What am I doing with my life?

The question all music majors ask themselves at some point. It is a career path with such uncertainty and no one knows where they’ll be in 5 years. While you’re in school, you are subject to so much criticism (albeit constructive), but it’s normal to fell like you suck. Today, I had somewhat of a quasi mental breakdown.

With grad school auditions coming up, I often worry if I will be good enough. I question every thing I have ever done in my life and find myself being concerned with “If I did this one thing differently, everything would be better”. I think about my time when I was in high school and growing up in my hometown. If you’ve read any previous entries in this blog, you’ll know that I have always felt like I got the short end of the stick. I had to watch other people constantly win competitions, even when they didn’t necessarily deserve it. I felt like the classical music version of Leonardo DiCaprio (that awkward moment if you’re reading this entry in the future and he actually won an Oscar). I always had this thought in the back of my mind that I would have a chance of winning these competitions as the people who were older than me graduated and moved away. It turns out the people younger than me took over. I remember very distinctly at the place I took my music lessons at had an awards ceremony at the end of the year where they handed out various scholarships/medals to hard-working students. They had this very prestigious award (or at least that was what I thought it was) that was called the Director’s gold medal or something. Basically, you get your name added to the plaque on the wall and everyone thinks you’re the greatest person on earth. Naturally, I wanted this award more than anything. The things they looked for were attendance and preparation in lessons, a high level of performance, and participation in recitals. I went out of my way to make sure I excelled in those areas. In grade 11, I was up every morning at 6am to squeeze in an extra hour of practice before school. I performed in 5 or 6 recitals that year too. I didn’t get selected and I was initially quite upset because that was the year I wanted it so I could put it on my resume for university applications. I eventually got over it and focused on trying to get it for grade 12. You know what happens next though. I did not receive this award in grade 12. I was just as consistent with my preparation for lessons and work ethic, yet it was not noticed. I felt like all that work was for “nothing”. The part that made it a huge slap in the face was that they had given it to someone who was a year younger than me, had won it in the past, and wasn’t planning to go into music. I was convinced that there were people from my hometown that were just closed-minded and didn’t think I had the potential to succeed in a career in music so they all conspired to make sure that I never won any competitions or awards.

When I did go away to pursue music, I forgot about a lot of this stuff and didn’t let it bother me. At the same time, it was still in the back of my mind. I was convinced that so and so was out there rooting for me to fail and drop out of music. It almost gave me this sense that I needed to prove that I was good enough and that I was doing well. After first year I entered the music festival in my hometown. There were a lot of university kids who had the same idea though, so I didn’t really win anything. It wasn’t as embarrassing though because these people were already older and better than me and it would have taken a miracle for me to play better than them. After my second year, I entered in the same festival again. It turned out that I was the oldest competitor this time so while I tried not to let it get to my head, I thought that I might have a better chance. I did win some of the competitions that I’d entered in for years, but it wasn’t really a satisfying win, it was more or less just expected given I was the oldest, most qualified, and musical candidate. There were a couple times I lost to the “superstar little kids” who were still in high school at the time. Needless to say it was slightly embarrassing, as a music major, to lose to people who were still in high school. I got selected to the provincial festival and got beaten out by a cellist who was a 3rd year engineering student. Whaaaat? That was the last year I did the music festival in my hometown and I can’t see myself doing it ever again in my life.

If you have read anything on this blog before, you know that I’m not exactly having more success at my school currently with respect to competitions. I know competitions aren’t everything, but I still can’t help but wonder what I’ve been doing wrong all these years. Yes, intonation is probably my biggest struggle, but it can’t be the only thing. It’s not my instrument choice either, I’ve watched other violists and other “underdog” instruments like guitar or bassoon win competitions. I would totally be best buds with Leo DiCaprio at this rate, except he has a better chance of winning an Oscar than I do of winning a competition. I’ve given up on entering competitions at my school too. There’s a scholarship competition in January coming up soon and I’m just like f*ck it. I will be out of town for the final round anyway so if I did enter, although no matter how well I play I wouldn’t make it to the finals, I’d still feel like I have to go out of my way to slough it off which isn’t worth it. I’m tired of feeling like a worthless piece of sh!t as this is not conducive to my 4th year recital and grad school auditions coming up. Competitions make me feel like sh!t, when I don’t enter them, I’m fine.

