Still Trying to Figure out Life

Hello again! If you happened to read the previous post in this blog, I would like to let you know that I’ve been feeling a lot better this past month! Obviously the concept of someone wanting to commit suicide still kind of freaks me out, but I feel better having been able to express these feelings and being reassured that it’s normal to feel this way.

As I believe I mentioned in the last post, this young man’s death has led me to question my own life and career choices. Because clearly, I haven’t been doing enough of that. I still question if a symphony career is right for me or realistic for me. I feel bad that I have no new material for this blog haha.

I do have a different teacher this year as my previous teacher retired. It’s great to get many different perspectives at this crucial point in my life. One of the things he mentioned is that I shouldn’t cross a symphony player off my list after having only done one audition. I guess I just want to have options and not be so insistent on getting into a symphony that I don’t pursue other options as well. He’s also made the point not to get too carried away with pursuing non-music career options as well. When you graduate master’s, you’re at the height of your playing and it can be hard to maintain a high level of playing if you immediately pursue another degree or career path. I do agree to an extent, however bills do need to be paid and if a non-music job on the side is what’s going facilitate, then you do what you have to do.

I guess my main barrier to starting my career is confidence. Sometimes you have to take risks. Sometimes you have to take auditions you don’t think you have a chance of winning. I guess I grew up always feeling like I was inadequate or not “good enough” for my age. Now that I am in master’s and have seen many undergrads in various levels, I realize now that I have never been “behind”. The first years at my school now are playing the same type of rep that I played in first year. Yes, I’ve known high school students who could play high level rep like Der Schwanendreher or the Brahms sonatas, but that’s not typical and it’s okay. I used to think I had no chance of succeeding because I wasn’t playing that kind of rep in high school, but that’s not how it works.

The other thing is accepting the fact that not winning school competitions is also okay. Sometimes I think that if I can’t get selected to the final round to a competition at some small school in the prairies, how would I get selected to the final round of a symphony audition? My teacher again mentioned that getting selected for a competition and getting selected for a symphony position are two different skill sets. Many professional players in a symphony have never won a concerto competition but clearly won their audition. In a competition, you have to have the full package, so to speak. Not only do all the notes have to be in place, the musicality has to be in place, as well as your overall stage presence. You’re basically selling your artistic interpretation. However, in an orchestral audition, they’re not looking for artistic interpretations or different tone colours. They want someone who can play what’s on the page and blend in with a section. It’s hard to be good at both.

I think back to the time I was in high school and felt like I needed to “prove” to people that I was just as good as the violinists and cellists. Growing up in a small city in the prairies, I had no perspective really of what was considered an “average” level for a violinist, violist, or cellist. I always assumed I was behind. Typically, the people who were above average for their age were the ones that won all the competitions and were encouraged to pursue music. The people like me who were more at an “average” level were kind of forgotten about although we were just as capable to pursue music. My teacher had always specifically said to me that I couldn’t play the Brahms or Clarke sonatas, whereas a lot of the high level violinists and cellists my age were playing pieces equivalent to that level. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it was.

When I was going into grade 12, I had this idea that I needed to learn a big piece to “impress” people or appear “less bad”. I decided I was going to learn the first movement of the Bartok concerto which is just ridiculous. That’s a piece that people my age now would learn, or at least later in undergrad. I guess my teacher was at a point where he knew I was going to go away anyway so there was no point in stopping me if I had it in my head that I was going to play the first movement of the Bartok. Looking back, I had the musicality to play the piece, but not the technique. I didn’t play it terribly, but I think a lot of people could tell that the piece was way beyond my level when I played it. In some ways it was good for me to have a challenge piece like that as it did push me technically. However, I could think of at least 10 other challenge pieces that would have been challenging but more realistic at that age. Again, I was seeking the validation from people that I was worthy of studying music. There’s no shame in playing Stamitz or Hoffmeister for undergrad auditions.

Anyway, hopefully I figure out my life soon. Just kidding. I still got time for that.

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I don’t even know what to call this

Apparently I just don’t have anything to rant about anymore. At one point I basically complained about something every week in here. I think now that I’m a master’s student and realize how much energy I spent getting wound up over little things in undergrad, I know now that it’s not worth it and there are many more important things to focus on. Who cares that so and so won such and such competition.

