‘Shattered’: Acclaimed Violinist Doreen Cumming on Life Behind the Accolades.

First published in Orange City Life, 23 Feb 2017

Violinist Doreen Cumming has reached remarkable heights in classical music, but her toughest battle was within.

Doreen Cumming is a radiant, quick-witted and passionate violinist who has performed with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and on a number of recordings for big-name film scores. She’s acted in all violin positions including soloist and concertmaster, and plays with a depth of skill and emotion which has impressed audiences in Asia, Europe, America and of course, Australia.

Yet the greatest accomplishments in Doreen’s life have been more personal in nature: a matter of overcoming herself. Achievement, in her eyes, is purely a matter of process: “You just practice, you take all the steps in the right order, and you can achieve it. But personal success? It’s a completely different thing”.

Doreen began learning violin at the age of six, choosing the instrument simply because it was what her elder sister Lorna played. Her practical, process-driven side, which has enabled her to reach such professional heights, sits beside an almost reckless tendency for spontaneity. This was epitomised when she moved to Tasmania from Canberra, alone and sixteen years-old, to study music with just two dollars in her pocket while her parents were away on vacation.

“I showed up at the university to further my studies in music – completely unaware of how it all worked – and found out I’d missed the cut off for applications by three months. I said, ‘Oh. Well, can I apply anyway?’”

They allowed the late application and she was accepted into the school. Her teacher, Jan Sedivka, was one of Poland’s National Treasures. “He was one of the many talented Jewish people, consisting of artists, musicians and scientists who had been shipped out of Poland to keep them safe during World War II,” she tells me. “He was amazing.”

img_4997Funding her stay by working at a sushi bar, she “got lucky” and was soon asked to play with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. She maintains it had a lot to do with having Geoffrey Lancaster as her accompanist, a well-renowned pianist in the classical music world with whom she got along with famously, their music sessions often running for four hours straight.

From there, “taking the right steps” led her to prestigious roles such as Soloist and Acting Concertmaster. I ask if it she found these roles nerve-racking.

“Oh revoltingly nerve-racking,” she says. “Peers behind you and a thousand, two thousand strangers in front of you. You’d love to just run, but you can’t.”

Doreen stayed with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for fourteen years while Lorna performed with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. “I prefer the big sounds of the Romantic era, the 1900s, over the Chamber style. Also, Chambers are smaller, which means more pressure.”

She then took a contract in Spain with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia as a spontaneous decision to leave a difficult personal situation, taking with her only what would fit into a suitcase and selling the rest in a garage sale.

“I had a 10-year relationship that ended. I wanted to get as far as possible away from that relationship. He kept leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back. My self-esteem was so low after being a convenience for that long.”

On her return from Spain, Doreen found the bushfires of 2003 had affected her parents quite badly. Her mother, father and brother had stayed to fight the fires to save the family home, and her mother suffered post-traumatic amnesia from the stress. “She walked outside and said ‘where’s the garage?’ She would only talk only about the fire for years. It’s understandable: if you imagine ten-metre tall flames rushing down at your house while you’re standing there with a hose. It still makes me feel ill.”

“I wanted to live closer to them, but I couldn’t earn enough with the Canberra Symphony because they’re only part time. So I did a Chef’s apprenticeship in Canberra. It only took 2.5 years instead of 4 years because I just kept doing back-to-back units and was working 80-100 hours a week in the industry.”

Her stint as chef lasted “a very short while”.

Doreen then gained a contract with the Sydney Opera & Ballet and worked in “Scratch Orchestras” like Australian Idol. “Scratch Orchestras are where companies get players they like from all over the place, and an orchestra is formed only for that one thing. People fight to the death to get on the lists,” she laughs.

Despite the prestige of being top of the producer’s lists, the experience didn’t leave her with the best impression of that segment of the music industry. “I’m very sad at the standard of that sort of music. It’s all manufactured. They can flick the switch and fix all the intonation. At a high level, it’s impossible to fake it, whereas at that level it is all fake.”

It was at this point where Doreen began her journey as a music teacher.

“Me and my partner at the time were paying exorbitant amounts of rent for a townhouse in Leichhardt and I was working too many hours. A friend had asked me to do a couple of teaching jobs in Tamworth on Sundays, I’d fly out in morning and back at night. I was offered a fulltime job teaching there and took it, and we both moved to Tamworth.”

