Still Trying to Figure out Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Existential” Crisis Part 2

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

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.