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  • Writer's pictureAlaina Chester

Gap Year

Some of you may know I’ve decided to take a gap year and discontinue my master’s at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s only one more year until I finish my degree, so why not bite the bullet and move on with my life?

Well folks, that’s not how getting a degree in music works.

Music, like all art, is very personal and I have to feel like I’m learning and improving so I can be successful in auditions and otherwise. I’m not saying I didn’t learn anything here, I learned a lot, but I had a very different idea of what my master’s was going to be like. Ultimately this wasn’t it. It’s not the right place for me, and so not worth the thousands of dollars more in loan debt to live in Pittsburgh for another year.

How do I know that?

Fortunately I had a VERY thorough (some might even say, too thorough) undergrad experience to make me feel good about this decision. I had to make a lot of difficult choices for myself during that time. I didn’t like that experience either, but I’m grateful for both.

Now some of you may be asking me, “Well if you don’t like where you keep ending up in music school, do you even like studying music?” And to them I say...


I like it so much that I’m not going to let crappy experiences take that away from me. And frankly, I’ve had a lot of them. During my undergrad I was unable to break from the label “English horn player,” which put the worst roadblocks of my musical career right in front of me, all at once.

I developed tendinitis so bad that I couldn’t hold pencils or open doors

This led to performance anxiety - which led to general anxiety

These combined made me apathetic

Teachers would question if I really had what it takes and gave me crappy parts

I started to question that maybe I wasn’t good enough for better parts

Then I had to realize the things I was battling that my classmates were not

Obviously depression ends up in the mix at times

I hope to talk more in depth about these experiences in later posts. Some people may think they make you a bad musician, or less of a musician than those lucky enough to avoid these experiences. But that’s not necessarily the case, and I’ve been realizing it’s more common than I thought back then. I wish these topics were discussed more in general so people know they didn’t suddenly become bad musicians (as if that’s possible).

I could have had an easy life. I’ve always gotten good grades, I could probably do anything and make a lot of money really fast. I see some of my friends doing just that right out of college. It’s all very tempting to never have to practice, or make reeds again, or engage in work that actually ends. It would get rid of a large source of my anxieties. I was very close to quitting. All of my issues may have evaporated if I decided to pursue something else. For example, playing English horn in rehearsal for 5 minutes made me unable to play again for the rest of the week. If you’re a musician you know how awful that feels. Not to mention, you start falling behind your peers. There was a time I had to take beta blockers just to practice in my apartment. I dealt with making reeds using my shaky tendinitis hands. But I didn’t quit. I decided to work my way out of that black hole. I’m still working my way out and it will probably always feel like that’s what I’m doing.

Experiencing all of this has made me aware of why I’m still pursuing music, how I can do it positively, and the kind of environment I need in order to do so. I have to be extra careful in the way I approach music making or that black hole is just one step away. It’s important to experience enough to start believing that positive moments are more than just flukes, and negatives ones don’t define me as a musician. I need to be somewhere that allows me to put myself out there instead of getting in my way. Hopefully this gap year will help me take a step back and make sure of that before restarting my master’s.

If nothing else, at least now I can say if I were going to quit, I would have done that awhile ago.

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