A Shocking Exchange on Facebook about Music and Hard Work

Michael Rabin, one of the greatest violinists of all time. Died at 35.

I had a rather shocking exchange on Facebook the other day, which was shocking mostly because I hadn’t realized how far I’d come in my thinking, away from what I might call the “old school” of “serious” classically-trained musicians, who are trained to work hard, not to enjoy themselves.

The exchange exemplified for me much of what I think is wrong with the world of classical music these days, and why so few people actually pursue it as a career and succeed, while enjoying happy lives.  It is also a key to why such high percentages of musicians suffer from mental illness, as well as physical pain.

It all started with an innocent comment a friend made (who is a fantastic musician who should have an endless supply of excellent students knocking at her door), wondering why people are “scared off” when she suggests that they take lessons in her rather uncommon instrument.

Here was part of my response, intended to encourage her in attracting more students: “Maybe some out-of-the-box thinking, calling it something else (not “lessons”), and giving it a different feel, something that is really attractive and fun instead of the old school “hard work”, etc?”

What shocked me was the response my comment generated, from a rather high-profile professional artist and educator – a response which generated quite a few “likes”.  I won’t quote all of her response verbatim, but here’s a summary: “Lessons are hard work.  A career in music is MUCH harder.  We do people a disservice by making work sound like fun.  It’s not fun. It’s disciplined, it’s critical, it’s rigorous, and when it goes well, it’s rewarding. I really do not think “playing” and studying or practicing are the same thing. It’s insulting to the work we do to think it’s easy or entertaining.”

Her comment not only surprised me, but made me feel sad.  Sad for this performer who works so hard without having any fun, for others like her, for the students, for the whole world of classical music…  Because this attitude is joyless, and closed to new possibilities.

Where is the love of the everyday music-making that we give to ourselves? Yes, music-making can be rewarding, but not just when the performance goes well and as planned! Where is the joy of learning, of experimentation? The spark of curiosity?  The excitement of discovery?  Where is the delight in making sound for the sake of making sound?  Why take the fun out of what we do 90% of the time, which is in the practice room, not onstage?  Why make such a harsh division between play and the studied attention we pay to detail in the practice room or in a lesson?

Having fun yet?

Maybe I’m over-reacting, but I don’t think so.  Classical musicians are notorious for being serious, hard-working perfectionists who don’t have a lot of fun.  If having fun is devalued like this, it’s easy to see why.  Just think about classical music performances, by the way… how often are they “fun”? And how many musicians do you see onstage really truly enjoying themselves?  How many smiles? I tell you, it’s all too uncommon.  It’s the #1 reason I wanted to become a soloist instead of an orchestral musician.

The professionals you see onstage who are working so hard and not having any fun (and are likely in pain, too) used to be students.  If students are taught to “work hard” and don’t have fun in their lessons, then they won’t have fun in the practice room, either.  If they don’t have fun in the practice room, they won’t have fun onstage.  My Alexander Technique students at CCM come to me all the time telling me they get performance anxiety just to go to their instrumental lessons – this is why!!

Here’s how I responded on facebook:

“Personally, I do not see the concepts of “fun, ease, and play” and “discipline, criticality, and rigor” as mutually exclusive. I strive to find a balance between freedom and form, seriousness and light-heartedness, work and play… in such a way that they support each other and, in the end, become no longer distinguishable because of the attentiveness this balance brings to the moment. I feel infinitely blessed that I have found ways to make my work fun. 

Also, when people comment on my playing by saying how “easy” it looks, I appreciate that – I am not insulted. Because it IS easy – they’re right! Yes, it’s easy because of the many many hours of “work” I’ve put into it – but I’ve put those hours in only because I’ve enjoyed it – and I know that is not the case for many musicians. Many musicians are suffering because of all the work they’ve put into something for so many years without much joy, for very little visible gain. 

It is my belief, gained from years of experience working as an AT teacher specializing in helping musicians, and based on research, that far too many are suffering from psychological and physical pain, in large part to a lack of joy in what they do.*  In fact, I think the whole classical music industry is suffering from this lack of joy, but that’s another topic altogether.

Good work CAN be fun – if we want it to be….”

I’m not against the concept of “hard work”, mind you, as long as it’s not painful.  But why not enjoy the work while you’re at it?  You’ll be making much better music that way, because you’ll be using your body-mind with much less tension, and your movements will be more fluid and spontaneous.

Thankfully, not all classical musicians have the attitude of “this is work, not fun”.  I did get one “like” for the above comment, from another well-known professional who loves music and loves every moment of making it.  Thanks to such musicians, the joy of classical music will certainly live on.

But, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why a musician would prefer things to be hard than easy when given the choice?!!

I would love to hear your comments on this.

In 1988, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians surveyed orchestral musicians and found from the 2,212 respondents that 76 percent had a significant medical problem that affected their ability to play.

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Comments

A Shocking Exchange on Facebook about Music and Hard Work — 77 Comments

  1. This is such a wonderful, and very timely article. My favorite quote:

    “Personally, I do not see the concepts of “fun, ease, and play” and “discipline, criticality, and rigor” as mutually exclusive.”

    I’m currently giving Alexander Technique lessons to a member of the LA Phil, and he would completely agree with your point of view. The way he describes the attitude of many of his colleagues, the precision necessary to play in a major orchestra is synonymous with over-efforting and strain, and musical exectution in the orchestra has NOTHING to do with enjoyment or expression.

