To play or not to play?

February 26, 2007 at 02:56 AM · Hello all. I'm a 21-year-old violist, and I don't know what to do with my playing and life. This is going to be a long story, and as english isn't my mother tongue, I'm not sure if I can explain everything properly. I'm going to try anyway.

After high school, in 2004, I was accepted in the only music university in my country, which is absolutely the best place to study music here. From the beginning I had problems with studying - I didn't like the atmosphere in the school, didn't make many friends, and felt I had too much free time. I loved music and playing as much as before, and liked my teacher, but something was wrong. I began to dream about studying something else alongside music. Mathematics had always been my favorite subject in school, and my second career choice after music was computer science. I decided to apply to the university of technology. But I had a problem - the entrancy exam required knowledge of high school physics, and although I had always loved physics in junior high, I hadn't taken it in high school to be able to practice more. So I decided to self-study high school physics, which meant that it was going to take me another year before I could actually apply in the university of technology.

In the beginning of 2006, when I was in the middle of studying high school physics, I realized that it was much more interesting than computer science. I decided to apply for the engineering physics and mathematics department instead. The academic year of 2005-2006 was much better then my first year in the music university, because I really liked the balancing between playing and self-studying physics.

The entrance exams were in May 2006, and I was surprised to be accepted. The engineering physics and mathematics department is the most difficult place of study to get into in the field of physics in this country. I was so excited to be able to study the two things I love the most, music and physics. Studies in the university of technology began in September 2006, and I also switched viola teachers, because I felt I wasn't learning anything from my previous teacher any more. My current teacher is the best I could ever hope for, and I feel I could really become a different player with her. Also studying in the university of technology has been great. I'm loving the courses, the people, the campus, the free-time activities, everything. So everything should be fine.

The problem is that I love both music and physics too much! I'd want to study them both much more than I have time for. I feel as if I'm pulled both ways. I know I eventually have to decide between the two, but I just want to postpone the decision as far as possible. I already know that my future job will most likely be in the field of physics or computers, but I still don't want to quit studying viola. Studying physics is really difficult and time-consuming, but I've taken fewer courses this semester to be able to practice more. But practicing is still another problem. Motivating myself to play has always been a little challenge, but after all I have liked to practice - until recently. Nowadays I rarely feel like practicing. Usually when it is time to practice, I just can't bring myself into it, and the thought of playing is almost disgusting. If I manage to pick the viola up, I usually end up stopping after a few minutes, because I feel I somehow just don't want to do it. And I have no idea why it is so! It's not that I've lost my love for music, I still enjoy listening to it as much as before or even more. Sometimes I have better days with the viola, but usually I have to force myself to play even half an hour a day. Very recently, when I have tried to play, I have suddenly burst into tears for no special reason. My teacher gives me a lot of interesting stuff to practice, and I don't understand why it's so hard to actually start playing it.

Even though I haven't quit playing, I do have a feeling that I have failed as a musician. This might have something to do with my problem. My teacher of course knows about my other studies, and understands I don't have as much time to practice as her other students, but I feel like I'm failing her also, that she's wasting her time on me. We have discussed my problems a bit, but I feel she can't really understand how much I love physics also.

I'm not even sure what I'm trying to ask you. I just don't know what to do. Do I really want to continue playing? Recently I've been playing with the thought of quitting viola, and that has felt quite relieving. But then I listen to some Brahms or Mozart and don't ever want to quit. I think I could pull this double-major thing off, if I knew why I don't want to practice. Anyone been in a similar situation? My writing is so messed up that it's probably hard to even figure out what my problem is, so I don't really expect any advice. Anyway, thank you for reading!

Replies (22)

February 26, 2007 at 04:50 AM · Einstein kept playing.

February 26, 2007 at 05:03 AM · Play, Karoliina!

I can relate to your experience. I know a lot of people don’t have passion even though they are extremely bright and accomplished. That is nothing you can do about it. So let me congratulate you first for being so passionate, talented and accomplished at such a young age!

