What am I doing with my life?

The question all music majors ask themselves at some point. It is a career path with such uncertainty and no one knows where they’ll be in 5 years. While you’re in school, you are subject to so much criticism (albeit constructive), but it’s normal to fell like you suck. Today, I had somewhat of a quasi mental breakdown.

With grad school auditions coming up, I often worry if I will be good enough. I question every thing I have ever done in my life and find myself being concerned with “If I did this one thing differently, everything would be better”. I think about my time when I was in high school and growing up in my hometown. If you’ve read any previous entries in this blog, you’ll know that I have always felt like I got the short end of the stick. I had to watch other people constantly win competitions, even when they didn’t necessarily deserve it. I felt like the classical music version of Leonardo DiCaprio (that awkward moment if you’re reading this entry in the future and he actually won an Oscar). I always had this thought in the back of my mind that I would have a chance of winning these competitions as the people who were older than me graduated and moved away. It turns out the people younger than me took over. I remember very distinctly at the place I took my music lessons at had an awards ceremony at the end of the year where they handed out various scholarships/medals to hard-working students. They had this very prestigious award (or at least that was what I thought it was) that was called the Director’s gold medal or something. Basically, you get your name added to the plaque on the wall and everyone thinks you’re the greatest person on earth. Naturally, I wanted this award more than anything. The things they looked for were attendance and preparation in lessons, a high level of performance, and participation in recitals. I went out of my way to make sure I excelled in those areas. In grade 11, I was up every morning at 6am to squeeze in an extra hour of practice before school. I performed in 5 or 6 recitals that year too. I didn’t get selected and I was initially quite upset because that was the year I wanted it so I could put it on my resume for university applications. I eventually got over it and focused on trying to get it for grade 12. You know what happens next though. I did not receive this award in grade 12. I was just as consistent with my preparation for lessons and work ethic, yet it was not noticed. I felt like all that work was for “nothing”. The part that made it a huge slap in the face was that they had given it to someone who was a year younger than me, had won it in the past, and wasn’t planning to go into music. I was convinced that there were people from my hometown that were just closed-minded and didn’t think I had the potential to succeed in a career in music so they all conspired to make sure that I never won any competitions or awards.

When I did go away to pursue music, I forgot about a lot of this stuff and didn’t let it bother me. At the same time, it was still in the back of my mind. I was convinced that so and so was out there rooting for me to fail and drop out of music. It almost gave me this sense that I needed to prove that I was good enough and that I was doing well. After first year I entered the music festival in my hometown. There were a lot of university kids who had the same idea though, so I didn’t really win anything. It wasn’t as embarrassing though because these people were already older and better than me and it would have taken a miracle for me to play better than them. After my second year, I entered in the same festival again. It turned out that I was the oldest competitor this time so while I tried not to let it get to my head, I thought that I might have a better chance. I did win some of the competitions that I’d entered in for years, but it wasn’t really a satisfying win, it was more or less just expected given I was the oldest, most qualified, and musical candidate. There were a couple times I lost to the “superstar little kids” who were still in high school at the time. Needless to say it was slightly embarrassing, as a music major, to lose to people who were still in high school. I got selected to the provincial festival and got beaten out by a cellist who was a 3rd year engineering student. Whaaaat? That was the last year I did the music festival in my hometown and I can’t see myself doing it ever again in my life.

If you have read anything on this blog before, you know that I’m not exactly having more success at my school currently with respect to competitions. I know competitions aren’t everything, but I still can’t help but wonder what I’ve been doing wrong all these years. Yes, intonation is probably my biggest struggle, but it can’t be the only thing. It’s not my instrument choice either, I’ve watched other violists and other “underdog” instruments like guitar or bassoon win competitions. I would totally be best buds with Leo DiCaprio at this rate, except he has a better chance of winning an Oscar than I do of winning a competition. I’ve given up on entering competitions at my school too. There’s a scholarship competition in January coming up soon and I’m just like f*ck it. I will be out of town for the final round anyway so if I did enter, although no matter how well I play I wouldn’t make it to the finals, I’d still feel like I have to go out of my way to slough it off which isn’t worth it. I’m tired of feeling like a worthless piece of sh!t as this is not conducive to my 4th year recital and grad school auditions coming up. Competitions make me feel like sh!t, when I don’t enter them, I’m fine.

