The Bosnian A'tudes: An Interview with Maggie Rickard

Name: Maggie Rickard

Age: 22

From: Denver, CO

Instrument: French Horn

Job Title: Former 2nd/4th Horn, Sarajevska Filharmonija

School: University of Colorado Boulder, Bachelors in Music Education/Music Performance (in progress)

Favorite Brew: Green Tea Frappuccino from Starbucks

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?

Maggie Rickard: When I was a little kid I really liked to sing all the time, and I was pretty shameless about singing in every possible situation. I had a pretty mature voice at that age so people were always asking me to sing; the highlight of my singing career happened when I was seven. After 9/11 my school did a peace march in downtown Denver and we went to the State Capitol. My class of 1st and 2nd graders had been scheduled to sing a song at the Capitol, but my teachers didn’t know that the class was supposed to perform so they just pulled me up and made me sing it by myself in front of news cameras and everyone.

CR: Oh interesting! What did you sing?

MR: I sang a song called “We Are the Children of the Universe”. As far as instruments go, I had a few attempts at trying out an instrument before it stuck. I played guitar when I was six, but didn’t really have the patience for it. I almost learned cello when I was eight but that didn’t work out either. When I was nine I worshiped Lisa Simpson so I really wanted to play the saxophone, but it was way too heavy and I couldn’t get a sound out of it when I went to the instrument tryouts the band directors always hosted. I’d never heard of the horn, but it was curly and pretty, and there was no line to try it out *laughter*. So I tried it out, got a sound out of it instantly, and the helper chick encouraged me to play it and I said, “OK”. I obtained a really terrible, battered horn from my school, joined band, and stuck with it. Now, looking back, I’m so glad I chose horn instead of those others. It’s the height of nerdiness!

CR: That’s great! So when did you start pursuing music more seriously?

MR: Well, after 6th grade my school only had an on again off again jazz band, so my main band experience was an extracurricular band called the Colorado Honor Band. I took private lessons with a jazz musician who specialized in trumpet and voice. She taught me a lot about the foundations of music in multiple genres and instruments, specifically piano and voice in addition to horn. I didn’t have a teacher who specialized in horn until my senior year of high school. For the last few years of high school I was juggling horn, piano and voice and wasn’t yet focused on classical music, although that amazing variety inspired me to pursue teaching at the public school level. But anyway, I had no idea what the professional performance world was about, how hard it was, what the standards were, or who any of the famous horn players were; it took me six months into college to stop calling him ‘Steven Dohr’ *laughter*. So yeah, I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but CU has a really great horn studio and a teacher who really advocates for us. He’s a wonderful player and a wonderful teacher who is also the Principal Horn of the Colorado Symphony.

CR: Sounds excellent! So did you start out as a Music Education major, or did you do performance as well?

MR: I started out as a Music Education and Performance double major, because it meant only one extra year, getting two degrees instead of one, learning about education as well as also having time to practice and nurture my performance side. There was one point when I seriously considered quitting Music Ed. The workload was very intense, I wasn’t in love with teaching, and I felt like I didn’t have time to practice and that it was really holding me back. I almost dropped out of music school entirely during my second year because not only was I not in love with Music Education, but I didn’t feel like I getting anywhere as a musician. I felt like if I quit then I would still be young enough to have time to study something else, that it wouldn’t be a total waste of my undergrad. I walked into a lesson one day and told my teacher that, but I’m so glad I communicated that to him because from that point on our lessons were a lot more serious. I got a new horn, and I kind of took off as a player from where I’d been. I developed a lot of confidence, developed much better practice habits, and came out of that year feeling much more optimistic about music in general, that music was worth it for me to pursue. I’ve doubted myself many times since then, but right now I feel good about it. I’m going to at least finish my Music Education degree and see where life takes me.

CR: What about music is worth it to you to pursue as a career?

MR: So many things, and in different ways. I feel like music is something that all people can’t not do in some way or another. Whether that means making a killer playlist while I jog around town, rocking out in a club, improvising on your ukulele, or whether that means going to music school and getting a degree in classical music, everyone has a musician inside of them whether or not they make that their career. In fact, Classical music wasn’t really familiar to me as its own monumental form of art until College. I didn’t really listen to it and nerd out over the masterworks until I got to CU and realized that was my major, and that I had to learn how to nerd out about it and appreciate it and understand it in a way I hadn’t before. Now I feel it’s another genre of music that I love, it's intellectually challenging and I want to share it and help make it more relevant to my generation, to become a bigger part of everyone’s everyday life. There’s a gap there and I want to help bridge it in some way to make it more palatable to people.

