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In Focus: Selene Messinis

Federal Office AMEB

In Focus: Selene Messinis

YoWo Music Program Manager Selene Messinis is a multi-instrumentalist and educator with over a decade of experience in the contemporary Australian music scene.

With over a decade of experience in the music industry, musician, songwriter, composer, and educator Selene Messinis is a multi-instrumentalist proficient in piano, keyboards, synthesisers, vocals, and saxophone. With a diverse portfolio, Selene has worked across various music genres, from pop to R&B, hip-hop, jazz, metal, Brazilian, and house music. Collaborating with leading acts like Thndo, NO ZU, Parvyn, Gordon Koang and more.

Selene Messinis has over ten years of experience teaching music privately and in school settings. She has also taken on the role of Program Manager at YoWo Music, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to promoting gender equity in the music scene and nurturing the next generation of female and gender-diverse musicians.

 

Themes: generational learning, piano for leisure, upskilling, structure, jazz, YoWo Music, women in music, music community, school

 

I started playing the piano when I was four and a half because my dad was interested in the piano and started teaching me little songs, not that he could play. Then, I started lessons through primary school in a group class, which was no good. I did that for six months, and my parents thought I'd do better getting one-on-one lessons. So, I started those with dad as well. It was cute. We used to go together on Saturday morning. I would have half an hour, and then dad would have half an hour, one after the other. We started AMEB exams together, one after another. I kept going, and dad had to repeat because he wasn't happy with his Grade 3 exam grade - he even took time off work to practice and resit.

I completed up to Grade 7, Piano for Leisure, because I was more interested in the contemporary pieces. The For Leisure series had more pieces that interested me and were more relevant to my life. For me, the classical pieces focused on technique over the enjoyment of playing.

Did your skill level and technique develop with each AMEB exam you prepared for and completed?

Every grade syllabus was upskilling specific techniques and musical skills that the previous grade didn't. That type of music learning worked for me because I like structure and knowing the plan of expected outcomes.

How does a pianist who likes structure end up in a jazz course at the Victorian College of the Arts?

Well!

I would say I have a maths brain. I like patterns and love organisation. In my professional life, I'm driven by the different ways music can be organised into complex rhythmic cycles. It's weird because I compartmentalise, but being completely "free" is a different box to improvisation. Structured improvisation over chords and changes sits in a different category of freedom, in my head, that still follows the rules. I dislike it when people say, "Just vibe" - I hate that advice. I also dislike that people present classical music as rigid and structured and jazz as though it has no rules—people who are the most successful jazz musicians know all the rules.

I did classical piano through primary school, and then I started high school at Blackburn High School and studied oboe. Yeah, I know, hilarious.

I played for five years and got to do some cool stuff, you know, orchestra and playing oboe, and I kept playing classical piano. But after year seven, the school was like, 'We feel like you want to play jazz, but we feel like you might be having a hard time on the oboe". So, they allowed me to start saxophone, which was awesome. I then got into the school's jazz bands, which was great. And then, a new piano teacher came to the school, and I was encouraged to have lessons. That opened my world again, and the school needed jazz pianists for the big band, so I started playing piano for them instead. So, it all coincided like it was meant to be.

It was a perfect storm. For the first time, I thought, 'Music is something I could pursue seriously' because great teachers nurtured that little seed they saw in me. My Jazz Big Band teacher would burn me CDs to listen to and write out chords. I got help from multiple sources and am grateful for those teachers and that school experience.

Are you saying that understanding rules and structure helps set you free musically in jazz?

I only get to that freedom playing when I feel in control. And I only feel in control when I feel prepared. And when I feel prepared, it's because I've done the work. I've trained and learned the scales, chords, progressions, feel, timing, notes - you know? All the preparation that then allows for the letting go.

In my teaching, I focus on jazz advanced theory and understanding of contemporary music. I instil in my students the advice I wish I had and from a structured, pragmatic perspective. Instead of telling them to "vibe" or "just listen to the music" because there is more to it than that. You start at step one and then upskill. You progress to a certain level, upskill, and add something else.

Let's talk about your work as the Program Manager at YoWo Music. How did you first hear about it? How did you get involved in it?

I witnessed YoWo Music from its inception because YoWo's co-founder, Lena Douglas, was the year above me at the Victorian College of the Arts. We had a mock marketing project where we had to create and present a proposition to get funding. I remember when she presented the idea of YoWo in this class and then created it in real life.

So, I saw it all from the beginning, but from afar. In 2021, I successfully applied to mentor for what turned out to be a short period because of Melbourne lockdowns. We did Orientation Day, and then, within a week, the lockdowns began. At the end of the year, I saw they were looking for someone to take over running the program, and I realised I had the right skills to apply (connections in the contemporary Narrm (Melbourne) scene, and I'm a passionate teacher).

It's been a journey with YoWo with it's only the two of us at the helm with Sarah Rafferty, our CEO.

We had many chats about what YoWo Music is and what we are trying to achieve. Also, continuing the work that co-founders Lena Douglas and Claire Cross started on improving the balance or increasing female practitioners to go into tertiary education or music careers. At that time, Claire and Lena were both studying jazz courses and were amongst the few, if not the only, female instrumentalists in their respective courses eight years ago.

What are the advantages of someone going through that? What are your hopes for it?

YoWo Music has evolved from having a sole jazz focus and is about getting everybody of all music tastes involved. Sarah and I also have different music experiences of being trained and not being formally trained in music, so our approach has different outcomes that we want our mentees to achieve. YoWo Music is about giving younger people the skills they need and equipping young musicians (of any skill level and training) with all the necessary skills they don't already have, even if they are in a great music program like I had at school. Our tagline shows viable pathways to a career, not necessarily a future in music, through experience. It can be as big as having a career, but it can also be giving others the experience of working in a band with others and the skills it takes to do that. It's all important.

We're building an experience and a world in music where female and non-male identifying artists already feel like they belong and can grow from their experience in any way they want, knowing they are a part of the music community from day one.

One of the faults of tertiary music education was the lack of female representation, which affected how others saw a career path. I'm passionate about changing that for the generations we see come through. By doing so, we'll see new approaches to how music communities can work and move away from some toxic characteristics and behaviours that turn women off from having long careers in this industry.

YoWo Music Program Manager Selene Messinis is a multi-instrumentalist and educator with over a decade of experience in the contemporary music scene
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