Fighting the Pain

My junior recital is coming up in about a month.

In this recital I am going to play three solo works for unaccompanied viola and a string quartet with my current chamber group. That’s about an hour and ten minutes of playing in total which is what I can easily do in an orchestra concert, but solo playing is much different than ensemble playing. It takes way more focus because the music is more challenging. It’s a lot more physically challenging because you don’t get any chances to rest. Endurance, physical and mental, is one of the most important parts of being a musician, just like it’s important for an athlete. Both require practice in preparation for a performance. You can’t expect to do your best in the performance if you didn’t prepare yourself well enough. And since adrenaline is only present during a performance and not practice, it takes even more energy to keep the mind’s attention and the body in peak performing condition.

At this point, I definitely don’t have the endurance to play an hour and ten minutes of solo music. I am slowly trying to up my practice time every day, but my body is fighting back. I have dealt with overuse injuries since before my senior year of high school and I know that I am prone to getting injured. Every time I finish a run-through of a piece I have an aching feeling in my right wrist that doesn’t go away, and I can feel that my body is too exhausted to continue.

What am I supposed to do in this situation?

Because of my past experience with instrument-related pain, I know the basics of self-care when it comes to practicing. Warming up the body before playing, icing the muscles after, and doing arm and wrist strengthening exercises should be a part of one’s daily routine. Trips to the physical therapist include KT tape, finger splints, and ultrasounds to break up muscle tension. I know the drill, but after awhile when I start to feel better, I stop doing the exercises because I don’t see them as necessary anymore. I basically just get lazy.

Fresh from a trip to the physical therapist today, I am determined to get through the next month of recital preparation with a clean bill of health. I am going to incorporate exercise into my everyday life as well as practice finger strengthening exercises. I am going to work up my practice time until I am able to do 2 full run-throughs of my recital program in 1 practice session. I am going to ice my arms after I practice and wear KT tape every day. I am going to remind myself that I am an athlete and need to take care of my body as such. 

Reading Party

How do you incorporate creativity into your social life?

Tonight, I’m heading to a friend’s house for a “Reading Party.”

Beverages and snacks are included of course.

For the first 30-40 minutes we are to engage in silent reading with a book of our choice, then move on to an open mic session where people are invited to play instruments, read something, sing, act, etc.. In a way it’s kind of like the anti-house-party. It’s still a social gathering, but it gives people to focus on themselves and engage in sharing art.

It’s still a “party” though, so it’s necessary to end the night with some karaoke.

A few blocks away, my girlfriend’s co-op is hosting a “progressive” party, meaning that the house collectively agrees to a party theme and each person decorates their room to fit their own interpretation of the theme. Everyone in the house starts in the same room and progresses to the next room at the same time. Tonight the progressive theme is “Powerpoint Presentations.” The prompt exists on its own with no rules or limitations, so everyone in the house is able to get creative with their decorations and in-room activities.

I think the key to a really great party is a solid theme. I would argue that dedication to a theme allows both the party planners and guests to express themselves in creative ways that they would not otherwise have. My roommate turned 21 this week, so tomorrow we’re hosting a disco party for her in our basement. As hosts we have the responsibility of turning our dingy basement into a boogie haven, and guests will only be allowed to enter if they are dressed for the disco.

In this current pre-Spring Break slump, it’s important that students find ways to relax on the weekends. Even though many of us are still busy, we have a little bit more time in the day to practice self-care. I think socializing is a really important aspect of self-care, and attending/hosting parties/hangs with friends is an easy way to accomplish that. Adding a creative twist or theme can make the whole experience all the more memorable.

There are also plenty of ways to practice creativity that have nothing to do with socializing or partying. What are you doing this weekend?

Free Improvisation

The concept of free improvisation has been on my mind a lot this year.

Free improvisation is basically music without rules. No rhythmic rules, no tonal rules. It can be anything you want, freely composed in the moment. Hence the “improvisation.”

The University of Michigan has an ensemble dedicated to this musical practice called the Creative Arts Orchestra. There are no restrictions on instrument type or degree level– the only requirement is a willingness to open your mind to a new way of creating music.