CR: That’s really great, Maggie.

MR: Yeah, I think with classical music instruments we somehow give off this vibe that the average ‘peasant’ does not belong to that world, that someone can’t just dabble in classical music, they have to earn the right to play it at all by being really good. But I think a lot of that’s made up, I don’t think it has to be like that with classical music. Our instruments are really demanding in the development of your ear and musculature in order to get the right sounds out in the first place, and it’s absolutely that way if you want to make it your profession, but it’s not like the average Joe or Jane can’t pick it up and play notes if they wanted to at least try.  

CR: Yeah, I get what you’re saying. In regards to struggles and challenges, are there struggles or challenges with negativity that you’d be willing to talk about either in your personal life or your musical life that you’re working to overcome?

MR: I can’t say that playing the horn has necessarily been an outlet to help me overcome other difficult things in my life, because I’ve never really had that kind of relationship with making music. I’ve struggled more where when shit hits the fan in my personal life my musicianship suffers. It’s hard for me to put a barrier between my work on the horn and the other stuff that I’m going through in my life. I will say though that playing horn in and of itself challenges me to confront those shortcomings in my character and the habits that are holding me back from becoming the best person I can be. When we perform we’re so exposed, and a lot of our baggage will come to the surface during our performance if we don’t figure out how to deal with it constructively. For me, one of the most rewarding parts of being a music major is that I’m being forced to confront issues in myself that will hold me back in some way in life, like being able to separate my emotions from my work, learning to be patient with myself, and learning how to judge my work without judging my whole self. I’ve really struggled with allowing setbacks as a performer affect my self-esteem more than they really deserve to.

CR: I totally get what you mean. So what has school been like for you then, how has being in school aided you, or not aided you, with overcoming these struggles?

MR: Specific to music school, I think it’s easy to get in the habit of being really judgemental and talking a lot of shit. When I first got to college I was surrounded by a lot of people who were really judgemental towards themselves. They let that come out as judgement towards others who said mean things about other people, and in turn cared too much when other people said mean things about them. I thought that was normal and I picked up that habit. But that was really destructive because the more I judged other people, the more I judged myself and the more I feared the judgement of others, which just creates this awful, perpetual cycle of hatred, fear, anxiousness, etc.

CR: What did you do to try and change that, to get out of that cycle?

MR: My teacher really helped me shed that habit because I was bringing all that anxiety into my playing, and fighting it and ignoring it was making it way worse. I had, and still kind of do, really bad performance anxiety. When I got to college I paired that anxiety with this awful habit I’d picked up, along with feeling like I was way behind in terms of what I knew about music. All of that stress really inhibited my playing, and it often still does when I let it spiral out of control mentally. To help overcome that my teacher suggested that I find people who valued me as a person, to journal a lot, to kind of reshape my relationship with my instrument and my relationship with myself. So, I took his advice, I spent more time outdoors, spent time with my family, and made room for the things that I needed in order to live a healthy life. I learned to appreciate the parts of myself that have nothing to do with music and then brought it to music in a positive way. So overall, I spent the necessary time learning to overcome that behavior I’d picked up in school, and it was a really huge step for me. It allowed me to progress so much more as a player than I could when I was so tied up in knots over what people thought of me. I chose to love myself because I deserve to love myself, and I do my best to bring that love with me into the practice room, into my section, on stage, and let the rest of the crap just bounce off. I’m definitely not done learning how to do that, but it’s so much more fun to try that way rather than feel like, “I play badly and now I have to force myself to play better because if I don’t then I’m worth nothing and no one will love me”. Just DO NOT under any circumstances, talk shit about other people’s playing! Don’t do it kids, seriously, not just because it will make people dislike you, which it will, but that’s not the worst part; it’s going to make you fear what other people are saying about you, and that just hurts yourself! So, love other musicians, love yourself as a musician, and don’t be afraid of other people’s success. In the end, if there are more people who are out there playing well it just means there are more people making this art relevant. Yes, we are in competition, but more good musicians equals more good music for the world, and we all benefit from that. We don’t need to be afraid of each other.

CR: I feel like I should slow clap for you *laughter* thank you! I mean, I could not ever put that any better than you just did. You said everything that I always try and say, and it is, it is one of the most fucking hard things to do, to shed that habit.

MR: It is, it’s really hard! It’s a scary profession, it’s risky. Another thing that helped was reshaping the way I listened to other people. When I started to choose the positive approach I stopped trying to quantify musicians as good or bad. It’s still a habit that I have to fight all the time, but I started trying to consciously do positive listening, whether in a concert or a studio class, which is even harder to do. Especially in studio it’s difficult to listen to your peers who play the same instrument without just listen for mistakes, thinking, ‘hey, I can do that better than you did’. I challenge everyone to listen with love and to constructively critique and appreciate the positive things more than the negative things. There needs to be both.  

