Ready for the World: Independence

This week, I talked (on the bus) with Ophelia Deng, a senior in both International Studies and Art & Design.We talked about the main skill Stamps teaches – whether it intends to or not – which is self-sufficiency.

As a Stamps student myself, it was nice to discuss career prep for aspiring artists with someone going through the same educational experience. It’s oddly comforting to hear that a talented graduating senior feels just as frustrated and unprepared as I do. It makes it seem okay that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Navigating Burnout

 Photo by Julia Rose Lawson. 

I started playing violin when I was eight years old, and the Suzuki method of teaching guided my studies for about four years until I started playing the viola. I never saw myself becoming a musician; I was more interested in becoming a famous actress or singer, and viola was just a hobby. But the more I practiced, the better playing viola felt. Eventually I went to a summer camp and experienced playing in an orchestra for the first time, and I realized what passion felt like. I became a music nerd by the time I was a sophomore in high school, but more specifically, a classical music nerd. Classical music felt so special to me. I started listening to it all the time and dedicated hours upon hours of my week to practicing and various musical commitments. It became everything to me. And my experience at a classical music camp gave me a glimpse of what my life could be like if I pursued music full time. I loved it: the feeling of success from becoming a better player, the adrenaline that flooded my limbs during performances, and the friends that I made who inspired me artistically and showed me what real love in a friendship felt like. When I left camp, I wanted to commit to being a classical musician because it showed me how perfect my life could be. For the next three years, I put everything I had into becoming a good enough viola player to get into my top choice college: the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. (Surprise, surprise, I got in… hence my writing a blog post for Arts at Michigan.)

I am a junior now, still pursuing viola performance. Sometimes, I feel so immersed in music, that it doesn’t feel like music to me anymore. It’s analyzed, fragmented, repetitive, robotic. It’s causing me anxiety when I work on anything else. I have spent almost eight years with this viola on my shoulder– my longest relationship. I love it because it has taken me everywhere that I have needed to go in my life. Without it I would not have met my closest friends and because of that, I would not be myself. I wouldn’t be here, in Michigan. And maybe it’s cheesy to say, but I feel connected to it. In my heart. How could I not? Eight years and thousands of hours. It is my part of my body and it is my voice. But I have done so much. It is so integral to my identity that I don’t know who I am without it, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Lately, practicing has become more mundane and I constantly question myself about what I really want.

I know classical music isn’t my path anymore. I have to stick with this degree because the training is good and I care about being a good violist, but I also have to start challenging myself again. It’s dangerous to pursue an art if you don’t love it. And I know that deep down I love it, but it’s been a really long time since I’ve felt genuinely passionate about something.

The truth is that my ideas about what music is are changing. Since I’ve gotten to college, I have been more exposed to jazz, world music, roots music, and improvisation. Musical improvisation has been this big concept looming over my head as I question what it really means to be a musician. Improvisation requires you to make music in the moment, like a real-time composer. To be a good improviser is to have a musical mind, but what if I can’t improvise? If I can only play what’s printed on a piece of sheet music, do I have a musical mind? No, but I know I want to. Every musician wants to know music like that. If you know music like that, and you have the technical abilities to play whatever you want, your creative expression will be endless. And that’s what I really want: to be able to fully, freely, creatively express myself in a musical way.