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.

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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.

Seniority rules, or does it?

Happy New Year everyone! Hope you all had a great New Years with family, friends, or even just a quiet night by yourself. Trust me, after spending many New Years with my family, as much fun as we have, I miss having a quiet New Years.

I digress. This is definitely a debatable topic and there is no right or wrong answer. I’ve been in many situations where I’ve been frustrated with someone getting chosen as principal or the winner of a competition just because they’re older than I am, and also situations where a younger person is chosen because they play better than I do.

In high school and middle school I find that seniority tends to rule. Why? At that age, teachers tend not to want to hurt the students’ feelings and want to give everyone a chance. I think this is generally fair. When I was in youth orchestra and high school band, I didn’t mind when the grade 12’s were given the big solos. I thought it was a nice way to reward them for their hard work and allow them to show how they’ve progressed.

Most of the time, that is no big deal. However, what if there is a more skilled player who is in grade 10 or 11 that would play the big solo much better than the grade 12 student? Do you pick the grade 12 student because seniority rules or pick the younger student because they are a more skilled player? This is where things get kind of wishy washy. I’ve been in both situations where I’ve been the one chosen only because I’m older or I wasn’t chosen just because I was younger. I guess the simple solution is to compare their playing abilities. If the older and the younger student play equally well and either one would be qualified to play the solo or win the competition, I’d say give it to the older student. The younger student still has a few years to do something like that and if they already play that well, they’ll be even better in a few years. However, if the younger student is very clearly at a much higher level than the older student, then I think, with careful consideration, it would be appropriate to choose the younger student.

It’s not that simple though. Choosing the older student can cause some hard feelings if the younger student feels they play better. Choosing the younger student could probably cause more hard feelings. If you’ve read any of my Concerto Competition rant posts, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the sense of working so hard to make it to where you are and then someone who’s barely worked just gets lucky and takes it away from you. I felt like when I was in grade 12, I got ripped off. No recognition for what I did, just a not so friendly, “Have fun at university, now get the hell out of here!”

Despite those incidents, I feel like university is a different mentality. Some things have preferential treatment for upper year undergrads or master’s students, but other things are fair game. University is supposed to prepare you for real life and protecting people’s feelings by giving everyone a chance is not always the solution. In the real world, not everyone gets a chance, in fact very few people get a chance, especially in music. It’s not “your turn” just because you’re the oldest candidate or most qualified. You have to work to get your job and work even harder to maintain it. If your feelings get hurt in the process, good.

Even though university is a more impersonal environment than high school, depending on the school you go to, you may get even more attention than you did in high school. At a smaller university, everyone gets to play in the groups they want. If they don’t get in first year, they will eventually as the older students graduate. At larger schools, you have to audition to even get into the orchestra or concert band. If you slough it off, you don’t even get to play with a large ensemble! Even if you get in, you can get kicked out! At a smaller school like mine, you’d really have to suck to get kicked out. I’ve only seen one person get kicked out and even then, he was given several chances to redeem himself (more so than he would have gotten at a bigger school). I guess this raises another point, would going to a bigger school be better as it replicates the “real world” a bit more, or is it important to go to a small school and get the extra one-on-one attention you wouldn’t get elsewhere?

I digress (again). While my school, and presumably others, tend to take seniority into account for ensemble placement, I feel this is not necessarily considered in the competitions. In the concerto competition, first years have won two years in a row. There’s also another scholarship competition in which first years have also been highly successful. I found this a tad irritating, I’d worked for 3 years to be in the final rounds of these competitions, and some first year wonder kids just get in like it’s no big deal. But then, if the adjudicators truly thought their performance was better than mine, I guess that’s what they went with. It still is frustrating to see first years take away something that I worked so hard to have. If they had chosen myself or another upper year student, these first years would have had 3 more years to win the competition. I guess it’s the prestige of being that first year who won against all the fourth years and masters students, but still. Again, as I mentioned before, it’s preparation for the real world. My job can be taken away by someone who’s not even born yet if I don’t watch out. No one protects your feelings in the real world. In a way, these first years who won the competitions are the ones that should watch out. Just because they beat out fourth years and master’s students in their first year doesn’t mean they’re entitled to a job right after their degree.

