Whoa, I’m getting fancy and inserting pictures in my entries! I can barely contain myself too!
Well, there is a deeper meaning behind the picture. The title of this post states “I just wanted to be different”. So I figured a snowflake would be an appropriate graphic as no two snowflakes are alike. No two humans are alike.
Sometimes we forget just how unique we are. There are so many humans in the world, it can feel like you are insignificant and don’t matter. If you have read any other things I have posted in this blog, you will know that it is something I talk about a lot.
When my violin teacher suggested to me at the end of grade 7 that I switch to viola, I will admit I was quite skeptical, as I’m sure you can relate if you are a violist as well. I thought it was a passive-aggressive nudge suggesting that things on violin weren’t going so well and that maybe I should just give up. I didn’t want to play an instrument that had such horrible jokes written about it, I couldn’t be that person! I rented a cheap one just to try it out and give it a chance. I did like the deeper, rich tone quality of the viola. Overall, I thought it was a much nicer and satisfying instrument to play. The next week when I went to my violin lesson, it was my first viola lesson. That summer, I went to the summer string workshop as a violist. I was still a bit shaky on alto clef, but by the beginning of grade 8, I was almost fluent in alto clef. By the time I started youth orchestra, it was like I had been playing viola for years.
I’ll admit I still wasn’t completely sold on viola. Part of me was still a violinist and missed soaring in those high positions on the E string. I’d watch the violinists have these crazy hard parts all up in 8th position while I was playing tremolo. I would almost wish that I could play something like that, I felt like I wasn’t challenging myself enough. I thought people would think that I was being lazy for switching to the viola. Yes, at one point in my life, I thought viola was “too easy”. Such a violinist thing to say. I did like being in a smaller section though. There aren’t many violists, especially where I was from. I felt I always got lost in the sea of violinists and was constantly compared to other people, making me always feel like the “underdog” or behind others. When I started on viola, I felt like I was my own category and I didn’t care if I was behind others or didn’t play as well as I “should have”.
It wasn’t until the end of grade 9 when my parents very kindly bought me a new professional quality viola (the one in the banner of this blog). As soon as I played it, I fell in love with the instrument all over again. It was so much nicer than that cheap rental one I had been using the past 2 years. It was from that moment that I knew that viola was my true calling. I was never meant to be a violinist, I was a violist. I didn’t switch to viola because I wasn’t good at violin, I switched because I genuinely enjoyed the instrument more and it suited me better.
As I began to identify more with being a violist, I began to be legitimately bothered by all these viola jokes. I knew they were just jokes, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there actually was a prejudice in the musical world against violists. Where I was from, a lot of the viola players didn’t play very well or work very hard. I got the impression they were violinists, like me, told to play viola and took it the wrong way. Once they switched, they never really got any better. I guess they thought since they’re inferior to everyone else and never going to get any better, why bother? These people are the reason that viola jokes still exist.
I wanted to be different. I wanted to work hard and achieve things just like any violinist or cellist. Just because I’m a violist doesn’t mean I can’t work hard. I wanted to be that violist. I wanted to stand out. I wanted to win all the competitions.
As you can tell, this mentality didn’t work out for me. I ended up being way too cocky in certain situations and made myself look even more like a fool. I felt like I had done all this hard work for “nothing”. Now as a fourth year university student, I still haven’t won any major competitions and feel like I’ve let violists down. I wanted to be different and show that we’re not the out-of-tune, stupid, unmusical losers that those stupid jokes say we are!
But then, I take a step back and think. Am I practicing and working hard to impress other people? Am I wanting to win competitions just to prove that violists are competent individuals? Sounds ridiculous when you put it in those terms. Who cares if people don’t think you’re good or think you’re a loser? All that matters is that you put in the hard work and know you’re accomplishing things for yourself. People can think whatever the hell they want, they’re not your future employers.
I guess through all these years of being unsuccessful, I felt like people just thought I was just like every other violist in my city. When I moved here, I felt the same way. I tried so hard to be different but just couldn’t. But you don’t have to try hard to be different. You are different. Not everyone was meant to win all the competitions and be the person that everyone’s “in love” with. Winning competitions does not equate success. I’ve accomplished things that don’t get nearly as much praise or attention as a competition, but are unique to me and other people haven’t necessarily done. Not saying that I have an advantage, but I’m just as successful as those people who win every competition even though I don’t get nearly the praise and attention they do.
