Is It Too Late for Me?

I’ve invested a great deal of time and effort into my viola playing, especially in the past four years. All of these endless hours and late nights in the practice rooms, giving up summers to attend programs/festivals, giving up a social life to practice, all the emotional breakdowns, may have been for nothing.
When I was in middle/high school, I was never the best string player. I was always the one who sat around on the sidelines watching the same three people win all the prizes wondering when it would be my turn. It never really was. Despite being unsuccessful, I had a lot of genuine passion for music. I worked really hard and wanted so badly to go into music, even if there were people who thought I wasn’t good enough. I told myself that all that matters is having a strong, consistent work ethic.
Now that I have an undergrad, I worry that maybe that was just something that high school teachers tell you so you feel better about yourself. I legitimately thought things would be different in undergrad, but I feel like I’m really no better than I was in high school. I was still the one who sat around on the sidelines watching the same three people win all the prizes wondering when it would be my turn. I look back and realize how naive I was. Why did I think that everything would magically get better in undergrad?
It’s weird too, because I know for a fact I worked really hard in undergrad and came a long way musically and technically. I listen to recordings from high school and I can’t believe it’s the same person. Why am I still unsuccessful? Because the people that were really good also got better so there’s just no hope for me. As soon as I’m as good as them, they’re way better.
A good example is this other violist that I know. She’s starting her undergrad. She’s played the Brahms F minor and Clarke sonatas. If you know anything about viola rep, that’s amazing to be able to play pieces like that at a young age. When I was in high school, my teacher told me that I wasn’t ready to be playing pieces like the Clarke or Brahms sonatas. Even in first and second year undergrad! I finally was able to play Brahms E-flat in third year, Clarke in fourth year, and only now am I learning Brahms F minor for my master’s.
As you can see, she is much better equipped going into undergrad than I was. The level she plays at is exactly where I wish I was going into undergrad. I wasted four years of my life getting there. Now that I’m finally ready to do my undergrad, here I am starting my master’s. She has six years (assuming she’s doing master’s) of school. She’s going to be unstoppable when she graduates. I only have 2 years left. Even if I never talk to another human being ever again and practice 12 hours a day, I will never be good enough.
They always say sometimes people have success later in life, and maybe my big break is yet to come in 10 years or something. I don’t know what to believe. It’s just so hard to see all these people 2, 4, 6, 10 years younger than me that are so much better than I was. I honestly think it’s too late for me. It sucks because I’ve invested so much time and effort into this that it would be depressing to give it all up, but at the same time I can’t guarantee that I’ll ever be good enough. I can’t wait until I’m 35 to get an orchestral job, but expecting to get an orchestral job right out of my master’s is unrealistic too.

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.

Still mad about the concerto competition

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 and had to leave. Of course, who do I run into on the way out, the last person I wanted to see. It was the violin kid. Great, now he knows my weaknesses (because of course, he already didn’t). Surprisingly, he was actually very understanding and kind. He said, “Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it. There are people who made the finals that we both know shouldn’t have been chosen”. Then, the best part, “Winning a competition like this is pretty short term satisfaction. I bet a lot of the people at the faculty don’t even know or care that I won two years ago.” Did he just go through puberty or something? And I could tell he wasn’t just saying that because he thought he had to, he genuinely meant it. So weird. But I mean, hey, I’m all for him maturing and treating people with respect!

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. 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. He’s a lot better than most horn players my age, so I’ll give him that. 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.

That one violinist

At every music school there are the same types of people. The names and faces change from school to school, but all music schools have essentially the same cast of characters. There’s always that one kid who thinks he (or she) is God’s gift to music or something like that. It’s usually a violinist, pianist, or a soprano but sometimes a flute or trumpet player. There’s not always just one either. Perhaps there’s a whole group of them that hang out together and tell each other how much better they are than the other one.

At my school specifically, there’s this one violinist in particular that gets on my nerves sometimes, though I work hard to not let that happen. It seemed right from Day One, he had a mission; let everyone in the music faculty know that he was the greatest thing alive. Normally, these types of people are the kind that get to university, realize they’re not the best, can’t handle the pressure, and drop out, which is what I’d originally thought would happen to this guy. However, the exact opposite happened. He’s still in school and if anything, even more cocky and confident about being the greatest violinist alive.

