From Career Development

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Suck-cess and Other Misnomers

The oboe has a certain timbre. It cuts through an orchestral texture. It’s penetratingly bright. It’s insistent. It’s Trey Makler’s instrument.

Trey just wrote a chamber opera. As if I needed another reason to feel grossly incompetent, a 22-year-old composition major preparing for his final year of college sits across from me in a coffee shop, picking on some glorious pastry that I wish I had in my mouth and telling me that he’s just had his work premiered by a university opera. I’ve set up our conversation by telling him that I’m not fond of titles, and he seems to ride in on the wave of his recent success, but not ridiculously so. He’s energetic, robust…and insistent. The bar is high, but I’ll quickly discover that our kinship lies in the shared belief that titles do not a successful musician make.

Hailing from a smallish eastern Missouri town, Trey is not from a musical family. In fact, he didn’t start private lessons until he entered college. A middle school band director started him off on that sexy icon, the saxophone, even though Trey had his sights set on the bassoon (an anomaly I can’t even begin to understand), an instrument his band director simply didn’t have the resources to support at the time. I might make the same excuse to avoid listening to a beginning basoonist, but then again, I’m partial to the lighter timbres.

He ended up on the oboe, which wasn’t exceptionally stimulating or earth-shattering, at least not right away. Lacking the adequate social skills to propagate friends (as many middle schoolers do), he traded up in the form of after-school practice sessions with various instruments, at one time giving up oboe altogether before realizing he wasn’t half-bad and that maybe he should pay attention to that.

All through high school, he had his heart set on a university in Indiana, where tuition was a gruesome forty grand a year. I could play the perspective game on this for a long while, but I’ll cage that animal. Upon visiting the program, Trey found the environment to be cold, rude, and uninviting. His parents decided to depart the tour before it was over; the college reps were oblivious to their absence (a huge marketing faux pas, methinks). The cherry on the cake: they required a level of preparation he simply didn’t have. It wasn’t a good fit, and he was devastated. His parents encouraged him to have a backup plan and suggested majoring in business, a tactic with mass appeal to the generation before ours, where loyalty and trust are accolades reserved for the company and not for the project-oriented self.

Trey started out as a music education major, dabbling in composition for fun. He applied for competitive composition scholarship and got it, set out with the gargantuan task of composing a piece for a major international performing ensemble…in one month. He was faced with major anxiety trying to prove his self-worth, so much so that during one of his lessons with a theory professor, ended up in complete tears. Barring the obvious societal problem that we would need to push a musician to the edge of sanity to elicit productivity, the trend of releasing the flood gates to the grand old faculty gods atop their pedestals seems to be a rite of passage for all the coolest musicians.

“How was that for you?”

He smiles over his coffee. “It sucked.”

On the event horizon of a complete breakdown, he threw his pride to the wind and ended up taking incompletes in three of his classes. Through some soul searching and with the support of his close faculty mentors, he came to terms with the fact that in five years, no one would really care about his final grade in basic conducting. No one class would make or break his career, and the projects before him were infinitely more important to the learning process and his individual success than final class percentages.

He’s right, of course, despite my misgivings for ridiculous cutoff gestures and inaccurately subdivided patterns. Too often during my training in the same program, I seriously contemplated what it would be like to just…not take 20 credit hours and live the life of so many other normal college students. Or, I don’t know…sing wrong notes on purpose and enjoy doing so. I wouldn’t experience either of these joys until my college career was well over and I was faced with a painstakingly normal musician’s life, somehow making a career out of allowing wrong notes to happen in favor of fun, companionship, and creativity. As it turns out, there aren’t really any wrong notes. 

He’s “endlessly angry” that schools insist on creating false expectations for musicians and training people like him for jobs that don’t exist,  but his personal validation comes from the fact that the better the projects get for him, the more support there is for what he does. Today, his parents have no problem with his chosen career path, and he certainly doesn’t.

“What’s the one thing to know about successful music-making?” I ask him.

He pauses for a long, long moment.

“Success is wholly intrinsic,” he insists. “You’re the only person who gets to decide if you’re successful or not.”

 

  • AMmaven
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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.

 

  • AMmaven
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Every Good Boy Does Fail: A Project Update

As of today, I’ve interviewed fifteen music makers. For posterity’s sake and to gather my bearings a bit, here are some updates:

  • My standard M.O: reach out to musicians, schedule interviews 1-2 weeks out, interview once a day or every other day, break for weekends to write and reflect, lather, rinse, repeat. Rely on bread and butter revenue to sustain my new project.
  • Things I need to do more:
    • Write shorter posts. I can’t help it. I try. I really do. I dare myself to keep a post at 750 words, but the story just starts spewing like a kindergartner’s explanation of how to make a sandwich and every part is important. Every tidbit is essential.
    • Reach out to musicians I don’t know. This is hard, but I think I just have to ask for help to move beyond the initial cold call.
    • Take sustained chunks of time to write about every encounter (like, more than two days, and closer to a week…in fact, this next go around, I’m aiming for a 1week:1week ratio of interviewing and writing).
  • Things I need to do less
    • Worry about style
    • Worry about voice (for some reason, I thought this was especially important, but maybe I just thought this because I’m a voice teacher…)
    • Try to be perfect
    • Try to flow (because unless it’s my menses or a keg, things shouldn’t flow just yet, amiright??!!)

