Still Trying to Figure out Life

Hello again! If you happened to read the previous post in this blog, I would like to let you know that I’ve been feeling a lot better this past month! Obviously the concept of someone wanting to commit suicide still kind of freaks me out, but I feel better having been able to express these feelings and being reassured that it’s normal to feel this way.

As I believe I mentioned in the last post, this young man’s death has led me to question my own life and career choices. Because clearly, I haven’t been doing enough of that. I still question if a symphony career is right for me or realistic for me. I feel bad that I have no new material for this blog haha.

I do have a different teacher this year as my previous teacher retired. It’s great to get many different perspectives at this crucial point in my life. One of the things he mentioned is that I shouldn’t cross a symphony player off my list after having only done one audition. I guess I just want to have options and not be so insistent on getting into a symphony that I don’t pursue other options as well. He’s also made the point not to get too carried away with pursuing non-music career options as well. When you graduate master’s, you’re at the height of your playing and it can be hard to maintain a high level of playing if you immediately pursue another degree or career path. I do agree to an extent, however bills do need to be paid and if a non-music job on the side is what’s going facilitate, then you do what you have to do.

I guess my main barrier to starting my career is confidence. Sometimes you have to take risks. Sometimes you have to take auditions you don’t think you have a chance of winning. I guess I grew up always feeling like I was inadequate or not “good enough” for my age. Now that I am in master’s and have seen many undergrads in various levels, I realize now that I have never been “behind”. The first years at my school now are playing the same type of rep that I played in first year. Yes, I’ve known high school students who could play high level rep like Der Schwanendreher or the Brahms sonatas, but that’s not typical and it’s okay. I used to think I had no chance of succeeding because I wasn’t playing that kind of rep in high school, but that’s not how it works.

The other thing is accepting the fact that not winning school competitions is also okay. Sometimes I think that if I can’t get selected to the final round to a competition at some small school in the prairies, how would I get selected to the final round of a symphony audition? My teacher again mentioned that getting selected for a competition and getting selected for a symphony position are two different skill sets. Many professional players in a symphony have never won a concerto competition but clearly won their audition. In a competition, you have to have the full package, so to speak. Not only do all the notes have to be in place, the musicality has to be in place, as well as your overall stage presence. You’re basically selling your artistic interpretation. However, in an orchestral audition, they’re not looking for artistic interpretations or different tone colours. They want someone who can play what’s on the page and blend in with a section. It’s hard to be good at both.

I think back to the time I was in high school and felt like I needed to “prove” to people that I was just as good as the violinists and cellists. Growing up in a small city in the prairies, I had no perspective really of what was considered an “average” level for a violinist, violist, or cellist. I always assumed I was behind. Typically, the people who were above average for their age were the ones that won all the competitions and were encouraged to pursue music. The people like me who were more at an “average” level were kind of forgotten about although we were just as capable to pursue music. My teacher had always specifically said to me that I couldn’t play the Brahms or Clarke sonatas, whereas a lot of the high level violinists and cellists my age were playing pieces equivalent to that level. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it was.

When I was going into grade 12, I had this idea that I needed to learn a big piece to “impress” people or appear “less bad”. I decided I was going to learn the first movement of the Bartok concerto which is just ridiculous. That’s a piece that people my age now would learn, or at least later in undergrad. I guess my teacher was at a point where he knew I was going to go away anyway so there was no point in stopping me if I had it in my head that I was going to play the first movement of the Bartok. Looking back, I had the musicality to play the piece, but not the technique. I didn’t play it terribly, but I think a lot of people could tell that the piece was way beyond my level when I played it. In some ways it was good for me to have a challenge piece like that as it did push me technically. However, I could think of at least 10 other challenge pieces that would have been challenging but more realistic at that age. Again, I was seeking the validation from people that I was worthy of studying music. There’s no shame in playing Stamitz or Hoffmeister for undergrad auditions.

Anyway, hopefully I figure out my life soon. Just kidding. I still got time for that.

I don’t even know what to call this

Apparently I just don’t have anything to rant about anymore. At one point I basically complained about something every week in here. I think now that I’m a master’s student and realize how much energy I spent getting wound up over little things in undergrad, I know now that it’s not worth it and there are many more important things to focus on. Who cares that so and so won such and such competition.

I did a program full of music programs this past summer, as a contrast to my summer 2016. There were nice aspects of having tons of “free time” in the summer to relax after a rough school year, but I will be honest I was super bored most of the time. I couldn’t move into my new place until September 1st so I was stuck at my parent’s house until then. I was unsuccessful in a lot of my summer program applications so I did one small program in May and another in August, but that left a giant gap of nothing in between. One could argue I could have used the time better, I was working on some repertoire for the coming year but it wasn’t like I was practicing 8 hours a day. I could have spent the time doing tons of studies and technical work or reading through a bunch of rep for fun, but I just wasn’t motivated to do so. I’d done a couple of “freelance” gigs but I’m from a small city in the prairies where there really aren’t a ton of freelance opportunities and I felt like there really wasn’t much for me to do. I could have gotten a job I suppose, but I wasn’t sure what kind of place I would find or what programs I would do so I didn’t want to tie myself down. I was prepared to move in July or August, but of course I got stuck with a September lease.

