Sandy Evans: Saxophonist, Composer and Teacher (New South Wales)

“I just knew I was really interested in [music] from a young age.”

Sydney-based saxophonist, band leader, composer and teacher, Sandy Evans has carved out a dynamic career over the past 30 years which has seen her perform around the world and across genres. Having first learned the piano from her mother at age three, Sandy would eventually move to recorder in primary school (“I’m a terrible piano player”), then flute and finally saxophone as a teenager. She has identified as a musician as a child:

“I started doing gigs as a teenager when I finished my last two years of school in Singapore, and that’s where I started working professionally as a musician.”

(Photo: Karen Steains)

Sandy was greatly inspired by a jazz music teacher primary school, however would first train as a classical flautist before deciding that jazz was the pathway for her, however, she had no preconceptions as to what such a career might entail:

“I realised that I was, by nature, more of an improviser and more wanting a path where I could express my individuality […] For somebody to become a jazz musician, especially a white Australian woman, there was no pathway.”

After finishing high school, and returning to Sydney, Sandy initially enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts degree, initially studying music, but then switching to filmmaking (“I dropped out and went on the filmmaking path for a little while”). A change of institutions would see her enrol in an Associate Diploma in Jazz Performance. Nearly 20 years later, around 2010, would see Sandy return to study a Research Masters, which would be upgraded to a PhD:

“I’m always learning. It’s interesting that sort of big gap where I was nowhere near universities. I felt like I was constantly learning from all the musicians I work with all the time, and also my own study of music I was interested in.”

Nowadays Sandy works across a range of teaching, composing and performance commitments in commissioned, freelance and part-time arrangements, while also holding an Australia Council for the Arts Fellowship. Working on a part-time basis is a new arrangement for Sandy, as she reflects:

“For the first time in my life, I have a three-year contract as teacher at UNSW [University of New South Wales], which I started last year. Prior to that I’d always been casual […] At the moment I’m probably as fortunate as a musician could get.”

Having the stability of a part time salary has allowed Sandy to put her Fellowship funding toward developing new projects (“allowing me, in a sense, to get great value out of it”). More broadly she sees that university-based employment is beginning to play a key role in the make up of musicians’ careers, particularly in Sydney where performance fees – particularly for jazz musicians – continue to reduce:

“My reading of the situation is that to some extent, the opportunities that universities are offering are replacing, or have replaced some of the professional opportunities, particularly in Sydney […] Making money from doing gigs in Sydney is, for a jazz musician, very rarely likely to translate into much money in the bank at all.”

Sydney’s cost of living – particularly that of housing – have caused significant hurdles for musicians in being able to remain in the city, which in turn impacts upon the ways in which they can navigate their careers. As Sandy explains:

“The two musicians in my trio have both had to move out of Sydney […] because they can’t afford to live in the city. It makes organising rehearsals a nightmare because it’s a huge drive for us to meet anywhere; nowhere is convenient.”

Another challenge Sandy experiences in being able to sustain her career is the need to undertake significant administrative duties (“I would be very happy to never have to do any more admin.”), including developing grant applications, organising rehearsals and publicising shows. She explains that she has noticed an increasing trend toward musicians being required to undertake the majority of promoting of their shows, which while not only taking time away from other activities, also cuts into their bottom line:

“So you’re often spending money on that, and certainly time. I’m okay because I’m sort of established in my career, but I think for younger people it’s really tough.”

(Photo: Karen Steains)

Sandy goes on to explain that the Internet and social media have opened up new opportunities for young musicians, such as her students (“I think they have to be very smart about how they think about things”), however digital distribution models and services do not provide musicians and music fans with an ease of access to information:

“They’re generally not finding out who’s on it, any sort of historical or social context […] It’s actually important to know Simon Barker was influenced by Greg Sheehan [who] was influenced by Mark Simons. Those kinds of lineages, which for people in my generation, we might have found out through liner notes on LPs […] So we’re having to train people in the importance of that kind of thing.”

Digitisation aside, one of the biggest challenges Sandy sees for the sector in Australia is a lack of recognition and support for its value and contribution. As she reflects:

“I’m actually quite troubled by the lack of interest in the media and in government sectors I think as well as in the arts and creative life. I feel in Australia it’s undervalued greatly. It would be fantastic to feel that politicians, CEOs of big organisations, educational institutions, the media, that they could place a much higher value on music and creative work in general […] I mean it’s one of the most precious activities of human life.”