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In this episode Stephanie Eslake, arts journalist, and founding editor of national music magazine Cut Common talks with Hobart based singer songwriter and vocal tutor Hannah May.

Hannah talks about her own career as a musician and teacher, the all important work/life balance and how having endometriosis, a chronic illness that affects 1 in 9 women changed her life and career. Hannah also speaks about how she uses music to address mental health in her own life and in the lives of her students.


Text transcript

Stephanie Eslake (00:10):
Hannah. It is so lovely to chat with you for music Tasmania. Thanks for joining us.

Hannah May (00:14):
Thank you so much for having me Stephanie

Stephanie Eslake (00:16):
Well, we're gonna talk a lot about your work as a successful singer songwriter here in Hobart, and about your philosophies surrounding music education and your studio. So you've crowdfunded an album and you've sort of been steadily releasing singles from that album in the past couple of years. And one of the most recent ones is little flower and you chose to incorporate the symbol of a yellow flower into your, uh, film clip to raise awareness for something that's really meaningful to you and your story. So tell us a bit about what that was

Hannah May (00:45):
Well as a songwriter. I think we all have, you know, something that will make us wanna write. Yeah, there's always kind of be something within us that just, uh, it's, you know, that calling or that, that feeling that just goes, I have to do this, and I think it's, it's the same for any creative person for any artist. And for me, it was always wanting to write songs that connected with women in particular and those that identify as women too. And with this song, the kind of backstory I think I might go back to, um, my friendship with, um, a beautiful friend of mine, Olivia Hicks. And we met in 2014 and she was on her journey with her health. And she got diagnosed with this condition called endometriosis. And I didn't have any clue about what it really was at that point. But through her story, I discovered that I also had it and creation and the production and everything involved with this song allowed me to bring forward that message. Now the color yellow is very poignant because endometriosis Australia is actually that's their symbol, their color, and the emphasis on, you know, bringing awareness to this condition that affects one in nine women. And, and those that identify as women as well in Australia was just such a big thing. And it was very close to my heart, obviously, not just having it myself, but also having a very close friend who suffers from it as well.

Stephanie Eslake (02:13):
Yeah. So many of your songs are about that sort of human experiences and in a lot of the cases about women's experiences as well, and you've confronted a lot of topics in your music from mental health through to bullying and physical health as well. So I'm wondering, I guess, as a songwriter, what you do think is powerful about having the ability to communicate some of the most difficult stories with your listeners.

Hannah May (02:37):
I think there's so much power in music, and I think you can often share things through music that you might not necessarily speak in in person. Sometimes it might be too difficult to have those conversations. Um, sometimes it's just not the right time for you or that person, but you can always put it into song. Yeah. So through this song, which Olivia Hicks, um, is featured in as well and, and her partner did the film for it. And I had a lot of my students involved as well. I was able to share this story and also this message in a way that I felt was really honest and authentic. And also that was hopeful because I think a lot of, a lot of things in life, there is a lot of pain, but there is also the joy as well.

Hannah May, Singing (03:23):
We place the seed in to the earth, ever so carefully. And you waited all summer long...

Hannah May (03:44):
My life has changed so much in the last seven years, particularly. And, you know, back in probably 2014, I look back at that year and go, how did I do all those things? And that was a really big year for me in a lot of ways. I sang with Claire BOIC. I was a backing singer for Damon Alban, uh, blur for those who know the band. I went to America and toured with the Southern gospel choir. I released my first single, I was working with my band and there was a lot happening. And then through this journey of dealing with chronic pain, I had to strip back a lot of those things. So for me, performing was the one thing that I really had to adjust, so to speak. So I, I went from performing very regularly to probably once every six months, which was a huge adjustment, especially as a musician.

