Is It Too Late for Me?

I’ve invested a great deal of time and effort into my viola playing, especially in the past four years. All of these endless hours and late nights in the practice rooms, giving up summers to attend programs/festivals, giving up a social life to practice, all the emotional breakdowns, may have been for nothing.
When I was in middle/high school, I was never the best string player. I was always the one who sat around on the sidelines watching the same three people win all the prizes wondering when it would be my turn. It never really was. Despite being unsuccessful, I had a lot of genuine passion for music. I worked really hard and wanted so badly to go into music, even if there were people who thought I wasn’t good enough. I told myself that all that matters is having a strong, consistent work ethic.
Now that I have an undergrad, I worry that maybe that was just something that high school teachers tell you so you feel better about yourself. I legitimately thought things would be different in undergrad, but I feel like I’m really no better than I was in high school. I was still the one who sat around on the sidelines watching the same three people win all the prizes wondering when it would be my turn. I look back and realize how naive I was. Why did I think that everything would magically get better in undergrad?
It’s weird too, because I know for a fact I worked really hard in undergrad and came a long way musically and technically. I listen to recordings from high school and I can’t believe it’s the same person. Why am I still unsuccessful? Because the people that were really good also got better so there’s just no hope for me. As soon as I’m as good as them, they’re way better.
A good example is this other violist that I know. She’s starting her undergrad. She’s played the Brahms F minor and Clarke sonatas. If you know anything about viola rep, that’s amazing to be able to play pieces like that at a young age. When I was in high school, my teacher told me that I wasn’t ready to be playing pieces like the Clarke or Brahms sonatas. Even in first and second year undergrad! I finally was able to play Brahms E-flat in third year, Clarke in fourth year, and only now am I learning Brahms F minor for my master’s.
As you can see, she is much better equipped going into undergrad than I was. The level she plays at is exactly where I wish I was going into undergrad. I wasted four years of my life getting there. Now that I’m finally ready to do my undergrad, here I am starting my master’s. I only have 2 years left. Even if I never talk to another human being ever again and practice 12 hours a day, I will never be good enough.
They always say sometimes people have success later in life, and maybe my big break is yet to come in 10 years or something. I don’t know what to believe. It’s just so hard to see all these people 2, 4, 6, 10 years younger than me that are so much better than I was. I honestly think it’s too late for me. It sucks because I’ve invested so much time and effort into this that it would be depressing to give it all up, but at the same time I can’t guarantee that I’ll ever be good enough. I can’t wait until I’m 35 to get an orchestral job, but expecting to get an orchestral job right out of my master’s is unrealistic too.

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.

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.

What am I doing with my life?

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!

Seniority rules, or does it?

Happy New Year everyone! Hope you all had a great New Years with family, friends, or even just a quiet night by yourself. Trust me, after spending many New Years with my family, as much fun as we have, I miss having a quiet New Years.

I digress. This is definitely a debatable topic and there is no right or wrong answer. I’ve been in many situations where I’ve been frustrated with someone getting chosen as principal or the winner of a competition just because they’re older than I am, and also situations where a younger person is chosen because they play better than I do.

In high school and middle school I find that seniority tends to rule. Why? At that age, teachers tend not to want to hurt the students’ feelings and want to give everyone a chance. I think this is generally fair. When I was in youth orchestra and high school band, I didn’t mind when the grade 12’s were given the big solos. I thought it was a nice way to reward them for their hard work and allow them to show how they’ve progressed.

Most of the time, that is no big deal. However, what if there is a more skilled player who is in grade 10 or 11 that would play the big solo much better than the grade 12 student? Do you pick the grade 12 student because seniority rules or pick the younger student because they are a more skilled player? This is where things get kind of wishy washy. I’ve been in both situations where I’ve been the one chosen only because I’m older or I wasn’t chosen just because I was younger. I guess the simple solution is to compare their playing abilities. If the older and the younger student play equally well and either one would be qualified to play the solo or win the competition, I’d say give it to the older student. The younger student still has a few years to do something like that and if they already play that well, they’ll be even better in a few years. However, if the younger student is very clearly at a much higher level than the older student, then I think, with careful consideration, it would be appropriate to choose the younger student.

It’s not that simple though. Choosing the older student can cause some hard feelings if the younger student feels they play better. Choosing the younger student could probably cause more hard feelings. If you’ve read any of my Concerto Competition rant posts, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the sense of working so hard to make it to where you are and then someone who’s barely worked just gets lucky and takes it away from you. I felt like when I was in grade 12, I got ripped off. No recognition for what I did, just a not so friendly, “Have fun at university, now get the hell out of here!”

