The Victors: An Interview with Caroline Steiger

Name: Caroline Steiger

From: Lake Orion, MI

Age: 29

Instrument: French Horn

Job Title: Assistant Professor of Music & Artist/Teacher of Horn at Texas State University

Favorite Brew: A nice, strong, Earl Grey

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started with music?

Caroline Steiger: Both of my parents are pretty musical. They both sing, my mom plays piano and my dad plays guitar so there was just always music. One year for Christmas I was really excited because my parents gave me piano lessons as my present; I freaked out and it was awesome. I started playing the horn in 5th grade, and eventually that became more serious. But I don’t think there was ever a time where music wasn’t a part of my life.

CR: How did you come to pursue it as a career?

CS: I never really knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. People would ask me and I told them I wanted to be a dolphin trainer *laughter*. I was probably a junior in High School when I thought, “I could do this”, this being music. I loved so many things about it that I figured I could make a career out of it.

CR: Do you still feel that way about music, or how has that changed over time?

CS: Yes. I really enjoy playing music, having the freedom and flexibility to play chamber music and in orchestras, but then I also really, really enjoy teaching and I feel it’s something I’m well suited for. I’m not going to say that I’m a great teacher because I still have a long way to go, but I like working with people in smaller groups and helping students to gain confidence, figuring out their own path in life musically and letting that influence other areas of their life. I’m very happy with that.

CR: As someone who’s starting a professional position teaching adult students, what are some values that you are hoping to instill?

CS: Well, I want every one of my students to know that I’m not just there to teach them horn. I really do care about them as a whole person, not just as horn projects. The beauty of the private teacher/student relationship at a college is that you get that one-on-one time with them and you get to know them as people, you help advise them; you are more than just a professor, you are an advisor of life. My students are people, and just like I have lots of things going on in my life, they have lots of things going on in their lives. Whether I help them become more organized so they get through their schoolwork, or help them determine what their best practice routine is so they feel ready to play and not like they’re going to miss every note, it’s all important. Being able to be well balanced and get sleep at night, doing laundry on time, accomplishing smaller things is going to help someone’s playing; it’s not separate. You can apply that to horn playing. So to answer your question, I want to make sure that students know that at all times, that I really am on their side, I really am proud of everything that they’re doing. The other thing that I want everyone to walk away with is that regardless of what they become in life they have to be good people. They have to contribute to their communities, they have to contribute to the world, they have to be good stewards of all the gifts and resources that they’ve been given and give it back. For me, my job is helping them to grow to become better people of the world.

CR: Awesome! Is that style of teaching something that you feel is a reflection of your own personal beliefs, or have teachers of yours influenced that style of teaching?

CS: I see little bits of all of my teachers in my playing and how I teach, but that includes every teacher I’ve had ever since I was in Kindergarten, not just music teachers.

CR: That’s great! So what was it like studying horn for the past ten years? I know it’s hard to sum up ten years in one statement, but how did you manage during that time?

CS: In some ways I’m really grateful for the experiences I had in the order in which I had them. Being at the University of Michigan for my undergrad was fantastic, but I was there during a big transition of horn teachers; I actually had four horn teachers in three years. That could have been really overwhelming as a freshman, because as an 18 year old you still want to be fed the information. But as your brain becomes fully formed and you start being able to see the world more wholistically, that’s when you can step back and say, “I need to own the information, I need to own the process, I don’t need to be fed it.” To be forced into that role a little earlier was difficult, but I’m really grateful that I had that experience. Every teacher has the best of intentions, but at some point you have to filter it, take it in, and own it for yourself.

CR: What would you say to encourage anyone who identifies with that experience to trust themselves more in that way?

CS: That’s tough because that first year I didn’t really know that you don’t sit in a practice room for four hours, and I injured myself because of it. I even remember asking one of the grad students about that, and they told me to take a break, but I was stubborn and thought “no I just need to keep playing!” *laughter* Looking back now I should have listened to them. So it’s unfortunate, but sometimes it takes making those mistakes to learn from them. Other people are just more comfortable seeking advice and don’t pretend that they know everything. They seek advice from people and talk to someone who’s gone through the experience, and I really struggled with doing that, asking for help; I had to learn the hard way. I would love to help people if I can, to steer them away from making those mistakes, but it’s tough to know.  

CR: So find a good balance between being confident and being humble.

CS: Yes absolutely.

CR: Yeah, having that specific foresight is really challenging. How do you feel like you’ve been challenged as a musician over the years? What sorts of negativity have you faced?