I knew I couldn’t do this to myself again. The city where I’m from just isn’t conducive to a musician starting a freelance career as there are few opportunities and when I did get an opportunity, I felt like I was the “outsider”. For instance, I helped teach at a summer string workshop and because I had recently obtained a Bachelor’s degree, I wanted to do some more teaching and possibly even perform with the faculty in a concert, but I felt like I was excluded from the “core” group of the faculty. I only coached one group at 4:00 and so I had the whole day I could have been doing things and helping out, but no one would allow me. I went away for university so I feel like people think that I think I’m better than everyone else, which is just ridiculous. We’re all musicians at the end of the day.

Hence, I went a bit program application crazy for summer 2017. Since I was in a much better mental state I made much better audition recordings than the year before. I applied to 5 programs and only got rejected from 1, which was okay because I’d applied to that one as an after thought anyway. Of course, now I have the opposite problem from summer 2016. Which programs do I do? I’m always caught in the dilemma of going to programs I’ve been to before because I really enjoyed it or met a really great group of friends but then going to new programs so I can broaden my social network and travel to different places. I ended up choosing 2 programs that I had attended in the past, but I ended up having an amazing experience and wouldn’t have done my summer any other way.

Now I have just began my second year of master’s, and possibly my final year of post-secondary education. I can’t deny it much longer that I’m going to have to become a responsible adult and contribute to society in some meaningful way. If you read the past two posts on this blog, I am definitely still in existential crisis mode.

Basically, I’m not sure what to prioritize going into this school year. Every other school year has been straightforward, you go to lessons, practice X hours a day, apply to summer programs, repeat. Now I feel like I’m at a different stage of my life where perhaps my priorities can be shifted in a different direction. For instance, I feel like I should make professional engagements a bit more of a priority. Last year I turned down a professional gig as it was near the time of my recital, but I felt bad about it given that other students who also had recitals around the same time took that gig. At that moment, I just felt like I was so overwhelmed with school that I just needed a break but I also worried that turning down that gig could have burned some bridges in the professional world. Now I’m considered “unreliable” or “flaky”, however on the flip-side, because I didn’t take that gig, I felt a lot more prepared for my recital. I took most of my academic seminars last year so I do have more “free time” this year to take on professional gigs.

The other question is where do I live. I makes sense to continue living where I am, as I have done some professional gigs and made a few connections, but I’m not sure. A thing that worries me is not being bilingual. I don’t want to reveal the city I live in, but being bilingual is advantageous. Already, there are a ton of jobs I can never get because I don’t speak French. Obviously, music gigs are fine to be an anglophone, but I feel like I would need to look for a part time job outside of music to help pay the bills. Anything retail, customer service, or administrative would be off the table for me, or I wouldn’t be the first choice. It’s not like it’s impossible to learn French, but I would probably never be 100% fluent or sound authentically Quebecois. There was a music program I almost did this past summer that would have helped me learn French, and would be something to put on my resume to demonstrate French proficiency to employers. It’s not like I can’t do that program in summer 2018, but I wouldn’t have it on my resume until September 2018.

I’ve already established that moving back home is a big fat no-no. Summer 2016 was kind of a trial to see if that could potentially be an option (it was always my backup plan) and it was a huge fail. There’s really not a lot going on and even in the summer I was there, I felt like I really had to force myself in to get that opportunity teaching one group at the workshop. I do worry that I wouldn’t be able to have a varied enough career as a musician and that people would be unwilling to help me because I’m the “elitist” who went away for school.

I could move somewhere totally different. The only issue is of course not knowing enough people (or the right people) and not having a social network. The advantage of having attended several music programs is that I do know people who live in pretty much any Canadian city I could ever move to, but it’s still intimidating.

And then there’s the question of what to do in my summer. There’s no reason why I couldn’t do more programs and postpone real life for 4 more months, but real life is inevitable no matter what I do. If I’m travelling or going to tons of rehearsals it might be hard to arrange jobs for September, but people have done it. My school offers a one year diploma program so I could postpone real life for one more year. I’m less inclined to do a doctorate, but I suppose that’s another “procrastination tool”.

Interestingly, I feel less insecure about being “good enough”. I know that was something that I worried about a lot in pursuing a career in music, but now I feel it’s the least of my worries. I feel like I’m a lot more at peace with the level I’m at as a musician. That’s not meant to be a defeatist comment, I still think I could improve a lot more and I want to work hard this year, but I don’t let thoughts of being inadequate plague my mind. I guess I worry now about being “good enough” as an employee in general, as opposed to just as a violist.

Sometimes I feel like I’m super anxious to have my entire life figured out. I did undergrad right out of high school and master’s right out of undergrad so I’m by no means “behind” in life. I’ve met plenty of people who are older than me, still doing their undergrad, and still take a gap year(s) before master’s. While you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, even to feel better, it does reassure me that if I have a year where I’m not sure what I’m doing or just do random freelance gigs that everything will work out in the end. I guess even though I chose a career path that doesn’t lend itself to a stable job, I still want to have some sense of direction and feel like I’m working toward something.

