I have a lot of thoughts and feelings in my head and heart, which I'm sure will come out in blog form sooner or later. But until then...
For an audio version of this post, press play below.
At the beginning of 2015, I didn't make any New Year's resolutions. Instead, I made a promise to myself: "Honor your artistry." I wrote it on my white board and looked at it every day.
You see, for years, I desperately wanted to be good at the violin. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to have the status of being good, but I now see that I didn't have a clue what that actually meant. This new mantra was a huge departure from my old ways of thinking. It meant that instead of freaking out about what chair I was in orchestra, and who was playing more advanced repertoire than me, I actually had to listen to my sound, and produce something meaningful. After an eventful year including orchestra auditions, learning video game music by ear, playing a gig that was almost completely improvised, and a whole lot of Kreutzer etudes, I arrived at a place where my technique and my musical imagination were beginning to merge. I felt, in short, like an artist.
Of course, once you accept the universe's call to be an artist, that does not mean you have arrived. For me, it meant that I no longer had the excuse of "Oh, I have so many tension problems in my playing..." "My teacher just completely redid my technique and it feels weird..." "I need to completely change my setup to play well..." While these excuses were valid at various points in my life, they certainly weren't relevant anymore. Stepping up and accepting responsibility as an artist meant finding a way, no matter what, to have a higher goal than just playing the notes right. Being good at the violin didn't concern me anymore. Figuring out what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it, was my new priority.
I am learning, over and over again, that music enables us to transcend our circumstances. If there's one thing 2016 has taught me so far, it's that being an artist means being an artist every time I play my violin. It doesn't mean being an artist only on the days when I've done the perfect exercise routine, eaten the perfect healthy meal, and had a great night's sleep. It means that every time I touch my instrument, I have to be able and willing to make something special happen. To say something meaningful. To connect with the audience, to say something without words that maybe I need to hear even more than the audience does.
The first month of 2016 immediately tested the strength of my new artistic commitment. Was I really able to perform, even when I felt like it the least? Two weeks before a solo recital that I had scheduled, my uncle died. The choice to travel to attend his funeral was an easy one, even though it meant postponing the recital. I had been looking forward to this recital - it was my first solo performance in months and my first true attempt at bringing authentic emotionality to repertoire that was technically accessible for me. I'd scheduled the recital carefully, so that I would still be rested from winter vacation, before the busyness of my teaching schedule kicked in. Playing a recital when coming off a two week holiday, where you have slept well, relaxed with family, and had all the practice time you need, is very different than ... the experience I had. I got back to work the week after the funeral, and was disoriented and sad. Finding my "professional mode" for my students took more energy than normal. But, the recital happened. I somehow managed to conjure the various characters I had spent so much time creating, and I had the strange experience of listening to the recordings afterwards and loving my own sound, perhaps for the first time in my seventeen year relationship with the violin.
The next week, my apartment building almost burned down. It was a surreal experience. I woke up in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke, the sound of alarms going off, and firemen banging on the door, telling me and my roommates to leave the building. I learned that the first thing I grab when the building is on fire is, in fact, my violin. I climbed off our second story balcony with my roommate to escape the building, since the hall was full of smoke. I was functional in the moment, able to think clearly - but the next day I saw a video of the fire, and I freaked out. I couldn't believe that I had been asleep in the building when the video was taken. I was happy to be alive, grateful my home was unharmed, but shaky and not able to sleep well for the next week.
Four days after the fire was the quartet concert I'd been looking forward to for months. I'd written the grant, practiced my part, and rehearsed with my colleagues. Playing in a string quartet is one of my absolute favorite things to do. I love being inside the music, the deep sense of connection with the other musicians, and the spectacular repertoire written for four string players. But, I felt like crap. I had had to teach for eight hours during the day, both my regular classes and make-up lessons from the day I missed to go to the funeral. Two hours before we were supposed to walk on stage, I was curled in a ball, exhausted but unable to sleep, completely drained. I knew I somehow needed to summon the emotional energy that the music would demand from me, that my colleagues and the audience deserved, and that I wanted to be able to give. Once again, connecting to the music, and committing to do whatever I needed to do to create the sound I wanted, saved me. My chamber partners' passion and performances helped give me the energy I needed to give the music. The audience loved it, and it was a great performance.
