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Corwin Slack

At the crossroads: When did you get real about your future?

October 2, 2007 at 2:48 AM

When did you get realistic about your potential as a performer? How did you navigate the transition?

There are a lot of different levels of performing violinists her at It appears that some are actively realizing their highest dreams and many others of us have had to get real and scale back our dreams at some point.

I know that when I was 13 and 14 I thought that I had a chance to have a career. I was playing a movement of a Handel Sonata and two movements (very poorly) of Vivaldi Op. 3 No. 6 (A minor). I owned recordings of 4 concertos. I sat in the library reading biographies of Fritz Kreisler and Yehudi Menuhin and Applebaum's book With the Artists (or The Way They Play?) and dreaming of the ovations etc. I was only practicing (if you can call it that) 30-45 minutes a day.

I remember getting my mother to buy me the Bruch violin concerto and I am sure the family was tortured by my efforts to play parts of it.

Yes I was a deluded teenager.

I took a jump in my skill level at about 16 but it wasn't really that much. I could play the Accolay Concerto (kinda sorta) and a movement of a juvenile Mozart concerto. Some fundamentals improved. I could play three octave scales and there was something of a sound and enough facility to play in the first violins in youth orchestras.

In all this time my teachers never really confronted me about my delusions.

But suddenly (or was it gradually?)reality hit. I would never be a soloist (but I didn't give up on orchestra player for some time) and I started planning alternate non-musical career paths.

Good bad or indifferent, I didn't have useful benchmarks against which to decide what I was really doing and what it would take to achieve any dreams whatsoever.

It took me a while to recognize that almost everyone who had a career:

1. Played as a soloist with orchestra in a major concerto by their early teens (or even earlier)
2. Could play significant virtuoso show pieces and etudes and caprices at about the same time.
3. Had a very well developed sense of pitch and rhythm
4. If they played in a youth orchestra, they usually sat way ahead of older youth most frequently as concertmaster.

By the time I entered college I knew my career would not be in music. I was starting to realize that most orchestra players were only a year or two behind the soloists in their development and that many of them had soloist credentials.

It wasn't really heartbreaking to give up a dream. I just changed the dream. I decided that I would always play and that I would try to improve. I think that I have realized this dream.

I had the great opportunity to meet a really excellent teacher about ten years ago. I took lessons from him for about five years and for the last 5 years or so I have sat in on my children's lessons. I practice every day. I play etudes and short pieces and play in a community orchestra. I am very conscious of the improvement which I consider a gift of God and I am very excited about the possibilities.

There won't be any ovations but there will be growth.

Did you have to scale back a dream? How did you do it?

From Drew Lecher
Posted on October 2, 2007 at 4:46 AM

That is an excellent synopsis of what, at times, must have been a very frustrating time. You have obviously succeeded and I wish you all the best.

Thanks for sharing.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 2, 2007 at 4:18 AM
I can't honestly think of a time that I believed I was going to have a career as a concert soloist. I started playing the violin as a child because I was inspired by the character of Pa in the "Little House" books. Pa played his fiddle for his family on the prarie to entertain, to keep them going through the long winter nights. His daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the books, wrote: "Whatever religion, romance, and patriotism I have,
I owe largely to the violin and Pa playing in the twilight."

I felt that way. I played my violin for my dolls and pretended that we were another pioneer family. When our family pet cat died, I played for him too. But I was a total basket case about performing solo on a stage for most of my childhood and adolescence--I didn't like it, didn't really want anything to do with it. I did it when I had to because it was expected of me.

And, as an older student, when people started to think and talk about the question of a career, I received warnings early and often that essentially "nobody" makes it in music, or at least I and my ilk didn't have any business thinking about that.

Other people did, but they inhabited a different world. For example, David Kim went to my high school, Williamsville North, in Williamsville NY, a middle-class suburb of Buffalo, for one year. He was class of 1980 or 81. Every week he flew to Juilliard to take lessons with Dorothy DeLay. He's now the Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was a great person and a wonderful violinist, and looking back, I'm pretty amazed that he found it worth his while to be the concertmaster in our high school orchestra, at the time called the Williamsville District Orchestra. For one concert, we accompanied him playing Autumn from the Four Seasons. After that it was pretty obvious to me who belonged in front of the orchestra as a soloist and who belonged in the orchestra's second violin section.

