Spheres: the Jets and the Sharks

The following post is part of my Spheres series celebrating the students brave enough to choose the conservatoire life. Each one is post highlights a different ‘sphere’ that students pick up and place themselves within, in one way or another, during their time at the conservatoire. You can catch up on the series by visiting the other Spheres posts, especially the first post which includes a proper introduction to the series.

Its not usually as cut-and-dry as West Side Story, but there are countless ways that we choose to  subdivide into groups – by country, by social class, by school, or hobby. What I never really stopped to think about, even though its clearly a prominent aspect of being a musician, is that the orchestra subdivides itself. Of these subdivisions, none is (arguably) more prominent than that of the viola. Early in our careers, violists become accustom to being the butt of ever-popular “viola jokes” (e.g. What do you do with a dead violinist? Put them in the viola section.) and, in my opinion the bigger slight, the casual assumption that you are really a violinist who picked up the viola as a fun little hobby. I don’t know if you can tell, but this one cuts deep.

Over the course of the year, I ran into several of these instances in interviews with different music students. One instance was an oboist who spoke about the pressure to stay in the practice room endlessly, that the only people with perhaps more pressure were the string players. To them, the vocalists have it easy because they are only able to practice for a couple of hours a day before they have to stop – in the name of protecting and caring for their voice. There was resentment in their voice as they talked about the ‘lucky’ vocalists, that despite their oboe tutors telling them to make sure and take a break, they knew what that really meant – to eat, sleep, and breath their repertoire. A flautist I spoke to had to take a term off because he developed a common cold that became overwhelming because of the stress and pressure she had put herself under in an effort to appease her teachers and practice, practice, practice. To these musicians, the vocalists, who can use health and wellness as an acceptable reason to stop and take a breather, have it easy.

This isn’t to say that if grilled, the people I spoke to wouldn’t be able to relate to each other and sympathise with the unique pressures and obstacles that each group contends with, but on an emotional level that divide is there. I’m sure I have only encountered a small microcosm of this phenomenon, but it does speak to a bigger thought –

As musicians, and certainly as music students, we are more alike than different. Silly jokes aside, when we come across these, often unspoken feelings of inequity, it is worth considering how they might be addressed (easier said than done, of course). And often they might not be worth pursuing in any action-based way. But in this circumstance, a focus on personal care and wellbeing by vocalists might be a standard that the rest of us can keep in mind. There is no use in endless practicing. A focused two hours is far more effective on a technical and artistic level than an endless day of waffling and half-hearted etude repetition. It saves your joints, it saves your mind, and it frees your day to accomplish more.

So yes, I realise viola jokes aren’t going anywhere (I’ve heard them all, don’t @ me) and sure, its always nice to build a support system of like-minded individuals who understand your own personal stresses, but its useful to reach across the subdivide and take some good ideas for our own. Practice smarter, not harder. And no one can make you feel guilty about it.

– Danielle

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Spheres: an island unto oneself

The following post is part of my Spheres series celebrating the students brave enough to choose the conservatoire life. Each one is post highlights a different ‘sphere’ that students pick up and place themselves within, in one way or another, during their time at the conservatoire. You can catch up on the series by visiting the other Spheres post, which includes a proper introduction to the series.

As a musician you quickly become ‘at home’ in competitions. There are auditions for everything and endless opportunities for comparing performance styles, technical abilities, and more. I lived in these traditions just as much as the next person, though I hated it – I wanted to be thought of as “good” but I really didn’t want to have to prove it to anyone. There is a lot of literature and research into traditions, which ones last, and why they endure, which I won’t get into here. My subjective reality is that the field of classical music bombards performers with opportunities to compete and be judged from every angle, especially learners who have less control over their path.

It is easy to feel isolated as a performer…

In lessons you are compared to your tutor’s vision of what you should be attaining

In ensemble auditions you are competing against everyone else trying out for the position

In seat auditions you’re competing against everyone in your section, and then probably sitting in the order of performance strength

In concerto competitions you’re competing against everyone else for a bit of money and major bragging rights (see: Artificial Competition)

In the lunch hour you’re listening and comparing yourself to your friends – did they book more gigs than you? Did they get into the top ensemble? Were they a competition finalist?