    Besides turning the process of making music into a sterile, loveless endeavor, this attitude can also lead to serious problems, such as RSIs, and perhaps even worse, focal dystonias (which, I believe, are on the rise for many serious musicians). Bottom line: precision, discipline, ease, presence and expression can be integrated seamlessly together to create a highly satisfying (to both listener and artist) musical experience.

    Thanks for sharing such wonderful thoughts, Jennifer, and for staying with your convictions about this topic! I’m in your corner all the way!

    • Thanks so much, Bill! I gave a workshop to the oboe studio at CCM a few years back and mentioned that I thought over half of the musicians in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (where I’ve performed as an “extra” in the past) are in pain on a daily basis, and the visiting clarinet instructor who happened to be there, a then-member of the CSO, interrupted me to say, “No way! I’d say 99%!!”
      I agree with you: it is totally possible to play with the kind of precision that is required by audiences who expect flawless CD-like performances AND not suffer at the same time. It’s just a pity more professional musicians don’t make the time to take AT lessons. They don’t know what they’re missing: a lot more ease and joy in their lives…

  2. “Lessons are hard work.” -NOTHING EARTH-STARRING ABOUT THIS. YES, LESSONS CAN BE HARD WORK AND JOYFUL BOTH.

    “A career in music is MUCH harder.” MUCH HARDER THAN LESSONS? DUH! YES, OF COURSE.

    “We do people a disservice by making work sound like fun. It’s not fun. It’s disciplined, it’s critical, it’s rigorous, and when it goes well, it’s rewarding.”

    NOW, THIS BEGINS TO GO INTO THE AREA OF TRICKY NAVIGATION BETWEEN THE SCILLA OF POMPOUS, INFLATED TALK AND THE CARYBDIS OF GENERALIZED PLATITUDES…AND I FEAR OUR OPPONENTS’ SHIP MAY WRECK, AND ALONG WITH IT, A FEW OF HER STUDENTS’ VESSELS.

    “I really do not think “playing” and studying or practicing are the same thing. It’s insulting to the work we do to think it’s easy or entertaining.” BY NOW I GIVE UP AND SUGGEST OUR “FRIEND” CONSIDER TAKING UP YOGA OR GARDENING AND CHILLING OUT SOME.

    BUT SERIOUSLY, JENNIFER…I fear that a great deal that is wrong with the way we train musicians in today’s institutions of higher learning is disheartening, and ultimately destructive. And, what’s saddest, you can see a lot of young, “well-schooled” young men and women going the route of auditions and competitions and rarely achieving their full potential because they have been “seriously trained” to death and all joy has been taken out of their music-making.

    • Yes, and it is sobering to realize how many “seriously trained” young musicians are unable to find work in the music profession after they graduate. It just isn’t enough to teach our students how to do the “hard work”; we need to teach them how to enjoy life, through the medium of music. If they learn that, no education is wasted, no matter what the professional outcome.

      • I graduated a while ago and went immediately to work as a freelancer. Over the course of about a decade, I went from super-passionate about playing to going through the motions and not having any fun. I am still “burned out” from this experience and have yet to re-experience joy in playing. Luckily my wife is ever the excited musician/teacher and never lets me get to out of playing shape.

        All that to say, the struggle is real. All I want to do is have fun playing great music, but the work to get there, while difficult, should be enjoyable as well. The attitude that I’ve encountered and suffered from myself is a factor that needs to be shifted to a more positive tone. You’ve inspired to me to rediscover that more positive/fun physical response to music.

  3. One more thing…Before some Classical scholar catches me in flagrante delicto,let me correct my blooper above with the correct spelling: Scylla and Charybdis. See, even at my age, I can fall prey to the pressures of scholastic pedantry!

  4. I think that many people have been conditioned to think that hard work and fun are mutually exclusive. In fact it should be the opposite.

  5. Thank you so much, Jennifer for such a well-written, well-informed article and for being so clear in the articulation of a happy, healthy alternative.

    Judging by the number of shares of this on social media, the comments here and the numbers of musicians seeking AT, I think it fair to say that we are slowly making an impact.

    Thanks again, Emma

    • Thank you for your kind words, Emma. Yes, it has been tremendously encouraging to see the positive response I’ve gotten to this post – more than triple the usual number of views and shares. It certainly is heartening to hear about other musicians who care about well-being and happiness! Thank you for your good work helping performers, as well!

  6. Wow! I saw this through someone I know on facebook. So glad I saw it in my newsfeed. I am a violinist and just graduated from school in June. I am currently in Civic orchestra of chicago, but other than that, not sure what I will do with my life yet. This is really inspiring when there are so many voices around us and inside of us that are those negative voices. Thank you for this! I will share it with my friends.

    • Thanks so much for your positive feedback, Hillary, and congrats on being a member of the Civic orchestra! I used to live in Chicago, years ago. I appreciate your sharing my post with your friends, and I’m glad you found it inspiring. As long as you love what you do and find ways to enjoy your work, you can’t go wrong with whatever direction you decide to go in your life. It will all be good!

  7. Pingback: Blog of the Week: A Shocking Exchange on Facebook about Music and Hard Work | Alexander Technique Blogs

  8. Written by Alexander teaching and fine violinist colleague this still strikes me as true as it was in my RNCM days- I’m often suggesting to my college students that they are not pieces of meat to be tenderised into shape but unities of ‘self’ for which repetitious actions condition creative acts- the concepts of ‘hard work’ and repetition still playing too much of a part in learning. Pretty much the opposite of the essence of what we call the Alexander Technique – psychophysical learning. I am concerned at just how much music training has also been medicalised with a battery of physios and Pilates teachers being enlisted – all in my view pandering to the endgaining – meat tenderising mentality- that is the cause of many playing difficulties and lack of joy.