“Existential” Crisis Part 2

pretty by Pearly85, on Flickr
pretty” (CC BY 2.0) by Pearly85
As of now, I have completed my first year of master’s. Woohoo! Do I have a clearer idea of what I want to do with my life? No. If not it’s even worse.
Now, I’m at the phase of my “existential” crisis where I am brainstorming what kind of jobs I could do outside music, but still would allow me the flexibility to take on freelance gigs and teaching. I’ve worked too hard to give up music altogether, but bills need to be paid. I know freelancing musicians in their 30’s whose parents still help them pay bills because they’ve never had a job outside music, never made a symphony, never had a teaching job, etc. I could never be one of those people, my parents would kill me.
There’s always Starbucks haha. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m above working at Starbucks and I believe there are valuable lessons to be learned from working in retail, but I don’t want to get stuck working there for 30 years. I would only get a job at a place like Starbucks as a means of gaining more work experience and working toward a higher skilled job.
One idea I had is to be a Tax Professional (not to be confused with an accountant). Yes, I know this is out in left field, but aren’t all musicians out in left field? H & R Block offers an income tax course and if you do well, you can apply for a job (although it doesn’t guarantee a job). I did a bit of research and it is quite a time commitment. The course is 6 hours a week, so two 3-hour classes in the evening or a 6 hour class on a weekend. This would be a nightmare to schedule while in school, I can’t guarantee I’m free at the same time every week at a particular time. I also have lots of gigs on weekends so I wouldn’t want to do the weekend course. I still want to pursue music professionally to some extent so cutting myself off to gigs and professional opportunities would not be a smart move. It’s also only offered September-December, so I couldn’t take it during the summer or something. It also doesn’t appear to be offered online. I mean, it’s not the end of the world, I could always take it the year after I’m done school, but then I wouldn’t be able to (potentially) get a job right after graduation. It’s a big time commitment for a course that wouldn’t guarantee a job, but I guess it’s no different than taking 6 years of music in university that doesn’t guarantee a job haha. Also it’s not like learning to do taxes is completely useless knowledge.
The other left field idea I had was becoming some kind of fitness instructor. I used to go to lots of fitness classes (and should get back into it) if you’ve read old posts on this blog. Again, this would involve taking lots of courses that may or may not be flexible while I’m in university for music. It would also not result in a guaranteed job. Why is life so risky? As great as it is to have “Plan B” I don’t want to go around spending thousands of dollars on random courses for random jobs and then never get a job at all.
So yeah, that’s where I’m at. I think what sparked this is I recently took my first professional orchestral audition (whaa?). I know I can hardly believe it myself. I obviously can’t say which orchestra, for the purpose of anonymity, but it was a relatively small-ish sized orchestra and there were less than 20 people auditioning. The whole experience was super overwhelming though, I was definitely taken aback by the whole experience, I had no idea that’s what it was like. I mean, obviously I knew it was going to be intense, more intense than excerpts class in school, but I guess you don’t really know until you do it. I always thought I knew the excerpts inside out and backwards and would play fine, but that was not the case. I’m sure a prodigal 12 year old could have done a better audition. When I got there it was so weird. The whole audition felt like it took 2 seconds. I couldn’t believe I just played an audition. I also realized that day that the curtain has a dual purpose. Both so the panel doesn’t know who you are and favour certain people, but also if you play like absolute sh*t, they don’t know who you are and can’t hold it against you. It’s really a different experience doing a live audition, and I feel so naive for being taken aback as I was. I knew that being successful in auditions for summer programs would not be an accurate indication of how I would do in a live audition situation. Typically for music programs, you submit a video and you can record (and listen back) as many times as you need to. The reason why I’ve generally been successful in summer programs is because I can take as many times as I need. In a way, it’s kind of a false representation of my playing.
Basically, I’ve learned that one of my weaknesses is live performance. It kind of explains now why I’ve been so unsuccessful in competitions all those years, yet people still managed to not think I was an idiot. Yes I may not give off the best first impressions, but if you take the time to work with me and get to know me, I’m not an idiot I swear! This is a flaw that I have with auditioning for symphonies though, I know I could do a good job playing in the symphony, practicing the music, building good relationships with my section, etc. but I’m gonna have a hell of a time getting through the audition process. Hence, my existential crisis. Help me.

My “Existential” Crisis

What a dramatic title, I know. Haven’t you figured out by now that I put my raw thoughts on here and just say random crap? I can be as dramatic as I want, or not.
Basically, not like I’ve never thought this before, but I guess as I’m plowing through my master’s I sometimes wonder if I was ever meant to be a musician. I absolutely love what I do and could not imagine my career focusing on anything else, but maybe it’s all a lie.
I often talk about how when I was in middle/high school and even undergrad to an extent that I always felt like I got the short end of the stick. Of course, my teachers would always try to be positive and encouraging and pull the “don’t compare yourself to others” card. I know I wasn’t the best player. There’s no question that the people who consistently beat me in competitions played with much more technical command than I did, but I still felt like there was value in the work that I was doing. I knew I wasn’t the best but I still practiced consistently everyday. I practiced and worked to the level of these “superstar” people even though I knew I wasn’t. I wasn’t about to be one of those complacent “I’ll never be the best anyway who cares” people. Granted, I know I should have been practicing more in high school and I potentially could have been a lot better, but I’m amazed at how much practicing I did get done in my crazy schedule.
Now I look back on it all and think that maybe not winning these competitions and not getting chosen for these awards was the universe’s way of telling me that I was not meant to be a musician. No one wants to say it to my face, everyone’s too polite. I hear of people at my undergrad school who played at an equivalent level to me who are winning the concerto competition and such. I should just let go of the past but it’s hard not to feel a little bit resentful. I can’t really help but feel a little “That could have been me if I was one year younger” yadda yadda. When I entered those competitions, I had to compete with really high level violinists and pianists. Now that they’ve won those competitions and can’t enter anymore, it opens up the floor for others, and I’ve graduated so I will never get my chance. If I was still at my undergrad school, who knows, maybe I would have been chosen, or at least been selected to advance to the finals. Or not, because clearly the universe hates me.
Now here I am in the final stretch of my first year of master’s. I have one year of school left in the foreseeable future. An Artist’s Diploma is not out of the question, but definitely not right away. I feel like I haven’t really accomplished enough during my schooling to go “out there” into the world and I honestly don’t think any miracles are going to happen in the next year or so. I want to get my master’s. I’ve come too far to just throw it all away, but is it worth fighting with the universe? If the universe, or God, or whoever is out there just really doesn’t want me to be a musician, then why am I wasting my time? I’ll never be one of those “superstar” players even  if I decided to commit to practicing 8 hours a day now.

