Still Trying to Figure out Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t even know what to call this

Apparently I just don’t have anything to rant about anymore. At one point I basically complained about something every week in here. I think now that I’m a master’s student and realize how much energy I spent getting wound up over little things in undergrad, I know now that it’s not worth it and there are many more important things to focus on. Who cares that so and so won such and such competition.

I did a program full of music programs this past summer, as a contrast to my summer 2016. There were nice aspects of having tons of “free time” in the summer to relax after a rough school year, but I will be honest I was super bored most of the time. I couldn’t move into my new place until September 1st so I was stuck at my parent’s house until then. I was unsuccessful in a lot of my summer program applications so I did one small program in May and another in August, but that left a giant gap of nothing in between. One could argue I could have used the time better, I was working on some repertoire for the coming year but it wasn’t like I was practicing 8 hours a day. I could have spent the time doing tons of studies and technical work or reading through a bunch of rep for fun, but I just wasn’t motivated to do so. I’d done a couple of “freelance” gigs but I’m from a small city in the prairies where there really aren’t a ton of freelance opportunities and I felt like there really wasn’t much for me to do. I could have gotten a job I suppose, but I wasn’t sure what kind of place I would find or what programs I would do so I didn’t want to tie myself down. I was prepared to move in July or August, but of course I got stuck with a September lease.

I knew I couldn’t do this to myself again. The city where I’m from just isn’t conducive to a musician starting a freelance career as there are few opportunities and when I did get an opportunity, I felt like I was the “outsider”. For instance, I helped teach at a summer string workshop and because I had recently obtained a Bachelor’s degree, I wanted to do some more teaching and possibly even perform with the faculty in a concert, but I felt like I was excluded from the “core” group of the faculty. I only coached one group at 4:00 and so I had the whole day I could have been doing things and helping out, but no one would allow me. I went away for university so I feel like people think that I think I’m better than everyone else, which is just ridiculous. We’re all musicians at the end of the day.

Hence, I went a bit program application crazy for summer 2017. Since I was in a much better mental state I made much better audition recordings than the year before. I applied to 5 programs and only got rejected from 1, which was okay because I’d applied to that one as an after thought anyway. Of course, now I have the opposite problem from summer 2016. Which programs do I do? I’m always caught in the dilemma of going to programs I’ve been to before because I really enjoyed it or met a really great group of friends but then going to new programs so I can broaden my social network and travel to different places. I ended up choosing 2 programs that I had attended in the past, but I ended up having an amazing experience and wouldn’t have done my summer any other way.

Now I have just began my second year of master’s, and possibly my final year of post-secondary education. I can’t deny it much longer that I’m going to have to become a responsible adult and contribute to society in some meaningful way. If you read the past two posts on this blog, I am definitely still in existential crisis mode.

Basically, I’m not sure what to prioritize going into this school year. Every other school year has been straightforward, you go to lessons, practice X hours a day, apply to summer programs, repeat. Now I feel like I’m at a different stage of my life where perhaps my priorities can be shifted in a different direction. For instance, I feel like I should make professional engagements a bit more of a priority. Last year I turned down a professional gig as it was near the time of my recital, but I felt bad about it given that other students who also had recitals around the same time took that gig. At that moment, I just felt like I was so overwhelmed with school that I just needed a break but I also worried that turning down that gig could have burned some bridges in the professional world. Now I’m considered “unreliable” or “flaky”, however on the flip-side, because I didn’t take that gig, I felt a lot more prepared for my recital. I took most of my academic seminars last year so I do have more “free time” this year to take on professional gigs.