It does concern me on a larger scale though. The two cities I’ve lived in are relatively small centres in Canada as a whole. It’s really not hard to stand out, but somehow I am unsuccessful at that. My concern is that if I can’t even get recognized for a silly thing like the director’s gold medal or the university concerto competition, how am I going to make it on the national and international level? There is no “better luck next time” or “keep up the good work” in the real world. I can only be unsuccessful at so many auditions before I have to give up and find a career outside music. I can’t continue this 10+ year “dry spell” that I’ve been having much longer. I need to start standing out and achieving things. I worry that because I don’t have the skills to stand out in small schools/cities that I will not stand out in grad school auditions either. There will be students from all over the country and possibly internationally as well that are competing against me. I may be good enough for my small school (who isn’t, let’s be real) but I’m applying to the big schools in Canada and they may not have so much tolerance for my sh!t. One out of tune note and I’m gone. I’m taking a huge risk too, if I don’t get accepted into one of the three schools I’m applying to, I have to wait a whole year to try again. I should have applied to the school I go to currently for master’s as a backup, but I’m not that desperate to do a master’s that I would attend my school for another 2 years. I’ve had enough of this place. I guess if I don’t get into a master’s I’m not going through all this application and audition sh!t again so that’s the end of the road for my music career. To recap, if I f*ck up with my auditions, I’m potentially screwing up my whole life. No pressure.

But the problem is I have mental breakdowns like these, then I’ll turn around and have the most successful practice session. Now I’m back to feeling confident and motivated about my auditions. Why can’t I make up my mind and just be confident or just be depressed? I figured out this section that I was really struggling with in one of my pieces. I rehearsed with the pianist and had a coaching with my teacher and it just was not a good time at all, but I fixed it! I really fixed it! I guess the important thing to remember is you always accomplish things, even if they seem futile or mundane to others or yourself. I just sometimes have to ignore all these people out there and winning competitions and focus on my little successes of figuring out a tricky rhythm. The grass isn’t greener on the other side either. For example, I always liked the idea of winning the concerto competition in 3rd year so I could play with the orchestra in 4th year and it would be like a nice “send-off” or “grad gift”. Now that I’m in 4th year, I’m incredibly thankful I’m not preparing a concerto to play with the orchestra on top of all my grad school and recital sh*t! I’m in way over my head with the stuff I have to do, I couldn’t imagine doing much more at the moment!

I’m just keeping my eyes on the prize. Things are so stressful right now with my grad school auditions around the corner. Before I leave, I’m doing my 4th year recital! It’s pretty insane! But I know that in March, I will be so thankful I got all of that done and I can just enjoy the last 2 months of my undergrad. I can learn any pieces I want, do some more chamber music stuff, and just relax. And then this summer, I’m going to learn how to take a real break. I only applied to 3 programs, which are 2-3 weeks (no longer than a month). I will only do whichever ones I get accepted to basically. Then, I can do whatever I want with no specific purpose. And then grad school (if I make it) starts. Yay me!

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Student Recitals

If you’re a music performance major, one thing you’ll be familiar with is putting together a recital in April or some time near the end of the school year. Hours and hours of preparation go into this recital in terms of individual practice and rehearsing with pianists. It is also a humbling feeling to see your friends, fellow students, family, and teachers who have taken time out of their lives to come support you and your hard work. It is definitely a more rewarding way to end the school year then doing a jury for a small panel.

The sad part about these student recitals is it can often feel like pulling teeth to get people to come to your recital. I’ve been to many student recitals that were very well done and very poorly attended. With the amount of work that everyone puts into these recitals, regardless of how “good” they are, they deserve an audience of at least 50-60, which is virtually impossible for a school recital. At least at my school, you’re lucky to get an audience of 20.

If the music is so high quality and the students work so hard, why are the audiences so small? Well, several factors. First of all is the competition factor. In April there are dozens of other people also putting on recitals. In many cases, there are days with 2 or 3, possibly more recitals. There could be multiple recitals occurring at the same time at different venues too. It’s hard to sell your recital as the one to go to when there are dozens of others around the same time that people could attend. Having your recital too late in April or May will run the risk of people being “recitaled out” or they’ve gone home for the summer and they just won’t bother. Having your recital in March or early April may guarantee a larger audience, but are these people there to genuinely support you? At my school at least, you have to attend so many student recitals and professional concerts each year as part of your grade. The cut off date is in mid-April. Student recitals before that cut off date count as a credit and you’ll often see random people in the audience for those recitals. For me at least, I much prefer a smaller audience of people who genuinely support me rather than a large audience of random people who are just trying to squeeze in some last minute credits. No matter how much advertising you do, it is so easy for your recital to be lost in the mix of dozens of other similar recitals.

Another factor that, unfortunately, comes into play is popularity. You’d think that by university we’d mature a bit from high school cliques and popularity contests. Sadly, that is not the case in most music faculties. Some people are “popular” because they are “really good” and won blah blah competition or whatever. Some people are just known by everyone in the faculty for whatever reason. As soon as this person is having a recital, everyone is just there no matter what. It’s unfortunate that the people in the faculty who are “really good” pretty much get a guaranteed audience for their recital whereas the people who “aren’t as good” but work just as hard don’t get the same respect.

