New York University junior Katianna Zaffery has one year left in her music education. And she’s starting to feel the outside pressures of what real life as a musician will be like. Despite her passion for the clarinet, music industry politics and New York’s competitive scene leave her stressed and discouraged. But she doesn’t regret her music major. Three years later, she looks back at her last-minute decision that will shape the rest of her life and career.
College Magazine: What made you decide to major in music performance?
Katianna Zaffery: I actually wasn’t one of those kids who just decided when they were 5-years-old—”Oh, I’m gonna be the next Yo Yo Ma.” I actually, halfway through my senior year, was like “Crap. Well, what am I gonna do?” I thought, “I could take some auditions, I guess.” I can play the clarinet. I don’t really like doing anything else. And when I won my NYU audition, I was like “Okay, I guess I’m a music major!”
CM: What reactions did you receive when you made the decision?
Zaffery: So when I applied to NYU, I thought I could apply to CAS and Steinhardt, and then they called me and said, “You need to pick a school right now, your application is being processed. Do you want to be in the music school, and basically have your acceptance based on your audition, or are you applying to CAS? You need to pick right now.” And I’m standing there and my parents don’t know anything. I said, “I’ll do music.” And I didn’t tell them till I got in…. If they had known, they definitely would have said, “Apply as academic.”
CM: Has going to NYU, a university with some top notch performing arts programs, changed those reactions?
Zaffery: Yeah. Also, I’m not in a conservatory. So, I’m getting a liberal arts degree on top of this.
CM: What has been your least favorite and most favorite thing about being a music major?
Zaffery: Okay, let’s start with most favorite so this doesn’t get too negative. I would say, the relationships that I formed with my peers. Because, you think, going into music school, “Wow, this is going to be a competitive atmosphere like 100 percent of the time…. You’re not gonna make any real friends.” I’ve made my friends here—people that I’d like to keep as lifelong friends. There’s a really good sense of camaraderie….
I think this goes hand in hand with my least favorite thing and the major and that’s the politics that go on in my department…. If it was just the music, I think it’d be fine. But there’s a lot of drama, a lot of politics and that’s the main reason I wanted to be put on the orchestra committee [at NYU]. Because that’s students dealing with those problems head on and that’s talking with our director about it rather than just complaining.
CM: What are the pros and cons of this major?
Zaffery: Pros? I get to be surrounded by 100 musicians every day. I get to do what I—most of the time—love. I’m experiencing academics, but I’m also experiencing the music world. And being in [New York City] is just an amazing thing for the music department here and for my music education.
Cons? You know, I’m always worried about my future, I’m always worried about, “How am I gonna put food on the table? How am I gonna support myself, how am I gonna win these auditions?” Especially here in a country where the arts aren’t really as valued of late. When you tell people you’re a music major, they think that you sit around all day and do a couple jam sessions. Especially at NYU, that’s not what it is and that’s never what it’s been….
CM: Knowing the lack of funding that goes into arts for schools, what do you think about the future of the arts in our schools and nation, in general?
Zaffery: I think that as a kid, cause that’s when I got into playing the clarinet, I didn’t have my thing, you know? …. And a school band program got introduced at my elementary school. And I thought “Hey.” And I took up this instrument and it has just shaped the way I live my whole life.
I think that with the decreasing of funding, especially in schools, they’re going to be little me’s who are nerdy and sad and don’t know where to turn…. That just makes me sad and a lot of people are underprivileged and don’t have access to instruments….
CM: What is your plan for after graduation? Aside from the reality of the situation, what would be your dream goal?
Zaffery: I would wanna play in the pit for an opera some day. Specifically because it’s very different from playing for a musical. Playing for a musical as a woodwind player, unfortunately, you have to know four or five different instruments. They don’t want to crowd the pit with one sax player, one clarinet player, one flute player and one oboe player. You can play all those instruments? You’re Book One. And then it goes on down the line the lower you get….
Playing in an opera, you’re also surrounded by all these amazing singers of the opera which I have a lot of respect for. And I am in love with it in all forms. That’s like my dream job. Probably playing for the [Metropolitan Opera] or the Santa Fe Opera I think that that art is dying as well. And I don’t like that. I think there’s so much more that can be done with that.
CM: What are your concerns about going out into the world with a music degree?
Zaffery: I definitely see how people look at me when I tell them I’m studying music. I went to a private high school and when I go back over break, I run into kids I went into high school with… They ask me what I’m majoring in, I tell them music and I ask them and they say biomedical engineering. And I say “Wow, that must take up a lot of time.” And they say, “Yeah, music must be fun.”
…. And I think that’s something that people often misjudge. I misjudged it when I was in high school. Like “Yea, I’m gonna be a music major. Wicked!” And then I get to college and I get the biggest ass whooping of my life, you know? I’m taking all these classes…. And, on top of that, you better sound good in orchestra, you better sound good in chamber groups and all this stuff and anything else that anyone wants you to do….
CM: How has studying the clarinet, as opposed to playing it as an extracurricular, shaped the way you think of the clarinet or music, in general?
Zaffery: That’s a good question. So, in high school, we didn’t have an orchestra program. So, I get here, and the first questions I get are like “Who do you listen to? Who’s your favorite clarinetist?” And I’m over here like, “I don’t. What do you mean? Like, do I listen to classical clarinet music in my spare time? Hell no. I don’t do that.”
But, as time goes on, my teacher says you need to listen to this guy and this guy and this girl and all these people, you know? And I learned so much about how each person can sound like an individual on their instrument, even though everyone plays the same instrument. And I think it’s really cool that people can put such an individual twist on how they play, but also how they sound.
I’m getting into like jazz clarinet right now and that style and Klezmer clarinet…. A lot of extended techniques or new music stuff that I’ve really gotten into, contemporary stuff. And you’re always thinking about it and sometimes it’s hard, sometimes you want to throw it out the window and you never want to see it again and I think that’s a big thing that all music majors face, but I love learning more about it. And learning more about music.
CM: What would you tell someone who has a dream of being a musician?
Zaffery: It’s a lot more work then you think it’s going to be. You’re probably going to hate yourself like 90 percent of the time, but you have to fight that and know that that’s natural. The more you get to know your instrument, the more you want to be around it.
Good equipment is something that will always make you move forward. I know when my clarinet had started breaking down, I was ready to just quit…. Get what you can get and learn as much as you can and buy weird books.
CM: Anything else you want to say?
Zaffery: Just that it’s not what everyone thinks it is. But, there are great moments.