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

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