How many people you know from off-campus or outside the music faculty also has an impact. These people may not know as many people in the music faculty and would probably only hear about a few recitals. Since they are not bombarded with dozens of recital posters, they may be more likely to attend yours. I have always found that people that live at home have a decent sized audience at their recitals. They basically have a guaranteed audience of their parents, siblings, friends from high school, extended family, and other people they may know outside of the university community. Those people plus other students can add up to a decent sized audience.

Could the fault be in promotion? Most people will only advertise their recital with posters on campus and Facebook. While this is a great way to get the word out to thousands of people with the click of a button, it is a very passive form of advertising. While thousands of people will know about your recital, they may not be compelled to attend, especially if they’ve already received dozens of invites to other similar events. The best way to get people to attend is to personally invite them. Some people need a personal invitation to get the motivation to go to an event like a recital, especially if they’re not from the music faculty, they may feel like they aren’t allowed to come or feel intimidated to attend a classical music recital. Facebook events can easily be forgotten or ignored. Perhaps if some students reached out to local newspapers, online event listings outside Facebook, or put up posters in off-campus coffee shops they would have more success in attendance to their recital. Of course, if every single student did this for their recital, then the same problem of competition would be present again. But again, even with putting up posters around the off-campus community, people may not feel compelled to attend a student recital for someone they don’t know or have never heard of. Once again, people who live at home for university have the advantage. I know I’ve done recitals in my hometown which were far better attended then any student recital I’ve been to at my school because I have the advantage of having family, friends, and other people I know that will attend my recital for sure.

As a music student, how do you navigate recital season? There are so many recitals and nobody in their right mind is able to attend every single one. How do you pick and choose without creating drama and hard feelings? Ultimately, you just have to figure out who you most want to support. For me personally, I try my best to attend as many string recitals as possible. I also try to attend recitals for people that I talk to on a regular basis or played with in a chamber group. Of course, we all have busy lives and there are times where I’m unable to go to someone’s recital as I have a conflict or I’ve gone home for the summer. I can’t be constantly worried about creating hard feelings because I went to A’s recital but not B’s. I am sometimes tempted just to not go to anyone’s recital, but then I’d feel guilty for not supporting anyone and I can’t expect people to attend my recital if I’m not going to go to any myself.

My third year recital was poorly attended, even worse than other poorly attended recitals that I’ve been to. I tried not to stare into the audience, but there couldn’t have been more than 8 people there. I did what I could to get the word out, I put posters around the music building, the rest of campus, and made a Facebook event, but so did dozens of other people for their recitals. A lot of it was the timing. I’d chosen a late April recital and I know there were a lot of people who would have attended but they had gone home for the summer. It was also a busy night in terms of other concerts happening around the community. Many students were involved with those concerts and couldn’t attend my recital, which was very understandable. There were several people who had the decency to wish me good luck or message me and say that they couldn’t make it but wished they could be there. Then there were several people that weren’t there that really should have been and to this day I wonder why they weren’t there. I was thinking that at the very least all the violists would be there and none of them were there. Only 2 or 3 other string players were there. I know a lot of people said that they couldn’t come and that’s fine, but there are a lot of people who should have been there and didn’t say anything. I was initially a bit hurt that a lot of the string players didn’t come to my recital. I didn’t care about having a large audience or anything, but I went out of my way for the past 3 years to attend string recitals and it was quite sad that gesture wasn’t reciprocated to me. It didn’t help that there was another string recital that evening. I’d picked the day first, but perhaps people liked the other string player better and “picked and chose”. I didn’t attend the other recital as I wanted to relax and celebrate that night and she didn’t attend mine as she was preparing for hers. I’ll never know who attended that recital but it would be somewhat heartbreaking if all the string players were there and not at mine.

Ultimately, you really can’t get mad at people for not attending your recital. It’s not a fair accusation. My school has to create a concert credit incentive system to get people to attend concerts and there are many schools where this is not required and students will go out of their way to attend other student recitals regardless. Once the cut off day for credit has passed, the April recitals become increasingly poorly attended. It’s not fair that those who have recitals in March or early April get a guaranteed audience of procrastinators for their audience. It’s sad that people who play the same instrument may not always go out of their way to attend their fellow peer’s recital even if that means going back to school after they’re done finals. I can’t really be mad at anyone or blame myself for doing anything wrong. If anything, I should be thankful for those 8 people who took time out of their day to come support me.