The time has come for my student life to end. This month, like many others (congratulations to all of you!), I graduated. Six years of music education and two degrees in cello performance are now complete. As I officially move from a student to a working professional, I have been doing some evaluating of my college years. Looking back, there are some things I did well and some things I wish I would have done a lot better throughout the course of my studies. I share these thoughts with the hope that perhaps they will be of some use to students in progress and to others just beginning their journey. If you could go back and give your student self advice, what would it be? Here is what I would say:
Yes, you've heard it 10 million times before, but there is no replacement for hard work - and lots of scales. Two things have helped me keep my practicing from becoming mere mindless repetition. First, practice slowly and with a goal oriented mentality. Second, approach practicing with a problem solving mentality, or as a very wise chamber coach once told me, "be fascinated". Be picky and persistent, but don't forget to listen to what you are doing well too! Also, don't underestimate the effectiveness of score study and mental practice. Listen to different recordings and have an opinion!
2. Put Yourself Out There
Look for opportunities to perform and don't disregard an opportunity just because it is something you haven't done before. School is the time for you to test different experiences and play for as many people as possible - you have time to take risks. When else in your life will you have the chance to play and develop relationships with so many reputable and experienced professionals? Make the most of it and show them what you've got. As young musicians, we all have insecurities about our playing. The best way to conquer those insecurities is to play for others and look for constructive feedback - both compliments and criticism. Solo practice and private lessons alone will not get you where you need to be as a confident player. Get out on that stage whenever you can!
3. Beware of Tunnel Vision
Focusing on your abilities and repertoire is extremely important as this is the time to cement your technical foundation, but don't discount interests outside of your main niche as irrelevant. Venture out of your norm. Never played jazz? Try it! One of my greatest regrets from undergrad is never finding time to take David Baker's improv class at IU. Those kinds of experiences might not seem immediately relevant to a classical major, but every chance you have to broaden your perspective is a valuable one. Love the French Language? Take a class or join a club! Art reflects life mon ami - your interests are central to who you are and contribute to the type of musician you are as well. Just because music is an extremely competitive industry does not mean you have to sacrifice. Instead, incorporate.
4. Stop Thinking, Start Doing
Ok, no - don't stop thinking completely - but stop thinking TOO MUCH. As musicians, we are required to have at least a little bit of perfectionist in us. More often than not, this is a positive attribute, but don't let it get in the way of taking chances. You can spend a lifetime trying to plan out all the details, but after a certain point, you just have to trust that things will fall into place. Very rarely do courses of action go according to plan anyway! Be rational, but after you've decided something is a good idea, jump in and roll with it. For example, I had thought about starting an outreach group driven by student musicians for a while, but it took me about two years to turn the thought into action. Was all that thinking necessary to start the program? Don't think so.... If you try, what's the worst thing that could happen? You fail, you learn and you move on to be better the next time.
5. Plan Ahead
Sure you're a student... but you won't be for long! Pay attention to experiences that bring out your best (both personally and musically) and make you excited to work. Find potential careers that would fulfill your desire for those types of experiences and then find a way to make that career yours. Have goals and make a plan. What do you need to accomplish before you graduate to make that happen? Dream big, but work hard.
6. Act Like the Professional You Want to Be
It sounds simple - dress appropriately, respect your colleagues and be as prepared as possible with your parts - but don't underestimate the importance of the basics. Building habits like these will not only help you earn respect from the faculty, but will also be helpful for future networking and making every first impression in your career work to your advantage. Yeah, that word "networking" - kind of a big deal. You will be surprised at what jobs your classmates start landing outside of school - believe me, you WILL run into them again. You don't have to like everyone, but don't burn bridges.
7. Be Passionate
You are pursuing excellence in one of the most beautiful and powerful art forms in the world. You aren't in it for the money. Share your love of music in every way you can - never hide it. Show it in the way you talk about composers you love, the sensitivity in which you perform, and in the thirst you have to learn more. You are an ambassador for music, carrying on the tradition of those before you. I've seen so many college musicians who seem to have already developed a jaded approach to learning - don't fall into that trap. You have your entire life to get old. If you don't act like you care - both onstage and offstage - why should anyone else?
These are just a few reflections among many things I can think to share from my personal experiences. I look forward to hearing what you have to say knowing that though our student lives may be over, our lessons are never ending.