Dorrigo local and international concert pianist Sheila Guymer has grand plans for the region’s classical music scene. She recently opened the doors of the Hickory Street Music School to help provide studio teaching space, rehearsal space, and a venue for classical chamber music recitals. The music school doubles as the Waterfall Way Gallery (and this is in fact the name on the door), exhibiting artists from across the Waterfall Way region. Commission on the sale of art in the gallery will help support music education on the Plateau, while recitals will feature musicians from the Waterfall Way region too.
Although she has travelled the world as a classical pianist, Sheila is all too aware of how difficult it is for Plateau children to access specialist music teachers because the area is so isolated geographically. “I grew up on the Plateau, and for ten years, my parents drove me every week to Coffs Harbour and Woolgoolga for piano and music theory lessons,” she said, “Plus trips to Sydney two or three times a year for master classes with advanced teachers.” Due to the dearth of local music teachers, she had no choice but to complete HSC Music by correspondence.
Having overcome the odds, she has gone on to perform around Australia and in the UK, east-coast USA, Germany, Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Italy. She’s worked as a staff accompanist and lecturer at the University of Melbourne and Sydney Conservatorium. At Sydney, she was part of the Conservatorium’s outreach program, travelling across NSW to give master classes and workshops for children in country areas.
Her career culminated in being invited to study at Cambridge University in 2011, and participate in the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice. The Centre, based at Cambridge, included over 80 specialist researchers drawn from top UK and European universities. Despite such an opportunity being the stuff of dreams, the prospect of funding the tuition seemed an insurmountable hurdle. “I signed all sorts of documents for Cambridge, assuring them I had the money to study there, but they were fibs – I didn’t!” she recalls. Fate was kind to her, however, and three days before her scheduled departure date, Sheila was awarded the Freda Bage Memorial Fellowship. The Fellowship is offered once a year (across all subjects, not just music) to one Australian woman graduate of the University of Queensland, Sheila’s alma mater. “I was speechless,” she said. “Winning that scholarship enabled me to complete a PhD in Music at the University of Cambridge.”
It is the benefits of these experiences that she is now determined to share with the next generation of regional musicians. Sheila returned to Dorrigo 19 months ago and is championing the local musicians of tomorrow, via her music school in Hickory Street, DORRIGO. She also teaches piano one-to-one and in small groups at Dorrigo Public and at Mt St John’s Primary School. In addition, she donates her time to the local schools, refusing a fee and instead asking the schools to free up cash to bolster their own musical departments. “I donate four hours of teaching a week,” Sheila said. “I started with just one half-hour choir class, but as more and more children found out, they kept asking for me to teach them too! Now I run six choirs that include all the students at Dorrigo Public and an after-school choir that is open to any child living on the Plateau.”
Sheila is also President of the Arts Council of The Dorrigo, an organisation close to her heart as she was a ‘founding member’, albeit she was only 12 when the Arts Council started in 1982.
The organisation’s new venue, Gallery 2453 in Hickory Street Dorrigo, opened late last year. “It’s been crucial in helping the Arts Council find its heart again,” says Sheila. The Gallery is named after the postcode of The Dorrigo Plateau and provides a showcase for local artists and artisans. “Gallery 2453 has revitalized the Arts Council by bringing all of our members together, both metaphorically and literally.” Sheila has now handed the reigns to local sculptor Jenny Parkin and her enthusiastic team, who will take Gallery 2453 to the next level.
It is at the Hickory Street Music School / Waterfall Way Gallery where Sheila can bring together her love of music, teaching, art and community. “I firmly believe that the arts are central to any healthy community. They provide a core of positive energy and foster enjoyment, collaboration, beauty, and a creative vision for our shared future.” Her next project is to develop a Waterfall Way recital concert series, which will combine performances of chamber musicians with visual art. She is joined in this venture by Amber Davis, a violinist who has just moved to the area from Sydney. “We’ve started rehearsing,” she said. “Stay tuned!”
For more information about the Waterfall Way Gallery