Striking the Right Chord

Stuyvesant musicians don’t have it easy. Here’s a look into the burdens and benefits that come with playing an instrument.

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Aside from the obligatory blasting of the birthday song at the swipe-in machines and the occasional in-class ringtone, instrumental music doesn’t make up a large part of the Stuyvesant student’s school day. However, just a quick trip down the half-floor stairs to the first floor will reveal a plethora of melodies, from the strings of Symphonic Orchestra to the plaintive lone pianist at the bench. A glance at them wouldn’t suggest it, but many of these students face the daily struggle of balancing rigorous course loads with perhaps the most demanding extracurricular one can take on: music.

Unlike involvement in a typical club or publication, a student’s music career can start years before they enter Stuyvesant, and can have already grown to become an essential part of their lives. Sophomore Charlie Stern, for example, has played the cello for 11 years. “[There have been] a few times I’ve not played [cello] for a month or two at most, but other than that I’ve kept it up,” he said.

Many have found that the self-discipline that comes with learning an instrument at an early age has been useful in their academic lives. “Personally, I’m someone who gets distracted very easily and loses focus very easily, so having to sit down for an hour or 45 minutes a day and just focus on one task taught me how to stay focused on a task before I moved on to another,” Stern explained.

In the experience of senior Cyrus Cursetjee, studying an instrument not only improves productivity, but also boosts performance at school. “Music and academics are pretty closely related in terms of work ethic,” said Cursetjee, who has studied the violin for 13 years. “I practice during my free periods as a mental reset, but also to improve. And I find it more beneficial than sort of just not doing anything because your mind is maybe more relaxed, but is still working.”

Since practice doesn’t have a due date like school assignments might, self-accountability is a requirement for every musician. “Practicing the piano is entirely up to me because I decide when I practice,” said freshman Elizabeth Kolbasko.

This deficit in practice time is common among Stuyvesant musicians, and there is no single culprit. For one, the pandemic forced private lessons to be conducted online for months, which many saw as a hindrance to their progression. “Virtual lessons are really hard to do. They suck. So I definitely practiced less and definitely had less lessons,” said Stern.

Kolbasko echoed this sentiment. “Before quarantine, I was improving so quickly. My teacher was like, this is really good. You’re on a roll. And then after quarantine, we did Zoom practices and I quit after two months of doing those Zoom practices and I just did it by myself. [...] That was kind of a plateau of my improvement,” she recounted.

The size of the Stuyvesant workload has also proven to limit the amount of spare time during which students can practice. “It’s hard to manage my time between actually getting my homework done on time and practicing before it gets dark. You can’t really practice an instrument after around 8:00 p.m. because then you’ll disturb all your neighbors and housemates,” sophomore Kyle Hon Chan, who is in the Symphonic Band and is the founder of The Stuyvesant Philharmonic Club, said in an e-mail interview.

Freshmen in particular have seen the amount of time they practice drop, as they have to contend with a new social and academic environment. “When I started going to Stuy, I started practicing less and less. And the past two months I’ve been thinking about quitting, unfortunately, because I’ve had so little time to practice. I completely forget that I play an instrument sometimes,” Kolbasko said. “Stuy and a lot of hobbies do not mix well at all together.”

However, this phenomenon may be unique to current underclassmen, who have had to adjust not only to new academic pressures, but also to the reality of in-person schooling. Cursetjee, who didn’t have to contend with the pandemic upon entering Stuyvesant, saw the transition as a positive force in his musical studies. “Weirdly enough, when I got to Stuy was when I started taking [violin] a lot more seriously and practicing a lot more. I think it was because some of the violinists and the musicians I had seen at Stuy when I was a freshman inspired me to practice so I could improve,” Cursetjee said.

The music community at Stuyvesant has continued to be a place for students of all levels to develop their skills in a relaxed atmosphere. “I’m in the Symphonic and Jazz Band at Stuy, so I have no free periods ‘cause it’s all for music electives,” freshman Brandon Waworuntu said. “I’ve had a lot of fun and I’ve made many friends.”

The social aspects of Band and Orchestra help to build connections, while working to encourage the spirit of practice, even if a student isn’t able to find time to play outside of school. “Rehearsing a single piece for hours on down to the latest hours of the school day with your peers really fosters a community and relationship I’ve never experienced before,” said Chan. “My individual practice time has all gone into StuyPhil, and I spend that time writing arrangements for the band to play.”

When Stuyvesant musicians do find time to practice, it can prove to be a calming and gratifying experience. “Sometimes when I’m really stressed out when I have a ton of work, I’ll see [practice] as a break from other schoolwork,” said Stern.

In fact, certain instruments function not only as instruments, but also as outlets for negativity. “The drum set is, you know, a big loud instrument,” Waworuntu said. “You can let your anger out on it.”

The emotional and practical burden that comes with being a musician at Stuyvesant can be rectified by the positive effects that practice can have on stress levels and the supportive community that music electives and clubs have to offer. Ultimately, though, music is a personal endeavor. “If you don’t enjoy it, then it’s not gonna help you. And it doesn’t matter how good you are at it,” Cursetjee said. “But if you enjoy it, it’s not gonna be bad.”