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Falling from Grace: The Story of a Music Professor

Confession: my last post was supposed to be this one.

The cliffs notes version:

  • I’m interviewing my friends, but even close friends are afraid to be real.
  • The advantage to speaking with people I know is there’s already a trust in place. There’s less beating around the bush, more unabashed sharing of truths.

When I interviewed Melissa, I knew she would tell it like it is.

“I got some good shit,” she says, “but it has sort of a sad ending.”

The ensuing conversation was easily punctuated with upwards of 30 curse words, which was refreshing and not at all gratuitous. Melissa has four college degrees: an undergrad in music education, a master’s in education and classroom technology, or powerpoint, in her words. She has another master’s in vocal performance, and a PhD, all in music – related fields. As I write this, I realize I’ve failed in the note-taking department. Somehow, I managed to note that she once made me a funfetti cupcake when she hosted a sectional rehearsal, but did I write down the name of her degrees? No. Priorities…

I start to message her to confirm these things, and I stop myself. It doesn’t really matter. She’s educated, and she’s real. She’s real educated. She dons a pink shirt and sits in her kitchen on a Thursday night. She has just put her toddler son to bed and it’s like I’m there with her, sharing a robust red wine, even though we are a state away.

Melissa was always interested in attention (her name was Lola…). From a young age, she liked making people laugh and was convinced she would be on broadway. She met her first husband at 14, and they were engaged by the end of her undergraduate degree (she was 21). The decisions she made then, including her choice to teach music in a tiny area school for six years, were all motivated by that relationship, which she would discover years later was actually poisonous and abusive. She wouldn’t look for jobs outside of the area, and never auditioned to be in the top choir because the commitment would take too much time away from her relationship. All of this sounds like a perfectly legitimate decision-making process until she describes the time that she didn’t get a lead in a musical, and her husband shoved her down onto the bed and berated her for being overly self-absorbed and thinking she deserved more. Gaslighting at its best (if you don’t know what this is, look this up).

Melissa was cast in oodles of other leads in community theater. Maria in West Side Story, Cinderella in Into the Woods, Marion in The Music Man, among others. I first met her after this chapter of her life, in the foul trenches of our respective graduate studies. I had just accepted a music directing gig on the side for Annie at a regional theater; at the time, Melissa and I were in choir together.

I distinctly recall walking down the street beside her on the way class, humming a few sections of the overzealous “I Think You’re Gonna Like It Here,” sung by the charming character Grace, a young, nurturing secretary, opposite of the icy Daddy Warbucks. Melissa promptly rambled off ten of Grace’s lines. I felt like the mother ship was calling me home. As it turns out, Melissa played Grace during her years in community theater. While it wasn’t her favorite role, that didn’t stop us from batting back and forth in an impromptu exchange, like two hikers who meet joyously on some distant plateau and leave with the distinct impression of having known someone else a little better. I remember feeling a little more at home, because in our classically-charged world of Mozart arias, APA style, and trying not to be the problem soprano, so few people knew musical theater, and even fewer actually liked it.

Until this conversation, that syrupy little moment was lost in the archives, and we both reveled a little in the rediscovery.

Melissa spent close to ten years with her first husband, performing community theater roles because she “was allowed to,” and he could control the sense of esteem that came with being a big fish in a small pond. Somewhere along the way, she got out, though it would take her two years to realize the toxicity of that relationship.

She met her second husband in grad school, and they ended up in school together in Missouri. Going back for graduate training was rough, though. She hadn’t sung “for real” in years, could barely manage a scale, and would lose her voice after a day of practice and rehearsals.

Today, she’s a university professor of vocal music education, where she teaches choral conducting (something she never thought she would teach). Her husband is also a professor at the university. Together, they spent a year working for a small school near Nashville, where he was a band director, but found himself schlepping way more than the agreed-upon work, and the promise of adjunct teaching for her was yanked away with less than a week’s notice (#welcometotheadjungle). Her current title is deceptive. Technically, she’s a visiting assistant professor, which means that while her position is annually renewable, none of the work she’s doing (research, publications, teaching, etc) will count toward any sort of tenure. She’s maxed out her earning potential, to a certain degree (no pun intended). She admits she is lucky to have a full-time job with benefits, a rarity for the modern musician/academic, and she can care for her kid, who she considers a much more sound, long-term investment than a performance with an opera company or some other short-lived glory in the spotlight. She’s proud of the conversations she facilitates on how teachers also need to be fantastic performers, arguably more so than performance majors.