CR: Well, that’s great, Maggie. I applaud you for saying that, it’s so true. So speaking to this experience in particular, what interested you about coming here to Bosnia?

MR: So, in February 2015, I had some hard stuff happen in my personal life. I lost a friend to suicide and I had some other drama that added up to where I reached my breaking point, mentally. My teacher supported me when I decided to get a medical withdrawal from my classes He said that all that mattered was for me to get better and that he was here if I needed him. So that’s what I did, I withdrew from my classes at school, and he was kind enough to give me a few lessons in his free time after that. Soon after I decided to take that break from school, I came back in and played for him and I sounded better than I had sounded in months. That was when he told me to audition for the Sarajevo Philharmonic exchange program, because I was sounding good, and I would benefit from getting the heck out of town for a little while. So, that’s what I did, and I won the job. The decision to actually come here came from having my friend in my horn studio, Rebecca Fathman, who was the 2nd Horn in the 2012/2013 season for the Sarajevska Filharmonija. When she came back to CU to finish her degree, she was a really confident and loving musician and she shared that in the studio. Her attitude was contagious and we all benefitted. I got to talking to her about her experiences and it was clear that a lot of that confidence and positivity had come from being here in Sarajevo, living in the real world and traveling. So yeah, knowing that I wanted that same sort of adventure, I decided to come here!

CR: Woo! I don’t know that it can really be summed up into one thing, but have you feel like you’ve gained what you were seeking from this experience?

MR: I’m not going to lie. It’s been really tough, partly because I felt like it was really hard for me in ways that it was easy for everyone else. Again, I wasn’t allowing myself to just face those challenges head on. By denying myself the permission to have a problem, it just gets bigger and takes over my life. But, playing wise, my level of experience in coming here was just much, much lower than most people’s, and I’ve had to work to make up for that in whatever way I could, to do a job that I felt good about. Between having people in my section who set a really high standard, and wanting to be part of that while knowing that I have shortcomings as a player in my horn playing and knowledge of the repertoire has been a little tough, I won’t lie. So, I’ve had to re-develop that confidence a bit, but it’s getting better. I think being here makes me feel like so much more of an adult, so much more independent. So, to answer your question, yes and no. It’s more of a breaking down, building back up kind of thing.

CR: Well, not that it matters what I say in that regard, but as someone who is in your section I’ve never thought that in any way any of us have inhibited each other. We’re a very supportive section.

MR: Thank you, and yes, we are supportive. Plus, our Beethoven 9 was dope, that was just dope.

CR: *laughter* That it was. What’s one thing that you can compare from American life to European life?

MR: Bosnian life is very polako, and for all you readers, polako is a Bosnian word for ‘slow’, or ‘slow down’, and it embodies a crucial aspect of Bosnian culture: being very laid back and keen to spend your afternoon sitting in the sun drinking beer and not worrying about anything. That’s been really different from American life, especially in relation to school. I had gotten used to the stressful whirlwind of school and almost needing that adrenaline and that momentum of getting things done, bam bam, every day is full. Being in Bosnia is the total opposite of that. My only structure is what I give myself in terms of my decisions to put time into music, my decisions to practice my own stuff, and that’s taken some time to get used to that different level of personal pressure. We have so much free time and we’re in a city that runs out of things to do with that free time pretty quickly besides sit in the sun and drink beer *laughter*. It’s nice but sometimes it’s a very bad thing because it can be too much time to let my emotions steep. But, it can be a really positive thing if I decide to make it positive, to enjoy it, and to enjoy being able to sit in the sun and drink beer and eat good, cheap food, and enjoy a life that is not very stressful.

CR: For sure. What kind of things are you most inspired or motivated by?

MR: I just feel really strongly compelled to make the world better. At times I feel like one thing that is lacking as a musician is that I’m not really tangibly saving the world. But I try to remember that making art is another way to save the world. You might not save anyone’s life, but who wants to live in a world where there isn’t art and beauty and people expressing themselves. Contributing that and helping other people to figure out how to contribute that is a really worthwhile endeavor. So I think that’s part of my motivation: wanting to help the world get better, wanting to help other people. That’s a desire in myself that isn’t totally satisfied by performance, and which may eventually compel me to follow a more educational path as a musician.

CR: Great answer. So we talked a little bit about it already, but how do you define the word ‘success’?

