Letter of a Graduating Music Student

Dear fellow McGillians, musicians, family, loved ones,

I don’t think any of us are under the impression that academic institutions are without flaws. Despite being the leading university in Canada, McGill has much to improve on many immediate issues, from the difficulty of accessing care at their counselling and mental health services to their accommodations for musicians with injuries.

When I walked across the stage three days ago, I couldn’t help but feel anger at McGill for the demands of the program I was in, demands that caused overwhelming stress, a repetitive strain injury and the subsequent mental health issues. I was sad because I had never gotten the chance to show myself as a musician in a final recital as many of my colleagues had done. But also, I felt overwhelming joy because I had changed and become aware of so much in just four years that suddenly the future had become full of so many new possibilities.

As many of you are already aware, I switched out of the violin performance program into the faculty program at the beginning of my final semester. For those who have experienced a performance degree, you know that it is stressful, exhilarating and exhausting. Because of the pressure for performance excellence, caused by the institution, our teachers and ourselves, many musicians are pushed to their limits both physically and mentally, and still have to balance academic commitments on top of all of their performance commitments. This makes doing anything outside of music very difficult and almost impossible for most of us.

This degree has been designed for one type of body: the body that is physically and mentally able. The elite performance field is obviously exclusive and doesn’t accommodate for the diversity of its players, whether in body or mind. It is not even a degree for those who are talented, musical and technically proficient, because I believe I was and am those things, and yet I had to switch to a different program.

How could I define myself by this degree when it discriminated against me in so many ways?

I found myself becoming a less passionate person even though I was following my passion because I had to tick every institutional box. This is not the degree I wanted. I wanted a degree where I grew my musical integrity, not one which questioned my ability as an artist because of the repercussions of an injury that were beyond my control. I felt as though I lacked something as a person because I was injured. It took me three years to realize that I was not lacking anything and that this was not my fault, but the institution’s failure at providing a program for a diverse group of people, who’s reason for being there was to play and learn about music, not to be overworked.

This is not a degree designed for every musician, and yet it is a degree that is supposed to make you into musician. A performance degree designed to create performers. I forgot somewhere along the way that simply by creating music, I am a musician, and that by communicating to an audience, I am a performer.

It is not right that my experience of music has been altered negatively because of an injury that was caused and perpetuated by the miscommunication and miseducation of music educators and health professionals. It is not okay that I hardly play anymore because I start crying when I do or just don’t even know where to start and what to play. I hope that soon I will listen to music and be reminded of joy and beauty, instead of being thrust back into the loss I have felt from this injury.

Throughout my time at McGill, I learned much more than any degree could have ever taught me. I’ve realized the devastating health issues that many musicians are faced with in their lifetime. I’ve seen the impact of these issues on their families, friends, colleagues and teachers. Most importantly, I’ve realized my own desire to create music in an environment that is inclusive and healthy, instead of one that’s harmful and degrading. Music should lift us up, should provoke change both in ourselves and in our communities. Music should touch our souls instead of harm them.

This experience has brought me towards something bigger than my own playing, than the violin. Maybe that’s what this time has been all about, in some twisted, messed up way: finding my faults, breaking me down, patching myself up and then reflecting on why it all happened and what I can do about it. It’s about realizing that I didn’t do it on my own, that no one ever does, that often people held me up and sometimes I held them up. And that while we can change ourselves, grow stronger when faced with adversity, the world doesn’t change on its own, and every one of these changes takes time and a supportive community.

For this knowledge I thank not McGill, but the people who were thrust into this whirlwind with me, who sat with me in the practice room when I broke down and who navigated this place with me until we knew what it was and what it gave us and still continued anyways. This time is about Us.

And of course there is the fear, the anticipation, the job searching and failures, the thoughts that we’re not good enough, that no one really is for that job or this award, but that deep down we are creators, and that is Enough and keeps us going. That Enough is good and beautiful.

Love always,

Claire

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