    • I agree, Alun. Mindless repetition is actually detrimental to a student’s learning, even if for the simple fact that they are thus practicing how to play their instrument mindlessly. It is so important to be present, with a unified mind-body-self, while practicing, so that this unification is what is being practiced and will then show up onstage; not a dissociated self. Thanks for commenting!

  9. As a non classical musician I’ve never heard of the concept of playing not being fun. It amazes me there are orchestra’s at all if this is a common attitude. I’m addicted to playing my instrument, if I don’t get to play daily I get a bit cranky, like a coffee drinker denied a cup. It’s the thing I enjoy the most and the most fun I’ve had. Why would anyone put in the time and dedication it takes to be a musician if you don’t get a buzz from it, or it’s no fun? I wish you all the best in changing attitudes so that classical music survives because really who wants to do something they don’t enjoy.

    • Hi Mick, It’s a breath of fresh air to hear from someone like you who is addicted to playing your instrument – how wonderful! I’m curious: if you were to give three reasons about WHY you love practicing daily, what would they be? I’d love to hear more from you!

  10. Oy, this exchange makes me so sad. I strive to make my work fun, easy, and blissful and when a colleague tells me it looks “easy” when I play, or I look happy or like I was enjoying myself, I feel so incredibly full of joy. I know there are MANY orchestral musicians who will encourage students with a more positive view but unfortunately the negative comments or attitudes sometimes overshadow all. It’s like when you’re playing a concert and you see the 3 people who get up and leave before it’s over instead of the 400 that are still there. We can remind each other and our students to not fall for the negative attitudes and the many people who discourage and tell us it will be difficult. Thanks for fighting for us!

    • Thanks, Keve! Yes, it’s too bad that the brain is naturally designed to pay more attention to the negative than the positive. And it is very true that so many musicians have a positive, loving attitude towards enjoying what they do. Onwards with our positive campaign, yes! :)

  11. This is such an interesting topic, one that I struggle with daily in my teaching. I always loved practicing: doing scales, studies, Galamian bowings and rhythms, scales, and on and on. This may sound hard to believe, but my parents used to ask me to please stop practicing because I was at it for 7 hours a day. I dropped out of high school so that I could practice more! So I am always perplexed when students don’t have a natural joy for practice. Then I get really creative and enthusiastic to try to make it more interesting and fun. After all of these years (going on about 30 now) I find that about 20% of my students just can’t get enough and love everything I give and ask for. The rest I struggle to please, encourage, and inspire. With these, it does not seem to matter how much I tailor things for them, they just don’t have the drive. Honestly, I think it is a reflection of a sad cultural shift. Do others agree that many students want something for nothing? I’m not trying to be mean, I just think it’s human nature.

    • Wow, I am so impressed at your natural love of music, Stephen! I think you are actually incredibly lucky to have had this love of practicing while growing up, and that you have been able to bring that into your teaching. What lucky students you have! Personally, I have stopped teaching the violin to students who are not interested in the Alexander Technique, as well, because I find that so much more can be accomplished when students are awakened to self-observation that includes the whole person, body included. It sounds like you probably do this naturally, with the joy that you infuse into your work. Of course, nobody can please everyone all the time. And if a student is there because someone else wants him to play music – not for himself – it can be very hard to turn his reluctance into eagerness.

  12. One of the first things I tell my voice students and the choirs that I direct is that if they are not having fun, they are doing it wrong. I didn’t come to this understanding through lofty study, but from having suffered through music teachers who deliberately removed all the joy from music making, as well as listening to the woes of other music students who were dealing with abusive teachers. In my younger days, when I managed a classical sheet music store, I counselled several students that, since they were paying the teacher, the teacher was their employee and could be fired. No one in their right mind should pay to be abused or to have their joy removed

  13. I love music, especially classical, especially baroque, and I regret sometimes that I did not officially go into music in college. Music is part of me and part of my “spiritual” being. I was a different person back then in my younger years. I did however continue staying with my music thru out my years and still take lessons (and I am fortunate to have had a couple excellent teachers) and I perform in recitals and belong to choral groups and have a part time position as a cantorial soloist. I do have to say that it is more work and a little less enjoyable at times and more problematic with age especially as a singer. I have good vocal days and not so good vocal days.

  14. I just want to add that when I am part of a choral group, the exerpertise and even light hearted moments of the director/conductor make all the difference in the world and how much I and others enjoy what we are doing. Right now I am involved in a rather contemporary (but classical) musical program, and for me it is a challenge, but the conductor makes it enjoyable even through the musical dissodances and what I refer to as “strange” intervals that for me do not come easy. So a lot of what makes music enjoyable other than inner desire and love for music is attitude and positivity.

    • Yes, it’s all in the attitude, and teachers/conductors/directors have a huge responsibility to help the musician cultivate that attitude if it’s missing. You know, even though you sometimes regret not going into music, in many you ways you may be better off than many people who did. So many professionals get burned out and lose their love of music, and end up suffering. Often, it’s the amateurs who really stay with music completely out of the love of it who are better off in a musical sense. So… maybe if you look at it that way, you can let go of the regret. :)

  15. I think “fun” is a difficult word. If you’re at a fair and go on the rides, you may have a “fun” day, but all you did was pay for someone else to provide the fun. The notion of “fun” as being tied to an effort you are making is not universally understood in this day of leisure and entertainment.

    Music teachers have an opportunity to show their students that asking questions and experimenting while practicing opens the door to discovering fun in practicing. Later on, asking questions and experimenting while rehearsing and performing also make the fun more remarkable than the hard work one is doing to make it excellent. I have worked with many students and professionals who had no idea of fun in their process of learning and music-making. I always associated that with the old-fashioned attitude that we are all acolytes at the altar of music and that if we don’t suffer enough, we don’t deserve Music or Greatness or Art or whatever.