CS: Oh gosh, I mean all of it is challenging *laughter* Burnout is a big one, just finding the right balance of life to music ratio so that I don’t get to that point where I need 2-3 weeks off to decompress from everything. I usually sign up for too much, and then when the school year is over, my immune system crashes, I sleep for weeks; it happens every year. I also get into the comparison trap really easily, which leads to jealousy, and that’s just such a bad road to be down. When you’re down that road you feel inadequate, so you begin to think, “well I’m better than this person at this thing so that must mean I’m better” and all of this. It’s just bad. The comparison trap is just toxic, and I fall into it more often than I should. We all relate to that, it’s just the nature of it. Playing an instrument is really an individual battle, but when someone somewhere wins a job, and if that someone isn’t you, then you wonder why it wasn’t you. In order to make yourself feel better, you might think some things about that person that aren’t true or nice, and it’s just negative and toxic. It’s bad for our community, because unless you want to play on stage by yourself for the rest of your life, you have to have a community around you. In order to have that, you have to really, truly be happy for people when they have opportunities. That’s hard sometimes.

CR: So how do you combat, I mean that may not be the word---

CS:---I think it’s absolutely the word. I mean if you don’t go to war against those thoughts immediately, they take roots in your soul and it poisons your relationships or potential relationships with people. How you combat those feelings, I don’t know, other than just completely attack it with positivity. See that person as a person and not as someone who got something that you wanted, like you’re two years old or something. See them as a person, and completely surround that whole experience with positive thoughts. But that’s really tough, so that’s why I think combat is the right word.

CR: For sure, I agree. I appreciate you pointing that out. I read something once that kind of blew my mind. You know how so many people get so upset from trolls on the internet and the things that they say? Well, it said the reason that people get so upset is because those things they read, they read it in their own voice, and not the other persons. So, it’s almost as if you’re telling yourself these things, and that’s why it hurts so much.

CS: That makes sense, because if a total stranger was saying it you’d be a little annoyed, but would you fall to pieces, or would you think “well that person doesn’t know me so I’m going to dismiss that.”

CR: Right. That statement made me think though, because people actually do say those things to themselves in their darkest moments. The difference is when the things that are internalized are said out loud, it’s just awful and toxic and negative.

CS: Yeah, and that’s another thing you have to go to war against. Speak truth to yourself and filter out things that don’t sound like the truth. Things that aren’t coming from love in any sort of way aren’t going to be true.

CR: Yeah, and even in speaking truth to yourself, speak it as a kind truth. Even if it’s harsh truth, approach it in a kind way. If I told myself, “Carrie, you suck and sound like sh*t” and actually believed that, that would perpetuate the thought that those words are OK to say to someone else. So, instead of saying that, just tell myself, “today is just not happening for me, but I think tomorrow will be better”. That’s why I like asking people about words and definitions because changing a thought or a word is sometimes all you need to switch between what’s damaging to something that’s more constructive. So, in relation to a word like success, how would you define that word and is it important to you?

CS: Yes, of course. Success has meant different things to me at different times in my life, and now that I’m moving on to full time employment, success is going to be how my students are doing, how are they representing the school, the studio and me to the rest of the world. Success is going to be completely different for me this year then it has in the past.

CR: Great! So what’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten from someone?

CS: I remember I was getting ready for an audition and talking with Adam [Unsworth] about nerves, anxiety and things like that, and he said “what’s the big deal? Will it be the end of the world if you miss a few notes or don’t advance? So what if someone behind a screen didn’t like how you played, does that really change you? Does that really destroy your future? No. It’s just one thing that happened, and you can move on. Take from it what you can, but move past it.” He was totally right. These things we constantly worry about are trivial things in the grand scheme of life, there are much bigger issues that people face in their lives than missing notes and not winning jobs. Everything will be fine though, everything and everyone will be OK.

CR: Great advice! So what are some hobbies of yours?

CS: Well, I love hiking, going camping, and I really love reading. I just like to learn as much as I can about anything and everything.

CR: Any charities or causes that you’d want to raise awareness to?

CS: Yes, the Humane Society of Huron Valley. Also the Fort Worth Symphony Musicians, Pittsburgh Symphony Musicians and Philadelphia Orchestra Musicians can all use our support and solidarity right now.

CR: For sure. Well, I really appreciate you talking about all of this. Is there one last thing you’d like to mention?

CS: Just be kind to yourself, you know? In whatever, if it’s school work, personal relationships, whatever you’re doing, you have to be kind to yourself and to not let negative thoughts and for lack of a better word, negative energy destroy you from the inside and impact how you see the rest of the world. There are so many amazing things about life to experience and there are so many good things we can do for the world as ambassadors within music. So just be good to yourself.

CR: Great! Thanks Caroline!