That’s all, folks.

  • AMmaven
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Old Yeller: one music therapist’s path to normal decibles

Talking to Tammy is like talking to a therapist.

A music therapist.

That’s what she is. A gentle, nurturing, ukulele-playing psychotherapist in purple pajamas. I message her to tell her that I’m running a bit late to our appointment. I’ve just resurrected from a 4pm power nap and I fix a cinnamon toast and hot green tea. My bones aren’t totally exhausted, yet I’m tempted to reschedule our conversation, which I rarely do because cancelations are for the weak. It’s my first hour of downtime after a string of performances (three in as many days), and I’m tired. Tomorrow morning I can rest. For now, I power through.

…in my pajamas.

Luckily, she’s in hers, too. They’re purple, in fact. I take this as a quirky love offering from the universe. It’s like the cosmos made me a cross-stitch pillow with the words “it’s all right, we’re all people” right above a snuggly-looking kitty cat.

Tammy says she is a musician, but not a performer. She is a pianist and violinist, but doesn’t have a piano (which by proxy makes me a professional chef / lingerie model). During her undergrad, Tammy developed an incompatible and troubling relationship with a “super talented” piano teacher, which is kind of her to say. I’ve come up with a lot worse names for less than favorable teachers, like “soul sucker,” “Hanon Harlot,” and “crazy psychopath in need of a beach vacation” …. Not that I’ve thought these through, or anything.

Said teacher was a yeller.

“Old Yeller?” I laugh.

Tammy pauses, and things suddenly aren’t quite as funny. I shrivel a little into my teacup. Sometimes I wonder if I should come with a mouth zipper.

Teacher would yell about a lot of things: scales, practicing, memorization. Old Yeller, in an offhand comment, once mentioned how she had seen Tammy out and about on a weekend…not practicing. As if a musician’s sole identity hinges upon 24/7, unadulterated practice (if it is, I’m in trouble). It’s a shame this outdated mentality prevails among educators. Music makers do a lot more outside the practice room than they do inside it.

Eventually, a missed note was enough to bring on nightmares and panic attacks, so Tammy made the tough decision to take a step back from the instrument, which I find insanely wise. I was a lot more self-centered in my early years, and worried about things like keeping score and whether I was a soubrette or a coloratura (which still plagues me, until Strauss makes it abundantly clear to me that I am the latter). Tammy wouldn’t study again until grad school, and even then, wasn’t emotionally ready to do so.

Tammy is pretty much the opposite of a yeller. She speaks passionately, but at a reasonable decibel level (take note, singers). An average piano student (weren’t we all), she never made first chair in orchestra, and her intrinsic drive for theory and performing topped out at tepid. Lukewarm, at best. In between her degrees, she taught elementary music at a charter school, which she describes as the “worst job of her life.” It’s ironic that she almost, almost glossed over this little detail. We muse at length about the trials and tribulations of classroom teaching. Come Sunday, she would dread the week to come, and lived a serious Jekyll & Hyde dichomety; her constantly stressed weekly persona was totally different and unlike her weekend self.

Hearing this, I want so badly to cry tears of joy and reach through the Facetime vortex to give Tammy a borderline inappropriate hug. Hearing this, I feel more human. When I taught public schools, I could never settle in a way the other teachers did. Friends of mine would seem so at ease, while I could be found rocking back and forth in the corner, panicking over broken xylophones (each of which cost the same, if not more than my yearly allotted classroom budget). I would fret over the constant, unending planning, the miles of red tape to accomplish nothing, or at best, very minor chips in the fucked up granite monuments of public education. The regular “state of emergency” (read: jammed copy machines, triple high priority e-mails) was enough to bring a summa cum laude graduate to her knees. Nothing ever flowed, and my body constantly fought the instinctual need to take flight.

Like me, she got out of it early on. Majoring in “pretty much everything,” she received a music theory assistantship and scholarship at a conservatory in Kansas, where she felt out of place, a nerd amongst the natives (an emotion not lost on most of the people I’ve spoken with). She would fall into step with her tribe later. The tipping point came when Tammy wrote the music for an international project competition with Disney. As a finalist, she flew to California, which was full of people who “really loved their jobs.” Theory was not doing it for her (AS IT DOESN’T FOR MOST, I might say), so she quit the program and moved to another graduate school for music history, then music education. Then she moved into a music therapy program and hasn’t looked back.

Her mom passed away recently; other than an extended weekend, she didn’t take any time off. Like beasts do. Her tribe rallied around her; showered her with cards and assignment extensions. Her peers would stop her in the bathroom to let her know she was cared for (in any other circumstances, this would be profoundly weird). “In other programs, and in performance, there’s so little flexibility for trauma.” An army of musician therapists to shoulder the burden of loss. I would surround myself with these people any day.

