From Career Development

The Fiery Feeling in Your Belly: how one musician found hers

Hana is fierce and fiery, a word I reserve for the most intellectually sexy singers. In fact, “fiery” is a word that surfaced multiple times today as we skyped across oceans. She lives in Munich, Germany, where she makes her living freelancing as a professional ensemble singer. In the US, this job doesn’t really exist, unless you count “subsisting on food other than Ramen” as an indicator of choral success (which I do). It’s a whole different animal in Germany, where there’s a rife market for skilled singers who actually make a living in churches and “project” choirs: short-term, contracted and compensated ensembles that come together for a set number of rehearsals and concerts before parting ways. She made her way on the scene after meeting her significant other, Berthold, in grad school; he was a German exchange student and she studied choral conducting.

Hana is the tenth person I’ve “interviewed,” a term I use lightly because hell if I know what I’m doing (similar: “work,” “clean,” “dress myself”). My friend, Sintia, who’s another sexy intellectual, is a journalist / author / writer / globetrotter / all-around badass (new twitter description. You’re welcome, girl). Sintia said I should be careful interviewing friends and I’ve come to understand what she means. She also said that over time, I’ll develop an intuition for the right kinds of questions.

Hana answers my questions before I ask them. She’s articulate, and her words come easily, but there’s a certain passion and confidence to her story, which is partially why I’ve decided to write about her first. Upon learning that she was a “bottom tier” singer throughout high school and college, she quickly elevated to spirit-animal status in my book.

Hana didn’t make the top choir until her senior year of high school, when was a “horrible singer” (in fact, she says she didn’t really learn to sing well until graduate school…didn’t we all…). She played clarinet and was good at math, but wasn’t passionate about either. She knew she wanted to be a music major after playing a band adaptation of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium (which is a choral piece; the irony of this is not lost on me). But she didn’t get into any of the schools she auditioned for. None. Not one. 

So she started off as a math major at another place and auditioned two more times for the music program before being accepted as a vocal performance major. Then she went to grad school for choral conducting. Again here, she didn’t blow too many minds with her conducting skills (“the other TAs were better”), but found the experience of group music-making and score study to feed her passion for singing, which she enjoyed more than anything. She calls it the “fiery feeling in the belly,” the animal that needs released into the wild and is something that a) is usually only one or two things, for most people (for her: singing and choir) and b) a feeling many never find, which saddens me.

While in grad school, Hana dabbled in the education program before deciding she was ready to leap continents. Like many of us, she had to be given permission. Her advisor pointed out that Hana’s “wear your heart on your sleeve” attitude (read: jaw-dropping boredom) in the K-5 methods courses weren’t really doing anyone any favors, and gently suggested that it was okay for her to quit the program. This brought her great relief, so she promptly skipped town. Munich or bust.

This is grit (and not the kind you eat…although, if you have any, I’d like some). I like the word grit. It’s concrete, both as a verb and an adjective. Hana possesses the gritty perseverance and hardiness needed to succeed at something you’re not entirely good at. It’s like waving your hand over plants to prepare them for the elements. Most people have to have that done for them; Hana does it herself, and none of her decisions, including becoming an expatriate musician in Germany, seem to have remotely fazed her (I may re-interview her and dig a little deeper here; time will tell).

  • AMmaven
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Bad Things Happen in 3s: The Return of the Ravin’ Maven

Well, Hello.

I’ll keep this one short, because priorities. 

  1. I’m back to writing.
  2. I’m not dead of broken knees or dreams, but Academia has left a considerably sour taste in my mouth (which is definitely not the garlicky BBQ I had for dinner, although that didn’t help).
  3. I’ve started a project that I have yet to fully name, but for now will tag as either:
    1. Unsung
    2. EGBDFail (Every Good Boy Does Fail)
      because unless it’s a Mac or an Oreo, labels mean nothing and and there isn’t a shortcut for “hybrid journalism / blog / writing / preservation of knowledge / sociology experiment / community project.” Unless there is, in which case, you should tweet me. 
    3. I’ve committed, at least for now, to writing and sharing Number 3, but will not hold myself to any arbitrary deadlines or meaningless rules, other than that I will eventually finish the project (unlike the many things I’ve tried to knit, but come on. Anyone who can watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and craft AND count should be burned at the stake for witchery).

