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Thea Rossen

Australian musician


Article #

24 August 2023

When I was young, I thought I’d be a civil engineer and even started a double degree of music and  engineering at university. But 2.5 years in (and in spite of all the advice to ‘get a real job’) I decided  to pursue music full time and have not looked back since.  These days I wear many hats as a freelance portfolio musician, but can generally boil it down to  being a percussionist, composer, educator and mum to 2.5 year old Felix. Though I work across a  range of genres and disciplines now, I was originally classically trained with a BMus in orchestral  percussion from UWA in boorloo/Perth and then a further three years with a scholarship at the  Australian National Academy of Music in naarm/Melbourne. In the early days of my study I was  working towards getting a job in an orchestra as a percussionist. It is such an exhilarating rush to  play a huge cymbal crash or timpani roll at the climax of a Mahler Symphony, and in the music  world a job in an orchestra is seen as the pinnacle of achievement. With the goal of that much  precision in mind, we worked really hard at ANAM with hours of orchestral, solo and chamber  rehearsals, as well as lots of back to back high stress performances. I loved every minute and am so  grateful for my time at ANAM.  While I was there, I also had my eyes opened to the world of animateuring which literally means to  bring music alive for audiences. I presented my first eduction show with the Melbourne Symphony  Orchestra in 2017 and have been writing scripts and delivering performances with orchestras  around Australia ever since. It is such a privilege to work with some of the country’s most  incredible musicians and conductors to connect their work with audiences of thousands of kids  and families.  Also while I was studying at ANAM, I discovered more about the contemporary ‘art music’ world of  percussion and fell in love with the sounds that we find around us every day. As well as all of the  more conventional percussion instruments including vibraphone, marimba, drums and gongs, I  played music that featured water, paper, flowerpots and scrap metal. I also got really interested in  music that involved theatre and gesture with pieces that can require the performer to speak, sing  or perform a series of movements while playing.  One of my favourite parts of being a musician is curating a performance for audiences and really  thinking about all the stages of the experience from the staging to the lights, the concert program  and the audience seating. This is how my ensemble Ad Lib Collective was born. At our core, we  create transformative performance experiences for audiences that integrate all elements into an  immersive event. Our first major show was at the Metropolis Festival at the Melbourne Recital  Centre after a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts in Canada. We presented Music for Our  Changing Climate which featured an installation of pieces of ice hanging in among the audience,  melting and dripping throughout the show. Since then, we have built works in the US and  throughout metro and regional Australia with collaborators from electronic music artists, climate  scientists, dancers, media artists and more. I am passionate about collaboration and really excited  to see where our latest project Conditions of Growth will take us as we work with media artist  Sohan Ariel Hayes

"I have found going through the process of birthing in a hospital and being a working /creative mum  has really opened my eyes to the deep seated patriarchal norms in our world that are so easy to  ignore if they don’t directly affect you and the root of mum guilt is one of those."

After 7 years in naarm and during the first year of the pandemic my husband I and decided to  move back home to boorloo. I was 7months pregnant by the time we made it across the hard WA  border.  While I miss so much about naarm and being more connected to the eastern states, I love being  back home by the beach and with both sides of our family near by. It has also been a huge help to  have so much support with Felix from grandparents on both sides, as I have continued to work  since he was about 4 months old.  Before the pandemic, a large chunk of my freelance life had been travelling both nationally and  internationally, I was sometimes away for more than 6 weeks at a time. In hindsight this led to  some pretty serious burn out at the end of 2019 and I knew something had to give after that. After  Felix was born, I did initially bring him along on some tours with the support of my amazing  mother in law. It was a pretty massive juggle managing breast feeding, regular wakes during the  night and needing to drive and perform during the day. Now that Felix is a routine-loving toddler, I  have found it makes much more sense to leave him at home when I go away for up to 5 days at a  time. This is only possible because I have the privilege of an incredibly supportive husband and  family around me who not only look after Felix, but also give me the support to acknowledge my  work is important and that I am allowed to want to do this. Having said that I am certainly away  from home much less than I used to be.  Overall I am loving being home much more, but acknowledge that travel is always going to be a  part of my work because I am passionate about connection and collaboration nationally and  internationally. I am also very aware of the environmental impact of travel and I credit Felix for  showing me how to slow down and notice the beauty of the world around. These days I am much  more careful about the work I accept and am focussing on setting more boundaries around family  and rest time, though it’s an ongoing process

When I am not away, I generally have 3 days of childcare support per week from family which fill  up with meetings, admin, rehearsals and projects. This leaves little time for dreaming and creating  and so that is something I am working towards carving out more time for. I am also really  passionate about being present with Felix before he goes to school, so am careful to spend those  other two days a week mucking around in the garden or at the zoo with him. The juggle is  sometimes quite jarring, and during busy times I am not great at stepping away from my laptop.  But I am also grateful that my work life can be so flexible and really look forward to my Felix days  after I’ve completed some solid work days.

"I credit Felix for showing me how to slow down and notice the beauty of the world around. These days I am much more careful about the work I accept and am focusing on setting more boundaries around family
and rest time, though it’s an ongoing process!"