Despite those incidents, I feel like university is a different mentality. Some things have preferential treatment for upper year undergrads or master’s students, but other things are fair game. University is supposed to prepare you for real life and protecting people’s feelings by giving everyone a chance is not always the solution. In the real world, not everyone gets a chance, in fact very few people get a chance, especially in music. It’s not “your turn” just because you’re the oldest candidate or most qualified. You have to work to get your job and work even harder to maintain it. If your feelings get hurt in the process, good.

Even though university is a more impersonal environment than high school, depending on the school you go to, you may get even more attention than you did in high school. At a smaller university, everyone gets to play in the groups they want. If they don’t get in first year, they will eventually as the older students graduate. At larger schools, you have to audition to even get into the orchestra or concert band. If you slough it off, you don’t even get to play with a large ensemble! Even if you get in, you can get kicked out! At a smaller school like mine, you’d really have to suck to get kicked out. I’ve only seen one person get kicked out and even then, he was given several chances to redeem himself (more so than he would have gotten at a bigger school). I guess this raises another point, would going to a bigger school be better as it replicates the “real world” a bit more, or is it important to go to a small school and get the extra one-on-one attention you wouldn’t get elsewhere?

I digress (again). While my school, and presumably others, tend to take seniority into account for ensemble placement, I feel this is not necessarily considered in the competitions. In the concerto competition, first years have won two years in a row. There’s also another scholarship competition in which first years have also been highly successful. I found this a tad irritating, I’d worked for 3 years to be in the final rounds of these competitions, and some first year wonder kids just get in like it’s no big deal. But then, if the adjudicators truly thought their performance was better than mine, I guess that’s what they went with. It still is frustrating to see first years take away something that I worked so hard to have. If they had chosen myself or another upper year student, these first years would have had 3 more years to win the competition. I guess it’s the prestige of being that first year who won against all the fourth years and masters students, but still. Again, as I mentioned before, it’s preparation for the real world. My job can be taken away by someone who’s not even born yet if I don’t watch out. No one protects your feelings in the real world. In a way, these first years who won the competitions are the ones that should watch out. Just because they beat out fourth years and master’s students in their first year doesn’t mean they’re entitled to a job right after their degree.

I hope this post made sense. I guess the main point I want to make is that nothing will ever replace hard work and a strong work ethic. Whether you receive preferential treatment for being an older more advanced student, or you have strong technical skills at a young age, ultimately no one truly has an advantage over another in the real world. You can’t let early successes get to your head. If you feel like you’ve never accomplished anything, although you’ve heard this before, that just means that you’ll accomplish something even better in the future that will mean much more to you than some silly competition or getting first chair in the orchestra.

Still mad about the concerto competition

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.

Fourth Year Struggles

Hello again! My postings on this blog are somewhat sporadic but I just haven’t really been in the mood to write anything lately (as you will see later on in this post). I began my fourth year of school two weeks ago and it hasn’t been treating me well.

I arrived on Saturday the 5th. I unpacked some stuff at my place and eventually got too tired so I just went to bed and planned to continue the next day. I didn’t think much of it. I woke up on Sunday and went about my day as usual. I was out for dinner with my parents. They had dropped me off and were planning to go back home the next morning so I wanted to go out with them before they left. I was fine when we got to the restaurant but all of a sudden this wave of extreme fatigue hit me. I was just so physically exhausted out of nowhere, I couldn’t even finish my meal. I was planning to hang out with my parents a bit more but I was just so drained that I had them take me home. It was 8:00pm. I went straight to bed and woke up on Monday morning (the labour day holiday) at noon. Mind you I wasn’t sleeping the whole time, I had trouble falling asleep as I had a lot on my mind and there were some loud hooligans in the hallway. On Monday I spent almost the entire day in bed watching YouTube videos. I would drag myself out of bed occasionally to go eat something but then it was right back to my YouTube watching. You’d think I was recovering from surgery or something. Getting in contact with my friends to see what they were up to was out of the question.

I didn’t really think much of it at first but I began to think that maybe there was something wrong. Normally I’m as motivated as ever to begin a school year and then later on I lose my motivation. Never have I began a school year wanting to lay in bed all day and not talk to anyone. Why the lack of motivation? Part of it was the summer program I was in. I had done the exact program in summer 2014 and it was amazing. I began third year more motivated then ever and I worked incredibly hard that year in all aspects. I do the same program again in 2015 and it has the opposite affect. I come back to school feeling defeated and inadequate. The level of playing at the program was exceptionally high this summer and I just felt like I didn’t belong musically. I’d see all these amazing people doing amazing things that I’ll never get an opportunity to do or be able to do and it just made me think, “Why do I bother?”