During a concert, the audience doesn't know - and frankly, it's none of their business - what's going on in your personal life. (Although, I suppose any of you who have been in the audience this past year know what's been going on with me now...) When I walk onstage, not feeling my best or having a bad day doesn't give me permission to play with less passion, with less energy, or as if I'm only interested in getting through the performance so I can go home. That's not how performance works. In the moment, the music has to be more important than anything.
I am fortunate to be friends with and know the stories of many professional musicians. On the friend level, I know just how tired and stressed they are. I know that they're juggling teaching careers, multiple performances, and caring for their families. As someone who sits in the audience at their performances, I am blown away by the music they create. This is a lesson my students are learning, too. Through a series of unfortunate scheduling events (also known as the fact that I didn't realize I needed to check the SAT testing schedule when choosing recital dates), I've had three teenage students have to perform in studio recitals after taking the SAT. They spent the morning taking the test and then came directly to the recital. I was so proud of them for fully committing to their performances, and for how beautifully they played, even when I knew they had to be physically and mentally spent. Some of my younger students, as well, are already committed to making music despite their circumstances. Those of you who frequent the blog have read Lindsey's tale of finding creative ways to practice even after breaking her bow arm. Another of my students performed in a recital while ill and with a fever. I had been noticing her smooth tone, her strong memory, and how much improvement she'd made over the past few months. It wasn't until I talked to her and her parents afterwards that I found out she wasn't well. I'm sure that there are more stories that I don't know, too.
It may sound as if music is all-consuming, all-demanding, and completely uncaring about the people who create it. I'll be honest - it feels that way a lot of the time. But the moment I step onstage, the moment I find myself inside my sound and let the music take over, I have energy that wasn't there before. I find the courage to stand in front of the audience, exactly as I am, far from perfect but willing to express myself through all the means at my disposal. And I have found that loving music has given me far more than it has taken from me.
Sometimes the most valuable lessons are the ones that it's the least fun to learn. I could not have written this blog post six months ago. What I can do now with my instrument is beyond anything I ever imagined when my only goal was to be good at the violin. I am new to this whole 'artist' thing, but I am excited and curious to see what the future brings. And most of all, I am grateful that music has pushed me beyond my technical limitations, helped me find emotions and feelings when I feel empty inside and enabled me to rise above both the big and little things in life to create meaningful art in the world.
'Twas the week before spring break, and worried was I
The week would be wasted, since vacation was nigh
My students had played a recital, 'twas true
But in violin lessons, we needed SOMETHING to do.
In true Ms. Claire-style, I fashioned a plan.
"Teach me a violin lesson? Let's see if they can!"
(No, I'm not writing this whole blog post in verse. I started typing, and then I started rhyming and just went with it...)
My studio had a weird two weeks to get through last month - we'd just performed a recital and had two weeks until spring break. I knew I needed to come up with something to keep my students engaged and learning so that their lessons were meaningful. So, I told them that the last 10 minutes of their lesson would be them teaching ME a lesson on one of their pieces before break. Some of them were really excited. Some were terrified. All of them were pretty psyched that they got to sit down during their lesson - not just sit down, but in the teacher's special chair.
Here are some of the great things that happened when we turned the tables and when I had my students be the teacher:
My youngest student, aged 4, made me get down on my knees so that he could reach my left hand fingers. He guided me through playing an A Major scale by putting my fingers down in the right place on the violin and making sure they were curved.
One of my first graders, who is playing Witches' Dance, chose to give me a lesson as if it was my first time on Witches' Dance. She sat in my chair with her violin, and taught it to me phrase by phrase. She broke the piece down into small, easily learned phrases, and explained to me how to do the bow stroke properly. I was amazed to see how well she really understood the musical structure AND the different technical elements in the piece.
