Being in college as an undergraduate or a graduate student is a lot more difficult than people like to think it is. Especially in the school of music, where what we do as musicians isn’t necessarily always physically taxing. But, music takes a lot of skill, effort, time, and mental focus to do well, and that can take a toll on your mental health.
If you peek at your class syllabi, you might find a sentence or two on excused absences. This is something that can be easily overlooked, but is so important to see what your specific professor’s policies are. Sometimes professors allot a couple days for unexcused absences, while others expect an email beforehand if you know you’ll miss class. Whatever the case may be, use these to your advantage! You won’t be able to be fully present in your classes if you need to rest, whether that be physically or mentally.
Again, college is hard! It can be stressful, especially when you factor in your personal life, your social life, romantic relationships, etc. If you feel that you need time to rest, take the time to rest. Something my violin professor Dr. Koo said in a studio class recently is this; “resting is more important than practicing”, and that is so true! How many times have you gotten into the practice room, opened your instrument case, and realized you are having a hard time focusing because you are exhausted? I’ve had my fair share of those days, and it really does make a difference to rest instead of forcing yourself to practice in those instances. I am a huge proponent of napping (much to my parent’s chagrin), but also rest is super important because during the school year you are playing your instrument a lot. Various ensembles, your lesson materials, auditions, among many other obligations take up a lot of your time and can take a toll on your body if you are not careful. I’ve seen violin performance majors have to switch their major by the end of their degree program because they sustained an injury from playing too much, or pushing through pain. Especially if you feel any pain while playing, stop and make sure to discuss it in your next lesson!
Rest is productive, and it is necessary as musicians to make sure we are being kind to our minds and our bodies. Bottom line; if you need to rest, rest!
Before coming to UIUC, I had no idea about the electric strings program here (which is funny now, considering my best friend is an electric violin student here). I only knew about electric violin beforehand when Mark Wood performed in my school district when I was 12. We were in a rehearsal once and he asked me to play with him on stage because I had a great bow arm… it was the coolest experience ever and I had him sign my ½ size violin.
But I forgot about that until recently. I’ve been to a couple electric strings performances and masterclasses this semester and it has been a huge source of inspiration for me. It’s been so inspiring that I plan on getting myself an electric violin and taking lessons next semester!
I really love what Dr. Haken is doing with his students. There seems to be a focus on rock music (which I absolutely love), but also works specifically for electric violin. I currently take a class with Dr. Haken and I’ve learned that he is really open to whatever his students want to do. One person at the electric strings studio recital played a piece from a video game which was amazing!
I recently got back into songwriting after a long break and showed him a tune I’d want to perform on electric violin. I was nervous he might not think it was a worthwhile endeavor but he seems very excited about my ideas. I even want to show him more of the songs I’ve written next semester. A lot of these songs are many years old, and I think now is finally the time I can present them well. Keep an eye out because you just might see me performing my own compositions in a concert very soon!
During my undergraduate years, I was often too stressed or dealing with mental health issues to take full advantage of the events going on around me. I tried joining clubs, but they weren’t that welcoming. I always felt like an outsider. It wasn’t until my senior year that I started going to concerts that I wanted to go to. I went to faculty recitals, I saw Gil Shaham perform the works of Bach, and I got to hear Kelly Hall-Tompkins perform Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto which was really special for me. I even saw some of my peers' recitals and that was really fun, too.
This semester, it’s almost difficult to pick and choose what to attend because there’s so much going on every week! I really appreciate the weekly music events email that goes out because I am quite forgetful. So far I’ve gone to the David Rosenboom Residency concert in October, an electric strings DMA recital, one Illini Strings concert, two electric strings masterclasses, the electric strings studio recital and an artist diploma student recital. I also got to see the Chicago Symphony perform in Krannert Center for Performing Arts which was incredible!
I’m constantly amazed at how many opportunities there are not only to see others perform but to participate in things as a musician. For example, I’m currently in Dr. Koo’s studio and I’m working on a composer collaboration where we get to learn a piece written by a composer and record it. This is just a great learning experience because I’ve never done anything like this before. I wish my previous school had stuff like this to do with their students!
And, in February, I’m performing in a faculty-student side by side performance of ALL of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. That is literally a dream of mine to play the Brandenburg Concertos at such a high level! All in all, I’m learning so much from attending these performances, seeing performers of all levels play vastly different kinds of music. It’s so inspiring for me and I can’t wait to see what next semester has to offer!
It’s the day of your lesson. You get into your professor’s room, you start to play through your difficult repertoire, and it all goes out the window. For some reason, even though you practiced all week, it’s not showing in your lesson.
I know how soul-crushing this can be. As a graduate student, I’ve had my fair share of “bad” lessons in the 14 years I’ve been playing violin. Here is my advice to anyone going through something like this:
First, let yourself feel whatever you feel. If you need to cry it out, then do it! If you need a break from the practice rooms, take the break. Try not to beat yourself up. As musicians, I think we forget that music and performing is hard. It’s a lot of intellectual work; figuring out minute changes in our posture to improve our performance, trying to deduce what fingering or bowing works where and why, and listening to recordings of yourself playing to analyze what worked and what didn’t... It takes a lot of time, effort and energy to be a musician.
