By Amy Thompson
As well as discussing my journey so far, I have tried to use this opportunity to give you an honest and realistic insight into what being a musician involves, and included some ideas for other artists.
In today’s society the vast majority of activities have short term rewards, from baking a cake to going kayaking on holiday. However, skills such as learning a musical instrument involve huge amounts of dedication and hard work. It’s easy to look at great musicians and assume they are extraordinary, and that they have achieved what almost everyone else cannot.
In reality though, this is simply not the case. In about 1760 a young Mozart played his first notes, as did Beethoven a number of years later. From the very beginning each and every artist has spent hours refining their skills, and this is the reason they become exceptional; it’s not ‘natural’ talent.
For me, it boils down to these key ingredients:
1) A love for ‘your thing’
It’s what you do daily and (when not pushing yourself too much) naturally, it’s what you never stop talking about, it’s something life would be fairly empty without. However, don’t think that you will spend every second loving it. There are days where, quite frankly, I’d love to throw my bassoon out of a window! Occasionally, there are even days where I seriously question whether I am truly passionate enough, whether I will ever be good enough etc… These are perfectly normal thoughts and experiences and don’t make you any less of an artist.
2) How dedicated you are
Don’t compare this to other people. For example, saying ‘x person does 6 hours of practice per day and I only do 3’ isn’t helpful. There are times where I have been physically and mentally able to do 4+ hours a day, every day, for significant time periods; equally, there are times where it would be damaging to do more than two. This week I had 3 days without playing in a row (although that is rare and only happens when things are being physically or mentally problematic). I know professional musicians who do 7 each day, and equally wonderful musicians who do 2. It can be dangerous to do too much practice, putting yourself at risk of RSI and focal dystonia, for example. Dedication should be a measure of how much energy you are putting in compared to the best you can possibly give.
3) How efficiently you work
If there is one piece of advice I’d give a musician, it’d be to focus on practice technique. I.e. think about your practice and how you can make more progress in less time. It’s amazing how few musicians do this until later on in their careers. Here’s a brilliant website to get you started and show you the kind of thing I mean: The Bulletproof Musician (particularly the blog).
I realise that this hasn’t directly been about my journey into higher education so far. This next bit isn’t either!
When David Beckham was a young boy, he did keepy uppies in his garden. He practised until he could do several hundred without dropping the ball once. He then went to the local park to practise where there was more space. Strangers started to watch him in amazement as he kept going without dropping the ball. There was, however, one person who was not surprised; his mum. For every time he had kept the ball in the air, she had seen the many times he had dropped it and started over again. She had seen the process, and the fact that Beckham was able to do several hundred in a row was a natural progression from this.
The point is that successful auditions, exams, and performances are never surprising once you have seen inside the process. The results themselves are not outstanding because they don’t just happen out of the blue. It is the hard work put in, and the combination of ingredients outlined above, that is the admirable part.
Having been a pianist for some time, I started bassoon three years ago (at 14 years old that makes me a fairly late starter). I love the range of expressions that can be achieved and its unsung versatility in different genres, using different tone colours. Over the past few years, the bassoon has become another tone of my voice, in addition to singing or whispering or shouting.
I have never understood musicians who feel that music itself is a vessel used to express emotions, particularly negative ones. For me, it is almost the other way around; music sheds light on the unbelievable range of emotions and sensations it is possible to feel and allows me to connect them to everyday experiences. A bit like trying to understand the sensation of déjà vu! I’ll play a certain passage only to find that it has the exact same feeling as a train leaving a station (chugging, gradually getting faster, breathy), for example.
I love talking about things like this, although quite tricky to articulate, and the complex, stimulating nature of being a musician is a feeling like no other. This is one of the many reasons I have applied to UCAS Conservatoires as well as UCAS.
After a rigorous month of auditions (and grade 8!), I received offers from Durham, Manchester and Leeds universities to study science subjects, an unconditional offer for Birmingham’s Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences course, an unconditional from Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, an offer at Birmingham Conservatoire with the option of direct entry into second year, and offers from Royal Northern College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, and Royal College of Music (RCM). I have also been offered scholarships from all of the conservatoires I applied to.
After a lot of thought, I chose to accept my offer to RCM. It has a phenomenal bassoon department, and the standard of playing in London is incredibly high.
Whilst this seems like an extensive list of offers, it’s important to remember that my playing isn’t even close to the standard I want it to be. These are external rewards for something highly based upon intrinsic motivation and there are plenty of people who get into the best conservatoires only to burnout, sometimes due to the fact that they have always been a ‘big fish in a small pond’. That changes, of course, at music college.
Over the next few months, I look forward to doing some more settled practice, putting into use the endless amounts of advice and critique on my playing (one benefit of auditions and consultation lessons), and getting back to work on some quite tricky technical problems.
Good luck to anyone applying at the moment, but a cautionary warning: the correlation between hard work and achievement is incredibly strong. Even if luck is involved, it’s not something you can control and probably not worth worrying about. If you have a passion, work hard! If you are a student who would like some advice on practice, what auditions might be like, or anything else just get in touch.
If anyone needs me I’ll be in the practice rooms!