Putting Down Others

As they always say “digging a hole for someone else does not make you appear taller.” I think as musicians we can tend to be very critical of ourselves, and sometimes our criticisms of others can be a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. Yes, music is very competitive and we always want to do our best, but there is a point where criticizing someone else really isn’t going to get us anywhere.

I think almost every music program, with the exception of a school like Curtis, is guilty of over-admitting students to “fill space”. Universities and conservatories accept way too many music students then there are careers for us, but it’s not their problem. The school makes more money by accepting as many students and offering as many programs as possible. To the administration, you’re merely a paycheque (Yes, I’m Canadian if you haven’t figured that out). They don’t care if you find a career in your area of study after school, they’re just happy you took a degree.

Where am I going with this? Well, before I go on a huge tangent, let me use my school (that I’m graduating from in about a week) as an example. It’s a smaller school in a smaller city. There are some very fine musicians that come from this school that could have easily studied at a school like McGill or U of T, but they chose the small school environment. There are also a lot of people who don’t play at a high standard and only really got accepted to the school because they needed to fill space.

I’ve mentioned this idea of “filling space” twice now and haven’t really explained it. At my school, I believe they accept 70 undergrads each year. That is a maximum number and hypothetically, if there were not enough qualified candidates they wouldn’t accept the full slate of 70 students. However, because university is honestly a money making scam, they will accept the full slate of 70 students. The university would shut down the music program if they only accepted 30 students each year if they could be accepting 70.

What does this mean? Well, a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise be qualified to study in a university music program will be accepted into the school. Is it a bad thing? Yes and no. It does create extra, unnecessary competition. A lot of these “filler” students will end up being unable to pursue a career in music even though they put in the same hours of work as the “better” students.

That is a very cynical way of looking at it and I choose not to view it that way. I think that just because someone maybe picked up an instrument at a later age or doesn’t play as well as people their age doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be allowed to study music. They have just as much of a right to further their education as anyone in the faculty does. They work hard and practice just like everyone else. Although they may never become a concert pianist or a symphony orchestra player doesn’t mean that a music degree is a waste for them. The skills you learn while learning a musical instrument are transferable to every aspect of life. If you can get through a music degree, you can take on pretty much any career.

Back to the idea of “digging a hole for someone else does not make you appear taller” now. These “filler” students are the target for backlash and rude comments from fellow peers. I’ve listened to many of my close friends put down these students for no reason. I just think there’s no need for it. Does picking apart someone else’s playing really make you feel better? Just because you started your instrument at age 4 and someone else didn’t start until their late teens doesn’t make you a better person than them. They are just as entitled to learn. Maybe they won’t become a concert pianist but ever stop and think that maybe they don’t want to? Maybe they just love playing the piano and wanted to take a music degree before moving on to law school. You can’t judge a book by its cover.

Sorry if this entry is somewhat unstructured or going all over the place, but I hope I made the point that I just have no tolerance for putting down other people. I get that in a competitive field like music, we want to see ourselves in the best light possible. We want to succeed, but I have always believed that it is way more efficient to focus on yourself and block out others, rather than being so concerned with what others are doing. It is difficult in a competitive field like music, but necessary if you want to succeed. Trust me. I’ve found when I stopped caring about what other people were doing was when I had the most successes.

Post-Audition Practicing

I thought this would be something interesting to talk about on here. If you’ve read any of my recent posts on this blog, you will know that I recently did some grad school auditions. I’m not sure if I mentioned this, but I completed my fourth year recital before I left for auditions as well! I know it sounds absolutely crazy, but for the low amount of stress and anxiety that I’ve experienced in the past month, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I read back on  some of my posts from September-January and I couldn’t believe how much anxiety and stress I was under! It’s definitely interesting for me to look back on that and appreciate where I am now even more.

You’re probably thinking, “If I were you, I’d just put my instrument away and never practice ever again”. Well, it’s not that simple. I still have orchestra and chamber music obligations. I can’t just waltz into rehearsal and be like “Sorry guys, I haven’t practiced in a week”. When I go to the practice rooms, I feel like there’s this silent judgement. Why I am I less entitled to practice just because I’m done all of my auditions and my recital? I have to keep playing or else I will lose all that muscle memory. I took a week break one time and I swear it took almost a month to get back to the level I was at before.

