Life after Undergrad: A Field Guide for Unicorns

by Erin Kirby, BM Eastman School of Music ‘12

Here is a list of things I wish someone had told me earlier, or things people told me a lot but took me a while to understand, and also some things no one could have told me. Most of these things apply for me on a micro level and a macro level: the practice room, the stage, the career path, everyday life. I hope you can find something helpful which rings true to you.

1. This task was appointed to you, Frodo of the Shire. If you do not find a way, no one will.

You have to believe in yourself before anybody else can. It’s just practical. A wise and acclaimed violist once told me that I had to find what it is that I do better than anyone else in the world. My immediate thought was, “It probably has nothing to do with the viola.” Uh oh! That’s weird! Time for some introspection, no? After a long while, I think I’m starting to figure out what it is (and yes, it has something to do with the viola). Life and auditions have been a lot better since. You are physically capable of every challenge presented to you in viola playing (except, maybe, tenths). It’s not arrogant to think you have something of your own to offer musically. It’s a true and necessary idea to keep you going as an artist. Give it a try!

2. You’re a unicorn.

People want to hear YOU. They really do. If you go into an audition and don’t play like you, who are you playing like? If you’re not playing like you, can you really believe in what you’re doing? And that brings us back to the Frodo factor. Besides, it’s really fun putting your whole self into your music— your suffering, ecstasy, and wit. No need to be contrarian, just do your thing. Dig deep; that’s where the interesting stuff is hanging out. Another part of what makes you you is your body. It’s different from everybody else’s. It’s not going to look or function exactly like someone else’s when you play because you’re you! Hallelujah! That keeps things interesting.

To get on stage and play like you, first you have to practice like you, though. Who are you? Well, only you really know that. What makes you tick? What keeps you interested? What kinds of technical approaches just make sense to your hands and brain? See what happens if you really go with that.

3. You can’t please everyone all the time.

It’s normal to feel a little afraid of showing the world who you are, because then they might not like you, and wouldn’t that be the worst thing ever? Nope! Haters gonna hate. And dude, YOU’RE A UNICORN.

Everybody has an opinion. They can be useful and help you grow, and it is good to remain open to growth. But in the end, you have to know how to filter. Recently, a Big Deal Violist told me (in short), sorry, you’re a good musician, but you have too many sound production problems, you are too old to be fixed, and probably also too small. Just a few days later, another Big Deal Violist told me I was not only a great violist, but a great musician and artist. And I should start doing competitions as soon as possible. They assured me they’ve had much older students who have made great leaps. Who’s right? Welp. It doesn’t really matter. I still play the viola.

4. Fear is your friend.

My personal motto recently has been, “If you’re afraid of it, you should probably do it.” It can be extremely unpleasant deciding to do something you fear, but in the end you always realize the struggle wasn’t as bad as you had anticipated, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re still alive. That makes you inclined to take more risks in the future. A big part of why I continue to play is that I have to be honest with myself and confront my own demons to improve. Even, and especially, in the practice room. No matter who you are, at any given time, there’s probably some crud deep down which desperately needs a scrubbing. When you scrub the emotional grunge, your light shines brighter.

If you’re afraid of what’s there, now’s a good time to take a peek, before it gets gnarlier. (I think of it like something molding in the fridge.) Look for your darkness. Emotional pain, like physical pain, is usually trying to tell you that you could be doing something better. A good way to locate that good ol’ grimy grunge, for me, it is to observe how my actions might be negatively impacting others. Usually, I’m doing the same thing to myself with my thoughts. Acknowledge it, heal it, and then use it to your advantage when you find it in music. You can’t work it out if you ignore it. But you can’t even ignore it if you don’t realize it’s there. Don’t worry— it’s not just you. It’s everyone. Let your musical practice be your spiritual practice.

5. Failure is your other friend.

If you’re not failing, you might not be trying. Reach. The more you can embarrass yourself, the better. You are missing out on too much growth if you are afraid of what people will think of you. Break the rules. Be ridiculous. Just try it! Anyway, everyone’s too busy thinking about themselves to care.

Frustrated about being waitlisted at the same “fancy” festival (and a whole lot of other stuff) time and time again, I complained to a friend. This wonderful musician friend suggested that maybe I just hadn’t found the right festival yet, and persuaded me to audition for even more ridiculously-difficult-to-get-into festival. So I did, and guess what? I got waitlisted at that even FANCIER festival. (It’s cool, I’ll get it next year . . . .) But it was way beyond what I thought I was capable of even applying for, simply because my resume didn’t have all the “normal” precursors. You are not your resume.

School especially is your time to fail. That’s pretty much what it’s for. There are almost no real-world consequences to testing your limits in school. I played regretfully badly in the new music ensemble a couple of times, not because I didn’t try, but because I just wasn’t equipped at that particular moment. It was a crappy feeling at the time, but then I knew what skills I needed to seek.

6. Politics are real.

Sometimes you won’t win an audition because someone else is stronger than you are at that time. But sometimes, you’re just as “good” as whoever won that audition, and your teacher just wasn’t on the panel. Oops! Their loss. There’s so much you can’t control. In fact, you mostly can’t control it. All you can do is keep improving. Keep finding your truth. Everyone with the power to help you on your path is you looking for something different, and if you keep asking yourself the hard questions and putting yourself out there, eventually you’ll meet the people who have been looking for you.

Your path isn’t going to look like anyone else’s. If you’re treading on well-worn territory, are you advancing your art form? Maybe! Maybe not. Just because you didn’t go to School X and Festivals Y and Z all before the age of 22 doesn’t mean you are useless. It just means you haven’t been in the right place at the right time yet. Maybe it’s a treasure hunt and not a ladder.

7. So you might as well have fun.

This is your one life! Try to enjoy it. At a certain point, I realized most of the musicians I admire have a very joyful and curiosity-driven relationship to music which translates into their study of the instrument. A lot of them play many styles of music, not just classical. Most of them are also whole people with other interests which often inform their playing. Remember a time before Don Juan when you used to like this? That time can be now!

8. Enough about you! What about the composer?

Should you honor him or her? Yes, please! Do your homework. Have legitimate reasons stemming from the original text for why you’re doing what you’re doing. Good news, composers are people, too, and they were probably trying to express something about the human condition. Everything is fair game. They did it in music, though, at a specific point in time and in a particular style. So it can’t hurt to have an idea of what the heck is going on. Take it from me, graduate of the School of Hard Knocks: it’s really embarrassing when someone asks you why you’re doing what you’re doing in your interpretation and you don’t have a very good answer.

9. No rules.

Dude. It’s art.

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