“So….do you still play the violin?”
Recently, people have been asking me this a lot (you’ll see why in a bit), and I’ll be honest with you, it kind of pisses me off.
My reaction to that question is visceral: defensive, angry, defiant. And a little scared. Because, dammit, I didn’t give up my childhood and every fun thing to be a violinist and have it called into question now.
I went to what’s considered one of the top conservatories in the world and I’ve won some of the biggest prizes there are to win and I’ve performed as a soloist in many of the world’s more prestigious concert halls.
So why do I feel like I have to keep proving that I belong? Why do I feel like I have to keep defending myself?
Often, it doesn’t feel like I have a choice. It feels like I have to keep proving it.
I have to win some fancy prize or play some fancy concert or wear some fancy dress and post a bunch of pictures and videos of myself playing the violin, all so fancy, all so perfect, in order to remind people that, yeah, I still play the violin. I’m still a violinist.
I’m also aware that my outsized reaction to this question also reveals my own insecurities. Because if someone is asking me if I’m still a violinist, it’s a pretty innocent question, right? I mean, I should be able to say, yes, without needing to prove it.
Lately, I’ve been wondering, why do I feel the need to prove it? And why, just because I’m doing something else in addition to playing the violin, are people so confused?
It seems like it’s difficult to process that I do multiple things. For example, I play the violin (yes, I still do) and yes, I also write.
It’s made me wonder why this seems so difficult to understand?
Classical music – like ballet or ice skating or gymnastics, perhaps — demands what I think of as a monastic devotion.
While I know that we all over identify with work–most of us feel like we are our jobs–I’ve noticed that there’s something weird that happens in classical music. We commit to this monastic devotion to our instrument from when we are 5 or 6 or 7 (or these days, it seems to start even younger, 2 or 3 or 4) and then, that’s the thing we do. Forever, till the end of time.
From an early age, a child is asked to make a single minded commitment and to sacrifice everything else for the sake of that dedication.
Not every child is able to do this. The ones who are, are often considered “extraordinary.”
I’m not sure this is always a positive thing.
Part of the cognitive dissonance is because in classical music, we’re professionalized from such a young age. In a dominant culture that’s already youth obsessed, classical music is even more so. Prodigies, younger every year, are discovered and celebrated for their precocity. Emerging and rising stars are celebrated and supported with cash prizes and prestigious grants. The cutoff age for most competitions is around age 30.
But where does this leave the vast majority of working musicians who’ve sacrificed and worked just as hard? And what happens when the young musician becomes a mid-career one? What happens during the years–sometimes decades–of relative anonymity that can follow these early bursts of career success?
I remember once an older colleague, a concert presenter, said if an artist or an ensemble was able to weather the long years between about age 30 to 60, then they *might* have a career.
How depressing is that? This idea that you have to just stick to it, endure, for decades, while you wait to transform from the young prodigy to the old master. From Shirley Temple to Yoda (I’m probably aging myself with that comparison but whatever. I *know* you know who Yoda is and just go look up Shirley Temple. She’s more than just a delicious mocktail).
The thing is, there seems to be very little discussion about *how* musicians can evolve or how we even find the permission to evolve our identities as classical musicians. Not to mention the considerations of real life: marriage, divorce, financial and job insecurity, family, children, mortgages, and, of course, an ongoing pandemic, climate change, and global uncertainty.
I believe it’s unfortunate–maybe even irresponsible–that we perpetuate this bias against musicians who are moving away from performing, teaching, and making music in the traditional ways.
Just because you’re a musician-slash-something, doesn’t mean you’re not a serious musician. And, from what I can tell, a lot of musicians who went onto other professions after achieving a very high, even elite, level of playing abilities often feel ignored and underserved.
Because classical music continues to cater to the very young or the singularly professional musician.
When you’re really young, you might discover that doing something well, like playing the violin or dancing en pointe or nailing a flip on the balance beam, means that people treat you differently.
Like you’re extra special. Like you’re extra worthy. And over time, you might conflate your identity with the thing you do. You over identify with the thing because it seems to make you special.
You might start to think:
I’m only worthy if I win this audition or competition.
I’m only special when I’m on stage.
I’m only as valuable as my last performance.
For me, my role as a violinist has always seemed to be:
To prove my worth
All without expressing a single word about myself, who I am, and what I believe in.