I hope this post made sense. I guess the main point I want to make is that nothing will ever replace hard work and a strong work ethic. Whether you receive preferential treatment for being an older more advanced student, or you have strong technical skills at a young age, ultimately no one truly has an advantage over another in the real world. You can’t let early successes get to your head. If you feel like you’ve never accomplished anything, although you’ve heard this before, that just means that you’ll accomplish something even better in the future that will mean much more to you than some silly competition or getting first chair in the orchestra.

Unnecessary Rehearsals and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

I have decided to come here and discuss a pet peeve of mine that has bothered me since middle school and high school. Unfortunately, this still occurs in university and I don’t understand sometimes.

I remember being in elementary/middle/high school bands, choirs, or orchestras. In those kinds of groups, you get a wide variety of skill levels. There are students who are very dedicated and likely to go into music, students who have no intention of pursuing music but still are just as dedicated, and the students who just don’t care and are there because “My parents said I had to”. I always found in those groups the people who needed to practice the most were the ones who didn’t. The more dedicated students, or students that took music lessons outside school tended to practice regularly and could play their parts very well, even on the first reading. Despite the teacher’s best intentions to teach the kids that rehearsals are not substitute for individual practice, many students treat it that way all the way from elementary school to the end of grade 12. Honestly, if you’re not planning to pursue music in university or you don’t take private lessons, it really only takes maximum of 20 minutes a day to just run over all those difficult passages in band/choir music (perhaps more like 30-45 minutes for orchestra music). It won’t be better right away, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and improvement will happen over time. Improvement will not happen by showing up to rehearsal every week playing the passages over and over again in a sloppy manner, it only reinforces bad habits.

I’m definitely not suggesting that all high school band kids are like this by any means. When I was that age, there were plenty of students who were very dedicated to the band and really wanted to be there. I could tell they took the time to practice things that they couldn’t play and even if it wasn’t perfect right away, there was improvement each week. It’s unfortunate that even one person who doesn’t have this simple, fundamental skill of being in a music ensemble will bring the whole group down. What ends up happening is the band/choir/orchestra director will panic when the concert is coming up and the pieces still aren’t ready and schedule an extra rehearsal or sectional. Nobody in the group wants this. I remember being in a group in high school where we rehearsed only once a week. The teacher thought that would be fair as we’re all busy and it would give us more time to practice. Unfortunately, people weren’t able to take that initiative and we had to go back to rehearsing twice a week. High school kids aren’t adults, but they still have things to do; homework, other music groups, sports teams, clubs, jobs, etc. and don’t need to worry about extra rehearsals on short notice. These rehearsals are added solely for the benefit of the people who do not practice, the people in the group who took the initiative to learn their music are being unfairly punished. Essentially, these rehearsals are put in place as a substitute for practice, which is just unacceptable in my mind. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy; if you treat students like they don’t practice, they won’t. I remember in high school choir, our song wasn’t sounding so great and people hadn’t learned the words yet and just as we were leaving rehearsal, the teacher said “We’re rehearsing tomorrow at 7:30am” and expected everyone to be there. I remember that same teacher expecting us to come into school on days off or holidays if we needed that time. That would never happen in a professional orchestra. Yes, it is for the benefit of the group. It would be much better to schedule extra rehearsals than have a half-baked performance, but wouldn’t it be better if the people in question did their job? Who is to blame; the teacher for not getting after these students to practice or the student for not practicing? I don’t have an answer as it really does depend on the context and the people involved.

