Coming to Terms with Myself

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a breakthrough, for real this time. Fourth year has treated me rough with numerous breakdowns and questioning of my intentions in music. I seriously thought I was not good enough and inadequate compared to my peers.
I am not inadequate. I am doing just fine. I think the major issue for my confidence issues is merely the fact that I’ve only lived in smaller cities with very few viola players. This forces me to compare myself to violinists, pianists, and other more “competitive” instruments where winning and entering competitions is a big part of what they do. That’s not necessarily a viola thing. Don’t get me wrong, there are some viola only competitions out there, but compared to the competitions made for violinists, pianists, singers, and other instruments, it’s relatively insignificant. And even those competitions that all instruments and voices can enter, the violinists, pianists, flutists, sopranos, and even cellists dominate.
Naturally, when I’ve lived in two cities where violinists, cellists, and pianists rule the world, I will feel somewhat inadequate. Of course I’m going to feel like a bad player when I’m always the one that doesn’t win the competitions when literally everyone else and their dog has. I always felt like I was doing something wrong or something was wrong with me. I didn’t want to think that my instrument choice was “bad” or “wrong” in any way.
Well, in these past few weeks, I’ve come to a realization. These people don’t play the same instrument as me. I know that sounds like a silly thing to say, but it’s so important to remember. I want an orchestral job. No violinist, pianist, or cellist is going to take that away from me; only other violists. Violin and piano careers revolve more around solo playing. Viola careers seldom involve any solo playing. There is no pressure to win or even enter competitions with violinists and pianists, so why was I putting so much unnecessary pressure on myself?
A lot of it had to do with the fact that I was trying to prove something. We all know that’s just the worst mindset to have and I learned my lesson on several occasions. Violists, as I experienced myself, usually get the short end of the stick in life. Yeah, viola jokes are just jokes, but it’s almost like there is an actual prejudice against violists. Sometimes people just legitimately think that violists are inferior to violinists. We have it harder in that sense than other “underdog” instruments like bassoon, bass, or tuba. Since the viola is so similar to the violin and most violists were once violinists, we are just constantly compared to violinists and it’s honestly really unfair and inaccurate. Violists don’t generally win competitions because our repertoire is limited and does not show off the technical brilliance of the instrument in the same way that the violin repertoire does. It’s not that we’re bad players, it’s that for so many years violists were disregarded as the “inferior musicians” and unfortunately, not a lot of good solo repertoire was written. In the modern day, we recognize the talent of violists more, but most of the great works for viola have been only been written in the past 100 years. Twentieth century works, although great pieces, are not always appreciated at competitions as much as romantic repertoire, which the viola lacks.
With this in mind, I felt like since I first picked up a viola, it was my mission to prove to everyone that I was just as good as any violinist, cellist, or pianist out there. I wasn’t going to be one of those “typical” subservient violists who doesn’t try. I was going to get some results. Of course, I set myself up for disappointment. I took not winning competitions a lot more harshly than I should have. I thought I would never get into university because I didn’t win any of these competitions and that the jerks who won the competitions instead of me that weren’t even going away to university would take it away from me. I couldn’t help but feel like I was “behind” for my age. Regardless of that, I pushed myself to do university auditions. I was more insistent on getting the heck out of there than worrying if I was good enough. When I started in university, it was like a second chance. I wasn’t competitive at all in first year, it was actually the first time in my life that I was okay with who I was and where I was at musically. I accepted myself.
This all changed with violin kid. I have actually now come to terms with him and we are actually on friendly terms. I have gotten to the point where I don’t really care about what he does with his life as it really has no impact on me and my career goals. He wants to be a soloist or a concertmaster. It makes sense for him to put himself out there and win competitions. For me, I’m an orchestral player, so putting myself out there for orchestral opportunities is what I need. Back then, I saw him as a threat. I reverted back to my high school mentality. It seemed like the whole school was in love with him and I needed to show him who’s boss. It almost felt like the people who supported me in first year had “converted” to supporting him. I became obsessed with the idea of beating him in a competition to prove to everyone that violists are just as good as violinists and that I was a good player too.
As you can imagine, that is just a complete waste of time. It didn’t work in high school, why would it work in university? That mentality never works and I’m glad I learned that lesson now in university and not while I’m trying to get a job or something. I’ve actually “retired” from competitions in a sense. There was a scholarship competition in January that I made a conscious decision not to enter. I feel so much better about myself for not entering competitions. I know that getting an orchestral job is a competition, but I’ve been disappointed enough times in competitions, I think I’m familiar with it enough that I’ll be fine in the real world. Plus, I don’t have to worry about violinists, pianists, and cellists.
I think going away to do my master’s will be the right thing. I know I’ve talked a lot on here about my anxieties with going away and worrying about not being good enough, but I think it will be the fresh start I need. Sure, I may meet more violinists that drive me insane and I may not necessarily be “running away” from problems, but at least I will have more violas at my side. I think being in a school where there are more violists will actually help a lot of the issues I’ve had my whole life. Because there will be more violists, I won’t feel like I have to compare myself to violinists and pianists anymore. Sure, there may be violists that are better than me and winning competitions, but at least I’m not unrealistically comparing myself to people who don’t play the same instrument I do.
Here I am, a fourth year student, about to go off to grad school auditions in a couple days. I feel like I’ve come full circle now. In first year, I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove and I was okay with where I was at musically. I had some ups and downs in second, third, and the first half of fourth year. But here I am, once again, not feeling like I have anything to prove and okay with where I’m at musically. I feel like I’m finally ready to take on grad school auditions.
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Frustrations with Facebook

