Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.
-Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III.
That quote? That’s how I feel about commuting. I mean honestly, I can’t seem to escape it. It the bane of my existence. I try to escape it by bailing on freelancing. It pulls me back in. I move over to eduction. It pulls me back in.
I hate commuting with a white hot passion… and I commute more than just about anyone I know.
My Freelance Years
After spending my college years blissfully free of a car (albeit with a few assorted annoyances of being a bass player without motor transport), I started to freelance. The gigs were rolling in (yay!), and I began to stitch together a career, playing every week of the year… though frequently in a different city and even a different state!
Here’s a typical monthly gig schedule for me from this time period:
|Milwaukee Ballet||1120 (160/day x 7 trips)||20||$800|
|Elgin Symphony||480 (80/day x 6 trips)||11||$850|
Throw in a weekly trip teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (184 miles and 4 hours round-trip) and three days a week teaching private lessons in the ‘burbs (50 miles and a couple hours per trip) and you’ve got something like this for the month:
- 3134 gig miles + 334 teaching miles = 3468 total miles
- 55 gig commuting hours + 10 teaching commuting hours = 65 total commuting hours
That mileage averages out to a little over 41,000 miles for the year, which is about what I did (or a little more than that) for eight years. No wonder I had so many car problems!
But the number that’s more interesting to me is the 65 hours spent in the car each month. That’s a lot of hours. This comes out to 780 total hours for the year. That’s 32.5 straight days of driving. That’s over a month spent each year in the car. Imagine jumping in your car and driving without stopping for a month. I did that every year… and this is reality for a lot of freelancers.
Escape Attempt No. 1
After spending many years doing this kind of wacky commuting, I decided (somewhat unsurprisingly) to look for a new path. I went back to school with visions of getting a teaching job a few miles from my place and finding a less bizarre lifestyle.
Life had other plans for me.
After a few years spent running myself ragged going back to school, starting the blog and podcast (what was I thinking?!?), and continuing to play gigs and teach bass lessons, I landed a teaching gig in a very good school district around Chicago. It was a part-time gig in a great school district and gave me benefits (yay!) and a nice base income plus the flexibility to still play gigs teach at DePaul.
The school was located about 25 miles north and was the most reasonable commute I had ever had. All of a sudden I went from driving 1000 miles a week to a mere 250. I still drove to gigs but kept them more local, probably never exceeding 2000 miles in a month.
That came out to between 15 and 30 hours a month spent in the car, which—let’s be honest—is still a fair chunk of time, but much more sustainable than the 55 hours I’d been spending.
All of a sudden, I found myself with all this extra time. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started running every day. I cooked dinner at home for my wife. I took long walks along the beach up in Evanston.
Right around this time, my wife landed a spot in a great medical school. Great news! But it wasn’t in Evanston or anywhere near it. She landed a spot at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, nearly 25 miles south of Evanston.
In the blink of an eye, my commute went from an easy 30 minutes to a white-knuckled 90-120 minutes… each way! A little rain, snow, or even sunshine could easily kick that one-way drive up to 180 minutes. It was bad in the morning, but it was even worse in the afternoon. I had to quit drinking any liquids a few hours before the end of school since I’d be in my car up to three hours on the way home.
Having to desperately go to the bathroom in downtown Chicago gridlocked traffic is not fun.
My hours of commuting quadrupled, and I found myself driving more hours then I was actually teaching each day. My easy 15-30 hours a month of community skyrocketed to 80 hours. That’s two weeks of a typical job per month spent in the car. To make matters worse, these weren’t easy highway miles—they were punch you in the teeth, drag you by the hair, vicious, horrible Chicago rush hour miles.
I was the walking dead at this point, shuffling from car to bed to car, shoveling food into my mouth without tasting it, swilling coffee by the gallon, my stress level humming along in the background at all times.
I quit the blog.
I quit the podcast.
The commute had won.
Hacking Mass Transit
Knowing that this was unsustainable, I looked for some kind of way to incorporate mass transit into all of this. Was there a train I could take? A bus? Biking? Some combination?
Chicago is set up well for taking trains inbound from the ‘burbs to the city in the morning and back out in the afternoon. The reverse commute has significantly worse hours. I discovered a train that got me to school about two minutes before I was supposed to teach. I was only teaching private lessons that period, not a full class, so it wasn’t a big deal even if I was late.
The train stop was located fairly close to school, around a small lake (a beautiful walk in the fall/spring and an interesting one in the deep winter snow). My commute instantly transformed from horrible to amazing. Well, maybe not amazing—I was still commuting long hours and had to take a bus from the South Side to downtown each morning—but I felt like hours had been added to my day.
