I am a recent graduate of 6 years of music school, and 18 years of nonstop education since kindergarten. This is the first year without any of that in my life and so far it has been a terrifying, exhilarating and reflective period. Besides the fact that I have been able to catch up on a lot of Netflix, I have been spending a lot of time trying to figure out my next steps and what the route I took in college means for my career. In this blog, I hope to sort out some of my own thoughts and share them in hopes that other people who are going through similar things may find something they can relate to.
I want to first start off by listing a few things I think should be required in music school based on my experiences and lack of experiences in the past 6 years. I am by no means claiming authority in this field or discounting the wonderful and valuable things I learned at both schools I attended. I’m sure both of my schools have good reasons for why they choose certain requirements for their students, but if I could build my dream music school, this is what I would want to see required of all students:
Improvisation classes: I’m thinking primarily about improvisation classes that involve my instrument, but I’m sure there would be value in a class that teaches all sorts of improv. After all, musicians are performers in many senses of the word and this should extend far beyond our instrument. Hey, I’m building my dream school, I won’t limit myself.
At my undergrad, I tried out an improvisation club my freshman year, and I will admit I did not continue with it past the first semester of school. I still regret this decision. The teacher was amazing and the group was outstanding, but I just felt so out of my league because I had not been exposed to a lot of improv in my life. The whole experience scared the hell out of me which was honestly no ones fault but my own. I set a very high bar for myself because of my years of experience playing my instrument in the classical sense, but when I fell short of my own expectations every time I tried to improvise I just gave up. I never gave myself the chance to learn and get better because I thought I should already be good. It’s similar to how I have felt every time I have tried to play an instrument other than violin, I think that because I’m a musician that I should easily pick up on new things, but everything in music takes practice. I think if I had been required to stick with improv for the entire 4 years, or even just for a year, I would have been a much better musician today. It is, of course, never too late for me to start doing some improv now, and I have a little since then, but I want to see schools requiring it earlier on so that people who wouldn’t normally be exposed to improvisation (i.e. classical music majors) can have the chance.
Anatomy classes: As musicians, we are athletes. There are no professional athletes out there who are not required to take an anatomy class in order to learn about how their bodies can work most efficiently in their craft. There should be no exceptions for musicians. According to Jennifer Johnson, author of “What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body,” 4 out of 10 professional musicians suffer from performance related injuries. Many of them take pain relieving drugs just to get through the day. This number is too high. I myself have been dealing with muscle tension issues for as long as I can remember. Many well intentioned music teachers will recommend different ways to deal with these problems, like taking a week off or taking some ibuprofen before playing. These are not necessarily bad ideas, but they are not the only solution.
Music teachers are not doctors and they already have a huge job trying to inspire their students to be technically proficient and musical week after week, something that I as a private violin instructor have only begun to understand the challenges of. I do think, however, that if schools start educating students early on about what is actually going on with their muscles as they are playing, we can begin to produce a new generation of performers and teachers who can incorporate more of this knowledge into their playing and educating. It is not yet something that is talked about enough because there are still too many musicians who have to play through their pain every day until one day they may have to stop playing altogether.
More Emphasis on Physical Health: This goes along with the anatomy class idea. I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on how you use your body in the most efficient, effective way possible. A lot of this starts with how physically healthy and strong you are as a person. I have only recently discovered that many physical problems I have faced as a musician could have been avoided had I developed better core and upper body strength. Of course there is still plenty of time for me to develop all of this, but I could have saved a lot of grief had I started earlier.
In college, I was very fortunate to have access to some great pilates and yoga classes that happened multiple times a week. Both of my schools also had free gym memberships for students which was fantastic. I’ll be honest though, I didn’t take advantage of any of these things as much as I should have. I’m especially kicking myself now because gym memberships and classes are so expensive once you get out of school! In undergrad I did a bit more because my campus was so small and getting to the gym was a lot more convenient than it was in my masters. My violin studio, including my teacher, even went to pilates together for a while. The problem I faced, however, was not so much getting myself to do these exercises, but getting myself to do them right. The teachers who taught the classes were great and did a fantastic job teaching but the classes were always so full that they didn’t have the ability to provide much individualized attention.
