Am I ready to do a master’s?

What a crazy and terrible thing to be thinking about, you might say. After all that hard work and emotional trauma to get to the position that I’m in now, you’d think that I could finally relax. Well, you thought wrong.
As excited as I am to begin this new chapter of my life, and as much as I think it is the next logical step in my musical training, I am a little bit skeptical of it, which I’m sure is normal. Part of me wishes that I waited until I was a better player musically and technically. My undergrad school offered a one year diploma program (although most people do it in two). Typically people would take it after undergrad while doing grad school auditions or use it as a pre-master’s program before starting the master’s program there. Occasionally people took it after master’s as a way of staying in school and taking more time to decide what to do with their life.
I considered doing this diploma program for a while, all the way until the beginning of fourth year. Once all the drama and emotional struggles of the school year kicked in, I soon realized that I needed to get out and that my time at that school was coming to an end. There was no way in hell I was spending one more year there. The only other options would be doing a gap year, or a similar diploma program at another school. I’m still at the point in my life where I need to still be in school, I need to keep studying and practicing. A gap year would not be conducive to my progress. I figured that if I knew I wanted to go for a master’s anyway, I might as well do it now.
Now that I’ve been accepted to a master’s program, registered for courses, found my place, etc., now I’m questioning if it was the right decision. I feel like I’ve always been “behind” or “inferior” to other musicians my age. I feel like only in the past four years have I started to make progress, but it’s not enough. Everyone else made progress as well and since they were already so far ahead of me, I will never catch up. Four years of good practice habits and a great teacher is not going to make up for 12 years of poor practicing and a not so great teacher. I only have two years of school left to get my sh!t together and then I’m out in the world. That’s scary! If things keep going the way they are now, I won’t make it. My only hope is to take an artist’s diploma (or something) after master’s, but after two years I might be done with school.
Where I am now musically and technically is where I should have been when I began my undergrad. It shouldn’t have taken me a whole undergrad to learn how to practice efficiently and address my technical issues that I’ve had for years. I came a long way in my undergrad, but it wasn’t enough. I should have started it the way I am now so that I could make some real progress. Now I feel like I could make some real progress, but I only have two years of school left. Whether I like it or not, it’s looking like I need to take an artist diploma if I have any hope of doing anything musical with my life. But there’s also that part of me that thinks that it may already be too late. As meaningless as university competitions are, I can’t help but think that never making it to the final round of the concerto competition was a sign. If I can’t even make it to the final round of some small competition at some small little school in Canada, then why do I think I have a chance at winning a national or international orchestra audition?
I think about people that I know that are starting undergrad in the fall. They are in a way better position than I am. They play at the level that I do now (if not better) and clearly have effective practice habits down to a science. If they can do that already, it’s scary to think where they will be in 6 years after they are done their master’s.
I used to believe that having  a strong work ethic was all that mattered, even if you weren’t the person who won all the competitions or the one that everyone thought was the greatest. If you were consistent and worked hard, you would be successful even if it took many years. Now I think that’s something that I told myself and teachers told me to make me feel better. I’m too far behind and I’ll never catch up even if I practiced 8 hours a day.
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I’m Still Alive

Hello there to the random people from google searches who read this blog! I still exist.

I’ve been somewhat busy lately. I went to a music program in May and after that I went to my new school/teacher to get some lessons and check out places to live, etc.

That was pretty much my big thing for the summer and now I don’t really have much going on. Part of me kind of wishes I had signed up for more programs, but at the same time, I really think this “free time” will be good for me. Part of the reason why my school year last year was so difficult is because I overloaded myself last summer. Now, I feel like I’ve under-loaded myself and I feel somewhat lost for what to do this summer. I know this is the right decision, but it’s almost too much.

So yeah, anyway, I have an undergraduate degree now. Crazy how time flies, it really honestly doesn’t feel like it was that long ago when I graduated high school! It’s actually quite insane. I’ve come such a long way musically and emotionally in just four years, and I have a long way to go yet. It’s always depressing that the better you get, the worse you get too. What I mean by that is as you get better, you realize how much more work there is to be done.

I think of my naive self in first year. It was the first time I had ever felt good about myself musically. Nobody made me self-conscious. I was confident, but not cocky. I knew I had to work hard, but I didn’t care what other people were doing. Come second year and all that disappeared. It was back to all these feelings of inadequacy and doubt that I thought I left behind in high school. It took me a long time to realize that those feelings are normal and that they don’t just magically “disappear”.

Now that I have my degree, it’s almost like I feel more inadequate than ever. Now I finally feel like I’m at where I would have liked to have been four years ago. I wish that I could play at the level I do now at the start of my undergrad. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has ever felt like this. Because of this, I did consider doing a gap year or a one year diploma program to “improve my technique”. My teacher advised me against this and said not to have a negative association with it, but a positive one. For example, instead of thinking of taking extra years of school because you suck and need to get better, think of it as an opportunity to get some more training and learn more repertoire. I decided to go ahead with Master’s because I knew I wanted to do it anyway, why prolong it? I can still take something like an Artist’s diploma afterward if I still feel like it.

I don’t know what else to really say right now. I look forward to starting my Master’s in September and I’ll definitely rant about it here if I need to! If there’s one thing I learned in my undergrad, it’s that moving away won’t magically solve your problems.

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…

Disappointment

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.

Post-Audition Life

Hello everyone! I haven’t forgotten this exists, I’ve just been busy as you can imagine. I actually finished my last audition 2 weeks ago now and I was going to write here sooner but just never got around to it.
A lot has changed since I last wrote here. My entries this [academic] year have been mostly rants about how unfair the world is and how much I hate life. I can proudly say that for the first time in almost a year I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s almost silly how good I’ve felt these past two weeks.
To keep my anonymity in this blog, I won’t mention the schools or cities that I auditioned in, but I will say that even as soon as I arrived for the first audition, I immediately felt 1000 times better. Four months before that point I considered cancelling it all and not even continuing in music. It was a huge step for me to go out into the world (well, still in Canada) and go visit these schools and play these auditions. I had some lessons with prospective teachers. They all had nice things to say about me. It’s one of the first times I’ve had lessons with new teachers and they didn’t harp on intonation, and actually, in some cases complimented it! This is a huge step for me as it’s something I’ve been self-conscious of for over a decade. I do need to work on my right hand technique a lot and all of the teachers did point that out and showed how they would work on it with me. I didn’t feel like it was condescending, which is usually what happens.
It was also amazing to meet up with friends along the way who helped me get lessons with all the teachers and showed me around their schools. There was one of the schools in particular that I felt the most like I belonged there. I had the most friends who went there and as soon as I walked into the building, I felt like I went to that school. Needless to say, it is my first choice. I am still weighing the pros and cons of the schools and have some time to make a decision though. I am also pleased to say that I’ve been accepted into that first choice school as well! I haven’t heard back from the others yet, but maybe it’s a sign that I should go there. Who knows. I’m just honoured to have been accepted into a Master’s program. A few months ago, I thought I’d never get accepted into a Master’s program and that this was the end of my music career.
In these past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying not practicing as often. I took an entire week off of practicing and it was actually amazing. I went for walks, went to hot yoga, and tried to explore some non-music hobbies. I’m also working on learning French in Duolingo as master’s programs usually require a second language. If I start now, I’ll definitely be able to pass any proficiency test in September.
I feel like this blog really doesn’t serve much of a purpose now that things are going well in my life. I don’t really have anything to rant about at this moment. Of course, that will change when grad school begins haha. I’ll be sure to talk about my grad school experience on here when that begins. I’ll have a whole new group of people to passive-aggressively rant about on 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.