At six years of age, Ann Phelan became fascinated by the sound of piano music.
Growing up in Sydney during the 1950s, her route home from school took her past a house where a child was practising the piano, and every afternoon she would stop to listen.
“My oldest sister would get home and Mum would say ‘Where’s Annie?’ And she’d say ‘Aah, she’s sitting on the fence listening to that girl play the piano’.”
The girl was not particularly good – she was just a beginner – but there was something about the sound that Annie really loved.
“And then one day my mother inherited some money from an uncle who died in England. And she bought a piano. I was so excited, I never left it alone.”
From that early passion, and the inheritance that allowed her to pursue it, sprang a chain of events that has culminated in the phenomenon that is the Bellingen Youth Orchestra and a Citizen of the Year award for the contribution Ann Phelan has made to musical education in this shire over the last 15 years.
She says she realised quite early that she was not in the elite class of pianists who have a chance of forging a career as a soloist.
“I knew. Because I went to the Conservatorium High School. The others were so much better. And I knew I’d never make it.”
She had a second instrument – the French Horn – and played in various orchestras going through school, but becoming a professional musician on that instrument wasn’t an option either.
“I’m a terrible French Horn player,” she tells me.
But she was passionate about music, especially orchestral music.
“I was a strange child,” she said. “I used to go to the library and borrow scores. And sit and read the scores and listen to the music. So very, very odd.”
She was awarded a scholarship to train as a music teacher through the Sydney Conservatorium, and her first appointment was at Macksville High.
In her twenties she didn’t enjoy life in a country town, so after three years she applied to return to the more cultured environment of Sydney.
And got sent to Blacktown, deep in the heart of the western suburbs.
“So I went out there. Bravely. But it was a great experience. I really enjoyed it. I started all kinds of ensembles out there.”
She was just as innovative at her next placement, Ku-ring-gai High, and attracted the attention of the NSW Department of Education’s Performing Arts Unit.
She spent eight years with them, conducting at state music camps, preparing groups for Opera House concerts and the Schools Spectacular, and taking youth orchestras on overseas tours.
After being denied a leave of absence to manage the Sydney Youth Orchestra, she resigned from the Department of Education and spent 18 months with the SYO before accepting the role of Music Director at PLC Armidale.
But the cold climate of Armidale didn’t suit her, and her heart was really in public education.
“People with money will always make it, but people in the public system don’t always have the opportunity,” she said. “I felt it was extremely important to be in the state system.”
Another factor behind the decision to leave Armidale was that she was in a relationship with fellow music teacher Liz Scott, and they knew this was problematic given the church’s attitude to same-sex marriage.
“We had a strong following from the parents and the kids, and we didn’t want to put the school and the church in the position where there would be conflict,” she said.
So they decided to move to Bellingen.
Although their relationship ended in 2011, in the years since their arrival individually they have lifted music at the primary school (Liz) and the high school (Annie) to new heights, and together they founded the Bellingen Youth Orchestra, which draws students of different ages from across the shire and from all socioeconomic groups.
In the program notes for the BYO’s tenth anniversary concert in 2017, former Bellingen High principal Rob Stockton commented on the “musical whirlwind” that had hit his school.
“I couldn’t imagine there were enough hours for Annie to cram any more into a day,” he said. “Annie presented a ‘small’ proposal for an orchestra that could include a lot of students from many schools. The BYO was born.”
As a journalist new to town, I first heard the BYO at the Bellingen Fine Music Festival in September and was astounded by the unexpected quality of their performance.
Gillian Helfgott, who along with her husband, internationally renowned pianist David Helfgott, is a patron of the BYO, has described that concert as a highlight of 2017.
“David and I sat in awe of their achievements, and it was one of the most memorable musical experiences we have had in Bellingen,” she said.
It was Gillian and David Helfgott who nominated Ann Phelan for the Bellingen Shire Citizen of the Year award, with the nomination being seconded by Kirsty Cockburn and George Negus.
With a track record of fostering high-performing ensembles at schools in low socioeconomic areas and her eight years of working with the state’s most gifted performing arts students, Annie was an amazing asset for a small country town to acquire.
Gillian describes her contribution as immeasurable.
“She has brought the orchestra in 10 years from 15 participants to up to 90,” Gillian said. “She has inspired the young ones with their music, and so many of them have moved on to degrees and musical careers.”
The number of players in the orchestra fluctuates, depending on how many of its alumni are present.
“There were 90 at the big concert for the tenth anniversary,” Gillian said. “The thing is, the alumni of the orchestra come back to play. This shows not only their gratitude to Annie but also their great enjoyment of participating in the orchestra.”
Annie is absolutely inspirational, and these days, that’s what we need.Gillian Helfgott
Annie’s work at the high school began as a casual fill-in for someone who was sick, but a “miraculous appointment” came through when people realised what she could do.
As well as being artistic director for the BYO, she’s the driving force behind the high school’s string orchestra, which regularly performs at the Sydney Opera House, and also its jazz band, which has won numerous eisteddfods and is often called upon to enliven community events.
Annie says Bellingen music students are the most creative she’s ever taught, and they have a particular affinity for the jazz genre.
“They picked it up really easily,” she said. “It was so different to when I was in Armidale. I’d fall over backwards to get the girls to do certain articulations. They worked really hard at it, and they got it to a certain extent, but they never ended up with the feel that these kids have.”
She is passionate about sharing her own delight in music with others and throughout her career has always worked extremely long hours.
The word “exhausting” pops up several times during our interview but when I point this out, she looks surprised and says what motivates her is sheer enjoyment.
“Well, it’s fun. It’s fun. Because you are working with kids that are really dedicated to their music. And there’s the excitement and the challenge of a performance coming up. And getting things prepared.”
She says Bellingen has wonderful instrumentalists and teachers, and people actually move here to come to the school and be part of the music program.
“A lot of these students play at a performance level that a professional would be excited to achieve,” she said. “And there’s always more clever students coming through.”