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Wellness

Welcome

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

Back to School

At the beginning of a new school year, we are presented with a most tantalizing buffet of delectable musical possibilities. We are so enthralled by the menu laid before us that we want to indulge immediately and fully in everything that is available to us. We are passionate about our art and hungry to learn and grow as violists. Why shouldn’t we avail ourselves of all of these delicious treats offered by our wonderful institutions?! We want to maintain the excitement we feel at the beginning of the semester throughout the entire course of study. In order to do so with success, joy, and good health, it is important that we pace ourselves sensibly at the buffet!

Depending on your age and your year in school, your violistic dietary needs will vary significantly. It is important to discuss with your major teacher what he or she thinks your priorities should be in terms of the balance between solo work and ensemble playing. If you are a freshman, for example, much as you would like to dive into everything you see, it might be important that you retool some aspects of your technique. In this case, playing in a lot of ensembles could be detrimental to the ultimate outcome you are seeking in terms of making technical changes; the majority of your time spent with the viola needs to be “you” time, as you focus on developing a healthier and more efficient technique. If you are an upper classman or graduate student and everything is functioning smoothly on the technical front, you could benefit greatly by exploring large bodies of repertoire and networking with your colleagues on a large scale. What better way than delving into an abundance of meaningful and challenging ensemble work? In other words, is this a semester best spent as an introvert, working at your own pace and responding to your own inner cues, or as an extrovert, collaborating and gathering intellectual and musical information?

Once that important strategy has been established, it is very important to commit to some serious time-management consideration, so that you are certain to achieve the goals you have set for yourself in terms of your development as a violist. As your calendar quickly becomes jam-packed with lessons, rehearsals, and classes, if you are not careful, the day is over before you know it and you have not fulfilled your obligations to yourself in terms of individual practice and self-care. It is not uncommon for freshmen to arrive at college never having been responsible for planning their own schedules. If you are new to being your own self-manager, planning your entire week out ahead of time can be very beneficial. Look at your class and rehearsal schedule for each day of the week and decide when and where you will practice and for how long. Add this to your written schedule so that you are just as responsible for showing up for yourself in the practice room as you are for showing up for class or a rehearsal. Actually planning which part of your lesson assignment you are going to practice during which practice segment is also very helpful. Of course, you must be flexible here, as once you delve into the work, you might find that something is taking more time to learn well, and something is taking less time to learn well. Be both vigilant and flexible in your practice. When doing a technical overhaul, it is very helpful to work on the new skill you are trying to implement often throughout the day, but for short periods of time. You will learn it more completely if your mind and muscles are fresh each time you approach it.

Included in your schedule should be some time for self-care. Playing the viola is also an “athletic” endeavor! If you want to do it to the best of your ability, you must commit to taking good care of yourself both physically and psychologically. (Of course, this is a good strategy for a happy and healthy life anyway!) Having a regular warm-up/ cool-down routine of stretches, breathing exercises, and flowing movements before and after practicing is essential for good health and stamina, as is a regular exercise program away from the viola, which includes some combination of both cardiovascular and strength training and stretching. I find core strengthening work especially helpful for violists. Well-taught Pilates or Yoga classes and lessons can be both fun and beneficial.

Committing to some form of mind-body work such as The Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, Tai Chi, Chi Gong, or the aforementioned Pilates or Yoga, is also extremely beneficial for your playing and for your general well-being. The better we know ourselves from the inside-out, the more communicative, healthy, and joyful we can be as performers. All of these modalities can help us to deepen our awareness of how we move and why and how we do what we do. In addition to physical exercise and the development of mind-body awareness, I also encourage students to find a meditation practice that works for them in order to strengthen their ability to concentrate and focus.

And then back to the diet! You need to eat well if you want your mind and body to function at their viola-playing best. You also need to get enough sleep and to be mindful of your caffeine intake, as relying on caffeine rather than sleep can result in a shaky bow or excessively tight muscles. And finally, cultivate your joy in your work process. Attend as many concerts as you can. Avail yourselves of that rich resource that is your school library. Pick your professors’ brains and brainstorm with your classmates. In other words, do “pig-out” at the buffet, but do it mindfully and in a way that is healthy and beneficial for you!

Wishing you all a healthy and happy new school year!

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.

