My first seven jobs

Talking to some of my recent graduates, I surprised them by speaking of my early work experience. Very few professional musicians have only had music-related jobs! This meme has been going around – I highly recommend that you search for other articles about someone’s first seven jobs. The author Po Bronson also wrote a wonderful book called What Should I Do With My Life? and it’s essentially just short essays about different people doing their jobs. I love this book.

1. File clerk for Allstate Insurance. I got my first job when I was fifteen, working for the Allstate Insurance agent in my small California town – first just filing paperwork for two hours after school. I worked for that office until I was in college and eventually learned the computer system and started handling phone calls and entering payments. The office ended up hiring my brother, too. The two of us would cover the office full-time in the summers when the agent went on vacation.

What I learned: nobody calls their insurance agent when they’re happy about something.

2. Student assistant in the Oberlin alumni office. My basic office skills followed me to the Oberlin College Alumni Association, which was an office just across the square from the music conservatory. I worked a couple of hours a day doing data entry for them.

3. RA. I became a resident assistant for the Women’s and Transgender Collective for my last two years at Oberlin College. It was a great job – I really cared about the people around me. We planned feminist educational events and it was the first time I started learning about transgender issues and advocacy. This job helped me to stay connected with human beings while I was practicing the flute five hours a day.

4. Camp flute teacher. In 2003, I was hired to teach flute at Cazadero Performing Arts Camp, which is this beautiful camp near my hometown in the northern California redwood forest. I was still a student at Oberlin. Suddenly I was in charge of twenty flute players at a time, a new group arriving every two weeks, for the whole summer. I kept this job, on and off, until 2009, and I loved it. So much of my formative music teaching experience came from this place: how to deal with wide arrays of abilities, teaching individuals and groups, solving problems quickly, and somehow keeping it fun.

5. Community service coordinator. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music had an amazing program that sent students into San Francisco to provide free performances in unlikely places. Think violin duets in a soup kitchen during lunch hour. I was the student coordinator for the program. About eighty students participated each year. It was actually really fun to call up nonprofits and offer them free music visitations.

6. Assistant to the principal of a private school. Post-graduation, I still needed a stable job. I had so much office experience by this point (I’m very thankful for the campus jobs I held) that I was able to find a very good full-time job for my first year out of college. This assistant position even had health insurance and a 401K match. I answered the phone, planned meetings, managed the principal’s schedule, made travel arrangements for her, and kept track of her expense account. It probably could have been a satisfying permanent position if I had wanted it. I only stayed for about nine months, though, before leaving town for better playing opportunities.

7. Full-time flutist. Yes, here we are! Playing and teaching the flute have supported me since that last job. I’ve been very lucky to get to do what I do, but it was also a conscious risk to take. I worried about money a lot. Gigs came and went. I took a lot of auditions and most resulted in rejection. There were great performances and horrible ones. Overall, I’m happy where I am, while being thankful for my past job experiences.

What is tenure, anyway?

There are a lot of different kinds of tenure, but at a large state university tenure means that the university has invested in a professor’s career and is making an effort to retain them for the life of their work. It means a considerable pay raise and protection from being fired for mistakes and disagreements. Tenure is actually a vital mechanism to protect independent thought within our higher learning institutions: tenured faculty have the power to raise their voice if they disagree with the direction of the school, methods of research, or treatment of students. Tenure helps to ensure that pure research may be done without as much outside pressure to conform.

Full-time professors are expected to contribute to the university in three ways: teaching, research, and service. Teaching is evaluated by graduation rates (this is easier to see in instrumental studios, when you often have the same student for four years), faculty observation, and student course evaluations.

For music performance faculty (sometimes called “applied faculty”), our research can include publishing articles about flute pedagogy, flute history, reviewing CDs in flute journals, and writing books. The vast majority of our research is actually creative activity: performing concerts, recording CDs, collaborating with other artists.

Finally, professors contribute to their university through service, and this essentially means committee work and administrative organization so that the department can run smoothly. We decide on curriculum changes, the course catalogue, guest artists, and a lot of other issues.

