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.
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Why do I play the viola?

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. 

A Competition

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.