This has been a great opportunity to work on repertoire that I either didn’t get a chance to play in my fourth year recital or just pieces I’ve always wanted to learn. I am also using this opportunity to work on orchestral excerpts, which is not something I always get a chance to do unless I am preparing for an audition. I was concerned that my practicing wouldn’t be very focused because I wasn’t preparing for anything and there’s no pressure, but actually I’ve been getting a lot done. I guess I’m practicing because it’s genuinely what I love doing. I can really take the time to focus on refining my technique too. I feel like my practicing is almost more efficient than it was before, ironically enough. I guess under the pressure of my recital and auditions, I felt rushed to get through everything and I didn’t always take the time to stop and smell the roses. Perhaps this can be something I can apply to my practice in future years. Although I am taking things at a much slower pace and practicing in smaller chunks, I’m still getting a lot done.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not practicing 4+ hours a day. I’m also using this opportunity to get away from my instrument as well, which I think is super important. I’m finally using that hot yoga pass I bought back in September. Ironically, it would have benefited me more when I was going through more stress, but better late than never. I’ve gone once a week the past month and already I feel a lot stronger and my flexibility has improved. I’ve also made an effort to walk places that are within 3 kilometres of where I am. Round trip, that’s about 6km of walking most days. When school ends, I hope to explore some more non-music hobbies over the summer. I’d really like to get back into reading books for one thing. I used to love reading, but I’ve just never had the patience to read an entire book in the past few years.

That’s basically all I’ve been up to as of late. Currently, I’m typing out this entry as a means to procrastinate for a paper due in a history class. It’s my last paper of my undergrad, it only gets harder from here…

Coming to Terms with Myself

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a breakthrough, for real this time. Fourth year has treated me rough with numerous breakdowns and questioning of my intentions in music. I seriously thought I was not good enough and inadequate compared to my peers.
I am not inadequate. I am doing just fine. I think the major issue for my confidence issues is merely the fact that I’ve only lived in smaller cities with very few viola players. This forces me to compare myself to violinists, pianists, and other more “competitive” instruments where winning and entering competitions is a big part of what they do. That’s not necessarily a viola thing. Don’t get me wrong, there are some viola only competitions out there, but compared to the competitions made for violinists, pianists, singers, and other instruments, it’s relatively insignificant. And even those competitions that all instruments and voices can enter, the violinists, pianists, flutists, sopranos, and even cellists dominate.
Naturally, when I’ve lived in two cities where violinists, cellists, and pianists rule the world, I will feel somewhat inadequate. Of course I’m going to feel like a bad player when I’m always the one that doesn’t win the competitions when literally everyone else and their dog has. I always felt like I was doing something wrong or something was wrong with me. I didn’t want to think that my instrument choice was “bad” or “wrong” in any way.
Well, in these past few weeks, I’ve come to a realization. These people don’t play the same instrument as me. I know that sounds like a silly thing to say, but it’s so important to remember. I want an orchestral job. No violinist, pianist, or cellist is going to take that away from me; only other violists. Violin and piano careers revolve more around solo playing. Viola careers seldom involve any solo playing. There is no pressure to win or even enter competitions with violinists and pianists, so why was I putting so much unnecessary pressure on myself?
A lot of it had to do with the fact that I was trying to prove something. We all know that’s just the worst mindset to have and I learned my lesson on several occasions. Violists, as I experienced myself, usually get the short end of the stick in life. Yeah, viola jokes are just jokes, but it’s almost like there is an actual prejudice against violists. Sometimes people just legitimately think that violists are inferior to violinists. We have it harder in that sense than other “underdog” instruments like bassoon, bass, or tuba. Since the viola is so similar to the violin and most violists were once violinists, we are just constantly compared to violinists and it’s honestly really unfair and inaccurate. Violists don’t generally win competitions because our repertoire is limited and does not show off the technical brilliance of the instrument in the same way that the violin repertoire does. It’s not that we’re bad players, it’s that for so many years violists were disregarded as the “inferior musicians” and unfortunately, not a lot of good solo repertoire was written. In the modern day, we recognize the talent of violists more, but most of the great works for viola have been only been written in the past 100 years. Twentieth century works, although great pieces, are not always appreciated at competitions as much as romantic repertoire, which the viola lacks.
With this in mind, I felt like since I first picked up a viola, it was my mission to prove to everyone that I was just as good as any violinist, cellist, or pianist out there. I wasn’t going to be one of those “typical” subservient violists who doesn’t try. I was going to get some results. Of course, I set myself up for disappointment. I took not winning competitions a lot more harshly than I should have. I thought I would never get into university because I didn’t win any of these competitions and that the jerks who won the competitions instead of me that weren’t even going away to university would take it away from me. I couldn’t help but feel like I was “behind” for my age. Regardless of that, I pushed myself to do university auditions. I was more insistent on getting the heck out of there than worrying if I was good enough. When I started in university, it was like a second chance. I wasn’t competitive at all in first year, it was actually the first time in my life that I was okay with who I was and where I was at musically. I accepted myself.
This all changed with violin kid. I have actually now come to terms with him and we are actually on friendly terms. I have gotten to the point where I don’t really care about what he does with his life as it really has no impact on me and my career goals. He wants to be a soloist or a concertmaster. It makes sense for him to put himself out there and win competitions. For me, I’m an orchestral player, so putting myself out there for orchestral opportunities is what I need. Back then, I saw him as a threat. I reverted back to my high school mentality. It seemed like the whole school was in love with him and I needed to show him who’s boss. It almost felt like the people who supported me in first year had “converted” to supporting him. I became obsessed with the idea of beating him in a competition to prove to everyone that violists are just as good as violinists and that I was a good player too.
As you can imagine, that is just a complete waste of time. It didn’t work in high school, why would it work in university? That mentality never works and I’m glad I learned that lesson now in university and not while I’m trying to get a job or something. I’ve actually “retired” from competitions in a sense. There was a scholarship competition in January that I made a conscious decision not to enter. I feel so much better about myself for not entering competitions. I know that getting an orchestral job is a competition, but I’ve been disappointed enough times in competitions, I think I’m familiar with it enough that I’ll be fine in the real world. Plus, I don’t have to worry about violinists, pianists, and cellists.
I think going away to do my master’s will be the right thing. I know I’ve talked a lot on here about my anxieties with going away and worrying about not being good enough, but I think it will be the fresh start I need. Sure, I may meet more violinists that drive me insane and I may not necessarily be “running away” from problems, but at least I will have more violas at my side. I think being in a school where there are more violists will actually help a lot of the issues I’ve had my whole life. Because there will be more violists, I won’t feel like I have to compare myself to violinists and pianists anymore. Sure, there may be violists that are better than me and winning competitions, but at least I’m not unrealistically comparing myself to people who don’t play the same instrument I do.
Here I am, a fourth year student, about to go off to grad school auditions in a couple days. I feel like I’ve come full circle now. In first year, I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove and I was okay with where I was at musically. I had some ups and downs in second, third, and the first half of fourth year. But here I am, once again, not feeling like I have anything to prove and okay with where I’m at musically. I feel like I’m finally ready to take on grad school auditions.

