Pursuing your passions within the Conservatory

By Jess Morgan

Lawrence is a great place for me to pursue my interest in piano, or for any other student to start a new instrument, since half of our university is dedicated to music. However, the atmosphere and high level of prestige within the conservatory is intimidating, making it scary to fully embrace the knowledge and talented faculty it contains.

Non-music majors entering the conservatory are faced with the challenge of entering a setting in which their peers have several more years of experience with music. Being surrounded by their talent makes it hard not to make comparisons to your own musicality and worry about measuring up to their ability.

During my freshman year at Lawrence, a girl on my floor occasionally sang with her guitar in hand. On occasions that her door was open, listeners flocked to the entrance to compliment her music. Shortly after, she dismissed her own playing, comparing it to the conservatory. It saddened me that she didn’t find value in what so many of the other girls admired at the time.

Without the guidance music majors receive from their academic advisors, it can also be difficult to navigate the conservatory’s resources and to know what lessons or ensemble experiences are relevant. Students who are a part of the same studio spend several hours with their fellow musicians, making it difficult for non-majors to immerse themselves in an environment in which everyone already knows a lot about each other.

Entering the conservatory as a music major does not mean there is no potential for fear or anxieties, either. Like most freshman, I was undecided about my major entering Lawrence. If I wanted to continue playing the clarinet, I only saw two options available: education or performance.

My first two years, structured rigidly around music theory requirements, were confusing and full of a lot of reflective questions. In addition, I desperately wanted to pursue studies with the piano but was terrified of putting down my clarinet. After spending almost ten years routinely practicing the clarinet, I knew that it was something I was good at, so starting over again terrified me.

College is perfect for discovering yourself and learning how to use the interests you’re passionate about. The amount of music degree requirements can make it hard to decide what you want most and to find time for necessary self-investigation. Instead of finding ways to branch out, hours are drained into rehearsals and practice time, providing little time to decide if the instrument you have been playing for years is your true passion.

If you are truly in love with your instrument, are set on a career path, have plans for how to integrate your instrument into your life after graduation and want to spend the majority of your time practicing, then I genuinely applaud your dedication and self-awareness. However, there are many conservatory students who feel restricted from fully exploring their potential in other disciplines by the conservatory’s atmosphere or from the fear of stepping outside of what they know.

This term I am taking “The Entrepreneurial Musician” with Brian Pertl, the dean of the Conservatory. The class focuses on activities that force students out of their comfort zones and includes a business proposal as a final project. I found it striking how many music majors in the class are branching out and developing final projects that either have nothing to do with their major or explore music in a way they are unable to do within their classes and ensembles.

Each student in class recently presented their ideas for their final project. The presentations exposed goals and passions students don’t typically share in other settings. Senior Luke Rivard, percussion performance major, shared a business proposal in which he hopes to focus on the guitar. Luke says he would like to “finish writing tunes that I started, put together a group and then record an album.”

Describing the experience of sharing his business proposal, Rivard said, “That was by far the most surreal, terrifying performance I had ever given.” The performance and presentation was an important, courageous step for Rivard, who shared, “I only play guitar in my room. When I took out my guitar to go somewhere one of my housemates was like, ‘oh when did you get a guitar?’ I have never played guitar in one of the practice rooms. It’s kind of like social suicide.”

As an audience member, I was touched by the performance and inspired to take my interest in piano more seriously. While I don’t have much experience playing the piano, and Rivard has much more experience playing percussion than guitar, at one point we were both beginners at our main instrument.

Starting an interest in something new doesn’t have to become your entire career, but you never know where it could lead. During my internship with the Fox Cities Magazine, I had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with George Winston, a pianist and composer. He shared that he started playing the organ relatively late in is life, at age 18; he began to study the piano a few years later. Now, he is an established professional pianist.

The experiences we gain at Lawrence are meant to help us prepare for what we hope to tackle after graduation, so we should actively choose experiences we would like to carry out after college. Even if you are a senior, there is potential to reach out to professors who are knowledgeable about your interests.

“Seeing my friends graduate and seeing what they’re doing, I’m realizing that you can literally do anything you want. I have a few more months here. I’m going to do this and get input on it while I’m here,” said Rivard.

It is easy to ignore new interests and get wrapped up in the tasks we tell ourselves we are required to do. After declaring a major, degree requirements and the way we think others view us in our current roles cause us to hesitate to do something completely different.

The conservatory can be an intimidating place if you are starting a new instrument or shifting away from the abilities that lead you there, but it’s important to not let fear get in the way of pursuing things that intrigue us. I hope that, regardless of what brought you to the conservatory or to your current degree path, the classes, lessons, ensembles and jobs you’re dedicating your time to are truly what you wish to do.