The other question is where do I live. I makes sense to continue living where I am, as I have done some professional gigs and made a few connections, but I’m not sure. A thing that worries me is not being bilingual. I don’t want to reveal the city I live in, but being bilingual is advantageous. Already, there are a ton of jobs I can never get because I don’t speak French. Obviously, music gigs are fine to be an anglophone, but I feel like I would need to look for a part time job outside of music to help pay the bills. Anything retail, customer service, or administrative would be off the table for me, or I wouldn’t be the first choice. It’s not like it’s impossible to learn French, but I would probably never be 100% fluent or sound authentically Quebecois. There was a music program I almost did this past summer that would have helped me learn French, and would be something to put on my resume to demonstrate French proficiency to employers. It’s not like I can’t do that program in summer 2018, but I wouldn’t have it on my resume until September 2018.

I’ve already established that moving back home is a big fat no-no. Summer 2016 was kind of a trial to see if that could potentially be an option (it was always my backup plan) and it was a huge fail. There’s really not a lot going on and even in the summer I was there, I felt like I really had to force myself in to get that opportunity teaching one group at the workshop. I do worry that I wouldn’t be able to have a varied enough career as a musician and that people would be unwilling to help me because I’m the “elitist” who went away for school.

I could move somewhere totally different. The only issue is of course not knowing enough people (or the right people) and not having a social network. The advantage of having attended several music programs is that I do know people who live in pretty much any Canadian city I could ever move to, but it’s still intimidating.

And then there’s the question of what to do in my summer. There’s no reason why I couldn’t do more programs and postpone real life for 4 more months, but real life is inevitable no matter what I do. If I’m travelling or going to tons of rehearsals it might be hard to arrange jobs for September, but people have done it. My school offers a one year diploma program so I could postpone real life for one more year. I’m less inclined to do a doctorate, but I suppose that’s another “procrastination tool”.

Interestingly, I feel less insecure about being “good enough”. I know that was something that I worried about a lot in pursuing a career in music, but now I feel it’s the least of my worries. I feel like I’m a lot more at peace with the level I’m at as a musician. That’s not meant to be a defeatist comment, I still think I could improve a lot more and I want to work hard this year, but I don’t let thoughts of being inadequate plague my mind. I guess I worry now about being “good enough” as an employee in general, as opposed to just as a violist.

Sometimes I feel like I’m super anxious to have my entire life figured out. I did undergrad right out of high school and master’s right out of undergrad so I’m by no means “behind” in life. I’ve met plenty of people who are older than me, still doing their undergrad, and still take a gap year(s) before master’s. While you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, even to feel better, it does reassure me that if I have a year where I’m not sure what I’m doing or just do random freelance gigs that everything will work out in the end. I guess even though I chose a career path that doesn’t lend itself to a stable job, I still want to have some sense of direction and feel like I’m working toward something.