I Just Wanted to Be Different

Whoa, I’m getting fancy and inserting pictures in my entries! I can barely contain myself too!

Well, there is a deeper meaning behind the picture. The title of this post states “I just wanted to be different”. So I figured a snowflake would be an appropriate graphic as no two snowflakes are alike. No two humans are alike.

Sometimes we forget just how unique we are. There are so many humans in the world, it can feel like you are insignificant and don’t matter. If you have read any other things I have posted in this blog, you will know that it is something I talk about a lot.

When my violin teacher suggested to me at the end of grade 7 that I switch to viola, I will admit I was quite skeptical, as I’m sure you can relate if you are a violist as well. I thought it was a passive-aggressive nudge suggesting that things on violin weren’t going so well and that maybe I should just give up. I didn’t want to play an instrument that had such horrible jokes written about it, I couldn’t be that person! I rented a cheap one just to try it out and give it a chance. I did like the deeper, rich tone quality of the viola. Overall, I thought it was a much nicer and satisfying instrument to play. The next week when I went to my violin lesson, it was my first viola lesson. That summer, I went to the summer string workshop as a violist. I was still a bit shaky on alto clef, but by the beginning of grade 8, I was almost fluent in alto clef. By the time I started youth orchestra, it was like I had been playing viola for years.

I’ll admit I still wasn’t completely sold on viola. Part of me was still a violinist and missed soaring in those high positions on the E string. I’d watch the violinists have these crazy hard parts all up in 8th position while I was playing tremolo. I would almost wish that I could play something like that, I felt like I wasn’t challenging myself enough. I thought people would think that I was being lazy for switching to the viola. Yes, at one point in my life, I thought viola was “too easy”. Such a violinist thing to say. I did like being in a smaller section though. There aren’t many violists, especially where I was from. I felt I always got lost in the sea of violinists and was constantly compared to other people, making me always feel like the “underdog” or behind others. When I started on viola, I felt like I was my own category and I didn’t care if I was behind others or didn’t play as well as I “should have”.

It wasn’t until the end of grade 9 when my parents very kindly bought me a new professional quality viola (the one in the banner of this blog). As soon as I played it, I fell in love with the instrument all over again. It was so much nicer than that cheap rental one I had been using the past 2 years. It was from that moment that I knew that viola was my true calling. I was never meant to be a violinist, I was a violist. I didn’t switch to viola because I wasn’t good at violin, I switched because I genuinely enjoyed the instrument more and it suited me better.

As I began to identify more with being a violist, I began to be legitimately bothered by all these viola jokes. I knew they were just jokes, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there actually was a prejudice in the musical world against violists. Where I was from, a lot of the viola players didn’t play very well or work very hard. I got the impression they were violinists, like me, told to play viola and took it the wrong way. Once they switched, they never really got any better. I guess they thought since they’re inferior to everyone else and never going to get any better, why bother? These people are the reason that viola jokes still exist.

I wanted to be different. I wanted to work hard and achieve things just like any violinist or cellist. Just because I’m a violist doesn’t mean I can’t work hard. I wanted to be that violist. I wanted to stand out. I wanted to win all the competitions.

As you can tell, this mentality didn’t work out for me. I ended up being way too cocky in certain situations and made myself look even more like a fool. I felt like I had done all this hard work for “nothing”. Now as a fourth year university student, I still haven’t won any major competitions and feel like I’ve let violists down. I wanted to be different and show that we’re not the out-of-tune, stupid, unmusical losers that those stupid jokes say we are!

