As I am packing and preparing to depart to another exciting summer in Santa Barbara, CA at the Music Academy of the West, I cannot help but look back and fondly remember this past year, my freshman experience at the New England Conservatory of Music. It's been a momentous couple of semesters, to say the least; I've made scores of friends (and lost some as well), worked extremely hard on my violin playing with my teacher, Professor Donald Weilerstein, performed some memorable chamber and orchestral music, but most importantly, learned a lot about myself and who I am.
Students at my school frequently joke that NEC stands for “Not Exactly College”, and in more ways than one, this is absolutely true. A musician looking for a true “college experience” will be disappointed here; our facilities are few and decrepit (I sometimes practice in the company of mice), the academics border on laughable, and the food is as close to inedible as cafeteria food gets in this country. And yet, every single day as I go about the campus, I witness music making of the highest caliber – outstanding young artists in the fields of classical, jazz, and contemporary music pursuing their passions with such intense drive that I cannot label it as anything other than joy. The meager student body (comprised of only 750-800 musicians and composers), come together to comprise an atmosphere of support, inspiration, friendship, and love that one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
I count myself as extremely fortunate to be in the studio that I am. When I received an email from Professor Weilerstein asking if I would like to come work with him at NEC, I could hardly believe it; despite having had a trial lesson with him the previous November, I had applied to his studio as a reach, as a lofty goal that would inspire me to practice but that I could never hope to achieve. After all, in spite of my experience, I was a late bloomer – I only started practicing more than an hour a day when I was 13, and my competition experience rarely went beyond the local scene. And yet, I had somehow made it into my dream teacher's studio at my top choice school. I still remember attending my first official studio class and hearing one of Mr. Weilerstein's graduate students perform a program that he was preparing for the Joachim International Violin Competition, and sitting there with my mouth open, in complete awe of the musicianship that I was witnessing. The year continued on like this – I saw many other studiomates perform in class, and also attended numerous concerts and recitals of students in other studios and departments, and was starstruck each time. It became more and more obvious that there was so much for me to learn, and that I had a long and arduous road ahead of me if I wanted to one day stand next to these young artists with a voice of my own.
After seeing the musicianship I had to live up to, I threw myself into my studies, recording and notating my lessons, and practicing feverishly as if each out of tune note and each tense muscle was going to be the factor that destroyed my career. It was an extremely unhealthy lifestyle, both for body and mind, which I soon found out. Within a few months, I felt lost; my muscles were sore, tight, and on the verge of injury, my motivation had all but disappeared, and even with all that I had learned, I felt that my violin playing and musicianship had gotten worse. I was unsure about myself and my future, and even found myself questioning whether Mr. Weilerstein had made a mistake in accepting me, because I was obviously not good enough for his studio and not ready to study with such a deep-thinking, illuminating teacher. The only time I found myself happy was when I was playing chamber music – it helped me to forget about myself and my worries and to instead make personal, honest music with other people whom I loved dearly, both as artists and friends. Mr. Weilerstein and his teaching assistant, however, noticed my discouragement and worked even harder than they already had been to bring me out of it; they both gave me extra lessons to prepare me for my upcoming solo recital, and spent extra time out of their day to sit and talk with me, to offer me reassurance, clarification of ideas, and extra boosts of much needed inspiration. Words fail me to describe my appreciation and gratitude for both of them – because of their encouragement, I started regaining my motivation, but in a much more healthy way, focusing on my own growth instead of constantly comparing myself to the people around me whom I admired and aspired to. And as that fog lifted and my drive returned, I was able to look through the clearing air and see that my friends had been there for me all along, and that the period of self-doubt and depression that I went through was something that almost all students have had to face. In a way, this phase was almost a necessity for me, in that it reaffirmed my reasons for attending a conservatory and rejuvenated my love for music.
As I have learned from experience, freshman year truly is a tumultuous time for any college student; for many of us, it is our first exposure to the relentless, unyielding world without the guidance of parental supervision, without the comforts and security found in hearth and home. We learn to adapt, to absorb vast quantities of information about the world, about others, and about ourselves, and as a result, we begin to change as people. I know for a fact that I am not the same kid that I was in high school, but I also don't think that this transformation is yet complete. However, I find this process to be exciting – who knows where I will be, both as a person and a musician, in the next four years? Only time can tell, and until then, I am looking forward to the ride.
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