After the Audition

For many, earning a spot at the Jacobs School of Music is a dream come true. But what happens when the constant competition becomes too much?

Abhik Mazumder only had 10 minutes before his first class of the day, but he spent them in a shoebox-sized practice room at the Jacobs School of Music. Like most of the musicians also hammering away at their craft in the Music Addition practice building, he is accustomed to one of several rules of Jacobs survival.

Practice whenever you can.

The third-year piano performance major sat down at his instrument, and soon the buoyant, joyful notes of Schubert’s so-called Little “Piano Sonata in A Major” tumble out of the soundboard and fill the small space around him.

But there was a dissonance — not within the music, but between it and Abhik’s surroundings. The room is cramped. There’s no echo. Sometimes, he thinks the walls feel daunting.

woman plays violin
IU sophomore Marina Alba Lopez stares at her sheet music Oct. 21, 2021, in Sycamore Hall. Marina said the curriculum at the Jacobs School of Music is overly demanding and most students wish they had more time to practice performance skills.

As his hands weaved rapidly up and down the keyboard, it was hard to imagine that pushing patterns made up of these 88 notes at the exact right time with the exact right dynamic and tonality has ever been anything but effortless for him.

But there were times a year ago when he was under so much pressure that when he’d try to practice, his fingers were too numb to play. He could barely sit up straight. His mental health was at an all time low. He felt drained, defeated, directionless.

Here at the number four-ranked music conservatory in the United States, playing the exact right note can decide whether you earn a spot in the best ensemble. The exact right timing can determine whether you think of yourself as a talented musician or an utter failure. The correct dynamic or tonality can be the only thing stopping you from becoming the subject of your peers’ gossip or professors’ biting critique.

And even if you make it out of college unscathed, who’s to say how you’ll fare in a job market that will never guarantee a well-paying position?

There’s no easy way to shoulder the cyclone of competition, impossible workloads and sky-high expectations innate to a music conservatory as prestigious as Jacobs. Many students like Abhik find the fire of passion they once had for their instrument extinguished.

In other words, they burn out.


It was a Thursday night in August. Abhik and four other Jacobs students sat in a crescent shape on the Auer Hall stage across from an audience of about 100 people, half sitting in person and half watching virtually. Each musician held a microphone, but they weren’t going to be performing with their instruments tonight.

Instead, they were there to talk.

It was Jacobs’s very first “Stop the Stigma” event, the brainchild of the school’s Health and Wellness Committee. One of the committee’s leaders and the night’s host John Raymond introduced the panel, moderated by professor of music education Frank Diaz.

John, a 35-year-old jazz professor, and a group of other young music teachers formed Jacobs’s Health and Wellness Committee last spring in response to mental health problems they were noticing in their students. They’ve spent the last year working to identify and respond to student issues through projects like creating a webpage that consolidates student resources, promoting mindfulness classes taught by Professor Diaz and planning town halls like this one for students to voice their concerns.

Each musician took a turn sharing their personal struggles with imposter syndrome, perfectionism, self esteem, mental health and burnout.

One panelist, Rebecca Luppe, said she once got to a point where the constant competition at Jacobs made her lose her sense of legitimacy and self-worth. The fact no one ever talked publicly about those feelings was crushing, she said.


Jeremiah Sanders said that repeatedly losing out to other singers at auditions and not having a community to fall back on was isolating, especially as one of few Black students at Jacobs.

When it was his turn, Abhik shared how the environment made him feel like he had to seem effortlessly perfect as a musician all the time. In reality, he was struggling with insecurities that he didn’t feel like he could admit even to himself.

Most students at Jacobs were the very best musicians in their high schools, their districts, maybe even their hometowns. Once they’re thrown into a population of 1,500 competing students who all have matching levels of talent, ambition and work ethic, it's common for them to burn out, often leading to anxiety and mental health issues. According to Director of Music Admissions and Financial Aid Espen Jensen, about 10% of first year Jacobs students drop out of the program, with 70% of those students leaving IU altogether and 30% graduating with a different major.

After each panelist spoke, a handful of students were invited to ask the panel for advice.

“Can I even do this? If this is how this makes me feel, is it even worth it?” a viola student wondered aloud.

