Student gives online school a chance, existential crisis ensues

October 7, 2020, 2:13 PM · Follow-up to my last rant from ages ago.

I've been in "school" since early September now, and I can say it has been positively soul-crushing. Granted, my personal life did go through a massive upheaval literally right as the semester began (the details of which you shall be spared)—nonetheless, being sat at home alone all day watching lectures via zoom is not conducive to a satisfying existence. BUT that's enough whining :>

I've been having this strong feeling that I want to give up on music, really for the sole reason that I don't think anyone needs my musical contributions. I think I mentioned in my other rant that my motivation has shifted from the self-centered desire to be a respected artist to the outward desire to do something actually useful and valuable. This isn't to say music isn't valuable, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the world is BEGGING for more musicians right now (or ever was!). And, of course, if what you're doing isn't in demand, then money will be tight. I know life is more than money, but I also don't want to live like a cretin between paychecks. I want to be able to provide for a family, too...
I recognize this is a poor time to make sudden and significant life decisions, but the doubt is really eating away at my psyche and making it difficult to keep working hard. I guess at the heart of all this is really the fear of "falling behind", which is ironic because it might just cause me to start falling behind, on a smaller time scale.

Just some thoughts. Comment if you'd like; I know it's a gordian knot of a post.

Replies (12)

Edited: October 7, 2020, 2:31 PM · I don't know anything about making money with violin-playing as I am an ~intermediate amateur, but there's a lot of jobs that the world isn't begging for more of. Do we need another silicone valley start up for smart coffee delivery "leveraging the blockchain" or something? (No offence to anyone doing that - I don't consider what I do particularly essential either.)

I think quite a few jobs nowadays are more important in providing a livelihood for the worker than the actual output of the job.

I would consider being a performing violinist and or teaching the violin as up there among the non-essential jobs. Of course that's my subjective opinion that may not reflect financial reality.

October 7, 2020, 2:59 PM · Avoid calling people living paycheck to paycheck as cretins. Too many non-musicians do, and *have* a family. Being well-off economically does not make some individuals less of a cretin, anyway.

You do not study violin to get rich, and the world "doesn't need you" (in any field!) either. Work on what will make you most happy. One's "usefulness" in this world-according to a perceived, always moving societal bar- should not dictate your life journey. "Productivity" is not the end-all of existence-otherwise a cynic could argue most people should not exist. Life is precious because it exists, and so is our music.

This is why I am very careful about not making broad statements regarding what people should or not do with their lives, and not only regarding the violin.

If you want to play it safe "check to check", violin studies are not the safest path towards "security", even if you play really well. That was the case even pre-pandemic. Things will recover, and it will still be the case.

Honestly, violin studies are recommended to those who really want them, not to attain a 100% safe ways to provide for a family. It is a way to hopefully make a living doing something personally fulfilling that may also provide the gift of music to your possible audience-and students, in the case of good violin teachers.

For me, being a violinist is more than worth all the sacrifices and possible economical inconveniences, but it is a personal question that I cannot answer for anyone else.

October 7, 2020, 3:02 PM · Change your "timeline."

One of my violin friends (almost my age, at 85) was offered a conservatory scholarship upon high school graduation. But he chose a different route and went to college and medical school. He continued to play music as a "hobby" through internship. his medical-military service until he went into private practice (actually at Kaiser).

Leap ahead 30 years (without any away from home music playing) and as he prepared for retirement, he took lessons again, bought a $100,000 violin and auditioned into the Berkeley Symphony (one of our local regional pro/semi-pro orchestras) and continued to play as long as he could see the music. He also played in other orchestras and multiple chamber groups during these later years.

In my opinion, if you view your music as being for other people, you will have problems. If you view it as playing for yourself, you probably will not.

October 7, 2020, 9:47 PM · Your post brought reading Ecclesiastes to mind - inspired by Zelazny's reference to it.

While they probably wouldn't improve one's mood or outlook directly, if they were in truth entirely bleak, why would they have been written?

If you have a problem with music, listen to more of it, and not just more, but ones that speak to you.

If you want to be useful, then know that you aren't without purpose, and that while work is important and solace and shelter, you aren't your job.