I have a fourth grader who has a fantastic ear but has struggled to have beautiful violin posture. She chose to have me play her piece while making mistakes and identify them. This one was hard for me - I tried to imitate the things she does when she plays as closely as possible. The look of surprise on her face was priceless. She stopped me before I was more than a few measures into the piece. "Your feet! They're not balanced!" A few measures later, she stopped me again. "You have a pancake hand!" And just a little later..."And your bow hold keeps creeping up!" It was great to see her awareness change!
And finally, for a student who is a senior in high school, I played her piece and played it with a nice sound, but without a lot of expression. She worked with me on creating more dynamics and contrast in the piece. I asked her this past week whether or not her experience being the teacher had changed how she practices. "Yes," she said. "I realized that I couldn't ask you to do something and then not do it myself."
And so with a grin I went back to my chair
Amazed at how my students had become more aware.
Until my next crazy idea, I bid you adieu
And suggest you see what happens when the teacher...is you.
Comparison is human nature, and the temptation to compare ourselves to others is particularly strong in Violin World. A lot of people play the violin. A lot of people play the violin really, really well. And learning to cope with this fact is something that every violinist has to confront at some point in their career.
Ignatian spirituality has a saying: "Compare and despair." When we compare ourselves to someone else, we will inevitably end up depressed. Because the thing is, we're not comparing ourselves to the other person. We're comparing ourselves to our idealized image of that other person. And that's something that no one can live up to.
I've seen this in my violin studio over the last few months. I've seen students terrified to play out because they hear other students who they think are better than them. I've seen parents who are discouraged because another child is playing better than theirs.
And it breaks my heart.
I adore all my students, for exactly who they are. Whenever someone says to me, "So-and-So plays SO AMAZINGLY IN TUNE, it seems so easy for them!" I realize that yes, they saw So-and-So play at the recital, and yes, So-and-So had wonderful intonation. What they didn't see was the previous two years of lessons with me, where I changed everything about their violin technique, made them play hours and hours of scales, and insisted that they do it over and over again. "Tall violin. Do it again. Check your Magic X. Do it again. No, that's a 4th finger. Do it again." Two years of that resulted in So-and-So being able to play their advanced piece really well in tune. Believe me, no one is born with perfect intonation. We ALL work on it. For those for whom intonation is a little more intuitive, they have their own share of challenges (AHEM, bow hold, anyone?)
I've had beginning students look at other students their own age and feel despondent because they didn't start younger. It's unfair to compare a violinist who has been playing six months to a violinist who has been playing for four years. As someone who started at the age of 9 in my public school orchestra, I think I spent at least the first 10 years of life as a violinist upset because I didn't start as a 4-year-old prodigy. As a teacher, I see that beginners of every age have their own advantages and challenges. Violin isn't easy, for anyone.
I am not immune to comparison, as much as I might wish to be. Two months ago, a friend of mine and I took the same orchestra audition. She got in. I didn't. I spiraled into a pretty dark place in my mind. I cried for two straight days. I lamented the fact that she had a better tone, seemed like a nicer person who I was sure everyone liked more than me, and was even better-dressed. I wallowed in imagined inferiority for longer than I wanted to, and have slowly been pulling myself out of it.
One of the things I realized is this: I cannot be anyone but myself. I cannot play like anyone but myself. And any time I spend saying "Why is this person so much better than me?" rather than saying, "How can I make this sound the way I want it to?" is wasted. So I chose a new recital program. I went to my violin teacher and asked her how I could improve the weaknesses in my playing. And I went to the practice room, every day, and I worked on those weaknesses. I did not blindly play through repertoire and hope that it would magically get better. I worked slowly, and carefully, and with great awareness of how I was doing everything I was doing. I have the hope that when I am completely immersed in my own sound and am able to make my playing an authentic representation of who I am, I won't fall into the pit of comparing and despairing, because I will be so in love with music that I don't care what else is going on.