The Jacobs School of Music is trying to answer questions like this one for its students at a pivotal time in its century-long history. Two years ago, in its 98th year, the school lost one of its music education majors and cellists to suicide. In its 99th year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced its students into solitude and took away live performances, the lifeblood of their craft.

Now, in its 100th year of existence, the conservatory is learning how to maintain its high standards of excellence while making sure no student feels alone.


When Abhik entered the Music Addition building on a Friday morning in September, no less than three people stopped him to say hi. He was quick to correct the assumption that it’s an indication of him being particularly popular.

“Everyone needs an accompanist at some point,” he said with a shrug.

That’s the problem, though — or at least it used to be. Everyone always seems to need something from him. Teachers, members of his ensembles, fellow students recruiting collaborators for projects.

He remembers times during his sophomore year when he felt so burned out from being pulled every which way that he couldn’t even enjoy listening to music, much less playing it. He’d hear complex chords that once sounded magical and not even blink.

man plays piano
Abhik Mazumder, a third year Piano Performance major in the Jacobs School of Music, makes notes on his sheet music in a practice room Oct. 20, 2021, at the Music Annex Building.Abhik said Jacobs mental health resources are not made accessible or publicized enough to be beneficial for himself and other students to use.

He was also dealing with a lot outside of school — the pandemic, issues with family and friends, low self-esteem and depression.

He’d berate himself, thinking,

“I don't have what it takes mentally to keep doing this. I'm not mentally strong enough to actually be disciplined and keep myself going.”

— Abhik Mazumder

He said these thoughts became a feedback loop where his personal struggles contributed to his burnout and his burnout contributed to his personal struggles, and so on.

Abhik has come a long way since then, but it took months of practicing self-care, learning how to say “no” and balancing everyone else’s expectations with his own. But the most important step was also the most difficult for him to take.

He knew he needed therapy, but his family wasn’t supportive of it. They had been raised with a taboo around discussing mental health problems. He had to seek it out and figure out how to pay for it by himself.

Jacobs was one of the first schools at IU to implement an onsite Counseling and Psychological Services counselor, but in spite of assurances of confidentiality, Abhik said his friends warned him that it could be difficult to unpack in front of someone who knows his professors. Instead, he started seeing a randomly assigned CAPS counselor and was able to lower the costs with a fee reduction form — something he thinks the university should make sure students know about.

“Counseling and therapy really just completely changed everything for me,” he says. “I know it doesn't do that for everyone. But I do think that there should be more transparency about it at larger universities.”

— Abhik Mazumder

Perhaps it’s the stigma around talking about burnout and seeking therapy that drives other students to turn to partying as a coping mechanism. Abhik said he guesses more Jacobs students than not use alcohol and marijuana to take their minds off the stress.

While it’s true students feel burned out across fields, Jacobs and most prestigious music conservatories are structured in a way that makes the burnout especially crushing. Burnout at Jacobs comes after young musicians spend years working toward earning a spot in one of the most distinguished conservatories, only to find that they’re losing touch with their life’s passion.

“When you don't feel love for what you're doing, it's almost this feeling of like, ‘I wish I at least felt something,’” Abhik said. “It can be really disheartening cause you just feel like there's no real purpose to what you're doing.”


Though he’s incredibly proud of all the Health and Wellness Committee has done so far, John Raymond worries it hasn’t been proactive enough.

The committee rolled out its “Stop the Stigma” campaign this fall, hoping to encourage students to speak up about their experiences and feel less alone. It was well-received by some students, but others wondered if the school was using it to push students to find ways to independently deal with institutional problems rather than taking responsibility for fixing the problems through curriculum adjustments or administrative changes.

John understands these concerns. The problem is the committee doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Jacobs curriculum or psychological services — or any systemic issues, for that matter.

Jacobs’s Interim Dean Jeremy Allen said neither does he. The curriculum is based on accreditation requirements set by the state of Indiana, which means the school can’t simply alter or remove classes from its degree plans. The counseling services, which some students think are too sparse or expensive, aren’t something Jacobs can provide on its own.


“This has to be a university- and campus-wide issue,” he said. “Individual units should not be left to provide resources that all students need.”

Focusing on what he can control, the dean tries to impress on the faculty that they aren’t allowed to overschedule students in any one class. He also aims to make faculty more understanding of all the extracurricular engagements music students commonly have, like other ensembles and gigs.

