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.

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 (well yesterday because I’m pre-writing), 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 accompanist 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 2 programs, both of which are 3 weeks (no longer than a month). I will only do one of those (whichever 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!

More Than One Right Way

Music tends to be one of those areas of study where people can be incredibly jaded and opinionated about the “right” way to do something. Yes, there are better ways of doing things, but I don’t think there is a “right” way to become a musician. This can be applied to many aspects of life as well.

The main point I’m trying to get at is people tend to be very pushy about how many hours a day you should practice at all stages of playing. For example, I saw the following chart posted on Violin Masterclass.

If you play for fun

  • Age five: 30 minutes
  • Age eight: 45 – 60 minutes
  • Age ten: 60 – 75 minutes
  • Age twelve to adult: 90 – 120 minutes

If you want to be a professional

  • Age five: 30 – 45 minutes
  • Age eight: 90 – 120 minutes
  • Age ten: 2 hours
  • Age twelve: 3 hours
  • Age fourteen to eighteen: 3 – 4 hours
  • Violin major in college: 5 hours

Let me be the first to tell you that there’s no way in hell I practiced nearly that much and I’m here in university doing just fine. I honestly seldom practice 5 hours a day as a music major. I know, shame on me. The chart also kind of implies that one would know they want to be a professional by age 8. I hated taking violin lessons at age 8 and I don’t think I practiced anywhere near 30 minutes, let alone the suggestion on the chart! When I first read this chart, I think I was about 10 years old and it immediately made me feel like a failure because I didn’t practice anywhere near the amount suggested on the playing for fun chart.

My take on it is, are these kids who follow the practice times on this chart like it’s the universal truth really passionate about what they do? For me, I believe that passion and sincerity are the most important aspects of a musician, artist, actor, or any fine arts performer. I would much rather see a person who plays with emotion, passion, and musicality even if their technique is not perfect than a technique robot whose parents made them practice 5 hours a day. In order to practice that many hours as a child, you would have to make a ton of sacrifices and miss out on being a kid. I know when I was a child, I went to public school so I would be in school for 6 hours a day. That’s already 6 hours of my day spoken for. When I was younger, I could easily practice for 30-45 minutes after school and be done with it. But as I got older, I got busier and sometimes I’d have rehearsals after school and after supper and I’d be squeezing in homework with any little time I got, even if it was 15 minutes. By the time I got home, it was bed time. Days would go by without even practicing. I’d be playing my instrument, but I just didn’t have that individual time each day. I still made it into music school though. Once I got there, I practiced my butt off because I had so much “free time”.

Of course, these kids who follow the practice times on the chart did not have a normal or well-rounded childhood as I did. Don’t get me wrong, if you have read any of my rant posts on this blog, you know I made significant sacrifices to pursue my music, but these kids are at a higher level of sacrifice than I was. For the most part, they were home-schooled which makes a huge difference in the amount of practice time available to you. However, their “free time” was practicing strictly enforced by the parents. I know people in university now who were home-schooled under this mentality and they said that they didn’t even have any friends their own age. They didn’t get to play sports, play other instruments, go to clubs, or even play with kids at the park; things that most of us took for granted in our childhood. Instead, they were to practice violin or piano (it’s usually those instruments with these types of people) for X hours a day and then study math for X hours a day. These are the kids that grow up to be technical robots and win every competition, but have no genuine passion for the art.

I’ll be honest, I do get home-school envy from time to time. When the superstar violin kid came to my school, I felt like such a failure. I thought I was behind for my age and that I should have been home-schooled. He accomplished more before coming to university than I did my whole life. He was used to practicing 4-5+ hours a day already and I could barely wrap my head around practicing that much even as a music major. He tended to be braggy about how it was so nice to practice so much. However, the trade-off is that he is a technique robot and barely has any interests outside music. By going to public school, I got the opportunity to play in band, jazz band, flute choir and sing in choir, vocal jazz, and musical theatre. These experiences contributed to my musicality. Although I didn’t really practice enough to develop solid technique, I had the musicality that can’t always be taught. To clarify, I’m by no means suggesting that home-schooled students do so specifically to practice their instruments more or be the “best” at everything. I’ve met home-schooled students in university who had a very well-rounded childhood (arguably more so than a public school student) and their intentions for being home-schooled were either because it was a family tradition or they have a self-starter personality and wanted to take control of their education.

Coming back to this post title, there is not one right way to do something. The beauty of the music world is seeing the variety of musical backgrounds that people come from. You don’t need to be a child prodigy to make it in the music world, in fact I’d almost argue that it’s better not to be. People can be very pushy like “Oh you should practice more” but it ultimately depends on what you want to achieve and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for it. If you don’t want to kill yourself practicing 5 hours a day, no one said you had to. It depends more on the person and their work ethic. There is no step-by-step process to becoming a musician and some people need to stop making one. There are people who pursue music degrees and make it in the music business who only picked up an instrument in their late teens or early twenties. I have so much respect for these people as they enter the music faculty as an older student with less technical ability than the younger students and yet they don’t let that bother them and hence they work incredibly hard. Yet, these people get criticized for “not being good enough” because they didn’t start at age 3.

My point is, there is not one right way to do something. Don’t let people tell you that what you’re doing is wrong or that you should have done this and that. You know what’s best for your life for what you want to achieve. If you don’t accomplish what you were hoping for, that’s not a “I told you so” moment for other people, you just don’t give up and try again next time.

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.

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.