See you soon.

  • The Maven
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The Terrors and Perils of Starting a New Job

I started a new job last week. It’s a spiffy gig – I even managed to negotiate…take that, glass ceiling. All this has been a nice way of testing the limits of my slowly-eroding sanity, because I didn’t actually do too much reducing in the other professional areas of my life. Oh, no. Other than slightly lowering the number of private students I teach, I decided it would be a good idea to open the floodgates to Niagara Falls (aka Stress Level 10), you know, to balance 2.5 months of yoga, calm kombucha-making, and getting my hair back on an every-three-day shampoo schedule (a somewhat grisly undertaking).

I forgot how complicated it is to step outside of your comfort zone, which is inevitably where growth happens, but where the waters are choppy and damn difficult to navigate. I think it’s important to grab new challenges by the balls…or, as the case may be, maybe just gingerly tug their ponytails and then apologize profusely.

I present to you

My Terrors and Perils

  • Cryptic post-its, penned in hieroglyphs, copulating and breeding on my desk. Attempting to pass off the Da Vinci Code-esque scribblings to people who clearly know what they are doing more than I do.
  • Forgetting to eat entire meals and then creating a whole new, co-dependent relationship with bottomless chips and salsa.
  • Going entire days without remembering to drink liquids. Then waking up at 4am and guzzling all the water. Then waking up at 5am. Then 5:15am…and 5:30am…and 6am.
  • Going soft from a desk job. Answer: seated butt clenches. When caught mid-squeeze, claiming they are physical therapy and then dealing with the awkwardly quiet aftermath.
  • Diplomatically insisting to the IT guys that I am no longer a student and therefore the useless statistics course I took in 2010 shouldn’t be showing up in my class list and that no one should have to relive that hell. Then remembering that I now share a wall with the person that taught that course. Then silently praising myself for being a neurotically good student.
  • Bypassing the bureaucratic hell that is the parking pass line because I’m not taking classes, showed up with the right document, and was wearing a black trench coat that added a few years and upgraded my appearance status from STUDENT to …student…?
  • Unapologetic shoulder shrugging, usually following a highly specific, specialized question I should know the answer to. Frantically texting the previous guy in my position for the solution and finishing off each text with an uncharted emoji: a way of saying “sorry for asking this terribly stupid question.”
  • Realizing that there are, in fact, stupid questions and anyone who says otherwise is high.
  • Finding out I am the same age as one of my graduate TAs, who has comparable life experiences and holds all the answers.
  • Seeking solace in artisan chocolate.
  • Creating a sophisticated password for my HR documents: watchmewhipwatchmenaenae-1!*
  • Forging the campus jungle for Human Resources, where some woman named Tricia with Blonde Hair sits on top of a totem pole, ready to process my paperwork so I can get paid and finally afford “next level” cheese (hello, consistent supply of gouda).
  • Not having time to mow the lawn ever again. Budgeting funds to pay a high-school neighbor to at least hit the front yard so my studio families can come to my door without navigating the Serengeti or using smoke signals.
  • Staying humble about paying someone to mow my lawn.


Here’s to New Challenges, Terrors, and Perils. I’ll check in here again after I’ve pulled up my big-girl panties, which seem to have fallen around my ankles….


*this isn’t actually my password :p
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Music Shit I’m Too Old For

Or the more grammatically appropriate “Music Shit For Which I Am Too Old.”

You know, a beautiful thing happens once you surpass college. You gain a sense of command over your own time. You attract friends that are actually worth your time. You hang out with people that are older, wiser, and from all walks of life. You start to believe in the old adage “you get what you pay for,” and are overly-vocal when you realize the price of tampons has tripled in ten years and you are seriously considering free-bleeding like this marathon runner gal did. Then you read posts like this and think to yourself she might be onto something (sorry, guys, but this is fairly important).

