By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
In 2018 I came to the end of my Bachelor of Music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, majoring in Performance with an Honours year in Musicology. I have been deliberately specific in the ways that I have discussed my music degree on this blog. I have limited my discussions to my own personal feelings, my inward thought processes which are obviously no one’s responsibility but my own. I never want to be the person who does not take ownership of their own wellbeing, and the myriad of things they can do to address their own mental and physical health. Indeed I hate it when people complain and whinge without doing anything about it.
But a few things have led me to consider publishing a less filtered reflection of my study experience. I recently began my first ever full-time job, which means over the next year I will be making my first contributions towards paying off my HECS debt. I no longer feel like I need to censor my thoughts because I was able to postpone my fee payments until after completing my degree (something I am deeply appreciative of!)
I went through multiple depressive periods during my university studies. I am not attributing that to anything but my own brain chemistry. But after eighteen months of being out of the university system, I have been able to think over those months with greater clarity. I have identified some of the triggers which I encountered during those incredibly stressful periods, where it occasionally felt like the life was being sucked out of me even though I was supposed to be studying something I loved.
Most musicians who end up in a music degree, especially one at a Conservatorium which positions itself at the top of the academic pile in Australia, are perfectionists by nature. After all, you’d have to be a pretty high-achieving eighteen-year-old to have goals like performing with the Berlin Philharmonic, and playing pieces like Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Speaking from my personal experience, it takes a certain kind of deranged singer to daydream of tackling roles like Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, which is a fiendishly difficult undertaking demanding the all stamina, flexibility and dramatic impact of several different kinds of soprano voice, all contained in the one body… And if that wasn’t enough, only a tiny percentage of professional sopranos ever get a chance to sing it! (Doesn’t stop me daydreaming, though…)
Talk about self-inflicted pressure and the potential for neuroses! It’s no wonder that most Hollywood films centred around classically trained musicians show them having a nervous breakdown, or killing someone to further their career…
I’m aware that young musicians have the kind of personality and temperament that places them at greater risk of mental fatigue and illness. And that’s not the fault of the institutions that train them. But why, oh why, isn’t this issue being addressed head-on? Performance psychology is widespread throughout the elite sport industry. Some lucrative football teams in the UK employ a squad of performance psychologists solely to work with the athletes. I learnt this fact during an interview with Cailin Howarth, a classically trained singer with a degree in psychology, who recently established her own performance psychology studio. During this interview, Cailin articulated many thoughts I’d had in passing myself, enforced by the years of research she’s done on the subject.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being a perfectionist, or a degree that pushes young musicians to be the absolute best they can be. But I think it’s irresponsible, not to mention completely counter-intuitive, to ask young people to throw themselves into highly disciplined routines and subject themselves to rigorous self-critique, without giving them a toolkit of cognitive techniques to develop resilience and a positive relationship with their instrument. This is the hill I am going to die on!
If music degrees incorporated performance psychology subjects into their core structure from the first year, it would effectively counter the huge potential for harmful mental habits forming in students’ brains. The fable of the otter and the hare rings true here: there’s no point reaching The Met if you immediately have a nervous breakdown and never sing again. Musical institutions need to produce performers who are able to function under immense pressure, and sustainably deal with that pressure over the course of their (hopefully) decades-long careers. Melbourne Conservatorium of Music offers a subject in performance psychology as part of the core structure of its Masters of Orchestral Performance, which is commendable. But why is this same content not included in an undergraduate degree?
This is one of the two major issues I take with the music degree I went through. Here’s the second- it should go without saying that you should leave a performance degree a better and more experience performer than when you started. Or, with the realisation that a performance career is not for you (which is completely valid). The degree that I went through barely gave us enough performance opportunities to work out whether performing was the career we wanted.
I really hated recitals. That’s not the case for every singer, but I felt suffocated by performing in concert attire with only a single pianist accompanying me on stage, and nothing to react to. There’s a particular kind of adrenaline which floods your body when you are performing in a show with an ensemble- you feed off your energy, your fellow performers’ energy, the energy of the audience… That dynamism simply isn’t there when you’re performing a recital of seven songs for a panel of adjudicators in a small room.
Because we spent fourteen weeks drilling the same seven songs in minuscule detail, and because there was no cohort-wide opera or showcase offered until the last semester of my third year (!!!), I often felt anxious and unfulfilled. (Disclaimer: I got on very well with my voice teacher and greatly respect the expertise of the individual teachers).
It was also disconcerting that the ‘conservative’ in ‘Conservatorium’ is alive and well, with many voice teachers taking the hard-line of being totally against young singers participating in any musicals or non-classical performances. (To the point where I had friends who would keep it secret from their teachers if they were cast in a musical). Obviously you should keep an eye on your developing technique as a young singer, but if you can’t sing fully-fledged operatic roles until your late twenties/ early thirties, surely there’s viable and healthy ‘happy medium’, where you can perform a range of styles without damaging your voice.
I am not airing these opinions simply to have a vent. It’s because during the course of my degree, I constantly came into contact with bright, disciplined, intelligent musicians who felt drained as a result of a frequently baffling course. It really doesn’t have to be that way. With any degree there will always be a certain percentage of graduates who reassess their career goals after university. But if the vast majority of a cohort have had to undergo significant reverse-brain-washing to even think of playing their instrument with a small measure of joy and happiness, you have a serious problem.
Now that I will be getting deductions for the subjects which were thousands of dollars each, I think I have a right to roll my eyes at the slogans adorning University of Melbourne advertising, such as ‘The Bravery To Be You’ (yeah… nah) and ‘Come As You Are, Leave How You Want To Be’ (definitely not what I experienced). I guess that’s the result of multi-levelled bureaucracy and a very large marketing budget.