25% Done Grad School

As you can imagine, my first semester of grad school went by like a whirlwind. I can’t believe I’m already 25% done, it’s going by too fast!
Of course, the inevitable thoughts of what the heck am I going to do after my degree are imminent. I honestly have no clue.
No one said that you had to have your whole life figured out by age 22, but I still wish I had more sense of direction. It seems like my fellow master’s colleagues have their lives all planned out, but maybe in reality they are just as clueless as I am.
Don’t judge me, but I used to think that getting into a symphony orchestra right after master’s was a reasonable goal. Coming from a small city where there are not many violists, I had a skewed view of the competitive factor of music. I thought that as long as you worked hard, you would eventually reach your goals.
Now that I have left the comfortable bubble of my hometown, I have come to realize that there are actually a lot of violists out there. Don’t get me wrong, I love having a viola peer group but there are only so many positions in symphony orchestras and sadly not all of us will get one. That’s the frustrating thing about a career in music. You can practice for hours and hours, work super hard, absolutely love what you do and still never get a job. Literally any other career path, you will eventually get a job after many years of hard work. I know I’m oversimplifying things, but that’s how it feels.
Many of my provisional post-master’s plans involved playing in a symphony orchestra of some description. Now that I realize that may not happen, I have no clue what to do. I don’t want to contribute to the stereotype of music graduates working at Starbucks, but I have to pay the bills some how. Freelancing scares the heck out of me, but you have to start somewhere I guess. I have very minimal experience in teaching so I’d never get a teaching job.
I feel like I’m not the world’s most employable person either. I spent much of my time in undergrad refusing part time jobs or teaching positions during the school year so I could focus on my personal practice. This is not to say that I’ve never had a job, but the jobs I did have are not necessarily going to look good on my resume. I’m also not bilingual, which can be a huge disadvantage if I want to continue living in Eastern Canada. All this time I wasted practicing to get a symphony orchestra job could have been put toward making myself a more employable person outside of the music field. I don’t even know if I’d be qualified for a job at Starbucks to be honest. They’d be like “Oh it’s nice you have a master’s in music, but you’ve never worked retail so you probably can’t handle the stress”. And they’re probably right.
Of course, one solution is to pursue a DMA or Artist’s diploma, but that only delays the inevitable. I can’t be in school forever. I’ll need to get some kind of job. I just don’t think I’d get hired anywhere and freelancing can be scary. Sometimes I resent being from where I’m from, and having this skewed view of reality for most of my life, but I can’t change that.
Another thing I also ponder is should I have done my master’s right out of undergrad? Obviously, as I mentioned before, I’m 25% done so I’m not going to drop out, that’d be foolish. I know some of my friends in 4th year undergrad who are taking a gap year and now I wish I explored that option more. When I was super stressed out last year, I did consider it, but I figured if I could push myself to do the auditions, then I could re-evaluate then. Once I pushed myself to do the auditions and got accepted, it seemed foolish to take a gap year. Now I question if it was worth pushing myself through all that stress. I feel like a much stronger person for not giving up, but at the same time I could have been using this year to get more professional experience and make myself a more employable person before pursuing a master’s. The trap with that I saw was getting too comfortable with professional life and never wanting to go back to school.
Ugh. Why is life so hard? Why can’t someone just tell me what to do?

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.

I’m Still Alive

Hello there to the random people from google searches who read this blog! I still exist.

I’ve been somewhat busy lately. I went to a music program in May and after that I went to my new school/teacher to get some lessons and check out places to live, etc.

That was pretty much my big thing for the summer and now I don’t really have much going on. Part of me kind of wishes I had signed up for more programs, but at the same time, I really think this “free time” will be good for me. Part of the reason why my school year last year was so difficult is because I overloaded myself last summer. Now, I feel like I’ve under-loaded myself and I feel somewhat lost for what to do this summer. I know this is the right decision, but it’s almost too much.

So yeah, anyway, I have an undergraduate degree now. Crazy how time flies, it really honestly doesn’t feel like it was that long ago when I graduated high school! It’s actually quite insane. I’ve come such a long way musically and emotionally in just four years, and I have a long way to go yet. It’s always depressing that the better you get, the worse you get too. What I mean by that is as you get better, you realize how much more work there is to be done.

I think of my naive self in first year. It was the first time I had ever felt good about myself musically. Nobody made me self-conscious. I was confident, but not cocky. I knew I had to work hard, but I didn’t care what other people were doing. Come second year and all that disappeared. It was back to all these feelings of inadequacy and doubt that I thought I left behind in high school. It took me a long time to realize that those feelings are normal and that they don’t just magically “disappear”.

Now that I have my degree, it’s almost like I feel more inadequate than ever. Now I finally feel like I’m at where I would have liked to have been four years ago. I wish that I could play at the level I do now at the start of my undergrad. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has ever felt like this. Because of this, I did consider doing a gap year or a one year diploma program to “improve my technique”. My teacher advised me against this and said not to have a negative association with it, but a positive one. For example, instead of thinking of taking extra years of school because you suck and need to get better, think of it as an opportunity to get some more training and learn more repertoire. I decided to go ahead with Master’s because I knew I wanted to do it anyway, why prolong it? I can still take something like an Artist’s diploma afterward if I still feel like it.

