Navigating Life After Music School: Enjoying Every Small Step with Labib Palis
I am extremely grateful to have met Labib Palis when we were both teaching artists on a MusAid trip to El Salvador. Labib's energy and enthusiasm made him an invaluable part of our little group of teachers. When I was feeling stressed about teaching in Spanish, Labib's humor and enjoyment of the moment helped me to relax and not take everything so seriously. He also helped me with Spanish words!
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. LP: I started my musical journey when I was a kid living in Leticia, the capital of the Amazon Department in Colombia; so music training was limited. Eventually, my family moved to a city called Ibagué, it is called Ciudad Musical de Colombia (Musical City of Colombia). In Ibagué I was about 12 years old when I found my first serious violin teacher and joined a serious youth orchestra. I finally finished high-school and went to Bogotá to start my undergrad. When I was done in Colombia I moved to the United States. I lived 2 years in Pittsburgh PA and 3 years in Houston TX. I finished an artist diploma and my master’s degree. When I finished my years in the USA I got invited to spend a year in Jamaica teaching with the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica. After that I finally moved back to Colombia.
Pre-COVID I was working with a Sistema-inspired program with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá (OFB), the Proyecto Educativo de la OFB (OFB Educative Project). We spread music through the city. The idea is to go to neighborhoods that are usually hard to get to. The Bogotá Philharmonic is trying to reach every person in the city no matter where they live. It is a beautiful project because there are kids from problematic parts of the city that have been able to go and play in important music halls like the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santodomingo, Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, Teatro Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, among others. It is inspiring to see that families can get to listen to their kids performing all over the city. In COVID season 2 (2021), I got a job offer with Sistema New Brunswick in Canada, so now I am making arrangements to move there.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? LP: The best thing I did for my life after finishing my undergrad was moving to the United States. I studied in Duquesne University and the University of Houston. First of all, my teachers were always talking about basics with the violin. I learned how to set goals and to be patient. Good music takes a while and it is important to enjoy the process. Also, while in Houston I got to join the Houston Youth Symphony Coda Music Program as an intern. I started observing and helping develop classes. Basically, I learned how to teach and started my process of becoming a teaching artist. I got the opportunity to share what I learned and to practice patience with my students.
ER: I know you did your undergraduate degree in Columbia and your artist diploma and master's in the United States. What differences in music education did you notice between the two countries? LP: I started to seriously practice when I was about 16 years old. It was hard to navigate my undergrad because I was always told things like “not good enough,” “not there yet.” Oftentimes I thought it was better for me to think about a different career path. That changed quickly because I started to go to music festivals. I went to Brazil and met the violin teacher who took me to the United States. The difference was that I was hearing things like “we need to change your playing,” “you need to be better,” “you need to improve,” and the most important “SO WHAT”. I loved my undergrad teacher because he taught me so much. The difficulty was the music environment. When I was a kid I grew up with little music instruction so I always felt behind. The change was that when I got to play in the US, I found people that did not care that I came from a small music background. It was about making music and making the best out of what we had. That gave me so much confidence because I learned the biggest lesson: it does not matter where you come from, the idea is to do the best you can with what you have. I remember telling my teacher in my master's, “that piece is too hard for me.” He said, “so what,” and then I played it on my recital.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? LP: When I was finishing my time in the USA I had the uncertainty of whether I wanted to stay or not. So I started to look at visa options and job opportunities, but the next visa process was so expensive that I did not want to pursue that option. That feeling that you do not know what is going to happen is so stressful. Thankfully, I met a good friend in the Global Leaders Program and he made me an invitation to go to Jamaica. I got enrolled as a volunteer with Cuso International and started teaching with the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica.