Oh Facebook. How we love to hate Facebook. As much as I enjoy keeping with old friends or out of town friends, Facebook can honestly be the biggest pain in the ass that ever existed.  As a musician, you’re forever balancing the fine line of keeping people on Facebook because they might be useful connections later on in your career, or deleting them because their posts are annoying.

The violinist I mentioned in my previous post “That one violinist” is definitely an example someone who I would unfriend any day if I wasn’t a musician. Pretty much the only reason I keep him on Facebook is to have that connection. I could do without his pretentious pictures with his violin and statuses bragging about how much he practices and competitions he’s won. I could do without the hundreds of comments and likes he gets from his “fans”. You’re probably thinking another thing that I could do would be to keep him as a friend but block his statuses from my news feed. I’ve seriously considered doing that, but haven’t actually made an intention to do that.

I gave up on liking and commenting on the violinist’s posts a long time ago. I simply will not support his incessant bragging and twisting of words to make his accomplishments sound more profound than they actually are. It is still painful to see people that I thought were my friends liking and commenting on his statuses. People who have never once liked or commented on my statuses are all over his. I accomplish great things too, and I don’t leave out pertinent details. Why don’t these people appreciate my accomplishments too? Well, frankly, my accomplishments will never measure up to his. Everything I do, he will always be one-upping me, or five-upping me to be realistic. Anything I do will seem trivial or insignificant compared to what he does, even if I’m proud of it and worked really hard for it. I know I shouldn’t really compare myself to others like this, but it’s almost inevitable in a career in music. Your whole career is based on what people think about you. Obviously, no one is going to pick employers/musicians based on how many likes their Facebook posts get, but it’s still irritating in the short term.

My point is that I may never play as a soloist with a symphony orchestra or win a big scholarship competition, but I still accomplish things that I am proud of. Frankly, a lot of my proudest accomplishments have nothing to do with winning a competition, or even solo playing for that matter. Most of my top memorable performances are either orchestral or chamber music. I have a few recital performances that I look back upon fondly, but I’m definitely more of an orchestral musician than I am a soloist. The things that I accomplish seem simplistic and menial to others, especially if we’re talking about this violinist in question, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be proud of them or that they don’t mean a lot to me. Even if I never post on Facebook again, I will still be proud of accomplishments I make and there will be people that support me. I think the friends, family and teachers in real life supporting you in your accomplishments are far more important than getting arbitrary likes from your high school classmates with whom you’ve not spoken to in years.

Perhaps I should take a break from Facebook? Perhaps delete my account or at least the app from my phone for a bit? I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t done it yet. As irrational and wrapped up I get about what people post and the likes they get, I’m eventually able to calm down and rationalize it. The moment I can’t eventually come back to rationality is when I take a Facebook break. At the end of the day, it’s not about how many likes you get and how “popular” you are, it’s about your work ethic. I fight everyday to improve my intonation and overall technique. The work that I’ve done in the past 3 years of university are certainly commendable. I may not have won a competition or gotten an award to back up my improvement, but I know that I’ve improved and my teacher knows that I’ve improved and that’s all that matters. If other people don’t recognize the incredible amount of work I’ve put in to my technique, then that’s their problem.

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.

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. 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 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 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. 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.