The lure of academia is disillusioning, and she still misses theater some. “I feel like one day I might say, ‘remember that time I was a college professor? That was fun…’” She trails off with a lackadaisical uncertainty, as if everything golden could disappear tomorrow, and she wouldn’t quite care. “I guess I wouldn’t have this job if I hadn’t gotten my PhD. I do like it, but was it worth me getting four degrees? I don’t know…”

“What is your future?” I ask.

She wants to be her own boss, enjoy music, and enjoy her kid and husband. “Honestly, I just want to run a bed and breakfast and do pinterest crafts.”

That sounds like the most appealing, greatest possible fall from Grace, that elusive entity. If only we could all fall so gracefully.

 

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5 Reasons Why I Love My Job(s) | amusingmusicmaven.com

5 Reasons Why I Love My Job(s)

1. I used no less than eight curse words in a 30-minute lesson with a college singer, and also said the phrase “your ‘E’ sounds like soggy milk. Stout it up.”

2. I told a parent of a private student that he was my “magical good news unicorn.”

3. I spent a half hour shining my iPhone flashlight down my throat and using my own finger as a tongue depressor to demonstrate soft palate and tongue placement to a middle-school singer. It was slimy.

4. I accidentally called a nice woman a tart in choir rehearsal (I was trying to say “sing your part,” but instead said “sing you tart”).  Her husband, who was in the row behind her, chuckled surreptitiously.

5. I posted a picture of these on my pastor’s Facebook wall:

Golden Girls prayer candles: someone really made these.
Golden Girls prayer candles

…advocating their use in services. Her response was: “do you have an anthem to go with that?”

My response:

Replace the word “You” with “God.” Thank God for Being a Friend.

 

…This is why I love my job(s).

 

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Five Strange Ways I’ve Gotten Students

I recently helped a friend come to the difficult decision of leaving her full-time teaching job and choosing a profile musician’s career (read about it in this post). After you make that sort of decision, you live in this weird, floaty dream period when all you think about is time. How much control you’ll have over it, how much more of it you’ll be able to enjoy, to spend exercising, with friends and family, or collecting pet rocks.

Then a little gnarly Reality demon rudely interrupts that perfect bubble and you’re left quasi-frantically crunching numbers, sort of sweating, and legitimately solving systems of equations to figure out how many sets of students at x-rates you need NOT to fall down the Ramen Hole, Land of Broken Dreams.

I have maintained (and always will) that the universe works in weird ways. Every time I’ve needed a student, I’ve had one. I’ve never had trouble filling slots. Every time a student has left, I’ve easily been able to replace them. Every time I’ve thought “man, one more student this semester would pay for my plane ticket to Cancun,” someone has (literally) shown up at my door.  I attribute 80% of that to old-fashioned toiling: marketing, making myself visible, networking, all that stuff I generally hate, but that I do because it’s necessary and funds my expensive cheese habit. There’s the usual suspects – a lot of my business comes from word of mouth, referrals, other teachers, my various networks. The other 20% happens mysteriously.

Here are some straight-up wacky ways students have fallen into my lap:

I Donated My Hair
I almost never cut my hair because it grows like redwoods on steroids. About every two years, I chop it all off and donate it, and since hairdressers have PhDs in guerrilla conversations, I ended up walking out of a salon once with a new student (and some rocking bangs, which promptly disappeared after two weeks).

I Trolled Craigslist
Judge all you want, but some of my best, most consistent students have come from craigslist. One CL candidate took lessons from me for over two years. I don’t really use the website anymore, but with the right balance of caution mixed with negligent decision-making, you too can make the List work for you without ending up on America’s Most Wanted.

I Sold my Stereo (on Craigslist)
I had an older stereo set that wouldn’t sell, but that I couldn’t bring myself to give to Goodwill, so I put it up on craigslist. I’m pretty sure I was wearing paint-stained shorts and no shoes when the guy showed up at my door to buy it. I ran inside to get change, he saw my piano and ended up putting his two kids in lessons.

I Wrote a Blog
In recent years, I’ve aimed to be in a more sharing place. Building people up is essential. It’s how we get by. So I’ve written a few blogs reviewing local musicals (like this one or this one) and I try to name individuals that catch my eye. One such person was so flattered he contacted me for lessons (he also goes to school with one of my current students). Score one for sharing the love.