In the early days with Felix, so many of the women around me were on maternity leave from their  jobs and I found that quite challenging at times because I wasn’t able to turn off from work like  they could. But other musician and freelance mums reached out to me when I had Felix and I  found a circle of women who were incredibly supportive. It didn’t take much more than a message  or a cup of tea (I once had one delivered from a friend in naarm!), but just knowing that there  were other people trying to make it work like me, was a huge help. Composer/mum Alice Humphries and I started working together when I was quite early in my  postpartum days and it was incredible meeting up with her to improvise on found sounds,  percussion and prepared piano. Through the fog of early parenthood it is easy to lose your sense of  self, especially as a creative person. So having this connection with a likeminded creative mum was  an incredible anchor point for me at a time when I was considering if I even wanted to do music  again. We ended up presenting a program of works at the Ellington Jazz club that year and later  recorded an album together which we are releasing through Tone List in a few months time.

Becoming a mum influenced every part of my life and changed the way I make decisions, divide my  time, connect with family and so much more. It redefined my tolerance for time wasting and really  honed my drive to create. I am yet to find clear influences in my work connected to parenthood,  but I’m not ruling it out for the future! 

"? a) when it comes to your art and b) general life. Do you feel differently about mum guilt depending on what you are doing? eg art or normal life? Yes/No/Why? Discuss - this is one of my favourite topics  What triggers your mum guilt? (if you feel it) Mum guilt is a big one for me! I get it if I take time away from Felix that isn’t work related, even  just for a few hours. Though I know I am a better mum and partner having had time away to  recharge, I still feel terrible. I also get it when I am away on tour and he’s at home with family, even  though I know he is safe and loved. It has certainly become more manageable as he’s grown older. I  am curious to understand my own patterns within this narrative as well as the burden that society  places on mums as the primary caregiver here. Why is it that fathers (however wonderful/ supportive and progressive) don’t feel the same level of crushing guilt the they go to work for the  day, or out to exercise in the evenings? I have found going through the process of birthing in a hospital and being a working /creative mum  has really opened my eyes to the deep seated patriarchal norms in our world that are so easy to  ignore if they don’t directly affect you and the root of mum guilt is one of those. 

I find the concept of matrescence fascinating and one that I don’t understand deeply. But I know  enough to understand that my transition through pregnancy, labour and into motherhood has  changed parts of me forever including the the neural pathways in my brain, my micro biome and  my sense of self. This is a pretty wild concept, but one that helps me to fully acknowledge that I am  a different person since having a kid. I have no regrets about that and only wish I knew all of this  earlier in life! 

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to stop everything else and just be a mum 100% of the  time. From the outside it looks like a beautiful time watching blades of grass grow and visiting the  library every day. I see friends who do this and am in awe of their strength and eternal patience.  For me I realised early that I need to be creating and connecting with other artists and audiences  through performance creation as well as being present with my son and family to feel whole. There  was guilt around this for me but I’m coming to terms with it and know that it makes me a better  mum.  Is it important to you that your children see that you do more than just the mothering role? I want Felix to see me dreaming big and creating incredible things, so that he can do the same for  himself one day. And, importantly to see how supportive his dad is towards me and one day  support a female partner, colleague or friend to do the same for herself.  

My mum was a single parent and did an incredible job, though I am sure there were all sorts of  societal pressures on her. She is also a freelance artist and a big inspiration for me in the work that  I do. I am so grateful for to her and my mother in law who have both been such an incredible  support for us as I have got back into more work.  

Something else that has had a huge impact for me coming out of the early post partum days and  since finishing breastfeeding was to start tracking my cycle and understanding the huge impact  that the monthly fluctuation in hormones has on the mind and body. There is a point in the cycle  just before ovulation when it has been proven that women can be up to 6 times more productive  than at other times, and then of course times when it is important to rest in order to store energy  for the next round of the cycle. This concept was completely new to me only 7 months ago and has  has a big impact on the way I approach my creativity, overcome imposter syndrome and parent my  son. I’m also excited for Felix to grow up with this knowledge of the female cycle as well, so that he  can more deeply understand the people around him in his life. If you want to find out more about  cycle tracking, the wonderful Lucy Peach has a podcast and a book, Period Queen that I cannot  recommend highly enough.

I experienced some trauma during my labour and birth and about a year later ended up  working with a psychologist to process and understand its effect on me. I had never taken  the time to understand and connect with my mental health before, but have since  discovered how incredibly important it is to do. Since having Felix I have learnt so much  about myself and how I understand and experience emotions and experiences, set  boundaries and generally operate in the world. This has had a huge impact on every aspect  of my life, but particularly on how I parent Felix and how I approach my creative practice.



You can find me on Facebook, my website or you can follow me on instagram.

I  also have a mailing list that you can join to find out about orchestral education concerts, Ad Lib  Collective shows and more.

I have an exciting large collaborative work being premiered in September at the Holmes à Court  gallery in West Perth. Presented by my ensemble Ad Lib Collective, Conditions of Growth is a  collaborative work that brings together exquisite chamber music for piano and percussion by  Maurice Ravel with a new word for massed flower pots and bells written by me, Ochre. For this  show I am working with media artist Sohan Ariel Hayes and electronic designer Nick Stark who  have developed a custom designed system of sensors that pick up sound generated near by and  connect to generative animations that are triggered on the screens in the performance space. It is  going to be a truly immersive experience for the audience and I cannot wait to go live in just over a  month.  

Tickets are available here  

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