I don’t know what else to really say right now. I look forward to starting my Master’s in September and I’ll definitely rant about it here if I need to! If there’s one thing I learned in my undergrad, it’s that moving away won’t magically solve your problems.

Putting Down Others

As they always say “digging a hole for someone else does not make you appear taller.” I think as musicians we can tend to be very critical of ourselves, and sometimes our criticisms of others can be a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. Yes, music is very competitive and we always want to do our best, but there is a point where criticizing someone else really isn’t going to get us anywhere.

I think almost every music program, with the exception of a school like Curtis, is guilty of over-admitting students to “fill space”. Universities and conservatories accept way too many music students then there are careers for us, but it’s not their problem. The school makes more money by accepting as many students and offering as many programs as possible. To the administration, you’re merely a paycheque (Yes, I’m Canadian if you haven’t figured that out). They don’t care if you find a career in your area of study after school, they’re just happy you took a degree.

Where am I going with this? Well, before I go on a huge tangent, let me use my school (that I’m graduating from in about a week) as an example. It’s a smaller school in a smaller city. There are some very fine musicians that come from this school that could have easily studied at a school like McGill or U of T, but they chose the small school environment. There are also a lot of people who don’t play at a high standard and only really got accepted to the school because they needed to fill space.

I’ve mentioned this idea of “filling space” twice now and haven’t really explained it. At my school, I believe they accept 70 undergrads each year. That is a maximum number and hypothetically, if there were not enough qualified candidates they wouldn’t accept the full slate of 70 students. However, because university is honestly a money making scam, they will accept the full slate of 70 students. The university would shut down the music program if they only accepted 30 students each year if they could be accepting 70.

What does this mean? Well, a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise be qualified to study in a university music program will be accepted into the school. Is it a bad thing? Yes and no. It does create extra, unnecessary competition. A lot of these “filler” students will end up being unable to pursue a career in music even though they put in the same hours of work as the “better” students.

That is a very cynical way of looking at it and I choose not to view it that way. I think that just because someone maybe picked up an instrument at a later age or doesn’t play as well as people their age doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be allowed to study music. They have just as much of a right to further their education as anyone in the faculty does. They work hard and practice just like everyone else. Although they may never become a concert pianist or a symphony orchestra player doesn’t mean that a music degree is a waste for them. The skills you learn while learning a musical instrument are transferable to every aspect of life. If you can get through a music degree, you can take on pretty much any career.

Back to the idea of “digging a hole for someone else does not make you appear taller” now. These “filler” students are the target for backlash and rude comments from fellow peers. I’ve listened to many of my close friends put down these students for no reason. I just think there’s no need for it. Does picking apart someone else’s playing really make you feel better? Just because you started your instrument at age 4 and someone else didn’t start until their late teens doesn’t make you a better person than them. They are just as entitled to learn. Maybe they won’t become a concert pianist but ever stop and think that maybe they don’t want to? Maybe they just love playing the piano and wanted to take a music degree before moving on to law school. You can’t judge a book by its cover.

Sorry if this entry is somewhat unstructured or going all over the place, but I hope I made the point that I just have no tolerance for putting down other people. I get that in a competitive field like music, we want to see ourselves in the best light possible. We want to succeed, but I have always believed that it is way more efficient to focus on yourself and block out others, rather than being so concerned with what others are doing. It is difficult in a competitive field like music, but necessary if you want to succeed. Trust me. I’ve found when I stopped caring about what other people were doing was when I had the most successes.

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.

Why pursue a career in music?

Good question. With little to no job security or stability, who the hell would want to be a musician? A lot of people who study a music degree will end up pursuing other career options outside music. Why do we study music then if it’s such a horrible career?

