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.



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?