Alumni Portraits RACHEL BULLEN (OBOE 1997)

ANAM Graduate:  1997 (ANAM intensive while in second year uni)
Instrument:  Oboe
Favourite piece of music:  Sorensen Piano Concerto (a piece written for Esbjerg Ensemble, which commissioned a work)

Rachel Bullen never imagined that playing oboe would land her in the middle of a Danish court case, but after more than a decade as a professional musician in Europe, she found herself playing the leading role in her own personal 'Scandi Noir'. Just how she ended up in that Danish courtroom is a tale worth telling, but her story really begins in a primary school classroom in the Victorian town of Sunbury. 

Growing up in a non-musical family, Rachel was introduced to playing music by a particularly inspiring teacher. 'She was great, she had a fantastic program:  everyone played recorder, everyone sang in choir and for a state school to have that kind of music program... I don’t think they have that anymore, but she was amazing'.  Rachel took up flute, for which she clearly had a talent, and by third grade her class was also composing their own music via a set of rules '’re allowed to use this instrument and these notes...' and she was hooked.  In sixth grade her teacher suggested that Rachel should audition for VCASS, and her parents were supportive to the idea.  Her potential was clear but flute players were already in abundance so oboe was suggested as an alternative.  As an eleven year old she had no idea how an oboe sounded, so her obliging father bought a CD that featured it and the penny dropped: 'of course I’d heard it... it’s in movies every time there’s a sad moment!'  In spite of warnings that it could be quite a challenging instrument, she decided it was the instrument for her and as things turned out, 'it really is my instrument, in spite of all the struggles, and we all have struggles with our instrument... here we are.  I started at age 12, it took six months to get an oboe and start school.  The embouchure took way longer... I’m still working on that!'

During her second year at the Melbourne Conservatorium she enrolled for an intensive course at ANAM, then in its third year of operation. The course was 'full on', comprising a series of master classes and individual lessons with Jeffrey Crellin and Emanuel Abbuhl, and chamber music including 'some amazing repertoire by Zelenka which is for two oboes, bassoon and continuo' comprising six sonatas, one of which they played each day.  At the end of the week Rachel plucked up the courage to ask Swiss oboist Emanual if he would be prepared to teach her in Europe, and two years later after completing her degree, she was on a plane to Rotterdam.

Rachel’s move to Europe wasn’t unusual in the late 1990s.  'When you think about the world today it’s very, very different, with YouTube and Skype, but before that existed I think a lot of people sort of went to Europe and hoped to find a good teacher.'  Rather than taking 'pot luck' in finding the right teacher as many did, she credits ANAM with setting her on the right path:  '…a teacher is a very individual thing so you won’t necessarily know if that’s the best teacher for you, so that was an enormous luxury to have lessons with Emanuel here in a comfortable environment where I felt safe, before risking everything and jumping in the deep end and moving to Europe.'

Moving to Holland wasn’t without its challenges. 'You’ve got all your life in one suitcase and most of it’s sheet music, and when you get there you’ve got no clothes and you’re like... oh, what do I do now?'.  Rachel studied in Rotterdam for three years and in addition to buying some extra clothes, managed to slot into student life in the Netherlands.  She was able to augment her scholarship and savings by playing some gigs:  'I was lucky enough to play in the Radio Chamber Orchestra... an amazing experience!  It was pretty cool.'  Not so cool was a bicycle accident where she 'came off teeth first', breaking her nose, three teeth and fracturing her elbow. Eight weeks of recovery and some excellent medical and dental care repaired the damage and she says that in the end it helped her embouchure 'because my teeth are now slightly shorter and that’s better!'.  

At the end of three years’ study in Rotterdam, Rachel spent some time back home before receiving an offer to study with François Leleux in Munich, so she headed back to Europe for another couple of years.  Romance then took her to Cologne, where she established herself successfully as a freelance oboist, working throughout Europe.  It was during her time in Germany that she saw an advertisement for a a full time chamber music position in Denmark 'and I thought OMG that’s amazing.'  On the brink of cancelling  due to the travel costs she nevertheless fronted up with crossed fingers and landed the job as a permanent member of the Esbjerg Ensemble, her musical home for the next six years.

While delighted to be a permanent part of such a prestigious chamber music ensemble, Rachel was keen to stay in touch with orchestral and other types of performance, and to share the knowledge she had gained by undertaking some teaching, both of which she did when the ensemble’s schedule allowed, oblivious to a mysterious visa restriction banning foreign nationals from doing so.  To her shock, Rachel was contacted in 2015 by Danish immigration and informed that she had been breaking the law by accepting work outside the ensemble.  The ruling had no precedent, was not mentioned in any of her visa papers and did not appear on any legislation within Danish law, however against all odds and legal opinion she was prosecuted and fined, although not deported.  Without the funds to meet the $10K fine, she decided to 'go public' and with some embarrassment, opened a crowd funding site.  

In the first few days most of her friends, other musicians and some people who knew her work contributed, something she found overwhelmingly generous, but then something else happened.  'People were way more generous than I had ever anticipated and then I was on the news and suddenly there were random Danish people I’d never heard of just putting money in, and my lawyer got a call via the news station and there were these entrepreneur guys who were like “we think this is terrible, we want to pay the whole lot for her and if she wants to appeal we’ll pay that too” and I didn’t know these people... this was bizarre... but this is how much it touched the Danish people when they realised what I was being put through and they wanted to help.'

