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Finding agency in the [classical] arts
The first instalment of a three part series by Leah Thomas

The sky above Te Moana-o-Raukawa was a gentle blue when I was carried away from the shrinking shoreline of home. The sparkling notes of “What Dreams May Come” steadied my breathing as I held on to the seven smiling faces waving goodbye through security screens and other travellers. I cracked open a brand new diary and melodramatically wrote - The clouds look like their own ocean. This is the beginning of a brand new season.

Leaving Aotearoa to start life in New York City, set me on a journey to find my musical voice and agency in my creative career. It is a journey I am only six months into, yet I have already encountered so many new ideas, new practices, and new people who are rewiring how I think about the creative industries and my own music-making.

I graduated from Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music in the debut year of COVID-19 with a degree in classical music performance. My confidence in my playing and the industry I was entering into was at an all-time low. I struggled to feel like I had my own creative voice, and I felt that to be “successful”, I had to begin the grind of finding a job in an orchestra. 

For many trained in classical music, it can feel that the path to “success” must wind through years of competitions, audition cycles and trials, and years of financial instability where your livelihood is entirely dependent on judgements made by other musicians. This path was daunting to me and the fear of failing at it was killing any joy I had for music-making. 

In the COVID-19 purgatory of 2021, I turned away from the audition cycles and started building my own projects to collaborate with other artists and find my own way forward after music school. I knew I needed more international experience and training in entrepreneurship if any of my projects were going to be sustainable and long-term, so I applied for scholarships and schools, and set my sights on the United States. 

When I boarded my flight out of Aotearoa, all I wanted to do was to leave the anxieties and worries of our local creative scene behind, breathe the fresh air of a thriving cultural sector and find the music I wanted to make. But with every new experience and idea I encounter here, my thoughts turn back to home, the art I want to make there and the inequities that are preventing artists from being truly independent, original and financially stable.

So I keep asking myself, my professors, my creative community - what do we need for fulfilling, stable, creative careers? How can artists in Aotearoa attain a good quality of life from their creative practice? Is there a life for classical musicians where they can make music independently, with agency fuelled by their creativity?

I have very few concrete answers and a growing list of questions.



For my first few months in New York, my focus was on soaking up as many artistic experiences as possible. I spent hours in art galleries and museums, reading books on the subway and spending as many evenings as possible at gigs around the city. I found my inner creative voice that had been hiding away, enrolled myself in my first composition class to learn to write music that felt like mine and started learning the flute to add a new colour and skillset into my playing. 

I’ve found that I can let go of the dream of a full-time career in an orchestra without shame or guilt, and find my own path that isn’t a complete rejection of the “traditional” music-making models I have been trained for. The best of both worlds. I’m embracing variety in my practice to increase agency over my work and build a creative career with lots of independent moving parts that can support itself and be sustainable. I’ve learnt that flexibility and independence is really important to me, but not nearly as important as the community of people I can enjoy music and art with, who I can collaborate with, who I can invest in and celebrate.

If I could give any advice to music graduates in a similar boat to me, who harbour the same questions and concerns about their creative careers, it is that keeping an open mind to what your “dream career” can be will set you free. Just because your professors are salaried orchestral musicians, doesn’t mean you need to be. There is no universal marker of “success” beyond enjoying and connecting to the art you are making. Find projects, ensembles and music that resonates with you and your values. Make small decisions as regularly as you can to make those things more consistent in your practice. 

In Aotearoa, to have a truly independent music career with agency over who you make music with and what your sound is, we need to decolonise the infrastructure that teaches, funds and hosts music-making. Achieving independent and sustainable creative careers where artists have true agency is bigger than any one person, but perhaps only possible from a wave of individual choices, mindsets and actions. 

Creative resources and recommendations:

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

On Connection by Kae Tempest

The Music Lesson by Victor L. Wooten

Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa 

Creative Confidence by David Kelly and Tom Kelly


NZ music I am listening to

What Dreams May Come by Louisa Williamson

Cinematic Light Orchestra by Callum Allardice 

Sierra by Arjuna Oakes and John Psathas

Keeping my body by Octopus in Heels

Scree Scrub Mountain Sky by Moth Quartet