The Bosnian A'tudes: An Interview with Erin Morse

Age: 26

From: Bradenton, FL

Job Title: Section Viola at Sarajevska Filharmonija

Favorite Brew: Bosnian Kafa

Carrie Rexroat: How’d you get started in music?

Erin Morse: I started taking piano lessons when I was eight and lived in NH. I only did that for about a year, but my grandmother who lived with us had a piano teacher friend and really wanted me to take lessons, so I did and I took it somewhat seriously. We had this electric piano/organ I would practice on in my grandmother’s room; she loved to listen to me play. We moved to Florida when I was nine I didn’t do music until I started violin when I was twelve; I thought the violin was so cool and so much easier because I only had to read one staff instead of two.

CR: So what sort of stuff did you do in those years that you weren’t playing music?

EM: I played soccer for a couple years. I wasn’t very good, but it was the thing to do in Florida, to play soccer. I did a little bit of swimming for one summer, and I wanted to be on the competitive team, but it was too intense for me and I wound up not doing it.

CR: Gotcha. So what made you decide to pursue music as a career?

EM: Well, even though all of my friends who were super into orchestra eventually quit, in high school I was determined to keep playing and eventually decided that I wanted to pursue music in college. I liked the idea of performing and I just thought it was so cool to see people playing music and doing it for their career. I was involved in youth orchestra and got to see the Sarasota Orchestra play. I thought to myself, “I really wanted to do that for a living.”

CR: Great. So obviously, you don’t play violin anymore, you play viola. Why the switch?

EM: Well, I actually started as a violin major in my undergrad, but switching to viola was kind of an opportunity that just presented itself. My first semester they needed a violist for a string quartet, so I thought, “why not?” I still took violin lessons and was playing violin in orchestra, but the next semester they only had one violist in orchestra so they asked me to play under a scholarship. As I continued through my undergrad I was playing both but progressing much faster on viola, then eventually I was playing more and more on viola until I just ended up switching. I just felt that there were so many violinists and others were so much better at it than me, I felt like I couldn’t catch up.

CR: I see. Obviously you’re doing very well as a viola player, but when you were feeling that way about violin what was going through your mind? Was there someone to help you with that?

EM: It was a big struggle. My teacher, JT Posadas, was really pushing me to switch to viola since he saw my progress on the instrument, but it was a really big struggle for me to switch because I kept asking myself if I did it for the right reasons; I questioned whether it was because JT was saying that I should switch, or because it was the decision that I really needed to make. Looking back on it it was the best decision I could have made. I just wasn’t progressing as much on violin so making the switch was just being honest with myself. But as it would with anyone, I definitely felt like I was giving up. I had spent all this time, and I was so determined to do violin in school at a university level a little part of me was upset. It really worked out for the better though, because I saw and felt the progress on the viola, I actually have a job playing viola, and it gave me less anxiety because the viola is not as crazy.

CR: I’m really glad to hear that it’s worked out for the best for you. How do you mean that the viola is not as crazy though?

EM: I think there’s just less pressure involved because the viola community is a little less intense than the violin community. It’s still a challenging instrument, and you still have to do all of these technical things similar to playing violin, but the focus of viola repertoire is different from violin which I feel allows me to breathe a little easier. I can create music and colors instead of freaking out all the time over playing a million notes perfectly. A professor from my master’s, Dr. Papich, always said that the viola is physically more difficult to play than the violin, but violin repertoire is more difficult than viola repertoire.

CR: Interesting. I guess I’ve never really put too much thought into that, that certain instruments may have a more of a built in pressure factor. I mean there certainly is with chairs, like where you sit within the orchestra, but that’s interesting that can automatically be built into certain instruments.

EM: It at least felt that way to me. I still feel a lot of pressure, I feel pressure playing viola, but if I were still playing violin I think it would be a different story. It would be intensified.

CR: So with anyone who might be grappling with a decision to switch from violin to viola, or any other instrument, how would you best advise them?

EM: Specific to switching from violin to viola, I would tell them that it will feel like it’s giving up a little bit because viola is kind of seen as the red-headed stepchild of the string section. But, if it feels right then there’s no shame in changing. A lot of great violists that I know started on violin,  it’s kind of a path that a lot of people take. It was a difficult decision for me, and even after I made the switch I questioned whether or not I made the right decision, but I’m incredibly happy.

CR: So because I feel like I need to ask, how do you feel about viola jokes?

EM: I love viola jokes! I like to collect them. I really like them a lot *laughter*

CR: *laughter* why do think you guys are the butt of jokes all the time?