Hannah May (04:34):
And it's something I love I had to yeah, just reassess everything that I was doing and go, what is important, what is going to make an impact? What can I do that I know will give me joy and sustain me for a longer period of time, so to speak. So, you know, during the music video clip last year, I wouldn't have thought to have really done that unless I knew that I was going to have this support around me. So I, it's also been a learning process cuz I've learned to know what is yeah, what's important and how I can actually do it

Stephanie Eslake (05:10):
Yeah. On knowing sort of what's important and putting up those sorts of boundaries that you need to be able to work and sustain your daily life in music. It's really interesting to hear how you prioritize different, uh, needs in your life to sustain your practice. And I understand that health in general is really common stream through your music practice, not just as a songwriter, but as someone who works hard to train their own voice in terms of technique and who teaches others about vocal technique as well. Uh, how do you think that health is intertwined with a singer's practice? And do you think singers pay enough attention to their health in general?

Hannah May (05:47):
Wow. I think, oh my gosh. So many things when I didn't know I had endometriosis, um, I was, I was fairly health conscious, but I think it, it definitely turned up the dial even more. And as a singer, chronic pain comes through the voice in a lot. So, you know, even in my speaking voice, I can hear it and feel it when I'm in pain. But I think it has given me a level of awareness that I I'm actually very grateful for because I'm a very curious person and I'm really, you know, interested in working with other singers and, and finding out how their voices are working or not working. I'm interested in working with people who are obviously more highly skilled than myself who have been training for decades, which I've done a lot of professional development, uh, with, it does give you a certain skill to actually be able to, you know, work with people who might have, you know, suffered from not just chronic pain, but also from mental health or mental illness point of view as well.

Hannah May (06:49):
And I'm very conscious of that because we do live in a, a day in an age where there is a lot of stress in our lives and there is yeah, there is a lot. And I have a little saying that I often say to my singers, you know, your voice is your body and your body is your voice. So if you're gonna come into the studio and you've had a really, really bad day at school, or you've had a stressful day at work that is gonna impact your voice. So we'll often work with singers on doing breath work first and we, I will always have, you know, they often say to me, oh my gosh, your studio always smells so nice. <laugh>, it's usually cuz I've got some essential oils going, you know, and I'll have the candle or I have the salt lamp or just little things like that, which, you know, really help to bring the levels down of not just the singer, but myself as well. Like I find that when I'm in my studio, in my space, I can, I bring out the best in the singers, but I also bring out the best in myself. And I think, I think we all need that. You know? And I think if we can create those little rituals and those little habits within our life from a health point of view, we're all gonna be a lot better off for it.

Stephanie Eslake (07:52):
Yeah. I agree. As someone who has also gone through the process of having sort of one on one, uh, music lessons myself with a teacher and it hasn't always been that positive and experience. And I, no, I feel like if, if teachers did think about, uh, compassionately about mental health, then how that might affect the experience with the student and serving the student's needs, but also compassionate about what the student, uh, has to get out of the lesson, which in your case I would imagine is not always just singing, but is having a place to express their voice. And I mean that literally and not. Yes. Um, but I suppose we do need to talk about the fact that you aren't a health practitioner. You're not a health expert.

Stephanie Eslake (08:31):
No, but you do use your body to maintain your career and you are teaching other people how to use their body and their voice. So where do you even start when it comes to gaining that sort of knowledge and seeking out the resources that are gonna help you, uh, and help your students.

Hannah May (08:46):
This is such a, a really, oh man, big topic. And I've had a lot of conversations with lots of different people, um, over the last few years around this. And I'm really, really lucky. I've, I've met some amazing vocal and, you know, health professionals in the area of singing and there is a line and there needs to be a line. I often say to singers when they first come, like, I, I, it's almost like an interview and I will actually ask students, you know, what, what they're doing, what their life looks like, why they want lessons, do they actually have any mental, mental health or physical issues that I need to be aware of. Because if a student has a mental health issue and I am not aware of it, there are things that I might say or do that could trigger that mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Hannah May (09:36):
And so I think as a singer myself, and having had lessons with different people, I'm acutely aware of making and allowing the space for students to be themselves, but also for them to feel safe and to feel comfortable. I have very clear boundaries and I have very clear lines. And I think that that is really helpful, not just for myself, of course, but for the singer to know. And also if they are having an issue, you know, I have no climbs in saying, oh, that sounds like something you need to talk to your therapist about. Or, you know, um, have you been to your GP recently? You know, maybe, maybe that's something that you need to explore.

