Mr. Irrelevant/How I Decided to Quit Being a Maestro and Became a Teacher

Those of you who are NFL fans know that the last player drafted is known as Mr. Irrelevant. That guy usually washes out before the end of training camp and is never heard from again. I was that guy.

Let’s get caught up. After a life-changing semester with Beyerle I left Germany and was again aimless. I went to sell violins in Chicago, a job I detested because dishonesty, at least my definition of it, was tacitly in the job description. This was followed by three years in Kalamazoo, where I got a master’s in viola, and a year in Lansing, MI, where I was dating a violin student at Michigan State. During this time I was the conductor of the chamber orchestra at the University of Chicago and a youth orchestra in South Bend, IN. I was determined to get back to my goal of being a university orchestra conductor so I applied to several conducting schools. I was done with the cold. I grew up in Chicago, went to school in places like Baltimore and Champaign-Urbana and lived for a semester in Germany. I wanted to see the sun at least once a week between October and May. I applied in warm states except for a couple of safety schools. I ended up getting into one of my top choices this time, the University of Miami, where I got to study with Thomas Sleeper. He remains a hero, mentor and friend. I will write much more about him in a later post, but in short, I was blessed to again feel that sense of nurturing. I did very well there, finally becoming the good student I tried to be when I was a kid at BUTI. Thom even made me the acting director of orchestral activities during my last semester while he took a sabbatical. Everything looked positive as I headed into the job market. I had tons of experience for a new grad: two adjunct academic positions, a youth orchestra position and degrees from a couple of reasonably prestigious institutions. I also started a professional new music ensemble with a friend that received glowing reviews in the south Florida press. I was certain that there was a great job waiting for me on the other side of graduation.

In 2007 with the ink on my diploma still wet* I set out into the world of collegiate orchestral conducting. There were something like 35 jobs open and I wanted to have options so applied to every single job. I deliberately avoided any jobs that also required studio violin/viola teaching. I was a maestro, darn it, and playing my instrument would only muddy the waters. My professional profile would be unclear and people wouldn’t know how to categorize me. Even at this point in my career I’m often told to focus on one thing or another, mostly my conducting. I’ll talk more about this shortly, but the point of all of this is that I didn’t get any of those dozens of jobs I applied to. I had a few phone interviews but nothing in person. A school in California even hung up on me in mid-sentence. Talk about humiliating. I finally realized that I had to get something so I applied for the only two jobs left, both jobs I never would have applied for earlier in the year. Yep, I was desperate. The jobs were a community college in Ft. Lauderdale and the University of North Dakota. The North Dakota job would require me to teach violin and viola as well as conduct their chamber orchestra. I talked to another mentor, Gary Green, and he told me to take the North Dakota job so I headed up there after the school year was over. That North Dakota job was the very last job posted that year. Number 36. I was the last person hired that year. I was Mr. Irrelevant.

How I decided to quit being a maestro and became a teacher/Process over product

I got to North Dakota and attacked the job with zeal. I finally had my own orchestra. The problem was that I had never really had a violin studio and stopped playing the violin seriously when I was 19 and headed to Peabody as a violist**. It turned out that I had a knack for teaching the violin, which was both a blessing and at the time, a curse. Even before I knew that I was carrying on the nurturing style of teaching that Beyerle had shown me I was doing it, and my students got better – fast. I was also watching these kids like a hawk for signs of tension and making sure they weren’t getting in their own way. Pretty soon they were sounding good and they needed harder repertoire. This issue only became more acute at my next job, in Idaho, where several of my students were very talented, driven and hardworking***. I hadn’t touched Lalo, Bruch or Mendelssohn since I was in high school, but these kids were ready for it, so I spent my summers practicing like I was back in school myself to get ready to teach them once fall came. I had run away from the violin and viola for almost a decade and here I was, teaching them every day and much to my surprise, loving it. I was still like that guy who doesn’t realize he’s in love with his best friend, though, and I decided I wanted a job where I focused on conducting. (Let the specialists take care of the fiddlers! I’m getting my life back on track and marrying the Swedish supermodel I met buying Hemnes bookcases at Ikea!) I moved on from Idaho to North Carolina and I started to do much more guest conducting. As I went from festival to festival it finally dawned on me that I could wave my baton around like Harry Potter summoning a Patronus and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. There was no way that we were going to be able to surmount the basic technical issues the students faced. I decided that I HAD to address technique or these students would only be getting half of the story. If my students were going to succeed, I needed to run towards the thing I’d been running away from for most of my adult life. I needed to stop looking into the future and be in the present. I had to put my own desire to be a “maestro”, to be seen as a “maestro” and not as a string teacher, aside. I started showing up to clinics with a violin instead of a baton, and to this day I rarely conduct in clinics. I put my faith in process (teaching technique and what’s behind the music) over product (learning notes through repetition to get through a concert). It became the driving force behind the chase for my white whale – figuring out how to teach strings at a very high level in the classroom.

Next time: What Drives Me/Why Did I Write This Thing???

*Really wet! Still in the inkwell wet. I was actually ABD, but my editor thought this sentence sounded better than my original boring opening.

**When I auditioned at Peabody I had only been playing the viola for about three months and I could barely read alto clef. But the scholarship money was much better for violists. Besides, this was just a rest stop on the way to my dream of a being a conductor at a big time music school, right?

***One of them just got accepted to graduate school at IU Jacobs School of Music and others went on to the University of Denver, Brigham Young University, and St. Olaf College. Several of them hold teaching positions in the public schools. Yes, I’m very proud of them!

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

Please contact me at chung@chungpark.com if you’d like me to come and lead a workshop. I’m available for student workshops and teacher professional development sessions.