I recently made myself do a serious (and I mean serious) closet purge. I downsized, streamlined, and went so far as to log all my clothes and accessories into an app (and there is an app for that) in an effort to adult more, a verb I’ve run across a lot lately on websites that waste my time. Like any torturous self-reinvention tactic, I learned a lot about myself, and found the process to be strangely creative. I ended up getting rid of a lot of stuff I keep around for no clear reason, and found a sort of weird, demonic satisfaction in throwing out jeans I’ve owned since high school that still fit somewhat, but would fit even better if my hips would just rewind eleven years.

I think clothes are a fantastic metaphor for the self. We wear what we are. We keep what we think we are, just in case we ever are that person. I had these awesome shoes that were cosmetically divine. They looked like they fit, but they hurt like hell. I went ahead and threw them out because no one should have to suffer to be who you are. The blisters aren’t worth it.

Then a good friend of mine posted this article about shit we’re too old for, which I found entirely appropriate. I could add a few things to that list, like sheets that aren’t at least 500 thread count, or splitting checks, or fake flowers. I’m only pushing 30, but I think I’ve gotten a general handle on a basic life principle that takes a lot of people a long time to discover. Even as I try to write what that is, I can’t articulate it. I do know that I just don’t want to waste my time. Ever. In any situation. I have the exact same amount of time as every single person in this world (despite what “really busy” people tell me), so why would I want to waste it on mediocre conversation and shitty coffee?

To bring it home, here is some shit I’m too old for, as it pertains to my musical life:

  • Poor return policies at music stores
  • Scores that aren’t digital
  • MP3s I can’t instantly download
  • Apologizing for my teaching outfits
  • Learning yet another notation software program
  • Dramatically different and overly-complicated online assessment tools (like D2L)
  • Staff meetings / rehearsals that take more than 90 minutes
  • Top 40 radio hits without any semblance of substance or depth
  • Music teachers who don’t value all music, even poorly-written top-40 radio hits
  • Staff meetings / rehearsals that don’t provide food or coffee
  • Waiting longer than 10 business days for items I purchase online (I could have just gone there myself and written off a small vacation)
  • Bad musicals (and not the good kind of bad)
  • Cheap instruments
  • Releasing new editions of expensive textbooks in less than 5 years
  • Last-minute lesson cancelations
  • Invalid excuses for last-minute lessons cancelations
  • Late payments
  • Excuses for late payments (notice I did not include the word “invalid,” because they are all invalid)
  • E-mails from people wanting to know how much I charge for lessons (it’s all on my website)
  • People who don’t “do” e-mail or websites
  • Negotiating a “salary” that you know is available, but for which you have to jump through multiple hoops / perform a pagan ritual to get
  • Breaking in the spines of my music books
  • The phrase “I’m feeling under the weather today.” Just stay home. I do.
  • Pretending to know what I’m talking about. Never again.
  • Having relative pitch and not perfect pitch
  • Having health institutions assume that because I’m self-employed / on obamacare that I can’t pay for my doctor’s visits
  • Taking on students for less than 16 weeks.
  • Being asked to play or sing for free in exchange for “exposure.” Expose this, pal.
  • Adjunct teaching
  • Saying to students “it’s all in the syllabus.”
  • Keeping up with the latest 24/26/28 Italian Songs and Arias
  • Accompaniment tracks that can’t be accessed online
  • Working without a contract
  • Poorly designed assessment in higher education (or, hell…all of education)
  • 15 American Art Songs
  • Rehearsals that go late
  • Poor conducting or general directing
  • Inefficiency
  • A general disregard for growth or improvement
  • Taking jobs I don’t want
  • Taking jobs that really won’t help me in any way in the long run
  • Generally caring about what people think of me
  • Not getting fringe benefits (like comp tickets or wine) for poorly-paid but fun “pleasure” projects
  • Worrying whether or not I’m good enough
  • Caring about playing or singing wrong notes
  • Not enjoying every minute of what I do, most of the time.


So there you have it. What are you too old for?


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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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