Australian Music Examinations Board
Australian Music Examinations Board


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Musicians in focus: Kees Boersma and Kirsty McCahon

Kirsty and Kees

Revered double bass players Kees Boersma and Kirsty McCahon are not only wed to each other, they have a strikingly heartfelt connection to their instrument, its education and musical performances. The couple, who first met through the Australian Youth Orchestra in the ’80s, have been enamoured with the double bass since childhood.


Born in the Netherlands, Kees grew up in the South Australian town of Mt Gambier. Adept at playing recorder and organ, it was more or less through his primary school’s weekly sing-along sessions on the PA system that he was selected to learn a musical instrument of his choosing. He was instantly smitten when he first saw the double bass.


Similarly, West Australian-born Kirsty, who initially had piano and cello lessons, was transfixed by an old double bass that sat in her school’s cupboard. For her, the appeal was to master what initially proved to be a challenging instrument.


What really “sealed the deal” for Kees, though, was a performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with the Australian Youth Orchestra at the Perth Festival. Having already completed secondary school, he quit his job as a television cameraman and tertiary music studies ensued, both in Melbourne and Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Kirsty “couldn’t not do it” and pursued a study path that encompassed Melbourne, Paris and London.


Among other things, these days Kirsty is principal double bass of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, and plays violone, while Kees is principal double bass for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and a lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. They also established a string music program at their sons’ public school in Sydney.


In addition, Kees wrote AMEB’s newly released Double Bass Technical work and helped mold the latest Double Bass syllabus. Involving a vast, reflective process, he is grateful he could “bounce” ideas off Kirsty. “The technical syllabus is a new thing for the bass and I think it’s really important,” he says. “Things have progressed so far in the last 20 to 30 years and the expectation people have, in terms of the level of playing the bass, is incredible.” Kirsty agrees and says it strongly reflects what the current teaching trends are and where students need to be.


As for learning the double bass, Kirsty believes it is a fantastic instrument to get into various styles of music. “It’s extremely versatile,” she says. “There’s something very visceral about playing the bass. It’s so physical to be able to really get into it and the instrument vibrates so immensely, too. I’ve got a bit of a theory that bass players are usually happy, well-rounded people, because physically it’s a workout for us…it feels positive to play.”


Explaining why people should learn music, Kees says brain development and the sheer joy of music are fundamental. “Learning an instrument is multifaceted and requires much more involvement and commitment, and that is a valuable tool,” he says. “There is also that basic enjoyment of music making and what that can lead to in terms of socially, playing with other people.”


Kirsty adds that being part of a musical community is how music is facilitated. “The whole idea of playing music is that it is community bound,” she says. “Rarely does a great musical talent come from sitting in a little room by themselves and never going out and playing with anybody else.”


When it comes to practice or performance, Kees says seeing concerts encourages students and/or musicians to go home afterwards and play their own instrument. “Get out there and go to concerts, because there is nothing more powerful than experiencing something yourself – even if you don’t know what it is.”


Indeed, Kees and Kirsty’s career pinnacles are ongoing and usually as recent as their last performance. According to Kees, performing with the newly formed Australian World Orchestra in 2013, especially in Sydney, left them feeling “like a bunch of rock stars”.


Constantly inspiring one another, additional influences include Melbourne recorder player Genevieve Lacey, who Kirsty regards as a complete master, while Kees notes legendary violinist Pinchas Zukerman and English cellist Steven Isserlis. “When I see great performers,” says Kees, “the thing that is really obvious to me is they carry their love of the music on the shirtsleeves."


Learn more about the new Double Bass syllabus.