A few years later, the concertmaster of that same high school orchestra, and my stand partner, was David Handel, now an internationally acclaimed conductor. On one hand, at the time I was pretty disappointed about losing out on being concertmaster. But on the other hand, I also can't say that it was really a big turning point or "scaling back of the dream" for me, either. If I were really honest with myself, I'd have to say I was pretty lucky to have gotten even that far: to have been sitting with David Handel. People like David Kim and David Handel had careers in music, not people like me.

I fiddle for my own kids now in the twilight--and that's enough. That was really my dream all along.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 2, 2007 at 3:03 PM
Quite the contrary Drew. There was nothing frustrating about it. It wasn't as though I had come right to the brink of fame and success only to take second place in a major competition dooming me to anonymity.

It was more like gradually waking up and realizing just where I was.

The dream was good for me even though I was horribly poor at applying any organized energy to achieving it. It did provide the impetus to keep playing and keep improving. I see many young people with no dream or "delusion" who treat music and everything else rather aimlessly. Many of my more talented and accomplished but dreamless peers are now watching TV for their fun and relaxation.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 3, 2007 at 6:07 AM
I still have delusions of grandeur from time to time, so I can't say I've gotten completely real about it all just yet.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 3, 2007 at 12:52 PM
I'll admit it. When all the delusion is completely gone I'll probably not open the case again. Yes I am reserving a little.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 3, 2007 at 3:05 PM
I find it interesting that you still find a scaled back dream to be motivating in middle age. Maybe it’s because, as you said, you were able to just change it into something else that made more sense. My experience with that type of thing has been pretty different: shooting for the moon, falling short, and then trying to find ways to be happy with that anyway hasn’t really worked for me. But it does seem to be a pretty standard way that some educators try to motivate kids, without the wise follow-up. When I was looking through some of my old high school stuff a few weeks ago after meeting Peter Kent again on, I also found a program from a senior class assembly. The class motto was “We are limitless, for we believe in our dreams.” At the time I thought it sounded nice, and I may have even voted for it as class motto, but looking back now, it sounds not just corny and naive, but not even very useful as inspiration. The goals and dreams that I have found lasting value in are the ones that I have been able to get my mind around and actually achieve. That’s where I’ve been able to draw confidence and self-esteem, too: from real, measurable achievement. Not from delusions or from aiming for a goal that didn’t make any sense and then scaling back. The performances I do now in church or community are good examples of what they are intended to be, they’re not pale, fallen, scaled-back reflections of some unattainable ideal. Limits and constraints aren’t necessarily bad. A sonnet, or a concerto, is a form with limits and constraints. But those very limits are what give the form its beauty.
From Patty Rutins
Posted on October 3, 2007 at 8:34 PM
Wow, Karen, I'd completely forgotten that phrase from "Little House on the Prairie". I wonder if that's what inspired me to play? I was reading those books around the time I decided I wanted to play the violin, and the Ingalls family certainly captured my imagination as a child.

I still have my delusions, from time to time, but I realized sometime in my teens that I really didn't want to be a concert performer. Perhaps if I had discovered chamber music then, I might have practiced harder toward the goal of being in an ensemble, but as it was I didn't find anything compelling enough in the Known World of musical performance. I can't say I'm disappointed, though, because I like very much where I am in my life.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 4, 2007 at 11:25 AM
Patty, I don't think the phrase is in the books themselves, I think it's from something Laura said as an adult, looking back. There's a picture of Pa's fiddle on this page: Apparently, it's in a museum in Mansfield, MO.

Corwin, sorry I got so long-winded in your blog. Maybe I should write an entry in my own on this stuff . . .

From Kim Smyth
Posted on October 4, 2007 at 8:51 PM
I'm a student at a university where the music program isn't too well developed. But I do have an amazing private lesson teacher who makes me more and more motivated and inspired as the semester goes on. (happens every semester!) I'm just kind of wondering what would have happened if I had such a motivating teacher like him since I was younger. Or what if I practiced more... I feel like music is one thing that I really do because I like it, but at the same time I realize that I'm probably not good enough to make a career out of it, which is a frustrating thought :(

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