Bottom line is everyone is different. We all have our own set of achievements and stories to tell. Why do we waste so much energy trying to be like “everyone else” or prove that we are just as good as another person? I honestly think, not just myself, but all musicians put too much energy into trying to be different and stand out from other people. People will think what they think, but at the end of the day, we know what we have done and one day someone will appreciate that.
Music tends to be one of those areas of study where people can be incredibly jaded and opinionated about the “right” way to do something. Yes, there are better ways of doing things, but I don’t think there is a “right” way to become a musician. This can be applied to many aspects of life as well.
The main point I’m trying to get at is people tend to be very pushy about how many hours a day you should practice at all stages of playing. For example, I saw the following chart posted on Violin Masterclass.
If you play for fun
- Age five: 30 minutes
- Age eight: 45 – 60 minutes
- Age ten: 60 – 75 minutes
- Age twelve to adult: 90 – 120 minutes
If you want to be a professional
- Age five: 30 – 45 minutes
- Age eight: 90 – 120 minutes
- Age ten: 2 hours
- Age twelve: 3 hours
- Age fourteen to eighteen: 3 – 4 hours
- Violin major in college: 5 hours
Let me be the first to tell you that there’s no way in hell I practiced nearly that much and I’m here in university doing just fine. I honestly seldom practice 5 hours a day as a music major. I know, shame on me. The chart also kind of implies that one would know they want to be a professional by age 8. I hated taking violin lessons at age 8 and I don’t think I practiced anywhere near 30 minutes, let alone the suggestion on the chart! When I first read this chart, I think I was about 10 years old and it immediately made me feel like a failure because I didn’t practice anywhere near the amount suggested on the playing for fun chart.
My take on it is, are these kids who follow the practice times on this chart like it’s the universal truth really passionate about what they do? For me, I believe that passion and sincerity are the most important aspects of a musician, artist, actor, or any fine arts performer. I would much rather see a person who plays with emotion, passion, and musicality even if their technique is not perfect than a technique robot whose parents made them practice 5 hours a day. In order to practice that many hours as a child, you would have to make a ton of sacrifices and miss out on being a kid. I know when I was a child, I went to public school so I would be in school for 6 hours a day. That’s already 6 hours of my day spoken for. When I was younger, I could easily practice for 30-45 minutes after school and be done with it. But as I got older, I got busier and sometimes I’d have rehearsals after school and after supper and I’d be squeezing in homework with any little time I got, even if it was 15 minutes. By the time I got home, it was bed time. Days would go by without even practicing. I’d be playing my instrument, but I just didn’t have that individual time each day. I still made it into music school though. Once I got there, I practiced my butt off because I had so much “free time”.
Of course, these kids who follow the practice times on the chart did not have a normal or well-rounded childhood as I did. Don’t get me wrong, if you have read any of my rant posts on this blog, you know I made significant sacrifices to pursue my music, but these kids are at a higher level of sacrifice than I was. For the most part, they were home-schooled which makes a huge difference in the amount of practice time available to you. However, their “free time” was practicing strictly enforced by the parents. I know people in university now who were home-schooled under this mentality and they said that they didn’t even have any friends their own age. They didn’t get to play sports, play other instruments, go to clubs, or even play with kids at the park; things that most of us took for granted in our childhood. Instead, they were to practice violin or piano (it’s usually those instruments with these types of people) for X hours a day and then study math for X hours a day. These are the kids that grow up to be technical robots and win every competition, but have no genuine passion for the art.
I’ll be honest, I do get home-school envy from time to time. When the superstar violin kid came to my school, I felt like such a failure. I thought I was behind for my age and that I should have been home-schooled so that I could have had that time to refine my technique prior to university. He accomplished more before coming to university than I did my whole life. He was used to practicing 4-5+ hours a day already and I could barely wrap my head around practicing that much even as a first year music major. However, by going to public school, I got the opportunity to play in band, jazz band, flute choir and sing in choir, vocal jazz, and musical theatre. These experiences contributed to my musicality. Although I didn’t really practice enough to develop solid technique, I had the musicality that can’t always be taught. To clarify, I’m by no means suggesting that home-schooled students do so specifically to practice their instruments more or be the “best” at everything. I’ve met home-schooled students in university who had a very well-rounded childhood and their intentions for being home-schooled were either because it was a family tradition or they have a self-starter personality and wanted to take control of their education.
