Author: Robin Anderson

Working Retreat, Day 1: nothing else to see here, folks.

Technically, it’s day five, but I’m calling this day 1 because I allowed myself four days of blissful, unadulterated TV binging over the New Year before putting on real pants and starting work like an adult (while trying to shake off the penetrating sadness that is true crime television).

I’m on a 30-day self-created residency on the sunny shores of the Gulf Coast, where a freakish polar vortex has brought today’s temperature up to a balmy 39 degrees, a level nearly unheard of in this area. The owner of our rental contacted me on our first day here, as the piping sits above ground and when it gets below 50 degrees, property owners aren’t sure whether to leave the faucets and sinks on a slow drip or just… give up. I researched the meaning of “gale warning” while attempting to ignore the subtle vibrations of a house on stilts literally being blown around by the wind, as the house is perched perfectly between the gulf and the bay, 15 miles from town. We’re here in the off-off-season, which means the house was cheap and the restaurants are deserted. My idea of a vacation is rolling the dice and seeing what happens over an extended period of time. So here we are, alternating between our bathing suits and heaviest coats, waiting for the weekend’s promising 60-degree temperatures.

This isn’t a total vacation, though. I have a mile-long to-do list titled “artistic shit” which is actually a compilation of choice items from ten other, more PG-titled lists. You know it’s time to get to work when your to-dos not only multiply, but start spawning actual offspring.

We (meaning my husband and I) planned this trip well before the to-dos copulated. Our stipulations were that we choose a place within walking distance of a beach, have wi-fi, it must not exceed 200% of our monthly mortgage, and we had to bring our devil dachshunds along, a requirement that has already justified the cost of the trip, as there’s no experience quite like introducing 8-inch high dogs to the ocean and sand.

After lining up a house sitter, securing a sub for my job, and a hellish Christmas morning spent packing for a month, we made the 4-hour drive to the Missouri bootheel, where we spent a lovely few days eating ourselves into oblivion with family before embarking to the water.

Will I write an update every day? Maybe if this were 2013, when life was rife with the renewable energy of my mid-20’s. Now, I’m officially in my 30’s and halfway through a pregnancy. Like a fine wine I can’t drink, I’m mellowing with age, and finding it quite acceptable if I accomplish only a few things each day (that includes showering), even on a working vacation like this one. My updates will be limited to humdrum highlights and unsensational updates on the life of a working 30-something musician on retreat.

Nothing else to see here, folks. Move along.

Do something about It (!!!)

It began with an innocent craigslist ad.

I like to pop over to the dark land every so often to check the music equipment listings (for obvious reasons) and musician community posts, just to see who’s out there waiting in the wings, who’s open to collaboration, what projects are going down, etc. My curiosity has resulted in mostly positive interactions, save for one sketch situation that I won’t get into here, but suffice it to say, I escaped unscathed.

Someone wanted to start a top 40 cover band: “Top 40 checking interest.” The poster painted an optimistic picture, referencing paid gigs, professionalism, and fun. An innocent gesture, not unlike I might make, just to gauge interest and survey the market.

But Craigslist is a bottomless cesspool of negativity where ideas go to die.

Someone else (not me) posted this reply: “Don’t kid yourself!!!” (with three exclamation points…)

First off, I applaud this person for at least trying, but the band market in Columbia is DEAD. Bars in this town will no longer hire live bands. The younger, college aged crowd has NO interest in live music, only what’s on their phone, and the shit bars outside the city limits will only do a pay for play or play for the door, expecting the BAND to bring in a treasure trove of people. It’s a shame that the bar owners in this town don’t know how to run their own business to make money but they are well versed in crying the blues and blaming it on everybody else. It’s just funny how bars in other towns in this area are doing a booming business and have bands every weekend..and yes, they make money. Unless you’re a acoustic duo or solo act, NON main stream jazz, or can play SOFTER than the juke box so the bartenders don’t have to listen to you, then maybe you can get a booking!!!

…….

I’m not saying Craigslist is the place for scholarly discourse on the state of a particular local music economy, but I couldn’t help but feel irritated after reading this post, ESPECIALLY because no fewer than six months ago, I engaged in a similar discussion with a bunch of anonymous musicians complaining about how dry the local scene was, and how musicians can’t make a living in our town (even though many are, but no, they must be untouchable diamonds in the rough with unlimited resources…) The conversation ended somewhat haphazardly; someone refused to learn how to read music, another insisted the local swanky rooftop downtown hotel was no place for a death metal band. Of course, that person is correct, but missed the entire point of the conversation, which was to get up offa your thing and shake till you feel better.