I've had people say to me that it seems like I have it all together. I have a beautiful website (Weebly has AMAZING templates, you guys. I can't code to save my life.), a thriving studio, and lots of creative ideas. This is true. I've worked hard to get to where I am. And most of the time, I don't post on Facebook or on my blog when I have a bad day. The truth is yes, I'm at a place right now where I am the most put-together that I have been in about a decade. You didn't see the years I spent in therapy trying to cope with my crippling perfectionism, the tendonitis that left me unable to play my violin for the first year of music school, or the year I spent in graduate school rebuilding my technique from the ground up. You don't see the moments where I am so overwhelmed by everything everyone expects of me that I have to sit and cry before I can move forward. You may not know that despite everything I have going for me in my professional life, I miss my father (who died five and a half years ago) every single day and would give just about anything to see him again, even for five minutes. These are just some of the things I have been through. I work hard to focus on what I am grateful for in my life (which is a lot!), and on feeling confident in who I have become. But it's hard. And I have a feeling that the people who say "Claire has it all together, I want to be her!" might not feel that way if they knew the full price of being me.
You don't know the full story of whoever it is you are comparing yourself to. And chances are that if you did, you would choose your own, rather than being them. It's hard enough to be yourself. Don't waste time lamenting that you're not someone else.
For my students reading this: I am here for you. I am here to walk with you on your violin journey. I want to help you learn to love your sound and to have true confidence in your playing. I love you, and I promise that I NEVER spend your lessons thinking, "I wish I was teaching Other Student" right now. When I teach, I am totally focused on you and how I can help you in the moment.
To everyone: Be kind to yourself. Seek to be authentic, rather than unique. Focus on what YOU can do, and love yourself as yourself. Because you are worthy of all the love in the world, and we need you exactly as you are.
I have a rule in my studio: You must sing your new piece before I will teach it to you on the violin. With words you wrote (one syllable per note). From memory.
It's no wonder my students think I'm a little nuts.
This is a learning strategy I acquired from my teacher, Burton Kaplan. Writing words to your piece opens up a new way to engage with it. Having to write words and SING them forces students to listen to the song differently - and probably to listen to it more times than they would. You listen to the inflections of the notes, and engage with the rhythm in a different way.
The beginning stages of learning the violin can be very challenging. There are a lot of details to remember, and I insist on a very high level of technique from my students at every level. The violin must be held right, the left hand framed beautifully, the fingers landing just so on the strings. The bow hold must have every finger in the right place, yet the arm and hand must be relaxed. The direction of the bows and the amount of bow used must follow precise directions.
All of this, while incredibly important, can get dry and mechanical. Having my students write their own creative words and sing them ensures that before we dive into the technical details of the piece, they have internalized their own musical image of what the piece is. And, should we get too lost in the bowings and fingerings, I can always have them sing a phrase and then try to imitate their voices.
I'm sharing some of my students' original words and the Suzuki songs they go to. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
In a little hive there's a bee, make sure you don't sting me.
If you do you'll be very sad, if you do you'll be very sad.
In a little hive there's a bee, make sure you don't sting me.
-Bailey, age 7
Minuet 1 - The Hermione Song
Hermione and her friends, Harry Potter and
Ron Weasley, Neville and Luna Lovegood all go to Hogwarts.
Hermione and her friends, Harry Potter and
Ron Weasley, Neville and Luna Lovegood all go to Hogwarts.
They ride Hogwarts Express all the way up to the castle.
Laughing with friends and chocolate frogs will make time go fast.
McGonagall and Dumbledore teach them their spells.
Snape does the potions. We don't quite trust him. He's kind of creepy.
Quidditch is their big sport. Harry plays Seeker, yes he does.
Griffindor will win. Draco is angry. He lost the snitch.
He who shall not be named is there, lurking around.
Hermione and her friends won't let him get Harry Potter!
Minuet 3- My Busted Arm
I do not like my busted arm. It's very hard to do some stuff.
Like eating with a fork, playing violin and holding a pencil.