Part of the problem could be the long period of time between performances that elementary/middle/high school music groups have. The group will start rehearsing in September and there may not be a concert until November or December. Most students would probably think, why spend hours practicing the music in September when we don’t need to perform it until December? It’s not that simple. If you were running a marathon on September 1, would you start training on August 31? If you were trying out for a sports team, would you start practicing the night before? It’s the same thing with playing a musical instrument. Just because you don’t have a performance coming up in a week doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be practicing. The kids who take piano, violin, or cello lessons from a young age tend to be more successful if they take up band or choir later in school as they are used to the idea of practicing every day to not only learn the music, but to refine their technique and overall musicianship. This can be a hard message to convey to someone who just picked up an instrument for the first time in grade 6 band, but it is still important if they want to be a valuable member of any musical ensemble. It is irrelevant if these students intend to pursue music beyond high school or not, they are still playing in a musical ensemble and need to work as a team. If they aren’t willing to practice or learn their music, then they should not play with the group at all. Unfortunately, the “my parents made me be in band/choir” people are still around until the end of grade 12.

In a university music program, you’d think that we’ve matured a little bit from this. Well, I guess it would depend on the school, but not always the case. Obviously, the “my parents made me be here” people would never get into a university music program anywhere. If they do by some miracle, they are weeded out by first year. Because in university, we are now adults, the profs cannot schedule extra rehearsals on short notice. I believe there’s some policy the prof cannot add any extra class meetings, assessments, etc. that are not listed on the class syllabus distributed at the beginning of the term. However, there have been many times where I felt we had more rehearsals than necessary. We used to have a conductor who would give us no break between concerts. For example, if we had a concert in late November, we would be expected to rehearse the music in December for our concert which wasn’t until February. Of course I never really said anything but it didn’t make sense. Any work we did in December would be forgotten when we resumed after the break in January. It would have also been nice to have a break to study for finals and stuff.

Our current conductor gives us breaks between concerts only sometimes. We just had a concert last night and I was actually really hoping that there wouldn’t be rehearsal tomorrow. We haven’t received the music for the next concert and it would be better if we had fewer rehearsals that were more productive. I get an email today that we are having a rehearsal but it’ll be more or less a sight reading session. I couldn’t believe what I had read. I could do that in my own practice room on my own time. I honestly think sight reading as a group at the university level is a complete waste of time. Yes, sight reading is a valuable skill to practice, but you shouldn’t waste 50 people’s time to practice this skill (*cough* chamber music reading parties *cough*) If you haven’t looked at your music, don’t even go to rehearsal. But here is that self-fulfilling prophecy again. The conductor is basically having this rehearsal as a substitute for individual practice. He basically thinks that the people in the orchestra will not look at the music unless we have a “group reading session”. Pardon me for having a bad attitude, but this is absolute bull$h!t. People in the university orchestra are preparing for a professional career (for the most part). There is no luxury of a low-pressure group reading session in a professional orchestra, so why would we have that in university? If people don’t look at their music, they need to learn that lesson themselves. This is not doing any favours for students planning to have an orchestral career. I was almost thinking of skipping this rehearsal just to make a statement, but literally my only motivation to go is that I will get in trouble if I don’t. It’s just so frustrating that I am in university, almost done my undergrad, and I am being treated like a child and I am kind of forced into acting like one too. I should be going to rehearsals because I want to, not because I’m afraid of getting in trouble with the profs.

Teachers from elementary school to university really need to stop running on the self-fulfilling prophecy. How are students going to learn to take responsibility if they are constantly spoon fed with extra, unnecessary rehearsals? This doesn’t just apply to music students either, the self-fulfilling prophecy is evident in pretty much any classroom for any subject. For example, I remember having random “homework checks” in math. The only reason I would do homework would be so I would get the arbitrary marks on the homework check, not so I would learn and reinforce the math concept into my mind. If a student fails the math test because they didn’t do any of the assignments, that’s their fault, not the fault of the teacher for not doing homework checks. I actually found that the class average was higher in classes where the teacher didn’t do any homework checks. Not treating high school students and adults like children actually causes them to smarten up and do their work.

