Semester rolls along, even though it’s coming to an end pretty soon. As jury season is in full swing, the mood around school is palpably grim as violinist upon violinist bemoan the requirements to play Paganini studies ad nauseam and pianists discuss the seemingly endless rows of sonatas and lieder they have to accompany. Everyone’s fingernails are noticeably uglier and shorter (including my own) and the number of cigarette butts outside the 66th Street entrance are piling up like bodies in the war of attrition between the Juilliard students and their self-expectations.
Some students have tried to lighten the mood, but with little success. Yesterday a couple of composition students brought their ukeleles into the student lounge. Their rendition of John Lennon’s “Let it Be” would have been nice had it not been unfortunately drowned out by several Korean students singing renaissance masses to solfege as if their impending aural skills exam were a trip to the Lincoln Center scaffold. On the other hand, impromptu prayer groups by the various Christian organizations in school seem to plague the hallways, leaving virtually nowhere in the building to aggressively shoot the breeze with friends (i.e. bitch about school), for fear of interrupting awkward laying of hands and impassioned pleas for “Jesus to just x…” There’s no denying that the students are starting to buckle.
I know this week will eventually pass, but it’s unnerving to see several hundred musicians undergo the same stress level at the same time. It’s not totally unfamiliar – the Cambridge 4-week exam season had some pretty unhealthy sites as well: tears, tantrums, sleeping bags in libraries, and conversations between students concerning addiction to caffeine pills and Ritalin, deafness from headphone overuse in study spaces, or one student’s need to masturbate every 45 minutes in the King’s College Library loo in order to release enough endoprhines to concentrate. In retrospect, the atmosphere at here at Juilliard seems pretty tame.
Nevertheless, I escaped by heading south on the 1 line, hopefully traveling a distance commensurate with my stress level. As nights have been spent practicing these days, quirky bars and music venues are off the table. Coffee shops are always a good port of call, but the Ace Hotel lobby on 29th Street has recently become a hive of grad students, where the incessant sounds of obsessive typing seem to drown out Andrew Bird and Chris Thile over the speakers. So today I headed “off the grid” in hope that the senseless geography of the West Village and SoHo might somehow untangle my mind. I’m currently at JOE on the corner of Gay and Waverly, where the sight of infuriatingly adorable lesbian couples, their townhouses, volvos and toilet-brushy miniature terriers make a nice change from the normal landscape of cement modernism and impoverished musicians inhaling kebabs in between rehearsals. It’s been a good day, as my latte was preceded by a stop at Three Lives bookstore and lunch at Joy Burger where I did my best to ignore the ominous “C” sanitation rating conspicuously taped in the window.
In sitting to write, I’m not sure that I have that much to offer about the musician life this week. The end of semester craze has seen my mind turn to mush in my spare time. Recently, the most pressing question has been whether Orange Pimm’s or Milano Mint Thins best accompany a multi-Episode binge of HBO’s “Girls.” Admittedly, the overall situation was probably not helped by an accidental abuse of NyQuil (apparently there’s such a thing as DayQuil?!?) for about a week to help with a pretty bad cough. I definitely owe an apology to two classmates who had to sit next to a high-as-balls harpist giggling through intense discussions of the seedy implications of Britten’s Turn of the Screw.
But once the cough receded, I paid a visit to the Strand Bookstore. For those who don’t know what or where the Strand is, it’s pretty simple: it’s a really big freaking bookstore near NYU full of really cheap books. Its virtues need no further explication. I spent most of March reading books I “ought to read”, including one trashy paperback, one politically correct novel which intentionally abandoned the use of SWE, and some rather uninspiring issues of the New Yorker. I’m not gonna lie, in heading to the Strand, I was in the mood to find something punchy, opinionated and with any luck, mildly offensive. Ten minutes and $28 later, I left Union Square accompanied by my favorite Davids – Foster Wallace and Sedaris – and a collection of personal essays by Lena Dunham.
I started with Dunham’s book and I’m glad for it. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read anything discussing discusses either dislocated vaginas or recreational klonopin usage with such frequency. That said, I was struck by a certain grace in her openness about the intimate details of her love life as well as the experience of being a creative type in your twenties. She’s been criticized rightly for being totally self-involved, relishing in her privileged upbringing in lower Manhattan and an overpriced liberal arts education. Her critics are totally right, but it doesn’t make her book any less poignant. At one point she recalls being teased by fellow students at Oberlin about having grown up a rich girl in an artist’s studio in SoHo. Unfortunately, shame about your upbringing and resignation of class identity are probably the strongest unit of social and emotional capital at Oberlin. But in reflecting on her experiences in college in learning to deal with other people – the very process of growing up – she remarked that she “hadn’t learned anything about life that she hadn’t learned in SoHo.”
What Dunham was getting at was something much deeper than anything to do with the creative process, the advantage of wealth to her craft or even having artists as parents. She’s a young woman with low self-esteem, who despite having many opportunities has had to overcome struggles with herself in order to use them. Her constant need for approval and reassurance is one that feels all to familiar to me, as it does to many artists, especially musicians with close relationships to mentors and teachers. There’s a perpetual search for affirmation, taking shape in the forms of over-working, over-practicing, over-etc. etc.
There’s one section of her book that rang particularly true for me, not necessarily because of the relationships with another artist, but the relationship with practicing under pressure. In talking about an ex-lover, Dunham offers that “I thought I was smart enough, practical enough, to separate what Joaquin said from who I was.” I don’t know Joaquin, but I do know the feeling of being discouraged in a practice room, as if all your instrument tells you is that “there’s nothing you can do.” I admit I read the passage in her book several times, and found myself replacing personal pronouns with the words “practicing,” “practice room” or even “my ears.” In the end, a few sentences looked like this:
“When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it, you start to mean less to yourself. Being treated like shit is not a game or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve.”
When practicing shows you how little practicing helps and you keep coming back for more, before you know it, you start to mean less to yourself. Thinking you sound like shit is not a game or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn you believe to deserve.
Probably the most frequent phrase I’ve heard around school this week is “I played like shit.” Much like the politically charged atmosphere at Oberlin, there can sometimes be a nervous energy in Juilliard that not only condones, but requires self-deprecation. This week of all weeks, the musicians seem to be setting the emotional bar rather low, lest their teacher or anyone else say something damning. It’s usually done with a grin and a chuckle, but it’s no less engrained in the mindset of the musician. But what Dunham’s book was a nice reminder of is that perfectionism is not a disease of artists, but of humans. The real trick is not to expect it all to get better, but to realize that you are getting better all the time. Life is trial and error, just like practicing.