    Teaching music evolves when individual teachers question their methodology and try new things. Professional music departments (in my day, at least) generally didn’t include any teacher training, and so we often simply perpetrate what we experienced from our own teachers, whether that was wonderful and mind-opening, or punitive and guilt-inducing.

    The most fun and the best music I was involved with professionally in my career happened with people who had a twinkle in their eyes, asked a lot of questions and experimented with different approaches. It does take a certain courage or conviction to throw off long-schooled dogmatism. I’ve played with Montreal Symphony, Métropolitain orchestra of Montreal, and Edmonton Symphonies as well as many smaller ensembles, so I have experienced the lack of freedom in symphony work. If the musical director is not someone who has a notion of experimentation or fun in music, there is no freedom in the symphony format for individual musicians to attempt to do anything about that. Although one can always choose to enjoy the music while playing! The late, great conductor Franz-Paul Decker is fondly remembered by many Canadian musicians as an individual who would smile broadly and communicate that he knew we could do something extraordinary and permission was given to have fun. Orchestras always played with more heart for him than for their regular director!

    Thanks for an interesting blog!

    • “…an individual who would smile broadly and communicate that he knew we could do something extraordinary and permission was given to have fun,” – ahhh, yes. It’s those wonderful twinkling-eyed teachers and directors who remind us that we are FREE, and who show TRUST in us, inspiring us to believe in the All-Possible… Lucky are the musicians and students who come into contact with those wise people. Because we ARE free to choose our attitude, as you say – even in the worst of circumstances. Thank you so much for commenting, Allyson.

  16. I’m not a teacher but I am an extremely passionate musician. All through my school years I had a great deal to do with all the music programs offered not just through the school but the communities youth orchestra. During that period dealing with multiple teachers and conductors I came to this realization fairly quickly. In most of the programs I was lucky in the fact that the people I was dealing with really enjoyed what they were doing and although we strived for accuracy and perfection in what we did there was always laughter and enjoyment everywhere you turned. Unfortunately the youth orchestra I was involved in took a rather tragic turn. After 5 years playing in the orchestra with 2 brilliant conductors, one of which being an internationally acclaimed baritone singer, and a room full of laughing people, the start of the sixth year introduced a new conductor. He was classically trained and after about six weeks it seemed that all the fun was sucked out of the room the moment he stepped in. After eight weeks he lost his second percussionist, three flute players and about half the brass section. After 9 weeks he lost me, his only remaining drummer / percussionist and a full third of the strings. I unfortunately believe that the particular orchestral program is no longer running. His belief that playing an instrument was work went so far that he didn’t give out good comments, and believed that punishing groups of the orchestra with music that gave them little or nothing to do was the best thing he could do for distracted players.
    From that experience alone everything I write musically or play is all about experimenting and enjoyment. I can’t think of music as hard work, even if I’m struggling hard to learn something that I have to get perfect. I play for hours if I can get away with it and usually end up exhausted but I am happy, and that’s what music should be about.

    • What a sad story about a conductor ruining the joyful spirit of young aspiring musicians! So sorry that caused you and others to drop out of the orchestra… BUT, how wonderful that you learned the best possible lesson from that experience, and you didn’t let it kill your love of music. Wonderful!

  17. There is a distinction between training and performance, the former being the necessary process in order to facilitate the latter. Without it, the ability to make music at a high level (professional) is either impossible or very much compromised.

    Whether you consider the scales, etudes, exercises that go into building technique “fun” or “making music” is up to you… our perception is totally internal. For most of us, it is hard work and I’ll bet that the many of us would skip these steps if we could get away with it.

    I’ll also bet that daily practice uses a particular part of the brain, and “music-making” or performance activates a different part – or at least that one is more dominant during those two tasks.

    Speaking more generally, our society seems to be increasingly scared of hard work, and perhaps also more disdainful of it. Our world is full of gadgets that free us from so-called drudgery; we spend more money hiring people to perform these tasks for us. We are bombarded with the message that if life is not easy, there must be something wrong with us.

    For me, this begs the question: why must we have fun at all times ? Is life really that one dimensional ?

    • I really appreciate your comment and perspective. In Alexander Technique, there is a term for what you’ve described as one of our current social ills – “end-gaining” – which is basically an attitude of wanting instant gratification without following the necessary steps to arrive at our goals with integrity.
      And, I like your question about whether we need to have fun at all times. Of course not – that would be impossible, as we are human beings designed to experience the full range of human emotions and experiences.
      What I take issue with is the idea that work cannot also be enjoyable – or “fun” – and also easy. I find that when we are engrossed in something because we find it fascinating and it piques our curiosity and love of learning, we enjoy ourselves… and even if something doesn’t work right away the way we want it to, we can enjoy the PROCESS, despite not having yet arrived at the end result.
      Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment! All best to you!

  18. Whose definition of fun are we talking about?
    Making music is human, might be fun, might just be cathartic. Having a career in music is work, sometimes fun, sometimes just work. Some people even find work fun. Who am I to judge?

    • Lovely. Thank you, Helen. Words, of course, evoke different shades of meaning to different people. To me, I often think of “fun” as synonymous with joy. And yes, let us not judge. To each his/her own, and may everyone find as much joy as they wish to, in everything they do. All best!