Rachel received hand written letters from people apologising for what had happened, which she says was really 'the silver lining of the whole thing'.  However this didn’t change the outcome and despite being given one week to appeal and take it to the high court, and with legal opinion in her favour, she felt that the decision had been a political one and decided not to risk it.  'Having been through this enormous trauma already, and on your own in a foreign country that’s when you really, really, really feel like a foreigner and I thought I don’t think I can do this.'  Rachel says she has never felt 'so unwelcome anywhere in my entire life' and hopes never to feel that way ever again.  However she still believes Copenhagen is a great city and hopes to go back one day. She says that what was really interesting with the experience was 'in the same way that things happen in Australian politics that I don’t agree with and you feel ‘you’re not doing that in my name’, so a lot of people were really upset at what happened to me, and I was talking to some audience members and some of them were in tears, they felt so horrible and so powerless, they didn’t want me to judge them on what had happened and I can’t blame the Danish people.  That’s why I went quite public with my story because Danish people might not know that this was going on and they still may not realise the extent of what’s happening, and that’s why the media made a big deal out of me.'

Returning to Melbourne after 17 years in Europe ('basically my whole adult life') has been a journey all of its own.  In spite of having toured in Austria, Germany, Iceland, Estonia, Russia, Sweden, Taiwan and China, Rachel sometimes encounters comment on her CV for not having played much in Australia, however it hasn’t stopped her establishing herself in a brand new freelance career.

She also feels she is now in a position to nurture emerging talent by teaching, something she is passionate about. 'I feel very privileged in the education that I’ve received, and I’ve been really lucky, I’ve been to VCASS and the con, I’ve had lessons with every oboist in Melbourne, I’ve played for all the big oboists in Europe and I’ve played with other amazing musicians from other orchestras.'  Rachel believes that music is one of the few things that’s 'really passed down from person to person, its not something you can write down in a book and people can learn.  You have to pass that on directly, the craft of it, and its being passed down through the generations.  It’s not just the last generation that I’ve picked it up from, its what they’ve had from their teachers, going back and back and back, and I want to be a link in that chain, making sure that the information that has culminated into what we have now gets passed on to the next generation, that they can continue to build'.  

She also feels that Melbourne is 'a particularly interesting place because its such a melting pot, we have such a blend of cultures... it’s a pretty cool place to come back to!' With a tendency to 'idealise Europe' she sees Melbourne as being unconstrained by the traditions musicians often need to abide by elsewhere, with freedom to 'make it up as we go along'.

In addition to teaching, Rachel is also learning some new tricks of her own, having played in the orchestra for the recent Melbourne production of My Fair Lady.  'That was fun… it was my first time in music theatre, a new experience and different from how I expected.  It’s a beautiful score and I was much more challenged by it than I thought I was going to be.... I thought I was going to be half asleep after the second rehearsal and no, it’s very challenging and you’re very exposed, being a small bunch of people playing.'  The experience emphasised her belief that 'its a mistake to look down on any sort of music because I think its up to us as musicians to make it the best with everything we play.  Its not our job to judge the work, its our job to find the best aspect of the work and deliver the best product we can to the audience. That’s how it has meaning for you as a musician.  I’ve had to play stuff I didn’t like... as part of Esbjerg ensemble we had to play a certain quota of new Danish music and there’s some of it and I was just... really?  Some of it’s fun, I did a wind quintet for prepared mouth pieces where we had to blow up balloons (it was hard not laughing), but some of it is just difficult for the sake of being difficult.  For me as long as there is some kind of meaning and expression, that’s what drives me, and makes me get out of bed every day and do it, that’s what I look for every time… it’s always about playing oboe as well as I can, and that’s always going to be challenging.'  

Like most musicians, Rachel has experienced the odd anxious moment in performance.  Top of her list was a solo performance of two Telemann concertos, both of which went well… until the encore.  'There was a low E and it didn’t speak, didn’t come out, but felt like it should have. Then the next note didn’t come out either, and I realised something was very wrong... I went from sound, to no sound at all, not even a squeak, just air.  There’s a full orchestra, conductor standing behind, the whole audience and OMG my instrument makes no sound!'  Something had lodged between the two blades of the reed and she had to apologise, end the concert and leave… in nearly 30 years of playing it was the only time this happened and of course, at a solo performance. 

Favourite music is usually a tricky question, but Rachel is quick to nominate Papillons, an 'absolutely gorgeous piece of music' by Bent Sorensen, commissioned by the Esbjerg Ensemble.  One of the last things she played with the ensemble and a career highlight, the piece (a piano concerto) was premiered at the 2014 Bergen International Festival in Norway… 'that was exciting, to be part of new music that’s also really amazing music'.  Happily the recording is about to be released, so the experience can be enjoyed more widely.

If Rachel has one piece of advice to impart to young musicians, its that 'every time you play your instrument, it matters.  Give it everything you’ve got!'.  She adds that it’s also vital to take care of the body.  'I think I realised relatively late how important it is, and I wish someone had told me earlier.  I tell all my students, even the little ones, to roll their shoulders, stretch, warm up.  It affects everything.'

These days she jogs, does yoga and uses meditation to deal with the physical problems and mental focus associated with playing an instrument.  She is also doing honours in psychology and working on a dissertation related to music performance anxiety, perfectionism and coping skills. 'Definitely what you learn through a psychology degree is how important taking care of the body is.  It’s everything.'

Asked what she’d do if she had her time again, Danish courtrooms notwithstanding, the indomitable Rachel Bullen just laughs: 'Probably the same!'  For music lessons with a free masterclass in positivity, aspiring oboists need look no further.

Interview by Jennifer Gilchrist

Profile last updated in 2017

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