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A Student’s Life: The Five Most Important Relationships You Have in Music School

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I’ve always found there to be a certain amount of irony about Valentine’s Day. It’s supposed to be a holiday commemorating the life of a venerated Catholic saint, but popular culture has turned it into a superficial hallmark holiday that threatens to throw a wrench into relationships around the globe. One wrong move-forgetting to buy him a card, buying her earings she already has, or neglecting to make reservations at a popular restaurant-and the pieces are all in place for a puzzle of amorous disaster. Indeed, statistics have shown that 47% of couples actually break up on Valentine’s Day, greatly surpassing the mere 10% who choose the fourteenth of February to get engaged (often via a tacky desert plate with the words “Will you marry me?” drizzled in vermillion icing atop a wedge of chocolate mousse-yes, I actually witnessed this one year). While today might primarily be a day to reflect on our relationships with our significant others (unless you’re celebrating Singles Awareness Day like myself), it’s also not a bad idea to think about the other relationships we maintain as music students-relationships that, if gone sour, can actually cause just as many problems as a tumultuous romance. So, in the spirit of St. Valentine’s ardent desire to live harmoniously (or at least escape Roman persecution), I’ve devoted this second post of my four-part series on the life of a music student to the five most important relationships you have at music school that you don’t want to end in a break-up.

1. Your Teacher

Considering you see this person at least once a week for your lesson, in addition to studio class and slightly awkward run-ins at the local Starbucks (“Why hello there, Melinda! Maybe that iced mocha you’re clutching will help you notch up the tempo in your Paganini?”), it’s vital that you and your private instructor are consistently on good terms. Aside from the obvious means of achieving this (showing up on time, prepared, and not hungover….yes, I’ve known students who’ve failed at all three of these), it’s also important that you keep an open channel of communication with your teacher regarding any extra-musical issues as well. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re feeling unmotivated, stressed about a particular performance, or not as enthused as your teacher is about the possibility of your going to a certain summer festival for eight weeks; remember, your teacher was once a student, too, and chances are he or she will be more than happy to offer advice and support. At the same time, however, you shouldn’t turn them into your personal therapist. While some teachers are more interested in your social life than others, most of them don’t want to hear about that bad date you had last night (“And then he dropped me off at the bus stop without even kissing me good-bye!” “Oh, I’m sorry, Melinda. Can I hear your etude now?”). Most importantly, don’t feel inhibited to act if you feel that your teacher isn’t the right fit for you. Most of the time, he or she will not be offended if you express a desire to try a different situation, as nobody’s teaching style is perfect for everyone, and chances are they may have been thinking about recommending a switch themselves. Your teacher assignment is most likely the main reason you’re at your school, and so it is crucial to maintain a vibrant, healthy, and nurturing relationship with them if you’re going to succeed in your student career.

2. Your Colleagues

Aside from your relationship with your teacher, the relationships you develop with your colleagues are the most important bonds you’ll make in college. Mark my words-you will see these people again, and you don’t want to be spending the rest of your professional life dreading bumping into someone at a gig just because you messed up as a student. While rifts within your social circle are bound to occur, it’s certainly possible to prevent the formation of any lifelong grudges if you use common sense and exhibit respect when dealing with individuals who might be getting on your nerves. Music schools tend to attract a very diverse bunch, and it’s important to keep in mind that the main reason you might be having an issue with someone is simply because they see things differently than you do. You might consider the comments someone made on your playing in studio class to be unreasonably harsh, but that person might consider their remarks to be relatively considerate in comparison to what they had to endure with their previous teacher. Don’t let yourself become jealous of the “good” people, either-everyone’s at their own stage of development, and just because that prodigy girl from Japan can play the Sibelius concerto like nobody’s business doesn’t mean that you should post a picture of her on your dartboard. Similarly, don’t publicly bemoan your failures, either-turning to Facebook to vent your woes will only cement your reputation as that whiny guy who posts ten times a day about how he can’t play his octaves in tune, and that’s not exactly the image you want people to have of you as you start your career. Remember that a current colleague might be a potential employer later on, and the last thing you want is to practice eight hours a day for an audition only to walk in to the sullen glare of that violist you spread rumors about in back your college days. So do yourself a favor and respect your fellow students-it will only help you.

3. Your Roommate

Regardless of whether you’re living in a dorm room with your stand partner or in an apartment with the owner of the local deli (you would be surprised who you can find on Craigslist), getting along with your roommates or housemates is a must if you want to remain free of unnecessary stress. This means doing the dishes before it’s time for the next meal, not succumbing to temptation and eating that last doughnut they’d been hoping to snack on after their rehearsal, and always giving them a heads up when you’re going to have people over. Similarly, don’t start shouting at them if they step over the line as well-respectfully and calmly addressing a situation is always the way to go, particularly if the problem involves something like the unexpected appearance of their significant other in a towel (which, incidentally, could very well be the case tomorrow morning). However, while effective and considerate communication will solve most problems, in some cases it does become necessary to contemplate a change. Nobody is the perfect roommate, but if you’ve come home to an unannounced frat party for the twentieth time in a month, it may be time to spend some quality time on Craigslist, or, if you’re really fed up, to start looking for a studio.

