My beef with concerto competitions part 2

Part 1: https://confessionsofaviolist.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/my-beef-with-concerto-competitions-part-1/

When I started my first year of undergrad, I knew that I was not ready to enter in the concerto competition, or any other competition for that matter. It was too soon after my experience described in part 1. I needed to rebuild my confidence and the best way to do that was to not perform in competitions. I focused my attention more toward performing in student recitals and practicing to build up my technique. I’ve always found recitals to be a confidence booster because no one that matters is judging you or comparing you to others. People will come hear you to genuinely support you and your performance was appreciated.

In my second year of undergrad, I decided to be brave and go for the concerto competition. I figured I’d regained my footing from my experience in high school and I could get back in the game. I had started working on  the Hindemith Der Schwanendreher over the summer and the competition was in November. The competition was a great way for me to get focused and motivated at the beginning of the year to get the first movement learned and memorized. I played at the competition and I thought that I actually played quite well given that I’d only really been working on the piece for about 6 months.

I never expected to be selected for the final round yet when they posted the results of the competition on Monday, but for some reason not seeing my name on that list still felt like a slap on the face. It was like the universe reminding me that I have no place to be entering a concerto competition as a violist. It seemed like all the string players that had entered were chosen for the final round except for me. That darn violinist that I complain about all the time was of course selected too. I was quite annoyed that a first year had been selected instead of me, especially given that I didn’t enter that competition in my first year. I tried not to let on to the rest of the music faculty that I was upset as everyone always cares so much about the competitions and who gets chosen and blah blah.

One of my fellow violists asked me how it went when I played for the preliminary round and I said something like “I thought I played very well, but I didn’t end up getting selected to the final round”. What she responded with bothered me even more, “Oh well, you’re a violist, don’t worry about it.” She didn’t mean anything by it and she was only trying to be friendly, but that comment bothered me and still bothers me to this day. Was she insinuating that I’m not good enough? That I shouldn’t enter competitions? That I’m one of those “who does she think she is” people? Regardless of what was meant by the comment, what shocked me the most is that it came from a violist. I’ve heard similar comments being made by other violists too since then. Being a lesser common instrument and being cast as the “inferior” instrument, I always felt a special sense of camaraderie between violists that you don’t see within any other instrument. Violinists, pianists, and flutists hate each other as they’re so competitive with each other (yes, stereotyping, but it’s generally true). That’s one of the main aspects that drew me toward the viola. It just hurts a little to see that we make comments like that to each other. Yes, viola is not a competition winning instrument and most violists make a career as a teacher, professor, or orchestral/chamber musician, but that does not mean that we can’t enter competitions or put on solo recitals if we want to. It just breaks my heart a bit that violists would discourage other violists for entering competitions or justify a loss by saying “It’s because I’m a violist”. In a competition, it’s about who plays with the best technique and musicality, not about what instrument they play.

When third year came along, I figured my best plan of action was to play Der Schwanendreher again. I hadn’t learned a new concerto that summer. I thought that if I played the same piece again with better intonation, overall accuracy, musicality, and all that fun stuff that I would have a chance at the final round. I gave the piece a rest over the summer and brought it back in mid-August and found that I had so much more to bring to it, both technically and musically. I had a breakthrough in working on intonation and other technical issues I’d been battling for years. I also found I was practicing a lot more than in did in first and second year. In the weeks leading up to the competition, I was easily practicing 4+ hours a day on just the Hindemith, not including my other rep. I was incredibly determined.

When I played at the preliminary round, it didn’t go as well as I wanted it to and I was quite bothered. I had played it much better at a student recital only a few weeks before. If only I could have copied and pasted that performance into the concerto competition. I tried not to worry about it over the weekend, perhaps maybe my performance wasn’t as bad as I thought it was and that I was just being hard on myself. When the results came on Monday, it was once again a slap on the face. My name was not on the list and this time it hurt even more. I put so much time and effort into this piece, more so than the previous year. I felt like I had wasted a lot of time and effort for a crappy performance. One thing that I find especially hard with competitions is it always feels like your performance wasn’t appreciated unless you win. Everyone is judging you harshly.

Now, going into my fourth year I feel so conflicted about entering the concerto competition this year. On one level, there’s the “I’ve got nothing to lose” mentality. At the same time, I don’t want to go through that again. I don’t want to put myself out there and practice 4+ hours a day to be shot down. But I also tell myself that I will never get anywhere in a music career if I don’t put myself out there. I’ll never get a job in a symphony orchestra if I don’t audition and put myself out there, even though there’s a possibility of rejection. It’s better to learn the lesson of potential rejection now in university rather than when I get out in the real world and do auditions.

