The question all music majors ask themselves at some point. It is a career path with such uncertainty and no one knows where they’ll be in 5 years. While you’re in school, you are subject to so much criticism (albeit constructive), but it’s normal to fell like you suck. Today, I had somewhat of a quasi mental breakdown.
With grad school auditions coming up, I often worry if I will be good enough. I question every thing I have ever done in my life and find myself being concerned with “If I did this one thing differently, everything would be better”. I think about my time when I was in high school and growing up in my hometown. If you’ve read any previous entries in this blog, you’ll know that I have always felt like I got the short end of the stick. I had to watch other people constantly win competitions, even when they didn’t necessarily deserve it. I felt like the classical music version of Leonardo DiCaprio (that awkward moment if you’re reading this entry in the future and he actually won an Oscar). I always had this thought in the back of my mind that I would have a chance of winning these competitions as the people who were older than me graduated and moved away. It turns out the people younger than me took over. I remember very distinctly at the place I took my music lessons at had an awards ceremony at the end of the year where they handed out various scholarships/medals to hard-working students. They had this very prestigious award (or at least that was what I thought it was) that was called the Director’s gold medal or something. Basically, you get your name added to the plaque on the wall and everyone thinks you’re the greatest person on earth. Naturally, I wanted this award more than anything. The things they looked for were attendance and preparation in lessons, a high level of performance, and participation in recitals. I went out of my way to make sure I excelled in those areas. In grade 11, I was up every morning at 6am to squeeze in an extra hour of practice before school. I performed in 5 or 6 recitals that year too. I didn’t get selected and I was initially quite upset because that was the year I wanted it so I could put it on my resume for university applications. I eventually got over it and focused on trying to get it for grade 12. You know what happens next though. I did not receive this award in grade 12. I was just as consistent with my preparation for lessons and work ethic, yet it was not noticed. I felt like all that work was for “nothing”. The part that made it a huge slap in the face was that they had given it to someone who was a year younger than me, had won it in the past, and wasn’t planning to go into music. I was convinced that there were people from my hometown that were just closed-minded and didn’t think I had the potential to succeed in a career in music so they all conspired to make sure that I never won any competitions or awards.
When I did go away to pursue music, I forgot about a lot of this stuff and didn’t let it bother me. At the same time, it was still in the back of my mind. I was convinced that so and so was out there rooting for me to fail and drop out of music. It almost gave me this sense that I needed to prove that I was good enough and that I was doing well. After first year I entered the music festival in my hometown. There were a lot of university kids who had the same idea though, so I didn’t really win anything. It wasn’t as embarrassing though because these people were already older and better than me and it would have taken a miracle for me to play better than them. After my second year, I entered in the same festival again. It turned out that I was the oldest competitor this time so while I tried not to let it get to my head, I thought that I might have a better chance. I did win some of the competitions that I’d entered in for years, but it wasn’t really a satisfying win, it was more or less just expected given I was the oldest, most qualified, and musical candidate. There were a couple times I lost to the “superstar little kids” who were still in high school at the time. Needless to say it was slightly embarrassing, as a music major, to lose to people who were still in high school. I got selected to the provincial festival and got beaten out by a cellist who was a 3rd year engineering student. Whaaaat? That was the last year I did the music festival in my hometown and I can’t see myself doing it ever again in my life.
If you have read anything on this blog before, you know that I’m not exactly having more success at my school currently with respect to competitions. I know competitions aren’t everything, but I still can’t help but wonder what I’ve been doing wrong all these years. Yes, intonation is probably my biggest struggle, but it can’t be the only thing. It’s not my instrument choice either, I’ve watched other violists and other “underdog” instruments like guitar or bassoon win competitions. I would totally be best buds with Leo DiCaprio at this rate, except he has a better chance of winning an Oscar than I do of winning a competition. I’ve given up on entering competitions at my school too. There’s a scholarship competition in January coming up soon and I’m just like f*ck it. I will be out of town for the final round anyway so if I did enter, although no matter how well I play I wouldn’t make it to the finals, I’d still feel like I have to go out of my way to slough it off which isn’t worth it. I’m tired of feeling like a worthless piece of sh!t as this is not conducive to my 4th year recital and grad school auditions coming up. Competitions make me feel like sh!t, when I don’t enter them, I’m fine.
