CSO Mixtape: Music and connection

[blockquote author=”Rachel Thomas, CEO”]

Creativity allows us to solve problems with a spirit of courage and adventure.
It’s what makes us human.

This mixtape takes you through some of my musical memories and musings on how music gives us insight into ourselves and connects us to each other.


Portrait of Rachel Thomas
Rachel Thomas, CEO (Image: Martin Ollman)

Rachel Thomas is an arts executive with a passion for delivering innovative, high quality arts experiences that resonate across the Canberra community.

Rachel vividly recalls attending a Queensland Symphony Orchestra performance as a young cellist, an experience that inspired a great love of and appreciation for music. She went on to study a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, which led eventually to a relationship with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) as a designer.

Some fifteen years on, Rachel was appointed permanent CEO of the CSO in May 2019, after acting previously in the role. Her long tenure has given her deep insight into the organisation’s artistic and community impact. In particular, she has joyfully witnessed the positive impact of music on health and wellbeing and its ability to bring people together.

Rachel has extensive experience as a communications and design professional, in both government and non-profit environments. With expertise in project management and creative direction, Rachel approaches her work with a collaborative, solutions-focused perspective. 



I grew up with a lot of Bach. I reckon I heard the Swingle Singers when I was about 12. It blew my mind to think that ‘old fashioned music’ could be reimagined in this way. I often boogie with Bach as a result!

As a youth orchestra cellist, the Brandenburg Concerto felt to me like playing ‘real’ orchestral music, while singing Vivaldi’s Gloria in a music camp choir gave me a sense of confidence and achievement.

From a young age, I was mesmerised by the extraordinary coordination and rhythm of my percussionist peers. I found myself gravitating towards a range of music characterised by joyous rhythms and resolve – The Wiseguys, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Nat King Cole, The Neville Brothers, Etta James, The Clash, Yazoo.


My husband Richard has a gift for sharing the right music at the right time with others. He likes to remind me of how I had a Chris Isaak album in the CD player of my Barina when we met. While we were getting to know each other, Richard gave me a selection of CDs for my car. Bill Frisell’s Gimme a Holler is one of the songs I remember fondly and recall easily as a ‘falling in love’ song.

When we got married, Bach’s Organ Concerto in G major was the piece played as our recessional on the pipe organ at Duntroon Chapel.

When our firstborn came along, I was listening to The Idea of North quite a bit. Their rendition of Isn’t She Lovely felt appropriate in all respects, except that we’d had a son!

You’d be surprised at how many times during winter a child will ask where their jumper is. The catchy line in Where’s Me Jumper? is usually the response! The kids and I never really knew why we were running around repeating this line as we searched for the jumper until my husband played us the song it was in reference to.

It’s alright to say things can only get better, you haven’t lost your brand new sweater

Richard and I saw Ron Sexmith many years ago at Tilley’s – an intimate and memorable concert. I enjoy many of his songs; Gold in Them Hills reminds me of my mum.

Another memorable concert I enjoyed as an audience member was an a capella performance of Rajaton at the Fitters’ Workshop, part of the Canberra International Music Festival. The acoustic for these singers was spot on. It was just one of those concerts where the audience and the performers had a special connection.


The CSO’s 2012 performance of Peter Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry was incredibly memorable for me. I looked forward to it from the moment it was announced. Hearing this music in a concert hall was unusual for that time; I commend Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Nicholas Milton for his visionary programming of Australian music.

Another performance I eagerly looked forward to was Carl Vine’s Percussion Symphony. This powerful Australian work was programmed for the CSO’s opening 2020 Llewellyn Series concert. The introduction of COVID-19 restrictions in the ACT saw the program condensed and recorded without an audience at short notice. I’m so proud of how the orchestra was able to deliver a performance under these conditions. However, it was heartbreaking to lose the opportunity to perform this particular piece, which was to feature our gifted percussionists.

Over the last few years, I’ve enjoyed getting to know the CSO’s Australian Series curator, Matthew Hindson. Matthew has such insight into the process of composing music and why it’s important to champion Australian voices. His piece Nothing is forever is a favourite of mine on the The Hush Foundation’s Collective Wisdom album, recorded by the ACO Collective. I often turn to this album for its uplifting positivity.


I’ve included Nightswimming by R.E.M., a reverie which seems to ponder a time gone but not forgotten, and the Pet Shop Boys’ social commentary West End Girls. Both are evocative and speak to me of contrasts – the invigorating moments of youth alongside the routine of everyday life; the impact of disparities in opportunity on a person’s path in life.

I’m always moved by Emmylou Harris’ hauntingly beautiful Wrecking Ball. I don’t always have the emotional strength to listen to it without crumbling in a heaving mess!

I love the balance of Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, gentle and meandering.


What’s your most treasured childhood memory related to music?

My most treasured music memory is my mum singing to me at bedtime, from a book which had beautiful illustrations, words and music notation. As she sang, she pointed to the notes so I could follow.

All things bright and beautiful delighted me, and I loved the picture of the red breasted Robin twirled around the music score. I liked the words too: I found comfort in understanding that we are all important, a philosophy which guides me to this day.

What does creativity mean to you? Is everyone creative?

Creativity allows us to solve problems with a spirit of courage and adventure. Sometimes it’s hard to open up that part of yourself, and it can leave you vulnerable at times. I think everyone is creative but not always comfortable exposing that part of themselves. Creativity is what makes us human.

Name three places in Canberra that hold some significance for you.

Definitely Government House: I’ve been to every Prom concert for the last 16 years, and have many photos of my kids as babies and toddlers enjoying the beautiful grounds.

My family lived in Duntroon, in one of the interesting old houses there. I really enjoyed that time. I’d hear the band practice on the parade ground, or the bagpiper practice on an oval. I’d watch marching drills and attend dawn ANZAC day services with Dad followed by a gunfire breakfast.

While technically in Queanbeyan, Mount Jerrabomberra holds much significance for me. I walked up and down the mountain a few times a week for many years and witnessed many amazing sunrises.

What do you appreciate most about the local arts scene in Canberra?

Canberra is in a wonderful phase of its story, where many who live here embrace this city rather than leaving it for other opportunities. I treasure our artists for their unique perspective and locally grounded approach.

For what in life do you feel most grateful?

There have been a number of significant people throughout my life who’ve taken the time to teach and mentor me. I’m very grateful for this – and also a good cup of tea.

Name something meaningful you’ve received as a gift – what made it special?

Perhaps a predictable answer, but I just love the gifts my kids have made over the years. As they get older, each drawing or note takes on meaning because you get less of them. My daughter recently knitted me a beanie which I love, that was pretty special.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the past year?

Besides the art of exceptional hand hygiene? To listen to my instincts—they count for a lot!

Related Articles

Skip to content