EM: *laughter* well, all throughout music history there have been jokes about violas. For example, it’s always been said that a string quartet is made up of a good violinist, a bad violinist, a failed violinist, and someone who hates violinists *laughter*. I read this article in Strad Magazine and it said something about how back in the day if they need someone to fill a viola spot they’d find a bad violinist to play it because the parts, at least at the time, weren’t as difficult, so maybe that’s why. Of course that’s much different now.

CR: What’s your favorite joke?

EM: Oh I have so many...What's the difference between a viola and a trampoline?

CR: What?

EM: You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline. *laughter* Really the jokes are endless. Another is there was an old violist who sat in the back of the section and before every rehearsal he would look at the inside of his jacket, nod, then begin to play. Every time. And everyone wondered why he would do this. So one day he left his jacket on his chair so another orchestra member snuck a peek inside to see just exactly what he looked at everyday, and he saw a note that said “Viola in left hand, bow in right.”

CR: *laughter* Too funny. Anyway, can you describe what your educational experience was like?

EM: Well it was a little bit of a challenge. USF was the only school that I got into for my undergrad and I felt like I wasn’t good enough, but I’m sure a lot of people feel that way. After switching to viola I felt more confident in my skills, and it was also a good career move. Because of various situations at USF, it forced me to look outside of school for other opportunities. I played some gigs, and I met some people based in Sarasota and participated in performances that weren’t related to USF. It was kind of my own thing that I got to do, so it felt good to be on a slightly different path instead being stuck in the box of school. I decided to stay an extra year for my bachelor’s because I switched instruments, which some people in my life who weren’t in music didn’t always understand, but I did that in order to get into the Master’s program that I really wanted to, and I did. My teacher at UNT, Susan Dubois, is an amazing pedagogue and she was really great for my growth as a violist.

CR: What is she like as a teacher, why was she so good for you?

EM: Because of who she studied with, Karen Tuttle. She utilizes techniques and ways of playing called coordination, which is a more natural way of approaching the instrument in regards to body movement in order to be more comfortable and get a good quality sound. That style of teaching was especially important for me because I have a lot of pain when I play from tension, and studying with Dr. Dubois helped alleviate a lot of those physical issues that I was having, which eventually came through in my playing.

CR: Specific to pain, what sorts of things work for you to reduce your pain?

EM: Initially she noticed certain habits that cause tension -- I was leaning forward and hunching, so she helped make slight adjustments to improve that. She would observe me while I played and noticed that I was tensing my bicep in my left arm, and my elbow was also too far over. I was just holding so much tension in so many places which caused my pain, caused tightness. Now that I’m aware of those specific areas of tension, I also learned to be more aware of my body and where I may be holding, and having a teacher who was there observing and helping me become more aware of it while practicing was invaluable. The toughest part is being patient with changing those habits and integrating the release of tension into your practicing so that when you’re performing it feels natural. The idea behind continuous subtle body motion is that if you’re constantly moving, you can’t be holding onto tension. Dr. Dubois would have us do neck releases, deep knee bends, etc. while playing in order to keep the body in motion. It looks really silly, but by physically doing those things it forces you to notice where and when you are holding -- and eventually it clicks. You start by over exaggerating the motions in practicing and then eventually reduce them once it’s comfortable so they’re subtle while performing, which helped solve a lot of issues for me. I’m still a work in progress and I still get pain but having this training to fall back on has been tremendously helpful, especially now that I’m out of school.

CR: That’s cool, she seems like a great teacher. It’s interesting that body motion and movement is not a bigger part of our curriculum. So many people could avoid dealing with issues like tendonitis if they’d just made a minor adjustments. It’d probably be in our best interest to learn more about it.

EM: Exactly. But, there’s so much pressure in school to learn this piece and that piece and you have to get it right so there’s a lot of tension involved, a lot of pressure. That’s why I wanted to study with her because I knew that I was having these issues and I wouldn’t accept that there weren’t ways to alleviate it. If there wasn’t, how could I sustain this for the rest of my life and make a career out of this?

CR: Definitely. So, other than switching instruments, what would you say has been a major challenge or a major struggle that you’ve dealt with personally or with music?

EM: I guess being confident enough in my playing and trusting in what I’ve learned has been a big challenge. I get a lot of performance anxiety and I feel like I don’t audition very well, so I’m trying to work through those things. Being successful at that has been challenging. Related is this pain I have, some days are fine, some days it’s really hard and I question whether or not I can keep it up for the next 30 or 40+ years. Sometimes I’m just in so much pain.

CR: Was there ever a lowest point in any of that?

