Coming to Terms with Myself

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

I Just Wanted to Be Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.