Playing his way into uni

22 January 2019

Fergus Byett
Fergus Byett, awarded a Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship to study music at Waikato.

Fergus Byett from Taupō lives and breathes music, playing the piano, organ and saxophone, singing and composing, but in his final year at Tauhara College he also found time to work with fellow students on student health and wellbeing, promote community events and attend the school’s CACTUS programme – an eight-week boot camp run by the police.

He was also dux, head boy and chair of the school’s student executive and on top of his schoolwork he completed his musical letters; his ATCL Diploma with Distinction in piano, and the theory equivalent AMusTCL. He’s what you might call a good all-rounder.

Then, to cap off his busy year, Fergus was awarded a University of Waikato Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship to complete a Bachelor of Music majoring in performance. The scholarship is worth up to $10,000 a year for each year of study and scholars also receive specialist tuition and take part in leadership and personal development programmes.

Fergus’s musical career began when he used to tinker on his gran’s piano, which led to lessons, and then other instruments, starting with the saxophone. “That proved to be a gateway drug into other musical styles, especially jazz. For a couple of years, I took organ lessons and got to perform with a local orchestra at a couple of their concerts.”

Music is often a solitary occupation, so Fergus finds playing with others energising, and it’s the group work he’s particularly looking forward to at Waikato. “It’s easy to get stuck in your own head when you just play by yourself all the time. Playing with others tends to lift you, and it also gives you a fresh perspective on the music you’re playing.” It’s chamber music, the small group ensembles he particularly likes. “It’s a small group having a conversation, bouncing ideas around and telling stories. It’s a lot harder to simulate that kind of dialogue when you’re just playing by yourself, and yet in a large ensemble, as epic as that can be, it can be a little too crowded.”

Fergus says that unlike other forms of art, music only lasts as long as it is being played. “Great works of visual art hang around, but music is destroyed as soon as you stop playing. Even so, the music in one moment always follows on from the music of the previous moment, and the music being played in one moment always informs the music in the next.

“What I find interesting about music is how we can never truly experience one piece of music in its entirety at any one moment in time, only as a journey that takes place over several minutes, or sometimes, hours.”

Fergus won a string of musical competitions last year, and for the first time had the opportunity to conduct. It was as a student conductor at Taupō’s annual ‘Big Music Day’ and the opportunity whetted his appetite to learn more. “I find conducting interesting as the conductor is the only member of the orchestra who doesn’t create sound themselves, and yet what they do can have such a huge impact on the sound that everyone else is making.”

His short career has had many highlights including having a song he wrote Karanga Ākau (Call of the Reef) performed by a choir at Wellington’s ‘Big Sing’ gala concert. But he knows if he wants a career in music he still has a lot to learn.

“Trying to improve people’s lives through music appeals to me very much, and I would love to be involved with this sort of work in the future. I admire the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. His orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, is a youth orchestra comprised of musicians from Israel and Palestine, so his work with that group is about far more than just the music that it plays. It’s a very intentional effort to bridge a cultural and political divide through a shared musical experience.”

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