December 2013

In The Bleak Midwinter

December 27, 2013 10:00


...O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day...

When our four daughters were very small and just beginning to learn to play their miniature violins, what I looked forward to—and what may have been my greatest motivator for facilitating all the lessons and practicing—was the moment when they would start playing together. I don’t mean in a Suzuki group, or one of those violin-top-heavy entry-level youth orchestras, or even a legit chamber ensemble. I mean really playing together, spontaneously jamming for pleasure and joy.

It was a mythical moment, a golden era that I always fantasized was right around the corner, perhaps just a few months or years away when they would have the technical chops to hopscotch around the fingerboard and the intellectual facility to improvise their jazzy way through made-up melodies.

But it never happened. Well, they did learn their way around the fingerboard. And they learned to sight-read, if not to improvise (the latter skill not part of a classical music education.) But somehow they were never able or willing to make music together in the extemporaneous, carefree way that I imagined.

Which is not to say they didn’t play together at all. They were often members of the same youth orchestra. For many years, from sixth grade through high school, my two middle daughters played together in string quartets (two of which were comprised of double-sets of siblings.) And, thanks to the “Music for Two” gigging books, there was plenty of fair-weather busking (netting a spectacular hourly wage, if you stood outside the right Starbucks between 4 and 6 PM.)

But there was no noodling around. Instrumental music provided immense satisfaction and camaraderie, but it was always goal-oriented. They practiced to improve technique; they rehearsed to prepare for lessons, performances, and auditions. It was a serious endeavor. When their friends asked, “Why do you do it, is it fun?”, they had no answer because it all depends on your definition of “fun.” Is track-and-field fun? Is Irish dancing fun? Can you value something deeply, even love it, when you must also wrestle with it constantly?

It didn’t help that we had no bass voice. Each of them could play violin and, eventually, viola; a couple learned some piano, and even guitar and mandolin and djembe and a little trumpet. But, because I’d not had the foresight to assign one of them a hard-to-lug-around cello when they were little, as an all-sisters group they were stuck with a painfully limited sound palette. In some ways it was like the problem of a boychoir. Too much treble, like too much sugar hurts your teeth.

Most years on Christmas Eve they were charged with playing some prelude music before the candlelight service at the small Lutheran church at the corner of our street. In the days leading up to these performances, their self-coached rehearsals devolved predictably into histrionic arguments—You’re coming in early again! You’re sharp! You’re flat! You’re covering me!—followed by the sound of feet stomping down the hallway and slamming doors.

We would leave for the church ten minutes behind schedule, everyone frazzled, and the mood precarious. What was wrong with us, I wondered, that our kids could not work out how to play a few simple carols without practically killing one another? We would walk six abreast up the dark street, parents lugging two shin-banging Manhasset music stands apiece, and the girls, apple-cheeked in the moonlight, skittering across ice puddles with their instruments strapped on their backs.

Four instrument cases will consume an entire pew’s worth of precious real estate in a tiny church on the most jam-packed church night of the year. I could feel the pressure of the crowd, so many strangers among the familiar congregants. Each year I would start out holding my breath—after that trainwreck of a rehearsal, how could they possibly get through the performance—?

But I’d forgotten that there is no warmer audience than inside a overflowing church on Christmas Eve. Of all nights of the year, this is then one when the audience just really wants to love you unconditionally. They’re not there to poo-poo your historical styling in Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. They’re there for candlelight and carol-sing; they’re there to feel moved. Four little girls playing violins sets the mood well.

Moments later, the violins would be tucked away in their cases and shoved beneath the pew, and then: on to Lessons and Carols. Around us would rise the voices of the choir, of the regular congregants, and their visiting cousins and grandparents, all the Christmas-and-Easter Lutherans, the nostalgic fallen Catholics, the curious neighbors, the Jewish boyfriends, the atheist in-laws, everybody singing the familiar songs. My kids would sing with gusto, should-to-shoulder, in their best-trained children’s choir voices, spontaneously improvising harmonies. They'd always loved singing together—on car rides, at the dinner table, lying awake in their beds at night.