Stephanie Eslake (10:10):
Yeah. I'd imagine there could be so much pressure for you to feel like if you are in the, the practice room with someone that maybe they are feeling safe with you, like they could share something with you. Yes. I feel like that's a really good responsibility to be able to know where to direct them and not to sort of succumb to the feeling that you need to fix their problems. Because the relationships we do have with our music teachers can be so intimate and, and special because you're sharing an amazing knowledge about something that you love. So yes, yes. To be able to sort of take that step back, look at it objectively and say, you might need to get some external help. I think that's, um, yes, a really responsible, uh, way to look at things.

Hannah May (10:49):
And I think, I mean, it has to be done in a way that is very caring and, you know, not dismissive or anything like that because they are in a vulnerable state. And I certainly don't wanna say, or make that student feel awkward or that, you know, that they can't share something that's going on because it might be having an impact on their voice or, you know, the song that they've chosen lyrically, you know, I've had students where I've gone, ah, you know, this song's about this subject. Did you realize that? And they've gone, oh my gosh. And it's really hit home for them. You know, there are those moments where I've gone. Okay. Right. So this is, this is a particular trigger. We need to be careful around this. And you know, working with students to see where they might need to obviously seek out further assistance or further help in that area.

Hannah May, Singing (11:34):
Hours and hours and hours we wept as the sun gave birth to new light. We sang grow grow grow, little flower won't you grow, we sand grow..

Stephanie Eslake (12:00):
Let's talk a little bit more about your vocal studio, where you create this safe space for your students and pass on a lot of this knowledge to them. It's called Hm. Voice studio. And it's based in Hobart and you teach all ages of people how to sing. Why is education something that you're passionate about in the first

Hannah May (12:17):
Place? When I was studying at university, I had an interesting time. It was something that I'd always wanted to do. And I'd always wanted to study music. I didn't know that I wanted to study singing. Particularly at that point it was something I kind of fell into. And when I was in my second year studying voice at the conservator of music, my singing teacher at the time said to me, you are gonna teach singing <laugh> and I went, haha, no, I'm not <laugh> um, I can't do that. I don't know anything about singing, but I was fascinated. I was really curious. So I think that really helped me to, to go down that path. And she passed on this teaching job to me and was really, really, really helpful with giving me tools and, you know, tips and tricks and all those kinds of things to essentially set myself up as a voice teacher, looking back that just set me up in a way that was really positive and uplifting.

Hannah May (13:17):
And so even if I didn't know at that point looking back, <laugh> a lot of the technicalities of how to teach singing, which I do now. I was instilling in these students, the joy of singing and, you know, expression and, you know, learning different songs and opening up doorways for them to kind of, you know, step into and working with, you know, people who might be struggling with actually even speaking out loud, you know? And so through my studio, my mission has always been to not just to teach voice and not to teach someone to enjoy singing per se, but to, to feel really comfortable in who they are as people. And to take that out into the rest of the world. And that's always been something that's been with me as a person, but I think is coming through my studio too.

Stephanie Eslake (14:06):
Mm you've not only sort of worked with students in your studio, but you've also tutored younger students in schools around Hobart for many years, but your own business edge invoice studio is fairly new in itself. Why did you wanna take that leap and go out on your own? Was there another reason you wanted to sort of go and start your own business and, and work for yourself in the music industry?

Hannah May (14:29):
I think it was a combination of many things. Actually. I, I mean, I was diagnosed with endo, so the flexibility of working for myself definitely appealed to me. I think I was, it was just time for me to really kind of focus in on one or two things. And I think that's what I've really loved about the last couple of years of just working at my studio. But I also work at, at Mount car college, as you get older as well, you just narrow in what's really important. And what makes sense and what feels good and the people that you wanna work with and, and your values and how they line up. Yeah, I think it's, it's been a combination of a lot of things, but it's certainly been learning how I wanna operate and who I am as a person and how I can obviously bring that, um, into the things that I work in and what I do.

Stephanie Eslake (15:20):
Mm. I really like that idea because we often think about musicians as, uh, maybe choosing the, the type of music through which they want to express themselves. But you are doing that through the discipline of music education as well. Yeah.