October 7, 2020, 10:02 PM · Solid recommend on the Ecclesiastes - It cracks me up any time I'm down.

I'm not sure what advice I'd give, but as someone that works in a job that could be mistaken for useful and valuable (environmental regulation), but who is pretty jaded on the realities of me ever doing anything professionally that might make the world better in any way ever, I'd say that most jobs are just jobs, and are just part of making other people rich. However, I do think you can have your eye towards what is meaningful and useful, but it may take longer than you think and a lot of hard work to get there, although I'm sure most people working in Silicon Valley think what they do is some conglomeration of prestigious, important or helpful, but again, I'm dubious.

There is something to be said for trying to work on big ideas when you are young, and haven't quite calcified, and become overly concerned with dumb stuff like retirement plans and home-ownership, and become risk averse. Yeah, check that Ecclesiastes out - Solomon was a wise guy, so I've heard. With that said, I think violin is as good a path as any, especially if you like it - At least there's beauty there, which is more than can be said for 99.99% of jobs in our economy. However, what there isn't is money, though I wouldn't want to be in school for anything this year - What a waste to pay to be on Zoom all day; at least my job pays me.

October 7, 2020, 10:15 PM · Linking to your previous existential crisis since I think it provides more context to your post: LINK

I don't think knowing what you want to do with your life at age is necessarily the norm. In fact, I think it usually isn't -- musicians spending their teen years practicing 4 hours a day notwithstanding. And it is possible to be really sure what you want to do with your life in your teens, and then change your mind during your college years or post-college -- or even a decade or two into your adulthood.

You're still young -- young enough that you might not even have encountered the thing that you'd truly love to do for the rest of your life. It's worth letting yourself explore some other paths and interests.

If you get a college degree, barring something that directly leads to a vocation, you will be just as psuedo-qualified for any random job that requires a basic college education, as anyone else. Paths will remain open to you, and you'll always have the freelance violinist gig to help supplement your income while you figure out what you want to do with your life.

Just because you've invested so deeply into becoming a violinist doesn't mean that you still can't turn your life in a different direction. (And seriously... I asked this question in the other thread previously. Have you thought about becoming a luthier?)

Edited: October 7, 2020, 10:24 PM · If you're bright and motivated, there are lots of things -- besides music -- that you can do that will be highly beneficial to society.

Think medical doctors, scientists, lawyers and judges, detectives, military officers, teachers, writers and journalists, business executives, accountants, and lots of other things.

You really just need to take stock of your interests and aptitudes. My advice is to go for long walks and think about this stuff seriously.

You said one thing that I don't believe, however. "I don't think anyone needs my musical contributions." I think you need them. I don't view myself as a performer (on the violin -- the piano is another story). I view myself as a student of the violin and it's largely a solitary activity for me although I do enjoy chamber-music play-ins, which presently are limited to family (over the summer my two daughters and I worked on the Beethoven string trios).

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be financially independent, but it's vitally important for young people to understand that it doesn't happen on its own. My wife and I live in what I would consider to be a somewhat-upper-middle-class existence. But we both went to school for 12 years if you count the time being a poorly-compensated postdoc. Thus, I did not start building home equity or a retirement nest-egg until my early 30s. One big advantage of trades like plumbing, carpentry, electrical work, welding, etc., is that you can start saving at the age of 20, so even though your wage might be lower, you have another 10 whole years to save and invest (in an IRA or in your own business), and that is not trivial. Right now in my town the tradesmen are doing fantastic. My observation is that the outdoor work (roofing, landscaping, etc.) is mostly done by Mexican guys and the indoor work (carpentry, electrical, plumbing) is done by white guys. Women are very rare in trade work from what I have seen, but that could just be within my area which is a semi-rural college town (Blacksburg).

One area that I believe will be unstable for a while is clerical work. Not really sure why I think so, it's a hunch. I think organizations are redefining it now that they have seen what can be done "from home" and such. Also ... not a good time to be looking for a job as a flight attendant or travel agent.

October 8, 2020, 8:45 AM · I agree with Paul. High-skill trade work is generally well-compensated, especially if you're the business owner or you're in a high-end specialty.

You'll need to think differently about income if "support a family" means "I want my partner to be a stay-at-home-parent" -- i.e. where you'd be the sole breadwinner. That effectively means that you need to bring in the typical pay of two professionals occupying your desired income bracket.