When the service was over, we’d order our traditional take-out Chinese food for a late-night feast in the dining room festooned with holiday garland, then crowd around the piano for hours singing wintry, modal-sounding ancient carols ("In the Bleak Midwinter", "The Coventry Carol" (with its famous picardy third—bye, bye, lully, lullay.), and a few other favorites: Ruth Crawford Seeger's American Folk Songs for Christmas, "Walking in the Air", from Howard Blake's The Snowman, and "Little Toy Trains" and "Douglas Mountain" from the Raffi Christmas Treasury.

~ ~ ~

This Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere. 

Pass a decade, or more.

Wednesday evening, riding in the minivan to my parents' house for Christmas dinner, the girls were singing "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" in close harmony in the back seats, their voices blending so perfectly that they sounded like a chord played on a single instrument—and then breaking off into laughter, and restarting. We'd all been up late the night before, after the church service, during which one of the sisters, the only one who is still studying music, played solo Bach movements on violin and viola at the prelude. Then the frozen walk home through the inky dark, the Chinese food by candlelight, and the hours of singing at the piano.

I realized then that my own heart's desire has been with me all along. It was a ruby-slipper revelation. My daughters have been jamming together since they were small. Their voices, untrained but not uneducated, thanks to years of instrumental study, are an easy, natural medium for improvisation. Thanks to violin study, they have an acute sense of pitch and a prodigious memory for melody and lyrics. They can be playful because singing, a "mere" hobby comes without the pressure of a goal or project. It lives in the moment. And the moment is ever-vanishing, How many Christmases, or even weekends, will they have together, as they grow older and their lives more complicated?

Occasionally they wonder aloud if they should record themselves "so we can listen to it, years from now, and remember." For an instant I flash on my future self, and the simultaneous heartbreak and joy of some day rediscovering this as-yet-unmade recording. Can the moment be caught and preserved, to be unwrapped in some distance future like a treasured ornament? Perhaps its fleeting nature is what brings its paradoxical value. 

5 replies

A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 10: Being Good at Being Uncomfortable

December 19, 2013 14:37

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions


I still only travel by foot and by foot, it's a slow climb,
but I'm good at being uncomfortable, so
I can't stop changing all the time.

—Fiona Apple, from the song “Extraordinary Machine”


In last week’s column I offered the idea that a talented peer group can help propel a student to achieve her potential. In response, a reader posted this thoughtful comment:

“…As someone who has spent much of my life in the middle-to-back of the pack at elite institutions, I'm less optimistic and enthusiastic about the effect you describe, especially for introverts. If one is not naturally much of a social go-getter, one can easily get lost in the shuffle among the (perceived) more talented, or at least more extroverted, peers. …” [Emphasis mine.]

Her point about middle-of-the-pack students getting lost in the crowd supports her larger thesis (see the rest of her remarks), against our cultural bias towards elite institutions. But of interest, also, is her secondary point, that while introverts tend to disappear into the staticky background, extroverts get a lot of airplay, talent notwithstanding.

We all recognize the type:

Punchinella decides to enter the annual concerto competition. And then she makes a big deal about it in front of everyone, as if she had a chance of winning, which you can clearly see she doesn't; you even feel a little embarrassed on her behalf. Maybe you gloat—just a little—when, predictably, she’s eliminated in the first round. And how does Punchinella react to her loss? Does she hide out in her room, with the lights low, earbuds full of Mahler 8, banging out a long, self-recriminating entry on her Tumblr? Nope: she goes out to celebrate with the winners, and then the next day she’s back in the practice room, sawing away at some new repertoire, not a care in the world.

Next month, an elite summer orchestra festival holds scholarship auditions at your school. You're tempted to apply, but in the end you hang back, figuring the competition will be too fierce—all those seniors and grad students!—maybe next year. Naturally, Punchinella throws her hat into the ring. (“What do I have to lose?” she laughs.) When the results come back, you’re stunned: somehow, Punchinella made it in. How did this happen? You go over it again and again in your head. You know precisely where you stand on the continuum of talent, discipline, and accomplishment, and you know you’re ahead of Punchinella. But you didn’t try out; she did.