EM: Probably at the end of my masters, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had applied for this program in Bosnia and I hadn’t heard back from it yet, so I decided I would apply for another program at Bard College. I just emailed them to see if they had an opening in the viola section and they did, but I only had a week to record some excerpts and send them out to them. They emailed me back and rejected my application. That was a very hard pill to swallow because I had been working so hard and didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, but I played out of tune, it sounded uneven, I rushed, etc -- it was very difficult to read what they had to say. I decided I’d just figure out what my next move was going to be, but then I got the email from Bosnia saying I’d been accepted. It was actually really cool, to come from a low point, feeling like a horrible player to all of a sudden having this other opportunity. That felt awesome!

CR: Great! Do you feel like it would have been a different story if you weren’t at the end of your masters and all this happened? Feeling like you were a horrible player?

EM: Yeah, it was probably because it was at the end of my masters. I wasn’t going to have lessons anymore and I wasn’t going to have consistency, so I thought, “well now what do I do because I don’t have more time to be in school and be regimented in that way” It made it more rough.

CR: That’s an interesting concept, regarding ‘time’. Do you feel that that is your biggest motivator, or the thing that you’re most afraid of?

EM: Having a lack of time?

CR: Yeah, just having that be something you can never really control.

EM: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it feels like some people take much more advantage of the time they have. Especially being here in the moments when we don’t have rehearsals, sometimes I practice and sometimes I don’t, but there are other musicians who are much younger who might be considered more successful because they’re taking more advantage of the time that they have. But, time is a made up thing, so it’s interesting that it can manifest negative emotions with it. Racing against time seems to elicit stress, fear, all of those things for me it can be a motivator, but I don’t know, are we racing against it? Are we trying to accomplish something in a certain amount of it? I think people have this idea, I know I do, where by the time I’m this age I should be this successful and I should have this kind of job and I should do this. But, just because it doesn’t always work out that way, doesn’t mean that you’re not successful. But, I do sometimes I feel like I should be doing more, and sometimes I am other times I’m not.

CR: Do you feel that time is to your advantage right now?

EM: Right now time is giving me a lot of anxiety. I feel like my time here in Bosnia is slowly dwindling, and I would like to stay in Europe and I don’t have anything lined up yet, so there’s just less and less time to be here to try and win another job. That causes me anxiety. But, at the same time, I’m trying to enjoy what I’m doing here, taking advantage of my situation here.

CR: I see. Really quickly, because I would be remiss if I didn’t ask these questions, specific to getting that email, what was your first thought when you got accepted to this program?

EM: I had just come back from teaching some middle schoolers, opened up my computer and checked my email, and was like, “oh my God! What? Is this real life?” I called my roommate into my room and told her, “so I guess I’m going to Bosnia”. It was almost like, “wow, really? Are you sure?” *laughter* It was a really good feeling because I was going to be playing music in Europe, not just farting around Texas.

CR: Has this experience helped with your race against time and building confidence, or is it still something you deal with?

EM: It’s still something I deal with because I’ve been taking some auditions for my next step and nothing’s panned out so far. I had an audition in Estonia and that did not go well at all and I got more critiques from the panel, which was really difficult to hear. But, it kicked my butt into gear and do better for my next audition.

CR: Your next one was much more successful.

EM: Yes, the next one was more successful. Still didn’t win the job, but I felt like I played a lot better because of those things that were said to me in Estonia. So, in Estonia this guy told me all these things I did wrong, he told me, “you made some terrible mistakes and you did this, this was out of tune, there were wrong notes” Initially I got really sad and upset. I thought I was a terrible person and a terrible player because I made all these mistakes, but then I really tried to take to heart what was said because they’re not saying it to to say, “oh you’re terrible you should quit, why are you doing this”. If people tell me I made all of these mistakes I am really motivated to fix them, to prove people wrong. So I buckled down and did the hard, dirty gross work. I worked endlessly with a tuner, metronome, recorded myself, played for friends, took tons of practice notes in my practice log, and I think it worked out. I was more successful in the next audition, so I just try to take any criticism I get and use it in a way to make myself better. But I still haven’t won a job and I have no idea what I’m doing after July.

CR: I see. Well, we’ve had lots of conversations about how this experience has been affecting us, so what’s one of the more positive things about being here that you weren’t expecting?

EM: I’ve met some really great musicians in the orchestra, Americans, Bosnians, Albanians, Italians, etc.; they’ve all been very supportive. I get to play a lot of repertoire that I wouldn’t have otherwise been playing. I’m playing symphonies that I haven’t played, but also operas and ballets which I’ve never really done before. I also am playing under lots of guest conductors from all over the world and with guest soloists too. Getting to play with an ensemble consistently over time has its pros and cons: I’ve had the time to become very attuned to other’s tendencies, both good and bad. For me personally, I’ve become very aware of my intonation and I try my best to play every detail that the composer wrote. I don’t want to get complacent, and that’s been a big thing I’ve noticed here because a lot of people seem to feel that this is their job and the way things are done and they’re OK with that.