I remember the first day of second year when I went to do my orchestral placement auditions. I was super pumped for the new school year, I’d had such a great first year and it was the first time that I’d finally felt at peace with where I was in terms of my technique and overall musical ability. In high school, I always felt like I was inferior to others and that I was never “good enough”. After my first year of university, I no longer felt inferior. I knew I wasn’t the best, but it was okay, I had three more years to work hard and lots of amazing friends and teachers to support me along the way.

This violin kid (first year at the time) was already in the waiting room when I went for my orchestral placement audition. My very first impression of him was when he said the following to the professor proctoring the auditions, “When do I find out if I’m concertmaster?” I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard! First of all, who is this kid? Second, who says that, let alone to a prof? From that moment, I started my countdown of when he would drop out.

Unfortunately, for me, that never happened, and the way things are going, never will. He continued to have success in everything he did. He ended up not being chosen for concertmaster that year, but he won pretty much every competition he entered in. He’d always post on Facebook “I won ______ competition” and get 100+ likes and a bunch of comments that said things such as “OMG! Congrats! You’re so talented!” It didn’t take long before people at the school who I thought were my friends/supporters seemed to have converted over to him. I felt like no one cared about me anymore because I was just some violist who can’t play in tune to save her life.

In November 2013, I seriously considered dropping out. All those feelings of being inferior and inadequate that I thought I overcame in first year had come back with a vengeance. Nothing had really fundamentally changed about me, I was still passionate about music and continued to work hard. The only thing that had really changed was this violinist coming to the school. A more advanced player’s presence does not make you any more inferior, but I still felt that way. In his first three months at the school, he’d managed to accomplish more that I did my whole first year and start of second year combined. I never even entered any competitions in my first year and he won them all in his first year. It made me question if I even belonged in a music program anymore; if this kid can accomplish all this in his first year then why am I wasting my time? I eventually convinced myself this might be short-lived and that he’d eventually get put in his place. I reminded myself that I was in the music faculty for myself and not for other people. If other people are in love with him, there’s nothing I can do about that. I still had teachers, friends, and other supporters that were on my side. I figured it would be better to have a small group of people who truly appreciate and support what I do, then a bunch of random, superficial supporters who comment “OMG! CONGRATZ!” on my Facebook statuses.

In March, we found out that we had been accepted to the same summer program. I was excited as I’d heard this program was very prestigious. Since we were both going to be spending a good portion of the summer together, I figured it was time to make peace with him and let go of all my grudges. I would almost have considered us to be friends. It was almost like a fairy tale ending; Two people who hate each other became best friends and lived happily ever after.

However, it’s not that simple. When third year (his second year) began, things changed yet again. Coming back from the summer program made him even more obnoxious and cocky (if that’s possible). We started the year off as friends but it really didn’t take long for that to dissolve. It seemed as though he was even more competitive when it came around to competitions and the level of his cockiness was just completely unacceptable. I remember before a competition, he was basically telling people he was going to win and they should stop practicing. At least in first year, most of his cockiness was in the form of bragging on Facebook statuses, but now, it’s completely unacceptable to say that to people. Despite his lack of social normative skills, he manages to win said competitions or otherwise have his ego pumped up.

I keep telling myself that these are the type of people that will eventually dig themselves into a hole and can’t get out. He lacks a lot of intrinsic motivation. I bet any money if he stopped winning competitions and people stopped liking/commenting on his Facebook posts, he would probably quit. I know for a fact I have much more intrinsic motivation than he does. Although I’d love to win a competition or something like that, I still practice and work hard when I don’t and that takes a lot of discipline and maturity. However, the more success he has, the less I believe that. Sometimes it just seems like his life is “perfect” even though it’s not that simple.

