Every once in a while someone comes into your life with a story. A story that manages to obliterate all your feelings of doubt and the loneliness that comes with it, in the bright sunshine of shared experience; banishing every inner critic into silence and filling you with the hope and optimism that originally held your conviction. Today's guest was that someone for me in a time of great uncertainty.
When planning the relaunch of the blog I wanted to get new headshots taken, shots where the cello wasn't at the forefront. A photographer kept appearing on my social media; it seemed suddenly, from nowhere, everyone was having photos taken by "The Musician's Photographer", Olivia da Costa.
Two weeks later, it was my turn. I turned up to a warm cosy living room with the world's biggest Christmas tree and a fresh cup of tea ready to go. I was nervous about having my photo taken: I wasn't feeling my best and was apprehensive about how I'd look on camera - my Kraken was having a field day. Within seconds Olivia had me in stitches, we instantly connected and it wasn't long before I felt so comfortable; I'd forgotten there was a camera there at all. Yet, what engaged me the most throughout the shoot was Olivia's incredible story. A tale of someone who had worked hard to create a life that would truly bring them joy outside the realms of the traditional cellist's career. Her passion and love of photography and her journey to this point was too good not to share.
Tackling the issues of restrictive creativity found in musical institutions, imposter syndrome and the journey to finding your happy; it is with great pleasure that I welcome Olivia da Costa to "The Graduate Interviews".
What first sparked your interest in photography?
I’ve always been quite visually interested in things - visually orientated, I guess. I remember always really wanting a big fancy DSLR camera - I remember sitting on the toilet flicking through the Argos catalogue for hours when I was little, just looking at all the cameras that I’d never be able to afford. I originally planned to do video for musicians, but soon realised that I didn’t really know much about the audio side of things so thought that photography would work better with my skill set. I taught myself through YouTube over lockdown, exploring styles of photographers that I liked and learning how they took photos, and then working out a style that feels true to me. I guess there wasn't a specific point where I decided that I was really interested in it, I just naturally gravitated towards something that was creative whilst being my own boss. It’s really rewarding when you’ve spent a long time being on a set path like music where you know, or think you know what you want to do, and then having something that's completely yours. I really love it!
The whole of your formal training is music performance, when did you start to realise it might not be the right fit for you?
I don’t know if it’s not necessarily the right fit for me. I’ve just had a few times in institutions where it’s not worked out how I thought it would, so I prefer to do things very much in my own way. There have been moments where I've really loved my training. For example, when I started at the Junior Royal College of Music, it was the first time I was surrounded by people who did exactly what I did and as my first exposure of that type of institution, I loved it! However, when I went to Purcell aged 12, it just wasn't what I thought it would be. It was very structured and not very open to anything outside the traditional music school of thought. One thing that surprised me was that you weren’t allowed to do chamber music until year 9, and I was only in year 7 so I was having to wait two years to do things that I had already been doing. Despite the weirdly restrictive nature of that, on the flip side I had two hour long lessons a week, more concerts and exams than I ever had at conservatoire, and aged 12 we were expected to get on with all of these things without any real support or help. There just didn't seem to be any questioning of whether this was the right type of pressure - we just did it because we felt lucky to be there, and were frequently reminded of this. I think there’s a lot of pressure in institutions in particular to fit into a certain mould. As a result, I took a two-year break from music and really enjoyed just being a "normal" teenager, before returning to cello lessons privately with Felix Schmidt.
I was so happy to be coming back to music but I did have a “I need to catch-up" mentality; practising six hours a day, entering lots of competitions - I thought that was the only way I was going to "make it”, whatever that means! So here I was aged 15, going for this goal that was just a product of my musical education up until then, with a sentiment in my ear that everyone in specialist education is told at some point; "not all of you will get there but if you work hard enough, and do x, y and z better than anyone else, then you will”.
I’ve realised since graduating, that making the life you want is the best thing.
I managed to shake this off a little bit later into my teens - I took part in Aldeburgh Young Musicians and it was honestly the best institutional thing I've done. It was very much that you could do anything you wanted. There were different courses; jazz, folk, world music, etc. The first thing I did at the course was a workshop led by composer Charlotte Bray, where we performed works by herself. At first it was terrifying, I remember crying in a practice room thinking, "I can't do this"! Music has always come quite naturally to me - I've never found it tricky to do - so being in a situation where I didn't feel like I could do well was a big challenge for me. By the end of the course, I absolutely loved it. My Mum (who had gone to all my concerts and competitions since I started at 3!) said it was the best she’d ever heard me play, that my confidence was totally different so she knew there was something special in exploring of other things for me. It’s something that needs to be set in music education from the ground up. I don’t think there’s enough of that.
I joined the Royal Academy of Music for my undergrad, and alas the same sentiment of ‘work is life’ was reinforced as soon as we walked through the doors in September. I made some amazing, lifelong friends, but I can’t say I enjoyed four years of the stifling, in-the-box thinking and old school mentality. The 'suffering artist’ trope was also very much glamourised here, and a sense of ‘get on with it or be left behind’ was drilled into us often, both explicitly and subliminally.
The best thing I’ve realised since graduating, is that making the life you want is the best thing.
So, it’s not that you realised it might not be the right fit, it’s the institutional in-the-box thinking that you struggled with?