Some people I spoke with talked about this kind of isolation, acknowledging that it is an incredibly negative way to conduct their life, it isn’t very helpful to their development and certainly not helpful to their mental wellbeing. But they always seemed to say that they can’t help but be overwhelmed by it all (even if only on occasion). Someone else spoke about how they are propelled by it. That they are motivated to work harder by a sense of fear – that the worry of someone else doing better, working harder, achieving more, pushes them to the practice room.

As a student violist I loathed auditions; blind auditions were bad enough but panel auditions wherein all of the others auditioning watched with judgement crumbled me. Mental preparation games, eating potassium-rich bananas and meditating, none of this worked to quell my nerves. Even still, well into adulthood, there’s a disconnect between my head and my muscles – on a cognitive level I’m very much unafraid, but my body clearly doesn’t feel the same. I dream(ed) of the day that I didn’t have to audition anymore. On a personal level, some of this comes from a discomfort with being pushed and stretched, but walking into a situation where the sole purpose is to put your own creation, interpretation, and work up for judgment is anxiety inducing. This being especially true when the outcome is a ranking, an acceptance, or specific recognition.

No one I spoke to was immune to feeling of being judged, being in constant competition, or fighting for their every opportunity. There isn’t a solution to these feelings because necessary, to an extent. The performing arts fields are built upon a certain level of competition but early on we can teach students what healthy competition looks like. Not just paying lip service toward being supportive of each other but living that example.

-Danielle

Introducing the Spheres series

spheres head

Over the course of the last year I have been away conducting interviews, recording observations, and writing fieldwork reports. As a result of that, the several weeks will be a series of explorations on perspectives of competition and measurement as a conservatoire student and performing artist. The series is a celebration of the dedicated musicians and actors who I had the honour of speaking with, all of whom face incredible stresses and concerns even when they aren’t in front of a tutor, holding an instrument, or studying. And they face these hurdles head on. For now, I am calling this the Spheres Series, each post highlighting a different ‘sphere’ that students pick up and place themselves within, in one way or another, during their time at the conservatoire.

Starting with the most intimate, the first is a look at being an individual in a world of constant competition. Growing outward, I have observed student musicians drawing boundaries across instruments which involves a lot of reading between faculty lines. Expanding the scope even further, the next perspective is aimed at the perceived differences in a conservatoire education versus a university (or, perhaps, no formal higher education training at all). And lastly, the pervasive separation that seems to exist between performing artists and the rest of the world, namely in off-handed comments such as “my friends who have real jobs” and “I don’t have a ‘normal’ job”.

Stay tuned for more!

-Danielle

More in common than we ever knew – the music performance degree and the PhD

 

There are a lot of similarities between dancing and wrestling. The costumes are the same, the spandex and all that, but you have to be light on your feet to do both, and you have to reme
A completely unverified quote that illustrates this post nicely!

 

As a PhD student, there are a lot of parallels to the music student experience. Most obviously, both are student circumstances and both take on a master-apprentice style framework, and both require a great deal of effort and work. But that work is often much less structured than a taught university degree.

For my PhD I am expected to maintain a certain level of continuing development, which takes the shape of CPD courses, methodology intensives, and conference attendance and to tailor this continuing development to my own needs. And in addition to this plan, I must keep on top of my own schedule of reading, writing, data collecting, analysing, and synthesising. There is no syllabus to tell me what should happen each week or benchmarks to help me ensure I’m on track. Guidance and help are available if I want to seek it out, but it’s entirely feasible to operate for quite a while and not know you’ve run off track because the experience is so highly individualised that no two experiences are the same.

The supervisory relationship, as with all other aspects of the PhD, is entirely individual and dependent on personalities, teaching and learning style, and discipline. I am lucky enough to have a positive working relationship with my supervisors wherein I am allowed the freedom to define my research and conduct the data collection and fieldwork with guidance but not interference and offer benchmarks when necessary in order to help me stay on track.

