“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

Each of us has our own unique story of how we came to choose music, and the struggles and victories we’ve had as we’ve walked down that path. This week, one of my closest friends, Lauren Tokunaga, shares some of the lessons she’s learned from her own timeline.

Coming from high school and entering undergrad, I thought I had it all figured out. I had a meticulously-crafted plan for the next four years of my life–until I realized I’d probably, most likely, with 95% certainty be completely and utterly miserable and sleep-deprived pursuing my major of choice, architecture (clerestory windows and flying buttresses, anyone?).

Cue mid-college-life crisis come end of sophomore year. Strangely enough, this was when I began to miss the all too familiar sounds of my childhood, and before I knew it, I was digging up from the grave three contrasting works and trying to get them in shape in 3 months. Let us recall that I respectfully parted ways with music during the last few years of high school and try to fathom how on earth I managed to move my fingers in any kind of fashion after not having touched a piano for almost 3 years. I was basically the Tin Man awaiting Dorothy’s arrival. I promise you I say this not for dramatic effect, but because it was actually much harder than it seemed to pick up where I left off, which also stands true for a few other colleagues of mine. My fair weather friend–muscle memory–had gladly forgotten anything I had taught him over the past 15 years and with no remorse whatsoever.

Carl Larsson, Playing Scales (1898)

By some kind of remarkable sorcery and witchcraft diligence, I passed and began my life as an official music major. Little did I realize the true extent of my nerdiness–I soon became an active classical music hallway hummer and a shameless art song imitator all too confident in her Italian diction. Unfortunately, things weren’t always so dandy since entering music as a junior left me behind everyone else, both technically and in terms of classes. It was a strange adjustment period trying to acclimate to a new environment and new people, full of lots of self-questioning and doubt. I vividly remember (or continually try to forget) my first ever performance here because it was a master class with a guest artist that involved shaky playing followed by a question asking me to identify a particular marking/symbol on the page, and lo and behold, I had absolutely no idea what it was. A year’s supply of shame followed, along with the fact that this was the first impression anyone ever had of me as a musician. People laughed. People talked. And although I didn’t realize it then, I let that one performance define me for much too long a period of time. But when I look back on it now, I can just as easily laugh because it has become a marker–a timeline of my personal growth as a musician. My now current teacher once expressed to me that I used to sound like “a boat with no rudder.” She was absolutely right, and I bear no grudge or hurt from that statement because I’ve come to see that even she (who wasn’t my teacher at that time) has seen and heard for herself just how far I’ve come since then in such a short amount of time. I’m going to assume that in the last three years I’ve learned how to steer or something, but even something as simple as that tiny statement never makes me regret having to spend a fifth year playing catch-up, locked away in a stuffy, windowless practice room.

Practice floor or prison? Notice how difficult it is to tell the difference. (source)

My point is: even if you feel like you are behind or that you are never going to be as good as someone else, always try to remember that everyone is at their own stage in their musical journey. This was a constant thought in the back of my head for my first couple of years, and it still is now–it just affects me in a different way than it used to. It is hypocritical of me to make it sound like it is a piece of cake to abstain from the comparisons and criticisms, especially in a field that is fueled by subjectivity, but simply trying to remove yourself from the equation altogether makes it easier. Let’s be real–in the number of musicians slaving away, there will always be someone better than you, someone who has practiced and put in more hours than you, or someone who has more experience than you. The child prodigies will always be rampant, playing the pieces you only dreamed of when you were seven. Some people will like your playing, and inevitably, some will not. Some will be more technically proficient, while others may be more musically-inclined. It all varies on quite a broad spectrum, but we’re all working towards something, right? I am no stranger to these feelings since having recently applied to graduate school, and the “no’s” will never not be disappointing. How could it not be, when you’ve worked so hard to pursue something you love, only to be left with no tangible evidence of what went wrong or how to do better next time? It is not a far jump from here to the statement, “I just wasn’t good enough.” I’ve come to realize just how pointless it is for me to be disappointed in myself because even I can feel the growth and maturity as a musician. Somewhere in the midst of this chaos, I have settled on a comfy middle ground, one that is sad for what could have been, but also one that is excited for the future. Yes, some doors are closed, but in turn, new ones are opened. I, for one, have miles and miles to go, and there will never be enough time for the amount of repertoire that has accumulated on my to-do-list. But I like to think that even things that seem insignificantly small, whether it be a playing a piece you love or fixing a mistaken accidental or finding a new fingering, are strides in the right direction and will ultimately lead you to where you want to be.

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