Grad School has Begun

Wow, I’m just amazing at keeping this blog. Well to be fair, I don’t write it with the purpose of people reading it so who cares if I post entries regularly haha.
Anyway, I have officially completed about a month of grad school. A year ago, I never thought that I would be in this position. It’s been quite a journey overcoming all of these challenges that I dealt with over the past year. I’m by no means 100% alright now, but I can appreciate where I was last year and where I am now.
It’s been quite a transition moving to a new city and starting at a new school. I had the advantage of already knowing several students through summer programs and other connections, but it’s still definitely overwhelming! There are definitely things I do not miss about undergrad, but things that I do. Things are going well with my teacher here, but I do miss my undergrad teacher a lot. It never really hit me until I got here. He was like a father figure to me, I was able to confide in him and ask for advice (not just on musical things). I feel like I’m missing that here. I wish I could tell my undergrad teacher about all the amazing people I’ve met and all my adventures thus far.
I guess the next challenge is settling into a routine. The master’s schedule is generally more flexible and conducive to finding individual practice time, but I still feel like I’m all over the place. One day I’ll get in a solid 6 hours. The next day I’ll only practice 2 hours. Then the next day I do 4.
Another challenge is finding a peer group. I am fortunate to go to a school with a decent sized viola studio, I luxury I never had in undergrad, but I don’t really have a group of friends that I can regularly go out for coffee with or hang out with. I just kind of have acquaintances that I see in class everyday and people that I make casual, friendly conversation with. I guess that’s better than nothing, but I do sometimes feel a bit lonely. I know a lot of people, but I don’t have a ton of close friends. I guess it’s still early in the year and there’s still plenty of time to meet people and get to know people. I guess it’s somewhat more difficult as a master’s student to make friends because master’s students tend to be more reclusive than undergrads to begin with. I remember in undergrad I didn’t have much interaction with the master’s students until 3rd or 4th year, and even then it was limited.
Anyway, I won’t bore you too much now. I’m sure there will be more things to talk about as the year goes on. I’m a bit tired now and don’t feel like being super ranty. This was more of an update in the off chance there are people who read this blog that might be curious what I’m up to.

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. She has six years (assuming she’s doing master’s) of school. She’s going to be unstoppable when she graduates. 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.

Is being modest bad?

Whether it’s music, sports, or academics, we are always taught from a young age not to brag. We are told that going around and rubbing our accomplishments into other people’s faces is only going to dig us into a hole. You never wanted to be that kid who everyone hated because they were so full of themselves.
When you want to pursue a career in music, this becomes kind of a blurred line. If you are too modest, you will never get a job. If you are too boastful, no one will care and no one will hire you either. How are you supposed to know what to do then?
For me personally, I would say that I’m too far on the extreme of being too modest. I think when I was younger, I was on the cockier (is that even a word haha) side of things. I never went around to people and said I was the greatest, but I did sort of pump myself up for competitions. In a previous entry I think I mentioned the concerto competition in youth orchestra where I was so sure it was “my turn” to win. Although I never really went around telling people that, I sure felt like an idiot when I didn’t win. Since that “emotionally scarring” experience, I think it’s caused me to be more modest about my abilities, almost to the point where I wish I could have the courage to market myself a bit more. If anything, I feel like I’m the worst violist ever.
I hate to do this, but the best example of someone who is perhaps too cocky would be good old violin kid. He actually really bothered me when he first came to my school because I was a much milder version of him, yet I got put in my place. The more successful he is and the more stuff he wins, the more cocky he’s going to be. It seemed that no matter what happened, he always got his way and still continues to get what he wants. Even when he has a minor stumble, he still picks up right where he left off. It’s just not fair how people can go on like this while I’m sitting here trying to play a C major scale in tune.
The reason why he gets so many opportunities and wins so many competitions is because he’s good at marketing himself. Even though he comes across as cocky and arrogant, he knows how to talk himself up. People know he’s good at what he does because he won’t shut up about it. When people think of a violinist, they will think of him. He’s a genius in a way, if only I had half of his audacity.
However, there are many people who play just as well as he does, if not better, that don’t get nearly the amount of opportunities that he does. Why? It’s because they aren’t as cocky. They don’t market themselves in the same way and therefore people just don’t notice them, which is quite unfortunate in a sense. The advantage of being more modest though is that people get to know you for who you are and not based on what they’ve been told. These are the type of people that I want to see winning competitions and getting amazing opportunities, but it rarely works that way. It’s always the cocky people like violin kid that really don’t need to win another effing competition but they do anyway because why would life be fair.
Oh, what’s that you said? I’m being a selfish bitter person? That’s the problem when I try to speak out against cocky people like violin kid, trust me, I’ve been caught in those awkward situations before. I’m the bad guy because I called someone cocky, even though I would never be so openly full of myself to other people. It’s a rough and tough world out there.
So, what can you really do? My best advice is to just be yourself. I know that’s something cheesy that mommy and daddy told you to make you feel better, but it does have truth to it. Part of me thinks that these cocky people are just putting on a show for others and not really being a genuine version of themselves. Being a true, genuine person will get you places in the long run. Being cocky and putting on a show for others might be rewarding in the short term, but it does not create long term satisfaction. People like violin kid thrive on the attention they get from others and that’s why he needs to keep winning competitions and getting these opportunities to validate themselves. He would be crushed if he ever had a “dry spell” like me.