But then, I take a step back and think. Am I practicing and working hard to impress other people? Am I wanting to win competitions just to prove that violists are competent individuals? Sounds ridiculous when you put it in those terms. Who cares if people don’t think you’re good or think you’re a loser? All that matters is that you put in the hard work and know you’re accomplishing things for yourself. People can think whatever the hell they want, they’re not your future employers.

I guess through all these years of being unsuccessful, I felt like people just thought I was just like every other violist in my city. When I moved here, I felt the same way. I tried so hard to be different but just couldn’t. But you don’t have to try hard to be different. You are different. Not everyone was meant to win all the competitions and be the person that everyone’s “in love” with. Winning competitions does not equate success. I’ve accomplished things that don’t get nearly as much praise or attention as a competition, but are unique to me and other people haven’t necessarily done. Not saying that I have an advantage, but I’m just as successful as those people who win every competition even though I don’t get nearly the praise and attention they do.

Bottom line is everyone is different. We all have our own set of achievements and stories to tell. Why do we waste so much energy trying to be like “everyone else” or prove that we are just as good as another person? I honestly think, not just myself, but all musicians put too much energy into trying to be different and stand out from other people. People will think what they think, but at the end of the day, we know what we have done and one day someone will appreciate that.

Why pursue a career in music?

Good question. With little to no job security or stability, who the hell would want to be a musician? A lot of people who study a music degree will end up pursuing other career options outside music. Why do we study music then if it’s such a horrible career?

Because we love it, put simply. Why waste your time studying something or working in an area that you aren’t passionate about? It’s not always about studying something that leads to career that “makes money”. I think as a society, we put too much pressure on young adults to go to university and pursue high-paying careers such as law, medicine, or business. We tend to look down on young adults who study music because it’s a low paying job at best and not every music graduate will get a spot in a symphony orchestra. The problem of not being able to find a job upon graduation is not exclusive to music, but music is probably the hardest career path to find a job and make a sustainable living. You don’t get that stability like you do in a typical 9-5 job. You have weird hours which change from week to week. It’s hard to maintain friendships outside music because you’re free when everyone else works and vice versa. If you’re a freelance musician, you’re living day to day and may not know what’s paying your rent, or if you’ll make rent from month to month.

I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of understanding in society in general. A lot of people don’t see a place for art, music, drama, or dance in society as it is not an “essential” career. If there were no fine arts, the world would not end as long as we have our “essential” careers like doctors, lawyers, police officers, etc. All these fine arts disciplines are just “entertainment” and “fluff”. A lot of people really don’t understand the many years of hard work to become a musician, artist, dancer, or actor and think that even professional musicians are doing it “for fun” or as a “hobby”. I want to slap people on the face who think that. We have to pay rent and put food on the table too!

I think that art has a greater function in society than just mere entertainment. I think one thing we have lost in our society today is the idea of the Renaissance man and being well-rounded. Back then, people would be equally proficient as artists, musicians, scientists, inventors, and you name it. People studied certain things because they were genuinely interested in them, not because they would get money if they did. While that is certainly not the focus of our society today, I think we can re-incorporate that. I think university should be a time to explore your interests and passions, rather than be so focused on what kind of career you will have the whole time. If music interests you, study music. If philosophy interests you, study philosophy. If science interests you, study science. Walking into university and having no idea what you want to do or study is not a bad thing. You may discover an interest in a subject area that you never thought you would enjoy. Once you have been in university for a while, you will have a better sense of what career path you might want to take. If you have to switch majors or change your degree to accomplish that, there is nothing wrong with that. Even if you took a music degree, it is still possible to go into law, medicine, science, or any area of study you want. Life’s too short to force yourself to finish a degree that you are not interested in. Even if it takes you 8 years to finish your undergrad, you took that time to discover and find something you truly cared about, rather than rushed through a degree that you could care less for.

Also, another misconception or misunderstanding that I think is present in society is the idea that when you study something in university, you have to get a career in that area. Do you expect all philosophy students to become the next Descartes? Do you expect psychology students to be the next Freud? Do you expect science students to be the next Einstein? So why do we place high expectations on music majors to become the next Beethoven? I feel like a lot of young musicians graduating from university feel the pressure to get a career in music. We seem to regard it as a “failure” if someone is unable to get a career in music and has to search for alternative career paths. Yes, this is where the joke that fine arts majors end up working in Starbucks comes from. To be honest, this is not exclusive to fine arts majors, a science student could end up working at Starbucks if they don’t get into med school and can’t find another job. And honestly, some people are content with just working at a minimum wage job for the rest of their life, despite having a university degree. Why should we criticize them? It’s their life, not ours. Yeah, maybe they could be working harder to find a better job, but it’s their decision. We pass too much judgement and put too much pressure on young adults to be successful and pursue lucrative careers, but it’s just not possible.

This wasn’t your typical defending music as a career path post. Most people come at it from the angle of explaining all the benefits of studying music and learning a musical instrument. While this isn’t invalid, I think it’s discussed too much in blogs and articles. People come at it from a whiny angle, in my opinion, “Hey! Music is academic and intellectually stimulating too!” they say, but it’s not really answering the question of why we should pursue a career in music. We should pursue a career in music because art is such an integral part of our society and we’re passionate about it sharing it with others. If you are passionate about something, you will find a way to make money with it. If you decide after your music degree that you want to become a lawyer, that option is still available to you too. No one is “locked in” to a career path at age 22 or even age 35, frankly.

