Interview with Leslie DeShazor

April 5, 2023, 5:53 PM · The following is excerpted from the transcript of my interview with Leslie DeShazor, who is an inspiring multi-style violinist and violist and educator based in Detroit. The complete interview is linked here in podcast and video format, along with the complete transcript:

Leah Roseman:
So, when you went to Interlochen, and also with the Detroit Civic Orchestra, there's this, what I find, kind of weird tradition where you compete for your chair, like it fosters this competitive atmosphere. As a teacher now, and as a parent, how do you think about that, looking back?
Leslie DeShazor:
That's a tough one. I still grapple with competition, because as a parent, I've seen my children excel. I've seen my children be very disappointed by competition. When I was younger, I think the competition can fuel you, but can also tear you down. When we look at the concept of a meritocracy, it really is inherently extremely flawed. You can't really make it fair in the meritocracy because there are too many variables that would affect whether or not a student is able to compete on the level.
I think competitions are good for kids who are competitive, in ways, but I don't think overall competition is good for young players especially. I think it kind of clouds the reason, like the why you do it, and makes it just like everything else that we do. I think for some people the pressure is really intense and they don't want to play anymore. They don't want to perform anymore, because we've made it something that's like work and something that sort of strips you of your identity, like one more thing.
So I think I feel very torn, because my background and the way I've been raised and the way we've all been raised, we have this competitive side. We have this side of us that wants to be on the level, and the only way to do that, sometimes, in our minds, is to compare ourselves to what the level is and then reach it or go greater, and that level is usually set by someone else. I really want to see students get a lot more chance to be themselves and develop their own voice, and that to me, I think, is the danger of competition and making people compete for chairs and things, because it takes the emphasis away from the students' development and puts the emphasis on creating an entity that's the best.
And you fit in how you fit in, no matter who you are, your personality, your background. I think now that I've gotten to this age and I've had my own children and I've watched what competitions do to kids and adults, too, but more so kids, I don't know that I think it's generally healthy. And I might change my mind in five or 10 years, I don't know, but right now, I think the pressure that we put on students right now is insane.
It's a little heartbreaking, honestly, because a lot of them are working so hard and they still wouldn't have what it takes to make it in certain settings. And that's why, when you talk about a meritocracy, when you start talking about competition, the cards are always going to be ...
Talking about competition, the cards are always going to be stacked against certain people no matter how hard they work. And so for that reason, I don't like competition, but I do think that there are some really beneficial things about being around other people who are working hard, about being around other people who are achieving a high level of something, because it can be inspiring. And the grit that you build from competing and losing can be good for you in ways. But that is assuming that you even have the ability to get to the level of competing. And a lot of people get lost in that space where they can't even get to the level of competing. We did the chairs and I had a really specific and interesting experience when I went to Interlochen and because I started off... Now in this case, this was good for me because when I was in my high school, well this was middle school, when I first went, I was the best.
I was so good and I excelled very quickly. I started playing in sixth grade and by eighth grade I was already going to Interlochen in eight week camp. I was competing. When I think back, I was just doing it then. But when I think back, I was moving really quickly through music and when I got to Interlochen and I was the last stand, last orchestra or the lowest orchestra. There was two orchestras, and I was the last stand, lowest orchestra, and I was just blown away. I didn't know that there were people who were playing so much better than me.
So we challenged weekly, and I did challenge and got to the higher orchestra. And then even once I got there I wanted to challenge and get up. And I remember what the teacher used to do is he would have us do the challenge and then everyone had to close their eyes and then vote for who they thought was the better audition or the better, I don't know, I don't know what would you call it? Excerpt or whatever. And the guy I challenged, I thought he played better than me, so I voted against myself, and it was me who made me lose.
And my teacher was like, "Why would you vote against yourself?" And I said, "Because he played better than me." And I remember each person I've ever told that story to, they always had the same response. You never vote against yourself. But I don't know, I feel like in retrospect, I feel like I did the right thing. I think for me, I really felt like he played better and so I just raised my hand to vote for him.
But that was good for me. That experience was good in the sense that it gave me a scope of what I was going to have to be prepared for if I want to continue to play. But it's kind of an interesting thing because there's also a lot of things that came along with being in those rigorous environments that I would love to just throw away.
But I think the thing is to regularly check in with students and make sure they're able to put that stuff in perspective. And I think that's where we lack the holistic approach to learning is that we tell kids, "Oh it's this. It's just a competition. Don't get upset about it. Just work harder." But there's so much more psychologically that's happening with that kid. So they need more of an authentic talk about, hey, this does not define you. It feels like it does, and that's normal. But remember you still have your own voice. You're still unique. There's still things you have yet to accomplish that won't have anything to do with what somebody else can do. It's 100% what you can do.
I wish I would've understood that better when I was younger. And I think that's probably the one danger about classical training, because it's very assimilation-based and it discourages. Although people have opened their minds more now. I don't think it's like it was when I was coming up. I don't think. But I'm also not in a student situation where I'm having to prove myself all the time either now.
