Reflections on a five-year journey

When I first came to Lawrence, I was so excited to be attending a Conservatory. Coming from a small town that didn’t have that many musical opportunities, I was thrilled to immerse myself in a classical music community. My dream was to be a pianist, and in my mind that career felt very clearly and narrowly defined around the traditional Western classical music canon and traditional performance venues. I scoffed at contemporary music, jazz and pop, and was completely uninterested in any of the world music concerts. Everything that wasn’t Beethoven or Mozart was just noise in the way of my classical goals. 

The first few years were incredibly difficult. While driven, I was not a “good student.” I interrogated everything and was always fearlessly myself. These personal qualities have never mixed well with classical music.  A long time ago (not at Lawrence) a teacher told me that my curiosity and constant questioning were what was holding me back from being a great pianist. For years I internalized the thought that my personality was my greatest flaw, and I remember feeling incredibly jealous of my peers who seemingly did everything their teachers told them to absolutely perfectly. Why couldn’t I do this? Why was it such a battle for me? 

At first, this was a fight I was determined to win. I clung to my narrow-minded goals as a desperate attempt to prove that I was strong enough to resist the constant tide always threatening to pull me away from the classical music I loved. I practiced five to eight hours a day and never said no to an opportunity. No one was going to hold me back, definitely not myself.  

At the end of my junior year, I burned out. I had been taking 30 credits, playing in three serious chamber ensembles, accompanying 10 people and trying to learn a really difficult concerto. I felt gutted after the loss of a competition where I felt I had poured everything I had into the performance, and my mind was blown by the musicology sequence when I learned about the really darkly exclusive hierarchies and attitudes my narrow-minded, canon-focused goals were informed by. 

I felt uncreative, lost and like everyone had a say in my music-making except me. One day, I wandered in to a student jazz recital where the student played all his own compositions. There was something about the performance that transported me right back to the very first moment I’d fallen in love with music, and then I realized this feeling was exactly what I had been missing all along.  

So I quit piano. 

It hurt at first to let go of my dreams, but it was the best decision I’ve ever made. The noise of all those expectations and the perfectionist pressure cleared and I felt free to try other things. I played the djembe in a West African drumming group, wrote poetry, attempted to learn guitar, bought a melodica, hiked in the woods, worked the breakfast shift at a hotel, moved to Russia. The internal battles inside me quieted and I felt free and light. 

A few months into the break, though, I started to miss piano. I learned a handful of small things like an easy Scriabin prelude on the electric keyboard in my dingy school closet in Russia. I also attended some beautiful concerts—operas, symphonies, ballets and recitals that left me breathlessly in love with classical music all over again. 

As I fell in love again, I slowly realized that classical music is not the devil, it’s the attitude. 

At first, I was so angry. I was upset at a tradition that preserved itself like a museum piece, sterilized by its perfectionism and standardization of interpretation. I was upset with myself for allowing this industry to tell me that my curiosity and sense of self were fundamental flaws. I was so upset at the ivory towers of old school tradition that dismiss all other forms of musicking as not worth one’s time. How could I have allowed these values to infiltrate myself to the point that my love of music was killed? That swirling, hurling mass of noise that made me forget those first moments when I truly fell in love. 

I soothed my anger with love and exploration. Starting with my senior recital, I reclaimed my love and agency by performing works I really cared about, improvising and inviting the audience to lie around me on the floor in the dark for a piece. In this past year I’ve been able to study voice, improvisation, songwriting, Afro-Cuban music, Samba, deep listening and contact improvisation. I was able to intern at Carnegie Hall and learn a lot about the powers of music and community building. 

None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t attended a school that did not punish me for having an existential crisis but rather embraced and supported me in all my explorations. I’m so grateful to the many teachers who welcomed me, a complete beginner, into their classes and ensembles. In the classical sphere, I have been incredibly lucky to have had a piano teacher who has always supported my musical and personal growth. At the end of the day, I can finally look myself in the mirror and say I play music for me and mean it. There is no more noise.   

This is a journey I write about a lot because I do not want others to feel alone as I did in their struggles with the difficult and complex journey of becoming a musician. I want to encourage people to constantly push boundaries, interrogate traditions, blend disciplines and fearlessly allow themselves to become beginners again. 

The harmful attitudes of exclusivity and perfectionism are not unique to classical music. No musical tradition is perfect and it’s up to us to shape the future of music-making as we want it to be. It’s not enough to talk about the importance of artistic individuality, diversity and inclusion without actually practicing it. Make time to find a piece by an unknown and underrepresented composer that really moves you and learn it. Spend a term in the Improv Group of Lawrence University exploring sounds on your instrument that you never knew were possible before. Join a world music ensemble and immerse yourself in a new tradition. Start a band. Play a new instrument. Compose a piece or song! Commission a piece from a living composer. Play! Take risks. Ask, “Why?” Face your doubts, fears and insecurities, hold them, listen to them and work with them. Take time to really listen to yourself and your surroundings. Don’t let the noise sweep you away.  

Music has such incredible powers of communication and connection. It can build communities, cross boundaries and open people up to think in new ways. We cannot allow ourselves to let the noise of expectations and worries take away that love and power. Music, life, exploration and connection; they are all too important to be mummified by attitudes of superiority and perfectionism. The change must continue.