Money is a lifestyle and a set of expectations. I think it's difficult for most people to leave the lifestyle in which they have been raised. If your parents are upper-middle-class, you will tend to default to UMC patterns of spending that demand that you yourself earn a UMC income.

Edited: October 8, 2020, 9:19 AM · "I think it's difficult for most people to leave the lifestyle in which they have been raised."

Lydia has correctly identified what is emerging as the great American crisis. Lots of young people saw their dads providing pretty well for their whole family with his earnings from the local GM plant, coal mine, or other blue-collar workaday occupation. Likewise I see a lot of college students who came from UMC dual-income families, kids who don't appreciate the global economic forces that have made those kinds of lifestyles more difficult to achieve now, and who might have been shielded from just how hard their parents had to work to provide the UMC lifestyle to them. In some cases, too, parents are not honest with their children about how incredibly lucky they were to have found themselves in their own UMC existence. I remember a long car ride where I regaled my daughters with a fairly exhaustive enumeration of all the times and ways, throughout my life and my career, that I've just been really lucky. For example having two daughters who are both healthy and happy, free of issues like autism, learning disorders, crippling allergies, depression, and the like. Parents who think they have children like that because they "parented correctly" are deluding themselves. It's mostly just luck.

With Lydia's wise comments in mind, my further suggestion to Cotton is that you include the choice of a spouse in your long-term life plan and that you do not leave that all-important decision entirely to chance or to the whims of your lizard brain.

Edited: October 8, 2020, 9:26 AM · I was an actor for years, in a profession where 95% of my colleagues were unemployed actors. I never made it big. I directed plays and ran a theater in competition with other theaters, and for critics who could shut down a production with a paragraph. I scraped by. I shot and developed photography trying to sell the work in galleries, art fairs, and online - competing with thousands of others who also considered themselves photographer. I sold a few photos, but that was it. I wrote a book of poems that never sold. I wrote a book on education that brings in enough money in royalties every year to enable me to buy a tank of gas for my car. I played and wrote songs with my guitar. I played in restaurants, bars - from upscale and fancy, to dirty dive bars. I got into Bluegrass music and jammed with all sorts of people. I even had a jug band - King Kennedy and the Cruisers. We were great. (Well, I think so) but jug bands aren't really in vogue these days. Now I play a violin. I love it, but I don't know how long this will last (age - 70's, a bad knee, cataracts starting in the eyes, and I just learned I have glaucoma in my right eye, so who knows?) What I do know is this - the whole ride has been and continues to be amazing. I had a writing mentor, Cecil Dawkins who said, "Don't think - write." Nike corporation has an even more direct theme - "Just Do It." Leap in, don't over think the reasons for doing something. Actually, I don't think you have a real choice. As far as personal roller coasters go, I've had ups and downs - marriage, divorce, the strange world of dating in my 40's, and a second marriage (going on 25 years). I had some money, I lost it all, I got some back, and so forth. And now we have this pandemic. Good heavens. Do your best, give your all, and see what unfolds. Professional, semiprofessional, amateur, student, blah, blah, blah. Those are external titles. Fulfilled, happy, challenged, curious, and courageous. Those are reasons to wake up in the morning. So, when you get to my age you want to say, "I did that." Rather than saying, "I wonder what would have happened if. . . ?" As Dylan Thomas wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night."
October 8, 2020, 2:29 PM · "As Dylan Thomas wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night."

A stupid poem, from the perspective of anyone who's seen one rage.

October 9, 2020, 7:12 PM · Louise Glück was granted a grand prize in literature yesterday. For her poems, which generally aren't suitable for coffee mugs or encouraging students; despite a lifetime of awards and positions, they express no greater confidence.

"and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed."

But she remains hopeful.

“Worldly honour makes existence in the world easier. It puts you in a position to have a good job. It means you can charge large fees to get on an airplane and perform,” she said. “But as an emblem of what I want – it is not capable of being had in my lifetime. I want to live after I die, in that ancient way. And there’s no way of knowing whether that will happen, and there will be no knowing, no matter how many blue ribbons have been plastered to my corpse.”

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