It does concern me on a larger scale though. The two cities I’ve lived in are relatively small centres in Canada as a whole. It’s really not hard to stand out, but somehow I am unsuccessful at that. My concern is that if I can’t even get recognized for a silly thing like the director’s gold medal or the university concerto competition, how am I going to make it on the national and international level? There is no “better luck next time” or “keep up the good work” in the real world. I can only be unsuccessful at so many auditions before I have to give up and find a career outside music. I can’t continue this 10+ year “dry spell” that I’ve been having much longer. I need to start standing out and achieving things. I worry that because I don’t have the skills to stand out in small schools/cities that I will not stand out in grad school auditions either. There will be students from all over the country and possibly internationally as well that are competing against me. I may be good enough for my small school (who isn’t, let’s be real) but I’m applying to the big schools in Canada and they may not have so much tolerance for my sh!t. One out of tune note and I’m gone. I’m taking a huge risk too, if I don’t get accepted into one of the three schools I’m applying to, I have to wait a whole year to try again. I should have applied to the school I go to currently for master’s as a backup, but I’m not that desperate to do a master’s that I would attend my school for another 2 years. I’ve had enough of this place. I guess if I don’t get into a master’s I’m not going through all this application and audition sh!t again so that’s the end of the road for my music career. To recap, if I f*ck up with my auditions, I’m potentially screwing up my whole life. No pressure.
But the problem is I have mental breakdowns like these, then I’ll turn around and have the most successful practice session. Now I’m back to feeling confident and motivated about my auditions. Why can’t I make up my mind and just be confident or just be depressed? I figured out this section that I was really struggling with in one of my pieces. I rehearsed with the pianist and had a coaching with my teacher and it just was not a good time at all, but I fixed it! I really fixed it! I guess the important thing to remember is you always accomplish things, even if they seem futile or mundane to others or yourself. I just sometimes have to ignore all these people out there and winning competitions and focus on my little successes of figuring out a tricky rhythm. The grass isn’t greener on the other side either. For example, I always liked the idea of winning the concerto competition in 3rd year so I could play with the orchestra in 4th year and it would be like a nice “send-off” or “grad gift”. Now that I’m in 4th year, I’m incredibly thankful I’m not preparing a concerto to play with the orchestra on top of all my grad school and recital sh*t! I’m in way over my head with the stuff I have to do, I couldn’t imagine doing much more at the moment!
I’m just keeping my eyes on the prize. Things are so stressful right now with my grad school auditions around the corner. Before I leave, I’m doing my 4th year recital! It’s pretty insane! But I know that in March, I will be so thankful I got all of that done and I can just enjoy the last 2 months of my undergrad. I can learn any pieces I want, do some more chamber music stuff, and just relax. And then this summer, I’m going to learn how to take a real break. I only applied to 3 programs, which are 2-3 weeks (no longer than a month). I will only do whichever ones I get accepted to basically. Then, I can do whatever I want with no specific purpose. And then grad school (if I make it) starts. Yay me!
This past week has been a very rough week for me. I don’t think it’s the concerto competition alone that’s caused that kind of stress, but it is a contributor.
On Tuesday, I mentioned in my previous post that I had a class with one of the profs on the panel. Yeah, I ended up skipping that class and lying in bed the whole day. I’ve seen the prof since then and he didn’t bring up the competition or anything, but I still get a sense that he knows the real reason why I wasn’t in class. I won’t bring it up if he doesn’t. I felt a bit guilty for doing nothing that day so I went to the school later that night to practice. It was going alright at first and then I just broke down crying and had to leave.
On Wednesday I knew I just needed to go somewhere that wasn’t school. I don’t have any classes on Wednesday until orchestra later in the afternoon so I went to the mall. I had some ice cream, bought some tea, checked out some stores and bused back to school for orchestra. It was refreshing, but only temporary.