And while I have had a largely positive experience, you don’t have to look very hard to find students with overbearing supervisors, holding collected data hostage, dictating publishing aims, or exhibit any of a variety of negative behaviours. I realise how lucky I have been in my academic journey.

This framework is not dissimilar to the music student, something that has become increasingly apparent to me as I have been interviewing people in the conservatoire setting.

As a conservatoire student, you are paired with a private study tutor that ideally supports you and helps you to master the technical skills necessary to become a successful performer and provides the mentorship necessary to become competent in the professional community and your relationship is largely based on personalities, teaching and learning style, and discipline. Some people need a strict and obvious definition of the student-teacher relationship and others thrive in more relaxed conditions wherein they can tell their teacher what is going on in their life.

In the conservatoire, I’ve come across people who need the ability, to be frank with their tutor and say “I’m a bit hungover this morning because my girlfriend broke up with me” and likewise know their tutor will be frank with them and say “yes, that was a bit shit, but let’s draw a line under it and get back to work” while offering more emotional support and others need to a certain distance from their tutor and would be very uncomfortable discussing social or personal lives with their tutor.

With this in mind, the large question I’ve come to is how to ensure that students – in both settings – have access to the well-being resources they need? When the course of study is so highly individualised and based on the personalities and characteristics of individual people, how do you regulate the experience? How do you ensure that the first student receives the pastoral care that they need while ensuring you don’t alienate the second student? Not only is it a matter of identifying the needs of the student body but additionally, it’s a matter of identifying who needs them and deploying those resources.

 

(If you were hoping for an answer, I apologise because I have not yet figured it out!)

-Danielle

P.S. To read more about life in the conservatoire, from the perspective of the conservatoire, you can visit this website

P.P.S If you are considering a doctorate, have questions, or are just interested in learning more visit here – or send me a message!

A successful music performance career

The first thing that comes to mind, when asked “what even is a performer’s career?” is that it is a self-sustaining, bill paying day-to-day job performing music. But realistically, this isn’t necessarily the case. Researchers and large-scale surveys have said it but all you really have to do is look around you to know that it’s become harder and harder over the last few decades to sustain oneself solely as a performer.

Of course, this is an easy segue to the starving artist/underemployed millennial narrative but it isn’t that simple (I will save that post for another day). But when you’ve dedicated yourself to an idea, of being a musician (or actor, etc) what exactly have you dedicated yourself to? I have mostly always known that I wasn’t ever going to be a full-time performer, so I got a music degree at a university. This allowed me to (and forced me to) take a more broad selection of classes and meet different people.

A few years ago I worked on a project called the New Music Seminar, one of the main tenants of that conference is that you need to define what ‘success’ means. In that context, they used the benchmark of selling tickets – 1,000 in multiple markets will create a sustaining career. But a flautist/violinist/etc can’t really use that measure if you aren’t a soloist, it’s just a different ballgame. You give lessons, play with different orchestras, market your quartet for events, do some gigs as you can.

For me, being constantly engaged in the classical music community has become my measure of success. After my undergraduate degree, I went to work for a music publisher (a hugely meaningful experience but not engaging with my community) and producing concerts and festivals, working in music venues, producing music conferences (massively engaging and equally meaningful, but not my community).

rehearsing for a concert in London this summer

 

And it has only been quite recently that I have found the road back to where I would like to end up – working with music (and other creative) students and performing on the side. It isn’t the traditional music-school-kid career path, but I’m engaging with my community with meaningful, fulfilling purpose. And that’s just as valuable as a solo career.

-Danielle

The invisible role of the expat

airplaneI went to read some academic literature (as a Ph.D. student, there is never an end to the literature) at Starbucks – a caffeine-beverage-driven study locale.  Between sips and notes I realised a couple of folks had sat down nearby and started up a conversation that had clearly begun before this moment.  After listening in for a minute (I know, I know… but hear me out) I realised they were discussing the US election and the current cultural zeitgeist.  The woman seemed pretty reasonable and level-headed.  The man she was with nodded along as she described the current political climate.  At no point did she seem wrong in her commentary but I something felt odd and instead of note taking I just sipped my coffee and contemplated what was bothering me.