Also, what comes with being a fourth year is the looming thought of what I will do next year. Of course, there are the societal pressures to go to grad school. Ever since I was in grade 12 I knew I wanted to go to grad school. There was no question about it. Now, I’m not so sure if I should even continue in music. I really want to, it is something that I love doing and I can picture myself having a career in, but I am concerned if I am disciplined/skilled enough and have the mental fortitude to pursue it. I mean, if I get so offended and heartbroken from losing some meaningless competition at my school, how would I handle losing an audition at a professional orchestra? I can’t sit around in my room crying for days every time something doesn’t go my way in the real world. There is also the option of taking a year off but that is also frowned upon by people. The more years you spend working, the harder it is to go back to being a student.

I was always so opposed to and disturbed by the idea of taking a year off, but now I honestly think it might be best for my mental health. After two summers of doing programs, I feel like I’ve been in school nonstop since the beginning of second year. I haven’t had a real break. As sad as it sounds, I’m at a point where I need a break from music. The pressures of being a music student/musician are getting to me too much. But then again, maybe the summer is all I need and I can have a fresh start next year at grad school. As much as I want a break, if I start grad school right away after my undergrad, then I can be done and take as long of a break as I want. If I take a year off, it will be nice but I will only be prolonging my schooling. Why is life so hard?

I thought once classes started and I got into a routine I’d snap out of whatever this was. Not really the case. I haven’t had any days where I spent the entire day lying in bed, but I haven’t exactly been in the practice rooms for my 4+ hours a day either. If anything, this is the year where I need to get my sh*t together and practice more than ever. But no. It’s not that I haven’t practiced, I’ve made some good progress on the Clarke Sonata and my unaccompanied Bach, I’ve just been dragging my heels on my concerto and my other recital rep which I haven’t even confirmed yet. Yay me. I have to have all this rep learned by January/February if I’m going to be doing grad school auditions and I’ve wasted most of September moping around. I mean, it’s not too late to turn things around. There’s still 9 or so days left in September and at least 3 or 4 months left. I thought I’d gotten myself back on track last week, but then I fell back into my moping again. It’s kind of concerning, if I don’t start getting my act together soon, then I won’t be able to learn my rep in time for grad school auditions and I’ll have no choice but to take a year off. At least if I can push myself through the auditions, I have the option to change my mind or defer it for another year.

I guess if it’s any solace, I’m probably not the first music student, and won’t be the last, to feel like this in fourth year. It’s a stressful time. I’m so close to the end of my schooling and the beginning of my professional life. There are so many options available to me both in music and not in music. I guess I just have to take things one step at a time and get through this year first. I’ve gotten through 3 years of university, why should this one be any different? I have to find that sense of motivation and determination within myself. It’s there, I know it. I wouldn’t have made it this far if it wasn’t. I need some more positive self talk, rather than focusing on negative things.

Student Recitals

If you’re a music performance major, one thing you’ll be familiar with is putting together a recital in April or some time near the end of the school year. Hours and hours of preparation go into this recital in terms of individual practice and rehearsing with pianists. It is also a humbling feeling to see your friends, fellow students, family, and teachers who have taken time out of their lives to come support you and your hard work. It is definitely a more rewarding way to end the school year then doing a jury for a small panel.

The sad part about these student recitals is it can often feel like pulling teeth to get people to come to your recital. I’ve been to many student recitals that were very well done and very poorly attended. With the amount of work that everyone puts into these recitals, regardless of how “good” they are, they deserve an audience of at least 50-60, which is virtually impossible for a school recital. At least at my school, you’re lucky to get an audience of 20.

If the music is so high quality and the students work so hard, why are the audiences so small? Well, several factors. First of all is the competition factor. In April there are dozens of other people also putting on recitals. In many cases, there are days with 2 or 3, possibly more recitals. There could be multiple recitals occurring at the same time at different venues too. It’s hard to sell your recital as the one to go to when there are dozens of others around the same time that people could attend. Having your recital too late in April or May will run the risk of people being “recitaled out” or they’ve gone home for the summer and they just won’t bother. Having your recital in March or early April may guarantee a larger audience, but are these people there to genuinely support you? At my school at least, you have to attend so many student recitals and professional concerts each year as part of your grade. The cut off date is in mid-April. Student recitals before that cut off date count as a credit and you’ll often see random people in the audience for those recitals. For me at least, I much prefer a smaller audience of people who genuinely support me rather than a large audience of random people who are just trying to squeeze in some last minute credits. No matter how much advertising you do, it is so easy for your recital to be lost in the mix of dozens of other similar recitals.