Fourth Year Struggles

Hello again! My postings on this blog are somewhat sporadic but I just haven’t really been in the mood to write anything lately (as you will see later on in this post). I began my fourth year of school two weeks ago and it hasn’t been treating me well.

I arrived on Saturday the 5th. I unpacked some stuff at my place and eventually got too tired so I just went to bed and planned to continue the next day. I didn’t think much of it. I woke up on Sunday and went about my day as usual. I was out for dinner with my parents. They had dropped me off and were planning to go back home the next morning so I wanted to go out with them before they left. I was fine when we got to the restaurant but all of a sudden this wave of extreme fatigue hit me. I was just so physically exhausted out of nowhere, I couldn’t even finish my meal. I was planning to hang out with my parents a bit more but I was just so drained that I had them take me home. It was 8:00pm. I went straight to bed and woke up on Monday morning (the labour day holiday) at noon. Mind you I wasn’t sleeping the whole time, I had trouble falling asleep as I had a lot on my mind and there were some loud hooligans in the hallway. On Monday I spent almost the entire day in bed watching YouTube videos. I would drag myself out of bed occasionally to go eat something but then it was right back to my YouTube watching. You’d think I was recovering from surgery or something. Getting in contact with my friends to see what they were up to was out of the question.

I didn’t really think much of it at first but I began to think that maybe there was something wrong. Normally I’m as motivated as ever to begin a school year and then later on I lose my motivation. Never have I began a school year wanting to lay in bed all day and not talk to anyone. Why the lack of motivation? Part of it was the summer program I was in. I had done the exact program in summer 2014 and it was amazing. I began third year more motivated then ever and I worked incredibly hard that year in all aspects. I do the same program again in 2015 and it has the opposite affect. I come back to school feeling defeated and inadequate. The level of playing at the program was exceptionally high this summer and I just felt like I didn’t belong musically. I’d see all these amazing people doing amazing things that I’ll never get an opportunity to do or be able to do and it just made me think, “Why do I bother?”

Also, what comes with being a fourth year is the looming thought of what I will do next year. Of course, there are the societal pressures to go to grad school. Ever since I was in grade 12 I knew I wanted to go to grad school. There was no question about it. Now, I’m not so sure if I should even continue in music. I really want to, it is something that I love doing and I can picture myself having a career in, but I am concerned if I am disciplined/skilled enough and have the mental fortitude to pursue it. I mean, if I get so offended and heartbroken from losing some meaningless competition at my school, how would I handle losing an audition at a professional orchestra? I can’t sit around in my room crying for days every time something doesn’t go my way in the real world. There is also the option of taking a year off but that is also frowned upon by people. The more years you spend working, the harder it is to go back to being a student.

I was always so opposed to and disturbed by the idea of taking a year off, but now I honestly think it might be best for my mental health. After two summers of doing programs, I feel like I’ve been in school nonstop since the beginning of second year. I haven’t had a real break. As sad as it sounds, I’m at a point where I need a break from music. The pressures of being a music student/musician are getting to me too much. But then again, maybe the summer is all I need and I can have a fresh start next year at grad school. As much as I want a break, if I start grad school right away after my undergrad, then I can be done and take as long of a break as I want. If I take a year off, it will be nice but I will only be prolonging my schooling. Why is life so hard?