I did a program full of music programs this past summer, as a contrast to my summer 2016. There were nice aspects of having tons of “free time” in the summer to relax after a rough school year, but I will be honest I was super bored most of the time. I couldn’t move into my new place until September 1st so I was stuck at my parent’s house until then. I was unsuccessful in a lot of my summer program applications so I did one small program in May and another in August, but that left a giant gap of nothing in between. One could argue I could have used the time better, I was working on some repertoire for the coming year but it wasn’t like I was practicing 8 hours a day. I could have spent the time doing tons of studies and technical work or reading through a bunch of rep for fun, but I just wasn’t motivated to do so. I’d done a couple of “freelance” gigs but I’m from a small city in the prairies where there really aren’t a ton of freelance opportunities and I felt like there really wasn’t much for me to do. I could have gotten a job I suppose, but I wasn’t sure what kind of place I would find or what programs I would do so I didn’t want to tie myself down. I was prepared to move in July or August, but of course I got stuck with a September lease.

I knew I couldn’t do this to myself again. The city where I’m from just isn’t conducive to a musician starting a freelance career as there are few opportunities and when I did get an opportunity, I felt like I was the “outsider”. For instance, I helped teach at a summer string workshop and because I had recently obtained a Bachelor’s degree, I wanted to do some more teaching and possibly even perform with the faculty in a concert, but I felt like I was excluded from the “core” group of the faculty. I only coached one group at 4:00 and so I had the whole day I could have been doing things and helping out, but no one would allow me. I went away for university so I feel like people think that I think I’m better than everyone else, which is just ridiculous. We’re all musicians at the end of the day.

Hence, I went a bit program application crazy for summer 2017. Since I was in a much better mental state I made much better audition recordings than the year before. I applied to 5 programs and only got rejected from 1, which was okay because I’d applied to that one as an after thought anyway. Of course, now I have the opposite problem from summer 2016. Which programs do I do? I’m always caught in the dilemma of going to programs I’ve been to before because I really enjoyed it or met a really great group of friends but then going to new programs so I can broaden my social network and travel to different places. I ended up choosing 2 programs that I had attended in the past, but I ended up having an amazing experience and wouldn’t have done my summer any other way.

Now I have just began my second year of master’s, and possibly my final year of post-secondary education. I can’t deny it much longer that I’m going to have to become a responsible adult and contribute to society in some meaningful way. If you read the past two posts on this blog, I am definitely still in existential crisis mode.

Basically, I’m not sure what to prioritize going into this school year. Every other school year has been straightforward, you go to lessons, practice X hours a day, apply to summer programs, repeat. Now I feel like I’m at a different stage of my life where perhaps my priorities can be shifted in a different direction. For instance, I feel like I should make professional engagements a bit more of a priority. Last year I turned down a professional gig as it was near the time of my recital, but I felt bad about it given that other students who also had recitals around the same time took that gig. At that moment, I just felt like I was so overwhelmed with school that I just needed a break but I also worried that turning down that gig could have burned some bridges in the professional world. Now I’m considered “unreliable” or “flaky”, however on the flip-side, because I didn’t take that gig, I felt a lot more prepared for my recital. I took most of my academic seminars last year so I do have more “free time” this year to take on professional gigs.

The other question is where do I live. I makes sense to continue living where I am, as I have done some professional gigs and made a few connections, but I’m not sure. A thing that worries me is not being bilingual. I don’t want to reveal the city I live in, but being bilingual is advantageous. Already, there are a ton of jobs I can never get because I don’t speak French. Obviously, music gigs are fine to be an anglophone, but I feel like I would need to look for a part time job outside of music to help pay the bills. Anything retail, customer service, or administrative would be off the table for me, or I wouldn’t be the first choice. It’s not like it’s impossible to learn French, but I would probably never be 100% fluent or sound authentically Quebecois. There was a music program I almost did this past summer that would have helped me learn French, and would be something to put on my resume to demonstrate French proficiency to employers. It’s not like I can’t do that program in summer 2018, but I wouldn’t have it on my resume until September 2018.

I’ve already established that moving back home is a big fat no-no. Summer 2016 was kind of a trial to see if that could potentially be an option (it was always my backup plan) and it was a huge fail. There’s really not a lot going on and even in the summer I was there, I felt like I really had to force myself in to get that opportunity teaching one group at the workshop. I do worry that I wouldn’t be able to have a varied enough career as a musician and that people would be unwilling to help me because I’m the “elitist” who went away for school.