I imagine that if you’re on a football team or a soccer team you would have specific training for that particular sport. Those teams are also coached by people who have experience playing that sport. As musicians, we need other musicians coaching us through these exercises, or at least people who can address the specific needs of musicians. During my masters I took a “yoga for performers” class, which was a great example of this type of thing. The instructor was also an opera coach at the school of music and he had a lot of helpful modifications for yoga poses that put too much pressure on the wrists or fingers, something instrumentalists need to be careful with. I would love to see more of that with pilates classes, kickboxing classes, or anything else that could be potentially harmful to musicians if done incorrectly. I also want to see Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and body mapping courses required in my dream school (I understand this is a lot to ask but still dreaming here).
Here is a really great article written by the Dean of the music school at my undergrad, Lawrence University. This school has a very special place in my heart because I think it is filled with faculty, staff and students who are looking to embody a lot of the things I have mentioned already: http://www.lawrence.edu/conservatory/deans_desk/inner_athlete
Public Speaking: I will be the first to say how terrified I still am of speaking in front of crowds. Playing in front of an audience is hard enough but at least I can hide behind my instrument. Speaking is such a vulnerable thing to do because it’s just you! I really admire vocalists because they have no instrument to hide behind, their instrument is literally them. Public speaking, just like performing, takes practice. When you look at any list of human fears, public speaking always makes the top 10 and often the top 3. It is up there with dying, being alone, heights, all things which seem like they should be in an entirely different category. Your life is not directly in danger when you are public speaking, you will not get struck by lightning if you mess up, something that I have heard teachers tell me time and time again when I have had performance related fears. But yet, I completely understand why this fear is so high on the list. In the moment, public speaking feels a bit like jumping out of a plane with no parachute (I imagine).
As musicians, we are often told how important it is to be able to verbally communicate with our audience in order to connect with them and break down the wall we often construct for ourselves on stage. It can also help to calm you down before you have to play, that is if you have gotten to a comfortable enough level with speaking in the first place. In my experience, there wasn’t a whole lot of emphasis on this in my education. I had great teachers that would encourage it, but putting it into practice didn’t happen a ton unless you made it happen for yourself. Like I said before, the only way to get better at this is to do it, so of course you have to take some responsibility to make that happen, but I honestly think I could have taken an entire class specifically on talking to an audience.
Education Classes for Performance Majors: I was really lucky in my undergrad to take a fantastic music education class. I was hesitant to enroll at first because it was not a required area for my major, but being a part of that class turned out to be one of the best decisions I made. As performers, I think that we often don’t realize how important it is to be able to teach the skill that we spend hours every day doing. Not only does teaching help the music world to grow, it also makes you think more holistically about what you are doing and why you are doing it. In a world where we spend a lot of time in a small room trying to master our craft, it’s important to take a step back and force yourself to verbally communicate your skills in a way that someone who is learning it for the first time or still developing as a player can relate to.
The class I took was a general music education class which was especially interesting and valuable for me. I have never planned on being a public education teacher (and honestly I have so much admiration for people who choose that path), but the skills I learned in that class helped me to understand how to think about music as a holistic idea and not as something that just pertained to my instrument. These ideas inspired me to include more general music teaching techniques to my private violin/viola studio, and though I am still developing my skills as a teacher, I hope to continue expanding on this idea. Teaching has only helped me as a performer and I would love to see more education classes geared towards performance majors because one way or another it is an important part of any musicians career.
This list is just the beginning. But I wanted to start by throwing out some of these ideas because I find them to be extremely valuable and underrated topics. While trying to craft my career, I need to prioritize what is most important to me and what I can do to inspire this type of thinking to develop happier, healthier musicians for the future, and while I’m at it, helping myself to look at music from a healthier perspective too. If you made it this far, thank you for reading, and please feel free to expand on these ideas or introduce new ones. I want this to be an open conversation because, again, I’m only just beginning to sort these things out.
Along with many musicians, I have dealt with muscle tension as a result of my violin playing for a long time. I hope that this blog will be useful to those dealing with similar issues as I talk through my ongoing journey to play my instrument pain free.