I started making a pivot before covid. I was lonely and frustrated with my career. And I think that a lot of folks are suffering silently right now.
As you may know, I’ve been writing for a while now. To be totally honest, I started writing in a dark time in my life, when I didn’t know who to turn to or what to do next. I started writing to keep myself company and to process my thoughts. I write to make sense of what’s happening and to see if I better understand things. After a while, writing came to be a part of me and I started looking for ways to do more and connect it to my identity as a musician. Writing also became part of how I started my festival, MusicIC, where I create programs that seek out connections between music and literature.
Over time, though, I’ve learned that being able to write is a practice that we’d all benefit from.
Because stories matter.
And how well you tell your story can help you in your career. It can also help you be happier and more empowered in every area of your life.
There’s well researched evidence, from folks like Dr. James Pennebaker and Dr. Paul Zak, that tells us that writing and storytelling can help us process the world, develop emotional resilience, and make us more effective and successful in every walk of life: whether we’re artists, advocates, activists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and teachers or any combination of these. Improving your writing skills can help you connect with people, build your audience, craft your message, and make you a more impactful public speaker, whether that’s in the boardroom, conferences, classroom, or concert hall.
But when I was working towards my MFA, I kept it secret because I was afraid it might make people think I wasn’t a violinist anymore. That they’d be confused about what I was doing and that trying something new would have repercussions on my career. That people wouldn’t hire me or think of me for concerts and gigs anymore.
And because I was just starting out as a writer and because of the messages of toxic perfectionism that I’ve inherited, I felt ashamed about trying something new. I worried that people would think I’d given up on the violin.
After all, in the classical music world I was raised in, you weren’t allowed to try new things. And you’re also weren’t allowed to be bad at anything, at least not in public anyway. But isn’t it important for us to be able to do things publicly and make changes to our career and identities openly, without shame or fear or repercussions?
So when I graduated and got my MFA diploma, I proudly posted it on social media and watched the likes roll in, from people who I hadn’t heard from in months, years, and sometimes decades.
People commented: Congratulations! Way to go! Where can I read your book?… and I cringed, because an MFA thesis doesn’t usually transform into a book, alas. And I couldn’t help but wonder how these same folks would have responded if I’d shared my process instead of the product. Because, in my experience, the classical music world doesn’t like to see how things are made, they just want to see the end result.
We’re taught to be flawless, at all costs. Even if the cost is our own personhood.
So much of classical music is about commodifying us, making us all the same.
In classical music, we’re all vying for the same few spots in what we’re constantly told is a dying industry. And certainly, the covid pandemic has shown us the fragility of all institutions and systems, not just classical music and the performing arts.
As a classical violinist, I was trained to conform, to play the same pieces as everyone else, to play them the same way, not change any notes, and to be different but not too different. To express myself just enough to get noticed but not enough to rattle the system. And whether people intended this to be the message or not, I was taught that no one really wants to know anything about who I am, what I think, what I feel, and what I want.
And as an Asian woman, I was also taught that I was interchangeable, that I’m literally the same as every other Asian woman on this earth. That the most interesting things about me were how young I was, how pretty I was, and how unshakably perfect I could be.
And the terrible irony of course is that, as an Asian woman, my very ability to be as perfect as possible was also used against me. If I was perfect, I was boring. If I wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t worth noticing. Damned if I do and damned if I don’t, I was a commodity, an object that was only as useful as my shelflife. I was only useful as long as I was child-cute and technically astonishing…and then a young woman-pretty/hot/sexy.
And I tried to play by these rules, for a long time, because I’m a rule follower and a good student and a “good girl.” I’m not comfortable with breaking the rules. Even as I write this, I’m literally fighting waves of nausea and overwhelm because I’m afraid of what people will think, what they will say, and how this will impact my image and career.
But now, I play the violin and I love it more because it’s not the only thing I do.
I don’t think that doing something else in your career should mean that you have to give up being a classical musician.
Why shouldn’t you be able to run a business and play concerts just when you want to, not because you have to? Why shouldn’t you be able to play chamber music at the same hospital where you’re a doctor? Why are the only people who are considered professional classical musicians– “real” musicians–the ones who do it full time?
Because believe me, while I know lots of musicians who love playing (and I get it: I love performing, too, and being on tour, living out of a suitcase is maybe some the happiest I’ve ever had), I also know a lot of musicians who have great, secure looking jobs who are miserable. They play out the season, concert to concert, gig to gig, and they can’t wait for the summer, when they can put their instruments in their lockers and not take them out until the fall.
