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.

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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.