Your teacher will be out of town next weekend and needs a sub for his pre-college studio class. You’re hoping he’ll pick you—he knows you love kids, and that you’ve been teaching in the conservatory’s afterschool program for two years. But Punchinella, who has no teaching experience and doesn’t even like kids, gets the job instead. Why? Because she didn’t sit around passively waiting to be picked. She went directly to your teacher and asked.

Oh, to be an extrovert like Punchinella. In each instance above, she puts herself out there, without apparent self-awareness. In the first case, she over-reaches, falls on her face, and recovers, turning what could have felt like a humiliating disappointment into a positive experience. In the second, she makes an underdog's gambit and wins. In the third, she makes a request—and it's granted. Because she had the audacity to ask.

Clearly, a proclivity for extroversion is an enormous asset for a performer (or, for that matter, anyone in a competitive situation). It helps if the whole world is your comfort zone. It helps if you’re not constantly second-guessing yourself, or taking to heart every smidgen of criticism you hear or imagine. It helps when you’re impervious to self-doubt, when negativity rolls of you like water off the proverbial duck’s back. It helps when you don't have a problem asking for favors, and when being turned down means nothing more than, "Oh well, at least I tried!"

But that’s just not you. I get it—it’s not me, either. No amount of pep talk or whisky is going to turn an introvert into a Punchinella. Behavior that feels natural to her will never feel right to us—we’re stuck inside our over-thinking, introspective heads.

So, how to survive?

The answer is simple (if not easy). If you've gotten this far in life, then you already  know what it feels like: the weirdly theatrical, out-of-body act of speaking up. It's never going to feel comfortable, but you're good at being uncomfortable. So use it. You're also good at self-assessment and at analyzing social situations—use that, too. Make it work for you, not against.

  • Ask yourself, what do I want from this situation? In the case of the subbing job, your immediate goal is to be picked to run your teacher's class this weekend. Your long-term goal is for your teacher to see you as a potential teaching assistant. A dependable assistant communicates clearly and demonstrates patience. Your teacher cannot read your mind, so you need to work up the courage to tell him directly that you'd like to be considered in the future. That's five minutes of discomfort for a potentially large payoff.

  • Ask yourself, what's the worst thing that could happen if I fail? If you don't make it to the finals of  the concerto competition, will your head be impaled on a stake outside the conservatory walls for all to see? The real worst-case scenario is often not really all that bad. Will anyone even remember that you entered, ten minutes after the finalists are announced?

  • Remember that nobody's looking at you. Each of us is the star of our own personal drama, but that sad truth is that we are only minor characters in each other's lives. Even your obsession with Punchinella is no more than a function of your anxious self-doubt. When you think about Punchinella, you are really thinking about yourself. Like most introverts, you'd be more comfortable watching it all unfold from a cozy perch, wearing flannel pajamas and sipping cocoa. But to make it happen, you need to put your shoes on and walk into the room. There. You did it; you were briefly the center of attention, and now it's over.

Make peace with the idea that you'll never be a Punchinella. Go-getting will get easier, but it will be never feel easy. The biggest successes of my life—and those of every introvert I know—were direct results of some bold, uncomfortable-feeling gesture that went right. (The ones that failed are largely forgotten by anyone but me.) Were they worth the brief discomfort of stepping up, speaking out, putting myself on the line? You bet.

* * *

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions

9 replies

A Parent's Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 9: Talent Loves Company

December 12, 2013 14:06

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions


Every fall I teach an advanced fiction-writing class. Now that the semester is over I can report that my students were terrific this year, every one of them. Our discussions were dynamic and stimulating. The creative energy was sky-high. The did a lot of writing, and a lot of deep, thoughtful revision. Over the course of the past fifteen weeks, each of them has produced an exciting, well-crafted portfolio of new work. It’s my best class ever.

I’ve said that a lot over the years: “This is my best class ever!” I always mean it sincerely, but you've got to wonder if I’m just temporarily blinded by my enthusiasm for the writers I’m spending so much time with. Or is it actually possible that the students at my university are getting better and better?

