Greetings, dear Violists and Viola-Enthusiasts!

We are excited to welcome you into our Eastman Viola Community via the 2014-15 AVS Studio Blog!

It promises to be an exciting school year, and we look forward to giving you a taste of the viola life at Eastman as well as sharing our thoughts with you on myriad viola-related topics. You will be treated to posts by faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, Eastman alumni, and various friends of our Eastman Viola Community.

We hope you enjoy and we look forward to spending the virtual school year with you!

Warmest wishes,

Carol Rodland, George Taylor, and Phillip Ying

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.


I met Chris in a local coffeeshop. He asked me why I had moved here, so I mentioned that I am a musician. Then, the topic of Schubertiads came up. I told him about a network that supports modern-day Schubertiads and after explaining that I am looking for hosts, he set a date to host his own.

The day finally arrived. I leave rehearsal as quickly as possible to get to his house. The quartet is already there, sitting around in the little room next to the kitchen, chatting with Chris’s roommate and his girlfriend, as she stirs some mulled cider and takes a tray of bruschetta out of the oven. A few minutes later, four strangers walk into the living room.

“Is this… Groupmuse?”

“Yeah, come on in! How did you hear… [about Groupmuse]?”

“We’re Emily’s friends.”

“Oh, Emily! I met her in Boston! Through Groupmuse. Welcome, welcome!”

“Yeah, we’ve been friends since high school. She told us to check it out.”

And just like that, three or four more groups of strangers with beer, chips, chocolate truffles, fruit platters, and wine arrive to the party. They are all neighbors, friends, friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends.

When Chris arrives, I thank him again for hosting and ask him when he wants to begin. So we herd everyone into the living room, where music stands have been assembled. By the time everyone has found a spot either on the couch or simply on the floor, Wendy and Angela, first violinist and violist, are only inches away from the people in the front. I don’t think any of the people in the room who weren’t holding instruments had been that close to a string quartet before. You could sense the mixture of nervous reluctance and excited expectancy in the air.

“Welcome everyone! Thank you Chris and Mike for hosting! Hosts are so important; without friendly, welcoming people like you this wouldn’t be possible… This is a Groupmuse…” After the spiel, Angela introduces the piece, its historical background, and things to listen for. Then Mozart’s String Quartet No. 15 in D minor ensues.

Groupmuse is a social network that sponsors events that are both a house party and a chamber music concert. These events, known as Groupmuses, are conceived after Schubert’s own Schubertiads and they help communities generate their own chamber music concerts in people’s living rooms by creating instances that are both socially and artistically stimulating. Through a simple online platform (www.groupmuse.com), hosts get connected with musicians in their area and guests can RSVP to as many concerts as they would like to attend. At the end, a donation bowl is passed around the audience and everything goes to the musicians. Then a clipboard goes around, where people can join the network’s mailing list and indicate whether they’re interested in hosting a Groupmuse or volunteering as MC. The clipboard is crucial, because it’s usually after people have attended a Groupmuse that they want to host their own. That’s how Groupmuses keep generating themselves and the network keeps growing. People usually want to come back for more.

Most audience members in a Groupmuse, also known as “Musers”, are not trained musicians. One may think that this could be an obstacle for them to enjoy the music, but the reality is the opposite: Musers have not been exposed to classical music to the point of saturation that music students sometimes reach. I love music and I don’t think I could ever get tired of it, but when you are in music school, there are so many performances available that one could begin to take them for granted. And that’s on top of practicing for your lesson, rehearsing with your chamber group, making recordings for summer festivals, preparing for a master class… You name it. Eat, Sleep, Music.

Musers, in turn, do not often have this kind of exposure to live music, so coming to one of these concerts is a very special and unique experience for them. They deeply appreciate the chance to experience chamber music in a setting that, unlike the concert hall, is not intimidating. As untrained listeners, they experience visceral reactions to the music, they can move to the music if they feel so inspired, they clap between movements, and they’re not afraid to ask questions at the end of the performance, because the setting allows it. I’ve even had people in a Groupmuse cheer from excitement in the middle of the recitative before the last movement of Beethoven’s Op. 132! It was awesome! And it shows that they get it.
Musicians, in turn, are encouraged by this enthusiasm, making the music more vibrant, more alive. Something new emerges between those few inches that lie between performer and listener. It’s an invisible connection that is hard to describe, but if you are a musician, I am sure you have experienced it: It’s the satisfaction to know that you have reached someone. And it doesn’t come from flawless technique or impressive stage presence; it comes from an open heart and a willingness, an urge to share. Groupmuse has been so significant for my development as an artist because it has helped me rediscover why I play music: To connect with other people in order to share what it is to be human.

