Willow Neilson’s adventures as a Jazz saxophonist have taken him from Nimbin, to Armidale, Melbourne and the Sydney Conservatorium, to Jazz competitions from Brussels to Montreux and now to China thanks to Asialink /Australia-China Council funding. Willow chats to arts interview about the stresses of not only adjusting to life in China but also about juggling life as a professional musician.
Interview by Eliza Muldoon
How would you describe what you do? Does Saxophonist or Jazz Musician adequately cover it?
Saxophonist and jazz musician covers part of it. These days we can’t just lock ourselves in a room practicing and then step out into gigs anymore. My career requires me to be a promoter/personal pr person, writer/blogger, teacher and then I have had stints being a tv host, voice over person, and am about to go train to be a yoga teacher.
I have a lot of interests and feel that in order to evolve as an artist these days I need to become more of a renaissance man, both in terms of my ability to make money- earning from a variety of skills other than just those associated with performing and teaching music, but also learning new skills such as multi media software applications and visual art concepts. All of these are centred around my primary passion- music- and it is my hope that all of them feed into one another. The playing is the fun part, dealing with all the other stuff is the drag.
What are the most stressful aspects of working the way you do? Do you find that being stressed affects your work?
Some people think that being a musician is all fun and messing around but many aspects of the job are stressful. Dealing with abusive personalities on the bandstand (whilst still having to smile), dealing with terrible sound teams, terrible agents and all manner of people that often seem hell bent on undermining the effectiveness of your performance is a constant hassle. In China we have a thing we call “hurry up and wait,” where an agent who knows nothing about music asks us to be at a performance 3 hours early, rushes us around only to then have to sit and wait for everyone else.
The unpredictability of freelancing is also a stressful factor, it is hard to turn down work as you never know when a dry patch will arise, sometimes I will work a series of 18 hour days including multiple shows and teaching. Finding the right balance is a constant juggle.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced developing a career as a musician? Did you ever consider studying something else or moving into another career?
In Australia the biggest challenge was simply not working enough. I went back to school to study education but hated it, not the teaching but all the other stuff around it. That’s why I live in China now. If I could find something reliable that I loved I would do it but music is my passion and as much as I would like to find something else I will have to make this work because it is all I have.
What strategies do you use to keep life in balance?
I like to meditate, exercise (a huge part of my life now) and have started praying a lot recently, I never thought I would get into that but it has really been making me feel good. I also have a group of people I meet with regularly where we talk about life etc. at great length.
Visiting my friend’s kids also helps to feel more grounded- kids know how to enjoy life effortlessly. Lately I have been playing chess with an 8 year old that trash talks when he takes your pieces. Good fun.
How did you find adjusting to life in China? Has moving to China changed the way you deal with stress and anxiety?
Life in China comes with positives and negatives. Positives are cheap massages, cheap cost of living, easy work and good food (although the produce is not so great but it is cooked well). The negatives are pollution, cultural differences and very different ways of handling issues, pollution and noise, noise, noise, traffic, traffic, traffic, chaos.
Learning the language is always fun, Chinese people are really supportive of others learning Chinese and life changes more positively as your language skills grow.
I think Shanghai is a bit of an emotional/spiritual accelerator. Whatever your issues it will magnify them and you will either fall into a frustrated heap or you will deal with what you need to deal with. China has made me change in more ways than I maybe am even aware of, one of them is I’ve learnt to not freak out, to just stay calm and if you have done what you need to do then let other people do the freaking out.