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.

The Pain of Rejection

If you’ve been following this blog, even if it’s only been for a couple entries, you would know that I did grad school auditions. I’m not sure if I mentioned that I’ve already made a decision on where to go. I am very satisfied with my decision and I knew from the beginning that I was probably going to go to that school anyway, but it was useful to look at the other schools and seriously consider them.

It was basically a toss up between two schools, let’s call them School A and School B. I also applied to School C because why not right. I didn’t seriously want to go there but I wanted to check out the school anyway. It was probably the most prestigious out of the three schools, but it wasn’t the right type of school for me. I would never choose a school just for its prestige, my own education and what I get out of it is way more important than me being able to go around and be like “Oh look at me, I went to ______ school, I’m better than everyone else”.

My auditions at School A and School B went very well. I had lessons with the teachers there and I got good vibes from all of them. I guess the teachers could tell that I wanted to go to those schools as well. All the teachers at Schools A and B that I had lessons with really made me feel welcome there and that I wished that I could study with all of them. I felt that when I played those auditions that it was a much better representation of my playing and what I’m capable of. The fact that I wanted to go to those schools and study with those teachers probably also came through in my playing.

By the time I got to School C, I was quite tired from my auditions and School A and B that I just wanted to be done with auditions already. I met up with the teacher at School C for a lesson and in the moment I didn’t really think about it, but looking back at it now, I should have picked up on the weird vibes a little bit better. School C, as I mentioned, was the most prestigious school of the 3 that I applied to and frankly, I think the students and teachers there can be a bit snobby about it. I emailed the teacher to set up a lesson and he suggested a time. I said that was the day I was flying in so it wasn’t ideal but it would be fine. I arrived in the city and even paid for a cab from the airport (when I could have taken the shuttle bus to save money) to make sure that I would get there in good time for my lesson. The teacher emailed me about half an hour before we were supposed to have the lesson to say that something came up and he had to cancel and could teach me some time the next day. I get that sh*t happens sometimes and professional musicians are busy, but what a terrible first impression to make on a prospective student.

I emailed back and said that I was fine to have the lesson the next day in the afternoon. He also left a phone number in his email so I phoned him as well. No answer, so I left a message. The rest of that evening, I received no correspondence from him whatsoever. It wasn’t until 10:00 the next morning that he finally emailed back and asked to do 2:00pm that afternoon. Once again, I get he’s very busy and I respect his time, but that’s just a tad unprofessional. It was very nice of him to offer this lesson, but I can’t be expected to just schedule my whole life around it.

I go to his studio to wait for the lesson. There’s another prospective student in there getting a lesson as well. Her mom was actually waiting outside the studio and I was chatting to the mom a bit. She was applying for undergrad. It was about 1:50 or so when I got there, so we thought they were just finishing up and I’d be there soon. But the lesson  went on and on. I could hear a bit outside the door and from what I heard, it sounded like the teacher really liked her. As she was leaving, he said something like “You have my email, keep in touch” and all that fun stuff.

Contrast that to me now. I get into his studio about half an hour after my lesson was supposed to start. I play through my Bach and I could tell he was a little bit unsure of what he wanted to say. Either he was appalled at how terrible it was or there were just too many things that he didn’t know where to begin. He started by complimenting my intonation, which was a first for me. He began by talking about posture and how to hold the viola and stuff like that. It was actually really interesting and I won’t go into detail about that right now, but I tried playing again after and already I noticed a huge difference and it was so much easier to play. Right as I felt the lesson was getting started, he said “Okay, that’s all we have time for today” and just kind of awkwardly kicked me out. I saw how he treated the girl before me. It was clear that he did not like me and did not want me in his studio but he really liked that other girl. The audition was a couple days later and ultimately, I just don’t think I played very well at the audition. It wasn’t terrible, but I don’t think it was a good representation of what I was capable of. In hindsight, I think it was just the awkward vibes I got from that lesson.