Hannah May (15:32):
I love that. Totally. I love that too. <laugh>

Stephanie Eslake (15:34):
Yeah. So in what way does, Hm, voice studio differ to other studios? Um, because every music teacher has their own essence to offer. So, so how's yours different? Give me an elevator pitch. <laugh>

Hannah May (15:48):
Okay. Here we go. Well, I think, uh, in my case, I, I don't just teach singing. I also teach piano and songwriting as well. Mm-hmm <affirmative> um, I think that certainly has a really beautiful element to it in that I will get a lot of people coming in for singing lessons, but then they go, oh, actually I found this song I really love, and I really wanna learn how to play it and sing it. And I go, great. Let's get on the piano and I can teach people that skill or they've come in. And, you know, they've had a particularly stressful day at work and they just need to release it and I go, right, I'm gonna write you a song and I'll write the chords for them. And then they'll put the lyrics in, you know, and it's, so there's a beautiful creative process.

Stephanie Eslake (16:30):
So you write songs for your students. Yes. That's so lovely.

Hannah May (16:34):
Yes. And it's beautiful. There's a co co-writing process involved. I also have recording set up, so students will not just come for a singing lesson, but they will record their songs as well, which also gives the student, uh, a purpose, especially in pandemic times when we had less performing happening, but also, so students can really hear what their voices are doing or not doing. So if I've been telling a student, you know, all year, they need to work on their breathing or, you know, whether they've got a particular tone that they need to, you know, learn how to access when they record, they can actually hear what we've been talking about because of the way that our, um, where our ears are situated on our head. We don't actually hear our voice the way that everyone else hears it. And so there's often this little, a bit of disconnect.

Hannah May (17:21):
So recording, it brings an element into the studio that I think is, is really important. The other thing I I love to do is, is bring students in, on projects that I do. So last year, like with little flower, I had, uh, seven to 10 of my students come into the recording studio and they actually sang backing vocals on the song and also bottle of tea. And then they did the music video clip as well. So I, yeah, I love to bring in students wherever I can and, you know, make them feel part of, of any process that I'm doing.

Stephanie Eslake (17:50):
It sounds so much like you're generating your own H Mae community. And one of the places that I've noticed this as well, uh, is on your social media, your studio is social media page, uh, and there, it's sort of another way that you celebrate your students progress and, and you post the work that your students are doing through photos or videos. So I'd like to know from the work that you're doing on your social media, how you think that all musicians or educators can use social media in a way that builds confidence and positivity like you are doing rather than just as a marketing tool, maybe to, to sell their next concept. I

Hannah May (18:28):
Actually created the studio account last year and I made it private on purpose. So only people who are actually students of mine or are, perhaps are supporters of the studio in a particular way, will be invited into that studio platform. I also have my own profile, which is, um, public. See, anyone can join on that, but I think that's, that's created this really safe space for students to obviously share their work. I have this little post that I do every Friday, which is called shine, the spotlight and shine. The spotlight is a post of, uh, one of my amazing students, the singing, writing, playing, um, a song and showing something that they've, you know, done in the last kind of six months or to a year. It's just, it is, yeah, it's about building community and that's why I've done it that way. But I think with social media, it it's, it's good and bad cuz it does come with elements of a bit of distance as well.

Hannah May (19:24):
And I think with the pandemic, I certainly, you know, felt like it was a really, really good tool. And I think if you're posting about your concerts and sharing information, then it's yeah, it's definitely benefited me over the years with inviting people to come to, you know, shows. I did a performance recently at Providence cafe up in north Hobart and that sold out, you know, 10 days before the actual gig and I'd posted on social media and people were messaging me because they'd seen it. Yeah. So, you know, I think there is that feedback as well.

Stephanie Eslake (19:53):
Yeah. It sounds to me like sort of finding your own voice through social media and having that kind of well rounded, uh, coverage of different parts of your career might be a good way to get people to know you, I suppose.

