10 questions – Elizabeth Kerr
When you started with the String Quartet you said you were returning to your ‘music tribe’. How did you get involved with music to begin with?
Music has always been central to my life and work. I came from a musical family; my grandmother played and taught piano and violin and my mother also played the piano. I began piano lessons as a child and also sang in choirs from primary school onwards. After music studies at university I taught music in Canadian schools, then 13 years as a music lecturer at Victoria University. Music and cultural management followed, Concert FM, Historic Places Trust, Creative New Zealand and now the Quartet.
When we play in and around Toronto, old friends of yours show up to the concerts. Tell us about your time living in Toronto – what were you doing there?
I went to Toronto straight from university and after declaring as a student that I’d never teach, I did just that – I trained as a teacher there and stayed five years. It was a stimulating city and in music education there was an emphasis on creative approaches – composer Murray Schafer was very influential. I brought that approach back to New Zealand, first working in in-service training with classroom music teachers and then teaching music education alongside history and analysis at university.
If you hadn’t majored in music at university, what else might you have studied?
I also studied maths for two years at university and considered majoring in that but then I went with my heart which was in music. The music department at Victoria with Freddy Page, Douglas Lilburn, Jenny McLeod, Margaret Nielsen and David Farquhar was a lively place to study. Though being numerate has subsequently been quite useful in arts management!
How did you gain your knowledge of other art forms? – this has been a valuable asset to us, for instance in co-ordinating the New Zealand music and literature festival at King’s Place in London for next year.
Teaching 20th century music at university I discovered what wonderful and surprising things can happen when different art forms collide. Working at Creative New Zealand I loved having colleagues whose expertise was in other art forms and my interest in multi-disciplinary projects came from that time.
How do you feel the arts scene in New Zealand has changed in the time you have been involved in it?
It’s developed hugely and is much broader in scope than it was all those decades ago. There’s a much greater professionalism about it too. An exciting change is the arrival of multi-arts festivals – first in Wellington in the 80’s and now in almost every significant city in the country – these allow for much more innovative and adventurous programming.
And what about the music scene? What are the biggest changes?
New Zealand compositions have now taken their place in concert programmes. Douglas Lilburn, my teacher and later colleague at Victoria University, was almost the only name people could think of when New Zealand composition was mentioned – now there’s a large group of wonderful composers whose music is regularly programmed. It’s also good to see how many outstanding musicians from other countries have made New Zealand home – including in the New Zealand String Quartet. That’s been very enriching for performance and teaching here.
What professional achievement(s) are you proudest of?
I’ve been lucky enough to have several leadership positions in large national organisations. From those roles you can be influential – I enjoy making things happen in the arts, especially in music, having an idea and bringing it to fruition, or facilitating the realization of someone else’s vision. I’ve also enjoyed hands-on music making – conducting performances of works like Stravinsky’s Mass and Webern’s Symphony while working at the university were small examples; so were three Composing Women’s Festivals in the ’90’s.
You were the head of Relationship Services for a while. How has working in that field affected the way you look at life and what sorts of things have you taken away from your time there?
Relationship Services was a highly functional organisation full of skilled people. It was the biggest organisation I’ve run, with 240 staff and 28 offices around New Zealand and I learned skills in relationship management, negotiation, conflict resolution and so on which have come in handy when working in the arts.
What’s your favourite aspect of your role with the String Quartet? (I won’t ask what’s the least favourite!)
Working with people who share my passion for music – and finding ways to make your artistic and programming ideas a reality. (Least favourite? – overseas tax forms!).
I know we keep you pretty busy – but when you do have some time off, what are the things you most enjoy doing?
Spending time with family, especially my grandchildren, is always a joy. We have a big garden at Waikanae and I love the way everything grows so well there. I still play the piano, admittedly pretty badly, but I enjoy discovering what composers were up to when I play. And Feldenkrais movement classes keep me healthy!