I could move somewhere totally different. The only issue is of course not knowing enough people (or the right people) and not having a social network. The advantage of having attended several music programs is that I do know people who live in pretty much any Canadian city I could ever move to, but it’s still intimidating.

And then there’s the question of what to do in my summer. There’s no reason why I couldn’t do more programs and postpone real life for 4 more months, but real life is inevitable no matter what I do. If I’m travelling or going to tons of rehearsals it might be hard to arrange jobs for September, but people have done it. My school offers a one year diploma program so I could postpone real life for one more year. I’m less inclined to do a doctorate, but I suppose that’s another “procrastination tool”.

Interestingly, I feel less insecure about being “good enough”. I know that was something that I worried about a lot in pursuing a career in music, but now I feel it’s the least of my worries. I feel like I’m a lot more at peace with the level I’m at as a musician. That’s not meant to be a defeatist comment, I still think I could improve a lot more and I want to work hard this year, but I don’t let thoughts of being inadequate plague my mind. I guess I worry now about being “good enough” as an employee in general, as opposed to just as a violist.

Sometimes I feel like I’m super anxious to have my entire life figured out. I did undergrad right out of high school and master’s right out of undergrad so I’m by no means “behind” in life. I’ve met plenty of people who are older than me, still doing their undergrad, and still take a gap year(s) before master’s. While you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, even to feel better, it does reassure me that if I have a year where I’m not sure what I’m doing or just do random freelance gigs that everything will work out in the end. I guess even though I chose a career path that doesn’t lend itself to a stable job, I still want to have some sense of direction and feel like I’m working toward something.

25% Done Grad School

As you can imagine, my first semester of grad school went by like a whirlwind. I can’t believe I’m already 25% done, it’s going by too fast!
Of course, the inevitable thoughts of what the heck am I going to do after my degree are imminent. I honestly have no clue.
No one said that you had to have your whole life figured out by age 22, but I still wish I had more sense of direction. It seems like my fellow master’s colleagues have their lives all planned out, but maybe in reality they are just as clueless as I am.
Don’t judge me, but I used to think that getting into a symphony orchestra right after master’s was a reasonable goal. Coming from a small city where there are not many violists, I had a skewed view of the competitive factor of music. I thought that as long as you worked hard, you would eventually reach your goals.
Now that I have left the comfortable bubble of my hometown, I have come to realize that there are actually a lot of violists out there. Don’t get me wrong, I love having a viola peer group but there are only so many positions in symphony orchestras and sadly not all of us will get one. That’s the frustrating thing about a career in music. You can practice for hours and hours, work super hard, absolutely love what you do and still never get a job. Literally any other career path, you will eventually get a job after many years of hard work. I know I’m oversimplifying things, but that’s how it feels.
Many of my provisional post-master’s plans involved playing in a symphony orchestra of some description. Now that I realize that may not happen, I have no clue what to do. I don’t want to contribute to the stereotype of music graduates working at Starbucks, but I have to pay the bills some how. Freelancing scares the heck out of me, but you have to start somewhere I guess. I have very minimal experience in teaching so I’d never get a teaching job.
I feel like I’m not the world’s most employable person either. I spent much of my time in undergrad refusing part time jobs or teaching positions during the school year so I could focus on my personal practice. This is not to say that I’ve never had a job, but the jobs I did have are not necessarily going to look good on my resume. I’m also not bilingual, which can be a huge disadvantage if I want to continue living in Eastern Canada. All this time I wasted practicing to get a symphony orchestra job could have been put toward making myself a more employable person outside of the music field. I don’t even know if I’d be qualified for a job at Starbucks to be honest. They’d be like “Oh it’s nice you have a master’s in music, but you’ve never worked retail so you probably can’t handle the stress”. And they’re probably right.
Of course, one solution is to pursue a DMA or Artist’s diploma, but that only delays the inevitable. I can’t be in school forever. I’ll need to get some kind of job. I just don’t think I’d get hired anywhere and freelancing can be scary. Sometimes I resent being from where I’m from, and having this skewed view of reality for most of my life, but I can’t change that.
Another thing I also ponder is should I have done my master’s right out of undergrad? Obviously, as I mentioned before, I’m 25% done so I’m not going to drop out, that’d be foolish. I know some of my friends in 4th year undergrad who are taking a gap year and now I wish I explored that option more. When I was super stressed out last year, I did consider it, but I figured if I could push myself to do the auditions, then I could re-evaluate then. Once I pushed myself to do the auditions and got accepted, it seemed foolish to take a gap year. Now I question if it was worth pushing myself through all that stress. I feel like a much stronger person for not giving up, but at the same time I could have been using this year to get more professional experience and make myself a more employable person before pursuing a master’s. The trap with that I saw was getting too comfortable with professional life and never wanting to go back to school.
Ugh. Why is life so hard? Why can’t someone just tell me what to do?