If you go strictly by numbers, then yes. Over the past decade, our university has risen toward the top of national ranks. Back in 1980, the year I graduated, about 40% of applicants were accepted. That number has now plummeted to 9.5% for regular decision applicants. (Makes me wonder if I’d be able to get back in, if I tried.) Clearly, my current students have a lot going for them. They’re plenty smart; they have the APs and GPAs to prove it; and they know how to ace standardized tests.

But that’s not what makes them good writers. Like music and painting, creative writing is an art that demands technique and imagination. These are qualities that can’t be quantified by SAT scores (not even the verbal scores.) What good's a great vocabulary if you don't know what to do with it?

You may have noticed that I avoided the t-word when I described my class in the first paragraph. Okay, I'll say it now: some of my students are very talented. All of them have what it takes to make a living in publishing, if that's what they choose, and at least one is so lavishly gifted that we've taken to saying, "When you publish your first collection of short fiction…"

It would be disingenuous to deny that talent matters, but I have a problem with the romanticization of talent in our culture. Non-writers and novices often assume that the fiction they read springs fully formed from the heads of their creators—as if authors take direct dictation from the muse. This is a dangerous and discouraging concept. Sure, sometimes inspiration comes easily, and you don't need to wrestle through quite so many revisions. But you can rest assured that, as the old chestnut goes, Easy reading is damn hard writingIf anyone tells you different, that's just spin.

Writing (and painting, and violin-playing) is painful hard work. Talent plus hard work can produce brilliant results. But talent without work? All that and five bucks, as they say, will get you a gingerbread latte with extra foam.

Over the years I've witnessed many talented young writers surrender up dreams at the the first sign of frustration or disappointment because they assume that if it doesn't come easily it can't be done. Meanwhile, their less-gifted peers go on to achieve success in the publication world. When something comes easily, when you have a gift, you need to work hard against the impulse to rely on that gift to get by. In a way, giftedness is almost an impediment.

In the old days, in every class I taught there were one or two stand-out students whose stories and essays I secretly looked forward to every week. Many of them have gone on to fine careers in writing and editing—and many have not. But I can tell you that when you’re the star of the class, when you're alone at the top, peerless, praised and recognized by all, it’s much more difficult to gather the internal resources needed to improve your craft. We all need pushback, dialogue, inspiration, and even a little friendly competition in order to grow.

Which brings me back to the original question: is it possible that my students are getting better, year after year? I believe they are, but it's not because the baseline level of creative talent has changed, or even (directly) because they've scored perfect 800s in their SATs. They’re getting better because they’re getting better—together. You work harder and care more about your work when you’re surrounded by hard-working, dedicated, talented peers. My students are better writers, because they bring each other up. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And what’s this got to do with conservatory applications? When the question arises, Do I want to be a big fish or a small fish in this pond?, consider the profound effect of a talented, hard-working, and dedicated peer group. Consider who you'll be playing chamber music with, and who will be sitting beside you in studio class. It's true that you may be able to study with the same teacher at a less competitive school—and you may even get to be the concertmaster at that school, and win the concerto competitions. And receive all kinds of glory that would be out of reach for you at the uber-competitive school. But at what price, this glory? An elite peer group may help push you to achieve your full potential. And that's a lotta latte.

CHC latte art.

* * *

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions

4 replies

A Parents’ Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 8: I Flunked My Pre-Screens: Now What?!

December 5, 2013 07:27

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions


A few years ago, a young violinist contacted me in a panic. According to Facebook his friends had been notified of their Juilliard audition dates. But he’d heard nothing. Could it be an email snafu? An administrative mix-up?

“I’m as good a player as Fauntleroy and Punchinella*,” he said. “If they got auditions, I should, too. My recording was excellent—unless it was lost. Do you think they lost my recording?”

I told him it was possible—but I had a sinking feeling about where this was going. Even without having heard his recording or knowing much about his level of playing, it was pretty clear to me that he had failed his prescreen. In a few days he would receive a paper letter in the mail explaining that his application had not progressed to the next level.

“Should I call admissions to see if they lost my application?” he fretted, concerned that they might be irritated, and somehow punish him, if he pestered them. I told him that it could not hurt to call the admissions office—part of their job was to deal with panicking applicants. There was nothing shameful or shocking about his predicament, I reassured him. It happens many times, to many people, year after year.