I thought once classes started and I got into a routine I’d snap out of whatever this was. Not really the case. I haven’t had any days where I spent the entire day lying in bed, but I haven’t exactly been in the practice rooms for my 4+ hours a day either. If anything, this is the year where I need to get my sh*t together and practice more than ever. But no. It’s not that I haven’t practiced, I’ve made some good progress on the Clarke Sonata and my unaccompanied Bach, I’ve just been dragging my heels on my concerto and my other recital rep which I haven’t even confirmed yet. Yay me. I have to have all this rep learned by January/February if I’m going to be doing grad school auditions and I’ve wasted most of September moping around. I mean, it’s not too late to turn things around. There’s still 9 or so days left in September and at least 3 or 4 months left. I thought I’d gotten myself back on track last week, but then I fell back into my moping again. It’s kind of concerning, if I don’t start getting my act together soon, then I won’t be able to learn my rep in time for grad school auditions and I’ll have no choice but to take a year off. At least if I can push myself through the auditions, I have the option to change my mind or defer it for another year.

I guess if it’s any solace, I’m probably not the first music student, and won’t be the last, to feel like this in fourth year. It’s a stressful time. I’m so close to the end of my schooling and the beginning of my professional life. There are so many options available to me both in music and not in music. I guess I just have to take things one step at a time and get through this year first. I’ve gotten through 3 years of university, why should this one be any different? I have to find that sense of motivation and determination within myself. It’s there, I know it. I wouldn’t have made it this far if it wasn’t. I need some more positive self talk, rather than focusing on negative things.

Student Recitals

If you’re a music performance major, one thing you’ll be familiar with is putting together a recital in April or some time near the end of the school year. Hours and hours of preparation go into this recital in terms of individual practice and rehearsing with pianists. It is also a humbling feeling to see your friends, fellow students, family, and teachers who have taken time out of their lives to come support you and your hard work. It is definitely a more rewarding way to end the school year then doing a jury for a small panel.

The sad part about these student recitals is it can often feel like pulling teeth to get people to come to your recital. I’ve been to many student recitals that were very well done and very poorly attended. With the amount of work that everyone puts into these recitals, regardless of how “good” they are, they deserve an audience of at least 50-60, which is virtually impossible for a school recital. At least at my school, you’re lucky to get an audience of 20.

If the music is so high quality and the students work so hard, why are the audiences so small? Well, several factors. First of all is the competition factor. In April there are dozens of other people also putting on recitals. In many cases, there are days with 2 or 3, possibly more recitals. There could be multiple recitals occurring at the same time at different venues too. It’s hard to sell your recital as the one to go to when there are dozens of others around the same time that people could attend. Having your recital too late in April or May will run the risk of people being “recitaled out” or they’ve gone home for the summer and they just won’t bother. Having your recital in March or early April may guarantee a larger audience, but are these people there to genuinely support you? At my school at least, you have to attend so many student recitals and professional concerts each year as part of your grade. The cut off date is in mid-April. Student recitals before that cut off date count as a credit and you’ll often see random people in the audience for those recitals. For me at least, I much prefer a smaller audience of people who genuinely support me rather than a large audience of random people who are just trying to squeeze in some last minute credits. No matter how much advertising you do, it is so easy for your recital to be lost in the mix of dozens of other similar recitals.

Another factor that, unfortunately, comes into play is popularity. You’d think that by university we’d mature a bit from high school cliques and popularity contests. Sadly, that is not the case in most music faculties. Some people are “popular” because they are “really good” and won blah blah competition or whatever. Some people are just known by everyone in the faculty for whatever reason. As soon as this person is having a recital, everyone is just there no matter what. It’s unfortunate that the people in the faculty who are “really good” pretty much get a guaranteed audience for their recital whereas the people who “aren’t as good” but work just as hard don’t get the same respect.

How many people you know from off-campus or outside the music faculty also has an impact. These people may not know as many people in the music faculty and would probably only hear about a few recitals. Since they are not bombarded with dozens of recital posters, they may be more likely to attend yours. I have always found that people that live at home have a decent sized audience at their recitals. They basically have a guaranteed audience of their parents, siblings, friends from high school, extended family, and other people they may know outside of the university community. Those people plus other students can add up to a decent sized audience.

