The Importance of Personal Musical Enrichment for Educators: Goals, ongoing ensemble experiences, and retaining professional performance as instrumentalists and musicians

Mike Lawson • String Section • July 14, 2017

Share This:

As musicians and educators, I suspect at some point in time each of us has experienced “the fear.”

The fear of falling into the busy rhythm of daily teaching and emersion in those programs which give shape to it. We are so busy, and when we are holding it together, when things are going well, is it not tempting fate to do more. That is valid; it is real life.

However, going too long without the nurturing of attention paid to performing and professional growth as musicians is dangerous, and it can unravel the best of us. Ignoring one’s own musical life in the pursuit of providing one for youths and others denies a vital component of the value placed on the performing aspect of a musicians’ career. But more importantly, losing touch with the stage and the ensemble can very quickly lead to unrest or, sometimes, a sense of musical frustration.

As I wrapped up the final draft of this month’s article, the first annual “Summer Chamber Music Institute for Adults” was underway at Nashville’s Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. I was quite excited to be participating. Until now I had not enjoyed the opportunity to attend a program tailored for and recognizing a very particular population which, to my knowledge, is just recently being offered accessible, practical, and realistic activities in which to participate in our true identities as musicians. After discussing proposed programs for adults serious in their musicianship, as well as their unique (and thus difficult to organize) needs for professional growth, I was made aware of other similar programs making successful venues for adult musicians (string players, specifically) to participate in over the summer months.

These “camps” and workshops have much to offer in the way of exposure and participation in music making, ongoing education, general enrichment, and feedback. There is always a refreshing nature of communicating and socializing with other professionals with whom we quickly identify. It has long seemed the case that once one earns a post graduate degree in music, it is time to “switch sides.” And doors feel like they close on certain activities we love forever. What a gift to find, a decade or later, that doors are now opening, and I am much better equipped to receive them!

I am genuinely surprised with what I have absorbed, learned, discovered, and re experienced differently — within the first 24 hours of the four-day program. It was like being a student again. Except in a whole new capacity — I am operating on a daily basis within the world of music, so all that I notice, witness, feel, participate, and attempt can be put into a particular context and therefore has such value!

Perhaps most poignant, personally, was what I learned contrasts the unavoidable nature as they stand today. In what another environment would I become so excited and motivated by an experience that at one time would have rendered me musically paralyzed and personally frail? One in which I had a chance to see myself get close to having the same response, but with a different outcome; one done on my own amongst others who likely understand the experience, if not actively struggling to work through their own. Being able to recover and rescue a rehearsal (which, is its own type of performance most of the time) to the point of pride for the ensemble. Excitement and exclamations of “fun!”

I hope that this current trend in which adults are given the same kinds of activities, programs, attention, and opportunities all the way from reading chamber music to participating in concerto competitions is one that has staying power in more and more communities. Our need of goals, challenges, instruction, and events is just as valid, important, necessary, and valued as those offered to those in earlier stages of this journey we share.

I hope most of those who are in a position to take advantage of the available resources, do. I have no doubt that students make great educators and teachers make great students. We are not so different from each other in what is useful as we tend to our musical betterment. What we end up taking with us probably is, however.

They could have been having their own similar struggles. That, I believe, would be the result of a maturity in a musician that cannot be part of a student summer music camp or another similar program. Experience in some instances must preclude the education we can best use as we grow older and further. I suggest regular evaluations of a personal nature; designate a time frame, if you work well that way, or use preexisting holidays or birthdays. Be willing to accept those who come to us with no warning and elicit decision making, regardless of the possible duress surrounding you. You know what it is you need to do to be able to find and make accessible your most honest self.

If your time relaxes somewhat during the summer months, look around for an orchestral audition in which you can manage the rehearsal schedules and demands. It will end up being like every other thing we don’t want to do, yet want the rewards of do-Goals, ongoing ensemble experiences, and retaining professional performance as instrumentalists and musicians.

Alternately, they need not be played actually to join. Sublist auditions are moderately demanding if they like you. Who wants to wake up one day and realize that they do great work educating young musicians in the art of doing well as performing musicians, without having a musical life of one’s own, and not knowing where or how to return to that world within the confines of an already hectic schedule? Without being actively involved in musical activities, it becomes more and more distant a thing to consider yourself a performer, a musician.

The brass tacks of the phenomenon are that, as music educators, it is hard to find the time and energy to pursue your own inner musicianship through ongoing participation in ensembles. That seems unhealthy, not to mention that it compromises many of the things that have made you an excellent teacher.

As one’s own enthusiasm for playing a stringed instrument begins to wane (or disappear!), so does that special and unique energy that you bring to the classroom or your students in general. Which is disappointing to all, that is the real excitement and energy which is indirectly but quite accurately sensed by students and colleagues.

The youngest of orchestra directors or instructors who are fresh out of the university setting can be exhausting to compare yourself to, so don’t. Comparing one’s self in the performing arts community is unfair, inaccurate, and, if not checked, insane. I know because it is something I did for many years.

I judged my own success or wellness based on how much work I was able to balance and how much performing I was able to secure, and the perceived degree of respect or “elite-ness” of the musicians I found myself surrounded by in judged environments or auditioned positions.

Everyone has different coping skills to make it in a professional environment such as a career musician. And it does require a lot of contemplation and learned responses or how not to respond. When to listen and use feedback, and when it is not helpful. To know when it has been too long since we had any at all. There are so much potentially damaging and discouraging results which teeter on the very narrow precipice we call “criticism.”

The difference is the terribly important implications of companion word added {“constructive criticism”}. How we view, monitor, and hold ourselves up under the pressures and unavoidable vulnerability inherent with inserting an audience into the of performing and success on stage (and off) matters. I believe that is the most valuable and inevitable part of a college education in the performing arts. How to handle criticism, rejection, nerves, competition, bad performances, real “juries,” and recitals — and how to manage it when visible, when alone, and the way it affects your relationships with the others around you. Obviously, this article is primarily for those who are overworked, overwhelmed, overruled, and under the protection of none when it comes to finding musical outlets and ways to use them regularly.

When we each began our journey into the musical world, something immense happened to inspire us to make music. Somewhere along the way, something wonderful that marked us as we saw it and we knew what we saw. We knew we wanted it. Something irregular, intense, meaningful. We discovered ours in the making of music. It would justify the many hours spent practicing and learning the instrument and the worlds that embrace it. Ours is a unique kind of journey; it is a serious commitment which requires the deepest desire and willingness to sacrifice a lot of one’s time day after day.

Real life is sometimes not able to make concessions for those who need it; never has life been fair in that way. Family is important. Most would agree family is a higher priority than the internal query regarding the existential issue(s), such as what defines one as a musician or not. Or the degree to which one puts their performance degree to use.

I cannot find a profession with a similar ratio (training and education vs. financial security). The disproportion of work and reward is staggering. Those who make music their lives’ work are likely talented in areas of finance and management in areas specific to their wellbeing without the acute distresses, infinite compromise and instead project as possessing a unique and sustaining vision.

Jennifer began studying violin at age three with her father in Alberta, Canada. After receiving a B.M. in violin performance and a M.A. from Middle Tennessee State University, she returned to university to properly study the viola. Currently, she performs with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, the Murfreesboro Symphony, the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra, the Parthenon Chamber Orchestra, Wire Cabal, and with her quartet the Tulsianni Ensemble.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!