  19. Hi Jennifer!
    I agree with a lot of points that you have made here. The most important to me is having fun during the work. There are bound to be a lot of opinions based on our own personal experiences as musicians and mine is certainly that I agree that it should be fun to learn music, but that hard work is inevitable (and sometimes very frustrating instead of fun).

    That being said, I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything. Even the worst performances, nerve-racking auditions, and hours of what felt like “getting nowhere fast” have been part of this joy-filled career.

    I would say that the biggest reason (or perhaps excuse) that students have a change of heart though is that “it stopped being fun” and that sometimes what they really mean is that the work it took for it to be enjoyable wasn’t somehow worth it. I think the biggest enemy we have against that would not be that it’s not that we aren’t selling the idea of fun enough, but that the concept of talent sometimes plays too much of a role in sticking with the craft, rather than understanding that hard work is unavoidable and won’t always be joy-filled.

    However, I will say that your article got me really thinking about joy in all aspects of the career, “old-school hard work” included. Yes it’s very true that it takes a lot of self-discipline and many hours to achieve a certain level, but that the ultimate goal of a great performance or teaching another student should fill those hours of hard work with a sense of fulfillment.

    As far as orchestra concerts go, I have to say I may be on the other side of the spectrum, saying that there is probably an appropriate balance between completely emotionless playing and smiling while playing. I have never assumed that just because an orchestra is completely still that they are somehow not enjoying themselves, because I can hear it in the music rather than see it. I know that you speak for a majority of people though, and I agree audiences look for this. However, being overly emotional can be distracting and actually, we can lose the main goal that the audience should never enjoy the act of us playing the piece more than the actual the piece itself: We are simply a tool to express this. :-)

    • Hi Elise, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I agree that fulfillment and enjoyment are just as much what we’re looking for as “fun”. It’s interesting about the orchestra playing. I do think that I sensed something as a child as I sat watching the first violinists from up close. I was a quite, very studious child, and didn’t necessarily need to see smiles from the musicians. But I did not see any joy, and this was perhaps more a lack of an energetic quality. As an adult, and as an AT teacher, I now know that I was picking up on something very accurate: most orchestral musicians are suffering in pain while they play. It wasn’t about being still, smiling, or moving around, or even about being emotional. It was about a quality of ease, joy, and absorption/flow in their music-making which was lacking – and with that came pain. I still see this in many musicians – even more so now that I watch with a trained eye. And I cannot help but feel a great deal of compassion for those musicians who have done all the work to get an orchestral job (no small feat, as you know), and then at some point “it stopped being fun”…and now they are in pain. I’d like to do my little bit to help them out of that, and find freedom in mind-body-soul so that they can enjoy their music with ease and pain-free. Thanks again for writing. :)

  20. Not fun? Are you kidding me?? Yes, learning to be a professional musician IS hard work, but the payment IS actually a lot of fun: playing with some fabulous colleagues in chamber music ensembles as well as in great orchestras, playing the most incredible music ever written. I started playing an instrument because it was great fun. I now play in a couple of the world’s best ensembles and am having the time of my life. Oh, yeah – the money’s not bad, either, but the thrill of playing such music with such great colleagues is the real payoff. I feel absolutely privileged to do what I do and haven’t regretted it for even one second.

  21. Spot on!
    Look to other styles of music for examples of musicians with impeccable technique SERVICING enjoyment and musical spirituality. I’m sure any Shakuhachi player would understand that these elements are all equally important and completely linked and related. Jazz, which has roots in classical, spiritual, blues, etc etc, is a great example of a style which understands the importance of technique, but the MOST important thing is enjoyment, personality, fun, groove. She should look to jazz, pop, raga, salsa, anything to realise that all other music works that way, and Classical music can and should be exactly the same, despite its stuffy old conventions. Everyone knows Bach wrote DANCE suites, had a wicked sense of rhythm and drama but was also incredibly spiritual and disciplined. Surely that’s enough examples …

  22. God I love this article. My rather long comment is a bit on the affect bad teaching can have, as well as good!

    I am a vocalist and just finished my masters. The experience I had very nearly beat the love of music out of me. It certainly aided in damping out any notions of wanting to be a professional performer. My lessons were soul-crushing, in part because my lack of progress was diagnosed as not working hard enough, not wanting it enough. And maybe it was true… I certainly started practicing less as a result. But practice became a self-defeating enterprise in which I frequently left the room worse than I entered, both vocally (sore, shredded) and mentally (angry, filled with self loathing). It finally got so bad that just stepping into a practice room would induced full-bodied rage at myself. I couldn’t sleep, I started gaining weight, and I stopped practicing all together, which certainly didn’t help me get any better and led to more anxiety… you get the picture. It was awful. This is all in the service of “this isn’t easy, this needs to be hard, you’re not getting better because you’re not working hard enough” etc.

    So I quit, didn’t sing for 6 months, didn’t hardly get off the couch either for the sadness of giving up that into which I had put so much work and toil and pain. And then! I had ONE lesson with an old teacher of mine whom I trusted and loved and who was kind and I was immediately revived. The excitement came back! I wanted to play around with music, to explore the amazing poetry and languages we singers are so lucky to have as part of our craft, to tinker with minutia and have fun with the craft. I’ve been exploring new ideas and avenues, talking about classical music in a new light and fostering a newly ignited passion for it.

    One lesson! And it’s not that she had any less of a high-standard of expectation with regard to my singing. I feel like that disclaimer needs to be made. For those who might think, “well you’re a product of your generation, you don’t like hard work, if it’s not easy you give up, and this teacher just allows you to do what you want and tells you its good”. No! She worked me, and she nit-picked and she can be very tough. BUT she is there also for the love and the joy of the music.