Once Jacobs names its next dean, it’ll become their responsibility to carve out some breathing room for the students, he said.

Systemic change isn’t impossible — it just takes a lot of work. Jeremy said the first step is for students to reach out to him directly or contact the Jacobs student representative committee with their concerns. Student concerns that current Jacobs mental health initiatives are too passive and don’t offer direct help had never reached Allen before.

“There’s nothing more disheartening than realizing efforts to help students didn’t do as much as you hoped,” he said. “But that disheartening feeling is followed by recognizing that that’s an opportunity for change.”


As she stepped in from the October drizzle to her string quartet rehearsal, Marina Alba López was exhausted.

“I’ve been here since 9 in the morning and I’ll be here til 9:30 at night,” she said.

The sophomore violin student and the other three members of the quartet talk about their upcoming music theory exam, their love lives and how the coffee shop down the street is overpriced.

IU sophomore Marina Alba Lopez and junior Abhik Mazumder are students in the Jacobs School of Music and they both say that comes with a lot of pressure to meet high standards. Marina and Abhik say burnout is a likely challenge most Jacobs students will face before graduation.


“But I’m willing to pay more because it’s central to the Jacobs experience,” one of them said.

After an initial run of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “String Quartet Op. 20 No. 6,” which they’re preparing for possible entry into chamber music competitions, viola student Charlie Kanne asked Marina, “Do you feel in control?”

It’s an understandable thing to ask the first violinist if she feels like the rest of the ensemble is following her musical lead, but all four start laughing at the layers of meaning lurking beneath the question.

Like many of her peers, there’s a lot Marina doesn’t feel in control of: her private lessons, studio class, voice lessons, her music skills hearing, music theory homework, quartet rehearsals, concerto competitions — oh, and an upcoming math exam, too.

female hands on violin
IU sophomore Marina Alba Lopez practices with her ensemble Oct. 21, 2021, in Sycamore Hall. Marina is an international student from Madrid, Spain, whose parents are also both musicians.
male hands on piano
Third-year piano performance major Abhik Mazumder's hands press the keys on the piano in a practice room Oct. 20, 2021, at the Music Annex Building. Abhik said he has felt numbness in his fingers and no energy when he tried to play the piano keys.

Marina is from Madrid, where she and her sisters kept an exact count of the 54 days they spent entirely inside their home during lockdown. Her home country’s coronavirus restrictions were much stricter than those in the U.S. Her parents were only allowed to leave occasionally to pick up groceries.

Now that she’s finally here at IU after pandemic restrictions relaxed, Marina just wants to play. Instead, she’s been bogged down by all her classes, leading her to feel more burned out than she’s ever been these past few weeks.

While she’d rather focus on her performance abilities, the school requires its students to take a packed schedule of classes where they hone their music theory, dictation and aural skills. She thinks the curriculum is overly demanding.

“We need those skills, but the professors all think their course is the most important,” she said. “They forget we’re here to play music.”

This is what Marina thinks is at the crux of student burnout: Yes, the curriculum is burdensome, but the cultural factors of music school make it worse than it has to be.

On top of teacher expectations, Marina said there’s rampant gossip over who’s good and who’s not. It’s hard to make friends when you never know what your peers are saying about you.

Then there’s the tension between you and everyone else who plays your same instrument, which comes with an unspoken understanding: Because you’re always trying to be the best, you’re also always rooting for everyone else to be worse.


“To a certain extent it’s good because it makes us fight for it,” she said. “But I don't think it’s mentally healthy to always be in a competitive mindset.”

The relentless competition has left many of her friends depressed, Marina said, while she experiences a tremendous amount of anxiety. Alone with her violin, she’ll find her mind spiraling with thoughts like, “I’m such a disappointment. I’m not good enough. I didn’t do enough. They’ll gossip about me.”

woman plays violin
IU sophomore Marina Alba Lopez plays her violin with her ensemble Oct. 21, 2021, in Sycamore Hall. Marina did not originally choose the clarinet, but after several years of playing, she realized she loved the instrument.

To be fair, Marina does feel that these cultural issues are present across all music schools — like Juilliard, about which she’s heard many horror stories — but she still thinks Jacobs has a responsibility to take action. She appreciates the school’s offerings of mindfulness classes and the Health and Wellness Committee’s town halls but thinks the school’s efforts overall are too indirect.