Possibly the best advice I’ve ever received about people like this was from my high school counselor,”Don’t let people live in your head rent free”. I can’t control this violinist’s actions or words as well as how many people “like” him and what they think. Hating a person is also a complete waste of time and energy. Love and hate are not opposite concepts, they are more or less the same as both involve putting energy into your relationship with someone. The opposite of love and hate would be indifference, where you put no energy into liking or not liking a person whatsoever and you could care less what they do. I strive to use my energy on what I can control; how hard I work and my overall attitude. This kid is always going to win competitions and be successful until the end of his undergrad and he will have tons of superficial supporters. There is no need to be concerned about that as nothing I can do would change anything he does or accomplishes. Being motivated by his potential failures is also very unhealthy and shallow. The only power that he has over me is the power I give him in my head, which goes back to the idea of not letting people live in your head. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it and stop comparing yourself to others.

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. 

Introduction

Welcome to my blog! I’m not sure how you found it but welcome regardless!

The reason why I created this blog is basically because I needed a safe place to rant about my feelings and emotional struggles as a musician, but more specifically a violist. Perhaps no one will read this. But perhaps someone will find me on a wild google search and feel the exact same way. Who knows, I’m not in it to become popular.

The biggest thing that I struggle with is the gap between my technical ability and my musicality. I consider myself to be a very musical. Whenever I perform that is the first thing that people will comment on. However, my technique is no where near the level of my musicality and that holds me back. My biggest technical issue is intonation. I work unbelievably hard on my technique and I have improved so much but it’s not something that will be immediately improved. It’s a very frustrating, vicious cycle; every time I play for someone who has never heard me they will notice my musicality but point out my technical flaws like I don’t realize I play out of tune or something. It’s unbelievably frustrating. I want to improve and people to notice but it’s so hard and I constantly feel like I’m getting no where when I’m constantly reminded of my poor intonation. Intonation is also probably the most obvious technical flaw of a person as well. If you can’t play in tune, everyone will notice instantly, even people with no musical training.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that technical ability is often rewarded much more than musicality. It is hard to win a competition with musicality alone. Of course, if one can be proficient in both technique and musicality then the things they can accomplish will be amazing, but it is hard to have both. I’ve watched so many people who play with absolutely impeccable intonation and overall technique beat me in competitions despite the fact they played with minimal emotion or passion. The people who are considered to be the most advanced players at my school are impeccable with respect to technique but lack emotion and passion. This is NOT meant to be cocky, but if my technique was as good as theirs, I would beat them in any competition with my musicality. I understand why having good technique is often more rewarded; it takes a lot more hours of practice and discipline to achieve that. Musicality and playing with emotion is often considered to be a natural talent and can’t really be taught or practiced. Hard work and discipline is what gets you places, not natural talent. It’s fine to be naturally talented at something but it will only get you so far and then you need the work ethic to reach the next level.

Part of my, for lack of a better term, incompetence in technique is due to not having a teacher who was really disciplined about technique. I believe I studied for about 12 years prior to attending university. I did not do scales and studies nearly as much as I should have and part of it was perhaps my lack of discipline, but also due to not having a teacher who enforced it strictly. I’ve studied in university for 3 years now and I am much more disciplined about practicing technique plus my teacher is better about enforcing it. However, 3 years isn’t going to make up for 12 years of undisciplined practicing. I will have to work unbelievably hard if I want to “catch up” to these people who have been practicing scales for 5 hours a day since age 4. However, the musical background that I have is not “invalid” or “wrong” so to speak. I believe that because I was not forced to practice technique so diligently from a young age allowed me to explore music and find my own passion for it at a younger age; I was never one of those “prodigy kids”. I played several instruments/genres while growing up for my own enjoyment and I seldom felt the pressure to be the best or impress my parents. Because of this, I was able to play with maturity, passion, and emotion from a younger age than these technical robots. Of course, the challenge now is going back and working on my technique that these robots had nailed down when they were younger.

Anyway, I’ll stop there as this is only intended to be an introductory post and I have an entire blog to rant about whatever I want. I’m not sure which direction this blog will take, but I do predict that ranting about my technique vs. musicality will be a common theme in possibly all my posts.