This semester we have a mix of all instrument families: strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. 21 people in total come together to create an improvisational ensemble to express creative ideas until the music naturally comes to an end. Every improvisation yields special moments of both togetherness and separateness. Because we are responding to eachother, everyone has the space to take a solo or simply accompany. We learn how to use our instruments to express our emotions. We learn to compose in the moment. We learn how to listen. We learn how not to play.


Free improvisation has greatly improved my skills as a musician. It’s given me more confidence in my abilities. Getting the chance to play with people I don’t often play with is a reminder that my world doesn’t have to be so small. I’ve started beginning my practice sessions with short improvisations so I can warm up my fingers, find the core of my sound, and wake my viola up a little bit before I start looking at repertoire. Sometimes I’ll pick different keys to challenge my brain and change up finger patterns. I’ll make up my own fiddle tune. I think there is so much value in being able to make music away from looking at a piece of paper. Improvising allows me to use my creative and artistic side, when so often in classical music I feel like I’m a robot reading notes off of a page. If you play an instrument, see what happens if you try to make up a song in the moment. Once you start doing it enough you’ll find yourself in a sort of meditative state, and if you feel ready to start playing with others, come join us in CAO.

I’ll just send in an application…

I know I’m not the only University of Michigan student stressing out about their summer plans right now.

The summer is an important time for a musician because it provides free hours in the day for one thing: PRACTICING– well, for some people. I do my best to try to avoid practicing for long periods of time. That’s a story for another day. I’m looking at a few different options for my summer but I keep going back and forth on one idea, so I thought I would write about it this week.

I have never been a camp counselor. I understand it’s like some sort of rite-of-passage thing for college students but I feel late to the game. I’m going to be starting my senior year in the fall. I feel like by now, being a camp counselor should be a “been there, done that” situation for me. The truth is that college has actually gone by very quickly and I didn’t fully realize how much I was supposed to accomplish by now… again, a story for another day.

When I was in high school, I went to lots of different string camps and orchestra festivals during the summer. All of these summer camps had such rigorous schedules of rehearsals and supervised practice time that progress was inevitable, and succeeding with my instrument provided more motivation for me to work harder. In true summer camp form, there were also cabins, counselors, and camp traditions. I wore a uniform of navy pants and a light blue polos when I went to Interlochen for two years. On Sundays I had to wear white polos or a counselor would send me back to my cabin to change. We all had a love/hate relationship with the counselors. Most of them were college girls and their personalities ranged from cool to power hungry. I felt like too many took pride over being able to control us, but I had one or two that were kind of like second mothers to me and my cabin mates during our six week stay away from home.

Maybe I would be a good counselor. I feel like I do well with high schoolers and kids. Since I went to the camp myself, I would be able to help them enjoy camp in all the ways that I did, as well as encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities I didn’t pay attention to. I would be able to revisit a place that changed my life: where I discovered that I loved music and wanted to pursue it for a career.

But maybe going back to Interlochen to be a counselor would ruin the magic for me. The nostalgia might be too painful being in a place I loved without my friends. Maybe I would be jealous watching the campers go to orchestra rehearsal. It could replace my old memories of a place where I thought I was the best version of myself. But also, I need money, and it wouldn’t hurt to have the experience. I’ll send in an application and think about the hard stuff later.

Dark Days in the Music School

*Content Warning: Sexual assault, abuse by an authority figure*

On December 10th, 2018, the Michigan Daily published an article about a violin professor at U-M who had been accused of sexual abuse and misconduct by many of his former violin students. Stephen Shipps had been employed by the University of Michigan since 1989, served as the dean for academic affairs from 2002-2007, and was the chair of the string department at until December 7th, 2018. I won’t go into the details of the abuse allegations– you can read everything in the Daily article here. What I want to talk about today is the effect of this situation on current students at SMTD, as well as the state of sexual abuse in the world of classical music.

As soon as I woke up on that Monday morning, I opened my phone up to Facebook and the first thing on my newsfeed was the article titled “Former students bring 40 years of misconduct allegations by SMTD professor.” I opened the article immediately, unsure of what to expect. As far as I knew, there were no rumors going around school about Shipps. I had no personal contact with him because I am a viola student, and he was a private violin teacher. I went to a summer camp two years ago and he was teaching there, so occasionally I would see him teach a master class or a quartet coaching, but we never spoke to eachother. After reading the article, I shared it on my own Facebook, and more people shared it from my post. Soon, it was all over my newsfeed, along with words of anger, sadness, and confusion from my fellow classmates at SMTD.