    I still don’t want to pursue performance, and that’s for a whole host of reasons that I won’t go into now. But I do want to stay in music, and find ways to make the music I love and cherish vital and vibrant and fun again.

    What do you think? Was it necessary to have this negative experience in order to find a direction I am so passionate about now (that is, finding ways to change the conversations we’re having about classical music.. and I mean really change the conversation)? Would I have arrived at it without the bad? I’m not so sure…

    • In response to your last questions, who knows? In the end, we probably don’t need to know, because you’ve arrived at your passion, and that’s what matters most. How wonderful!
      And how lucky to have found it in one lesson with a great teacher. I love this: “She worked me, and she nit-picked and she can be very tough. BUT she is there also for the love and the joy of the music.”
      That’s what it’s all about: self-discipline + joy. Balance and intertwining of the two, so that they become one.
      Thanks for commenting, Patrick!

  23. If hard work isn’t fun why do it!? Here’s what Jamie Bernstein has to say about that in regards to his father, Leonard Bernstein.

    “Are any of you familiar with the ideas in the book “Flow,” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? The subtitle is “The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” His idea is that when we’re completely engaged in a task that we find enjoyable, we enter a magical state where we lose all track of time, forget about our fatigue or our aches and pains, and produce our most creative and focused work. Leonard Bernstein was one of the luckiest people in the world, because so much of his work put him in that enviable state. Maybe as a result of being in flow so much of the time, he had a very heightened sense of the meaning of the word FUN. Fun was a serious thing to Leonard Bernstein — because he loved his work so much. And he was able to impart this sense of serious fun to everyone around him: his colleagues, his audiences, his students and his family.”

  24. Pingback: A Shocking Exchange on Facebook about Music and Hard Work | The Art of Freedom | Scratch My Brain

  25. Love, love, love this. I think it is so sad that so many musicians feel so much pressure to play perfectly. I feel very lucky to have had teachers that truly love to teach and play. I will forever remember a lesson I had before playing my master’s recital. My teacher stops me and asked me what I was planning on doing once I graduated. Upon hearing that I loved playing and would love to play professionally but was keeping you my options open so I could make rent in the mean time had me sit down and said “The sun will keep rising if you don’t play the oboe. If the oboe ever becomes a negative aspect of your life I want you to stop, put it away and come back to it if you feel it has become a positive again.” I cried so much at first because I assumed he meant I wouldn’t make it. After stepping back and really listening he told me those things because we should enjoy what we do. Thank you very much for your article!

  26. A very interesting article. All work or all fun cannot be good. There has to be a mix of the two. I had some piano lessons over a few years from a fantastic teacher, and she really helped me, but I had to tell her to tell me what I would do that was right. Hearing only things that need to be fixed only goes so far. I appreciated her help, but only hearing things that were wrong began to depress me. Also, I think that the way most applied music is taught is backwards. The mix of technique and repertoire in the beginning should be 80/20 or thereabouts, and as one progresses then it can begin to go to 70/30, eventually reaching 20/80 or thereabouts. One must learn how to play the piano first, and then learn repertoire. This approach is most critical in the voice area, but I feel it applies to all applied music.

    • I appreciate your insights, Chris, and I agree that there must be a mix of the work and the fun. However, I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. I think when we really love what we’re doing is when we are the most creative and the most productive; we learn the best when we’re really interested in our work. So that the best work becomes fun, too. Thanks for writing!

  27. As a non-musician, I enjoy the “ease” with which virtuoso artists play. Like the dancers who “defy gravity while making it look easy,” I know enough musicians to have seen the work that goes into the music that seems so expressive and effortless. Most people who are brilliant at their jobs make it seem easy — and it’s usually the result of practice, study, experimentation etc whether it’s in art, science, finance, or truck driving.

  28. I think people are just touchy about how seldom the “work” part of what they do in classical music is appreciated. I’m sure they really do play for the joy of it, but too often non-musicians assume what we do is “a gift” and think it just sort of magically happens. (I actually read a comment by someone in a thread of the concert master of our local symphony orchestra, who said something along the lines of she just started piano and practices 45 minutes a day, but that as a professional he probably didn’t have to practice nearly that much now. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.)

  29. It is a very interesting topic, but I have to said sorry Jennifer I disagree with you. please let me explain my thoughts.

    First, I think the “fun” is a very dangerous word. Look around the younger generation of classical musicians in this country, how many are they have reached the level (both techniquely and musically) that match the older generations (like Yo-Yo Ma, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman) and did you realize that for how many years the American players have not won any major instrumental competition such as Tchaikovsky, Queen Elisabeth, ARD, Chopin International, and look around those string players in the major orchestras like NY Phil, Chicago, they are all Asians! This is because the American have had too much FUN! That is the most heard word from those mediocre music teachers in the music schools. When they don’t know how to teach, how to fix the student’s problems, they will say “try to have some fun!” while the kid still out of tone, or having bad bow changings.
    No, the answer is when I fix all the technique issues, when the instrument become part of my body, and I don’t have to keep thinking about how to crossing string, how to shift, how to vibrate, etc. Then, I will start to have fun of playing the music. But before reaching that level, it is all hell. Instrumental players is like the gymnast or basketball players, everything is all about precision. Were they having fun while they are doing the hard trainings?
    The reason that 90% of the orchestral players are having body pains is because they haven’t fix their technique issues yet (winning an orchestra job doesn’t mean they mastered their instrument). For example the cellists lift the right arm too high, they will have shoulder problems, the violinist tighten their left thumb while vibrating, they will have arm problems, etc. And that is why Jascha Heifetz, Janos Starker and others was able to maintain their performance at very old age, because they don’t have any technique issues. I don’t think the spiritual meditation nor the yoga class will do the jobs.
    So, please stop finding excuses, and get back to work.

