musing, rambling

Pam's comment on a recent post has got me to thinking (as I often, often do) about being a musician and the persistence it takes and the implications of choosing another line of professional work. Like, does taking accounting classes at the local technical college (which I may very well do this coming fall) make me a quitter? Or just practical?

Time will tell on that one, I suppose.

I've been trying to think of the most satisfying musical experiences I've had post-Bachelor's degree. One example was the premiere I did of a pair of John Harbison pieces at SongFest, his Vocalisms I and II, subtitled "Grand Aria" for soprano and piano. Harbison's pieces are not at all easy, and these were no exception with wacky rhythms, driving tempos, and serious jazz influences. Plus, the scores weren't (maybe aren't yet) published and everything was in manuscript and pretty hard to read. Sarah, the singer, who was really wonderful to work with, and I rehearsed and coached those pieces until we were both blue in the face. We never worked with Harbison directly (though I met him a few months later at Token Creek), but we coached with musicians who know him well. After one coaching, when I been told over and over and over to "be more percussive" I remember walking out of the auditorium and bursting into tears because I was so fucking sick and tired of being told what to do. That was a big moment - first of all because I almost never EVER cry (once a year, tops, call me a robot if you want) and second of all because I realized I had learned this thing by myself and knew it better than any other pianist out there (except Harbison himself, obviously) and it was just time for me to perform it without any more input from anyone. I felt like an independent musician, finally.

The performance, frankly, was great. We were totally on fire and everything slipped right into place except maybe one or two spots that were practically invisible. I remember feeling satisfied with myself, thinking "Yeah, I can do this!" and having hope for my musical future. I also remember feeling relieved that it had gone well because I was afraid no one would believe I could really pull off a good performance with a toddler in tow and a baby on the way. A few of the other people at SongFest were married, but I was almost the ONLY one with kids.

Then I finished my doctorate and had Anya and since then most everything stopped. I say "most" because every few months, something comes along I can't refuse. Like a gig with the choir I did over the summer (I love the director so much I can't turn him down, plus the pay was good, plus he was desperate), and the recital I did in November with my college teacher. Those were both very satisfying and affirming musical experiences as well. But let's face it: I can't make a living playing only the gigs I like. And I won't be happy taking more lucrative jobs (like concerto competitions for high schoolers so talented I want to crawl under a rock when I hear them play) just to make money. In other words, what I like most about my musical life is NOT what pays well, and with two little children at home, my time is too precious to waste.

I don't plan to halt my musical life. In fact, I'm hoping that choosing another line of work to make a living will help me continue to play what I want when I want instead of always looking for paid accompanying work that does not fulfill me. I'd rather prepare income taxes and work out payroll spreadsheets for a few hours a week and spend my precious practice time learning great repertoire that I want to play without worrying about whether it will cover the grocery bill or not. Life is short, no?


abcgirl said…
when i finally made the decision to stick with the world of children's librarianship, i worried that i would feel guilty about "wasting" all of that money on an unrelated degree (music education). i have never regretted my choice. find a job you love, do the music you enjoy when the opportunity presents itself. my two cents.
Scott said…
Hooray for you, for really sticking to your instincts. You're awesome, Susan! Here's one more take on this issue that I've come to:

I don't know ANYONE who makes music full-time. The people who say they do... well, they spend many, MANY hours a week, the equivalent of a part-time job perhaps, schmoozing and sending out grant applications and applying for jobs and networking and so on and so on...

So everyone decides what they'd like to do in order to support their musician habit. I went with "play piano for lots of crappy singers" for a while. Then, I attempted "teach college classes," which I'm currently working on. But I know lots of happy people who went with "web design" or "barista" or "arts admin" or "farming." And I really don't think there's a difference. For some, doing something musical as your non-music-making job is most desirable, to stay in the music game all day long. For others, doing something non-musical allows them to focus their energies on the tasks at hand more effectively.

But pretty much anyone who tells you they're a full-time musician is doing lots of non-musical things too (making invoices, sending out press kits, the list continues...), so if there's another non-musical thing you like to do, do it! I myself prefer teaching to grant-writing, so I'm working on that. Sounds like you prefer accounting to piano lessons.

Best wishes to you in the new year!
Pam said…
I was hired by the Community Music Center here in SF to teach one lesson last quarter, to a middle-aged lawyer woman, which I honestly really enjoyed. This quarter I am supposed to teach her on one night a week and two other students on another night. The school is a twenty minute drive from my house, which doesn't include the 10 minutes it takes to go to the garage and get my car out. The last paycheck I got, which was for one 45 minute lesson was for $19.57. Last night I went to the school to teach the lawyer her first lesson of the quarter, but she didn't show up, because no one from the school told her when her lessons would be. I wrote to the school's director this morning to let her know what happened and she told me she thought I would have told her the new lesson time, even though the obvious reason for teaching for no money is so that the school will take care of those details. Long story short, I have been seriously wondering if the hassle involved in pursuing musical work on top of my full-time job is actually worth it. Ugh.
Pam said…
Sorry for leaving that comment. I was feeling really frustrated and pessimistic this morning at work.
Mrs. Allroro said…
I think it would make you even more well-rounded. And if you didn't like it, or found yourself getting sucked too deeply into it, you can quit. Just keep an eye on yourself. And maybe you could even ask Stuart to hold you accountable--to let you know if he notices you start to seem unhappy with it.

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