All day, thoughts of helplessness and anger swirled around in my head. In the past year, many famous male musicians have been fired from their jobs over sexual abuse allegations. If a person is talented, while their artistic achievements are celebrated, their personal actions are swept under the rug. There’s this idea that what they do in their personal life does not matter because what actually matters to the institutions which employ them is their musical ability. It’s their own artistic talent that allows abusers to disguise their actions with some higher artistic purpose. To some young music students or professionals, the extra “attention” they might be receiving from their private teacher makes them feel special or chosen. They might believe that by doing something inappropriate for their teacher, they could get ahead in the industry. Succeeding in music is devastatingly challenging. As a young person, you look to your private teacher for guidance on everything, from how to play the instrument to where to pursue a job. At the very least, you spend an hour alone with them once a week in a private lesson. It’s a vulnerable space where students must feel the freedom to both fail and succeed. For abusers, it is an ideal situation: alone time with an impressionable person behind a closed door.

The night after the article was published, I walked into my orchestra rehearsal and saw one of Shipps’ students sobbing into my conductor’s arms. I don’t know her story, but immediately I started to think about all of his students, my colleagues, seeing that article about their teacher on their Facebook feeds. This week at school, they will be walking into a new studio with a new violin teacher. I can’t even begin to understand the complexity of the situation for them. In the past year I have seen so many #MeToo stories online, as we all have, and my first instinct is always to support the survivor and condemn the abuser. It is still my first instinct. But when this happened in my own community, I could also see all the complicated dimensions to the story. While he deserves to be punished for his crimes, the public nature of the article and widespread sharing on social media hurts the people who cared for him. It hurts his students, my colleagues. But on the other hand, publicizing these tragic stories is necessary if we want to create a real change in the music industry. It doesn’t matter how talented someone is if they’re a creep. Abuse should not be tolerated under any circumstances. It seems that the only way to bust these men who benefit from the patriarchal, oppressive chaos of classical music is through good journalism and social media. Thank you, Michigan Daily, for telling us the truth. 

Click here if you want to read more about the #MeToo movement in classical music. 

The View from the Pit

Last week, I played in the orchestra pit of the University of Michigan’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s (UMGASS) production of The Grand Duke. W.S. Gilbert was a writer and Arthur Sullivan was a composer, and together they were a famous musical-writing duo during the Victorian era. UMGASS is a university-affiliated program that has put on Gilbert & Sullivan musicals every fall and winter semester since 1947. The Grand Duke is my second production with UMGASS, following Iolanthe last spring.

You sit in front of the stage, facing the audience and the conductor. There are special lights on the music stands that you switch on to see your music when the house goes dark. You never play anything the same way twice. Some singers speed up the tempo, some of them slow it down, but you always have to follow what they’re doing. If someone forgets a line or misses an entrance, you do your best to improvise and find your way back to the rest of the orchestra. In the Mendelssohn Theater you can’t hear anything but the person onstage and the person you’re sitting next to, so you just use your best judgment and hope for the best.

Gilbert & Sullivan musicals run for a solid two hours and forty-five minutes including intermission, and the pit musicians are playing for a majority of that time. Between Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, we played five shows. I once acted onstage in a musical that ran multiple times a week for several weeks, and that experience was not nearly as challenging as playing viola for just five performances and two dress rehearsals in one week.  

As a musician, I often think of playing my instrument as an entirely mental process. I depend on my brain to make sure the right fingers are going down at the right time, and I never realize that it’s actually my body that is doing all the work of actually producing the music. Even now I’m feeling a little stunned thinking about how when I was playing in the “Finale” of the first act in the musical, my arms were continuously moving for twenty minutes straight. It has been 48 hours since our final performance, and my muscles are still sore. The experience has made me think a little more critically about my future plans to be a freelance musician. I would need to practice a couple of hours a day and go to the gym every day to maintain my endurance for daily performances. I feel a bit silly saying this, but I really think music is a sport!

I am grateful for the experience and I had fun! But now I’m nursing my arms back to health while simultaneously preparing for my performance jury next week and my orchestra concert tonight. This is the life of a musician. I should really hit the gym.