Before being musicians, we are people just as our listeners. It’s time to do away with the stuffiness that drives us apart: Dressing up in funny outfits that make us look like penguins; expecting listeners to be moved by the music but to sit still and quietly in the dark, using a physical space that sends the message “I am an Olympic god; you are a simple mortal. Don’t touch me.” Wouldn’t you rather be enjoying some Brahms in the comfort of your home, with a drink in your hand and surrounded by friends? But beware: Groupmuse is not musical outreach. The concept of outreach involves reaching out of your comfort zone only to go back to it later. Through Groupmuse, musicians meet lay audiences where they are, where they feel comfortable: In the living room, at the center of daily life.

The Groupmuse model was created in Boston and has successfully been exported to other major cities in the US, such as New York and San Francisco. It’s getting started in Seattle, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Rochester, and it has recently crossed international borders with Groupmuses in Toronto, Canada; Toulouse, France; Berlin, Germany; and Seoul, South Korea. If you want to know more about Groupmuse, check out the website. Read the About section at the bottom; it has some beautiful insight on how Groupmuse got started and what its main goals are. You can also take a look at some pictures on Facebook or watch this short video made by Time Magazine to find out what a Groupmuse looks like. If you are a musician in one of these cities, create a profile and get involved to experience first hand what Groupmuse is about! If you’re a musician in a different place: Get in touch with the Groupmuse team and start Groupmuse there! All you need is musicians to play with and a non-musician friend who has a living room and friends who will come to the party.

Music with Integrity by Christiana Reader

Chipotle, you have my burrito-lovin’ musician’s heart.

Anyone that knows me could easily report that I rarely touch fast food as I try to be a generally healthy person. I identify as a Michael Pollan groupie, and a lover of a delicious meal. I was therefore mortified to understand that my favorite little burrito-haven that receives the bulk of my lunch money qualifies as fast food. I recently was in a business presentation with the CFO of Chipotle, Jack Hartung, where I was woefully out of place among so many numbers-oriented suits and fast talkers. But I remained curious enough to listen, leaving the lecture feeling like we as musicians could learn a lesson or two. 

Please indulge me while I explain. 

Chipotle is currently valued at $12 million per restaurant, a number that is calculated by taking the current stock price divided by the number of restaurants. This leaves its next fast food competitors in the dust: McDonalds is valued at $2.6 million/restaurant, Panera at $2.2 million/restaurant. The lowest example on the graph was Jack in the Box at $800,000/restaurant. 

The presenter, Hartung made the point that Chipotle has been out-performing all other fast-food businesses for the following reason: food with integrity.

Their food culture: the willingness to invest a large portion of the budget into high quality ingredients without additives developed into something extraordinary through excellent cooking technique, considering the sustainability of where that food comes from their people culture: hiring people with character who demonstrate success and leadership by doing their own job well and making the people around them better their strong business model: creating value, getting more out of what you invest by being efficient.

As I was trying to follow along in a field that I know nothing about, I could relate best to these elements that are similar in our preparations to become professional musicians. 

Musician culture: We have to commit to high quality ingredients, becoming willing to practice well, to hone our technique and artistry, and to expand our musical horizons. This requires a huge commitment to our own personal and musical development at an inevitable sacrifice. This can happen in the smallest details such as striving for ever better intonation, more clarity, or a more beautiful tone. It means showing up prepared and friendly (see Kayleigh’s post). It means being informed about the broader contexts of what we are working on (see Sergio’s post). It means giving up free weekends, late nights with friends, or plentiful excuses in exchange for quality time with the instrument or our aural development through concert attendance.

Or it can happen in the big picture: deciding to go to that particular school because the teacher and the school were the best fit to push you as a musician (see Professor Taylor’s post). Investing our best quality selves at either the micro- or the macro-level happens daily.

People culture: Our own individual integrity and character coupled with a supportive network of people carry us through inevitable rough patches when things do not go our way. Our disciplined commitment to our individual development influences the way we relate to our teachers, students, peers, and mentors. The high-quality work we put in shapes us to become leaders in our fields whether as performance, composition, music education, or musicology majors; whether at small conservatories, liberal arts colleges, or big state schools. We are given the opportunity to inspire those around us–doing our part to contribute to a rising tide that lifts all boats. 

Business Model: Because we have invested ourselves into this difficult field, we have to consider how to be the most efficient to service our growth in the best way, with our best quality. This means striving to live with a healthy, balanced perspective as we generate value for our development and our career-path. Nothing can replace savvy time management and a growth mindset, guts and sheer grit, hard-work and doggedness (check out the fascinating recent psychological research on these TED talks on success by Carol Dweck and Angela Lee Duckworth). It is a circus act figuring out how to structure daily schedules and obligations, practice time and mental practice, audition or recital preparation (see Professor Rodland’s post), potential injury-related sidelining and body awareness (see Angela’s post), or performance anxiety management (see Emily’s post), among other obstacles. 

I am more and more convinced that thoughtful, intelligent, and directed consistency is one of the most valuable character traits I could learn in music. Real commitment changes and informs every one of us to become stronger, more convincing musicians in all areas to set us apart. It gives us something authentic and real to offer our audiences and the world around us. 

Happy practicing (and burrito-eating) my friends!