4. Your Conductor

There is an old joke about a violinist who dies and goes to heaven. She is delighted to find that there’s an orchestra, but soon learns she has to sit way in the back, because Heifetz, Joachim, Kreisler and other great soloists of the past are all in front of her. The violinist agrees to such a placement-after all, she certainly doesn’t want to be sent to join the poor violists being forced to play Strauss waltzes over and over again in hell-but is dismayed when the conductor steps up and begins to display terrible technique-sloppy beats, missed cues, and a general obliviousness to the musicians under him. The violinist turns to her stand partner and asks who he is.

“Oh, that’s God,” her stand partner replies. “He thinks he’s a conductor.”

While we might chuckle at such a joke, it’s actually very important that you don’t tell your conductor that he acts like he’s God, even if he does. Often times music schools will have one principal conductor who takes most of the concerts, and you don’t want to get on his or her bad side-after all, you’re going to be seeing them at least two or three times a week, in addition to those awkward run-ins at Starbucks during orchestra breaks (“Oh, hi, there Melinda. Shouldn’t you be practicing that difficult lick in the Bartok?” “Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Conductor X, I couldn’t practice it last night because I had a date, and then I had to practice this etude for my lesson.…”). While most conductors will be fair in assigning seating, they’re not going to be inclined to put you principal if you consistently show up late, keep your mocha grande on the stand (hovering precariously over the Guarneri of your terrified stand partner), and text your friends in the viola section while the conductor’s working with the winds (“OMG they r so out of tune!” [this is also something not to write, either]). But even if you are tactful enough to show up on time, spare the Guarneri from the fate of a mocha waterfall, keep your iPhone off and in your case, and subsequently get placed principal, you could still damage your good standing if you slack off in the practicing department. I’ve witnessed more than one instance of a student not taking their leadership position seriously, and on a couple unfortunate occasions, I’ve seen such students be replaced by the conductor as a result of their unpreparedness. Practice your part even if you’re sitting last chair, too; you’re still playing in the orchestra, and some questionable notes emulating from your instrument can and will detract from the ensemble’s overall presentation. The conductor might not be able to discern who’s playing in the wrong key, the wrong clef, or (if you’re really having a bad day) the wrong page, but they have eyes, too, and can get a pretty good idea of who’s prepared and who’s not. So come in ready, leaving all beverages and technological devices behind, and put in your absolute best effort, even if the conductor is aspiring to achieve divine status.

5. Your Instrument

It may not be a living, breathing human being, but the relationship you have with your instrument requires just as much effort, if not more, than your relationships with your teachers and colleagues. After all, you’re going to be spending time with it at least four hours a day, in addition to those long treks back and forth to school and those many occasions when you take it in with you to Starbucks during a practice break (“Don’t forget me under the table this time, okay, Melinda?”). All anecdotes of talking instruments aside (and I promise Melinda is not a real person, either), keeping your instrument in top condition is crucial not only for its durability, but for your playing as well. A bow that hasn’t been rehaired in a year will only be a hindrance when you’re attempting to play the scherzo from a Midsummer Night’s Dream, and neglecting to keep your instrument in a humidified environment could cause you much angst when you arrive at an audition to find that the strings have taken on the appearance of soggy noodles (that, combined with your hairless bow, will turn the resulting experience into a midwinter afternoon’s nightmare for both you and the judges). Make sure that you perform regular maintenance on your instrument, and always have spare accessories in the event of an emergency. Additionally, make sure you take the necessary precautions to keep it safe while traveling, ensuring that it’s stored securely on airplanes and that it’s appropriately shielded from the heating/air conditioning units in the car-you’d be surprised what two hours of blasting heat can do to an unprotected viola (“Melinda, why are you doing this to me?!”). Like any real relationship you might have, treat your instrument with respect, and (most of the time) it will respect you, too.

I’m sure there are other relationships that could be addressed here (such as your relationship with the practice room, or that troubled but beautiful relationship between ii7 and I) but as I’m sure you’re itching to head off to the florist to pick up those dozen red roses for your date tonight, I’ll stop here. But, if you do have a moment in the midst of your activities of amor, or need something to distract your mind from nerves while waiting for that piece of pie with the ring hidden inside to arrive in front of your girlfriend at dinner (again, I’m not advocating this), take some time to reflect on the health of all of your music-related relationships. After all, being a musician is all about bringing people together, and if we take a few simple steps to ensure that we can be together without harboring a burning desire to bludgeon each other with music stands, then we’ll most certainly be on the right track to a lovely future.

More in this series:
The College Audition Survival Guide

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