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.



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!


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.