Maybe. It’s hard to tell whether I struggled because of the one-way thinking, or the fact my mental health suffered quite a bit at both Purcell and Academy. It’s worth noting that my time at these institutions coincided with two very developmental times of change: at 12 you're becoming a teenager, and at 18 you're becoming an adult. They’re horrid, confusing, and pressured times to go through anyway, let alone trying to be “the best” at such an intensely specific thing. Again there’s not really much support for this, it isn’t really acknowledged. Now that I have come out of music college and am doing my own thing again, I feel a bit more settled and a bit more grounded - more able to do the cello stuff that I want to do instead of what I feel I should be doing. There’s a lot of pressure to do what you should be doing - I think 'should' is a very strong word. It’s used a lot and it’s not helpful at all. I’ve realised since graduating, that making the life you want is the best thing and that’s in all aspects of life, not just work. Life isn’t just work. I think that having been in a form of music training since forever, I didn’t know that life isn’t just about your career. It wasn’t an easy place to get to though, there was a lot of doubt; the world that we’ve trained for doesn’t really exist any more - the problem is we don’t catch up until we’ve graduated, which can leave us feeling lost and unworthy. A big question for me was: how and where do I fit in?
Have you had moments where your inner critic has tried to sabotage you whilst you’ve been making this transition?
Yes, I think so. I’ve definitely had a lot of imposter syndrome with my photography. I do have moments where I’m like am I really doing this? I’m constantly thinking am I good enough? Am I doing okay? I don’t know, maybe everyone thinks I’m shit! I think it echoes my musical training from very early on that you have to be the best, but it’s different this time - doing something that I built myself, for myself gives me the confidence to put the old sentiments out of the spotlight and believe in me. I don’t have to conform to doing my photography the ‘right’ way to succeed, or compare myself to someone else doing what I do - I am able to take every single experience with this as an opportunity to learn.
I learnt very early on that you can only do things yourself. No one can tell you this, and even if they did, it's not something that you're necessarily going to believe because you haven't gone through the process yet. No one can give you an easy way in or out. Even if you're given opportunities, it doesn't necessarily mean that you'll actually be happy or fulfilled with them. I think figuring things out yourself is the only way to do it - and taking the time to really think about what you want. It’s a difficult thing to do when you have trained to do something your whole life, to admit to yourself that there might be something else out there. To think that maybe, it’s ok to not want to put yourself through auditions, or teach beginner piano, or do recordings of yourself that you hate just because that’s what we’re ‘supposed’ to do when we graduate.
On social media, and actually for many of us, you are "The Musician's Photographer". Has the concept of staying within the musical sphere been important to you?
Not really! I mean it’s my whole business premise, but I don’t know if that’s something I intentionally set out to do. I just wanted to take photos of people, and the people I knew were musicians. It was never a case of, "I want to stick with this so I’m still a musician at heart” - I’d already had a break from music so it wasn’t terrifying for me to distance myself. It felt quite natural to just stop for a bit - there was definitely a pull in my body and my mind for me to stop. A lot of people who want to do something else might fear that there might not be a seat for them if they decide to go back after a break, but it’s not the case - I still play the cello! I just get to choose the cello work that I take, rather than doing absolutely everything because I ‘should’. Photography is my main job for now, but I’ll always be a cellist too.
It might change in a year, but the life I want at the moment is to be able to take photos. It allows me to be creative, to meet people, to talk to musicians and people my own age and make connections with people. Not connections in a networking-specific way, because it’s not about that for me. I just like to be able to give something to people; I love giving people that confidence when they come away from their shoot, it’s a great thing and not something I expected or something I set out to do, but it’s my favourite thing about being a portrait photographer. When people tell me they’ve never felt so comfortable during a shoot, or they feel beautiful after their session, the imposter syndrome comes back in, and I’m thinking is that really me? Did I really do that? I don’t know if that’s really me! It’s a happy accident that my work is within the musical sphere but it was not intentional by any means.
What advice would you give to someone looking at different avenues outside the traditional musical career?
Go with your gut. If there's something that interests you, go for it when you feel ready. It may turn out in the end that it's not for you, but if you don't try, you'll never know. It's scary to completely shift your ambitions; there can be a lot of fear of what people might say. I've definitely had moments where I've worried I would lose work as a cellist because people only see me as a photographer - but they haven't. Doing something else doesn't mean the end of the road as a musician, it just means that you can open your world a bit more to other things, just go at your own pace and take your time. If someone had told me when I was studying that you could actually do two, three, or even four different things as your job, I think I would have had such a good time. The pressure of feeling like I wasn’t good enough at my one thing (cello) would have been lifted a bit, and I would have had the headspace to learn new things without feeling like a total failure. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but I’m looking forward now and welcoming newness with open arms, rather than sneering at it as a ‘fall-back option’ (again this is telling of my musical education) - I hope that others can too.
There’s a lot of pressure to do what you should be doing. I think should is a very strong word it’s used a lot and it’s not helpful at all.
I have to mention that I was very lucky; I wasn't paying rent during lockdown, and I was teaching most days of the week, so I saved up my teaching money to buy some second hand camera stuff and that was the only way I was able to do it. I didn’t want to teach anymore; I was only teaching because that was what everyone does - I had the opportunity to change my life and I feel really grateful for that.
I get so excited when I hear people are doing other things. I have this heart-warming pride for people who tell me they’re looking at different avenues. I think it takes a lot of courage and a lot of confidence; you might not always feel that. But there are a lot of us out there, more than you might think, so there is a huge support system out there if you’re not quite sure. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road as a musician, it just means you can build the life that you really want.
Thank you so much Olivia for talking to us so openly about your journey! It's so important that we learn to recognise the root of where our fears stem from, especially when they can result in holding us back from making a life we truly want.
Are you thinking about making a change? Or did something in this article resonate with you and your experiences? Why not share them and get the conversation started by commenting below or sharing?
Until next time,