It does concern me on a larger scale though. The two cities I’ve lived in are relatively small centres in Canada as a whole. It’s really not hard to stand out, but somehow I am unsuccessful at that. My concern is that if I can’t even get recognized for a silly thing like the director’s gold medal or the university concerto competition, how am I going to make it on the national and international level? There is no “better luck next time” or “keep up the good work” in the real world. I can only be unsuccessful at so many auditions before I have to give up and find a career outside music. I can’t continue this 10+ year “dry spell” that I’ve been having much longer. I need to start standing out and achieving things. I worry that because I don’t have the skills to stand out in small schools/cities that I will not stand out in grad school auditions either. There will be students from all over the country and possibly internationally as well that are competing against me. I may be good enough for my small school (who isn’t, let’s be real) but I’m applying to the big schools in Canada and they may not have so much tolerance for my sh!t. One out of tune note and I’m gone. I’m taking a huge risk too, if I don’t get accepted into one of the three schools I’m applying to, I have to wait a whole year to try again. I should have applied to the school I go to currently for master’s as a backup, but I’m not that desperate to do a master’s that I would attend my school for another 2 years. I’ve had enough of this place. I guess if I don’t get into a master’s I’m not going through all this application and audition sh!t again so that’s the end of the road for my music career. To recap, if I f*ck up with my auditions, I’m potentially screwing up my whole life. No pressure.

But the problem is I have mental breakdowns like these, then I’ll turn around and have the most successful practice session. Now I’m back to feeling confident and motivated about my auditions. Why can’t I make up my mind and just be confident or just be depressed? I figured out this section that I was really struggling with in one of my pieces. I rehearsed with the pianist and had a coaching with my teacher and it just was not a good time at all, but I fixed it! I really fixed it! I guess the important thing to remember is you always accomplish things, even if they seem futile or mundane to others or yourself. I just sometimes have to ignore all these people out there and winning competitions and focus on my little successes of figuring out a tricky rhythm. The grass isn’t greener on the other side either. For example, I always liked the idea of winning the concerto competition in 3rd year so I could play with the orchestra in 4th year and it would be like a nice “send-off” or “grad gift”. Now that I’m in 4th year, I’m incredibly thankful I’m not preparing a concerto to play with the orchestra on top of all my grad school and recital sh*t! I’m in way over my head with the stuff I have to do, I couldn’t imagine doing much more at the moment!

I’m just keeping my eyes on the prize. Things are so stressful right now with my grad school auditions around the corner. Before I leave, I’m doing my 4th year recital! It’s pretty insane! But I know that in March, I will be so thankful I got all of that done and I can just enjoy the last 2 months of my undergrad. I can learn any pieces I want, do some more chamber music stuff, and just relax. And then this summer, I’m going to learn how to take a real break. I only applied to 3 programs, which are 2-3 weeks (no longer than a month). I will only do whichever ones I get accepted to basically. Then, I can do whatever I want with no specific purpose. And then grad school (if I make it) starts. Yay me!

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Still mad about the concerto competition

This past week has been a very rough week for  me. I don’t think it’s the concerto competition alone that’s caused that kind of stress, but it is a contributor.

On Tuesday, I mentioned in my previous post that I had a class with one of the profs on the panel. Yeah, I ended up skipping that class and lying in bed the whole day. I’ve seen the prof since then and he didn’t bring up the competition or anything, but I still get a sense that he knows the real reason why I wasn’t in class. I won’t bring it up if he doesn’t. I felt a bit guilty for doing nothing that day so I went to the school later that night to practice. It was going alright at first and then I just broke down crying and had to leave.

On Wednesday I knew I just needed to go somewhere that wasn’t school. I don’t have any classes on Wednesday until orchestra later in the afternoon so I went to the mall. I had some ice cream, bought some tea, checked out some stores and bused back to school for orchestra. It was refreshing, but only temporary.

Last night was the final round of the competition. I always feel obligated to attend as I entered the competition and I should support my peers yadda yadda. I don’t want people to think that by my absence I’m acting out or being bitter that I wasn’t chosen for the finals. At the same time, I still felt stressed out and bothered (by grad school applications as well, not the competition alone) and they always say, you have to take care of yourself before you can support others. I decided a reasonable compromise would be to show up fashionably late and catch most of the performances and of course, the big reveal.

I’ll be honest I was not pleased by the level of playing at the final round at all really. I’ve attended final rounds for these competitions in the past, and there have been better competitors selected. I’m not trying to say that I would have been a more qualified candidate, but I was somewhat displeased by the results.

They chose that singer and a cellist to play with the orchestra next year and a french horn and a saxophone to play with the wind ensemble. The only person that really had a stellar performance and legitimately deserved it was the singer, ironically enough she was the person I was originally most upset about being in the final. The cellist had a lot of intonation, note accuracy, and projection issues. If he can’t even play with confidence with a piano, then he will struggle with an orchestra. The saxophonist had a lot of confidence and musicality, but it was very messy. I get the piece was crazy hard, but you shouldn’t win a competition just because you played a crazy hard piece and lived to tell the tale. I’ve seen that happen too many times in my lifetime and it’s frustrating as hell. The French horn player actually played really well. There were some notes that he missed, but I mean that’s hard as a young French horn player. Everything else about his performance (confidence, musicality, etc.) was right on. I don’t know what to think. I feel like the panel almost chose people based on the pieces they were playing or how old they were or other arbitrary criteria that should have no relevance in a competition.