I Lesson-Traded
I wanted to take drum lessons. He wanted to learn how to sing. It worked out for both of us but mostly me because I like to hit things. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Yes, you may not always get what you want, but you’ll always what you need….

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The Day the Eggs Wouldn’t Die: A Case Study in Paid Absences for Private Music Teachers

A few days ago, I made a mistake, a horrible one. I had all this leftover bread. I buy it when I’m hungry, only to end up in a staring contest with my calorie tracker. Everything in moderation. So I eat one or two slices and then a week later am left with 18,000 loaves of once-buttery, now-crusty stale goodness that not even my dogs will eat if I “accidentally” drop it on the floor.

I haven’t the heart to throw it all out. Starving kids in Africa, you know. So I decided to make a bread pudding.

What does bread pudding have in it?

1RWY02ce
screw you ovum

Eggs. Those devilishly, conniving little sacs of gelatinous protein-goo.

If you remember, last summer I developed an intolerance to eggs. I did, however, discover that I can consume them if they are baked into things, like breads or cookies (ahem…protein bars and healthy carbs), but NOT by themselves. So I thought I was safe.

As it turns out, this bread pudding was a little undercooked. Whoops.

Four hours later, my (frequently recurring) bile looked like something out of Night of the Living Dead. When this happens, I’m done for. Useless. The only remedy is sleep. Pure, unadulterated, uninterrupted slumber (not to be confused with sweaty, feverish bouts of stage-1 drowsiness mingled with intermittent night terrors, which is what my sleep more closely resembles in these situations).

So sleep I did. Right through all of my obligations, which included a worship planning meeting with my pastors and about 11 private lessons (7 in the evening, 4 the next morning).

How does a private music teacher recover financially from this? We don’t get paid sick days.

…or do we?

I have no shame in being totally transparent in this process, as my tuition policies are posted on my website, but I’ll disclose that some people get a little irritated over this. About once a year, the planets align and four or five students in one afternoon will cancel their lessons, leaving me with a nice stream of free time. I made the mistake once of posting about this on Facebook. Something to the effect of “good thing I have a rock-solid studio policy and will now enjoy some paid time off.” A parent saw it and told me they felt it was unprofessional and came across as gloaty. While I’ve since seriously reconsidered what I share on social media, I took the time to explain my policies and why I have to protect myself financially. If a student cancels, it’s pretty hard to collect on that lesson, even if they have paid in advance for it, and especially if they haven’t. For years, I reserved unpaid days for makeup lessons, or was ridiculously lenient on missed events (including giving a credit to a family of three siblings who wanted to trick-or-treat on Halloween instead of attend their lessons, which occurred at 4:00, 4:30, and 5:00). In 2009, I came down with swine flu and missed an entire week of lessons and classes. That was 25% of my income for the month. My “salary” varied by several hundred dollars each month and was too erratic and unpredictable to plan for the things I wanted, like a house and a car (you know, the things for which normal people with normal jobs can plan).

Here’s what I learned from the books (which all say the same thing) and what works for me.

I charge my students a flat monthly tuition rate for their lessons.
This rate is calculated by figuring out the number of lessons in a 16-week semester, taking into account a week off for Thanksgiving, Spring Break, and a considerable amount of time off for Christmas and New Year’s. I add extra for recital fees, group activities, and a makeup lesson. I add up what I want to charge for each event, and call that their semester tuition amount. Then I divide that amount by the number of months in each semester (usually 5; August – December and January – May). That flat amount is what each student pays me per month. If they pay up front for the semester or year, they get a small discount. Some months they may get five lessons, others they may get two or three, but they don’t have to pay extra for anything (recitals, group events, etc). I reserve one week at the end of each semester that I call the “Flex Week.” This is a flexible week of makeup lessons. If a student has to miss a lesson for any reason during the semester, they get one makeup lesson during this week, no questions asked.

Enter in Night of the Living Eggs.
If I consume undercooked bread pudding and am bedridden for 48 hours, I have a few choices:

1. Cancel the lesson; if they have taken their absence already, I offer a credit on the next month’s invoice. If the student has paid for the whole semester up front (and many do), this credit will roll over into the next semester.

2. Cancel the lesson; if they themselves have not taken their absence, they get a makeup credit to use during flex week. If they have to use their absence between the time I cancel and the end of the semester, then I either

  • Offer them a credit on the next month’s invoice
  • or
  • Offer them two back-to-back makeup lessons during the makeup week (or an hour’s lesson).