I fell off of the zip line and landed on my right arm. Boo hoo!
We went to the doctor, then to the x-ray, then to the ER.
The ER was so fun. They gave me an ipad when I first got to my bed.
I played Hair Salon the whole time and loved it so much.
Then Cinderella came to visit and to take some pictures, too.
Then the nurse gave me a splint and we went back home at 9.
- Lindsey, age 7
Minuet 2 - MOWnuet
Tulips come up in the spring (in spring)
They’re a gardener’s favorite thing (in spring)
Poppies and petunias, don’t forget tiny crocuses,
Parsley, rosemary and thyme (and thyme)
Roses bloom and start to climb (and climb)
Shovels or maybe trowels or maybe
Flowerpots for your plants.
Flower gardens get the glory, and
Vegetables are always useful, so
Why is it that so much space goes to
Raising up boring grass? Don’t you think
Digging around with shovels and trowels
Might be more fun than mowing the lawn?
Raking the leaves is another nice weekend gone.
Plant some fruit trees in a row (a row)
Plant them deep and watch them grow (and grow)
Make me a flower border with cosmos,
Daisies and Queen Anne’s Lace.
-Grace, age 9
I took an audition last week. You may notice from browsing my website that a lot of my focus is on teaching, chamber music, and on finding new ways to connect to audiences. Not auditions, and not orchestra.
Part of this was a practical choice on my part when starting my career: when you graduate from Peabody with $90K in student loans, you need a steady income. Fast. I tried to fit performances in when I could, but I put all my energy into building my studio and paying down my debt.
Part of this was playing to my strengths: I have a lot of experience teaching. I'm good at it. I like playing around with the internet and figuring out ways to use it to connect with people through music.
Part of this was just because I don't like auditions. After two years in a high-pressure music school, I wanted some time where I wasn't being compared to other violinists. Auditions are stressful. And when you're trying to release physical tension in your playing, you need low-pressure performances where you set yourself up for success, not auditions.
Fast forward two years later. I have an advanced student, a senior, taking the Senior Regional Orchestra audition. She has to play excerpts. I have a junior whose orchestra teacher uses the SRO excerpts for their seating placements at school. And I have an 8th grader auditioning for the Junior District orchestra - yep, excerpts. It seems that excerpts and orchestra have finally caught up to me. The Universe has made it pretty clear to me that to succeed as a teacher, I need to be able to teach excerpts. And to teach excerpts, I need to be able to play them.
About this same time, a friend of mine told me about a local orchestra having sub auditions, and I sent in my resume. I figured if nothing else, it would give me something to practice for. I'd taken this audition once before, with disastrous results. My heart rate accelerated, my body locked up, sweat poured from my palms and I just choked in the audition room.
But, I figured this time would be easier. And it was. The list was the same, so I had a leg up on learning the pieces. I felt at least a little more confident. Audition day arrived, and my heart rate accelerated (but less so than last time), I managed to unlock my body enough to actually move my bow some of the time, and I was able to stay present enough in my mind to have SOMETHING of a musical experience in the room.
Unfortunately, "better" in this case wasn't enough to make the sub list. Some of my friends who took the same audition did make it in, though. I plunged into a very dark place in my mind, a place of comparison and despair I hadn't been in years. I replayed the audition in my mind. I beat myself up for my lack of focused practicing. I picked apart my fundamentals and lamented my natural tendency to manifest tension physically. I called my best friend and sobbed. I talked to some mentors. Finally, I put in my copy of the Empire Strikes Back in the DVD player and enjoyed an evening on the Dark Side.
The next day, I took my notebook and I wrote down, in detail, everything that had happened in the audition room. And I made a plan.
You see, an audition is a mirror. It's like the dreaded 360-degree mirror in the show What Not To Wear. It shows you ALL of the imperfections in your playing, in excruciating detail. If you have weaknesses, they will come out in an audition. Even if you have weaknesses you think you've corrected or strengthened, they can come back in these situations. It is an emotional experience to look in this mirror, to have your playing on display and to see your flaws reflected back at you.