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone after all, but I guess I would have heard the results regardless. It’s not a secret at a small faculty like mine. People who weren’t at the competition will idolize the winners like they’re the greatest people on earth. The people who didn’t win are losers. I have no place in the faculty because I’m just some idiot violist. This is why I hate competitions.

It makes me wonder, what’s wrong with me? I’m not saying this to be cocky, but I know that I play at the level to be winning competitions like these. I’m not saying that I could have played better than any of the competitors, but I do play at that level. I’ve had experiences and done very prestigious summer programs that a lot of people at my school have never had, yet I’m still not good enough to win a silly competition at my school. I really don’t get it sometimes. Like, the summer program I’ve done the past two years, I was selected from a national pool. Some people work for many years to be selected for that program just once, and I was one of five from my school. Here I am, being recognized nationally, yet my own school doesn’t give a sh!t about me. Real nice.

I always thought that my lack of success at winning competitions was due to the closed-mindedness of the people from my hometown. There was basically a group of 2 or 3 people that would win every competition and rotate depending who played better that night. If you’re not one of those 2 or 3 people, you’re SOL, no matter how hard you worked. I used to think that if I worked really hard, I could win a competition, but nope. It’s not that simple. I wasn’t one of the elites. I thought when I went away for school, things would be different. Boy was I wrong. The common denominator is me. No matter which city I live in, no one will appreciate me for whatever arbitrary reasons there may be.

Why do I do this to myself?

Oh yes, here I am again. It’s sad that this blog has become more of a space to rant about recent events, but it really does help me to put my thoughts, irrational as they may be, into words. I haven’t really had time to do legitimate blog posts lately and I don’t know when I will ever have that time, but I digress.

I’ve made posts like this one before. I could call this post “My beef with Concerto Competitions Part 3” but I won’t.  If you need some background, feel free to read my previous posts. If not, I totally understand.

Part 1: https://confessionsofaviolist.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/my-beef-with-concerto-competitions-part-1/
Part 2: https://confessionsofaviolist.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/my-beef-with-concerto-competitions-part-2/

So, assuming you read or skimmed the posts linked above , you’re probably wondering, “Why would you enter another concerto competition after experiences like those?” My response is I don’t even know. You think that I would learn that I suck and will never get better. But no, there is part of me that just won’t give up and insists on putting myself out there to be shot down. But I guess that’s life.

To be fair, I wasn’t originally planning to even enter the concerto competition this year. I figured if I didn’t win in fourth year that it was a lost cause. There’s always a prejudice against fourth years in the competition as many of them go away for grad school and the school would never pay to fly someone in to play a concerto. No reason why they couldn’t pick a fourth year, but the plane ticket would be on them. I need to learn two movements of a concerto for grad school auditions, so it just seemed like a convenient way to get a run through of it and make sure the first movement was learned by November. I entered mostly just as an excuse to practice and get going on my concerto. I was dragging my heels most of September so I worked hard to learn the first movement in basically one month.

I went in to the competition knowing my mistakes from previous years and said that I would not get hurt regardless of what happened. I was just going to go in, play my movement, then focus on other rep. It wasn’t until I had the first rehearsal with my pianist that kind of changed things. I sounded like crap the first rehearsal, but that’s normal. It’s always a bit of an adjustment when you put it together with piano. Despite that, my pianist was quite impressed. She said the piece was really cool and that I’d have potential to win the competition based on the piece. She said I have the musicality and everything. I hate it when people say stuff like this to me because when I don’t win then I just feel like even more of a loser. All of a sudden I have expectations to live up to.

Obviously you can’t let stuff like that get to your head. I did, a little bit, it’s hard not to frankly. It wasn’t in an extreme way. I still practiced the piece and prepared just as I would for any performance. I didn’t do anything special and tried not to think about it too much.

Honestly, looking back, I don’t know where my pianist/myself got the idea that it would be possible to make it to the final round. I picked out the piece and had the music since May, but I didn’t really get down to serious work on it until very late September and October. I was competing against people who had been working on their pieces much longer than that. I didn’t play poorly, but ultimately it didn’t have the same maturity as it would if I had been working on it longer.

So, basically, you know the drill. I go in, play, mess up a bunch of stuff and play horridly out of tune, try to convince myself that it wasn’t a total disaster, and then see the list of the people who were selected to move on and now it’s the end of the world as we know it. I saw the list of the people who made it to the final round and was once again, unimpressed and all like “Why that person and not me?” They picked a guitarist for the final round. Guitar is even more of an underdog instrument for a competition like this than viola. If a guitarist can get in, why can’t I? Also a freaking soprano got in. It’s a CONCERTO competition, f*** off singers!!

