The Great Lockdown of 2020 inspired chorister & pianist Louisa Billeter to undertake an epic piano project. Recording a piano piece every day for a year, Louisa shared the results each day on social media. This stunning effort led to a new project, combining Louisa’s interests of piano, photography and native Australian plants.
In this article we will learn of the path that led Louisa to ‘Waratah and others‘.
We are looking forward to a series of articles accompanying her on the journey as it unfolds, at its own perfect pace.
It has become increasingly apparent to me over the years that I have a fundamental, constitutional requirement to make music on a regular basis. Not to do so inevitably results in rapid and profound mental health decline.
When Covid-19 happened last year, all my usual musical work and activities were abruptly cancelled, leaving me bereft. Miraculously, it seems, I managed not to wallow in self pity, but looked around for another musical outlet.
Bach’s Small Preludes
I found it by giving my vocal chords a rest and dusting off my long-neglected piano. Inspired by the Facebook posts of a few of my friends, I decided to record my efforts, and posted a video of me playing one of Bach’s Small Preludes… with great trepidation and anticipated humiliation…
To my amazement, my friends showered me with support and encouragement. Seeking another dopamine hit, I repeated my feat the following day, and the next.
After a few days, I pondered whether this was something that could reasonably be continued. I hit on the idea of documenting the progress of an amateur rediscovering love for the piano and exploring the wealth of repertoire available. Daily recordings would keep me motivated and progressing, as I have always found it hard to practise when it’s not for something.
It was impossible to anticipate in March 2020 how much time Melbourne would spend locked down, and how long it would be before I could sing with others again. But history happened as it did, and I had time to practise.
Scouring the internet for new repertoire, my family gave me the time and space to indulge my obsession. I continued my daily recordings beyond the lockdowns, from 25th March 2020 until 29th March 2021 (365 days, with 5 days holiday in January).
Since then, I have continued making recordings, but at the reduced frequency of every few days.
In my search for new repertoire, I joined the Australian Music Centre. They sell a vast wealth of sheet music digitally (Covid-safe!), supporting many less well known Australian composers who may find it difficult to get published elsewhere. I have long enjoyed contemporary classical music, the newer the better. This was a great place to find some interesting things to tickle my brain.
Waratah and others
While browsing through their intermediate piano music, I came across a set of pieces by Czech born Australian composer Miloslav Penicka called, ‘Waratah and Others‘. These twenty short pieces are each inspired by a different Australian native plant.
This would be the perfect way for me to combine my passions!
I was very excited because, outside of music, I also have a passion for plant and garden photography. Of particular interest are Australian natives, which also spawned an interest in the botany of these plants. I immediately purchased the sheet music and started practising.
Later that week, we had some good friends over for a roast lamb dinner. I started telling Katie excitedly about these new pieces I’d discovered and played a few of them for her. Katie said, “when you record these for your project, why don’t you also include a photo you’ve taken of the plant?” Why didn’t I think of that? Of course! This would be the perfect way for me to combine my passions!
Plants dictate the tempo
Looking through all of my existing native flower photographs (they number in the tens of thousands) I found I’d already photographed five out of the twenty. So now my task is to locate and photograph the remaining fifteen plants and practise the music.
Due to the frenetic pace of recording every day in the first year of my piano project, I would typically have just chosen a few of the pieces to record, those that were technically easier or just had immediate appeal, and then moved on.
But now I feel I’d like to try and learn all twenty pieces – or as many as I can reasonably manage. And the seasonality and dispersed geographical locations of these plants is forcing me to slow down!
I already appreciate the value of slowness and a meditative approach in the way I photograph plants…
It will certainly take at least half a year, maybe more, to actually find all the plants on the list.
This will give me ample to time to work on the music. It truly seems serendipitous that I’ve found a new aspect of this piano project that allows me to incorporate my love for photographing native plants. It also forces me to slow things down.
Taking a meditative approach to the way I photograph plants, I already appreciate the value of slowness. I love to use an antique manual lens and really take my time. Now I will try to apply this approach a little more to my music making.
Louisa grew up in Sydney and now lives in Melbourne. She currently works a little as a classical singer, both solo and in small choirs, with a particular interest in contemporary choral and chamber music. The rest of her time is devoted to parenting a delightful small child, playing the piano, and photography – particularly of Australian native plants. She volunteers as President of the Friends of Karwarra Australian Native Botanic Garden in the Dandenongs.
Louisa always assumed that she would end up a doctor like her parents, but had this niggling feeling that what really made her happy was music, art and nature… but “that’s just not practical!” She completed a BSc (Hons – Microbiology) and half of a postgraduate medical degree before finally having the courage to drop out and pursue her (less practical) dreams. Later completing a Graduate Diploma of Music, Louisa also studied photography at TAFE. She still struggles with a fear that she hasn’t achieved a ‘proper career’ by the standards that she assimilated growing up, and her pursuits have been interrupted by periods of depression and self-doubt.
Louisa has found botanical photography to be a wonderful way to slow down, and spends many hours (when she can) photographing with an antique manual lens as a form of meditation. She also enjoys cooking, and growing herbs and veggies. She lives with husband Karl, daughter Tabitha, and cat (Silly) Lilly Pilly.