Several years ago I was digging through some old legal pads and discovered a set of lofty goals that I had set for myself in 2001, when I was 25 years old. Here they are:
- 10 year goals – 35 years old – 2012
- Principal Bass, Chicago Symphony
- Teach at Northwestern University
- own a house in Evanston
- 5 year goals – 30 years old – 2007
- member of top 5 orchestra
- teach at local university
- 3 year goal – 28 years old – 2005
- have a good salaried position ($40,000 +)
- 1 year goal – 26 years old – 2003
- salaried orchestral position
- 6 month goal
- apply for all openings
- make binder
- plan preparation schedule and do it
Just in case you weren’t sure, I managed to accomplish none of the goals on that list. Well, actually, that’s not true. I did put together a few binders….
Five Years Later
As I was transferring files between Google accounts a couple of weeks ago in preparation to leave my school job, I found this nugget from 2006. Cryptically titled ”What do I do now?”, it reads:
What do I do now?
Life after music school.
I was kind of struck by the contrast between this hyper-driven 25-year-old detailed goal writing and this world-weary 30-year-old cloudiness. What on Earth happened?
Did I Miss the Boat?
I’ve pondered the topic of making a career in music quite a bit on this blog, from my Road Warrior series through my latest book How to Make a Living as a Classical Musician. I’ve also given a fair amount of thought as to why I burned out so hard on the freelance scene back in the mid-2000s. Here’s my own quasi-objective summary of what happened to me:
- I had more work to do than I thought – I had always been a fairly self-confident (bordering on cocky) player. I think that part of this came from always being a big fish in a small pond. I grew up in South Dakota, where competition in the bass world was not particularly intense, and I found myself assistant principal bass of the South Dakota Symphony while in high school. This was a great experience but didn’t do wonders for a teenage ego. The small studio size at Northwestern University when I attended there gave me a lot of playing opportunities, but it didn’t expose me to the competitive realities of the scene like larger schools would have done.
- I was too successful too early in the freelance scene – I landed enough gigs right out of school that I never really had to struggle. This doesn’t sound like a problem on the surface, but as a result, I never really had that feeling of hunger toward auditions. Instead of honing my actual musical craft, I focused on developing my freelance career and maximizing my gigging opportunities. As a result, I practiced much less than I probably should have and filled up all of my hours with gigs and teaching.
- I took the wrong lessons away from unsuccessful audition experiences – I would emotionally beat myself up pretty severely after each unsuccessful audition. Rather than using the audition experience as an opportunity to grow, I would think about all the money I’d spent, the work I’d given up, and the ever-increasing feeling that I was charging blindly at a moving target that I didn’t really understand. I got darker and darker with each subsequent audition, growing envious at other people’s successes and lamenting my own stalled career.
Did I Just Have a Different Boat?
The moral of the story is that life never works out the way it is intended. There are many twists and turns and all we can do is be fluid and go with the flow. The path of the classical musician is probably one of the most narrow-minded career paths one can think of. Music Schools are very idealistic and rarely discuss the real options available to its students. You talk about this in your book.
A large percentage of the general population ends up doing a different career path than their college major. The modern world demands flexibility and being ready for anything. Bottom line, the ends don’t justify the means in the classical orchestra business. Who is to say you would even like the job you landed. The money wouldn’t justify the job. You could of won your 56th audition and made $30,000 a year before taxes.
Many studies have shown that only 4% of the population has any goals at all. That means that 96% of the population couldn’t even imagine having a goal sheet like yours. I think what was important is that you had goals and were going towards them. They never manifested, but so what. Many gold medal striving atheletes never win a medal, does it mean all their training was a waste?
As every decade passes in life we evolve and change as human beings. Life presents us with different adversities and challenges and who knows what will happen tomorrow. If we stay locked into the idealistic goals of our youths, we will end up miserable musicians. We have all seen musicians get fired and quit orchestras because it hasn’t satisfied their youthful craze for greatness.
In summation, the final job one ends up doing doesn’t define what level of musician you are. Some of my favorite bass players don’t have major jobs at all. I say as life changes, our goals change as well. Thanks for bringing these ideas to life. They are important issues to discuss.
All the best,
I know that I became a lot happier when I decided to try a new direction That’s not to say that taking auditions was a hopeless endeavor. I had become my own worst enemy, but I could have probably figured a way out of my emotional baggage and gone on to make substantial improvements in my playing.
I channeled all of that energy into blogging, going back to school, starting a podcast, and taking some time to enjoy life. I started exploring the city of Chicago. I started to feel more creative. I started to become more open-minded and curious. From teaching at DePaul to conducting orchestra to building up this online bass community, I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in the projects I started after deciding to quit auditioning.
I’ve also had a good time connecting with some like-minded musicians who are focusing on entrepreneurship like Hugh Sung and Andrew Hitz. Both of their podcasts focus on possibilities available to musicians outside the “straight and narrow” audition path. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s a competitive sport of sorts and I have huge admiration for those who successfully land a big position. In fact, I’m focusing on profiling as many of these people on the podcast as possible, like:
- Alex Hanna – Chicago Symphony
- Ian Hallas – Lyric Opera of Chicago
- Robin Kesselman – Houston Symphony
- Brandon McLean – Pittsburgh Symphony
Does seeing that list of goals from 2001 conjure up some mixed emotions? You’d better believe it. But I’m having a great time doing something that I find meaningful and making a contribution in my own unique way to the music community.
Was it what I expected to be doing fifteen years ago? Of course not. Am I happy with my life? You’d better believe it. Like John Grillo told me several years ago, “The moral of the story is that life never works out the way it is intended. There are many twists and turns and all we can do is be fluid and go with the flow.”
Do you have a similar tale? Let me know! Share it in the comments or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.