Losing her mom has made her a better therapist and lent a new perspective to her work.

“Well, my mom died, so I can probably get up in front of people and play a song,” she laughs.

I wonder what Old Yeller would think about that (it doesn’t really matter).

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Making Real Music: The Cuckoo Way

Anju’s interview is the shortest one yet (and yet produced the postiest of posts for my project). For 45 minutes (10 of which I may have monopolized with my own personal narrative…I’m the worst journalist ever), she talks about teaching 45 private viola, violin, piano, and drum students, but doesn’t really “believe” in private lessons. She muses on stress-induced hair loss, resulting from the demands of eccentric singers that expected her to sightread 20th-century vocal literature on short notice. She discusses her Pinnacle Pieces (Beethoven’s Moonlight and Pathetique Sonatas, respectively), one of which elicited one of the only compliments she ever received from a piano teacher. 

But I’ll get to all that.

Anju is a 26-year old musician in Bloomington, Indiana. She’s a private music teacher, a yoga instructor, and makes a considerable income with her band, The Vallures, a seven-piece soul ensemble that plays covers, originals, and is working on an album. She’s a chill cat (evident by her own cat, who took part in our conversation), so it makes sense that she would teach yoga. She’s remarkably at ease, and isn’t afraid to divulge exactly what I was looking for: her real story.

When Anju was little, she saw a flute solo at a church service and “wanted to get in on that.” Her mother thought piano was more practical (mothers know best, indeed) and set her on the wise old path. Anju claims to have had at least twelve piano teachers, and never practiced. “I was the nightmare child.” She distinctly remembers playing a piano piece called The Cuckoo (you’re welcome, Bastien Piano Basics) for about a year because her piano teacher had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t remember re-assigning it each week. “No one ever caught on because I could get away with stuff.”

This, my friends, is the truth. We all have a story like this, and anyone who says otherwise needs a fire extinguisher. For their pants.*

She was motivated to do well in college, but the challenge to be too many things to too many people caused her to lose her hair in multiple spots and gain weight excessively. She was broken by the classical system. She didn’t know how to say no, would take on too many projects, and felt sort of “universally hated” because people were always looking for a scapegoat. “Singers would give me 20th-century literature and expect me to be able to sightread it.” As a vocalist, I can say I’m guilty of last-minute expectations, but I wouldn’t do this to anyone I respected (or anyone, period), regardless of their ability to sightread Webern on a moment’s notice. Anju doesn’t put up with this anymore. She knows when she’s put in the work and won’t take the blame for anyone else’s lack of preparation.

Eventually, she meandered over to jazz, where she finally learned “real” piano skills, like how to effectively cope with the perfection complex (wine). “You gotta own the swagger,” she tells me. “I probably don’t have half the talent of other jazz musicians, but I sell it, and I bring my personality, and I own my performance.”

Her degree is in piano performance, not education, but knows how to reach her students. Her teaching philosophy? “To promote a life-long love of music.” She’ll spend a good portion of a typical 30-minute lesson honing in on technique; the other half is a combination of literature, improvisation, and jamming. Seems legit, except that she doesn’t fully buy into the idea that music is made in a private bubble. “I don’t really believe in private lessons.” Thus, she tries to get her students to jam and collaborate as much as possible. “Real kids want to make real music and don’t want to play the Cuckoo for a year.” Alternately, her college experiences taught her how to effectively squeeze in “pockets” of practice when her students are running late or don’t show up. There’s never a wasted moment (or sandwich) when there’s ten minutes to bang out some Hanon exercises, although she sits down at least twice a week for multiple hours to hammer things out on all her instruments.

Anju gigs at least once a week and travels often with the Vallures. Interestingly, she says she’s one of only two people in the group that have a degree in music. The rest are real people with day jobs who are completely willing to give up 3-4 hours of a Thursday night to rehearse. “I’ve never met any music majors that were willing to do that.”

The more musicians I speak with, the more often I butt heads with the “time efficiency” conundrum. As as musician, I was taught to hoard my time. 30 minutes in, out the door I go. Those were private lessons. It’s not that I’m stingy with my time; I’m generous when the payoff is beneficial. I’ll “scholarship” a promising private student, or join the ranks of a fantastic musical put on by a regional theater, if it means I get to work with a solid director and there’s significant evidence that everyone else is going have their life together (or, at the very least, show up to rehearsal with a pencil, a skill lost on many). Alternately, I’m a time nazi; begin and end when you say you will, otherwise you can bid your meeting and my respect a fond farwell. It’s not a coincidence that Anju’s is the shortest interview I’ve done. When it was time to end, we concluded naturally, like the end of a chill jazz solo.

The world of the “Community Engager” is proving to be my favorite. Anju’s personality seems to fit that mold, but I wouldn’t place her in that category. She’s a unique hybrid tiger, part community engager, part square peg in a round hole, part professional. It seems like an okay place to be.

 

  • AMmaven

*”liar, liar, pants on fire.” Get with the program. 

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