Coming back to this post title, there is not one right way to do something. The beauty of the music world is seeing the variety of musical backgrounds that people come from. You don’t need to be a child prodigy to make it in the music world, in fact I’d almost argue that it’s better not to be. People can be very pushy like “Oh you should practice more” but it ultimately depends on what you want to achieve and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for it. If you don’t want to kill yourself practicing 5 hours a day, no one said you had to. It depends more on the person and their work ethic. There is no step-by-step process to becoming a musician and some people need to stop making one. There are people who pursue music degrees and make it in the music business who only picked up an instrument in their late teens or early twenties. I have so much respect for these people as they enter the music faculty as an older student with less technical ability than the younger students and yet they don’t let that bother them and hence they work incredibly hard. Yet, these people get criticized for “not being good enough” because they didn’t start at age 3.
My point is, there is not one right way to do something. Don’t let people tell you that what you’re doing is wrong or that you should have done this and that. You know what’s best for your life for what you want to achieve. If you don’t accomplish what you were hoping for, that’s not a “I told you so” moment for other people, you just don’t give up and try again next time.
This past week has been a very rough week for me. I don’t think it’s the concerto competition alone that’s caused that kind of stress, but it is a contributor.
On Tuesday, I mentioned in my previous post that I had a class with one of the profs on the panel. Yeah, I ended up skipping that class and lying in bed the whole day. I’ve seen the prof since then and he didn’t bring up the competition or anything, but I still get a sense that he knows the real reason why I wasn’t in class. I won’t bring it up if he doesn’t. I felt a bit guilty for doing nothing that day so I went to the school later that night to practice. It was going alright at first and then I just broke down crying and had to leave.
On Wednesday I knew I just needed to go somewhere that wasn’t school. I don’t have any classes on Wednesday until orchestra later in the afternoon so I went to the mall. I had some ice cream, bought some tea, checked out some stores and bused back to school for orchestra. It was refreshing, but only temporary.
Last night was the final round of the competition. I always feel obligated to attend as I entered the competition and I should support my peers yadda yadda. I don’t want people to think that by my absence I’m acting out or being bitter that I wasn’t chosen for the finals. At the same time, I still felt stressed out and bothered (by grad school applications as well, not the competition alone) and they always say, you have to take care of yourself before you can support others. I decided a reasonable compromise would be to show up fashionably late and catch most of the performances and of course, the big reveal.
I’ll be honest I was not pleased by the level of playing at the final round at all really. I’ve attended final rounds for these competitions in the past, and there have been better competitors selected. I’m not trying to say that I would have been a more qualified candidate, but I was somewhat displeased by the results.
They chose that singer and a cellist to play with the orchestra next year and a french horn and a saxophone to play with the wind ensemble. The only person that really had a stellar performance and legitimately deserved it was the singer, ironically enough she was the person I was originally most upset about being in the final. The cellist had a lot of intonation, note accuracy, and projection issues. If he can’t even play with confidence with a piano, then he will struggle with an orchestra. The saxophonist had a lot of confidence and musicality, but it was very messy. I get the piece was crazy hard, but you shouldn’t win a competition just because you played a crazy hard piece and lived to tell the tale. I’ve seen that happen too many times in my lifetime and it’s frustrating as hell. The French horn player actually played really well. There were some notes that he missed, but I mean that’s hard as a young French horn player. Everything else about his performance (confidence, musicality, etc.) was right on. I don’t know what to think. I feel like the panel almost chose people based on the pieces they were playing or how old they were or other arbitrary criteria that should have no relevance in a competition.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone after all, but I guess I would have heard the results regardless. It’s not a secret at a small faculty like mine. People who weren’t at the competition will idolize the winners like they’re the greatest people on earth. The people who didn’t win are losers. I have no place in the faculty because I’m just some idiot violist. This is why I hate competitions.