Another factor that, unfortunately, comes into play is popularity. You’d think that by university we’d mature a bit from high school cliques and popularity contests. Sadly, that is not the case in most music faculties. Some people are “popular” because they are “really good” and won blah blah competition or whatever. Some people are just known by everyone in the faculty for whatever reason. As soon as this person is having a recital, everyone is just there no matter what. It’s unfortunate that the people in the faculty who are “really good” pretty much get a guaranteed audience for their recital whereas the people who “aren’t as good” but work just as hard don’t get the same respect.

How many people you know from off-campus or outside the music faculty also has an impact. These people may not know as many people in the music faculty and would probably only hear about a few recitals. Since they are not bombarded with dozens of recital posters, they may be more likely to attend yours. I have always found that people that live at home have a decent sized audience at their recitals. They basically have a guaranteed audience of their parents, siblings, friends from high school, extended family, and other people they may know outside of the university community. Those people plus other students can add up to a decent sized audience.

Could the fault be in promotion? Most people will only advertise their recital with posters on campus and Facebook. While this is a great way to get the word out to thousands of people with the click of a button, it is a very passive form of advertising. While thousands of people will know about your recital, they may not be compelled to attend, especially if they’ve already received dozens of invites to other similar events. The best way to get people to attend is to personally invite them. Some people need a personal invitation to get the motivation to go to an event like a recital, especially if they’re not from the music faculty, they may feel like they aren’t allowed to come or feel intimidated to attend a classical music recital. Facebook events can easily be forgotten or ignored. Perhaps if some students reached out to local newspapers, online event listings outside Facebook, or put up posters in off-campus coffee shops they would have more success in attendance to their recital. Of course, if every single student did this for their recital, then the same problem of competition would be present again. But again, even with putting up posters around the off-campus community, people may not feel compelled to attend a student recital for someone they don’t know or have never heard of. Once again, people who live at home for university have the advantage. I know I’ve done recitals in my hometown which were far better attended then any student recital I’ve been to at my school because I have the advantage of having family, friends, and other people I know that will attend my recital for sure.

As a music student, how do you navigate recital season? There are so many recitals and nobody in their right mind is able to attend every single one. How do you pick and choose without creating drama and hard feelings? Ultimately, you just have to figure out who you most want to support. For me personally, I try my best to attend as many string recitals as possible. I also try to attend recitals for people that I talk to on a regular basis or played with in a chamber group. Of course, we all have busy lives and there are times where I’m unable to go to someone’s recital as I have a conflict or I’ve gone home for the summer. I can’t be constantly worried about creating hard feelings because I went to A’s recital but not B’s. I am sometimes tempted just to not go to anyone’s recital, but then I’d feel guilty for not supporting anyone and I can’t expect people to attend my recital if I’m not going to go to any myself.

My third year recital was poorly attended, even worse than other poorly attended recitals that I’ve been to. I tried not to stare into the audience, but there couldn’t have been more than 8 people there. I did what I could to get the word out, I put posters around the music building, the rest of campus, and made a Facebook event, but so did dozens of other people for their recitals. A lot of it was the timing. I’d chosen a late April recital and I know there were a lot of people who would have attended but they had gone home for the summer. It was also a busy night in terms of other concerts happening around the community. Many students were involved with those concerts and couldn’t attend my recital, which was very understandable. There were several people who had the decency to wish me good luck or message me and say that they couldn’t make it but wished they could be there. Then there were several people that weren’t there that really should have been and to this day I wonder why they weren’t there. I was thinking that at the very least all the violists would be there and none of them were there. Only 2 or 3 other string players were there. I know a lot of people said that they couldn’t come and that’s fine, but there are a lot of people who should have been there and didn’t say anything. I was initially a bit hurt that a lot of the string players didn’t come to my recital. I didn’t care about having a large audience or anything, but I went out of my way for the past 3 years to attend string recitals and it was quite sad that gesture wasn’t reciprocated to me. It didn’t help that there was another string recital that evening. I’d picked the day first, but perhaps people liked the other string player better and “picked and chose”. I didn’t attend the other recital as I wanted to relax and celebrate that night and she didn’t attend mine as she was preparing for hers. I’ll never know who attended that recital but it would be somewhat heartbreaking if all the string players were there and not at mine.

Ultimately, you really can’t get mad at people for not attending your recital. It’s not a fair accusation. My school has to create a concert credit incentive system to get people to attend concerts and there are many schools where this is not required and students will go out of their way to attend other student recitals regardless. Once the cut off day for credit has passed, the April recitals become increasingly poorly attended. It’s not fair that those who have recitals in March or early April get a guaranteed audience of procrastinators for their audience. It’s sad that people who play the same instrument may not always go out of their way to attend their fellow peer’s recital even if that means going back to school after they’re done finals. I can’t really be mad at anyone or blame myself for doing anything wrong. If anything, I should be thankful for those 8 people who took time out of their day to come support me.

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.