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Christina Wilke

The journey from 'student' to 'professional'- not quite as cut and dry as I once thought.

September 6, 2011 at 3:51 PM

When does one stop being a “student” and become a “professional?”

I first became accustomed to walking amongst “professional” musicians in my first years in college.  I would stand at my locker and be passed by world-famous pedagogues and performers.  I was in awe of the confident way they would walk down the halls, talking with their fellow “professional” colleagues about upcoming collaborations and performances.  My friends Emily, Kristin, and Evan (three dear friends who cared as much about making it in the “professional” world of music as I did) and I would gather at the local coffee shop across the street or in our dormitory and talk about what it would be like when we were “professionals”.  We assumed that when school ended, the “professional” status would instantly be attached to us and we would think of ourselves as “equals”, maybe not with the likes of the famous teachers we saw but with the likes of most other professional musicians.

Well, six years later, I was thrown into the world with two degrees under my belt and a wealth of knowledge imparted on me by my teachers.  I was instantly thrown into full-time work, paying bills (oh, those pesky student loans!), taking care of an apartment, buying a car, dealing with health insurance…  I was now an adult!  And now I'll FEEL like a professional!!!

But that’s not how it worked out… in my mind, I still felt like a student.  Two years I spent teaching in the public schools where I met and taught hundreds of students.  Surely one would think that my mind would suddenly recognize myself as a “professional” and not as a “student”.  After all, I was now the teacher. But it didn’t work that way.  When my second year of teaching ended this past June, I simply felt like a student who hadn’t taken a lesson in two years.  I was stumped- where was that confidence that I saw the great professors exuding in college?  Was it that I didn’t have an orchestra job?  Did I need to teach at the college level?  Or did it have nothing at all to do with your job?

Confused, I thought that re-immersing myself in the practice room was the answer- maybe that would make me feel like a “professional musician”.  I opened my case and started practicing, in addition to a healthy dose of scales and Kreutzer, the exposition of Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto, the Barber Concerto, excerpts- things that would help me for orchestral auditions.  But it didn’t work- I quickly realized I still had the “student mentality”.  I was working towards getting an orchestra job- isn’t that rather “professional”.

As I was practicing one day, I decided to open up my old practice journal to see what I had practiced that final year of college, when I felt so excited and that my “professionalism” was just on the horizon…

1)       Exposition of Mozart 5
2)       Entirety of Barber Concerto
3)       Excerpts, excerpts, excerpts

Wait, I’m still practicing the same things?  Have I been stuck in a loop for two whole years?  It was such a reality check for me- the majority of what I had learned in my last years in school (granted, there were other piece for recitals but these were the three that had stayed with me) were the SAME pieces I had been practicing since?  Had I really not learned a single new piece since graduation?

Well, I had learned a few new works- chamber music.  I had learned a Corelli sonata and the Ravel Trio for chamber music performances during my first year out of school.  I remembered the exhilaration I felt at learning new pieces of music- without a teacher!  My chamber musicians and I rehearsed together, we made musical and technical decisions, and we didn’t have any teacher telling us how to play the piece.  I remembered how much artistic freedom I felt I now had- using the knowledge my teachers had given me, I could now learn a piece technically and understand the musicality and perform it as I wanted to.

So, I changed my approach… after all, if I could learn a new chamber work, why not a solo piece?  So my new practice regime now includes the Brahms Concerto and the first movement of the Beethoven Concerto.  I had been nervous to learn either of these pieces as I consider them not only technical works but pieces of extreme beauty that should only be played by a “refined” musician.  Amazingly, I have found that my technique has quickly improved by learning new pieces on my own.  It’s a lot of work learning a new piece and having to listen for every note and technical aspect- after all, there’s nobody to point out my errors from week-to-week.  It was a rigorous challenge, and suddenly I found myself thinking less of a student.  It turned out my fears of learning on my own had been holding me back from feeling like a “professional”.  Maybe that’s what I instinctively picked up on when watching professors and performers walk by- a feeling of confidence in their own abilities, the desire and freedom to continue learning and teaching themselves through practice, intuition, and collaboration.

So my advice to all those who are recently out of school or are looking to the future- take on a new project!  Maybe it doesn’t have to be a new concerto- maybe learning a short piece by Debussy or a Paganini Caprice is enough.  But learning a new piece on your own is a cathartic experience for a newly graduated student.  Repeating the pieces that were “taught” to us is extremely beneficial but shouldn’t restrict you from exploring the world of music on your own.

My day-to-day life hasn’t changed instantly by this realization- I still teach, I still have a dog, I still have those student loan payments… But it has allowed me to hold my head a little higher when in the presence of the professors that once inspired butterflies in my stomach (and still awe me to this day with the decades of experience and dedication to their art).  It wasn’t teaching others that made me feel like I had become a professional- it was learning to teach myself.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 6, 2011 at 11:47 PM


great blog. I suspect it`s quite a common phenomenon.  You know,  we have become a little bogged down at times with the idea of strating the day off with technique.  Part of this comes from what I found profesisonal teachers were very anxious to impart in music colleges: the fundamental need to run through all the basics everyday to keep in shape for the rigours of the profesison.  The trouble is we tend to spend forty minutes or an hour on this or whatever and end up not playing any music other than what is thrust in front of us.

Of course this is correct but I kind of like the older attitude of guys like Casals ,  Thibaud,  (Oistrakh,  not quite)  etc., of strating the day with unaccompanied Bach.   This would not only put you in a greatly enhanced spiritual state for the rest of the day (cf Starbucks) but also be a worthy goal of playing exploring all the Sonatas and partitas in one lifetime to the best of one`s ability.

As a corolllary to this the best advice I got from John Ludlow at RCM was simple.  He told every student `without fail have a piece of unaccompanied bach to play at the drop of a hat.`  The ability to do this will stand you in great stead in your professional life.   One shoudl also have a Mozart concerto in a similar state -always.=  This will work miracles on ones bowing as well.  

Also ,  as a pro you should be doing at least one recital a year.  Choosing the music and keeping that goal will keep you in shape all year round....



From marjory lange
Posted on September 7, 2011 at 12:14 AM

 You know, I've been a "professional" (different field, but absolutely the same feeling) for 25 years.   At the same time, I'm still proud to assert I'm ALSO always going to be a student.  Stop learning, and you can't offer much to anyone else because you can go stale inside.  When I start to create a new class, using new and unfamiliar texts, I feel as unsure as I did walking into a class on the first day, wondering what I'd find there.  My students see "the Professor," but I know I'm going to learn from them, maybe more than they will from me!

And, I also still feel that scary-excitement when I start to teach myself new pieces on my instruments. That edge is, I strongly believe, useful, if not necessary, for the kind of flexible growth that gives us 'fresh eyes,' and the joie de vivre to make it through all our days.

Good success to you on Brahms, Beethoven and all.


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