There’s also a part of me that wants to win a concerto competition that still exists even from high school. After a life of always being the underdog and the “inferior” one, it would mean a lot to me if someone recognized something I did for once. I want to be the one that everyone’s proud of for one brief, shiny moment in my life. It hurts when I see people who always praise that violin kid seem to never notice things that I do. The experience of playing with an orchestra would also be amazing. Not many violists get to play with an orchestra and if I won the concerto competition, it could be my only chance of ever playing with an orchestra in my entire career. It’s always nice to see an instrument that isn’t a violinist or a pianist playing with an orchestra. I would also be a role model to other violists, show that anything is possible if you work hard. Previous winners of the concerto competition have said “Oh it’s just the _______ University orchestra!” It’s still an orchestra and they have no idea how many other people would kill to be in that position.

So here I am, conflicted. Being my fourth year, this is my last chance to enter the concerto competition and possibly play with an orchestra. I don’t want to pass up this opportunity, but I also don’t want to put in hours and hours into practicing my piece to be rejected again. I know the pain of rejection would be even more intense because I won’t have any more chances. It’s now or never. I still have about 4 or 5 months to decide what I want to do and perhaps when the time comes, I will feel differently. Perhaps I just have a case of “the grass seems greener on the other side”. Maybe playing with an orchestra isn’t as magical as I build it up to be and if I did win, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It’s always important to remember that as much as you want what other people have, they also want what you have. I’ve had people come up to me that said they wish they had the opportunity to do some of the things that I’ve accomplished. It just goes to show that we can’t have everything in life and it’s important to appreciate what you have, even when it seems like others have it all.

My beef with concerto competitions Part 1

This is a big topic on which I have a lot to say and lot of personal stories, which is why I’ve decided to make at least two parts for it. Violists, in my experience, are either apathetic to concerto competitions or frustrated with them. I wish I could be in the apathetic group, but I find myself frustrated with concerto competitions. This blog entry will focus on my high school experiences with concerto competitions.

My first concerto competition experience was in youth orchestra. The first or second year I joined youth orchestra, they began an annual concerto competition to choose the soloist for the concerto in the following year. Of course, I was one of the younger members at the time and I knew I wouldn’t get chosen, but I figured it would be valuable to play and get the experience as playing a concerto with an orchestra definitely was something I was interested in. 

As the years went on, I saw several people win. Secretly in my mind, I was thinking that with each person that won, it increased the chances for me. Basically, it  was like a line up and you could predict who would win the next year based on who was chosen as runner up. It’s such a small city that one could argue the competition was somewhat staged. 

Things changed in grade 11. It was just like any other year entering in the concerto competition. It was my way of keeping disciplined making sure I polished at least one movement of a concerto every year. In grade 11, I was working on the Weber Andante e Rondo Ungarese as my “concerto” for the year. I know it’s not a concerto, it more of a showpiece, but it is written with orchestral accompaniment so it is acceptable to play for a concerto competition. Also, if there are any bassoonists out there by chance, it’s originally written for viola and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I really liked that piece and I felt extra motivated to practice that year as that was when I made the decision to go to university for music. When I performed that day of the competition, it felt super amazing. As of that day, it was one of the best performances I’d ever had. I can’t really describe how it felt, but if you’re a musician, you know what I mean when you have a really good performance and it just feels extra special. I knew that regardless of the results, I would remember this performance forever. As it turned out, I ended up being awarded second place. I’d never come so close to winning a competition like that before and I was on cloud 9. I know that seems ridiculous but after so many years of watching the same people win over and over again, I was finally being recognized. Even though I didn’t win, my performance still stood out over 10 others (or however many performances there were). 

When grade 12 began, I started to think about the concerto competition in a different way. It was my last year playing in youth orchestra. I figured my last year would be a nice send off to university. People would even ask me how I would travel back and forth from school to rehearse with the orchestra if I won the concerto competition. This was enough to get it in my head that it was my turn to win because I got second place the year before. I spent the whole year thinking about how I would work out the logistics of travelling and what concerto I might like to play. Bad I know, but my naive 17-year-old self didn’t think it was bad. 

May comes around and with that is the concerto competition. This was it, my chance to finally play with an orchestra. I played and it was a good performance , but it didn’t have the same feeling as my performance the previous year. It just didn’t have that amazing feeling afterward. I wasn’t worried, I figured if they wanted me to win anyway, then it would happen. As you can see, this is going to end badly. 