More Than One Right Way

Music tends to be one of those areas of study where people can be incredibly jaded and opinionated about the “right” way to do something. Yes, there are better ways of doing things, but I don’t think there is a “right” way to become a musician. This can be applied to many aspects of life as well.

The main point I’m trying to get at is people tend to be very pushy about how many hours a day you should practice at all stages of playing. For example, I saw the following chart posted on Violin Masterclass.

If you play for fun

  • Age five: 30 minutes
  • Age eight: 45 – 60 minutes
  • Age ten: 60 – 75 minutes
  • Age twelve to adult: 90 – 120 minutes

If you want to be a professional

  • Age five: 30 – 45 minutes
  • Age eight: 90 – 120 minutes
  • Age ten: 2 hours
  • Age twelve: 3 hours
  • Age fourteen to eighteen: 3 – 4 hours
  • Violin major in college: 5 hours

Let me be the first to tell you that there’s no way in hell I practiced nearly that much and I’m here in university doing just fine. I honestly seldom practice 5 hours a day as a music major. I know, shame on me. The chart also kind of implies that one would know they want to be a professional by age 8. I hated taking violin lessons at age 8 and I don’t think I practiced anywhere near 30 minutes, let alone the suggestion on the chart! When I first read this chart, I think I was about 10 years old and it immediately made me feel like a failure because I didn’t practice anywhere near the amount suggested on the playing for fun chart.

My take on it is, are these kids who follow the practice times on this chart like it’s the universal truth really passionate about what they do? For me, I believe that passion and sincerity are the most important aspects of a musician, artist, actor, or any fine arts performer. I would much rather see a person who plays with emotion, passion, and musicality even if their technique is not perfect than a technique robot whose parents made them practice 5 hours a day. In order to practice that many hours as a child, you would have to make a ton of sacrifices and miss out on being a kid. I know when I was a child, I went to public school so I would be in school for 6 hours a day. That’s already 6 hours of my day spoken for. When I was younger, I could easily practice for 30-45 minutes after school and be done with it. But as I got older, I got busier and sometimes I’d have rehearsals after school and after supper and I’d be squeezing in homework with any little time I got, even if it was 15 minutes. By the time I got home, it was bed time. Days would go by without even practicing. I’d be playing my instrument, but I just didn’t have that individual time each day. I still made it into music school though. Once I got there, I practiced my butt off because I had so much “free time”.

Of course, these kids who follow the practice times on the chart did not have a normal or well-rounded childhood as I did. Don’t get me wrong, if you have read any of my rant posts on this blog, you know I made significant sacrifices to pursue my music, but these kids are at a higher level of sacrifice than I was. For the most part, they were home-schooled which makes a huge difference in the amount of practice time available to you. However, their “free time” was practicing strictly enforced by the parents. I know people in university now who were home-schooled under this mentality and they said that they didn’t even have any friends their own age. They didn’t get to play sports, play other instruments, go to clubs, or even play with kids at the park; things that most of us took for granted in our childhood. Instead, they were to practice violin or piano (it’s usually those instruments with these types of people) for X hours a day and then study math for X hours a day. These are the kids that grow up to be technical robots and win every competition, but have no genuine passion for the art.

I’ll be honest, I do get home-school envy from time to time. When the superstar violin kid came to my school, I felt like such a failure. I thought I was behind for my age and that I should have been home-schooled so that I could have had that time to refine my technique prior to university. He accomplished more before coming to university than I did my whole life. He was used to practicing 4-5+ hours a day already and I could barely wrap my head around practicing that much even as a first year music major. However, by going to public school, I got the opportunity to play in band, jazz band, flute choir and sing in choir, vocal jazz, and musical theatre. These experiences contributed to my musicality. Although I didn’t really practice enough to develop solid technique, I had the musicality that can’t always be taught. To clarify, I’m by no means suggesting that home-schooled students do so specifically to practice their instruments more or be the “best” at everything. I’ve met home-schooled students in university who had a very well-rounded childhood and their intentions for being home-schooled were either because it was a family tradition or they have a self-starter personality and wanted to take control of their education.

Coming back to this post title, there is not one right way to do something. The beauty of the music world is seeing the variety of musical backgrounds that people come from. You don’t need to be a child prodigy to make it in the music world, in fact I’d almost argue that it’s better not to be. People can be very pushy like “Oh you should practice more” but it ultimately depends on what you want to achieve and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for it. If you don’t want to kill yourself practicing 5 hours a day, no one said you had to. It depends more on the person and their work ethic. There is no step-by-step process to becoming a musician and some people need to stop making one. There are people who pursue music degrees and make it in the music business who only picked up an instrument in their late teens or early twenties. I have so much respect for these people as they enter the music faculty as an older student with less technical ability than the younger students and yet they don’t let that bother them and hence they work incredibly hard. Yet, these people get criticized for “not being good enough” because they didn’t start at age 3.

My point is, there is not one right way to do something. Don’t let people tell you that what you’re doing is wrong or that you should have done this and that. You know what’s best for your life for what you want to achieve. If you don’t accomplish what you were hoping for, that’s not a “I told you so” moment for other people, you just don’t give up and try again next time.