Sharing Knowledge

Cheryl van Wangeningen

This interview provides valuable insights into her connection with country and how this informs her music making!

Can you tell us about your most recent presenting experience?

In January, I was approached to deliver a presentation as part of a bi-annual Summer Conference by the Music Teachers Association of South Australia. I chose to present on “Performing in the 21st Century: An Indigenous Perspective”.

What did you share with your audience?

I began by revealing my maternal Indigenous background of Peramangk/ Ngarrindjeri – the traditional owners of the land extending from the Adelaide Hills to the mouth of the Murray River (the Coorong). My introduction was to satisfy the expectation for Indigenous performers to introduce themselves and announce their heritage and any other relevant information.

I also acknowledged the traditional owners of the land, the Kaurna people, that the conference was taking place on (the grounds of the University of Adelaide) as per protocol. It is interesting to note that The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) now includes a locally recorded Acknowledgement before each performance and even a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony when necessary (as per the opening of the Festival of Orchestras (FIFO) in November 2021). Yes, times have changed! 

The presentation also included a performance of one of my compositions on the piano. My aim was to enlighten students on some of my own experiences and challenges that may present themselves in the 21st Century. It also provided an opportunity to demonstrate my upbringing and cultural heritage and encourage other musicians to share their story. 

Can you tell us more about your compositions?

The composition I chose to perform is titled, “Coorong Trilogy” and consists of 3 relatively short pieces of music that I composed in 2017. Each piece relates to different images and times of the Coorong region – “Day Dreaming at Dusk”, “Pelicans Rising” and “The Calling of the Coorong”. The music was featured in a documentary aired on NITV in 2018-2020. 

You’ve been a part of a documentary?

Yes! The documentary was called Dot Music and was released through Red Wall Films with the support of the Media Resource Centre and nominated to be a finalist for Documentary of the Year in the SA Screen Awards. The title was a result of three influences:

  1. “Dot” being a shortened version of the name of my landlady, Dorothy, who first introduced me to the piano
  2. “Dot” representing the marks made on musical staves and scores
  3. “Dot” being associated with Indigenous artwork.

What did it feel like having your compositions highlighted like this?

The idea of one of my compositions being recorded, performed in a concert at Elder Hall, in The University of Adelaide and then included in a documentary for a television audience as well as online social media was gratifying but also immensely overwhelming.

It made me realise how vulnerable we are in the 21st century because we live in such an instant and global world. There is the expectation to be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik-Tok, Spotify, etc. and this led me to considering how we need to protect ourselves from issues such as copyright.

We need to alert our students and ourselves about how we want to be perceived, what images are being uploaded and shared, what we represent. First impressions really do count!

What inspired you to share your story?

The extremely talented and well-known Aboriginal performer, Archie Roach, wrote the book Tell Me Why and spoke about it at Adelaide Writers’ Week in 2020. I referred to pages 204-205 with his permission in my presentation. He talks about a performance he did for one of his songs, ‘Took the Children Away’ and states how he didn’t play his guitar or sing to impress, he sang to educate and honour – to respect the stories by playing them true.

“People often comment that I don’t look ‘very Aboriginal’. I don’t perform in costume with a painted torso, feathers or headdress and people ask what is my connection to country? The answer is to be real, to be myself and share my story.”

What did you learn from performing and sharing your story? 

Every time I perform, I learn something and the presentation in January was no exception. There have been moments when I have hired faulty equipment with disastrous outcomes, been asked unusual requests and even questioned what was expected. I’ve had some odd requests! Here are a few:

  • Landing in Amsterdam and travelling to Uttrecht where I was told there was a piano (a baby grand) in the foyer and asked if I could play something? After a few moments of trying to think straight due to jet lag, I played a universal favourite, ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen which thankfully, was well received.
  • In Paris, I played on one of several pianos at the Gare du Nord train station while waiting for my coffee and was asked “Do you play music?”by a passer-by. I later found out that this gentleman wasn’t criticising my playing but, on the contrary, was wanting to know where I perform and if I taught piano …. what a relief!
  • At Ronald McDonald House for children being treated for cancer and their families, I was asked my most unusual request so far – to please play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ for a 16month old baby girl. That was of course, not a difficult piece to play but hard to play with tears welling up and maintaining my composure.
  • My most requested piece by far though, is ‘Für Elise’ by  Beethoven and my second most requested piece is ‘Happy Birthday’.

Performance in the 21st century highlights the need to be aware of your surroundings, people present and a clear understanding of the brief – what is really being asked of the performer.

There is also the need for authenticity and the expectation to share your story and the story behind the music that you perform. People often comment that I don’t look ‘very Aboriginal’. I don’t perform in costume with a painted torso, feathers or headdress and people ask what is my connection to country? The answer is to be real, to be myself and share my story.  People expect the truth and genuinely want to know your story.

How do you see the performance space changing for Indigenous performers and music?

Indigenous performers have come to the fore due to movies such as ‘The Sapphires’ and performers such as Jessica Mauboy, Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter, William Barton, Deborah Cheetham, Casey Donovan, Troy Casser-Daly and Dan Sultan are prominent now. 

It is interesting that Mitch Tambo (a Gamilaraay and Birra Gubba man) who sang his way to the Finals of Australia’s Got Talent in 2019 can still feel nervous when performing to 10 or 20 children! And that is another obstacle that indigenous performers especially, have yet to overcome because we are inherently shy and reserved people.

In the piano education space, the Australian Music Examinations Board has undertaken to include more indigenous compositions in its repertoire for piano and last year the on-line Orchestra featured the song, ‘Morning Star, Evening Star’.

Do you have any advice for fellow piano teachers?

As piano teachers, we all have a common bond. To inspire the next generation. To teach our students to show respect and gratitude for where they perform and encourage them to shine. To focus on the moment, be true to the composer and be true to themselves.

Cheryl van Wageningen is a proud Peramangk/ Ngarrindjeri descendent. She is a Full Member of the Music Teachers Association of South Australia (MTASA) and has served on its Council. In January, Cheryl spoke and performed at the MTASA Summer Conference on the topic ‘Performing in the 21st Century: An Indigenous Perspective’.

Career highlights have included performances at Apology Day events and Fleurieu Festivals.

A documentary, titled ‘Dot Music’ was filmed about Cheryl and aired on NITV in 2018- 2019.

Cheryl holds a Bachelor of Music from the University of Adelaide and attained Grade 8 (Classical) with the Australian Music Examinations Board (A.M.E.B.).

Cheryl also commits to the community through music sessions at Southern Cross Aged Care (SA)

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