What about orchestra?
The no. 1 "frequently asked question" that I didn't include in the previous post, because it easily takes up an entire post on its own, is this:
"Does that mean you want to play in an orchestra?" people ask me when they learn I am a flutist.
The short answer is that as of now, playing in a professional orchestra isn't my goal. For the near future, I feel most compelled to freelance, which allows me to collaborate with communities and artists in order to create the kind of work I find most meaningful.
The long answer, however...
(as a forewarning — it is a long, LONG answer)...
Like many classical musicians, I fell head-over-heels in love with orchestra when I was a child.
The possibilities for textures of sound, the indescribable music, and the radical concept that, within a society predicated upon individualism, each musician submits their own artistry and technique (which they have spent their whole lives perfecting) to the collective ideal of playing perfectly together under a single interpretation — this was magical to me.
In short, when I was a girl, orchestra meant this unearthly place of wonder, impossible beauty, and human connection.
Around thirteen, I began taking private flute lessons with Natalie Haworth-Liu and playing with the California Youth Symphony.
From then until college, practicing flute and loving classical music was how I saw myself in relation to my peers. I identified with this world, its perfectionism and its aesthetic ideals.
The more I experienced of this world — especially when I became co-principal flute of the California Youth Symphony and performed works like Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, Stravinsky's Firebird, and Strauss's Don Juan — the more I loved it.
In my first semester of college, Carnegie Mellon's School of Music immersed me in a new level of dedication to classical music. Most of my peers knew they wanted to play orchestra professionally. Practicing relentlessly was the expectation we all had for ourselves.
Within a couple months, I no longer felt thrilled to be in this world. I felt strained, perpetually inadequate, and a failure, even though I was doing my best to practice as much as I could.
This baffled me, because I was in my dream school studying with my dream professor, who supported and believed in me even when he saw me struggling.
After finishing the semester with a strong performance for my jury, I went home convinced that I had grown as a musician — but also that this process was longer than I had ever imagined.
In the following semesters, my degree program (BXA) required me to take more humanities classes than music classes.
Unexpectedly, this shift did wonders for me. In distancing myself from the School of Music, I rediscovered a part of me that could only breathe outside of classical music's obsession with perfection.
This part of me was hungry to learn about the world through cultural and historical perspectives, and through BXA, I took all the classes I wanted.
Before I knew it, my peers in the School of Music were winning awards at prestigious competitions, festivals, and auditions, while I was building my undergraduate career through projects and scholarships in global studies.
I began to wonder — could I even call myself a musician if I wasn't practicing four hours a day, recording for summer orchestra festivals, and winning competitions?
Although this question bothered me for most of my undergrad, one anchor was my weekly lessons with my flute professor, Alberto Almarza. Even though I wasn't a "real" music major, he expected the same of me as from everyone else in the flute studio.
His generosity in teaching me, combined with the times I prioritized my practicing, came to lessons prepared, and gave performances that I was proud of, allowed me to believe that I was still growing as a musician — even without the competitions and summer festivals.
In the spring of 2019, I took violinist Monique Mead's class on Audience Engagement. The class burst doors open for me. For the first time, I experienced how I could build a career in music that thrived upon my diverse interests and background, rather than being torn apart by them.
At the same time, I was preparing for my junior recital. While I loved every piece I was preparing, the repertoire was demanding and I put too much pressure on myself. Despite a solid performance (and an excellent learning experience), it wasn't the level of perfection towards which I'd worked so hard, so I thought it proved that my best would never be enough in this field.
I spent the following summer reflecting on what I wanted to do after graduating in a year. After various crises about my artistic and career choices up to that point, I decided that, instead of pursuing a Master's in Flute Performance — the typical trajectory for a classical musician, I would take a year off and freelance, in order to explore the kind of work that I found most meaningful as a musician.
This roughly leads to the present, where I am finishing my last semester of college, freelancing more than I ever have before, and also working more at my part-time jobs (since freelancing is #notstable).
Last night was potentially my last orchestra concert ever. While there's one more orchestra concert in April, I recently accepted a gig in New York City that conflicts with the first two rehearsals.
While I'm still waiting to hear if the School of Music will let me miss those rehearsals, I've already committed to the NYC gig. It's a gig I am thrilled about, and precisely the kind of work I want to do as a freelance musician (more news on this to come!).
But it's difficult to think I might never play in orchestra again, whether because it simply isn't a priority for me, or because I have no desire to enter into the orchestral audition circuit (a relentless process of perfecting lists of excerpts, then traveling around the country to perform them for unpredictable audition panels).
While I'm excited to freelance for the near future, this choice has required me to abandon the concept of success that dominates the field I had chosen.
Perhaps ironically, one way I've reconciled this rupture — from classical music's aesthetic ideals and its definition of success — is to embrace practicing with renewed enthusiasm, and with a far healthier mindset than what my early exposure to classical music taught me.
Now, I practice not to please an audition panel, but to develop technical fluidity and explore expressive possibilities that would allow me to realize my full potential as an artist.
Whether I'll bring this artistry into orchestral auditions and eventually a professional orchestra, or if I'll focus on teaching and freelancing instead — that is something this twenty-something-year-old who is about to finish her undergrad hasn't quite figured out yet.