One problem is that we tend to be trapped in an ‘either-or’ thinking mode, which often unnecessarily complicate our life. Passions we have may appear to be jealous lovers, but have a deep look at them and ask should they be so really? It’s your job to stop them if they do. What I’m saying is that it is premature to think that your love for music is necessarily in competition with your love for physics to the extent that they become mutually exclusive.

Yes, you have only 24 hours a day and you feel you’ve got to make a big choice. One way to think look at music and physics is that are your different projects or initiatives. People are capable of muti-tasking. Try to work on your prioritization skills by breaking each of the projects/ initiatives down to smaller components and regularly assessing and reassessing these components to get a clearer idea what’s more pressing and requires more attention at a particular period of time. The less pressing steps/goals will have to temporarily step aside to accommodate the pressing tasks, but they are not to be abandoned or forgotten. Using paper or the tools in the Outlook on your computer (such as to-do list and schedule) if you haven’t done so. Set realistic goals and chip away a little each time on projects that look overwhelmingly big. Try not to attempt solving big (philosophical/existential) issues at once but instead, working on small steps on your projects to gain insight on larger issues.

Another way to think about your different passions is that, despite the apparent incompatibility, they may actually mutually enhance your enjoyment of them. It’s a funny phenomenon in human actions is that often we want to do X more because we also want to do Y a lot, even though they may appear to be mutually exclusive, at least they can’t be both done at the same time. But if we stop doing X, we may feel Y is not so much fun after all. For instance, I like my day job a lot and I also love to play violin, but I can’t do both at one time and they really compete my time. But should I suddenly lose my job to morrow, I’m sure I won’t have so much fun playing the violin any more, not until I’ve got my career life straight out first.

I always like to say that life is not a script. We may think we have a lot of career choice and we are told to plan our future carefully. But we really don’t know how much we are fated, morally and physically speaking. We are fated to be passionate, to be good or bad, we are fated to be talented or not, we are fated to face a lot of opportunities and promises that may seem overwhelming at times. It is a good thing to feel this way from time to time. Just hold on to this moment, hold on to your viola, and watch the universe unfold itself if you can.

February 26, 2007 at 05:00 AM · I think I can help here. We are all faced with tough choices, and ultimately you will have to decide. That's little consolation huh...

The good thing is either is a good choice, but you don't have to accept a one or the other decision. Time-sharing is a common solution you would be guided to by performance coaches (life coaches)...

I'm like you--a renaissance type person and have many passions. And that was before violin even--and it's truly a passion. So here's what I do. I see life like a multi-layer pie, where all layers are important. And I pursue each layer giving each it's due respect.

For the next 3-5 years formal violin will ascend in my priorities, but not totally dominate. During the meantime, I'm an engineer and keep up with the treadmill of meaningless upgrades and innovations that are still treating the consumer as an involuntary test object for R&D.

At the same time I'm an amature chef, master gardener, and love intently several subjects in the humanities, including generalist physics as well as theoretical physics beyond that.

So as you discovered physics, it is likely that you will discover other passions in the next decade, and even beyond. You seem to be seeing it as a career choice versus life choices, and that seems to be your quagmire.

With a mind that can swim where yours swims, and while you are young enough to have the energy and focus, divide your time between two or three things if you have to, and accept that you will be a multi-dimensional person rather than a rising star.

Alex somewhat jokingly said that Einstein never stopped playing. This is very true. But more important is that he had a single phase in his life where epiphany ruled, and it didn't really necessarily come from his math-brain, but from his life experience and child-like wonderment.

So as you narrow your choices, and you ultimately will, just be kind to yourself and the compromises you make and stay focused on that youthful discovery that is creating the questions for you--this is the substance of your own happiness.

But as you make those compromises, still, with your accomplishments to date, it would be smart as well to always push yourself to the high-road in always seeking accomplishment.

Being a woman in today's world means that your compromises are much more important and stressful than in the past. What if you want to have children and a family down the road? Talk about time-sharing!.