It was still taking me four hours a day to commute via mass transit, but I didn’t care. Mass transit hours are quite different from driving hours. I could:
- prepare scores
- plan classes
- listen to music
I was a whirling dervish of productivity on the train, setting up my portable office around me: iPad, notebook, and a stack of scores. I was focusing on my conducting at that point, and I spent some time each morning reading biographies of great conductors, watching YouTube videos of great orchestras in action, and analyzing scores.
It felt fantastic, like four hours of mandatory self-education each day. Train time was work time for me.
Could I do some of this in the car? Well, sort of… I’d listen to music and podcasts while driving. But I would constantly be interrupted by cars weaving in and out of traffic, glancing at the clock to see how long I’d been on the road, and feeling the tension creep along my spine and into my shoulders and back.
Train hours and car hours just aren’t the same. Those train hours are my hours. Car hours are virtually worthless—all stress and exhaustion.
Escape Attempt No. 2
After a year of train commuting, I had become a mass transit ninja. I’d figured out all sorts of cool hacks to get from my distant suburban job to various places in the city. I’d do anything to avoid driving. It’s hard to avoid driving when you’re a bass player, but I’d leave my bass at gigs so that I could take the train for subsequent services whenever possible. I quit bringing my bass to teach lessons, which had an interesting effect on my teaching (but that’s for a future blog post).
After that year, I got another job about 10 miles closer to the city. It was full-time, which meant that I’d be working longer hours at school. I decided to take the first year of the job and drive like a normal person. I was kind of worried that I’d be seen as some sort of weirdo trying to hack together a train commute immediately. I didn’t want to be perceived as having my priorities being out of whack. Irrational? Maybe, but “fitting in” seemed like an important thing for the culture of that school, and there were enough, er… nontraditional things about me already. I decided to not add commuting to that list.
After a year, I quit caring and bought a Brompton folding bike. This is a wicked little device for hacking together modes of public transit. It rides like a regular bike but folds up into a tidy package. It’s a commuter’s dream and a ton of fun to ride.
At this point, my wife and I had moved into a swank condo in downtown Chicago, with a view overlooking the Sears Tower from our balcony. This building was less than five minutes from the train station, and my destination stop was 10 minutes away by bike. It took me less time to get to school using the train/bike combo than it did to drive!
I was in the best shape of my life doing that commute. Sometimes I would forego the evening train and bike all the way home, enjoying the ride through the forest adjacent to the Chicago River and arriving home refreshed and relaxed. It was sophisticated living, at lest according to my standards.
Commuting Pulls Me Back In
The commute was great, but the job itself was a nightmare, unfortunately (more on this later). After the two most professionally unsatisfying years of my life (and this is coming from a former freelancer!), I was looking for an escape plan.
Amazingly, one of the top couple of orchestra director jobs in the state opened up.
I applied and got it. I was thrilled.
The only issue was that it was further away, back up by that first job… and there was no mass transit option. Nothing. Believe me—I checked.
So I’d landed my dream job but had returned to my nightmare commute. I was back on the road 3-4 hours a day, fighting through mind-numbing slowdowns with visions of endless taillights haunting my dreams.
My Final Escape Attempt
One of the first things I say is “try to drive less.”
That usually gets a laugh, but I’ll level with you: it’s the truth.
My wife headed out to San Francisco a year ago, and I moved back up to Evanston to ease my commute to my current job. I have been saving a ridiculous amount of hours each week with that decision.
No joke: I leave an hour-and-a-half later each morning than last year. And that’s not even counting the afternoon, which is typically worse.
I now spend an hour a day in the car instead of three or four.
As a result… I’m exercising more.
I’m relaxing more.
I’m laughing more.
I’m sleeping more.
I’m being more creative.
I’m having more fun with life.
Can I keep this up on the West Coast?
I’ve written a lot on this topic in the past—here are a few related links to check out:
Road Warrior Without an Expense Account – This series chronicles my experiences as a freelance musician and offers thoughts and observations on the classical music orchestral business in general. Although focused on classical musicians and freelance musicians in general, much of the discussion has relevance to musicians from all disciplines. Part of this series was featured in Adjunct Advocate magazine, and it has been turned in to a full-length book that you can download for free through the Contrabass Conversations app.
- Part I – Adjunct University Teaching
- Part II – Realities of Professional Freelancing
- Part III – The Rise and Fall of the Full-Time Orchestra
- Part IV – Rising Tide, Shrinking Pool
- Part V – Regional Orchestras
- Part VI – The Vicious Cycle
- Part VII – Private Teaching
- Part VIII – Burnout
- Part IX – Rethinking Music Performance Degrees
- Part X – Refocusing (Musical Entrepreneurship)
- Addendum I: The Real Cost of Driving to Gigs for the Freelance Musician
- Addendum II: Tainting the Academic Waters with Pay-Per-Student Teaching