She visited Orange when one of her students won the Concerto competition here, which led to her making the Colour City her home. “I came down here to watch [my student] perform. Looking on the website I found they had a teaching position down here and I went for it. I hated Tamworth.”

Despite her continual success on the professional front, her personal life remained rocky.

“I’d been with my partner for five years, we’d met when I was an apprentice chef. When we moved to Orange he went away to work in Canberra for what was meant to be three weeks, but he never came back.”

Maintaining a sense of humour about what then could have only been a devastating situation, Doreen adds: “I saw him about a year later at the Canberra markets, he texted saying ‘what are you shopping for at the markets?’ I replied: ‘an AK47’. We haven’t spoken much since then.”

Doreen’s strength and resilience were never more tested than when she suffered her biggest hurdle in life: her sister Lorna suddenly passing away after a motorcycle accident three years ago, at only 44 years old. “I describe it as being shattered. Very fragmented mentally and emotionally. I think it’s been my saving grace in a way, because when you put yourself back together you do so more honestly. I finally had to build myself as an adult.”

In fact, one of Doreen’s violin teachers wrote to her after Lorna’s sudden passing and suggested that now was the time to find her own wings. “I’d just always felt like Lorna was the better player. And she was. But in some ways – a few little ways – I had my own stuff going on, and I shouldn’t have been comparing.”

Throughout the trauma of dealing with such a loss, Doreen found a worthy partner, friend and confidant in now-husband Darren. They met last year and the connection was there from the start.

“We are both such strong individuals, both so similar even though we’ve had completely different lives. He’s from Lithgow and has been as far as Queensland and perhaps Dubbo. Country boy with an IQ of somewhere around 160. He laughs about his IQ and says you could fluke it. He’s amazing. He’s very generous and will always put himself out to suit others.”

What has been the difference with this relationship? I ask, pondering her painful track-record.

“The difference is the emotional connection; the security of someone who sees your generosity and doesn’t take advantage of it, but loves it instead. For both of us, the willingness is there to be the one who compensates, but neither of us are willing to abuse it in each other. We’re still stunned at how easy it’s been; how perfect it is. Big words but it’s true.”

Adding to Darren’s long list of attributes that sends Doreen all dreamy-eyed, is his two children who hold a special place in her heart, Stella, 13, and Jasper, 11. “After two long and disappointing years of IVF, I never thought I’d be gifted with the two most wonderful, loving children.”

Doreen now enjoys the freedom of working from her own studio, where she can allow her students to go on their own journey at their own pace. “I mould myself around the students’ journey, if that makes sense. It can’t be a ‘one size fits all’ approach, there’s no set formula,” she explains.

“You see them go through all their stages, you’re there with this safe space – there are no emotional parameters at all. Actually, you want to break down the emotional parameters, because that’s what music is about – creating music requires emotion. Music is storytelling in symbols instead of words.

“When music brings an audience to tears, it’s because they’ve gone into their own little world. The music says a lot; great well-written music will give you the start of the emotion. But if you play a well-written piece on a synthesiser you’re not going to get the same level of emotion.”

Perhaps Doreen’s depth of emotion is the intangible thing that sets her apart which – having had the honour of seeing her play – I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I knew she’d temporarily taken me to a different world, I just wasn’t sure how I got there.

Do you ever forget where you are? I ask, wondering if she experiences the same feeling she creates for her audiences.

“Yeah, but I often peek out like a meerkat and go ‘oh shit there’s all these people’ or ‘did I put underwear on?’ or ‘I really feel like lamb tonight’. The thought bubbles keep popping in, and it’s horrific when I do pop into the present because I don’t particularly want to be there, I want to be in my little musical plot.”

I mention that I like the idea of a musical ‘plot’.

“It’s like a great comic. Their awareness in time. Their use of it. Just hold that note a little longer. It’s like Pavarotti holding that note in Nessun Dorma. That’s the key to why we keep doing it. It allows us to keep so in touch with emotions – the below the surface ones, they’re just so gripping. Playing happy music is quite easy. But getting the raw emotion you have to dig a bit deeper.”

Doreen leans forward and whispers: “maybe that’s why we’re all a bit f*cked up.”

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