Hannah May (20:05):
Yeah. And I think, I mean, that's the thing though with, with social media, there is certain elements that I have changed, I guess over the years with how much I share or what I share. I certainly share a lot about my health journey because I think that's really important and it doesn't just impact me and impacts the people around me. You know, my family, my friends and my partner. And you know, it is a condition that affects one in nine women. So therefore I think it is something that's important to highlight. Um, but with other, you know, things like, I, I have a pretty big rule where I actually don't share much of my family. So I think having those boundaries around social media as an educator is really, really important.

Stephanie Eslake (20:47):
Now you've been operating in this industry since before social media. And I know that sounds like a really olden days thing to say. It does say it really does, but I'd like you to tell me how your career started because you have been in music for a few decades and you started singing when you were a child. Your dad was a music teacher as well.

Hannah May (21:06):
Yeah. So my dad was a music teacher and he was for a good 20 something years. And I, I was surrounded by music growing up. My mom played the recorder, all the misery stick. It was as it was known. <laugh>

Stephanie Eslake (21:20):
My teachers as well as students and parents

Hannah May (21:22):
<laugh> yes, yes.

Stephanie Eslake (21:24):
We love a bit of recorder though.

Hannah May (21:25):
Oh, she played beautiful one though. It was like a Blackwood.

Stephanie Eslake (21:29):
Oh nice. Yeah. Like not one of those plastic

Hannah May (21:31):
Ones from high school yet, not a plastic <laugh> it was beautiful. And my dad was a guitarist, so there was always music in the house and it was very much encouraged that we would have music lessons, even though we were in a big family. And so money was, you know, wasn't exactly everywhere, but music lessons were essential. So I had piano lessons and a few singing lessons. I joined a choir though when I was seven years old, Australian Wilson children's choir. And then I joined a number of other choirs as well. So in total, I think I was in about 12 different choirs, 12 choirs. Yeah. I counted them up like a couple of years ago and went, oh wow. I was in all these choirs. I was also in like ABC giving tree choir and the honor choir for the festival voices. And um, whenever there was a project with a choir involved, I would definitely <laugh> have been in it. You loved

Stephanie Eslake (22:20):
Carl singing.

Hannah May (22:21):
I loved it. And I, I didn't just love it for the singing, but the, for the social aspect, I think as well and the community and, and also the music that we did, every choir that I was in, I think there was always really, really good music. Yeah. I think music's always been a part of my life in some shape or form. And my siblings also learnt to play piano and, and singing guitar drums. And so it was, yeah, it was never kind of pushed on me that I was going to go into music, but I do remember at 14 years old writing in my journal, I was going to definitely study at the Conservatorium of music. And that was my, you know, my dream to do that. Mm. And it's, it's so interesting that I, you know, I didn't end up in, in teaching classroom music and I definitely don't think I would ever really want to do that. I'm a bit of an introvert. <laugh> ironically being a performer and a teacher, but there you go. And I, I just much prefer teaching one on one or small groups. So I do a small group and it's just yeah. Magical working with four or six singers. Mm.

Stephanie Eslake (23:27):
How do you grapple with that introversion when you are performing live?

Hannah May (23:31):
It's, it's funny when you are performing. I feel like I kind of step into this more extroverted version of myself, but I also, I'm very aware of my energy levels. And so, you know, I did a performance a couple of weeks ago, you know, halfway through the gig. I actually didn't go and talk to people. I went out the back, I did some vocal exercises with my little straw <laugh> and I just had some relaxed chill time. And then I went out and, you know, did speak to a few people, but I ask questions and cuz people ask you questions.

Stephanie Eslake (24:08):
I bet they know all about you. You're

Hannah May (24:10):
The one on the stage. Yeah, they do. And, and so what I've learned is just to flip that and go, why are you here? Who are you? And I actually found like these people that were sitting right next to me told me that they were actually having piano lessons and double bass lessons. And, you know, it was just great. It was like, oh my gosh, you're actually not just here to hear me play, but you are actually learning an instrument and you wanna be inspired. And I think that was, yeah, that was a beautiful conversation. But it was because I just asked lots of questions and I didn't yeah. Didn't talk too much, which I think helps <laugh> yeah. With energy.