The judges come out to announce the results. They announce the honourable mention and runners up. Of course, I’m sitting there waiting to hear my name. When they did finally announce the winner, it didn’t even register with me at first. I thought they were still listing runners up. It was the first time (and only thus far) in my life that I’d experienced legitimate denial. I was literally in denial that I didn’t win until it was over and everyone walked out of the auditorium. I was also upset over who they had chosen. I heard her play and she definitely was not the best person who played, and I don’t just say that out of bitterness, a lot of other people were quite upset with the decision. Regardless of who they had chosen, it wasn’t in my control at all.

This was the experience that really put me in my place and shaped me to who I am today. I learned a very important lesson. As important as it is to be confident going into a competition, you really have to be careful not to be too overconfident and make assumptions. You also don’t want to go into a competition sloughing it off like its not a big deal. It’s a hard balance that I still strive to achieve. 

This is my background with concerto competitions and explains why I have issues with them in the first place. Stay tuned for part two where I talk about my experiences with the concerto competition in university and more about what bothers me. 

Frustrations with Facebook

Oh Facebook. How we love to hate Facebook. As much as I enjoy keeping with old friends or out of town friends, Facebook can honestly be the biggest pain in the ass that ever existed.  As a musician, you’re forever balancing the fine line of keeping people on Facebook because they might be useful connections later on in your career, or deleting them because their posts are annoying.

The violinist I mentioned in my previous post “That one violinist” is definitely an example someone who I would unfriend any day if I wasn’t a musician. Pretty much the only reason I keep him on Facebook is to have that connection. I could do without his pretentious pictures with his violin and statuses bragging about how much he practices and competitions he’s won. I could do without the hundreds of comments and likes he gets from his “fans”. You’re probably thinking another thing that I could do would be to keep him as a friend but block his statuses from my news feed. I’ve seriously considered doing that, but haven’t actually made an intention to do that.

I gave up on liking and commenting on the violinist’s posts a long time ago. I simply will not support his incessant bragging and twisting of words to make his accomplishments sound more profound than they actually are. It is still painful to see people that I thought were my friends liking and commenting on his statuses. People who have never once liked or commented on my statuses are all over his. I accomplish great things too, and I don’t leave out pertinent details. Why don’t these people appreciate my accomplishments too? Well, frankly, my accomplishments will never measure up to his. Everything I do, he will always be one-upping me, or five-upping me to be realistic. Anything I do will seem trivial or insignificant compared to what he does, even if I’m proud of it and worked really hard for it. I know I shouldn’t really compare myself to others like this, but it’s almost inevitable in a career in music. Your whole career is based on what people think about you. Obviously, no one is going to pick employers/musicians based on how many likes their Facebook posts get, but it’s still irritating in the short term.

My point is that I may never play as a soloist with a symphony orchestra or win a big scholarship competition, but I still accomplish things that I am proud of. Frankly, a lot of my proudest accomplishments have nothing to do with winning a competition, or even solo playing for that matter. Most of my top memorable performances are either orchestral or chamber music. I have a few recital performances that I look back upon fondly, but I’m definitely more of an orchestral musician than I am a soloist. The things that I accomplish seem simplistic and menial to others, especially if we’re talking about this violinist in question, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be proud of them or that they don’t mean a lot to me. Even if I never post on Facebook again, I will still be proud of accomplishments I make and there will be people that support me. I think the friends, family and teachers in real life supporting you in your accomplishments are far more important than getting arbitrary likes from your high school classmates with whom you’ve not spoken to in years.

Perhaps I should take a break from Facebook? Perhaps delete my account or at least the app from my phone for a bit? I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t done it yet. As irrational and wrapped up I get about what people post and the likes they get, I’m eventually able to calm down and rationalize it. The moment I can’t eventually come back to rationality is when I take a Facebook break. At the end of the day, it’s not about how many likes you get and how “popular” you are, it’s about your work ethic. I fight everyday to improve my intonation and overall technique. The work that I’ve done in the past 3 years of university are certainly commendable. I may not have won a competition or gotten an award to back up my improvement, but I know that I’ve improved and my teacher knows that I’ve improved and that’s all that matters. If other people don’t recognize the incredible amount of work I’ve put in to my technique, then that’s their problem.

That one violinist

At every music school there are the same types of people. The names and faces change from school to school, but all music schools have essentially the same cast of characters. There’s always that one kid who thinks he (or she) is God’s gift to music or something like that. It’s usually a violinist, pianist, or a soprano but sometimes a flute or trumpet player. There’s not always just one either. Perhaps there’s a whole group of them that hang out together and tell each other how much better they are than the other one.

