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!

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