Eventually, I decided that I was troubled with the “absolute”-ness of her explanations.  Like I said, I didn’t disagree with her, but I can’t help but think that she wouldn’t have chosen so many “this is why this works and this is how that is” statements if she knew an American was sat behind her listening.  Perhaps it’ll be a future research project (does anyone want to give me grant money?) but it made me wonder, how do Americans abroad explain America?    

We are a big chunk of citizens who have a big responsibility.  We are the guerrilla public relations team for our country, for better or worse.  We do a disservice to citizens back home if we say things like “Hilary should have won, the electoral college is an outdated system that has no place in society today” or “50% of America has traditional home values, and the liberals need to learn to deal with that” without at least reflecting on what pieces of the puzzle you’re leaving out.  I hope that had I been part of the Starbucks conversation there would have been more “I don’t know about your experience, but this was mine…” It may seem like a small, unimportant detail but it affects the way others view us and I think, now more than ever, we need to put our best foot forward.

I suppose the nugget of “wisdom” I’m trying to convey in all of that is simply: speak as though another American with different experiences is sat listening to you… because they might be.

We have a long, tough road ahead and as a self-proclaimed logic and reason abiding American in a post-truth, post-Brexit UK I’ve started my Battle Songs playlist.  It's time to get to work!

-Danielle

Why do we care?

My first academic attempt at a conference presentation was not a total catastrophe.

I presented my research progress at Doing Doctoral Research: Your Voice which aims at allowing doctoral students to present their research, at whatever stage of the PhD. As I am still in the process of collecting data I decided to focus my presentation on my general research questions, design, and the motivation for the project as a whole.

I explained that my research interest stems from my own experiences as a music student at a university, the similarities and differences of those experiences of my friends who were at conservatoires like Eastman and Juilliard, and the frustrations voiced by working musicians I have encountered during my time working in the music industry. The room was full of educators and education researchers, not necessarily anyone who understands what the conservatoire experience is (another impetus for this research – provide a gateway to understanding).

The whole PowerPoint is likely to bore, so I'm not providing every slide, but I've provided a bit of a taste for the presentation.

At the end of the presentation, one of the well intentioned questions I received was (approximately) this:

You said yourself that the arts conservatoire is a very small, specialized part of the higher education landscape, so why should we care about this research?

Had the room been filled with music educators and conservatoire administrators, I doubt that question would arise – but the point is a good one. I am interested in the conservatoire student experience because I have a music degree – I've been there. I am interested in the welfare and support systems of music students. In a broader Higher Education (the capital HE) perspective, this research matters because these students are not insulated from HE policy implications like student fees, funding, career planning, etc.

So I am left to think about how best to frame this thesis in a way that calls attention to music students as a small but important piece of the higher education landscape.

-Danielle

Being an artist during difficult times

I wrote the following after the Trump inauguration, when the suggestion of eliminating the NEA and NEH surfaced. I shared it with my old high school, hoping it might do even a glimmer of good. And it is a sentiment worth revisiting often… your art matters. And art helps push forward the resistance.

To any worried young musicians, writers, dancers, photographers, and anyone who dares to learn an art –

Your art, whatever it is, matters. You will create everything beautiful in this life. When you tell people you want to dedicate your time to mastering music, dance, etc they may laugh and tell you that you're committing yourself to a life of poverty. But it isn't funny. I hope there is someone in your corner cheering you on, telling you it's going to be really fucking hard but if you want it, you need to go and work for it. If you don't have that person, I will always be in your corner.

People who wag their finger at you will listen to music, watch TV, they read things. They consume the blood, sweat, and tears of people like you. You have your hand in everything that is beautiful. No matter what happens to the NEA and NEH we will probably always need to put up the good fight. Countless people have stood and continue to stand in your corner. Art matters. YOUR art matters.