Because we love it, put simply. Why waste your time studying something or working in an area that you aren’t passionate about? It’s not always about studying something that leads to career that “makes money”. I think as a society, we put too much pressure on young adults to go to university and pursue high-paying careers such as law, medicine, or business. We tend to look down on young adults who study music because it’s a low paying job at best and not every music graduate will get a spot in a symphony orchestra. The problem of not being able to find a job upon graduation is not exclusive to music, but music is probably the hardest career path to find a job and make a sustainable living. You don’t get that stability like you do in a typical 9-5 job. You have weird hours which change from week to week. It’s hard to maintain friendships outside music because you’re free when everyone else works and vice versa. If you’re a freelance musician, you’re living day to day and may not know what’s paying your rent, or if you’ll make rent from month to month.

I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of understanding in society in general. A lot of people don’t see a place for art, music, drama, or dance in society as it is not an “essential” career. If there were no fine arts, the world would not end as long as we have our “essential” careers like doctors, lawyers, police officers, etc. All these fine arts disciplines are just “entertainment” and “fluff”. A lot of people really don’t understand the many years of hard work to become a musician, artist, dancer, or actor and think that even professional musicians are doing it “for fun” or as a “hobby”. I want to slap people on the face who think that. We have to pay rent and put food on the table too!

I think that art has a greater function in society than just mere entertainment. I think one thing we have lost in our society today is the idea of the Renaissance man and being well-rounded. Back then, people would be equally proficient as artists, musicians, scientists, inventors, and you name it. People studied certain things because they were genuinely interested in them, not because they would get money if they did. While that is certainly not the focus of our society today, I think we can re-incorporate that. I think university should be a time to explore your interests and passions, rather than be so focused on what kind of career you will have the whole time. If music interests you, study music. If philosophy interests you, study philosophy. If science interests you, study science. Walking into university and having no idea what you want to do or study is not a bad thing. You may discover an interest in a subject area that you never thought you would enjoy. Once you have been in university for a while, you will have a better sense of what career path you might want to take. If you have to switch majors or change your degree to accomplish that, there is nothing wrong with that. Even if you took a music degree, it is still possible to go into law, medicine, science, or any area of study you want. Life’s too short to force yourself to finish a degree that you are not interested in. Even if it takes you 8 years to finish your undergrad, you took that time to discover and find something you truly cared about, rather than rushed through a degree that you could care less for.

Also, another misconception or misunderstanding that I think is present in society is the idea that when you study something in university, you have to get a career in that area. Do you expect all philosophy students to become the next Descartes? Do you expect psychology students to be the next Freud? Do you expect science students to be the next Einstein? So why do we place high expectations on music majors to become the next Beethoven? I feel like a lot of young musicians graduating from university feel the pressure to get a career in music. We seem to regard it as a “failure” if someone is unable to get a career in music and has to search for alternative career paths. Yes, this is where the joke that fine arts majors end up working in Starbucks comes from. To be honest, this is not exclusive to fine arts majors, a science student could end up working at Starbucks if they don’t get into med school and can’t find another job. And honestly, some people are content with just working at a minimum wage job for the rest of their life, despite having a university degree. Why should we criticize them? It’s their life, not ours. Yeah, maybe they could be working harder to find a better job, but it’s their decision. We pass too much judgement and put too much pressure on young adults to be successful and pursue lucrative careers, but it’s just not possible.

This wasn’t your typical defending music as a career path post. Most people come at it from the angle of explaining all the benefits of studying music and learning a musical instrument. While this isn’t invalid, I think it’s discussed too much in blogs and articles. People come at it from a whiny angle, in my opinion, “Hey! Music is academic and intellectually stimulating too!” they say, but it’s not really answering the question of why we should pursue a career in music. We should pursue a career in music because art is such an integral part of our society and we’re passionate about it sharing it with others. If you are passionate about something, you will find a way to make money with it. If you decide after your music degree that you want to become a lawyer, that option is still available to you too. No one is “locked in” to a career path at age 22 or even age 35, frankly.

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!