Based on my (albeit limited) experiences, here are a few tips to help you through an audition experience:
That's all for today. Be well, my friends, and enjoy this new year!
This blog post was written by Jennifer Gibson. Her daughter Lindsey, age 7, is one of my private violin students.
I emailed Miss Claire from the ER. A broken arm. So many things go through your mind when something like this happens. Though it would be awkward, I knew my young violinist would figure out how to eat and write with her left hand for a while, but how do you play the violin with no bow hand? The doctors were talking 10-12 weeks of recovery time, which seemed like an eternal “violin vacation”, ripe with regressing about 6 months and the frustration (for both me and my daughter) that went along with it. Ugh.
Violin had been going so well lately, too. She loved the current piece she was working on and was excited to play the whole thing at her next lesson. She had just started playing duets over the summer with a friend from group class. I guessed all of that would come to a screeching halt for a while.
Within two hours Claire had emailed me back with a half a dozen things we could do and a promise to reach out to her colleagues to find more. Two days later we went to her lesson. I was shocked at how we spent the full 45 minutes doing real violin activities. With one hand. We walked out with a full practice sheet.
We are now 2 weeks into it and have had some interesting revelations:
1. It is a refreshing break to be forced to change our practice format. We’re making little to no progress on Suzuki and I’m sure I’d be singing a different tune had this happened three weeks before a recital. However, in the summer it’s fun to go back and do some GDG or some Ant Song while trying a little more advanced plucking technique.
2. Doing the left hand only and singing on review songs does help to keep them fresh. Sometimes I even catch her moving the bow arm at the same time, kind of like a dog would move his leg when you scratch him in just the right spot. It shows how connected the whole body is when learning to play the violin. Somehow I like to think that is keeping the bowing fresh on some level.
3. Writing words to songs is therapeutic. When we hear emphatic renditions of “I do not like my BUST-ed arm” to the tune of Minuet No. 3 floating through the house, we know she is venting a frustration with her current limitation.
4. It is quickly becoming a guilty pleasure how much I enjoy doing the bow part for her during certain exercises. After being a spectator and home coach for over a year while we both learn how the violin works, it’s fun to take part in the music!
5. My doing the bow takes the pressure off her a bit because if we mess up there is at least 50% chance that it’s my fault. Instead of getting stuck in the place where “I’m horrible and I can’t do it”, we can quickly blame me and move on to giving it another try.
6. I daresay she enjoys being able to boss me around a bit for a change when it comes to the bow. She says “Mommy – make that a good martele!” or tells me which strings to bow on when I mess up, as if it should be the simplest thing in the world.
Would I choose to have my sweet girl break her arm and embark on this violin detour? Of course not, but we are making the best of it. I’m waiting for the day when it’s a distant memory and we can say, “Remember when you broke your arm in the middle of Suzuki Book 1?”.
I've been thinking lately that it's been two years since I started my violin studio, and it's grown from just two students in my mother's living room to a full studio of nearly 20 students as part of an established program, with a waiting list. My students and their parents are something I am grateful for every single day.
With a growing studio comes the beginnings of student accomplishments. Youth orchestras. Honor orchestras. Honor recitals. I'd be lying if I didn't say these things make me really happy. It's great to have audition panels recognize that your students play well. It certainly helps validate me as a teacher, and I think everyone likes to be validated.
However, the interior journeys, and the relationships I'm building between myself and my students - those are the things that make me have to hold back tears in lessons, the reasons that I do what I do, and why I do believe that music education can change our world for the better.
So here are a few stories that you don't know about my students - with no names, identifying details, or personal pronouns to protect my students' anonymity.
One quiet, reserved, introverted student who has played for many years with many teachers confessed to me that their earlier violin teachers didn't like them, believe in them, and occasionally insulted them. It's taken many lessons, but this student is now comfortable with me, trusts me, and is slowly starting to believe in their own ability to create the sound they want on the instrument. Progress in this lesson looks like the student being able to take a deep breath, let go of their doubts, and just play.