At my school specifically, there’s this one violinist in particular that gets on my nerves sometimes, though I work hard to not let that happen. It seemed right from Day One, he had a mission; let everyone in the music faculty know that he was the greatest thing alive. Normally, these types of people are the kind that get to university, realize they’re not the best, can’t handle the pressure, and drop out, which is what I’d originally thought would happen to this guy. However, the exact opposite happened.

I remember the first day of second year when I went to do my orchestral placement auditions. I was super pumped for the new school year, I’d had such a great first year and it was the first time that I’d finally felt at peace with where I was in terms of my technique and overall musical ability. In high school, I always felt like I was inferior to others and that I was never “good enough”. After my first year of university, I no longer felt inferior. I knew I wasn’t the best, but it was okay, I had three more years to work hard and lots of amazing friends and teachers to support me along the way.

This violin kid (first year at the time) was already in the waiting room when I went for my orchestral placement audition. My very first impression of him was when he said the following to the professor proctoring the auditions, “When do I find out if I’m concertmaster?” I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard! First of all, who is this kid? Second, who says that, let alone to a prof? From that moment, I started my countdown of when he would drop out.

Unfortunately, for me, that never happened. He continued to have success in everything he did. He ended up not being chosen for concertmaster that year, but he won pretty much every competition he entered in. He’d always post on Facebook “I won ______ competition” and get 100+ likes and a bunch of comments that said things such as “OMG! Congrats! You’re so talented!” It didn’t take long before people at the school who I thought were my friends/supporters seemed to have converted over to him. I felt like no one cared about me anymore because I was just some violist who can’t play in tune to save her life.

In November 2013, I seriously considered dropping out. All those feelings of being inferior and inadequate that I thought I overcame in first year had come back with a vengeance. Nothing had really fundamentally changed about me, I was still passionate about music and continued to work hard. The only thing that had really changed was this violinist coming to the school. A more advanced player’s presence does not make you any more inferior, but I still felt that way. In his first three months at the school, he’d managed to accomplish more that I did my whole first year and start of second year combined. I never even entered any competitions in my first year and he won them all in his first year. It made me question if I even belonged in a music program anymore; if this kid can accomplish all this in his first year then why am I wasting my time? I reminded myself that I was in the music faculty for myself and not for other people. If other people are in love with him, there’s nothing I can do about that. I still had teachers, friends, and other supporters that were on my side. I figured it would be better to have a small group of people who truly appreciate and support what I do, then a bunch of random, superficial supporters who comment “OMG! CONGRATZ!” on my Facebook statuses.

In March, we found out that we had been accepted to the same summer program. I was excited as I’d heard this program was very prestigious. Since we were both going to be spending a good portion of the summer together, I figured it was time to make peace with him and let go of all my grudges.

I keep telling myself that these are the type of people that will eventually dig themselves into a hole and can’t get out. He lacks a lot of intrinsic motivation. Although I’d love to win a competition or something like that, I still practice and work hard when I don’t and that takes a lot of discipline and maturity. However, the more success he has, the less I believe that. Sometimes it just seems like his life is “perfect” even though it’s not that simple.

Possibly the best advice I’ve ever received about people like this was from my high school counselor,”Don’t let people live in your head rent free”. I can’t control this violinist’s actions or words as well as how many people “like” him and what they think. Hating a person is also a complete waste of time and energy. Love and hate are not opposite concepts, they are more or less the same as both involve putting energy into your relationship with someone. The opposite of love and hate would be indifference, where you put no energy into liking or not liking a person whatsoever and you could care less what they do. I strive to use my energy on what I can control; how hard I work and my overall attitude. This kid is always going to win competitions and be successful until the end of his undergrad and he will have tons of superficial supporters. There is no need to be concerned about that as nothing I can do would change anything he does or accomplishes. Being motivated by his potential failures is also very unhealthy and shallow. The only power that he has over me is the power I give him in my head, which goes back to the idea of not letting people live in your head. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it and stop comparing yourself to others.

Why do I play the viola?

I originally played the violin. I remember being in a violin lesson one day and my teacher suggested I switch to viola. For a long time, I always thought that it was a polite way of saying that I sucked at violin. When I would play in youth orchestra I always felt I was getting the short end of the stick, so to speak. The violins would get all the nice melodies and challenging parts and I was stuck with offbeats and other boring accompaniment figures. I felt like I was a failure at music and no one had the courage to say it to my face. 