Could the fault be in promotion? Most people will only advertise their recital with posters on campus and Facebook. While this is a great way to get the word out to thousands of people with the click of a button, it is a very passive form of advertising. While thousands of people will know about your recital, they may not be compelled to attend, especially if they’ve already received dozens of invites to other similar events. The best way to get people to attend is to personally invite them. Some people need a personal invitation to get the motivation to go to an event like a recital, especially if they’re not from the music faculty, they may feel like they aren’t allowed to come or feel intimidated to attend a classical music recital. Facebook events can easily be forgotten or ignored. Perhaps if some students reached out to local newspapers, online event listings outside Facebook, or put up posters in off-campus coffee shops they would have more success in attendance to their recital. Of course, if every single student did this for their recital, then the same problem of competition would be present again. But again, even with putting up posters around the off-campus community, people may not feel compelled to attend a student recital for someone they don’t know or have never heard of. Once again, people who live at home for university have the advantage. I know I’ve done recitals in my hometown which were far better attended then any student recital I’ve been to at my school because I have the advantage of having family, friends, and other people I know that will attend my recital for sure.

As a music student, how do you navigate recital season? There are so many recitals and nobody in their right mind is able to attend every single one. How do you pick and choose without creating drama and hard feelings? Ultimately, you just have to figure out who you most want to support. For me personally, I try my best to attend as many string recitals as possible. I also try to attend recitals for people that I talk to on a regular basis or played with in a chamber group. Of course, we all have busy lives and there are times where I’m unable to go to someone’s recital as I have a conflict or I’ve gone home for the summer. I can’t be constantly worried about creating hard feelings because I went to A’s recital but not B’s. I am sometimes tempted just to not go to anyone’s recital, but then I’d feel guilty for not supporting anyone and I can’t expect people to attend my recital if I’m not going to go to any myself.

My third year recital was poorly attended, even worse than other poorly attended recitals that I’ve been to. I tried not to stare into the audience, but there couldn’t have been more than 8 people there. I did what I could to get the word out, I put posters around the music building, the rest of campus, and made a Facebook event, but so did dozens of other people for their recitals. A lot of it was the timing. I’d chosen a late April recital and I know there were a lot of people who would have attended but they had gone home for the summer. It was also a busy night in terms of other concerts happening around the community. Many students were involved with those concerts and couldn’t attend my recital, which was very understandable. There were several people who had the decency to wish me good luck or message me and say that they couldn’t make it but wished they could be there. Then there were several people that weren’t there that really should have been and to this day I wonder why they weren’t there. I was thinking that at the very least all the violists would be there and none of them were there. Only 2 or 3 other string players were there. I know a lot of people said that they couldn’t come and that’s fine, but there are a lot of people who should have been there and didn’t say anything. I was initially a bit hurt that a lot of the string players didn’t come to my recital. I didn’t care about having a large audience or anything, but I went out of my way for the past 3 years to attend string recitals and it was quite sad that gesture wasn’t reciprocated to me. It didn’t help that there was another string recital that evening. I’d picked the day first, but perhaps people liked the other string player better and “picked and chose”. I didn’t attend the other recital as I wanted to relax and celebrate that night and she didn’t attend mine as she was preparing for hers. I’ll never know who attended that recital but it would be somewhat heartbreaking if all the string players were there and not at mine.

Ultimately, you really can’t get mad at people for not attending your recital. It’s not a fair accusation. My school has to create a concert credit incentive system to get people to attend concerts and there are many schools where this is not required and students will go out of their way to attend other student recitals regardless. Once the cut off day for credit has passed, the April recitals become increasingly poorly attended. It’s not fair that those who have recitals in March or early April get a guaranteed audience of procrastinators for their audience. It’s sad that people who play the same instrument may not always go out of their way to attend their fellow peer’s recital even if that means going back to school after they’re done finals. I can’t really be mad at anyone or blame myself for doing anything wrong. If anything, I should be thankful for those 8 people who took time out of their day to come support me.