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.