Another student, with whom lessons are a pure joy now, is a student I wasn't sure I could continue with during the first six months of lessons. It seemed that everything I said was only partially understood. The student was highly stressed, and it took me some time to realize that they were worried they were being graded every violin lesson. They thought that saying "Ms. Allen, I didn't have time to do everything this week," or "I don't know the answer to that question" would mean that they "failed" for the day. After a conversation with their mother, I invited the student for a lesson without their violin. We listened to music, and we talked about what we liked. I explained that I want to meet them where they are, but that I need an honest representation of where they are to be able to do the most help. Fast forward over a year, and this student is flying. I still need to remind them that if they feel overwhelmed, it's better to do a few things really well in practice than everything sloppily, but we've established a relationship of trust - and that trust has led to genuine confidence in the student's skills.
One of my students has practically flown through the beginning stages of their violin playing, and went through pieces at an astonishing rate. I know it's human nature to see "getting to the next piece" as a sign that they're doing well, but what I'm looking for in violin lessons is progress when it comes to solid fundamentals. As a teacher, I'd rather hear them play the same piece for the 1,000th time, but with a tall violin and an improved sound, rather than have them play 1,000 pieces kind of okay. It's exciting to move through repertoire, but my struggle is to slow them down a little bit so I know the fundamentals are in place - and helping them feel that my slowing them down doesn't mean they are doing badly. I hate seeing the disappointment at the end of the lesson when we haven't started a new song, but I know I have to stick to my teacher guns and insist on the technique before I let them move on.
One student, who recently was accepted into a youth orchestra, has received a lot of praise and recognition in public for it - as well they should. What people don't know is that for weeks before the audition, this student had to withstand more pressure from me than they had ever experienced. We drilled scales for months, and I made them play their excerpts over and over again until I was satisfied. The day before the audition, this student played three pieces that were NOT related to the audition for our spring recital. AND, this student's bow broke due to the change in humidity. Immediately after the audition, the student's mother emailed me and told me the student said the audition was the easiest thing they had done all year and felt really happy and confident about their playing. And that - that right there - is my goal for my students when they audition. It was a good affirmation for me as well that I am doing my job.
One of my younger students - an easily distractible, high-energy, creative, and free-spirited person - has recently had lessons where the lessons are more about violin, and less about standing still and learning to focus. Despite my regular admonitions of "Stand still, please!" "Play this song for me, please!" "Did you hear what I just said?" (No) "Well, can you do this now?", this student is growing and learning. I even got a spontaneous hug after their lesson this past week. The student is equally excited to be developing the skill of "having a good violin lesson" as well as just playing the violin.
These are just a few of the stories you don't hear. It's not as exciting as Suzuki book graduations, or the big sense of "finishing" something. But these are just a small fraction of the students whose musical lives of whom I'm privileged to be a part. Everyone has their own struggles, and their own stories. I hope you felt as inspired by reading them as I do witnessing them.
I've had the joy of seeing some of my violin students start to become friends this year. It's what happens when you strongly recommend group class and do your best to get your kids hooked on chamber music. This summer, four of my students responded to my offer to teach them duos. One student came into their lesson gushing about the fun they'd had at their rehearsal/playdate. It turns out they're both reading the second Harry Potter book this summer, and that they have more in common than a shared violin teacher! It warms my heart - having a supportive peer group is so essential for any endeavor.
Being a professional musician is a hard thing. It's a very hard life, and it's not one I recommend for anyone unless they know they would rather stop breathing than give up their instrument. Music has a way of consuming your heart and becoming a part of your soul.
One of the absolute best things about being a music student and now a professional musician is the people I have met. I know some of the most beautiful souls in the world, and I've had the immense privilege of playing and performing music with them.