All of this must be painstakingly documented.

So, as you can see, there is a lot more going on under the surface of your applied teacher’s day-to-day. As I have written in another article about different levels of professorships, a tenure-track professor is hired at the rank of assistant professor. Once tenured, they are elevated to the rank of associate professor. After some years, they may elect to seek a rank of full professor.

Five Ways to Save Money as a Musician

1.     Find the cheapest possible housing that will allow you to practice and use public transportation.

Housing is going to be the single largest expense in your budget. Be willing to live somewhere kind of terrible. My partner and I have rented from hoarders (we had to clean out the entire apartment on our move-in day), we have sublet furnished old ladies’ houses while they’re in Florida, and we have lived in an unfinished basement for free (short-term). Be open. Be willing to have roommates. Be ready for inconvenience. Have renter’s insurance.

2.     Get rid of your car.

This won’t work if you live in Iowa or rural New Hampshire, but it would work for more of us than we’re willing to admit. Sell your car. Put that money in a savings account. Enjoy the freedom from insurance, parking tickets, maintenance, and gas. Carpool with other musicians and always contribute money to the driver. You’re going to get to know a lot more people, and they’re going to get to know you. I think my partner built an entire freelancing career based on carpool-referred gigs alone.

3.     Cook

Rice and beans. Soups that last a week. If you’re not sure how to cook, ask a friend to teach you a few things. You’ll eat healthier and save more money if you cook, especially if you pack your own lunches and bring your own snacks on long days. If you have room in your bag for a travel coffee mug, make your own coffee to take with you.

Your income level may qualify you for food stamps, so look into it. I used food stamps in 2009 and 2010 and now that I have a good job I’ve paid that back in taxes several times over.

4.     Eliminate as many recurring bills as possible.

Pay for your phone, utillities, student loans, and health insurance and maybe one professional association per year. Do you need internet? Can you pay your neighbor under the table and share a router password? Do you qualify for a free state health plan? Do your really need that monthly transit pass? Maybe you don’t actually ride transit enough and would save more if you bought a couple of day or week passes for when you are busy.

Automatic bill pay combined with a fluctuating income is a recipe for a bank overdraft. Simply put your bills in your iCal and remember to pay them on time like an adult. You might not be able to pay them all on the same day.

5.     Save

Squeeze every dollar you can into an online savings account that is separate from your checking account. Send a little money into the savings account even if you need to transfer it back the very same month. Because obviously things happen. Root canals. Instrument problems. Emergencies. I love using Ally Bank as my savings account, and I also use Qapital to round up all my expenses to send to savings.


There are so many ways to live well on a tiny budget. Musicians should not be under any delusion that we won't have to be careful. Do you have tips? Write them in the comments.

Saying yes

When I was a student at Oberlin, a common refrain of advice from visiting artists and professors alike was, “Always say yes, and see where it takes you.” I took that advice to heart for a long time, and in some ways I still follow that advice. Saying yes led to opportunities like competing at the Fischoff Competition, traveling to China and Latin America, teaching students in Spanish, performing in Carnegie Hall, and meeting a lot of interesting composers. Saying yes also led to some pretty dismal gigs, some questionable videos that are permanently on the internet, and at least one embarassing appearance on public access TV with a didgeridoo.

My take on this now, with a little more experience, is that always saying yes is the wrong advice. “Always say yes” could just be you flailing around with too many collaborations. Have a vision for your career and try to do things that fit with that vision. Or, at the very least, know what you DON’T want, and stay away from anything that seems like that. But ultimately, be flexible. No one really knows what musicians’ lives will be like in twenty years. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re good at until we’re doing it. Sometimes our talents come together in strange ways that we wouldn’t have been able to plan (example: the classical violinist who is also an aerialist and now works for Cirque de Soleil).

What I tell my students now is to say yes to anything traditional that pays, like orchestral work. Be very choosy with projects that don’t pay at all: ask yourself whether it will make you a better musician. And for those paying non-traditional musical projects, follow your inner esthetic.