It’s just generally an awkward situation. Part of me is like, I only intended to enter as a way of getting a run through of my piece and I got just that. The other part of me was hoping (as I do every single f***ing competition) that this time would be different. Maybe this would be the time that someone recognizes my hard work. But of course not, why would anyone care what I do or how hard I work? I’m just a violist. I also have been forced to let go of having the opportunity to play with an orchestra. I’ll never get to have that experience. I don’t really care about that anymore, but still it’s hard to accept, being something that I’ve wanted for so many years.

Why do I keep entering competitions? Good question. You’d think I would have given up years ago. I wish I did, then I wouldn’t feel like I suck every day of my life. People always say it’s a good experience and prepares you for orchestral auditions. I would almost disagree. When I’m auditioning for an orchestral position, I don’t have to worry about freaking pianists, violinists, and flutists taking my spot. I only have to compete against other violists. Entering these competitions is a waste of time, as I will never win no matter how hard I work or how optimistic I try to feel. At the same time, the fact that I am still in music and still entering competitions after losing so many is miraculous. I like to think that I have the mental fortitude and thick skin to keep going in a career of music. I have never been one of those people were everything was easy and I effortlessly won everything and everyone was in love with me. No, I slave away for hours and no one gives a sh*t! As much as I’d love for one shiny moment to be that person that everyone’s proud of and does all these amazing things, I think it’s more valuable to be the person who works hard and slaves away and no one seems to care. Because guess what, that’s life!

Okay, I actually need to go to bed. I have class tomorrow morning, with one of the profs that was on the panel which I’m super tempted to skip because he probably hates me and I feel like I really just need a day away from school. I don’t care if that makes me sound like a brat.

My beef with concerto competitions part 2

Part 1: https://confessionsofaviolist.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/my-beef-with-concerto-competitions-part-1/

When I started my first year of undergrad, I knew that I was not ready to enter in the concerto competition, or any other competition for that matter. It was too soon after my experience described in part 1. I needed to rebuild my confidence and the best way to do that was to not perform in competitions. I focused my attention more toward performing in student recitals and practicing to build up my technique. I’ve always found recitals to be a confidence booster because no one that matters is judging you or comparing you to others. People will come hear you to genuinely support you and your performance was appreciated.

In my second year of undergrad, I decided to be brave and go for the concerto competition. I figured I’d regained my footing from my experience in high school and I could get back in the game. I had started working on  the Hindemith Der Schwanendreher over the summer and the competition was in November. The competition was a great way for me to get focused and motivated at the beginning of the year to get the first movement learned and memorized. I played at the competition and I thought that I actually played quite well given that I’d only really been working on the piece for about 6 months.

I never expected to be selected for the final round yet when they posted the results of the competition on Monday, but for some reason not seeing my name on that list still felt like a slap on the face. It was like the universe reminding me that I have no place to be entering a concerto competition as a violist. It seemed like all the string players that had entered were chosen for the final round except for me. That darn violinist that I complain about all the time was of course selected too. I was quite annoyed that a first year had been selected instead of me, especially given that I didn’t enter that competition in my first year. I tried not to let on to the rest of the music faculty that I was upset as everyone always cares so much about the competitions and who gets chosen and blah blah.

One of my fellow violists asked me how it went when I played for the preliminary round and I said something like “I thought I played very well, but I didn’t end up getting selected to the final round”. What she responded with bothered me even more, “Oh well, you’re a violist, don’t worry about it.” She didn’t mean anything by it and she was only trying to be friendly, but that comment bothered me and still bothers me to this day. Was she insinuating that I’m not good enough? That I shouldn’t enter competitions? That I’m one of those “who does she think she is” people? Regardless of what was meant by the comment, what shocked me the most is that it came from a violist. I’ve heard similar comments being made by other violists too since then. Being a lesser common instrument and being cast as the “inferior” instrument, I always felt a special sense of camaraderie between violists that you don’t see within any other instrument. Violinists, pianists, and flutists hate each other as they’re so competitive with each other (yes, stereotyping, but it’s generally true). That’s one of the main aspects that drew me toward the viola. It just hurts a little to see that we make comments like that to each other. Yes, viola is not a competition winning instrument and most violists make a career as a teacher, professor, or orchestral/chamber musician, but that does not mean that we can’t enter competitions or put on solo recitals if we want to. It just breaks my heart a bit that violists would discourage other violists for entering competitions or justify a loss by saying “It’s because I’m a violist”. In a competition, it’s about who plays with the best technique and musicality, not about what instrument they play.