The next moment that was hard was in 2020 during COVID time. At the end of the year I finished my contract with the Bogota Philharmonic program and we were told that we were going to resume activities around February. We actually did not, so this first half of 2021 was again full of uncertainties. Around the same time, in December 2020, I finally started the process to apply for my next visa to go to Canada. So, it has been bitter sweet, because I finally made it back to Colombia and I would like to contribute more here, but with the lack of job stability, I needed to look for something different and that is when Sistema New Brunswick came into place. Also, when I went to visit them with Global Leaders Program back in 2018, I fell in loved with the program. I saw a lot of people that were passionate about their students, and that is something that I want to be part of. On the other hand, this first half of 2021 reunited me with my family again, so spending quality time with my parents has been amazing. I guess that every time that a cycle is done there is a level of uncertainty that is really hard to face. It is important to realize that you can spend that time doing something different that might not be related to music that is worth it and can have a huge positive impact in your life.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? LP: It might sound like a cliche: I wanted to play in an orchestra; that is why I went to the USA. Then I was practicing auditions, and honestly, it was boring. Especially because a lot of hard work goes to waste when you feel nervous and in one second your focus goes away and then you did not play your 100%. I felt that I chose the wrong career because I thought I was not good enough. Then, I started teaching and felt the joy of music again. Then I joined the Global Leaders Program and met amazing people from around the world. Then I joined MusAid, and met even more amazing people. I started traveling with my violin; that is an amazing thing to do. I moved to a different country, then I came to Colombia and then I am moving again. My goal now has to do with teaching and traveling around with my violin, spreading the joy of learning an instrument.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? LP: When I finished my masters I applied to stay an extra year in the USA and learned how to drive because it was the only way of making a living in Houston. Also I was trying to figure out what to do besides performing and I applied to the Global Leaders Program for an Executive Graduate Certificate in Social Entrepreneurship. This course was great because it gave me perspective on different career paths I could take with music and I also met amazing people. It was a great opportunity to rethink the values of studying music and talk to open minded people that were trying their best to succeed in different ways rather than just performing. Also, I applied to the MusAid program; it gave me an opportunity to teach, perform, share. These two programs gave me confidence to be a better musician, a better teacher, violinist. I learned from this experience that life happens outside the practice room.
ER: I understand that you've worked for several El Sistema inspired programs. What do you enjoy about teaching for these organizations? LP: The idea to bring music everywhere is amazing. I have been lucky enough that my journey started in Houston, I moved to Jamaica, went back to Colombia, and soon I will move again, this time to Canada. So, for me it has been amazing that I have been traveling and sharing music in different programs. I think that people want to go on vacation to the Caribbean and spend time on the beach (it is amazing), but living in Kingston was a different story. For instance, one afternoon when I arrived to class, kids were not speaking in English, they were speaking in Patois (their language) and I would reply to them in Spanish. They were so confused, as was I! But it was a lot of fun. For them, it was special that someone from a different country was spending time with them. On the other hand, working in Bogotá, I met a lot of kids that were shy, and they would socialize and make friends, just because they were playing an instrument. Also, people would think about the Bogotá Philharmonic as THE music institution in the city, and for some it was something unreachable. But bringing the music to the different neighborhoods was amazing. The orchestra would play concerts in downtown or in hard-to-reach places. Being that ambassador that would bring the unreachable to everyone I think made a difference. Also, during COVID, it was one way of keeping the music alive.
ER: Tell us about your experience participating in the Global Leaders Program. LP: The Global Leaders Program (GLP) was one of my favorite things I have done. It was a revelation for me because it was a whole new way of thinking about music. The music school teaches you how to play and look for perfection, but oftentimes lacks perspective. GLP gave me that perspective I did not know I needed. We got in touch with inspiring people with different music programs for kids, for new mothers, for the elderly. It was eye opening to see that there is so much going on besides playing.
The second part of the course was a lot of technicalities on basically how to create your own idea and hopefully launch it. But the best part was the travels. GLP is an online program with people around the globe. We were all invited to go to Frutillar, Chile where we finally met. It was so cool to see the people that I was spending all that online time with. Every conversation was inspiring and eye opening in so many ways. We would talk about music, music education, the struggles of finishing school and figuring out what next, and so many other conversations. After that trip to Chile, I was also invited to go to Canada to see what was happening in Sistema New Brunswick. I found a warm team that was willing to put all the energy for the kids, and at the end of the visit we got to play Tchaikovsky 4 with the students. I remember my stand partner, she was 13 years old, and told me: “I am scared, this is hard.” I was like, “yeah! I am also nervous.” When the conductor sent the signal to start, I was surprised to see this young girl playing a challenging piece so well. That year I felt so humbled to spend it with the most amazing people. I also discovered that I have a lot to offer and it gave me the confidence and the strength that I needed to move forward.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? LP: Over the years I learned a valuable lesson. If there is one little thing that you can do to move forward, it is valid. Not everything has to be big, little steps can also work in your favor. Also, not everything in life has to be about music and about your instrument. Sometimes it is good to enjoy the little moments away so you have more to say when you have your instrument back in your hand.
ER: Anything else you want to add? LP: This has been fun and kind of emotional for me. So I am so thankful you invited me to write these words :)
ER: How can people find you? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org