We discussed music education a lot, and this is some of what Leslie had to say about her university years:
Leslie DeShazor: Everyone's not going to get an orchestra job. Most people aren't going to get an orchestra job. So what are you going to do to help these students be better equipped when they leave college to actually work in the profession that they want to be a part of? I had no idea that a person could have a career I currently have.
I didn't know that. But that's what most musicians are doing some form of what I'm doing if they're making a living and they don't have an orchestra job. So even that, the business side of things, it absolutely should be imperative for music majors to understand the most basic things about basically having your own business.
So it was great in ways, but in some ways I feel like going to university sort of zapped my spirit some. I spend a lot of time learning music and spending repetitive amounts of hours learning music I didn't really understand and didn't really like that much. And you figure when there's so much repertoire out there, that doesn't make any sense. Every violist doesn't have to play Walton and Bartok. There's other music.
But that's why I say it is as much on me as it is the university. But I just didn't really understand that when I was younger, because I could have probably petitioned to do other things and been heard, but I just didn't know I could do it.
So now with my students, the ones who are older, I try and put that bug in their ear. If you do decide you want to go to university, don't just jump into your courses and just spit back all the stuff, same thing you did in high school. Figure out what do you really want to do and how can you use those resources around you to get them. Because universities are filled with extremely knowledgeable, resourceful people. And if all you do is tap into the four classes that you have plus whatever, and you don't really go beyond that, you're just going to come out with this generic education that's going to prepare you for a generic life.
This was a wide-ranging conversation; this is the final excerpt for this blog post. Please check out the link to hear, watch or read the whole episode!
Leah Roseman:
Music is so broad, even within one supposed genre, and of course labels are such a problem too, right?
Leslie DeShazor:
Yes. They are. I've definitely struggled with that, because I don't even like when people call me classically trained. It's on my bio, and people say it all the time, but really what does that mean? It means you spend a lot of time doing ├ętudes and arpeggios, and you know what I mean? But classically trained, that's a really broad and vague way to describe someone's training. It's like the first songs you learn are not classical songs, classical pieces. You're learning folk songs for the most part when you first start off, and you do that for a while before you even have the ability to play a piece that's 24 bars, 48 bars, or over 100 bars.
The way that we approach the learning process, we sort of typecast people right away, but when I look back on my upbringing, I got a lot of my training in the church, a lot of my training listening to the radio. A lot of things that are not officially legitimized by certain standards, but classically trained puts you in this space where people are like, "Ooh." You know what I mean? It's like, what it does, I think, is it sets these dividers up between genres, and people start to act accordingly. People will assume certain things about me, because I'm classically trained. Then, sometimes classically trained musicians assume certain things about other musicians.
There's a lot of perception like, "Oh. Jazz musicians are just jamming. They're just having fun." At a high level, any musician worth their salt is working hard, whether it's a pop artist, hip hop artist, classical art, orchestral musician. When you hit the highest level or you get close to the highest level, your work is hard. It's like hip hop, for example. People really talk badly about hip hop, but try saying all those words that fast in an articulate way. Also, in an entertaining way, and get people to grasp onto every word you say. It's not easy, and if you look at someone like Twista or Eminem, for example, they rap so fast. They were probably working their whole lives to be able to say words that fast.
Because they're doing it so seamlessly, we look at it and go, "That's easy, because they're not learning Shostakovich," or whatever. But you look at Stevie Wonder, I mean one of the most prolific songwriters of our time. If you ever try and learn a Stevie Wonder song, you will see that those songs are not easy. They sound easy, because he makes them sound easy, but they're not. I think what I didn't realize coming up is, I used to turn my nose down on certain genres, certain kinds of people, or certain kinds of music. Then, you start to have to experience it, and you're like, "Oh. This is not what I thought it was," but that's because we use these parameters and these words that create this hierarchy that is really, what is the word? It's just sort of like someone just pulled it out of thin air.
I would say a lot of it has to do with European colonization and Western classical standards, right? Because if you say classical music, there's classical music from Mali. There's classical music from India, and they're all intricate and very nuanced in their own right. No one, no matter how great of a musician you are, is going to be able to just jump into some Indian classical music and just play it, because you were classically trained, and you would be like a baby in that music. You wouldn't know anything, so it kind of creates a disrespect, I think, sometimes when we put all these titles and parameters and we sort of create these hierarchies, which is why I'm not super crazy about people calling me classically trained.
But on the other hand, sometimes that helps me fly in under the radar, because when I played at that church last week, and I walked in and I was like, "Oh, yeah. I'll do this, and I'll do that, and then we'll do it in B flat," I could see they said okay, but they looked like, "Hmm. Let's see what she can do." So when I actually played, they were shocked, because as a string player, if you walk into a scene like that, people expect you to sound a certain way. When you don't sound that way, they're really surprised, and then you just can't go anywhere but up from there. In that way, it can be good, because it makes me look better than I am, but I don't know. There's a lot that we sort put ourselves in a box, and ultimately that's to our demise because we're missing out on so much opportunity to grow.


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