When third year came along, I figured my best plan of action was to play Der Schwanendreher again. I hadn’t learned a new concerto that summer. I thought that if I played the same piece again with better intonation, overall accuracy, musicality, and all that fun stuff that I would have a chance at the final round. I gave the piece a rest over the summer and brought it back in mid-August and found that I had so much more to bring to it, both technically and musically. I had a breakthrough in working on intonation and other technical issues I’d been battling for years. I also found I was practicing a lot more than in did in first and second year. In the weeks leading up to the competition, I was easily practicing 4+ hours a day on just the Hindemith, not including my other rep. I was incredibly determined.

When I played at the preliminary round, it didn’t go as well as I wanted it to and I was quite bothered. I had played it much better at a student recital only a few weeks before. If only I could have copied and pasted that performance into the concerto competition. I tried not to worry about it over the weekend, perhaps maybe my performance wasn’t as bad as I thought it was and that I was just being hard on myself. When the results came on Monday, it was once again a slap on the face. My name was not on the list and this time it hurt even more. I put so much time and effort into this piece, more so than the previous year. I felt like I had wasted a lot of time and effort for a crappy performance. One thing that I find especially hard with competitions is it always feels like your performance wasn’t appreciated unless you win. Everyone is judging you harshly.

Now, going into my fourth year I feel so conflicted about entering the concerto competition this year. On one level, there’s the “I’ve got nothing to lose” mentality. At the same time, I don’t want to go through that again. I don’t want to put myself out there and practice 4+ hours a day to be shot down. But I also tell myself that I will never get anywhere in a music career if I don’t put myself out there. I’ll never get a job in a symphony orchestra if I don’t audition and put myself out there, even though there’s a possibility of rejection. It’s better to learn the lesson of potential rejection now in university rather than when I get out in the real world and do auditions.

There’s also a part of me that wants to win a concerto competition that still exists even from high school. After a life of always being the underdog and the “inferior” one, it would mean a lot to me if someone recognized something I did for once. I want to be the one that everyone’s proud of for one brief, shiny moment in my life. It hurts when I see people who always praise that violin kid seem to never notice things that I do. The experience of playing with an orchestra would also be amazing. Not many violists get to play with an orchestra and if I won the concerto competition, it could be my only chance of ever playing with an orchestra in my entire career. It’s always nice to see an instrument that isn’t a violinist or a pianist playing with an orchestra. I would also be a role model to other violists, show that anything is possible if you work hard. Previous winners of the concerto competition have said “Oh it’s just the _______ University orchestra!” It’s still an orchestra and they have no idea how many other people would kill to be in that position.

So here I am, conflicted. Being my fourth year, this is my last chance to enter the concerto competition and possibly play with an orchestra. I don’t want to pass up this opportunity, but I also don’t want to put in hours and hours into practicing my piece to be rejected again. I know the pain of rejection would be even more intense because I won’t have any more chances. It’s now or never. I still have about 4 or 5 months to decide what I want to do and perhaps when the time comes, I will feel differently. Perhaps I just have a case of “the grass seems greener on the other side”. Maybe playing with an orchestra isn’t as magical as I build it up to be and if I did win, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It’s always important to remember that as much as you want what other people have, they also want what you have. I’ve had people come up to me that said they wish they had the opportunity to do some of the things that I’ve accomplished. It just goes to show that we can’t have everything in life and it’s important to appreciate what you have, even when it seems like others have it all.

My beef with concerto competitions Part 1

This is a big topic on which I have a lot to say and lot of personal stories, which is why I’ve decided to make at least two parts for it. Violists, in my experience, are either apathetic to concerto competitions or frustrated with them. I wish I could be in the apathetic group, but I find myself frustrated with concerto competitions. This blog entry will focus on my high school experiences with concerto competitions.

My first concerto competition experience was in youth orchestra. The first or second year I joined youth orchestra, they began an annual concerto competition to choose the soloist for the concerto in the following year. Of course, I was one of the younger members at the time and I knew I wouldn’t get chosen, but I figured it would be valuable to play and get the experience as playing a concerto with an orchestra definitely was something I was interested in. 

As the years went on, I saw several people win. Secretly in my mind, I was thinking that with each person that won, it increased the chances for me. Basically, it  was like a line up and you could predict who would win the next year based on who was chosen as runner up. It’s such a small city that one could argue the competition was somewhat staged. 