So your decisions and challenges in this, are good practice for the future as well. I began piano and guitar in a spirit of child-like innocent fun and discovery. I even see math, humanism, history and so forth somewhat in that spirit. And I see violin though more intently, at least in the ballpark. Life is a jounrey--just enjoy it.

February 26, 2007 at 05:35 AM · Also, Karoliina,it's very important to know that you can quit whatever is not working. It doesn't mean you have to quit, but knowing that you can and then chose not to is a very powerful step to take.

February 26, 2007 at 06:10 AM · Phsyics and music are not mutually exclusive. Have you put your mind on a particular branch of physics yet? The world of acoustical physics is a fascninating one that compliments your love of viola and music in general nicely. Music and science are a natural match, with many good scientists also being musicians. If you give it some careful thought and planning, I'm sure you can find a way to balance your two loves in life.

Also, does your univeristy of technology have a music program? If so, you maybe able to get a music scholarship while still majoring in physics. As you move onto to your upper grad (and grad work) in physics, you may be called to teach a lab. My father majored in physics and for his grad work he designed and taught "physics for music majors" class. That class is still taught at that univeristy today.

February 26, 2007 at 06:36 AM · Definitely keep playing. I know from past experience that when I have to spend a lot of time on something non-musical, I get gloomy and depressed if I can't play at all for even a week. This would happen when I was on vacation with my parents, on travel team with my swim club, etc. (Yes, it's terrible, my violin is like a drug...) My situation is somewhat different from yours since I know I am going to have a career in music. But I know that if I had gone into any other field, I would NEED to keep playing--it clears my mind, calms my spirit, and generally keeps me feeling sane. When I can't play for a long time I just feel terribly unbalanced and out-of-whack.

By the way, your English is perfect, don't apologize for it.

February 26, 2007 at 12:25 PM · Don't quit permanently, but I don't think a break would necessarily hurt you. Professionally I'm a scientist, and I took a 5-year break from violin while I was getting my PhD in neurobiology. After that break I came back to the violin and after about 6 months I was better than I had been before stopping. I was concertmaster of an orchestra for the first time in my life at age 28.

I started playing the viola also recently, and I love it. I think there are a lot of opportunities for serious amateurs to keep music part of their lives. I agree that music and science aren't mutually exclusive--but as careers, either one does tend to be all-consuming.

I've found that music is easier than science to do as an amateur--you can buy a viola and take lessons and even get gigs and play in community orchestras, but it is impossible to set up a modern physics lab in your basement and do real research. So that is how I made my choice to do science professionally and music as an amateur. You may feel differently--this is a hard time, but keep talking and thinking. Maybe talk to some professional physicists and other musicians (serious amateur and pro) as well as your teacher. They might have a perspective that resonates with you.

February 26, 2007 at 02:00 PM · hello, i think no one here can really relate to what you are going through, apparently not even yourself, which is a signal to me that you may want to consider seeking prof help. to start, are there counselors in the respective departments that you can go to share your feelings? may be they have more experience dealing with students who are facing stress from the double majors? if this lack of interest for something that was once pleasurable spreads over beyond just practicing music, you may need more in depth help from people who are qualified to help people going through situational depression. forget about viola and physics for a moment and assses what is really going on here.

i think the basis for all these is that you love music and physics "too much" as you put it and from there, the seed of a love-hate relationship with music is born. what is missing is the big picture: your background and prior experiences, your values, your judgements, your expectations, which are all very different from anyone that tries to relate to you. i think it takes time and expertise and in the right setting for you to,,,unwind and get to the root of the issues at hand.