Last night was the final round of the competition. I always feel obligated to attend as I entered the competition and I should support my peers yadda yadda. I don’t want people to think that by my absence I’m acting out or being bitter that I wasn’t chosen for the finals. At the same time, I still felt stressed out and bothered (by grad school applications as well, not the competition alone) and they always say, you have to take care of yourself before you can support others. I decided a reasonable compromise would be to show up fashionably late and catch most of the performances and of course, the big reveal.
I’ll be honest I was not pleased by the level of playing at the final round at all really. I’ve attended final rounds for these competitions in the past, and there have been better competitors selected. I’m not trying to say that I would have been a more qualified candidate, but I was somewhat displeased by the results.
They chose that singer and a cellist to play with the orchestra next year and a french horn and a saxophone to play with the wind ensemble. The only person that really had a stellar performance and legitimately deserved it was the singer, ironically enough she was the person I was originally most upset about being in the final. The cellist had a lot of intonation, note accuracy, and projection issues. If he can’t even play with confidence with a piano, then he will struggle with an orchestra. The saxophonist had a lot of confidence and musicality, but it was very messy. I get the piece was crazy hard, but you shouldn’t win a competition just because you played a crazy hard piece and lived to tell the tale. I’ve seen that happen too many times in my lifetime and it’s frustrating as hell. The French horn player actually played really well. There were some notes that he missed, but I mean that’s hard as a young French horn player. Everything else about his performance (confidence, musicality, etc.) was right on. I don’t know what to think. I feel like the panel almost chose people based on the pieces they were playing or how old they were or other arbitrary criteria that should have no relevance in a competition.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone after all, but I guess I would have heard the results regardless. It’s not a secret at a small faculty like mine. People who weren’t at the competition will idolize the winners like they’re the greatest people on earth. The people who didn’t win are losers. I have no place in the faculty because I’m just some idiot violist. This is why I hate competitions.
It makes me wonder, what’s wrong with me? I’m not saying this to be cocky, but I know that I play at the level to be winning competitions like these. I’m not saying that I could have played better than any of the competitors, but I do play at that level. I’ve had experiences and done very prestigious summer programs that a lot of people at my school have never had, yet I’m still not good enough to win a silly competition at my school. I really don’t get it sometimes. Like, the summer program I’ve done the past two years, I was selected from a national pool. Some people work for many years to be selected for that program just once, and I was one of five from my school. Here I am, being recognized nationally, yet my own school doesn’t give a sh!t about me. Real nice.
I always thought that my lack of success at winning competitions was due to the closed-mindedness of the people from my hometown. There was basically a group of 2 or 3 people that would win every competition and rotate depending who played better that night. If you’re not one of those 2 or 3 people, you’re SOL, no matter how hard you worked. I used to think that if I worked really hard, I could win a competition, but nope. It’s not that simple. I wasn’t one of the elites. I thought when I went away for school, things would be different. Boy was I wrong. The common denominator is me. No matter which city I live in, no one will appreciate me for whatever arbitrary reasons there may be.
Oh yes, here I am again. It’s sad that this blog has become more of a space to rant about recent events, but it really does help me to put my thoughts, irrational as they may be, into words. I haven’t really had time to do legitimate blog posts lately and I don’t know when I will ever have that time, but I digress.
I’ve made posts like this one before. I could call this post “My beef with Concerto Competitions Part 3” but I won’t. If you need some background, feel free to read my previous posts. If not, I totally understand.
Part 1: https://confessionsofaviolist.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/my-beef-with-concerto-competitions-part-1/
Part 2: https://confessionsofaviolist.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/my-beef-with-concerto-competitions-part-2/
So, assuming you read or skimmed the posts linked above , you’re probably wondering, “Why would you enter another concerto competition after experiences like those?” My response is I don’t even know. You think that I would learn that I suck and will never get better. But no, there is part of me that just won’t give up and insists on putting myself out there to be shot down. But I guess that’s life.