Then I tried to redirect his thoughts: where else had he applied? Had he heard back from any of them yet? He had not. But over the next few days he was denied auditions at several conservatories. He had spent much of his young life looking forward to these auditions, and now one by one his dreams were dissolving before his eyes.

What do you do?

  • Take a deep breath and scream (preferably into a pillow.) This is a big upset and you deserve a tantrum. Throw dishes (I recommend plastic); yell at your mom for not tethering you to your instrument five hours a day from age three (go ahead, we moms can take it.) You have ten minutes: do your worst.

  • After you catch your breath, you will probably wail, “If I couldn’t even pass my prescreens, I should just give up now. And become a— a dentist!” Feel reassured that everyone says that. But remember: the life of a dentist is much more secure than that of a musician. Dentists make a good, steady income, and there’s nothing stopping them from playing a little violin music on the side. If you can imagine yourself as a dentist (or accountant, or baker) now’s your chance. What appears to be adversity may well be opportunity. Flunking your prescreens may have been a “nice save.”

  • On the other hand, if you cannot fathom any profession except music, then consider this situation a character-building test. You’ll be dealing with plenty of setbacks in this life; learning to cope with adversity now will only make you stronger. Congratulations, by the way: now you are an adult. Your classmates who just waltzed into the audition room without any apparent resistance or stress—they’re still kids living in a land of lollipops and dreams. Their time will come later.

  • Dust yourself off and figure out the next steps. Did you pass any of your prescreens? If so, focus on your upcoming auditions. But, at the same time, not passing all your prescreens is an early warning sign. Use it. Make sure you have a solid Plan B in your back pocket (this goes for everyone, even applicants who pass every prescreen. They have no guarantee of actual admission.)

  • If you flunked them all (or most of them), it’s time to regroup. The handwriting is on the wall, underlined and extra-bold. Plan B is now Plan A for you. (And get real: if you could not snag auditions at CIM, NEC, and MSM, you are probably not going to get into Curtis, even if they don’t require a prescreen. You just might want to cancel that audition, since it requires a lot of extra repertoire, and keep your eyes on a more realistic prize.) Push up your sleeves and get to work on a new Plan B. Consider applying to some non-auditioned programs with rolling deadlines. Consider a gap year.

  • Let it go. Don’t make yourself crazy second-guessing what might have gone wrong with your prescreening recordings. What’s done is done; you can’t change it. It’s tempting to blame your equipment (“If only I'd hired a professional recording studio like Punchinella!…” or “If only I had a Guadagnini like Fauntleroy!”) These rationalizations might make you feel better in the short run, but you know at their core they are hollow. Admissions committees can hear past impediments like a home-made recording or a student-grade instrument. The point of the prescreening is to spare you the expense and trouble of traveling to an audition you are almost certain to lose. If you think it’s painful to face rejection at this stage, imagine how you would have felt getting this news on April 1st, after flying to an on-site audition, playing your heart out before the panel. Finding out now is kinder, and it puts time on your side.
  • As for my young friend, he did end up passing one of his pre-screens. And one is really all you need. Over the next few months, he practiced his butt off and won admission to a selective studio in an excellent conservatory. All of his problems, solved! Then, a year or two later, he dropped out and moved to Europe to continue studies there.

    Which brings me to my most important point: when you’re young, the path you think you want is the path you can imagine. It’s impossible to see around corners or to guess at the unpredictable, serendipitous things that will happen in your life. But ask any adult you know if they are doing exactly what they hoped and dreamed to do when they were seventeen. Most will tell you that what they’re doing now was not even imaginable to them at seventeen. Most will tell you that, given the choice, they’d pick the life they’re living over the ideal-imagined life they conjured up at seventeen.

    It’s a leap of faith, but, then again, you don’t have a choice, anyway. You flunked those pre-screens, but your world isn’t ending. It’s just beginning. It’s yours for the conquering. Go now.

    *names have been changed (in case that isn't obvious).

    * * *

    Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions


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