February 26, 2007 at 01:19 PM · Hi, First, you write very well in English. I hope you will try to understand how lucky you are to be who you are- intelligent, hard-working, multi-talented, introspective. And only 21. You may yet find other paths that steer you sideways or loop back to some place you thought you'd passed by. As conflicted as you seem to be, I would suggest you let some more time pass. Continue as you are- do your schoolwork, try to practice, develop a little social life if you don't have one. Try to think less and let things happen for a while. Maybe your way will become more clear, and if not, you'll still only be where you are now. Just a little older and a little better educated. Best, Sue

February 26, 2007 at 03:20 PM · I can relate to the feeling of "wasting time" of a teacher, in a program, etc. I did both a bachelor's and Master's of music in performance before I realized that the professional performance world was not really where I wanted to be. It has taken me four years to reconcile the feeling of having "wasted" either the time or the talent by not going into a performing career. I won't pretend that it still doesn't hit me!

The suggestion of considering double majors, acoustical physics, etc. are all good ones. Remember, too, that changing directions today is much more common, so you certainly won't be alone.

I do recommend what another poster did: that you consider taking a temporary break from the instrument. I took nearly two years of very little playing and practice after my Master's--I was very ambivalent about playing and, to be honest, a little burned out. Set yourself a designated time that the break will end, whether that's a few months or a few years, to make sure you don't let it go altogether. Taking the break made all the difference in the world for me.

Hope this helps!

February 27, 2007 at 04:49 AM · Music and mathematics are wonderfully interconnected, and have been since the time of Pythagoras. Even today, the NSA, the code-breaking arm of the US intelligence community, hires music majors as well as mathematicians, having found an affinity or cross-connection in the skill sets.

I'm reminded of an article in Strings magazine a year or so ago, in which a computer multimillionaire described his ambition to be an orchestra professional. He concluded that he'd never be so good as a professional musician as he desired; going into computer science enabled him to assemble a collection of dozens of Strads, Guarneris etc., which he continues to enjoy even as he lends them to world-class players.

The focus and tenacity that go into making a professional musician can be translated into success in many fields. Follow as many of your interests as you are able, and develop whatever talents you possess. It is not yet possible for you to chart the course of your life, but providing yourself with the tools that fit your hand and mind will ready you for the opportunities that will inevitably present themselves.

February 27, 2007 at 06:33 AM · I agree, your English was completely understandable and no need to be shy or embarrassed about it!

Anyways, you're 21, I'm 22. As much as I love violin, I'm always finding other things, like studying my family tree, world music, Spanish and languages...

Something I learned that I want to share with you is that just because after a certain year we "graduate" from a school, it does NOT mean that we stop learning.

You don't have to give up violin. It can be a hobby for a while, you can pursue it alongside your other studies, any combination! If you play violin it doesn't mean you HAVE to be a concert soloist. There are many possibilties of what you can do as a violinist, it doesn't have to be the same as your teacher or as other students.

Never stop learning your whole life! And no need to if it makes you happy, no matter what you're studying.

Also, I've known a lot of musicians who studied biology, economics, instead of music at first. I also know people who went to study math, or Spanish or business, and were amazing musicians.

You have every right to keep playing violin/viola in a way that makes you happy. :)

February 27, 2007 at 07:35 AM · Karolina,

You have a lot of good advice above. It cannot be that incompatible; in fact, Imperial College, Univ of London, offers a degree in "Physics with Music Performance" (jointly with the Royal College of Music) IC_Physics, so other people must have gone down this road before!

February 27, 2007 at 11:40 AM · Thank you all so much for the responses and advice! You truly gave me new views on my situation and a lot of things to think about.

I don't know yet which branch of physics I will focus on. The idea of studying acoustical physics is a good one, but I don't think I will go into it. One of the reasons I like this combination of music and physics so much is that they balance each other so well. I especially like the artistic and emotional side of music, while physics is wonderfully structured but lacks all emotion.

Of all the things you suggested, taking a break from viola is the most tempting. It would also be the best thing to do financially - my study grant will run out in less than four years, and after that I will need to get a job. If I could focus more on engineering now, I would be able to work in that field. But the thought of a long break is also a bit scary. How long would the break be? It will take me five years to finish my degree in engineering, and I think I wouldn't want to take that long of a break. How bad will I sound after that? And what shall I actually do with my playing after the break - finish my music degree? I'm not sure if I want to do that. Or is the whole point of taking a break to make myself miss playing and realize that I really need to play in order to be happy?