    • Hi Valen,
      Thanks so much for commenting – I really appreciate your thoughts. I agree with you that many musicians of today (perhaps especially in the U.S.) are lacking in self-discipline, and therefore most do not reach a level of mastery.
      However, I do not agree that the level of mastery must be won by blood, sweat, and tears. I do not believe in “No pain, no gain,” which is also a motto of our culture, just as much as “having fun” seems to be.
      What I propose is that there is a way to BALANCE the two seemingly-opposing viewpoints.
      So that instead of dreading the work that we must do to master our instruments, we come to love and enjoy mastering ourSELVES. And one way to do this is to look at everything that we do – yes, even practicing technical etudes such as scales – with an eye to seeking beauty and freshness. When we come to love our sound and the movements that our mind-bodies make in order to create sound, we will WANT to practice.
      When we WANT to practice out of love and joy, we are more likely to practice with more focus and diligence.
      On the contrary, if we FORCE ourselves to practice with reluctance and a lack of joy…with boredom…with frustration…with anger and resentment, etc…. then we will be practicing with muscular tension that we do not need.
      And in the end, I do believe that being a whole person, healthy in mind-body-spirit, is more important than winning any competitions or becoming a master of any instrument.
      You are right that people who experience excessive pain while playing their instruments have not mastered certain techniques at their instrument; however, why have they not mastered them? Because they have practiced them with unnecessary tension on a repetitive basis. And why do they have that tension? Why have they not been able to release it, even though they KNOW the specific problems (most of they time musicians know that their shoulders are too high or thumbs too tight, etc.)? Because they have not sought out the solution in the GENERAL, which includes the mind-body attitude.
      I am utterly convinced that it is possible to ENJOY self-discipline, and that’s the point I’m trying to make.
      Thanks so much, again, for taking the time to give us your point of view. All best to you!

  30. Pingback: The work and fun of music | CelloMama

  31. I’ve been a classical musician for several years but I transitioned to jazz and I can tell, jazz musicians have fun al the time (even in simple gigs like receptions and weddings) because they have the consience the music they are doing is their music while classical musicians are always trying to sound like someone else. Like: your staccatto needs to sound like Perlman your vibrato like Rostropovich, your sound like Leonard Rose etc… I have to hold my bow the same way people do it for hundreds of years and everyone sounds the same, does the same and creativity is not marketeable anymore. To much of these orchestra auditions are about comformity and not creativity and that’s a disaster! Orchestras are getting full of robots that can reproduce what is in somebodyelse’s brain. That’s not my calling. I am not commimg back to this environment! I’ve played as Orchestra musician, I’ve soloed the Dvorak, Elgat, Haydn, etc cello concertos with orchestras but its not for me. I discovered the true joy of being myself as an artist in jazz and would not trade it for nothing in this world. Its just too much fun! Don’t get me wrong, I love classical music and will always listen to, and I love teaching people of all ages, kids fro 3 to 92 :), I LOVE teaching and coaching trios, quartets etc, but performing this way is out of my plans. If one day I come back, it will be as a conductor and certainly as a composer. I am now doing my DMA in composition at University of Kentucky and am currently writiing a jazz cello concerto that involves string orchestra, improvisation and rhythm section. It will be lots of fun to perform it some day! If you decide to continue being a classical musician find a way to be yourself, its much more fun!

    • WOW. Bravo to you for finding what you love and doing that wholeheartedly. I loved your comment. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Saulo!

    • Everyone has to take his or her own path to enjoyment of one’s profession. My reaction to playing Classical music is totally different from yours, Saulo. First of all, I don’t agree with you that things we do in our playing have to sound like anyone else. The point of Classical training (or it SHOULD at least be the point) is to train you thoroughly in what it takes to make you the best musician possible and to give you the tools to branch out into your individual style. I don’t try to sound like anyone but myself. No good musician should do otherwise. As for the bow hold, there are reasons it’s taught a certain way (although there are many schools of thought on this). There are ways that have been shown over time that work best to give one the best bow control in order to handle difficult technical passages and to allow one to have all the tools to be able to express oneself. That’s the goal of all this training. As for the claim some make here about it not being fun: hard work is not always fun, but the goal is, and certainly seeing one’s progress is as much fun as it gets. I’m a professional musician who occasionally plays solo, but mostly does chamber music and orchestral work. I play in two of the finest orchestras in the world, and I don’t feel I play like a robot. Quite the contrary. I find it very exciting and fulfilling and the hard work (no fun for some of you) made it all possible. I love what I do.

  32. I agree with Valen on this. My students have canfun before and after lessons and I’m a funny guy too, so we sometimes laugh in lessons, but the music will only sound spontaneous and “fun” as a result of meticulous preparation. Long hours in the practice room using critical problem solving skills. Training to be an athlete is difficult and this is very similar. I sometimes look around the orchestra and there are always a couple people with smiles on their face as the play (practically the whole time) THey are simply not focused and never the best players. The best players have paid their dues and can have more fun in their playing because they are more free to meet the demands of the music. If this isn’t done, the musician -if he/she is dedicated should not feel good after a performance and that is perfectly OK! They will be more drived to get it next time. life is not about fun, but a plethora of different feelings and experiences…fun is also in there too a little bit. I’m just grateful my teachers were strict because my technique is solid and at 41 years old I have never had any injuries that were serious and look forward to decades of awesome concert experiences. BM CIM, MM Rice U

