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Clarity and conversations: Art Music Fund tips from 2017 recipient Lisa Cheney

Tip Published Wednesday 13 December 2017
2017 Art Music Fund recipient Lisa Cheney (L) and Little Black Dress Creatives' Alicia Cush (R)

If you are considering applying for the 2018 Art Music Fund but are oscillating between "yes, I just need to be a little more organised" and "no, I'm afraid I'm not ready," we have some invaluable insights from 2017 Art Music Fund recipient Lisa Cheney on preparing a successful application. Lisa called the Art Music Fund her "first real serious attempt at a big grant," with the money funding her composer fee for Little Black Dress Creatives' upcoming children's opera production of The Owl & the Pussycat.

Lisa and Little Black Dress' Creative Producer Alicia Cush discussed the application process. The key to a successful grant application? For them it was: clarity of project, conversations with supporters, and asking APRA AMCOS Art Music Specialist Cameron Lam plenty of questions. Composers, you got this!

At what point in the timeline did Lisa become involved as composer?

ALICIA: Little Black Dress Creatives (Alicia and production company partner/theatre designer Penny Challen) conceived the idea about two years ago, I first spoke to Lisa about the kernel of the idea a year and a half ago. I knew she was the right compositional voice for what we wanted to achieve.

How developed was the project at that point – in terms of timeline and incorporating a composer?

ALICIA: It was my and Penny's idea together and we actually fleshed out a lot of what it would be, for example - how many characters we thought would be in the show, how many musicians were needed, and all of it was based on a want for this work to be a touring work. We wanted it to have a long life - having artistic vision but then having a producer’s hat on too right from the beginning of the creative process to make sure that it was viable and that it really would continue on.

Were you aware of the Art Music Fund?

ALICIA: I was very unaware of the Art Music Fund and was delightfully surprised when Lisa mentioned it. I had already pitched the work at a work-in-development showcase and I had a very small amount of funding as well as some Brisbane council funding in process. And then when Lisa mentioned the Art Music Fund, I thought it was the perfect match to this project.

As the composer applying for the Art Music Fund, did you have many questions during the application process or was it pretty straightforward?

LISA: I did have a lot of questions. Cameron Lam was incredibly helpful. By this point we had been talking about the opera for awhile and I was committed to doing it regardless and we were going to sort out of the details in terms of getting paid or not getting paid.

It was really helpful to call Cam and talk about whether, firstly, if the project was relevant. And, also what it was in particular that the Art Music panel really wanted to see the money go to, and it became clear it was about creating work and not about staging work, and that making sure this work had a really well-thought out plan for the future and a long life plan. It had to be really thought through and couldn't be written and then put on a shelf, and there was a lot of things in play to ensure this was going to reach a wide audience and a wide cross-section of the community as possible.

In the application process, were you juggling waiting for feedback from other funding sources or potential presenters?

LISA: This was my first real serious attempt at a big grant like this, and Alicia was an amazing help in teaching me at what it took to put together a really strong application: the learning factor alone of how long it takes, how much effort goes into that grant process, and having really strong and clear support letters from respected sources who could speak to your composing abilities and could speak to saying that the work would have a long life - that there was life for it outside of just it's premiere run.

I look back at the application and I feel really proud about all of the work and the wonderful conversations that took place to form such a strong future for the work. Everything is set up that it should be really successful.

Do you have any tips for other first-time applicants or early-in-their career composers?


  1. Start early.
  2. Talk to close friends and collaborators about the project (duration, musicians, post-composition life) and get feedback and advice. Scanning your networks to see what possible contacts might be there to strengthen the life of the composition.
  3. When a composer is in isolated tunnel vision compose stage, we can forget that we need to have the conversations to say “Hey, I’m pretty sure I’m going to do something great…let’s have a chat.” Connecting outside of the composer realm can be really helpful to the viability of the project.

ALICIA: My #1 tip is get out early and talk about it. Don’t worry if you don’t have it 100% finished. I think as an artist it can be counter-intuitive. You want to keep it a secret, and I think maybe that is the #1 mistake that artists make. They want to make it perfect and then expose it. You can’t get support without an idea first and shopping it around, and getting people to fall in love with it.

Was budgeting a daunting part of the application?

LISA: It was fairly simple in that it is pretty clear the Art Music award is a commission fee to write music. But it was very helpful to have conversations with people in the industry. I am currently doing a PhD at the University of Melbourne and I had a long chat with my composition adviser Katy Abbott about commission fees and trying to ascertain industry rates which are quite subjective.

I spoke to more established composers that I really respected and asked them about their experience of sitting on panels and what made a good application. I had a really good tip from (2016 Art Music Fund recipient and 2017 Art Music Award winner) Liza Lim: to make sure I wasn’t afraid to speak about what the music would sound like and not sound like. It was OK to reference existing music works to give context.

How integral was the Art Music Fund to the overall project coming to fruition?

ALICIA: It's immensely integral, purely form a financial point of view, to have something that just focuses on the creation. It is still hard in this funding environment to find grants, to find funding for creative development. To find something that is just focused on the art is amazing. And then being able to add that credit to all of our other applications gives leverage that we have such a respected name in APRA AMCOS and such a prestigious award for Lisa, it really gives gravitas to the show.

Do you keep in mind the acquittal process or will you come back to it when it is out in the world?

LISA: I’m not concerned about the acquittal process, because with all the targets and timelines and the future iterations of the work – they weren’t made up for the application. They were well-researched. This work should, in all forms, have another life and reach a lot of people.

What’s next for the Owl & The Pussycat?

ALICIA: Its premiere is embargoed at the moment, but it will be at an April 2018 cultural festival. It will be performed in Gold Coast, Brisbane, Gladstone and Cairns in 2018. And then a state tour of Queensland in 2019, to start with.

LISA: It’s so lovely to be a composer on a project and just to be a composer, and not musical director, conductor, etc. And I’m so lucky that this work will also be part of my PhD.

Did you know when you were applying if you could incorporate the funded work into your PhD?

LISA: That was a question I asked in the beginning – if I could create a work that had two potential functions. And for this, that was fine for this case. It was helpful given the connection with the university to have mentors - that maybe gave the panel a little bit security in giving an emerging voice a chance at something big.

Questions? Contact Cameron Lam, APRA AMCOS Art Music Specialist: [email protected]
General queries to: 1800 642 634