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Karen Allendoerfer

Music Therapy

November 15, 2006 at 3:14 PM

Getting back into playing again has brought me back up against the question of "what do I really want out of this?" I'm enjoying myself when it's just me and the instrument and in a way, maybe, that's all that matters.

But then there's the issue of other musicians. I told a friend who is a professional musician and teacher the other night about my plans to try out for the LSO next year, and she said "well, somebody has to be last stand, why not you?" I think she was trying to be funny, even encouraging, and I think last stand is probably a likely outcome and I won't mind that at all if it happens (it'll be better than not making it)--but still, what a thing to say! Oy.

Although I've met many exceptions on and elsewhere (and if you're reading this, you're probably one of those exceptions), I haven't, as a general rule, found classical musicians to be the most pleasant and supportive bunch of people to hang around with. Maybe it's the long hours spent alone in the practice room, the competitive nature of the business . . . there are many of the usual suspects to be rounded up as the cause . . . but the outcome, for me, is the same. The more music I play, the more involved I get, the more time I end up having to spend with musicians. And then it doesn't take long before I'm reminded of one of the big reasons I decided not to make music my life all those years ago: musicians are often not very nice, and that not-niceness hits just where it hurts the most.

In music, as in most endeavors, I've been told that a "thick skin" is not only helpful, but essential for "success." While I'm sure this is good advice and helpful for some people to hear, it has never done much for me because I've never been able to develop that thick skin with respect to music. I feel like there are opposing forces working at cross purposes: one one hand you have to be "naked," to expose your true feelings, to let down your defenses to be able to have anything to say, musically. But then on the other hand you have to do this somehow while still maintaining this "thick skin" and conforming to what the world expects of you, achievement-wise.

For most of my life, music has been more like therapy to me than like skin thickener. I think it's likely that when I was a teen, music kept me from experimenting with drinking or substance abuse. It was a way to work out my emotions in at least a somewhat constructive fashion, even (or maybe especially) when I wasn't practicing efficiently in order to achieve some higher degree of technical prowess.

And now I'm feeling like this function of music, which is almost essential to me and how I approach it, is not very well-understood or even much recognized among classical musicians. And I'm sort of wondering why not. Is this attitude really that rare among people generally? Do most people who would prefer to use music more for therapeutic than achievement purposes just get driven out of the field by the competition and the thick skin requirement by the time they're my age? Or do they just go somewhere else where I haven't yet thought to look?

From Richard Hellinger
Posted on November 15, 2006 at 9:33 PM
I started out as last stand. Last stand last seat, second violins, in the Finger Lakes Symphony. That same rehearsal I was moved up to last chair first violin, and stayed there for an entire "Season." For me that was a great accomplishment, seeing I was the youngest in the orchestra. Since then I have moved up 3 chairs. There would be no shame in sitting last seat/stand. Because there is only one way to move, up.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 15, 2006 at 11:20 PM
well, it`s a hell of a lot better than Custer`s last stand.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 16, 2006 at 12:55 PM
No, I don't care about sitting last stand, if that's what happens. It would be a privilege for me to make the group, no matter what stand . . . what bugs me is that adults still care and talk about that. I hoped that when people grew up, they would grow out of it.
From jennifer steinfeldt warren
Posted on November 16, 2006 at 4:13 PM
Karen. I agree. And that is one of the reasons I have changed my goals as well. Maybe not because people are meaning to be that way, but the cattiness and politic breed it. The fact is that we have to audition, we play in performance classes for critique, it is a CONSTANT evaluation of your ability against others. And that turns some people obsessive about their own playing, regardless of the fun that made music desireable in the first place. I have not found truly good musicians to off-hand throw nasty remarks in my direction. It is the intermediate ones, who still care about how they appear to the rest of the violin communitiy. It is a cover for insecurity, just like in any other profession.

That said, I have had to remove myself from certain environments because the comments from students really cut. More often they just made me mad, and I was bitter and hurt. I can't make music that way. The musicians who are secure in their profession, job, and aren't trying to get, get, get...they are very nice and encouragin, much like a teacher would be.

I try very hard not to be one of those people who are discouraging, but sometimes even the best-intentions are not taken well when you are trying to help someone.

Sometimes the musician community can be a little like walking into a middle school...all those hormones flying around..

But sometimes it is very very rewarding. I come away from Symphony concerts feeling very UP. Such a great bunch, and very good vibes and feelings of friendship. It is nice to have a group of people who understand what you are all about and who you can interact with within that realm.

I think the comment about last stand would have hurt my feelings, too. Maybe you will audition and get 5th chair or something. It is so hard to tell. Depends on what the audition committee is listening for.


From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 16, 2006 at 5:26 PM
Oh my goodness, what an eye opener reading this was! But it all makes perfect sense. And boy, you have my sympathies, particularly on that "last stand" line. (Very funny reply, Buri!)

I will always be an outsider to the classical music world - always enjoying others play, but then going into my room or my lesson to tootle away at a simple little tune. Fortunately, that's enough for me. And reading what you wrote here reminds me that one of the main reasons I want to continue precisely where I'm at is that there is no agenda attached to it at all. And all the yucky stuff you're describing - well, change it to "writers" and getting novels published and the whole publishing industry in general - and THAT is the reason I sought out playing the violin. To escape the Stuff that clogs my mind and heart. It's art for art's sake. Writing used to be my release until I started seriously marketing it. Guess the same thing can be said for making music, yes? Once you get good enough and/or serious enough, you risk that delicate little flower inside your soul that gets nourished by the pureness of the art. What an irony, when you think of it.

Anyway, enjoyed reading this - thanks for helping me find a little perspective. And hey, maybe it can work in reverse - maybe you should try writing stories when you feel like escaping into "art for art's sake" (although you write so eloquently here, perhaps you are a writer already, in which case you have even more of my sympathies).

(who hates being told she needs to get a thicker skin b/c the skin I was born with is the skin that allows me to create art in the first place, and its thinness ain't goin' nowhere.)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 18, 2006 at 12:42 AM
Actually, I am a writer, but of non-fiction. Professionally I write grants, progress reports, website updates, lecture notes and slides, and write and edit manuscripts. I had a deadline today to turn in an annual report for a grant on single-molecule fluorescence, amyloid fiber formation, and peptide arrays. (Woo-hoo! ;-) I've written fiction, though, and I'm reminded of something I heard once in a fiction writing workshop: "if you try to write in order to pay the rent, you won't be able to do either." That's kind of how I feel about myself and music, too.

When I am able to be objective, I realize that on balance, there really are many more nice, uplifting, supportive people in music than there are nasty ones. It's just that goodwill that takes days or weeks of care to build up can be knocked down in a second by one random thoughtless word or comment. You just have to take a deep breath, wait a few days, and start building again.

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