MR: My answer to this has recently changed, but I think success means becoming the best people we can be. It doesn’t mean having a perfect life, and it doesn’t mean being happy all the time because if you think you’re going to be happy all the time, you’re bound to be disappointed. *laughter* That’s just not how life works. You can’t plan every aspect of your story, but you can control your actions and you can control your decision to be the best person you can be, to love yourself for who you are, and to love other people. Hopefully that can be your guide for what you do with the time you have.

CR: I thought that was really beautiful, the part about not being able to plan every aspect of your story. I think that’s so true, but people are so obsessed with controlling their story and trying to plan every detail of their life from start to finish.

MR: Yeah, but you can’t control what happens to you. You can control your own actions, but so much is luck and so much is other factors outside of you. As soon as you let those factors determine whether or not you feel successful or happy, then you give up your ability to decide to be happy and feel successful.

CR: I couldn’t agree more. By your definition, do you feel that you are successful?

MR: In some ways. I’m happy with who I am and happy with my own determination to keep improving upon that. I think I have what I need to be successful in the long run and appreciate my life. I’m really, really scared of the future in a lot of ways. But I don’t know how to answer the question; what does it take for most people to feel like they’ve made it, that they’ve arrived at adulthood? Considering where I am in my age and in my development as a musician,  I feel happy with what I’m doing at this point in my career. I also sort of feel like I’m flailing around in midair just hoping that I’ll land on soft ground *laughter* but it’ll all be fine.

CR: Yeah, it’ll all be fine. What’s the best advice you can offer to someone who has experienced similar struggles in their life?

MR: Believe in yourself, own your problems, stop trying to fight them because it’s normal to have them. Stay positive, treat other people positively because it’s the only way to treat yourself positively. Also, just be a nerd, do not try to hide your passions. Let them be obvious and be really proud of them. For me that’s a definition of a nerd, someone who is unabashedly passionate about something and doesn’t try to act too cool for caring about stuff.

CR: For sure. So speaking to yourself as a person, are you able to describe yourself in three words?

MR: No, but I can come up with some adjectives if you want. Positive, genuine, and fluffy. *wiggles eyebrows*

CR: *laughter*, very good. What do you believe are some qualities or values that are shared by all people regardless of their profession?

MR: I think it’s a common human value to want to help people. We naturally have empathy and don’t want to see other people in pain. We all want each other to be happy. I think appreciation of beauty is a common value for all people. That means different things for different people, but that’s part of what it is to be human. To be sensitive to being moved emotionally through our sensory experiences, to want to go out and watch the sunset, and decorate our cakes, these are all frivolous things that don’t help us survive, yet without them we’re not as happy. I think fear of death is a common human value (uh, that’s dark, sorry *laughter*.) I think it’s a motivator to try to squeeze the most you can out of the time that you have. It inspires a lot of fear of fucking up and fear in not being able to control our story, and I think that’s something a lot of people have in common. I think we all have passions, the things that we can’t not do, things that we can’t stop caring about. Most people are not lucky enough to say they can make a career totally out of their passions, because that’s not how life works, but everyone has them. Passion adds a lot of color to one’s life.

CR: Yeah, for sure. Is there anything other than music that you’re passionate about? What are your hobbies?

MR: I’m passionate about so many things, that’s something that I struggle with in really committing to just music because I have really intense fears of missing out on everything. I’m really into cooking, which is my main creative outlet besides music. I’m really into politics and social justice projects and I really love kids. I love spending time with kids, and I really want to have kids and I think that’s one part of my life that’s non-negotiable for me.

CR: I agree. Do you have a favorite quote or mantra?

MR: One of my favorite quotes is from my high school Shakespeare teacher, Dana Sutton, who sadly died of a brain tumor last November. The quote was just “hooray for the world” and she said it every day in every class that I had with her. She always meant it.

CR: Is there a charity or a cause you’d like to raise awareness to?

MR: Education reform. I really believe that our teachers need to be paid better and we need to have a higher teacher to student ratio. The individual attention and individual relationships between students and teachers are a really meaningful part of education, and when we don’t have the time or the money for it, students really lose out. So, the fight for better funding and more equal funding in public schools is something I’m very passionate about.

CR: Absolutely. So, are there any last thoughts you want to leave readers with?

MR: Everyone deserves to be happy. No matter what they do for their paycheck or wherever they live, everyone deserves the chance to appreciate beauty. Everyone deserves the chance to do what they’re passionate about, whether that’s their 9-5 job, their hobby, or something in between. There is so much beauty to appreciate if you have the space in yourself to notice it, and the space to notice the beauty in yourself.

CR: Great! Well, thank you for talking to me.

MR: Thank you!