I would really want to study both music and physics "properly", neither one being just a hobby. But that's just impossible. I will need to think more about all this, and talk to my teacher when I have my next lesson. Again, thank you.

February 27, 2007 at 04:16 PM · Karolina,

Wow! You are very ambitious and very passionate, and that's wonderful. I commend you! I think you should keep playing viola. Defintely! You have a whole life ahead of you with lots of challenges and opportunities, and things always have a way of working out. I wish you every success! Keep up the great work! And enjoy!

February 27, 2007 at 07:37 PM · I think a lot of times people who focus on music really don't have any other interests.

Now, if all your interest and time goes into something non-musical, it doesn't mean you failed at music. You think that way because music is so competitive - who succeeded and who is better, more entertaining or creative. It's the way musicians think. In fact, you are making a choice following your personal preference. Why keep fighting when what you were fighting for isn't worth it anymore to you? That doesn't mean you got whipped; it means you changed your mind. It means you're a physicist and wouldn't give it up to be a musician. If something about science feels like cold steel to you these days, it really isn't and you'll adjust.

February 27, 2007 at 06:13 PM · something observed in my 6 yo is probably applicable to every living being at one point in his or her journey.

she loves ice cream. she used to have a bowl of 3 scoops. in the interest of cutting down the calory, the committee has instituted a new ruling: one scoop.

she is not very happy about it (do you still love me,,,is her line these days) and often she will refuse to eat any ice cream at all.

so, between 3 scoops, 1 scoop and 0 scoop, her logic is either 3 or 0, 1 is not acceptable. like what i saw on some license plate: live free or die.

i will report to this forum when 1 scoop will become the norm.

February 27, 2007 at 06:34 PM · Al, it may be a license plate, but it's a motto thought up by some of the brightest guys who ever lived. No one can really serve two masters. There's going to be some "don't quit cause where's my justification then" in this thread:)

February 27, 2007 at 06:34 PM · and those founding fathers would probably have a heart attack if they see how we are doing in the second quarter.

NO, NO!!! the endzone is in the OTHER direction!

February 27, 2007 at 06:36 PM · One of the most memorable and successful advertising campaigns of the 60's: "Nobody can eat just one."

February 27, 2007 at 06:43 PM · Al, the eagle is a wise old bird. "Don't give up the ship." :)

February 27, 2007 at 09:28 PM · Hi Karolina,

Sorry I didn't respond to this thread earlier. I agree with the others who say that it's not an either-or situation. It's true that both music and physics are disciplines that require a lot of dedication, time, and effort. It may only be practical for you to pick one to study formally, but that doesn't mean you are a failure at the other or that you can't be very, very devoted to it.

That said, I do recommend physics as the choice for formal study, for no other reason than matters of financial security. I have a Ph.D. in physics, and although I've discovered that my passion for other things (violin and foreign languages) is far greater, I'm very grateful to have my physics background. It opens up a lot of doors, to many different kinds of careers, and frees me to pursue whatever else I want to do without worrying about how to provide for myself or my family. I think it's much, much easier to have a job as a physicist or engineer or teacher or stockbroker or whatever and play violin as a hobby than it would be to work as a musician and pursue physics as a side interest.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that you should pursue a music degree only if your love for music surpasses everything so much that you would be miserable doing anything else. (Many people on probably fit this category.) But if you have more than one passion, why not pick the one that will make your life easier? Another thing to remember is that whatever you choose now does not have to be your job for the rest of your life. Lots of people make dramatic career changes when they get into their 40s and 50s.

As for your inability to play, maybe it's simply that the stress of school is getting to you, and it would do you good to take a break. If you truly love your music, you will find it again when you're ready. We need different things at different times in our lives, and sometimes we just need to accept that and do what is right for the moment.

Good luck!

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