Why Music? – Ethan Filner

Cypress members share stories of events in their early musical lives that helped lead them into their lives as professional musicians.

Ethan Filner, viola


I didn’t know that I was going to be a professional musician – or even thought seriously about trying - until well into my collegiate career. I began violin lessons when I was 4 and switched to viola when I was about 13, and I enjoyed playing but I had never felt like doing it professionally was necessarily my destiny.

When I first arrived at Indiana University, I registered as a double major in telecommunication studies and viola performance – they had a new sort of double-degree category called “Bachelor of Science in Music with an Outside Field,” or “B.S.O.F.” This choice enabled me to take many other kinds of courses outside of the music school that I thought sounded interesting. As you can imagine, music programs tend to be heavy on the music classes - most students aren’t able to take many courses outside of their discipline.

The combination of the double-degree program plus enough Advanced Placement credit from some classes in high school to exempt me from certain remedial classes allowed me to be a little more creative with my extramusical coursework. For me, the variety was a lot of fun. I also got to meet a lot of students and professors who had nothing to do with the music school. It was like having a not-so-secret secret second-life at the university, in addition to my musician friends. I studied advanced American Political Science, took a philosophy course, became a late-night D.J. on the student-run campus radio station, learned how to direct a TV news segment, taught myself how to code in HTML... I felt like I was getting everything that I could out of IU. (On the other hand – and the absurdity of this still baffles me - I never did attend a single IU basketball game, and this was still during Bob Knight’s tenure as their (in)famous coach.)

I remember a couple of moments that have really stuck with me, turning points where I was encouraged to put a stronger focus on my playing. The first was when, early in my freshman year, I took a break one late-morning after practicing for about an hour in the old Music Annex building. I sauntered into the student lounge area and a good friend of mine was there. I told her how great I felt for having just practiced for “a whole hour.” As a kid, I sometimes might have gone the better part of a week (the time between my private lessons) with barely 30 minutes a day, if that. When my teachers eventually learned I was considering applying to music schools for college, they were completely shocked. Managing an hour - on my own, without nagging from my mom - was a big step up for me.

So as my friend was sitting on a couch and drinking coffee, she looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s nice Ethan. I’ve been here since 6 am.” It hit me that I should be doing a whole lot more than I had been. I eventually started keeping a practice journal, learned to plan my practice and to keep track of what I needed to work on, how long I’d give for each thing each day, and how much time I actually did spend… It was a big shift for me, and I definitely started practicing more, and I think my playing went into a higher gear. It was extremely motivating to be around a lot of young, seriously driven musicians. I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends in that student lounge, but only because I was spending a lot of time in the nearby practice rooms, too.

One other significant moment for me happened at the end of that first school year, during the annual juries. At IU, you play for a mixed group of the string faculty, not just the viola professors alone. There were many well-known musicians there, like violinists Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, cellists Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi and Janos Starker. All excellent musicians, and all intimidating in different ways.

On my jury I played a few different short works– a movement of solo Bach, a movement of a sonata with piano accompaniment, and Quincy Porter’s Speed Etude. The Speed Etude is a blazing-fast showpiece featuring blazing-fast triplets zipping up and down covering the entire range of the instrument, and it apparently made an impression on Starker. After my jury, my teacher, Atar Arad, came out into the hallway to talk to me. He described that after I’d left the room Starker had looked down at my transcript, and asked, “What is… ‘B.S.O.F.’?” When my double-degree status was explained to him, Starker looked confused and said in his low bass, something to the effect of “Why? He is a musician!”

With that particular comment coming from that particular man, Atar suggested it might indeed be time to put all my eggs in one musical basket – and I agreed. I changed my degree goal to a Bachelor of Music with a Minor in Telecommunications heading into my Sophomore year, and throughout the rest of my time at IU I sought out and took as many opportunities to perform as I could.

When I think back to key moments in my early musical life, my experience in that jury with Starker’s reaction always comes to mind. It was a key ingredient in my musical development after high school – a pretty substantial boost to my self-confidence as I was trying to figure out what to do with myself and whether I really belonged there studying music. That, and it’s just a fun story to tell.

Watch for Tom’s answer to the “Why music?” question in this space next month…

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