It makes me wonder, what’s wrong with me? I’m not saying this to be cocky, but I know that I play at the level to be winning competitions like these. I’m not saying that I could have played better than any of the competitors, but I do play at that level. I’ve had experiences and done very prestigious summer programs that a lot of people at my school have never had, yet I’m still not good enough to win a silly competition at my school. I really don’t get it sometimes. Like, the summer program I’ve done the past two years, I was selected from a national pool. Some people work for many years to be selected for that program just once, and I was one of five from my school. Here I am, being recognized nationally, yet my own school doesn’t give a sh!t about me. Real nice.
I always thought that my lack of success at winning competitions was due to the closed-mindedness of the people from my hometown. There was basically a group of 2 or 3 people that would win every competition and rotate depending who played better that night. If you’re not one of those 2 or 3 people, you’re SOL, no matter how hard you worked. I used to think that if I worked really hard, I could win a competition, but nope. It’s not that simple. I wasn’t one of the elites. I thought when I went away for school, things would be different. Boy was I wrong. The common denominator is me. No matter which city I live in, no one will appreciate me for whatever arbitrary reasons there may be.
I originally played the violin. I remember being in a violin lesson one day and my teacher suggested I switch to viola. For a long time, I always thought that it was a polite way of saying that I sucked at violin. When I would play in youth orchestra I always felt I was getting the short end of the stick, so to speak. The violins would get all the nice melodies and challenging parts and I was stuck with offbeats and other boring accompaniment figures. I felt like I was a failure at music and no one had the courage to say it to my face.
But then I had a major epiphany. I can’t really pinpoint how or when it happened, but I remember just falling in love with the viola and being incredibly thankful I made the switch. I embraced the somewhat boring and unchallenging orchestral parts. I embraced viola repertoire. I embraced being unique. It was such a relief not to be a violinist anymore, I could be myself.
It’s only times where I get thrown in competitions wiith violinists, cellists, and pretty much any other instrument where I sometimes still resent playing the viola. Violin, piano, flute, and even cello repertoire to an extent is written so the soloist can really show off his or her technical ability. It has a way of “sounding amazing” to both musicians and non-musicians. Inherently, these instruments have a natural advantage due to the repertoire that is available to them.
Viola, on the other hand, is not traditionally a solo instrument and still isn’t frankly. I think there’s still a stigma about violists that exists even to this present day. We are the failed violinists. The viola exists solely to make bad violinists feel better about themselves. This is not true, but I get the impression that a lot of people, even close friends of mine, feel that way and don’t always give me the respect I deserve. It is an awful stigma and I feel that every time I go up to perform I am saying to the audience “Hey, look at me. I’m not an idiot.” But of course I end up reinforcing the negative stigma about violists when I play with poor intonation and technique. With this in mind, there really isn’t a lot of great viola repertoire that exists that really compares to anything a violinist would play. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love a lot of viola pieces, but they just don’t compare and no non-violist wants to hear it.
I’ve never really won a competition against non-violists before. The ones I have I either won by default or because I was clearly the oldest/most advanced player in the competition (though that does not always work to my advantage). A lot of this does have to do with the lack of good viola repertoire appropriate for competition. There is a huge gap in viola repertoire for the romantic period, which is what wins competitions. Yes there are a lot of modern composers nowadays striving to fill in the gap of viola repertoire, but this does not constitute “standard repertoire”. Modern music can also be hard to sell in a competition setting. For example, Hindemith Der Schwanendreher is in theory a perfect competition piece, but it’s super difficult to pull off as a lot of people don’t have an understanding or appreciation of Hindemith the way I do.
Now I know you’re thinking, “It’s not all about competitions” or “don’t get wrapped up in compeitions” or something along those lines. That’s true but I still can’t help that I have a desire to win a competition of some description, even if it’s just at my school or other local one. The fact that violists are so disadvantaged and stigmatized in competitions motivates me to try harder. It’s almost like my way of telling the world, “Hey! Violists are musicians too!” Just because I play an instrument that not a lot of people appreciate doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate it and share my love and passion for the viola. It would mean so much more to me to win a competition than any violinist or pianist who seemingly effortlessly wins everything they enter. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I believe I have what it takes to win a competition. The only thing holding me back of course is my poor intonation and technique. If I brought my technique up to a higher level while maintaining the level of musicality, I could beat any technique robot any day. That is, of course, easier said than done.