Second, decide whether you want to involve your professor or not. It is totally up to you whether you want to talk about this with your professor, but I always recommend being open about things like this because at the end of the day, your professor is there to help you out. We are musicians, but we are also human; we can’t be motivated 24/7 to practice and get everything done.
Third, make a plan for the next lesson. What made it a ‘bad’ lesson? Did you not feel prepared for it? Is the music you are learning overwhelming you? Are you sick and not feeling well? Once you can pinpoint exactly what went wrong, you can make sure the next lesson goes well.
I spent way too much of my undergraduate years being afraid of my violin professor and my lessons. It took me two years into my undergraduate studies to realize that my professors are there to help me improve my technique, and not to make me feel bad if I make a mistake in the lesson. And once I realized this, I improved much faster because I was no longer stressed at every lesson.
This semester, I’ve been trying to streamline my practice time, especially when it comes to orchestra music. Being in an ensemble is required for most music majors, and it can really take up a lot of your time, even outside of rehearsals.
Before I entered my undergraduate studies, I wasn’t the most active person out there. Gym class was my least favorite class I had to take growing up. Something about the competitiveness of sports was always unappealing to me (truthfully, it still deters me from playing sports today). When I began my undergraduate studies at UW-Madison, I started to take advantage of the gyms on campus, but I wasn’t consistent with it. This semester, however, I really wanted to take charge of my health, so with the help of a great friend I’ve been consistently going to the gym for over a month now.
I am very happy to start my master’s degree at the University of Illinois as an international student. This is my first time studying abroad. Coming to the US for the first time on my own, everything is such a great challenge for me. Booking plane tickets, commuting from Chicago to the Urbana-Champaign area, settling down, buying necessities, or even cooking, are all thrilling adventures. I am thankful so far that this process went smoothly, especially during the pandemic. I also met many friends from different regions, and we all support each other in a new environment. I even started a new hobby of vlogging to treasure all these memorable times
Student teaching as a young music education major can be rewarding, but it comes with many challenges. The picture accompanying this post is from my semester of student teaching grades 6-8. It was not the fairy tale adventure that I thought it would be, but it was a great learning experience.
The first few days to weeks of graduate studies are already stressful enough. So, why then would we want to worry about the level of our playing in addition to everything else? We don’t want to be worried about the consistency of performance on our instruments when we are trying to do things like adapt to a new environment, fit in with our new community members, start new courses, and perform ensemble auditions. There may seem to be lots of solutions to this wealth of stressors, but I am going to focus on just one preventative action step that you can do this summer to increase your consistency in performance, reduce your stress, and come into grad school feeling confident in your playing. It’s really a simple solution. Take the time now to develop an effective warmup routine and get your fundamentals locked down!
You did it! You’re done! You’ve made it through the college visits, prospective lessons, pre-screening tapes, and auditions! Now, before you go and do anything else, congratulate yourself and take some time to relax. You have made it through the most difficult part of the music school admissions process and you deserve a break.
Then, before you know it, the acceptance letters start coming in and you are forced to start deciding where your home will be for the next two to four years. Although this may seem like a daunting decision, it can actually become quite easy if you consider three important factors when weighing offer letters and schools against one another. In my experience, the three most important things to consider are location & community, your primary teacher, and the cost.
Walking into graduate school on day one can seem freeing, and in other ways overwhelming. Finally, you have the practice time you have long desired. Finally, there are no advisors and professors telling you exactly what you should be doing all of the time. Finally, you are given most of the deciding power in what kind of music you want to play, and what you want to say through your music. However, with this newfound sense of freedom, most new graduate students can feel lost, confused, overwhelmed, or unmotivated once they are left to do things on their own. Believe me, I have been there, and I still struggle with these same feelings. It is my hope that some of my successes and failures can come to guide new graduate students in “choosing their own adventure” that will set them up for a sustainable and enjoyable career in the arts. Here are some things to think about that may help to enlighten your path as a new graduate student:
I really should be working on being able to explain and explore chapter one of my dissertation, but it seems that writing a blog took priority over that today. (This is what Dr. Barrett calls, “dissertation avoidance behavior” and I am AWESOME at it!)
Most weekends I have a LOT of work to do and it is almost impossible to do anything at home. My kid is there, my wife is there, the couch and the television are there...need I say more?
When this pandemic began to shut everything down back in March of 2020, schools of music were no exception. Live music stopped, music school students returned home, and we were left to figure out how to create music virtually; at a time when music was needed the most. Now, on the dawn of a vaccine horizon, we are again trying to figure out our next steps. Although I am not able to offer answers to the scientific questions surrounding musicians and the pandemic, I am able to offer my own experiences with performing chamber music during the pandemic, in the hope that some of my success and failures can help current and future Illinois music students navigate these crazy times and bring music back to our community… safely!