So how does this work, in the long run? Surely there’s not enough time to offer all my students double lessons in one week of makeups?

Enter the magic of statistics.

When the end of the semester rolls around, a few beautiful things happen:

1. Some students are done, mentally, and don’t care to use their makeup lesson, even if they are entitled to it. If you do the math on this, they have paid less than a dollar more for each of their lessons / events throughout the semester, which is justifiable if they feel they have gotten their money’s worth (i.e. be good at what you do, teachers…karma is real).

2. I set parameters on my flex week. They have to notify me by a set date near the beginning of the month if they want to use their makeup (I e-mail everyone letting them know they are entitled to one). Once that date has passed, I do not hunt people down, and if I haven’t heard from them, they know they have forfeited the lesson because I document like a fiend.

3. Because my teaching load is usually reduced to half during flex week, I can allow double lessons to certain students that need/want that to make up for days have missed.

4. During flex week, the regular teaching schedule does not apply in order to avoid gaps in my teaching. Some people are totally willing to work with an altered lesson time, others are not. The ones that are not say “thank you, see you next semester,” and I can then fit in the ones that are are flexible enough to accommodate a different day or time. There are very few that don’t fit into either camp here, but because there are so few (I’m talking 2-3 out of 35) that will not leave without their makeup(s) and cannot change days or times, I can usually accommodate them without a problem.

5. Flex weeks almost always occur the week before Christmas and my birthday (May 21), so it’s like getting a paid holiday and personal day, which I’m fairly sure most of the “regular job” population gets, if I’m not mistaken.

I’ve also found the universe to work in magnificent, splendid synchrony, which I will demonstrate using a case study from

A Typical Monday vs. The Day The Eggs Wouldn’t Die

7:30-10:00am: Busywork, e-mail, exercise, and course catch-up for my online class, Fundamentals of Arts Management
What really happened: I slept fitfully and dreamed about my grandparent’s house having a secret tunnel full of balloons (what does this mean?)

10:00-12:00pm: worship planning meeting and preparation at the church
What really happened: I woke up with enough time to send a highly detailed text to my understanding pastor. Fell back asleep by managing to find justtheright position to alleviate 10% of the nausea.

12-3: lunch, studio planning & prep work
What Really Happened: more ridiculous sweat-lodge-style sleep under my down comforter, complete with hallucinatory visions of things that surely don’t exist in waking life. Hopefully. Woke up at one point to brush my teeth, drink some water, and recoil in horror at the wretched person-thing staring back at me in the bathroom mirror.

My usual teaching schedule / What Really Happened
3:00: 
a retiree, usually fine with canceling. I credited her lesson.
3:30: this student happened to break his hand last week. His mom e-mailed me to let me know he was going to miss today. Hallelu.
4:00: Happened to need to switch this week. Tacked her onto the end of the day.
4:30: My regular 4:30 had a college interview. She’s missed a total of two lessons in the two years she’s taken from me. She’ll make it up during the flex week.
5:30: Had canceled already because she was in tech week for a show. Will also make up during flex week.
6:30 – 7:30: Two siblings. Had originally planned on moving them to the 4:30-5:30 open slot. I credited them, though probably could have waited until flex week to see if they needed.

All in all, this sickness cost me the price of three lessons. That’s not too shabby, given that the tradeoff would have been losing an entire day’s work OR involuntarily teaching with a trash can strapped to my neck. If you’re interested in the cleaned-up, highly succinct version of this tuition policy, you can visit my website

I do love my life, and I hope this helped you, because I sure disclosed a lot in this post.

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Unapologetic Teaching Outfit | amusingmusicmaven.com

Unapologetic Teaching Outfit

Yesterday, I wore this to my job:

Yoga pants.
Yoga pants.

Anytime I get down and out about life, I remember that I could still be teaching in public schools, or work a corporate gig, or have to clean up poo, and I remember how wonderful it is to get to throw on a pair of these, make myself a hot cup of tea, and head downstairs to teach.

IMG_3657
in my yoga pants. Without shoes.

…and I remember that life is about the little things, like teaching in your most unapologetically comfortable (yet strangely flattering) clothes.

…five years ago, I most definitely would have been concerned that this would reflect poorly on my character…

Today, do I really care about that?

No.
No.

 

Have a wonderful Thursday, everyone, and may today be as comfortable as a nice, stretchy pair of socially acceptable pajamas.

 

 

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