Letter to my high school self

Dear prospective music student,

It’s been a tough four years; it’s definitely not easy to pursue music at a high level while enrolled in a public high school. You did a great job, even when it was tough. You made a lot of sacrifices, especially in your social life but it will all be worth it in the long run. I know it was hard to see all the kids in your class have friends to talk to and hang out with everyday. I know it was hard to look on Facebook and see all your classmates doing fun and simple things like going out for supper, going on a weekend road trip, or just simply grabbing coffee after school. I know you wanted and tried to be a part of that but got rejected several times. You were always that “weird music kid”.

In particular there was that one group of girls you always sat beside at lunch on those rare days you didn’t have  rehearsal and couldn’t go home for lunch. You wasted so much energy trying to fit in with them. They had no idea the amount of commitment and passion you have for your music. They would never understand the amount of hours you put in to pursue music at the university level. The moment they called music “stupid” to your face is when you should have just walked away and stopped speaking to them. I know the reason you passively sat by those girls is so that judgy passers-by wouldn’t see you sitting alone and call you a loner. Honestly, little things like sitting alone in the hallway seem like a bit deal to you now, but in university no one cares or notices if you eat lunch alone.

I know you feel a small sense of regret that you didn’t get the full high school experience. You never got to go to a party or really try alcohol outside of the odd glass of wine. You only went to school events like dances in grade 9 and 10. Frankly, with the schedule you had, there was no way you would have had the time! You were at school everyday at 8:30am, crammed in as much homework during your spare and lunch hour, probably had a rehearsal after school, went home to grab supper, possibly off to another rehearsal, and then finally home at 10:00pm. By the time the weekend came around, you needed that precious time to sleep in and catch up on all the homework you didn’t have time for during the week, and even then, you were still juggling rehearsals and concerts. Somehow you magically fit in 1-2 hours of practice when you had the chance. It wasn’t as much as you would have liked, but given the schedule you had I’m surprised you practiced at all.

You will definitely make up for all of this in university. Yes, you will be very busy with classes, lessons, and rehearsals, but it’ll be a much more manageable schedule as it will be all music related commitments. Any student that goes through public school while trying to pursue a musical instrument at a high level to get into a university program honestly deserves some kind of award. Because of the superior time management skills you cultivated in high school, you will find time to not only get all your homework done and practice, but you will have a bit of a social life too. You will get to experience parties, bars, university sports games, road trips, and simple hangouts like coffee and lunch. Trust me, it’ll be much more fun than any high school experience you missed out on.

Yes, I said social life. I know it seems crazy to think right now that there are people out there who want to talk to you, but university is a much more welcoming and accepting environment than high school. You will be surprised at how many people will want to talk to you and be your friend. When you live on campus in your first year, you will have tons of friends outside the music faculty. You’ll also meet a lot of international students, which is always an eye-opening experience. Despite the fact that a lot of these friends you will meet have never played a musical instrument, they will be 100% supportive of your music and think you’re the coolest person ever that you can play an instrument at such a high level. And of course, you’ll meet tons of people in the music faculty who are supportive of your pursuits.

Graduating high school is probably one of the most liberating experiences in life. You’re finally out of the prison-like structure of the public school system and you can go out and do what you’re passionate about. You don’t have to speak to any of these people that you’ve known and hated since kindergarten. You can forget about those girls you tried so hard to fit in with and they will certainly forget you. It’s hard to have to see these people every day and talk to them simply because there’s no one else to talk to. Another awesome thing about university that you don’t get in high school is each year of university, you will make new friends. That never happens in high school, once people get their friend groups figured out in grade 9 or 10, they don’t need any more friends. Moving away to a new city after high school is honestly the best decision for you and you will benefit from it in more ways than you already see.

Congratulations on graduating high school, it’s only going to get better from here. I’m excited for you!

Sincerely,

Your 2015 self