A Violist on Her Head

Asymmetrical Reflections from a Scoliotic Life

Gravity and I have a complicated relationship. My right shoulder is higher than my left, my legs are different lengths, my ribcage is rotated, and my waist is uneven. Gravity is unkind to these asymmetries.

As an eight year old, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a fairly common condition where the spinal column curves and rotates laterally. Even after four years of wearing a back brace, my curves continued to worsen. By the time I was 15, my spine had progressed to a severe right thoracic-left lumbar scoliotic curve, also known as an “S” curve, typified by a major curve in the thoracic spine with an equal counter curve in the left lower lumbar region. My spine eventually stabilized after I finished growing, and although my doctor recommended surgical intervention to alleviate symptoms of chronic pain, I was not convinced such an invasive procedure was my only option. It was time to come to terms with gravity. Upside down. Head over heels. On a yoga mat.

During my sophomore year of college, I began studying Iyengar yoga with an incredibly knowledgeable teacher. At my first class, Iwas initially shocked that flexibility was not even on the agenda. Rather, I learned that finding stability and balance in asymmetrical positions was my priority. What good is flexibility if there is no stability? Uniting these two concepts that I once believed to be mutually exclusive was liberating. I had found my answer: uniting balance and asymmetry was the key to withstanding the force of gravity, both as a violist and a scoliosis patient. I can still hear my teacher: Angela, your collar bones do not have scoliosis! Make them even. She taught me that it was possible to retrain my muscles that are distorted—overstretched or understretched—by my curvature. Even though I am intrinsically asymmetrical, I can use my discomfort as a guide, mapping a path to balance.
This guiding principle from the yoga mat is also applicable in the practice room. You may not have to deal with structural imbalances resulting from scoliosis, but playing viola certainly presents a number of functional imbalances that can be problematic. As you work toward a healthy physical relationship with your viola, here is some advice I have learned from living life a little crooked:
1. Challenge Imbalances. Every time you pick up your instrument, you have a choice. You can either let gravity happen to you or you can resist its downward pull. Since our bodies are best equipped to deal with gravity when they are properly aligned, finding balance begins with posture. In rehearsals, I usually notice an alarming number of violinists and violists who are letting gravity win, a defeat evidenced by sunken left shoulders and raised right shoulders. It is important to remember that gravity is an attraction between two objects, not just a downward force. Consequently, instead of caving under the weight of the instrument, meet your viola with a shoulder energized and supported by the entire back, countering the weight of gravity.
2. Dynamic Extension. Whether you are playing viola, doing yoga, or sitting in a music theory class, always strive to extend from your core. As Iyengar suggested, “Extension and expansion always stay firmly rooted in one’s center…When most people stretch, they simply stretch to the point that they are trying to reach, but they forget to extend and expand from where they are.” Essentially, dynamic extension is when your body stretches in multiple directions, expanding from the core. For instance, in a forward bend, as you reach toward the floor, it is of equal importance that you also stretch the opposite direction with your hips. This provides traction and allows the spine to fully lengthen. In viola playing, this translates into grounding through the floor while energizing and lengthening the spine upward. Dynamic extension is another effective strategy for resisting gravity.
3. Relaxation is not always passive. We all know that tension is harmful. The alternative? Just relax! But it is important to point out that too much of a good thing, even relaxation, is detrimental. Your skeletal system needs support! If you melt into a pool of pudding, how do you expect to move? Even savasana (corpse pose), arguably the most relaxed yoga posture, is still a highly informed pose. I encourage you all to cultivate active relaxation, a state of being where your muscles are engaged without excess effort and every motion is intentionally executed. I leave you with this thought: “Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action” (Light on Yoga 48).

Embrace gravity. Act well.

Performance Anxiety

Performers tend to be private about their own performance anxiety. Although its effects are often apparent to the listener, it’s difficult to admit there were blips at all, and even more difficult to dig into the biological and psychological reasons why. Sometimes we avoid discussing the problem; in my experience a big gaffe in a recital is much more likely to elicit compliments about what did go well rather than result in a conversation about why the mistakes happened. This is a totally appropriate audience response, because we support the performer – but eventually, there needs to be some post-performance evaluation that includes an inquiry into the topic of nerves. And, of course, taking auditions is a different kind of performance with its own list of stressors, unique from a recital or chamber music performance, and that might require its own separate investigation.