The first school I heard back from was School A (which is where I’m going). They actually emailed me a couple hours before my audition at School C. I was super ecstatic as it was my first choice school. Of course, I wanted to wait to hear back from the other schools before making an official decision. I waited and waited. Nothing. Finally, I got a letter from School B about two weeks after my acceptance to School A and I was accepted there as well. The scholarship wasn’t nearly as good though. At this point, I was set on School A as I really loved the program, the teacher, and the scholarship offer was really good. But of course, I had to wait for School C.

Here’s where it gets interesting. I saw another violist friend that I met at a summer program post on Facebook that he got into School C not too long after I got into School B. I logged on to my account at School C to check to see if there was anything for me. Nothing. I had a bit of a gut feeling that I didn’t get into School C based on this, but I didn’t want to assume anything. I decided to wait a bit longer. In the mean time, the teacher at School A phoned me and wanted to check in. He was super excited about me going to School A and really hoped that I went there. The phone call was the deciding factor for me. It was amazing that he took the time to reach out to me like that and none of the other teachers had done anything like that. I decided to stop waiting for School C and just accepted my offer to School A.

About a week ago, I finally heard back from School C and it was not in a good way. I got the official rejection letter. I took the news a lot more harshly than I thought I would. I already had a feeling that I didn’t get in and I didn’t really want to go there anyway, but those harsh words still got to me. Frankly, I should have seen it coming. As I explained, it was clear the teacher didn’t really like me and I didn’t play that well at the audition. It’s not that I’m not good enough, it’s just that it wasn’t the right type of school for me. I don’t want to think of it as a reflection on myself as a player. Even if I had been accepted there, I think the environment at School A is much better for me and I would learn better there. Although School C is much more internationally known as a prestigious school, if it’s not the right type of school for me then there’s no reason to go there. Clearly, there are two other schools that wanted me there so I’m not a total loser. I guess I wanted the option of saying no.

Disappointment

I thought this would be an interesting topic to discuss. I’ve definitely addressed it before, but perhaps not from this angle.

As musicians, we are definitely perfectionists. If you’re not a perfectionist, you’re not working hard enough. But in all seriousness, it is the nature of what we do. The music field is so competitive that any little advantage you can have over someone is to your benefit. A big downside of being a perfectionist is having to deal with inevitable disappointment. Whether you’re just playing the first notes on your instrument or a world famous soloist touring the world, you’ve experienced some form of disappointment and it won’t stop any time soon.

I guess my issue with dealing with disappointment is that I tend to think that I am weaker or inferior to others, therefore warranting that my sense of disappointment is more crippling than theirs. For example, someone would say that they were disappointed they didn’t win ______ competition and I’d be thinking “I’d be honoured to even get selected to the final round of that competition”. Another one that bugs me too is when people complain about the orchestra when they’re doing a concerto. I would do anything to have that opportunity even once in my life. I find myself thinking, why can’t these people be thankful for what they have?

That being said, there are definitely opportunities that I have had that lots of people don’t normally get the opportunity to do at my age. It may not have the prestige of winning a competition, but it’s still something to be proud of. To be honest, I would probably cherish these opportunities more than I ever would winning a competition.  Why then, is that not good enough for me? Why do I still get disappointed when I hear that so and so has won yet another competition?

This all goes back to the idea of being a perfectionist. It is a fine balance that I don’t think anyone ever truly achieves. You don’t want to settle for mediocrity and just go through life doing an okay job, but you also can’t get upset every time something doesn’t go your way. You have to learn how to appreciate what you’ve done without settling and say that’s “good enough”.

Also, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s easy to say “Oh, I wish my life was like this person because they win everything. My life would be so much easier.” That comes with a certain type of pressure too. For these people that win every single competition, perhaps they feel like if they mess up one time and don’t win something, they’ll never hear the end of it. For me, I guess the only person I really disappoint is myself when I don’t win something because no one would expect that from me. I’m glad that I didn’t grow up being that kid who won everything. I’m not suggesting that’s a better way to be, but I find that I am stronger mentally. It doesn’t always seem that way based on posts in this blog, but I’m still here and I’m still in music, so I clearly have something going for me.

I guess I’m guilty of being that person who’s sitting around and waiting for their life to happen. I see everyone else accomplish things and wish that I could have some of that. But, I do. I have accomplished things. I’m going to grad school next year for crying out loud. Other people’s accomplishments always seem more important than mine and I think we all feel that to an extent.

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 wouldn’t call him a friend necessarily, but we can carry on a friendly conversation like normal human beings. 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 as it will impact his career. 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.