There's a long, hard fight ahead of us, but this isn't new. You are the descendants of Keith Haring, of Woody Guthrie, of Audre Lorde, and everyone who has dared to rise to the challenge.

And I just want to welcome you to the family.

All my best,

Danielle Prostrollo
Violist

Picture used under Creative Commons license

Artificial competition

 

 

The concerto competition is artificial competition.

Its a bold statement and not nearly as cut-and-dry as I’ve just made it seem… but the world of classical music performance is notably competitive. Even at an amateur level, there’s auditions for everything, not to mention your own internal competition to rise to your peers. And this makes me wonder why, exactly, do we add more to the already heaving stack of opportunities for critique by having so many concerto competitions? Now, before you tell me that concerto competitions are an opportunity for elite performers to enter the public consciousness or that they’re an important part of the classical tradition, I have to ask “why?”

Elite performers aren’t living in a bubble, necessarily popped by a first prize. And talent bookers surely have honed the skills of being able to listen to performers, knowing if they are a good fit for their venue or orchestra. Which leaves me wondering what the real purpose of the concerto competition really is. They’ve become a type of quality control, something “we’ve always done.” But I’ve had many conversations with some elite performers who are happy to tell me that their main motivation is fear – fear to leave the practice room, fear to stop thinking about music, fear that the person next to them is staying late to work on repertoire, that their peers are booking more gigs. To state the glaringly obvious – the competition is brutal.

Now, while it sounds like I am advocating a free-love-hippy-rule-free community, but I’m not. I promise. The majority of competition in the world of a classical musician is necessary and usually useful. No one has invented a better way to recruit for an orchestra. And word of mouth, marketing, being visible, etc is key for ensembles to succeed. Dare I say it, competitions are useful when vying for performance opportunity prizes. The competition I’m wary of is the kind that looks at a performer’s bio and, maybe subconsciously, makes a judgement based on the awards listed in their bio.

The whole thing boils down to: Be (a)ware of artificial competition.

But I’d love to hear the other side of the coin.

Eating healthy is hard

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 16.52.54
Arty image by Motion Editor

 

Even the best of us struggle to eat well. When I was thinking about what angle to take with this post I thought I would focus on how it’s hard to be healthy when you’re on the go (to rehearsals, to classes, to a concert) but it’s more than that, really. It’s about feeling like you have options instead of being beholden to the schedule.

When you work a nine-to-five job it’s easy to meal prep, you know where you’re going to be and when. There are lots of pictures on Instagram showing perfectly portioned, perfectly positioned bento boxes that make for easy lunches that will brighten up any cubicle. But a musician has to contend with a schedule that changes every day, sometimes at the last minute. There are orchestra rehearsals, quartet practice, travelling for student lessons, for your own lessons, classes, concerts, days in the practice room, days spent at home catching up on admin and planning what you will eat is usually not at the top of that list.

So we grab whatever is easiest – if we are bad, it’s instant ramen, and if we are good, it’s a supermarket sandwich. It’s easy to grab a morning muffin at Starbucks (for roughly a million calories) so how do you plan meals when you’re either commuting, in rehearsals, getting home late from a performance, or spending the day in the practice room? Buying meals get expensive so planning a packed breakfast/lunch/dinner becomes not only an opportunity to eat healthily but also save money.

Most fun lunchboxes don’t fit in a viola case (some of my music doesn’t even fit in my case). Carrying an extra bag just so I can have a homemade ham and cheese sandwich doesn’t feel like a balanced sacrifice. It’s just easier to buy something along the way.

I struggle with this on most days. There exists a day when I have found an equilibrium between making my own morning latte in a cute travel mug and finding a trove of inexpensive recipes that satisfy (and don’t take up all of the space in my bag).

Lately I have been trying to consciously eat more fruit and fresh veggies so popping some grapes and strawberries in my bag helps. I also bought one of those trendy water infuser bottles and literally never use the infuser bit (it feels like a waste of fruit for not much taste payoff). But the whole meal, I haven’t figured that out. I’ve talked to lots of musicians, singers, and actors who suffer the same conundrum.

What does everyone else do?