This makes me sad. I don’t think we need to be this unhappy to have a successful life and career as classical musicians.
So, maybe try this tiny mindset shift…consider finding the things that only *you* can do.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was: Find the 2 or 3 things that you like to do and figure out the weird combination of them that only *you* can do. And figure out how this combination of things can serve other people.
You don’t have to be the “best” at all of them and in fact, it might be better if you aren’t. Just get good enough.
Maybe you went to Juilliard for cello. But you also love cleaning your house and landscape photography. Maybe you went to medical school. But you also like gardening and baking bread. I have a good friend who keeps an impeccable home and loves cleaning and is a genius organizer; I always thought she could easily start a blog about tidying up (no, I’m not talking about Marie Kondo, but I wish.) And I know of someone who used to be an upper admin at a music conservatory who now bakes artisanal bread in the Pacific Northwest.
I’m not saying it’ll be easy to evolve. I mean, think about the butterfly: there’s a stage during its evolution when it’s just a blob of straight *goo*, encased in a cocoon. I mean, if that goo had consciousness, wouldn’t it be totally freaked out?? One day, I’m a caterpillar, going about my life and then, wtf, I’m a giant booger hanging upside down in a hard shell, waiting. All with the remote promise that I’m going to eventually become a butterfly.
This is a terrifying prospect, from the point of view of the caterpillar/goo. Much better to resist gooifying. Much better to stay a caterpillar.
But here’s a thing I’ve learned:
Very few things are as hard as training to be a classical musician.
And if you’ve experienced this training at any level at all, I promise you, you are well equipped to do just about anything. I’ve heard this from friends who changed careers later in life: they went to med school and law school and business school and Ph.D’s and they all said, “yeah, it was hard. But not as hard as playing the violin/cello/piano, etc.”
And I’ve experienced this too. Because as hard as writing is, getting to the top level of playing the violin was harder. And because of this, writing, as difficult as it can be, is a respite. And having more than one discipline allows room for both to exist.
Ironically, when I am tapped out writing, I’ll go play violin for a while and when I’m tapped out playing violin, I’ll go to writing. They fill up different parts of my creative tank and together, they keep my creativity going.
It’s okay to not do one thing forever.
There’re plenty of folks who’re making career pivots to incorporate their musical careers into larger identities as business people, activists, and citizens. There’s also plenty of folks who’re already classical musician-slash-somethings. In fact, I went to Juilliard with lots of them; folks who now are investment bankers and doctors and entrepreneurs and consultants and scientists and academics.
But it seems to me that these folks are still considered as “other” in the classical music world.
If you have another job or identity, it seems like this means you didn’t really commit, that you’re not a real musician. Or, if you’re thinking about pivoting to something else, you might feel what I felt: fearful about what people will think of you. You might worry that people will think you’re a failure, that you didn’t have what it took to really “make it” as a musician.
I think this is toxic and damaging. And from what I’ve heard from folks, I think there is a wide range of adult musicians who feel left out and underserved in classical music because they either didn’t choose the professional path early on or maybe they did, but want to change course later.
I’m interested in helping those folks.
I mean, who among us would expect a kid at age 5 to know what they’ll be doing when they’re 45? Not only does this narrow-minded expectation do a disservice to our young students who are in music schools and conservatories now, but it does disservice to the musicians who have multi-faceted careers they’ve worked hard for already or, especially, those who are pivoting and making career changes later in life and need support.
As you might be able to tell, I have a lot of slippery thoughts about all of this. But knowing what I know now, I think I’ll talk more about this as my own journey continues to evolve. Again, I’m especially interested in helping folks who are like me, who’re trying to develop their creative practices to include more facets of themselves, rather than just one thing.
You are a fill-in-the-blank. You’re also a fill-in-the-blank.
And, I strongly believe that you can do lots of things. Because I believe this for myself, too.
I am a violinist. I’m also a writer. I’m also a teacher. I’m a daughter and sister, too. And I’m a lot of things that I’m still figuring out. And I’m learning to have more fun discovering these things along the way.
Have you experienced anything like this in your life or career as well? I love working with people who are finding the courage to be themselves and trying new things. If you’ve been feeling a little lost or stuck in your violin practice or writing, feel free to reach out – I’d love to help and support you on your creative journey: