"I have students across the spectrum of experience. If I have someone who’s a recreational singer, that is fine for me, if they’re committed and immersed, scientific and passionate."
"When I first arrived back in Tasmania, I was absolutely a hardcore classical teacher. And then one lad turned up in my studio as a music theatre singer, and said, ‘Teach me.’ He started educating me!"
Nestled in a leafy Hobart suburb is a gorgeous old sandstone church hall.
For over 150 years, it hosted Anglican parishioners and Sunday school students. Now, it is a home and a different sort of gathering place. On any quiet day, voices practicing classical arias or musical theatre numbers can be heard drifting from within. But on Tuesday nights, it is a wall of sound, as JESSA have their weekly rehearsals in the main hall. Leading the group is Jane Edwards, founder, and musical director.
For Jane, living and singing in an Anglican building has deep connections to her childhood. Born in Liverpool, UK, her family emigrated to Launceston when she was just 18 months old. They went to live with her uncle, a vicar, in the rectory of the church he led. Jane’s father, an organist and choirmaster, naturally joined the church to practice his craft. One of Jane’s earliest memories is of exploring the church building while her father practised the organ, and she climbed around in the pipework of the organ. She had always been a musical child, but, in those early days, she had no idea what music would mean to her life.
When Jane was a teenager, one of her first mentors emerged. Home life had become challenging. Her parents had separated, and her household became chaotic. At 15, when she should have pushed to excel academically, her life course started to shift. She imagined she would pursue medicine, because “that’s what top-marks kids did.”, but it was her piano teacher who suggested otherwise at this difficult time. “Her name was Clarice Niesel,” Jane recalls. “She lived at 38 Hill Street – I remember that even now. From the typical viewpoint of a music student, I considered her slightly formidable, but when things became difficult in those important teen years, she was very supportive.” It was Clarice who suggested Jane try the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Tasmania.
So, she did. After a successful audition, Jane borrowed a car and set off down the Midlands Highway. “We had a family friend at Dromedary, near Bridgewater,” Jane says. “He knew I was coming and gathered some things to help. He gave me sheet music – English art songs – and strapped a mattress to the roof of the car. I went straight to the Union building at UTAS and said, ‘I’m here, and I have no idea where I’m going to sleep tonight.’” They found her a room for $18 per week. “I was completely independent from that moment.”
Jane relished the chance to study at one of the nation’s top music schools. She pursued a dual major in voice and piano. “It was absolutely fantastic. I had thought I was pretty okay, but I had this new piano teacher who really taught me how to become a functioning musician. The first year was tough, learning what level of practice and commitment was required, but within a year I was in a groove. He was inspirational.” Jane still wasn’t sure where music would sit in her life, and she didn’t quite imagine it would be her career. She experimented with teaching school students and working in the public service. But all the while she was singing, first with smaller ensembles, then with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, with whom she was a finalist in the 1984 Young Performers’ Competition.
Then, Jane connected with her now husband, Andrew, on a production of Threepenny Opera. “Drew was always really invested in what I did, and he was dead set we’d have to get off the island. He was quietly encouraging that we were young and we could do it.” Andrew’s workplace supported a move to Sydney, and off they went. A friend of Jane’s from Opera Australia gave them a place to stay and suggested she knock on the door of St Marks Darling Point. “St Marks was the church in Sydney,” Jane smiles. She proposed a deal where she could use the hall to practice, in exchange for helping with the choir and singing. “They were really welcoming. And that helped to get me started.” Within three months, Jane was auditioning for The Song Company, one Australia’s premier professional vocal ensembles.
Jane was with The Song Company for five years, touring Australia and internationally. All the while, she was teaching students from whichever house she and Andrew happened to be living in at the time. As Jane’s voice grew, so did her career as a soloist. Before she knew it, composers had written music for her to sing. She had the chance to sing with every symphony orchestra in Australia. “I even got to sing for Paul Keating,” Jane recalls. “He did a lecture and asked for it to be interspersed with music, and for me to be the singer! I was more nervous that I’ve ever been in my life, even though it wasn’t in front of an orchestra – that was pretty amazing.” Anyone who has seen the film Shine, about Australian pianist David Helfgott, has heard Jane’s voice singing Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera as David bounces on the trampoline.
Still, for all her travels, Tasmania was home. Jane often toured with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, including to Hobart. “It always made me homesick,” she says. “There was something about Hobart – the view of the mountain, the feeling of looking down the Derwent and thinking, ‘Next stop, Antarctica.’ So many of us, we’re drawn to come back, even though there are opportunities lost.” For Jane, it was an opportunity found, in Tasmania as a place to raise their new baby daughter, Gracie. They had recently bought and started renovating the church, all the while trying to have a family. When Gracie was born, they decided to move back. It was heartbreaking to leave Sydney, which held so many friends and memories. But in Hobart, Jane found a new home for her family and her craft.
“When I first arrived back in Tasmania, I was absolutely a hardcore classical teacher,” she laughs. Jane ran a studio from her home, teaching classical students aged 16 to 60. “And then one lad turned up in my studio as a music theatre singer, and said, ‘Teach me.’ He started educating me!” Jane was enthralled by musical theatre repertoire and realised she could use her technical experience to help students. She is now a passionate teacher of classical and musical theatre voice students from across the state.
I love that, in Tasmania, there’s a sense of sisterhood in the sort of music I’m involved in. Women are visible and at the top of their game in the expressive arts. There are so many strong women teachers out there in the community, nurturing, caring, guiding, and teaching.
Jane and pianist Michael Power formed JESSA to create an opportunity for soprano and alto voices to sing challenging modern repertoire. “I hadn’t really conducted all that much until a year or two prior to JESSA,” Jane says. “But a conductor friend of mine said, ‘You just need to bring your musicality and your experience.’ I had been conducted myself for years, but it’s different doing it yourself. Michael and I hatched this plan that we could create a Jane-Edwards-Soprano-Soprano-Alto choir – JESSA – SSA being the usual term for a choir of higher voices.” Now, JESSA is home to over 30 choristers, several of whom are themselves solo singers and instrumentalists. “It has become really special,” Jane says.
Through JESSA, teaching, and a range of other roles, Jane is providing the mentorship that meant so much to her as a young musician. “I love that, in Tasmania, there’s a sense of sisterhood in the sort of music I’m involved in. Women are visible and at the top of their game in the expressive arts. There are so many strong women teachers out there in the community, nurturing, caring, guiding, and teaching.” As a teacher and choral director, Jane is passionate about quality and commitment, and she instils those values in her students. “I have students across the spectrum of experience, and that sometimes surprises people,” Jane explains. “Cream-of-the-crop is not what it’s about for me. If I have someone who’s a recreational singer, that is fine for me, if they’re committed and immersed, scientific and passionate.” Many of Jane’s students have gone on to international careers, and Jane herself still performs from time to time. “I love it here in this studio,” Jane says. “I’m really drawn to teaching. I work seven days, and when I come in, I’m in for the day. I love exploring repertoire, learning all this new stuff. Yes, I really do love it.”