Stephanie Eslake (24:41):
Yeah. I feel like having that sort of beautiful conversation ties into the way that your music, as we've talked about is so much about story. I feel like that must yeah. Make you happy and sort of fuel that relationship you can have with your audience through your storytelling songs.

Hannah May (24:55):
It does. It does. And I think as you mature as an artist as well, you learn ways to, to manage and to work with that part of who you are. So in some ways I feel like I have got this balance within what I'm doing. Smiles have laughters of

Speaker 4 (25:15):

Stephanie Eslake (25:25):
So coming out of these sorts of perspectives from your life, spanning the, the Tasmanian music industry and working in it for so many years, how has the industry actually changed for performers since you first started?

Hannah May (25:38):
I think it's changed a lot. I mean, Hobart has always been from what I've seen a really creative and supportive space for music. I think one thing I've particularly noticed in the last maybe five to, you know, 10 years is that there are well from what I've seen anyway, more female musicians performing regularly. And that's really exciting. Like I, I remember in 2007, 2008, when I was doing a lot of the pub scene and, you know, it was, it was very, very male dominated. And again, nothing against my male musician colleagues, like they're amazing. And it is a hard, hard life being a musician, but you can be lonely when you, you can't see other people doing what you are doing of you know, of your gender. And so I think when I saw, you know, this change in this growth, particularly in the last couple of years, I, I got really excited and I thought this F this is amazing. Music is not just for musicians. And it's not just for those people who like music. It is, it is part of culture. And it brings so many things together

Stephanie Eslake (26:47):
With those sorts of really positive changes as you've described them. What would you like to see for the future of the industry, especially in a post pandemic world and one that hopefully continues to value live music and the arts and, and women making music.

Hannah May (27:02):
Gosh, that's a big question. I think with Hobart in particular, we need to obviously keep those venues open and supporting those musicians. We have, you know, larger organizations that do provide, you know, spaces for performances, such as Mona, but these small communities like Providence cafe, where I played up in north Hobart are just beautiful. They're actually allowing this space for people who are writing their own music, you know, and I did a gig and I was able to play two sets of my own material and people listened and clapped and enjoyed it. And I got feedback and we need more of that. I think these little venues are honestly where it's at. Great big spaces are fantastic too. I think we've got some really good spaces in Hobart. Like the Ogan as well is beautiful for performances from an international and interstate acts, but building up those musicians and creating spaces for them to, to learn as well. Because I think as a musician, you are always learning and having master classes and professional development has certainly been a key element in my development as a musician and as an educator. And I would like to myself provide that through my teachings that I do, but also see that done by other artists and also other educators here in Hobart.

Stephanie Eslake (28:25):
Mm. Thank you, Hannah. I'm going to let you go now, but before I do, do you have anything else that you'd like to share with music Tasmania listeners, whether that's a message to emerging singer songwriters or to audiences who might be trying to find, or to listen to music that comes from our island?

Hannah May (28:42):
Oh, that is such a beautiful way to end the conversation. Thank you so much for having me Steph. Oh, thank you. And this has just been great and I, I thank music Taaz for creating this platform to us, um, to share and to speak about these topics that are really close to, obviously my heart and I know to many others as well. I'm really thankful that we have such a beautiful, supportive community in Hobart. And I think the more that we can do that, the better, the more we can connect and, you know, bring each other into, um, community and projects and, and all those kinds of things. The more likely we are to obviously thrive and, and feel that support. I know that we are valid and what we are doing is contributing to the greater good of our world, you know? So yeah, I, I think that's, that's what I'd love to share and that the way that you, you know, support music in Hobart is vital. You know, whether it's going to gigs or buying a CD. I know we, we still have some of those and, you know, streaming music and yeah. Just messaging people, even, you know, like I've had some beautiful messages from people over the years. Who've just given me so much inspiration and support to know that I'm on the right path.

Stephanie Eslake (29:55):

Thank you, Hannah. 

Music Tasmania acknowledges Tasmanian Aboriginal people as the traditional owners of this island, lutruwita (Tasmania). We pay our respects to elders past and present and acknowledge traditional peoples' connection to country. We respect the traditions and customs of the Aboriginal people of lutruwita, who remain the custodians of these lands.