There are myriad resources available to help a performer address both biological and psychological responses to stress, from books to blogs to yoga. I’d like to share some things I’ve gathered directly from other performers or from reflections on my own performances (both those I’m satisfied with, and those in which I wished for a different outcome). Of course, since our stresses are individual and our musical and performance experiences personal, these probably won’t resonate with everyone – but I do think everyone can benefit from finding their own list of helpful self-hints to think about before performance.

  • Bring your own audience – I don’t mean this in a marketing sense; I mean this to be a visualization exercise, and it does take practice. Think back on successful performance and audition experiences you have had over the past several years, and think of the people who surrounded you in the preparation and execution of those experiences. For me, this became key when I was taking grad school auditions. I couldn’t get through my repertoire from memory in studio class the week before my first audition, and in a moment of panic I emailed a professor I’d studied chamber music with. She agreed to meet with me and spent a lot of time and energy helping me find my confidence again. She’s in my “own audience,” as are all the teachers I’ve had and other significant mentors – musical and otherwise – along the way. Friends and family don’t really count – this audience should be comprised of people who have helped you struggle through something and have bolstered your progress.
  • Diversify your interests and activities – I think it’s important that every student at a conservatory have a non-musical hobby, and, if possible, for all students to take intellectually challenging courses outside of the musical curriculum. There are several reasons for this, perhaps the most often cited being that you can’t create meaningful musical experiences in a vacuum – you must have other human experiences to draw upon. Personally, I believe that aside from having an obligation to yourself as a human to experience the world as richly as you can, you must also find something to commit time and energy to that you are not competitive about. This can be something that is intellectually stimulating or personally enriching like learning a language and immersing yourself in another culture, but it can also be as simple as committing to training for and running a race, or volunteering with a non-musical non-profit. This should be an activity that adds meaning to your life, gives you the opportunity to become a part of the non-musical community in your hometown, and challenges you without stressing you out. This year, I began to volunteer as a coach of a local Girls on the Run group. It has been wonderful to be a positive influence on the lives of others without once bringing my viola, and without undue emphasis on my line of work or place in life. To the girls on my team, I was “Coach Emily” – not “Emily the violist,” and although it’s difficult to describe, this is very important to me. Perhaps the best way to attempt an explanation is that it gives perspective to my musical pursuits; if it’s only a part of who I am and what I do, I can be a more whole person and give more of my whole self when I am playing.
  • Trust your fellow performers – This has been a big one for me. I’m more likely to be nervous for a chamber music concert than for a solo recital. I tend to get sympathetically nervous for the other performers on stage and to completely lose track of where I am in my own part, which of course leads to silly mistakes. I’ve been trying to learn to trust my fellows, which is a hard thing to practice without performing often. So there you have it – to trust your colleagues, perform with them as often as you are able in as many different settings as are available to you, from coffee shops to house concerts to sight-reading gigs. When the whole group is actively trusting one another, each individual plays better.
  • Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend – This is something I think we all could do more of all the time, not just in a musical setting. When a friend asks you to listen to repertoire for an upcoming performance, or when a colleague plays in studio class, we look for ways to give both constructive criticism and praise; neither of these modes of feedback is helpful without the other. The same is true when we are giving ourselves feedback while we practice, and even on our feet while we perform. In the practice room, it’s easy to get caught up in what isn’t going well, and we often forget to recognize and acknowledge the progress we are making. In performance, one mistake often leads to more mistakes because we immediately start in with negative self-talk. Instead – and again, this takes practice – in performance we should learn to recognize the good and mark the areas that need attention for later practice, and for the moment to let them go. In practice, work on giving yourself a comment in the same vein that you would give to a friend. Notice first what you are doing well, and then notice what you need to work on; give yourself concrete instructions about how to effect change, and act.
  • Breathe – You are no one’s surgeon. Your performance is probably going to make someone’s life better for at least a little while, but you most certainly won’t make it worse. Be grateful for what you are given the opportunity to do, breathe in, breathe out, and share your music.

 

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

chipotle-secret-menuAnyone 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. The writer, Annie Dillard said it best: “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

 

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 in the 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, directed, and intelligent consistency is one of the most valuable character traits I could learn in music. To borrow the words from the graphic designer, Debbie Millman, “expect anything worthwhile to take time.” 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: a taste of a musician with integrity.

 

“The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.” (Mary Oliver)

 

Happy practicing (and burrito-eating) my friends!Chipotle