At a concert of mine a few months ago, a new student’s parent approached me and said how much she appreciated me performing with such a busy teaching schedule in place. She then shared with me that her friend, a musician who was along for the concert, remarked to her that I was “like a general who still fights”. It has stuck in my head and made me smile ever since. I do feel older now (hello 40’s), more seasoned, and the balance in my life is much different but I love it. I have three kids, I lead my violin studio as best I can - and yes, I still appear regularly on stage with orchestra and in recital with piano.
It made me think about the pros and cons of solo performing alongside high-level teaching. This blog is about my feelings about striking that balance. I am still working on it so some of my thoughts are works in progress!
I started performing with orchestra as a soloist when I was 14. It is an intoxicating and spectacular feeling to present a large-scale work with orchestra. You finally hear the work as it was written with all of the parts and the textures present. You also are physically placed in the midst of it, positioned on stage. The vibrations are very strong against your body and there is a conductor and baton right next to your scroll reading your every move. To me there have been moments where it feels almost like you are at the helm of a ship. There is so much trust involved with the conductor and hours of score study to fully piece it together with all the sections of the orchestra. There is an amazing feeling of warmth and community when full score is memorized. It is both powerful and intimate. I was hooked immediately.
At 15, I left everything I knew including school and family to study solo violin in Paris and never looked back. I started teaching when I was studying at the Paris Conservatory when I was 16. I surprised myself when I fell in love with teaching immediately. It was a wonderful feeling to impart the knowledge I felt so lucky to have received. As I continued teaching once I moved back home, my studio grew gradually and with it, so did the students’ level of playing. Suddenly I was teaching the full gamut of literature to kids brimming with ambition. I realized that because of my good fortune in teachers, I had the ability to help many students finally play sections of large works that had eluded them and ultimately cost them hours and hours of practice. A great fingering, a new concept, correct bow placement – sometimes just one thing would make all the difference and all of their hard work would finally culminate into the result they had been waiting for.
While my teaching hours happily increased, my solo performances in town picked up and I struggled with practice, efficiency, and balance of home life. It was not a situation where I was easily able to choose one or the other. My solo performances were fewer and farther between than the teaching and would not sustain us financially in their paychecks. The teaching was not just a passion – it was a stable income. It was also a regular connection to people and a source of such joy in my life. I couldn’t see myself dropping either aspect of my musical life. So the choice in front of me was more of a question really – was it possible to do concerto work while I taught 40 hours a week? (Yes, you read that correctly – 40 hours!) Most people I talked to said it wasn’t possible and urged me to act sensibly. I was also growing my family alongside these choices being made and am currently the mom of three kids. We bought a house, moved to the city, and became involved in our neighborhood and schools. Life is so rich and has so many facets. Could solo work practically fit in all of this? But now go back and re read the paragraph about how playing solo makes me feel. It was my first dream – the thing I sacrificed most of my childhood to do. So you can imagine my indecision. I found myself continuing to accept solo jobs and delivering performances all the while wondering with each one how I would get it all done. I tried to place trust in my training and effective practice and remain fluid, practicing as deeply as I could and working hard on all fronts. Occasionally I would allow my deepest fears to come out of my mouth, usually to family, usually right before performances. Then, ironically, those performances would go better than any of the others ones placing me right back where I started.
Eventually I stopped questioning it. I moved forward on all cylinders, unable to give up the performance aspect of my life. Instead, I focused my practice more, organized my scores, and honed in my schedule. My studio grew more and more advanced and competitive. My teaching was now 90% virtuoso work so I was demonstrating constantly, almost practicing alongside the students. I felt technically in shape even when my practice was threatened because of my teaching and work with students. My musical brain seemed more on than off so this helped me get the most out of my solo practice. I started to see the healthy benefits of teaching the works I performed and even found myself making subtle changes to my interpretations based on things we discovered in together. The students attended my performances more than not and they seemed motivated by watching me do the very things they heard in lessons. It allowed me the opportunity to speak to them about nerves, rehearsal techniques, even inviting them to rehearsals so they could watch things come together in real time. Many students of mine have stayed after their lessons to hear a run through of my concerto knowing I do them every day for weeks leading up to a concert. The sheer courage and commitment it takes to step out on stage and perform a full concerto is a good example to try and set when you run a high level studio and I feel its effects for weeks afterwards. When my students and family are there to support at a successful concert, everything does really feel all right with my world. They have all contributed to this moment in so many ways and we share in this success.
A few years after that decision, I made what turned out to be another significant commitment to my studio and myself. I decided I would learn a set of new works every year including a concerto. I realized that some of the newer works just weren’t taught in conservatory when I was younger but I still yearned to know them and to teach them. This has proven so meaningful to me to keep this commitment. It allows me to relate to the students in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. It also allowed me to take on concerto opportunities in the last few years I wouldn’t have otherwise. When I am learning something new, I am starting from scratch and teaching my hands new things, seeding new muscle memories, studying a new score, and just generally having to work or focus more. I have to manage my time better and be more tunnel-visioned. All things I ask of my students. My first performances on concerti are not perfect – sometimes full of little surprises and this is so healthy for my students and their parents to witness. If I am fortunate enough to have multiple performances, they can see a piece relax and deepen. I am also immediately more empathetic to student frustrations or progress plateaus. These difficult works and their progress move so slowly. In review we get gratified so quickly almost like our old work is thanking us while our muscle memories come flooding back. With new works, there is almost no positive feedback for weeks if not longer. I am able to give my students more genuine support reminding myself on a regular basis of how it feels to learn new pieces from scratch.
And sometimes I think there might be another important message to my kids and students in here too - If I am able to have a family, teach a full week, and learn a new concerto to perform, it shows my students that different things are possible. Maybe even that a full life of parenting, performing, and teaching is possible. It wouldn’t be everyone’s choice I’m sure and there are weeks where I struggle more, but it IS possible. I have a local career where I play all the larger concerti regularly while I run a high level studio. It makes me feel useful, true to myself, and beautiful to honor all of these parts of who I am. I am grateful that my students and children can be part of this and I think it benefits all of us in different ways.
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