Navigating Life after Music School: Creating your Community with Annamarie Arai
I feel very lucky to have met and become good friends with Annamarie Arai when we were both Teaching Artists (and roommates!) on a MusAid trip to El Salvador. Her fun sense of humor and generous spirit permeates all she does and makes those around her feel understood and important. It was great to learn more about her musical journey!
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. AA: I grew up in a very musical family where all three of my sisters also played violin (I know, I know, it’s so ridiculous that two of us didn’t venture beyond violins so we could get a string quartet going. Trust me, it’s a regret!). I hadn’t necessarily planned on becoming a musician and when I entered UCLA, I thought I would double major, keeping my options open. By the time I left, having encountered lifelong colleagues within a supportive community, music was the sole focus. I went on to grad school at the San Francisco Conservatory and am now a freelance violinist and violin teacher in the Bay Area. For my teaching, I maintain a small private studio in San Francisco and am also a “Teaching Artist” with an El Sistema program in neighboring San Rafael, called ELM (which stands for “Enriching Lives through Music”). I’m so thankful that during COVID, I’ve still been able to teach both privately and with ELM and have been able to see almost all my kiddos on a weekly basis!
As a freelance performer in the Bay Area, I play regularly with a few different orchestras and gigging companies. My favorite is a conductor-less chamber orchestra called “One Found Sound” (OFS), which is one of the few local classical orchestras that has still offered creative ways to perform during COVID! I also recently formed a duo group with fellow violinist/friend, Agnieszka Peszko. I was so lucky to record a really cool concert set with her in 2020 and we’re excited for more live concerts to come post-COVID.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? AA: I’ve always loved chamber music and always had the privilege of playing with some sort of smaller ensemble during school. This set me up with the necessary score-studying tools that I now use to be an active participant with One Found Sound. School was also the place where I met so many of the colleagues I now continue to play with!
I didn’t realize until grad school though, how much I loved teaching and how much more I needed to train to be a good teacher. It was in my last year of grad school that I became connected with ELM. I would dash off from class or a lesson to co-teach beginning violin classes several days a week. Even though I didn’t know a thing about teaching group classes, ELM saw I was passionate about it and decided to invest a lot in me by providing me with amazing mentors and lead teachers to train me. I’m so glad I didn’t wait until after I’d graduated to figure out how to make connections like this within the community, even though balancing my own schooling and my new teaching job felt overwhelming at the time.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? AA: During music school, I thought that I had to win an orchestra job to truly feel like I’d “made it” as a musician, and that this was the only way to have a full-time job as a violinist. My first year after graduating, I took so many auditions and felt like I’d wasted so much time as I failed to win any. But I did get far enough in the process to make it on a few sub lists and continued to play with OFS, which enabled me to keep learning new music and performing regularly. It just took me a few years of feeling immense disappointment about never signing a contract with a full-time orchestra before I realized that I was already living the life of a musician who’d “made it.”
It also took several years of being an assistant teacher at ELM (with an amazing mentor!) before I was trusted with starting my very own class from scratch. It took a lot of patience and humility to realize that I had so much more to learn, even though I’d just graduated.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? AA: Yup, my goal while in school of winning an orchestra job has absolutely changed. I’d like to now focus more on playing chamber music, particularly in a string quartet setting. I’d love to be a founding member of a quartet, particularly one which could incorporate bluegrass and folk styles into our playing- that’s my jam!
I also have so many goals with my teaching! I’d love for all my kiddos to play more chamber music with each other and this is the first thing I’d like to set up in my studio post-COVID.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful AA: For teaching, I continued to be mentored as a Teaching Artist at ELM and sought out the best methods for setting up beginner students. I had all this knowledge about how to play concerti and train to take orchestra auditions, but NO idea how to successfully teach how to hold the bow! I got Suzuki certified and that helped solidify the training I was already receiving at ELM.
For playing, I connected with a couple different concertmasters of regional orchestras and asked if I could play excerpts for them. One of them was really helpful in putting me on sub lists for various orchestras. I also learned that I had to work on my sight-reading, which had always been a struggle for me. I’m still not terrific, but I did say “yes” to a lot of low-paying gigs back then, simply because I knew I’d have to show up and play what was in front of me and it was the challenge I needed.
ER: You're a member of One Found Sound. Tell us about this orchestra. AA: We are a democratically run, conductor-less orchestra! It was founded by four amazing women who are alumni from the SF Conservatory and we are in the middle of our 8th season now. Every summer, all the core members submit repertoire suggestions and then we all vote to decide which pieces we want to play for the season. For every set, the seating rotates and everybody is given a chance to volunteer to be a leader, either as a section leader or as a rehearsal leader, which means you help run rehearsals, plan out which sections to rehearse, and decide preliminary tempi and cues. Every member of the orchestra receives the full score for all pieces, and is expected to do a ton of score-studying in preparation for rehearsals. It requires so much commitment and initiative from every single orchestra member! The first rehearsals for a set are always wild and there are always a lot of opinions from everybody, but if we need to make decisions, we’ll literally hold a vote on the spot! At the end of the week, we perform in an intimate art gallery and it’s a blast to stand in front of an audience so close as you’re creating chamber music on such a large scale.
While all my other orchestras were shuttered during COVID, OFS has creatively found ways for us to still play with each other, creating several recording-from-home projects and also outdoor small chamber music concerts. A favorite moment of 2020 back in the fall when COVID cases were low in SF was performing a Beethoven quartet and newer piece called “Strum,” by Jessie Montgomery at an outdoor space. The energy was electric!
ER: Tell us about your work with the ELM program. AA: At ELM, I teach group violin classes as part of an El Sistema-inspired program. This means that the students’ individual instrument classes train them to be part of our ELM orchestra program (This idea was inspired by a Venezuelan program founded in the 1970’s). It’s really an incredible program which is free for all students and located in a predominantly immigrant community in San Rafael.
I start with beginners in 2nd and 3rd grade, and lead them through their first 3-4 years until they reach middle school. It is tough work, especially in the kids’ first year, since it requires so much patience (on their end!) as we repeat beginner steps like how to hold your instrument, over and over. It is one of the most rewarding things I do though, since by the time they get to play in an orchestra in their third year, I witness firsthand that they have confidence in their sound, plus have developed deep friendships within their cohort of violinists. Also, these kids are hilarious! I didn’t realize how solitary and lonely at times my own music education was until I realized what a blast it is to teach/learn your instrument within a group.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? AA: A friend of mine recently reminded me that, as artists, we have to create the space to celebrate our achievements, even if it’s something small. It’s really easy to play a concert or record one virtually and then, the next day, think, “Well, what’s next?” without taking the time to celebrate what was just created. We don’t belong to companies or corporations with party-planning committees, so it’s up to us to create that moment to celebrate and be proud of the work we created or took part in.
ER: How can people find you? Website, social media. AA: I’m horrible with social media but trying to get better!
Website in the works: annamariearai.com