Marina said mental health should be a part of everyday classes, not an event she has to seek out. Since the thing students are overwhelmed with is their busy schedules, she thinks it’s counterintuitive to expect they’ll have the time to attend one of these wellness events.

“It feels really passive, like they’re not actually engaging with students,” she said. “They should be checking in on us.”

— Marina Alba Lopez


Teachers do sometimes report concerns over students to administration of their own accord. That’s what happened with Dustin Dufault in 2019, according to Executive Associate Dean Brenda Brenner, who was music education chair at the time.

When Dustin first started showing signs of mental health issues and stopped showing up to class, his teachers brought their concerns to Brenda. She filed a care report, reached out to his instructors to plan how they could help and personally met with Dustin a couple times. She told him about resources like CAPS and asked if there was anything she could personally do.

Dustin, 18, died by suicide at Forest Quadrangle on April 12, 2019.

“It was and still is quite distressing to me that this happened,” Brenda said. “It was tragic. I think we did everything we could possibly do on our part.”

People knew Dustin was struggling before his death, but the exact nature of his struggles remains unclear. His mother Regina Dufault said she still doesn’t know what her son was dealing with.

“My son didn’t really talk to me about his stressors in life,” she said. “I couldn’t even tell you if it was related to music or his own personal idea that he had to be the best of the best.”

After Dustin’s death, Brenda put a notebook in the music education building for students to write what they remembered about him. She also arranged community talks with Brad Stepp, who’s been the Jacobs-specific CAPS counselor for six years.

man smiles for photo
Abhik Mazumder, a third year piano performance major at the Jacobs School of Music, poses for a picture Sept. 24, 2021, outside the Music Annex building. Abhik said he has suffered from burnout during his time at the Jacobs. “When you don't feel love for what you're doing, it's almost this feeling of like, ‘I wish I at least felt something,’” Abhik said. 

“Suicide is such a complex issue,” Brad said. “Any kind of stressor can exacerbate mental health issues that are already going on. Any kind of life stress can trigger those kinds of thoughts, which is why it’s important for students to check in with a counselor.”

Currently, he is seeing more than 50 students and is contacted by faculty up to twice a month with concerns over the health of a student — but it’s only when professors come to him that he has contact with faculty.

“I try to keep a strict barrier there,” he said. “I don’t disclose anything a student has told me unless it’s required by state law.”

The first two CAPS sessions a student attends are free and cost $25 per session after that. More than eight insurance plans are currently accepted, and fee reduction forms are available for students who need them.

One of the core goals for Brad’s integration into Jacobs was preventing tragedies like Dustin’s death, he said. With Brad situated on the music school’s campus and present at Jacobs social activities, he said it’s easier for students to get the help they need, and many have attested to the counseling services being successful in regards to self-harm prevention.


Though she doesn’t think CAPS is equipped enough to handle the more severe mental health issues faced by Jacobs students, Brenda agrees its services and the work of administration and the Health and Wellness Committee are evidence of a changing tide at Jacobs, wherein situations of burnout or mental illness someday become less common.

“I think there’s this significant change in Jacobs as we move forward,” she said. “Not necessarily as a result of Dustin but as a result of multiple students who were suffering from various levels of mental health.”


Back in August, as the town hall wrapped up, John was smiling behind his face mask. The past hour and a half was filled with people’s heads nodding in understanding, and voices speaking with empathy and honesty. Everyone in the room resonated with what the students shared, John said. It felt like a moment to acknowledge the challenges faced by musicians, but also a moment to heal, process and grow.

There may not be answers for everything yet, but work is being done to find them. And in the meantime, a community has formed to be there for one another.

“I feel like we in this room — and if you’re tuning in online I hope you feel it too — is this connection that we all feel in this moment that we’re all the same,” he said. “The beautiful part of this community that we’re in is that we can help to stop whatever stigmas are happening by knowing that universal truth that at our core, we’re all human.”

But it’s Abhik who gets the last word. He takes a last-second chance to tell the audience about his barriers to seeking therapy and encourages them to look into fee waivers if needed, because it’s important people know there are options. It’s important their experience should be at least a little less difficult than his was.

It’s important they know they aren’t on their own.