Oberlin Blogs

How Not To Apply to Summer Festivals

April 6, 2022

Ben Smith ’24

Alright, so I know it isn’t the cheeriest title out there, but here is my thesis: I would not advise anyone to tackle summer music festivals the way I ended up doing this year.

It might sound intuitive based on the fact that I applied to many festivals this year (“many” being a number greater than 5)–already this statement alone might turn some away from my approach. Listen, if that is you, that’s wonderful. I take that to mean you’ve probably got a good enough sense of what is categorically “too much.” Good on ya. Now, if the idea of applying to a slew of festivals sounded enticing–no, dare I say–if it sounded necessary… keep reading.

I was optimistic this summer would bode more summer festivals being held in-person. Because last year was inundated with cancellations and ventures into online-only experiences, I–like every other festival-applying musician–was excited at this year’s prospects. With that optimism, however, came a dinky little insecurity that reared its head into my consciousness: just because all these programs are “happening” doesn’t mean they are necessarily “happening” with you included… And this, my friends, is where things started to go downhill.

That thought ingrained a through-line of fear and insecurity between all of my festival applications. I made a spreadsheet of all the festivals I wanted to apply to and, at the start, it was a reasonable amount. As the deadlines approached and I progressed through my list, things started to get out of hand and that dinky little thought amassed into a mantra: if I don’t have a good feeling about [insert festival here], I should just keep applying to festivals until I do feel good about one! Unfortunately, however, there never came a day where I did “feel good about one.” I was so wrapped up in critiquing each recording–each solo piece, each excerpt–oh come on Ben, why did you even consider applyi–

You get the point. This became a cycle that, by the end, just resulted in me driving myself into a corner with every new application. Looking back, it was a disheartening process. In the moment I convinced myself I was doing what was right. I mean, I was just trying to work hard and do my best–what’s so wrong with that? On the surface, there wasn’t anything wrong. No one ever questioned if I should take a step back. In fact, I was praised for my work ethic. Of course, practicing the repertoire and going through the process of applying to things–it all sounds beneficial in the overarching progression of being a musician. Besides, musicians do have to build tough skins.

For me, though, I’m not certain the problem was on the surface. The underlying issue was that my best was never going to be good enough. Some recording sessions went better than others, and at the end of the day, I still wanted to apply to these festivals. But, somewhere along the way, the bigger picture went out of focus. Though I was doing what I love, making progress, and pursuing my goals, I was fixated on all the external pressures–all the unknowns. Ultimately, I couldn’t see that perhaps applying to [insert festival here] may end up doing more harm than good. I ignored that I progressively began to dread every recording session. I ignored that I was compulsively checking my emails during conversations with friends. I ignored that, despite how hard I was pushing myself, I was unhappy. Tough pill to swallow.

I submitted my first festival application on January 6th and submitted my last festival application three days ago, April 3rd. It wasn’t until I pressed that last submit button, until I crossed off that final task on my to-do list, that I realized just how cloudy the past four months have been. Not every day was bad, there were plenty of good days and wonderful moments in there, but those times were overshadowed by the haze of exisiting from one deadline to the next. Writing about those experiences would not be an accurate representation of where I’ve been.

It is spring break currently and I can wholeheartedly attest that I am taking. a. break. I still love what I am doing and am looking forward to getting back to practicing, but only insofar as there is also time allotted for resting, decompressing, and introspecting. 

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