Things changed in grade 11. It was just like any other year entering in the concerto competition. It was my way of keeping disciplined making sure I polished at least one movement of a concerto every year. In grade 11, I was working on the Weber Andante e Rondo Ungarese as my “concerto” for the year. I know it’s not a concerto, it more of a showpiece, but it is written with orchestral accompaniment so it is acceptable to play for a concerto competition. Also, if there are any bassoonists out there by chance, it’s originally written for viola and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I really liked that piece and I felt extra motivated to practice that year as that was when I made the decision to go to university for music. When I performed that day of the competition, it felt super amazing. As of that day, it was one of the best performances I’d ever had. I can’t really describe how it felt, but if you’re a musician, you know what I mean when you have a really good performance and it just feels extra special. I knew that regardless of the results, I would remember this performance forever. As it turned out, I ended up being awarded second place. I’d never come so close to winning a competition like that before and I was on cloud 9. I know that seems ridiculous but after so many years of watching the same people win over and over again, I was finally being recognized. Even though I didn’t win, my performance still stood out over 10 others (or however many performances there were). 

When grade 12 began, I started to think about the concerto competition in a different way. It was my last year playing in youth orchestra. I figured my last year would be a nice send off to university. People would even ask me how I would travel back and forth from school to rehearse with the orchestra if I won the concerto competition. This was enough to get it in my head that it was my turn to win because I got second place the year before. I spent the whole year thinking about how I would work out the logistics of travelling and what concerto I might like to play. Bad I know, but my naive 17-year-old self didn’t think it was bad. 

May comes around and with that is the concerto competition. This was it, my chance to finally play with an orchestra. I played and it was a good performance , but it didn’t have the same feeling as my performance the previous year. It just didn’t have that amazing feeling afterward. I wasn’t worried, I figured if they wanted me to win anyway, then it would happen. As you can see, this is going to end badly. 

The judges come out to announce the results. They announce the honourable mention and runners up. Of course, I’m sitting there waiting to hear my name. When they did finally announce the winner, it didn’t even register with me at first. I thought they were still listing runners up. It was the first time (and only thus far) in my life that I’d experienced legitimate denial. I was literally in denial that I didn’t win until it was over and everyone walked out of the auditorium. I was also upset over who they had chosen. I heard her play and she definitely was not the best person who played, and I don’t just say that out of bitterness, a lot of other people were quite upset with the decision. Regardless of who they had chosen, it wasn’t in my control at all.

This was the experience that really put me in my place and shaped me to who I am today. I learned a very important lesson. As important as it is to be confident going into a competition, you really have to be careful not to be too overconfident and make assumptions. You also don’t want to go into a competition sloughing it off like its not a big deal. It’s a hard balance that I still strive to achieve. 

This is my background with concerto competitions and explains why I have issues with them in the first place. Stay tuned for part two where I talk about my experiences with the concerto competition in university and more about what bothers me. 

Why do I play the viola?

I originally played the violin. I remember being in a violin lesson one day and my teacher suggested I switch to viola. For a long time, I always thought that it was a polite way of saying that I sucked at violin. When I would play in youth orchestra I always felt I was getting the short end of the stick, so to speak. The violins would get all the nice melodies and challenging parts and I was stuck with offbeats and other boring accompaniment figures. I felt like I was a failure at music and no one had the courage to say it to my face. 

But then I had a major epiphany. I can’t really pinpoint how or when it happened, but I remember just falling in love with the viola and being incredibly thankful I made the switch. I embraced the somewhat boring and unchallenging orchestral parts. I embraced viola repertoire.  I embraced being unique. It was such a relief not to be a violinist anymore, I could be myself. 

It’s only times where I get thrown in competitions wiith violinists, cellists, and pretty much any other instrument where I sometimes still resent playing the viola. Violin, piano, flute, and even cello repertoire to an extent is written so the soloist can really show off his or her technical ability. It has a way of “sounding amazing” to both musicians and non-musicians. Inherently, these instruments have a natural advantage due to the repertoire that is available to them. 

Viola, on the other hand, is not traditionally a solo instrument and still isn’t frankly. I think there’s still a stigma about violists that exists even to this present day. We are the failed violinists. The viola exists solely to make bad violinists feel better about themselves. This is not true, but I get the impression that a lot of people, even close friends of mine, feel that way and don’t always give me the respect I deserve. It is an awful stigma and I feel that every time I go up to perform I am saying to the audience “Hey, look at me. I’m not an idiot.” But of course I end up reinforcing the negative stigma about violists when I play with poor intonation and technique. With this in mind, there really isn’t a lot of great viola repertoire that exists that really compares to anything a violinist would play. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love a lot of viola pieces, but they just don’t compare and no non-violist wants to hear it. 

I’ve never really won a competition against non-violists before. The ones I have I either won by default or because I was clearly the oldest/most advanced player in the competition (though that does not always work to my advantage). A lot of this does have to do with the lack of good viola repertoire appropriate for competition. There is a huge gap in viola repertoire for the romantic period, which is what wins competitions. Yes there are a lot of modern composers nowadays striving to fill in the gap of viola repertoire, but this does not constitute “standard repertoire”. Modern music can also be hard to sell in a competition setting. For example, Hindemith Der Schwanendreher is in theory a perfect competition piece, but it’s super difficult to pull off as a lot of people don’t have an understanding or appreciation of Hindemith the way I do. 

