looked me straight in the eye and smiled. ‘Some other things about your voice are really nice. We’ll see what they say.’
The board said yes, and my year-long stint as a classical presenter began. I sat with an experienced presenter for a few weeks before qualifying to announce solo. My first live appearance by myself was technically great (‘Bravo!’ said Rob, the panel tutor) though I’m sure my voice was more shrill Woody Allen than seductive Nigella Lawson. I was nervous. I scripted every word at home the previous night and kept my shaking hand within an inch of the panel at all times, fearing I would commit the ultimate radio sin: dead air.
My dead air was yet to come. During my fifth or sixth appearance I had to do a changeover with another new presenter. We both assumed – out of timidity, I think – that the other would want to announce the time at the end of the hour. The result? Four minutes of silence, and a very angry station manager.
They must have forgiven me, because I was offered a regular slot: Melbourne in Concert every Sunday night. I was flying high, a far cry from the girl who couldn’t say ‘Saint-Saëns’. Every Sunday I would rush to the station, research notes scribbled on a piece of paper, and do my thing. I was the youngest presenter by about twenty years, but that didn’t bother me. I got to know local musicians, and a whole world of live performance opened up. My taste changed. I spent rainy Saturdays in the station library listening to recordings, rejecting what I didn’t like as ‘too slow in the allegro section’ or ‘inferior to the 1998 recording by the Latvian Radio Orchestra’ and adding other pieces to my playlist. Sometimes I had to choose a student performance to feature, and I did this with a grave sense of consequence – like a Motown executive, I had the power to make or break somebody.
One Sunday night, sitting in Studio One with a biscuit and a teacup full of orange juice, I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflective surface that separated Studio One from Studio Two. ‘That was Rossini’s La Cenerentola,’ I drawled, vision blurry after reading on my iPhone for twenty minutes. ‘Stay tuned to hear more by Rossini, as well as a particularly festive cantata.’ My notes at this stage consisted of two points (‘La Cenerentola composed 1817’ and ‘Rossini needed to top 1816 mega-hit The Barber of Seville’) scribbled on the back of a university unit outline. My hand was steady enough to navigate Jezebel articles at lightning speed, clicking from one tiny iPhone hyperlink to the next. When I was done announcing I switched the microphone off like a pro and settled back in the swivel chair. The girl in the studio reflective surface looked calm and self-possessed.
I took a sip from the teacup. I had come a long way.
Some names in this piece have been changed.