For some weird reason, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is like eHarmony for musicians. Violinists Matthew Tomkins and Pip West count out nine married couples, adding their own pairing among them. Apparently, Tomkins and West, who live with their daughter in North Melbourne, and play violin side-by-side on the stage of Hamer Hall, are not altogether unusual.
West reckons the tendency to stick to their own is something to do with the hours musicians keep. “It’s probably partly to do with the intensity of our work,” she says. “We build this whole performance together, and in the end, we’re all living it together. After a performance, we’re all kicking back. Obviously we’re all going to have a drink together…”
Another interesting disposition of orchestras is, apparently, for couples to adhere to their own sections when pairing up. Tomkins, for instance, is principle second violin, while West plays second. It’s understandable: in a world where professionals are initiated before they turned ten, it makes sense you’d seek out someone who speaks your language.
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For his part, Tomkins was handed his first violin when he was only five. “My parents knew some other kids who were learning violin and they asked me if I wanted to try it,” he recalls, a little dismissively. “I was five, so I said, yeah, whatever.”
West was a little more enthusiastic. “I was probably about seven or eight,” she remembers. “My parents took me to concerts and apparently I actually pointed at one of the violins and said I’d like to play one of those.”
Though she harboured some aspirations of becoming a vet, by the time she was a teenager she knew she wanted to pursue music. Tomkins, on the other hand, took a more circuitous path. “When I finished high-school I didn’t think I really wanted to do music, so I did a science and engineering degree for five years,” he explains. “When I finished that I didn’t really want to be an engineer. I figured that at some point in my life I’d probably regret it if I didn’t at least give the music thing a go.”
He did, and found himself with a seat in the MSO eighteen months later.
While Tomkins and West both ultimately claimed a seat in the string section, they’d already met before the MSO, playing in a Melbourne youth orchestra. “I went to the rehearsal knowing very few people, and it just happened that Matty was one of the people in my little circle of friends,” says West. “That’s where we met, and I thought he was alright, but it was a few years before we actually... hooked up. It wasn’t quite playing beautiful music together. But it was definitely between the violins.”
These days, the couple balance their week between three to four days of rehearsal, performances, and raising their young daughter. What would be a challenge for any parent is compounded by the odd hours; though Tomkins and West are lucky to have tolerant grandmas in the wings. “The daytime stuff’s not too bad, but it’s the nights where we both have to go to work that can be a little bit difficult,” Tomkins says.
When they’re practicing - which West admits possibly isn’t as often as they should - the parents take turns, or improvise. “Our daughter’s pretty good about it,” says West. “I might be practicing with a little child attached to my leg, or encourage her to run off and do things while I keep an eye out.”
Although West and Tomkins try not to talk shop, living day-in, day-out, with your creative partner can change the way you se your craft. “In terms of affecting the way I look at music and performance, I reckon having lived with Matt for so long has affected the way I think about it,” explains West. “Hearing him play, I can hear musical ideas I’d never thought about.”
While the pair is undoubtedly committed to their craft, Tomkins admits that some days, being a musician simply feels like another day at the office. “There are certainly times where it feels like a job, rather than this incredible creative thing where you’re free,” he says. “Some weeks you don’t like the conductor that much, or you don’t like the pace, it can be a bit of a slog. But you’ve got to be professional about it.”
West interrupts Tomkins to temper his criticism slightly: “The thing is, it’s a pretty good job really,” she says. “Playing the violin, even when it’s an average week, it’s still great music.”