Now I know you’re thinking, “It’s not all about competitions” or “don’t get wrapped up in compeitions” or something along those lines. That’s true but I still can’t help that I have a desire to win a competition of some description, even if it’s just at my school or other local one. The fact that violists are so disadvantaged and stigmatized in competitions motivates me to try harder. It’s almost like my way of telling the world, “Hey! Violists are musicians too!” Just because I play an instrument that not a lot of people appreciate doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate it and share my love and passion for the viola. It would mean so much more to me to win a competition than any violinist or pianist who seemingly effortlessly wins everything they enter. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I believe I have what it takes to win a competition. The only thing holding me back of course is my poor intonation and technique. If I brought my technique up to a higher level while maintaining the level of musicality, I could beat any technique robot any day. That is, of course, easier said than done. 

At the end of the day, music shouldn’t really be about proving yourself or competitions. It is increasingly difficult to remember that as I am pursuing music as a career and I am nearing the end of an undergraduate degree. Pretty soon I will be competing in the ultimate competition — orchestral auditions. The stakes are much higher. If I don’t get some scholarship or cash prize, Though it might be disappointing in the moment, I can live with that. But if I don’t succeed in an orchestral audition, that’s another year without a job. There’s only so many auditions you can take before you have to admit to yourself that you’re not cut out for music and you go fill out an application at Starbucks. It’s not a joke, but a sad reality that there are more high level musicians than there are positions in symphony orchestras. Because I am approaching a point in my career where it’s literally all about competition and being the best, it’s hard to remember to appreciate music as an art form and means to express emotions.

When I look back and ask myself “Why do I play the viola?”, I play the viola because I love it. I love the rich tone and the unique colour of the instrument. It’s ultimately not about how many other people also like the viola and its repertoire, it’s about me liking it. I also used to play violin, piano, and flute. Maybe if I had pursued one of those instruments I’d have more success in competitions or more people would “like” me. But ultimately, the passion and desire to succeed that I have for viola merely didn’t exist for me on violin, piano or flute. I’m not going to choose an instrument for shallow reasons such as other people might like it more. At the end of the day, it’s my instrument and my career. I’m the one who has to put in the many hours of practice and I couldn’t be happier putting those hours in on the viola. Whenever I get wrapped up in the nonsense of competitions I remind myself of why I love playing the viola in the first place and I would never go back and choose a different instrument. 

A Competition

I know what you’re thinking, a violist entering a competition. Who does she think she is?

I participated in a local music festival a few months ago and I found out I was selected to perform twice in the provincial competition. Normally I shy away from these types of things as I usually need to travel to a different city, stay there for a few days, play, and then end up not winning anything. Although I tell myself the performance experience is important, I can’t help but feel frustrated and discouraged after several unsuccessful attempts. The same people always win every time whether they deserve it or not and no matter how hard I work I will never compare to them. I know I improve so much every year, but so do these people, I will never catch up. I know I shouldn’t be comparing myself to others and I should be intrinsically motivated, but it is hard to keep it up when it seems like other people don’t care.

I was originally not going to perform this time based on bad experiences in the past but I thought maybe this time would be different. Maybe my musicality would finally be taken seriously. Maybe even if I didn’t win I’d be more mature this time and not take it personally.

I made a conscious decision to make this a meaningful experience and not let the results of the competitions determine the worth of making the trip. I was going to go out there and give it my best shot and if the judges didn’t think that mine was the best performance, then that’s their opinion and is not representative of me as a musician.

The first performance was definitely not my best. I did not expect to win going into the competition based on the other competitors and what I knew of their playing. Even if I had played the best that I’d ever played, I probably wouldn’t have won based on how I know the other competitors play. It’s also pretty difficult as a violist to compete against a violinist and a cellist.

I was playing the first two movements of Hindemith Der Schwanendreher and the first movement of the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in E-flat. The rules of the competition required me to play the music all by memory, which was very challenging as that was about 30 minutes of music. Plus, it is not generally conventional to memorize sonatas. I play the first movement of the Hindemith very frequently memorized so it was no big deal, but I felt that as I played the second movement, I was praying not to have a memory slip. In some cases, I was thinking “When the piano plays __________, I play ___________” and just playing the movement very mechanically. This definitely affected my musicality as I didn’t have a clear concept of the full picture, just chunks that came in a specific order. It also affected my intonation more than usual as I was, in some cases, uncertain of exact notes. I ended up not having any memory slips and made it beginning to end in one piece, but it really took a toll on my musicality and expression. I wished I had approached memorizing that movement in a manner similar to my memorization of the first movement and, frankly, performed the movement more often. But it was too late, one can only focus on the present moment during a performance. The memory in the Brahms sonata was actually not stressful at all. Brahms is one of my favourite composers and I thoroughly enjoyed learning the second sonata (even though it was originally for clarinet). There were many times throughout the year where I’d just play through it after I was done practicing, often by memory. Unintentional memorization is the best type of memorization in my experience. Even though sonatas for non-pianists aren’t traditionally memorized, I felt that when I played it by memory I had so much more expression and emotion without the barrier of the music stand there. Arguably that was probably my most musical performance of the Brahms. Once again, I hadn’t expected to win and was quite fine with how I did. I did not listen to the other competitors but I have heard them play in the past and have a general idea of how they sound.

