Two Things I Wish I Knew As An SFCM Freshman

Ava Harmon at SFCM 50 Oak

And a key lesson I learned during my time at the Conservatory

Most days it doesn’t feel real. “I’m going to graduate this month,” I say to tour groups and old friends and childhood teachers—I’ve probably said it a hundred times by now, and while those words seem true they hardly feel real.

It’s been three and a half years since I moved to San Francisco and despite knowing all of the central bus lines by heart, have lists and lists of my favorite little places all around the city, and have cultivated an incredible little family here at the Conservatory, I still feel like a first year student. Looking back, though, I can see how much I’ve grown and know that a new chapter is about to begin. Before looking ahead, I’d like to look back and give our newly admitted SFCM students (congrats and welcome!) advice: the things I wish I had known before starting my degree.

Find a Hobby
Music always had been, for me and most incoming students, a safe, warm, and fun outlet of expression. In Conservatory, that music hobby will shift to become a full-time focus. I wish someone had told me that while I’d be having fun doing the thing that I loved, I may also feel a bit oversaturated because I no longer had an outlet. So, take it from me: it’s important to find something that you can enjoy outside of music. While my friends’ hobbies range from mountain biking and off-roading to hiking, crafting, thrift shopping, gaming, and exploring the city, my hobbies all center around outside activities that give me what music as a hobby once did—complete peace. Today, I find that same sense of calm exploring the city, cooking, reading, and sipping coffee in local parks. I’m, in fact, sitting in Buena Vista park as I write this, nibbling on an almond slice from Wholesome Bakery and looking out over the city. Your hobby can be anything, but the thing I’d like to emphasize is that your activities should take you out of student musician mode and bring you a similar style of outlet as your hobby of music once did.

Communication
A conservatory is many things: joyful, incredible, explorative, life changing—I could go on. With that in mind, studying at a conservatory can also be challenging. You’re approached as a collaborator, treated like a professional, and expected to work hard so that you can exponentially grow in a short time frame. Because of all of those things, I’ve learned the importance of accessing resources. Communicate with your professors—they know us musicians have a lot on our plates, so if you have a competition and essay due on the same day, ask for an extension. Do you have to fly to an audition mid-week and are worried about being behind in a class when you return? Put yourself in a good position by scheduling appointments with an SAEC tutor before you leave and after you return. If you need support, talk to Student Affairs team members like Counselor, Sarah Berman, LMFT DMA, who is also a classically trained harpist.

I learned this lesson early on in my Freshman year when I began having a lot of trouble with Musicianship coursework because of my dyslexia (two note lengths or pitches would often switch with each other). After some time, I talked to my professor, Joseph Stillwell, about how my dyslexia was affecting my in-class performance and general musicianship experience. He, to my surprise, responded with compassion and suggestions on how I could alter my practice habits so that I could succeed. During the subsequent two years, Professor Stillwell always made sure to address my concerns and challenge me, while never treating me any different than my classmates. I can’t express just how much that experience changed the way I stepped into Musicianship; our Monday/Wednesday/Friday 8AM ritual of breathing, working, and learning eventually felt like home. After the course progression ended, I was happy that I got to sleep in but I also missed that home and the little family I’d been a part of during those three years. Moral of the story? Talk to the folks around you: SFCM wants you to have fun and succeed while you’re here, so be your own advocate and communicate with those around you so that you’re happy and thriving.

Now that I’ve shared what I wish I knew, I’d like to give you a headstart and let you in on one key lesson I learned during my Bachelor's degree.

Trust the Conservatory Process
Going to SFCM isn’t about limiting you to a specific future in music, it’s about showing you the possibilities for a life as a musician and helping you get there. That path will be different person to person; yours may even surprise you. I came to SFCM wanting to be a full-time opera singer and I found out that while I love being an artist, I’m more passionate about supporting musicians in a leadership role and collaborating with instrumentalists and composers in my free time. For a period, I didn’t know if expressing those goals would be perceived as a “failure” because I had internalized a very specific image of what a musician’s life should look like. It took me six months to realize that the perspective I had was flawed and that my team at the Conservatory was there to support me achieve my goals. A big thank you to my voice teacher Cathy Cook, coach Mai-Linh Pham, and mentors like Lisa Nickels, Alyssa Saint, and Karen Meurer Bacellar who have helped guide me towards a fulfilling and successful career in arts administration. All of this to say, don’t limit yourself and trust the conservatory process. SFCM will not just teach you how to play music well, but it will help you discover who you are and how you can create positive change in the world.

Looking back, I can see how much I’ve changed since my arrival in San Francisco three and a half years ago, and know that you all will experience similar journeys of discovery as artists, intellectuals, professionals, and individuals. I wish you the best in this new chapter of your life and within The New— incredible things are on the horizon and I can’t wait to see where your paths lead.

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