At the end of the day, music shouldn’t really be about proving yourself or competitions. It is increasingly difficult to remember that as I am pursuing music as a career and I am nearing the end of an undergraduate degree. Pretty soon I will be competing in the ultimate competition — orchestral auditions. The stakes are much higher. If I don’t get some scholarship or cash prize, Though it might be disappointing in the moment, I can live with that. But if I don’t succeed in an orchestral audition, that’s another year without a job. There’s only so many auditions you can take before you have to admit to yourself that you’re not cut out for music and you go fill out an application at Starbucks. It’s not a joke, but a sad reality that there are more high level musicians than there are positions in symphony orchestras. Because I am approaching a point in my career where it’s literally all about competition and being the best, it’s hard to remember to appreciate music as an art form and means to express emotions.
When I look back and ask myself “Why do I play the viola?”, I play the viola because I love it. I love the rich tone and the unique colour of the instrument. It’s ultimately not about how many other people also like the viola and its repertoire, it’s about me liking it. I also used to play violin, piano, and flute. Maybe if I had pursued one of those instruments I’d have more success in competitions or more people would “like” me. But ultimately, the passion and desire to succeed that I have for viola merely didn’t exist for me on violin, piano or flute. I’m not going to choose an instrument for shallow reasons such as other people might like it more. At the end of the day, it’s my instrument and my career. I’m the one who has to put in the many hours of practice and I couldn’t be happier putting those hours in on the viola. Whenever I get wrapped up in the nonsense of competitions I remind myself of why I love playing the viola in the first place and I would never go back and choose a different instrument.
I know what you’re thinking, a violist entering a competition. Who does she think she is?
I participated in a local music festival a few months ago and I found out I was selected to perform twice in the provincial competition. Normally I shy away from these types of things as I usually need to travel to a different city, stay there for a few days, play, and then end up not winning anything. Although I tell myself the performance experience is important, I can’t help but feel frustrated and discouraged after several unsuccessful attempts. The same people always win every time whether they deserve it or not and no matter how hard I work I will never compare to them. I know I improve so much every year, but so do these people, I will never catch up. I know I shouldn’t be comparing myself to others and I should be intrinsically motivated, but it is hard to keep it up when it seems like other people don’t care.
I was originally not going to perform this time based on bad experiences in the past but I thought maybe this time would be different. Maybe my musicality would finally be taken seriously. Maybe even if I didn’t win I’d be more mature this time and not take it personally.
I made a conscious decision to make this a meaningful experience and not let the results of the competitions determine the worth of making the trip. I was going to go out there and give it my best shot and if the judges didn’t think that mine was the best performance, then that’s their opinion and is not representative of me as a musician.
The first performance was definitely not my best. I did not expect to win going into the competition based on the other competitors and what I knew of their playing. Even if I had played the best that I’d ever played, I probably wouldn’t have won based on how I know the other competitors play. It’s also pretty difficult as a violist to compete against a violinist and a cellist.
I was playing the first two movements of Hindemith Der Schwanendreher and the first movement of the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in E-flat. The rules of the competition required me to play the music all by memory, which was very challenging as that was about 30 minutes of music. Plus, it is not generally conventional to memorize sonatas. I play the first movement of the Hindemith very frequently memorized so it was no big deal, but I felt that as I played the second movement, I was praying not to have a memory slip. In some cases, I was thinking “When the piano plays __________, I play ___________” and just playing the movement very mechanically. This definitely affected my musicality as I didn’t have a clear concept of the full picture, just chunks that came in a specific order. It also affected my intonation more than usual as I was, in some cases, uncertain of exact notes. I ended up not having any memory slips and made it beginning to end in one piece, but it really took a toll on my musicality and expression. I wished I had approached memorizing that movement in a manner similar to my memorization of the first movement and, frankly, performed the movement more often. But it was too late, one can only focus on the present moment during a performance. The memory in the Brahms sonata was actually not stressful at all. Brahms is one of my favourite composers and I thoroughly enjoyed learning the second sonata (even though it was originally for clarinet). There were many times throughout the year where I’d just play through it after I was done practicing, often by memory. Unintentional memorization is the best type of memorization in my experience. Even though sonatas for non-pianists aren’t traditionally memorized, I felt that when I played it by memory I had so much more expression and emotion without the barrier of the music stand there. Arguably that was probably my most musical performance of the Brahms. Once again, I hadn’t expected to win and was quite fine with how I did. I did not listen to the other competitors but I have heard them play in the past and have a general idea of how they sound.