To be fair, I wasn’t originally planning to even enter the concerto competition this year. I figured if I didn’t win in fourth year that it was a lost cause. There’s always a prejudice against fourth years in the competition as many of them go away for grad school and the school would never pay to fly someone in to play a concerto. No reason why they couldn’t pick a fourth year, but the plane ticket would be on them. I need to learn two movements of a concerto for grad school auditions, so it just seemed like a convenient way to get a run through of it and make sure the first movement was learned by November. I entered mostly just as an excuse to practice and get going on my concerto. I was dragging my heels most of September so I worked hard to learn the first movement in basically one month.
I went in to the competition knowing my mistakes from previous years and said that I would not get hurt regardless of what happened. I was just going to go in, play my movement, then focus on other rep. It wasn’t until I had the first rehearsal with my pianist that kind of changed things. I sounded like crap the first rehearsal, but that’s normal. It’s always a bit of an adjustment when you put it together with piano. Despite that, my pianist was quite impressed. She said the piece was really cool and that I’d have potential to win the competition based on the piece. She said I have the musicality and everything. I hate it when people say stuff like this to me because when I don’t win then I just feel like even more of a loser. All of a sudden I have expectations to live up to.
Obviously you can’t let stuff like that get to your head. I did, a little bit, it’s hard not to frankly. It wasn’t in an extreme way. I still practiced the piece and prepared just as I would for any performance. I didn’t do anything special and tried not to think about it too much.
Honestly, looking back, I don’t know where my pianist/myself got the idea that it would be possible to make it to the final round. I picked out the piece and had the music since May, but I didn’t really get down to serious work on it until very late September and October. I was competing against people who had been working on their pieces much longer than that. I didn’t play poorly, but ultimately it didn’t have the same maturity as it would if I had been working on it longer.
So, basically, you know the drill. I go in, play, mess up a bunch of stuff and play horridly out of tune, try to convince myself that it wasn’t a total disaster, and then see the list of the people who were selected to move on and now it’s the end of the world as we know it. I saw the list of the people who made it to the final round and was once again, unimpressed and all like “Why that person and not me?” They picked a guitarist for the final round. Guitar is even more of an underdog instrument for a competition like this than viola. If a guitarist can get in, why can’t I? Also a freaking soprano got in. It’s a CONCERTO competition, f*** off singers!!
It’s just generally an awkward situation. Part of me is like, I only intended to enter as a way of getting a run through of my piece and I got just that. The other part of me was hoping (as I do every single f***ing competition) that this time would be different. Maybe this would be the time that someone recognizes my hard work. But of course not, why would anyone care what I do or how hard I work? I’m just a violist. I also have been forced to let go of having the opportunity to play with an orchestra. I’ll never get to have that experience. I don’t really care about that anymore, but still it’s hard to accept, being something that I’ve wanted for so many years.
Why do I keep entering competitions? Good question. You’d think I would have given up years ago. I wish I did, then I wouldn’t feel like I suck every day of my life. People always say it’s a good experience and prepares you for orchestral auditions. I would almost disagree. When I’m auditioning for an orchestral position, I don’t have to worry about freaking pianists, violinists, and flutists taking my spot. I only have to compete against other violists. Entering these competitions is a waste of time, as I will never win no matter how hard I work or how optimistic I try to feel. At the same time, the fact that I am still in music and still entering competitions after losing so many is miraculous. I like to think that I have the mental fortitude and thick skin to keep going in a career of music. I have never been one of those people were everything was easy and I effortlessly won everything and everyone was in love with me. No, I slave away for hours and no one gives a sh*t! As much as I’d love for one shiny moment to be that person that everyone’s proud of and does all these amazing things, I think it’s more valuable to be the person who works hard and slaves away and no one seems to care. Because guess what, that’s life!
Okay, I actually need to go to bed. I have class tomorrow morning, with one of the profs that was on the panel which I’m super tempted to skip because he probably hates me and I feel like I really just need a day away from school. I don’t care if that makes me sound like a brat.