Lessons with a new teacher

For the first time in several years, I have decided to spend some time working with a new music teacher. I spent a couple of months trying to find a teacher in Calgary who is willing to work with me on my terms, i.e. one lesson per month and is willing to help me work my way through the Grade 8 and up RCM exams.

Since I haven’t spoken to my teacher yet in person, I will refrain from identifying him for now. Anyway, this blog entry isn’t really about my teacher, but about me, and how I feel about starting lessons with someone new.

Stage Fright

I always tell people I don’t believe in stage fright. Since I’ve been up on stage many times, performing in one way or another for at least 30 years, I think this is true. When I am well-prepared, be it for a speech or a briefing at work, or a vocal/instrumental solo or group performance, I am never nervous. I think my mom told me once: just remember, you know your piece better than anyone else in the room. Which is true… because I’m a perfectionist.

I don’t get up on that stage until I’m 100% ready. Each note is pitch-perfect, each tempo is exactly as written. I’m such a technical perfectionist that my early violin teacher M. Letourneau once told me: “You are technically perfect but you lack soul”.

Nowadays, I try to be more expressive in my violin playing. Maybe at 12 I wasn’t really feeling it. But the strange thing is, I’m still a perfectionist. Only I’ve found so much more to be perfectionist about. Not only do I want the pitch and tempo to be perfect, but also the expression, the dynamics, the bowing, etc. All those elements of “sound” I talked about last week.


Which brings me back to my teacher. When I was searching for a teacher, it was all excitement. Reading bios, sending out emails to try to find someone willing to work with me, waiting for a response. Now, I have a date and time at which to present myself at my new teacher’s studio. And I find that I’m nervous.

I’m nervous because this is one of the few times that I’ll be playing for someone who quite possibly knows the piece better than I do. Certainly, he has a far greater musical background than I do, even if he’s a violist, and thus possibly not intimately familiar with all the violin repertoire.

As a perfectionist, I recall vividly each time I have truly failed at something. In particular, I remember a spectacular failure in my early teens. I’m not sure whose idea it was for me to audition for the Quebec Conservatory of Music. I can’t possibly think it was mine. It must have been cooked up between M. Letourneau and my mother. Regardless, I had an audition. The man evaluating my audition was (and still is!) the concertmaster of the Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec, Darren Lowe. Now you have to understand that Darren was something of an idol to me. Not so much as Itzhak Perlman of course, but in a somewhat more attainable way. Any young violinist at least considers the possibility of a career as a musician, and to me Darren represented what a career like that could look like. I could never in a million years see myself as an Itzhak… but maybe if I worked really hard, I could be a Darren.

I failed. It was a failure for the ages. I was so nervous, M. Letourneau told me later, that I had used a grand total of about 3 cm of my bow the entire time. The simple fact of being in the same room with someone I admired and who was judging little old me was simply too overwhelming.

Moving forward

In hindsight, this was not the end of the world, of course. I don’t think I would have ended up choosing a career as a musical performer, even had I passed that audition. Anyway, I had intended to become a vet from age 4, but that’s an entirely different story. But it does serve as a reminder that perfectionism can be an asset in a lot of ways, as long as you don’t let it get out of hand and handicap you.

I am trying to remember this as I practice for my lesson. On the one hand, my nervousness at meeting my new teacher is a good thing. I’ve practiced more diligently in the past week than I was before. I don’t skimp on my scales or my double stops. I work more consciously in my practice, dedicating practice time to individual elements of a piece rather than just playing a piece through a few times and being satisfied with that, as I would have done at 14.

But I can’t help that niggling feeling of “what is he going to think of me? Who do I think I am thinking I can impress this guy?”

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