My second performance was for a Canadian composers category. There were only two competitors, myself and a pianist. It was definitely going to be very interesting as the pieces we were playing were completely different styles. I was playing the Hétu Variations, which is an unaccompanied atonal work. The composer was influenced by Bartok and it is evident in use of symmetry, folk-like melodies, and mixed meters. There is also somewhat of an element of serialism in the construction of the variations. The piece takes a certain amount of musicality and maturity to play effectively as it is atonal and not always straightforward. The pianist was playing a piece that was no where near as “deep” as mine and I believe it was depicting animals. While some sense of musicality is required to capture the character of each animal, it was definitely easier to capture the essence of the piece as the characters/colours/etc were more obvious.
I went to go perform and once again, I was required to perform this piece by memory as per regulation of the competition. Atonal unaccompanied works are the absolute worst thing to memorize, I’d memorize five entire sonatas before I memorize another atonal unaccompanied work! I’d performed the piece several times and I had a good concept of the bigger picture of the piece, so I wasn’t totally hopeless. I definitely had memory slips in my performance. This did take a toll on my intonation, due to uncertainty or just playing the wrong note all together and trying to change it. There were parts that I basically improvised. I don’t blame all intonation problems with playing by memory, but that was the case in the particular instance. Some intonation slips were legitimately my bad as well. I missed both harmonics on the last chord but I just kept going as I didn’t want to ruin the mood of the ppp ending. The harmonics are finicky too, despite being natural harmonics. It was the second partial on the G string with the fourth partial on the D string and it sounds D and F#. When I get them they ring really nicely, but I was not successful on either one. Anyway, one can only worry about the present moment when performing so I decided it would be best to keep the spirit of the ending rather than fight to make those harmonics sound. Even though I was literally inaudible on the last chord, I just had to keep going.
Then it was the pianist’s turn to play. I could tell right from his first notes that his technique was impeccable. It struck me that his playing was rather emotionless, but the piece did not require intense emotion or musicality as mine did. He did do a good job of bringing out the character changes but overall the piece did not require the same amount of maturity as mine. What also bothered me is he was quite a bit younger than me, I doubt he was older than 16 or 17 and definitely hadn’t received any musical training at the post-secondary level. Of course he was chosen as the winner because his technique was flawless and he had the musicality appropriate to his piece. Of course the judges tried to console me and said that I played very musically, phrased well (especially given the piece was atonal), had emotion, had a good stage presence, and yadda yadda. But they were really covering up the fact that I can’t play in tune and politely saying that I suck. I know for a fact based on my own personal instincts and what the judges said that mine was the more musical and mature performance, but technique wins. If that pianist played the piano equivalent of my piece, he wouldn’t have had the same level of musicality that he did in his piece.
It always takes an emotional toll on me for the next few days when I do a competition like this, even if I knew the result from the beginning. It’s just another reminder of the horrible first impressions I make on people because of my awful intonation. They think they’re being helpful, maybe they’re the first person to tell me. Of course not, only 500 people a day tell me I can’t play in tune. The next thing that bothers me is how condescending they can be about it. I wish I could tell them that I have been aware of my intonation struggles for the past 15+ years and that I’ve come a long way and continue to work unbelievably hard. There are so many people that I’ve played for in festivals, competitions, and master classes who have a lasting impression of me as the idiot violist who can’t play in tune. And then you wonder why people continue to make viola jokes, despite my best efforts I am part of the problem.
Of course here I am lying in my bed and intermittently crying while typing this blog entry. I feel like absolute sh!t and have no motivation whatsoever to practice at the time being. This is fairly typical after a competition for me. I have had it much worse in the past though. One time I drank an entire mini bottle of vodka straight while binge eating pizza when I found out I wasn’t selected for the final round of a concerto competition (another story for another time). I didn’t practice at all really that week either. At least this time now that I am more aware of how I cope with rejection, I’m confident I will bounce back possibly even later tonight or tomorrow for sure. Hopefully when I get out in the real world and take orchestral auditions I will be a much stronger person and won’t need to mope around every time things don’t go the way I planned.