    • Hi Paul, I agree with you wholeheartedly about the need for meticulous preparation, and practicing with critical problem solving skills. No, life is DEFINITELY not all fun (ahh, would that it were!), I agree with you on that, too. What I find sad, though, is how many musicians don’t take enjoyment into consideration during the PROCESS of learning, so that the joy and spontaneity is always something put off into the future. To me, if we are practicing music without enjoyment, that is what we will get better at. Why not find a way to focus and enjoy at the same time? We don’t need to suffer now in order to enjoy later. Why put off joy? And why assume that the people who are smiling are not doing their best? Personally, when I am really truly at my best, I get goosebumps from the music that soars out of my violin, and my awareness of that makes me smile.
      By the way, I went to CIM just like you! I was only there from 86-88, studying with Cerone. I loved CIM and loved working with David, but it was time to move on so I transferred to IU to work with Gingold. Small world! Thanks so much for writing! :)

  33. Hey! Love your playing and husband’s work. You have a ‘like’ from me on your “good work CAN be fun…” statement. Shouldn’t have to be so hard that it’s not fun. A violinist I had a conversation with said that the modern classical orchestra has become very controlling. Understandable when you have to duplicate a composer’s work in such exact detail. It doesn’t allow for many deviations except for cadenzas. Maybe they should have a concert a week where musicians play pieces the way they want to. Out of rhythm, trills where they don’t belong and personal interpretations. Then invite the public.
    Another friend demonstrated that without fun in composition, it shows in the music that’s produced. He got more attention and sales from work where he had more fun, less from when it’s more totally music theory based. No, you’re not over-reacting. It’s supposed to be fun and musicians should enjoy the music, just like the audience is supposed to also. See ya!

  34. Perhaps the diminishing popularity of ‘classical’ music can be attributed to the idea that one has to practice to the point of meticulous execution rather than intuitive understanding of the composer’s aural vision. I imagine Beethoven, etc. played it differently every time as to avoid boredom, whereas young musicians are being taught to practice until perfect-ly boring. Perhaps if it’s hard work and painful you are in the wrong line of work. It took me 45 years of playing to realize that the instrument speaks the music and if I’m to busy trying to be ‘the master’, I miss it’s point.

    • Lovely. Lately, I’ve been suggesting to my students that instead of “working on the instrument or the music”, they might ponder the idea of letting it “work on them”. I think if people were more receptive and open to listening beyond what can immediately be heard, we might forget about it being “hard” because we’re intently interested instead.

  35. Fabulous article; I nearly gave up playing music 9 years ago due to musician injuries which I later realised were due to subscribing to the school of music needing to be hard work. Fortunately, I am now professional guitarist. I have been full-time for nearly 5 years now thanks in part to the Alexander technique as well as being smarter when I practice and making it as easy as possible!

  36. Another great post, Jennifer! I agree entirely! What is the use of pouring hours and hours of study and practice into something that you do not enjoy?

    I think that our society has placed a strange stigma on the word “fun,” dismissing “fun” as something cheap and valueless. People who laugh frequently and who visibly enjoy life are often labeled as “carefree” and “not serious enough.” Or they’re called “idealistic” and “unrealistic,” living in a happy cloud. I think this reaction is simply because those who are not happy or enjoying life can’t fathom how the others are so happy; they would rather dismiss the happy ones as somehow “less” than to understand how they are able to live as they do.

    One of my yoga teachers always says that it is important that you also enjoy your yoga practice, or else you will lose the joy in it and stop doing it. It is exactly the same with music, or any other pursuit that you choose!

    Our current culture is so goal-oriented that people forget to enjoy the journey on their way to those goals. It’s really sad to me how many fellow [young] musicians that I meet who are already asking, “At what point should I give up a career as a musician?” All that they are thinking about is financial stability or fame, and not about whether being a musician brings them contentment and fulfillment.

    Of course being a musician is hard work, just like any other career in life! We don’t just magically become virtuosos overnight or doctors just by wishing it. But if you become a slave to “hard work = struggle/pain,” then your life will become exactly that. And then, what is the point?

    Here’s hoping for more joyful enlightenment!

  37. Great article. I agree with your view that it SHOULD be fun. Why do we say, “I PLAY the violin” or “I PLAY the piano”!?!? While I was reading your article, I was listening to your Bach G minor Sonata recording. It’s obvious you enjoy playing, I can hear it in the recording! This is what we need more of. Let’s help our students have fun and enjoy the reward of PLAYING music!

  38. Last year I made a shift in how I teach hammered dulcimer lessons (and I don’t know why!): I decided to play along with the student. It is fabulous feedback for the student, who gets to see and emulate how I move (I’m a student of Body Mapping, btw). The student gets a quasi-jamming experience by playing with someone else (the tune keeps going even if the student doesn’t!). And yes, when it all feels good, it’s FUN

    • That sounds wonderful, Lucille! I started doing something like that with my son awhile ago. He likes to improvise for fun, so I do it with him sometimes. I’m really not good at it, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s important “quality time” with him. The more he enjoys being with his instrument, the more time he will want to spend with it, so joining in is a good idea. Thanks for your comment!

  39. A very interesting thread, here. If we can agree that self-discipline (which I think comes when you value learning/playing music than, say, Xbox) and the playful discovery process can co-exist (Bill Evans, for example) both camps of Work and Fun can find common ground.

    That said, I think there is something to be said for good ol’-fashioned bootstrapping. Anyone who has been in the freelance market knows it’s merciless, brutal competition. Resilience and grit are key to succeeding in the music field, and you acquire those skills with getting beat up in the marketplace.

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