My second performance was for a Canadian composers category. There were only two competitors, myself and a pianist. It was definitely going to be very interesting as the pieces we were playing were completely different styles. I was playing the Hétu Variations, which is an unaccompanied atonal work. The composer was influenced by Bartok and it is evident in use of symmetry, folk-like melodies, and mixed meters. There is also somewhat of an element of serialism in the construction of the variations. The piece takes a certain amount of musicality and maturity to play effectively as it is atonal and not always straightforward. The pianist was playing a piece that was no where near as “deep” as mine and I believe it was depicting animals. While some sense of musicality is required to capture the character of each animal, it was definitely easier to capture the essence of the piece as the characters/colours/etc were more obvious.

I went to go perform and once again, I was required to perform this piece by memory as per regulation of the competition. Atonal unaccompanied works are the absolute worst thing to memorize, I’d memorize five entire sonatas before I memorize another atonal unaccompanied work! I’d performed the piece several times and I had a good concept of the bigger picture of the piece, so I wasn’t totally hopeless. I definitely had memory slips in my performance. This did take a toll on my intonation, due to uncertainty or just playing the wrong note all together and trying to change it. There were parts that I basically improvised. I don’t blame all intonation problems with playing by memory, but that was the case in the particular instance. Some intonation slips were legitimately my bad as well. I missed both harmonics on the last chord but I just kept going as I didn’t want to ruin the mood of the ppp ending. The harmonics are finicky too, despite being natural harmonics. It was the second partial on the G string with the fourth partial on the D string and it sounds D and F#. When I get them they ring really nicely, but I was not successful on either one. Anyway, one can only worry about the present moment when performing so I decided it would be best to keep the spirit of the ending rather than fight to make those harmonics sound. Even though I was literally inaudible on the last chord, I just had to keep going.

Then it was the pianist’s turn to play. I could tell right from his first notes that his technique was impeccable. It struck me that his playing was rather emotionless, but the piece did not require intense emotion or musicality as mine did. He did do a good job of bringing out the character changes but overall the piece did not require the same amount of maturity as mine. What also bothered me is he was quite a bit younger than me, I doubt he was older than 16 or 17 and definitely hadn’t received any musical training at the post-secondary level. Of course he was chosen as the winner because his technique was flawless and he had the musicality appropriate to his piece. Of course the judges tried to console me and said that I played very musically, phrased well (especially given the piece was atonal), had emotion, had a good stage presence, and yadda yadda. But they were really covering up the fact that I can’t play in tune and politely saying that I suck. I know for a fact based on my own personal instincts and what the judges said that mine was the more musical and mature performance, but technique wins. If that pianist played the piano equivalent of my piece, he wouldn’t have had the same level of musicality that he did in his piece.

It always takes an emotional toll on me for the next few days when I do a competition like this, even if I knew the result from the beginning. It’s just another reminder of the horrible first impressions I make on people because of my awful intonation.  They think they’re being helpful, maybe they’re the first person to tell me. Of course not, only 500 people a day tell me I can’t play in tune. The next thing that bothers me is how condescending they can be about it. I wish I could tell them that I have been aware of my intonation struggles for the past 15+ years and that I’ve come a long way and continue to work unbelievably hard. There are so many people that I’ve played for in festivals, competitions, and master classes who have a lasting impression of me as the idiot violist who can’t play in tune. And then you wonder why people continue to make viola jokes, despite my best efforts I am part of the problem. 

Of course here I am lying in my bed and intermittently crying while typing this blog entry. I feel like absolute sh!t and have no motivation whatsoever to practice at the time being. This is fairly typical after a competition for me. I have had it much worse in the past though. One time I drank an entire mini bottle of vodka straight while binge eating pizza when I found out I wasn’t selected for the final round of a concerto competition (another story for another time). I didn’t practice at all really that week either. At least this time now that I am more aware of how I cope with rejection, I’m confident I will bounce back possibly even later tonight or tomorrow for sure. Hopefully when I get out in the real world and take orchestral auditions I will be a much stronger person and won’t need to mope around every time things don’t go the way I planned.