CR: Do you think that’s something that’s just specific to Bosnia, or is that just a characteristic of orchestras in general?

EM: No, it’s not specific to here. The culture here is as they say ‘polako’, an easy lifestyle that’s kind of slow, but I think that happens in other places too. People don’t necessarily get lazy, but they get complacent because their priorities may be different. That drive and push to be better, to get a better job or to move up or something doesn’t always exist.

CR: Definitely, and being here has definitely taught me about what other people prioritize. American culture seems to be that we’re constantly trying to evolve and better ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but something I’ve learned is that we should take time to enjoy the process as it goes, enjoy things as they are happening now. Through hard work I will ultimately get to where I want to go in my life, but there’s a process in getting there and being here has helped with that. It’s this time thing that really messes with that though. You just said time, and it got me thinking about it.

EM: Yeah. It definitely gives me anxiety and I sometimes go crazy if I think that I’m losing more and more time. That’s probably because of the culture that we grew up in and being American that I’ll probably always feel the need to do something more, do something better. But being here has definitely given me a lot of perspective. I get to experience a different culture so I’m happy to have the opportunity to broaden my horizons and I know I’m going to take something positive away from this.

CR: What’s one thing you’ll probably most take away from this experience?

EM: Probably living and playing music in Europe. I think that’s the coolest thing and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I love traveling and I’m always looking for new adventures and new experiences. If I was in America I’d still be dealing with the same things, playing in orchestra, but I wouldn’t get this new perspective on the world and the chance to travel around to places I’ve only dreamed of going. This opportunity here might lead to another opportunity, and I’m all about taking advantage of opportunities.

CR: I just have a couple more questions, but how do you define ‘success’?

EM: I guess success would be achieving a goal that you set out to do, in the most basic sense of it. For some people it’s making a lot of money, or buying something, or I achieved this score on a video game. One of my goals was to live in Europe and play music, and I achieved that and I can check that off, but in the most basic sense it’s achieving a goal that you set out to do. But the process is no less important.

CR: Do you feel that you’re successful?

EM: In some senses, yes. I’m still doing music, and I got into the Master’s program that I wanted to, I have two degrees. I’m also living in Europe and playing music, those are things that I set out to do and I achieved them. Sometimes I don’t feel successful though because there are some goals that I haven’t achieved yet, but I should remind myself more that I have done a lot and there’s a lot to be proud of. Something that [my friend] Jessica said was just because someone else is successful does not take away success from me or that I won’t ever have it. That was really important for me to hear.

CR: Exactly. None of us take anything away from each other, we really don’t. Overall, what is some general advice would you offer to other people?

EM: Well something my friend Bonnie told me that I try to remind myself of all the time, is that everyone is on their own path. No one’s path is the right way or the wrong way, maybe someone is achieving the same things at a younger age, or maybe you haven’t even done those things yet, but everyone is on their own path and that doesn’t discredit the things that you’re doing now. So just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll find success in it. Even though you may make a lot of mistakes, crash and burn, if it’s really important to you, you’ll find a way to make it work and pick yourself back up.

CR: Great. What are your hobbies?

EM: I definitely watch too much Netflix, but I also really enjoy cooking. I like making fajitas, making my own tortillas and experimenting with new recipes, it’s a nice creative outlet that doesn’t have anything to do with music and also tastes delicious *laughter* I also scuba dive, but I don’t currently live by a coast so I don’t get to go that often. I really enjoy scuba diving because it’s a whole new experience being underwater and seeing essentially a different world. It’s very peaceful and almost meditative for me because you have the regulator in your mouth and can’t talk, so you have to be in the moment just breathing, floating around, enjoying what you’re seeing and what you’re experiencing. Sometimes it can be a little scary if you see a shark or a giant grouper that swims towards you, which has definitely happened to me, but even then it’s a really amazing experience. One thing my dive instructor told us was that 99% of the problems you encounter can be solved underwater. So, I was thinking, if I can breathe underwater and fix my gear, whatever I need to do, all under the surface, even swim with a shark, I can play the viola and figure it out.

CR: That’s a really beautiful way to look at it. Do you have one final thing you want to add to this interview?

EM: I guess we all need to remind ourselves, and myself included probably the most, that the path that I’m on, I’m doing good things, I am successful, I will figure it out. I can’t let fear and anxiety dictate what I do, and even if I crash and burn and fall down, I can pick myself back up and keep going and doing what I’m doing.

CR: Great. Thanks Erin!

EM: Thank you!