But then I had a major epiphany. I can’t really pinpoint how or when it happened, but I remember just falling in love with the viola and being incredibly thankful I made the switch. I embraced the somewhat boring and unchallenging orchestral parts. I embraced viola repertoire.  I embraced being unique. It was such a relief not to be a violinist anymore, I could be myself. 

It’s only times where I get thrown in competitions wiith violinists, cellists, and pretty much any other instrument where I sometimes still resent playing the viola. Violin, piano, flute, and even cello repertoire to an extent is written so the soloist can really show off his or her technical ability. It has a way of “sounding amazing” to both musicians and non-musicians. Inherently, these instruments have a natural advantage due to the repertoire that is available to them. 

Viola, on the other hand, is not traditionally a solo instrument and still isn’t frankly. I think there’s still a stigma about violists that exists even to this present day. We are the failed violinists. The viola exists solely to make bad violinists feel better about themselves. This is not true, but I get the impression that a lot of people, even close friends of mine, feel that way and don’t always give me the respect I deserve. It is an awful stigma and I feel that every time I go up to perform I am saying to the audience “Hey, look at me. I’m not an idiot.” But of course I end up reinforcing the negative stigma about violists when I play with poor intonation and technique. With this in mind, there really isn’t a lot of great viola repertoire that exists that really compares to anything a violinist would play. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love a lot of viola pieces, but they just don’t compare and no non-violist wants to hear it. 

I’ve never really won a competition against non-violists before. The ones I have I either won by default or because I was clearly the oldest/most advanced player in the competition (though that does not always work to my advantage). A lot of this does have to do with the lack of good viola repertoire appropriate for competition. There is a huge gap in viola repertoire for the romantic period, which is what wins competitions. Yes there are a lot of modern composers nowadays striving to fill in the gap of viola repertoire, but this does not constitute “standard repertoire”. Modern music can also be hard to sell in a competition setting. For example, Hindemith Der Schwanendreher is in theory a perfect competition piece, but it’s super difficult to pull off as a lot of people don’t have an understanding or appreciation of Hindemith the way I do. 

Now I know you’re thinking, “It’s not all about competitions” or “don’t get wrapped up in compeitions” or something along those lines. That’s true but I still can’t help that I have a desire to win a competition of some description, even if it’s just at my school or other local one. The fact that violists are so disadvantaged and stigmatized in competitions motivates me to try harder. It’s almost like my way of telling the world, “Hey! Violists are musicians too!” Just because I play an instrument that not a lot of people appreciate doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate it and share my love and passion for the viola. It would mean so much more to me to win a competition than any violinist or pianist who seemingly effortlessly wins everything they enter. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I believe I have what it takes to win a competition. The only thing holding me back of course is my poor intonation and technique. If I brought my technique up to a higher level while maintaining the level of musicality, I could beat any technique robot any day. That is, of course, easier said than done. 

At the end of the day, music shouldn’t really be about proving yourself or competitions. It is increasingly difficult to remember that as I am pursuing music as a career and I am nearing the end of an undergraduate degree. Pretty soon I will be competing in the ultimate competition — orchestral auditions. The stakes are much higher. If I don’t get some scholarship or cash prize, Though it might be disappointing in the moment, I can live with that. But if I don’t succeed in an orchestral audition, that’s another year without a job. There’s only so many auditions you can take before you have to admit to yourself that you’re not cut out for music and you go fill out an application at Starbucks. It’s not a joke, but a sad reality that there are more high level musicians than there are positions in symphony orchestras. Because I am approaching a point in my career where it’s literally all about competition and being the best, it’s hard to remember to appreciate music as an art form and means to express emotions.

When I look back and ask myself “Why do I play the viola?”, I play the viola because I love it. I love the rich tone and the unique colour of the instrument. It’s ultimately not about how many other people also like the viola and its repertoire, it’s about me liking it. I also used to play violin, piano, and flute. Maybe if I had pursued one of those instruments I’d have more success in competitions or more people would “like” me. But ultimately, the passion and desire to succeed that I have for viola merely didn’t exist for me on violin, piano or flute. I’m not going to choose an instrument for shallow reasons such as other people might like it more. At the end of the day, it’s my instrument and my career. I’m the one who has to put in the many hours of practice and I couldn’t be happier putting those hours in on the viola. Whenever I get wrapped up in the nonsense of competitions I remind myself of why I love playing the viola in the first place and I would never go back and choose a different instrument.