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.
I thought this would be an interesting topic to discuss. I’ve definitely addressed it before, but perhaps not from this angle.
As musicians, we are definitely perfectionists. If you’re not a perfectionist, you’re not working hard enough. But in all seriousness, it is the nature of what we do. The music field is so competitive that any little advantage you can have over someone is to your benefit. A big downside of being a perfectionist is having to deal with inevitable disappointment. Whether you’re just playing the first notes on your instrument or a world famous soloist touring the world, you’ve experienced some form of disappointment and it won’t stop any time soon.
I guess my issue with dealing with disappointment is that I tend to think that I am weaker or inferior to others, therefore warranting that my sense of disappointment is more crippling than theirs. For example, someone would say that they were disappointed they didn’t win ______ competition and I’d be thinking “I’d be honoured to even get selected to the final round of that competition”. Another one that bugs me too is when people complain about the orchestra when they’re doing a concerto. I would do anything to have that opportunity even once in my life. I find myself thinking, why can’t these people be thankful for what they have? But then I can say that to myself too…
That being said, there are definitely opportunities that I have had that lots of people don’t normally get the opportunity to do at my age. It may not have the prestige of winning a competition, but it’s still something to be proud of. To be honest, I would probably cherish these opportunities more than I ever would winning a competition. Why then, is that not good enough for me? Why do I still get disappointed when I hear that so and so has won yet another competition?
This all goes back to the idea of being a perfectionist. It is a fine balance that I don’t think anyone ever truly achieves. You don’t want to settle for mediocrity and just go through life doing an okay job, but you also can’t get upset every time something doesn’t go your way. You have to learn how to appreciate what you’ve done without settling and say that’s “good enough”.
Also, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s easy to say “Oh, I wish my life was like this person because they win everything. My life would be so much easier.” That comes with a certain type of pressure too. For these people that win every single competition, perhaps they feel like if they mess up one time and don’t win something, they’ll never hear the end of it. For me, I guess the only person I really disappoint is myself when I don’t win something because no one would expect that from me. I’m glad that I didn’t grow up being that kid who won everything. I’m not suggesting that’s a better way to be, but I find that I am stronger mentally. It doesn’t always seem that way based on posts in this blog, but I’m still here and I’m still in music, so I clearly have something going for me.
I guess I’m guilty of being that person who’s sitting around and waiting for their life to happen. I see everyone else accomplish things and wish that I could have some of that. But, I do. I have accomplished things. I’m going to grad school next year for crying out loud. Other people’s accomplishments always seem more important than mine and I think we all feel that to an extent.
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.