My first semester at Peabody, I didn't know anyone and was randomly assigned to a chamber group. We quite arbitrarily chose to learn Schumann's Piano Quintet, and most of the group didn't stay together after that first semester. Life has a funny way of working out, though, and the violinist and the violist from that first group stayed with me and a new cellist to form a quartet. Our last year at Peabody, the four of us were nearly inseparable, and our violist, Lillian, and I became particularly close.
Three and a half years after that first chamber meeting, I found myself in Orlando, Florida, where I taught a masterclass and played chamber music with Lillian for her students. After leaving Peabody, she moved to Florida to teach at a high school conservatory there and was able to hire me as a guest artist. We also took a little trip to Universal Studios on a day off. Little did I know that that random chamber music assignment would someday lead me to the Hogwarts Express with one of my favorite people!
This last year, I was overjoyed when another Peabody friend, Erynn, joined the faculty at Potomac Arts Academy, where I teach. After a year of bonding over torture in excerpt class (such as standing in the Circle of Judgement while playing Don Juan and Schumann Scherzo) and struggling to stay focused in our Monday morning, 3-hour Mahler seminar, I had been sad to leave her when I moved away from Baltimore. I was so excited when she joined our faculty and moved to Virginia! In addition to talking about British television, books, and life in general, we completely geek out about violin pedagogy, have taught classes together, and are having just an amazing time growing our studios together. As an adult, it's hard to find time to see friends, especially when you work so much - so having a good friend who's also a fantastic colleague and who works where I do is an amazing plus. Here we are after a student recital this past spring.
A year ago at this time, I was in full-blown panic mode. I had this crazy idea that I wanted to give a recital. I was determined to keep performing and learning solo repertoire, despite being out of the conservatory environment and having very little practice time. What I wasn't expecting was the challenge of finding a pianist to collaborate with on the recital. In music school, pianists practically grew on trees. They all knew all the violin literature, worked for very reasonable rates (especially if they were on assistantship), and if the first one you asked didn't work out, there'd be several others who also knew your concertos and sonatas. As it turned out, being out of school and trying to hire a professional pianist, especially with so little time before a recital, was not an easy task. Both my piano colleagues at the Academy were already booked for the summer, and I was growing desperate. A colleague had given me a list of names, only one with an email address - she said the others were on Facebook. With a deadline looming, a concerto to memorize, and nothing left to to lose, I set about Facebook messaging strangers, attempting to sound like a professional.
No one responded.
Initially, anyway. A few days later, I got a message back, from one Wade Meyers. He was available on my recital date, and knew the Beethoven sonata. I would learn later that he is not really a Facebook person at all, and sometimes goes weeks without checking it. How lucky I was that he happened to log in that day. I sent him the music, and we set up an initial time to meet. We started rehearsing, and instantly my chamber music starved soul started to revive. (One of the other hardest things about being outside of school is having time to play chamber music, as everyone is always working, and playing chamber music for fun doesn't exactly pay.) And then, at the end of the fifth movement of Lalo Symphonie Espagnole, it happened. I made a mistake, or thought I did. We tried the final cadences again. And it happened again. I was really confused - I thought I was counting correctly, and wasn't sure why we weren't ending at the same time.
"It's okay," Wade said. "It's like the end of Return of the King. It ends a ton of times before it actually ends."
And that was it. The end of the concerto came together, we rehearsed the rest of the program, and then we talked about music, life, and Lord of the Rings for two more hours. Six months later, we decided to form an official duo and the Argonath Duo was born. It's been the most musical fun I've had in years, and getting to know someone as a person as you're learning music with them is an incredible experience.
Lillian, Erynn, and Wade are just a few examples of the incredible people that I'm fortunate enough to both be friends with and work with. Musicians are really great people, and after many long years of drama, doubt, and angst, I'm convinced that the career path I've chosen is absolutely worth all the pain.
So thank you to all of my friends, musicians and non-musicians, mentioned in this post and not, who have supported me, laughed with me, cried with me, listened to me when I stress, and played music with me over the years. I wouldn't be the person or musician I am without you, and I am profoundly grateful.
Written thoughts on my musical life.