I know, I know….never read the comments. It’s my unresolved new year’s goal. Whatever. I could pontificate at length my confrontational nature, but I’ll keep it short for here and now: In any given week, I see upwards of 30 private music students. In most cases, I have exactly 30 minutes to confront and clear away any obstacles to the music-making process. I’ve become a sort of unofficial expert at reading people, vocalizing unarticulated thoughts, addressing any inhibiting body language, and recognizing the woo-woo “aura” of creativity.  If we can’t say what we mean and mean what we say, how are we ever going to get into a creative space?

With that, sometimes I just can’t let these things go. I’m working on it…

Then a couple days later, another reply (also not mine):

Bars gotta cater to the customer. In other words, us musicians gotta support our own craft. How many live bands have you seen in the last 6 months? Did you spend at least $40 in booze/food and tip the bartenders and pay a door charge? If you did, then hooray for you. But not enough of you out there doing that unfortunately. So…..the college kids win with their mass overwhelming support of karaoke or a DJ they can dance to all night long. And bars don’t have to pay him/her but a couple hundred $$ I’m guessing. Money saved, money gained. You do the math.
Bar owners could be at fault too and I’m sure there are plenty of them. But I’m just saying what I’m seeing. What they are doing, provided they have been in business long enough, must be working or at least more convenient for them.
Bottom line, most people just ain’t into live bands like they used to be. There’s too many to support. And not enough good ones.
I type this with a very sad sensation.

…..

I’ll never be one to discount someone’s feelings. It’s okay to be sad. That’s your truth to which you have every right.

…but people…

quit whining and do something about it!!!

(there’s my 3 exclamation points).

If bars don’t pay enough, then don’t play in bars. Find somewhere else to play or create your own DIY venue or creative space. It isn’t anyone else’s fault if they don’t want to spend money on live music. It’s on YOU to create a demand and figure out how to monetize it.

If your target demographic is college students, make sure you are informed on how they access music. If they consume on their phones, you better damn well make sure your music is just a few clicks away. That’s not on them, that’s on YOU.

If you find yourself staying in one box (or bar, as the case may be), ask yourself this: what problems are you solving for those other business owners? A gig is a two-way interaction; bar owners are never going to come knocking on your door begging you to play, and they have bills to pay just like the rest of us. If you can’t understand that and aren’t working to solve two problems with one stone, that’s on YOU. If you’re not effectively evaluating whether a bar’s needs are a good match or align with your needs as a musician, then find another business. That’s on YOU.

Finally, if it makes you sad that things aren’t the way they used to be, good. It should make you angry, too. Use that anger to fuel a new thought process and get things done. Nostalgia is counterproductive, and frankly, can be dangerous (and if the current US political climate isn’t an indication of that problem, I encourage you to open your eyes and ears).

Quit whining and do something about it. Think twice before shooting down someone else’s process, because that person might actually be making the dry economy work for them (that probably includes taking Craigslist replies with a grain of salt). When you do this, you discount other people who ARE getting the work done without selling their souls or playing for free.

You can start with this list. When you’ve done everything on this list, find another one and get to work.

You have to be willing to move or get off the train.

I’ll use that analogy and not the other one involving feces.

Because creativity shouldn’t be flushed away and abandoned to the It in the sewers.

Do something about It.

Grow Where You Are Planted

I recently bought one of those signs I never said I would buy. One of those mass-produced, intentionally rustic and “weathered” commercial art pieces that I loathe. But I bought this one for its words.

Grow where you are planted.

I bought it for a friend of mine, a well-established and active local musician. We’re both residents of the hard-core planning camp: if we want something, we reverse-engineer like it’s hot and plan like it’s going out of style. We equate this process to the perpetual rolling and re-rolling of proverbial balls, each one demanding a different push when momentum stalls (+1 rhyming).

She wants to eventually relocate and realizes the inevitable work involved with a move. For anyone, relocation implies a restart. For a musician, a new locale means starting from scratch. Rebuilding from the ground up. Reconstructing and re-weaving an intricate web of groundwork that goes into a well-connected musical career. So much work.

Our city is a 5-year town. People tend to either stay for five years or 25 years. I’ve unknowingly stopped shopping for friends that aren’t homeowners, because it means they’re in the category of people who plant roots for five solid years before deciding they can get more out of another town. There’s something to be said for wanderlust and transience; I myself have a penchant for minimalism and “vacation-duds”: anything you might need to subsist on a vacation. Nothing more, nothing less (if only this were practical in practice; mama needs her soda stream). In some other life, I might have been a nomad.

But there’s advantages to staying in one spot: growing your web of connections and constantly rediscovering where those webs intersect. Challenging yourself to cross into other markets. Bringing people from diverse markets together. Witnessing a particular market change and evolve and riding the tides of change alongside an ever-cresting whirlpool of growth and recession. There’s no rule that says musicians have to be constantly relocating in order to be successful. The narrative that staying in one town works to a musician’s detriment is misleading: staying in one spot actually demands constant change and renegotiation of your own story and its place in a gig economy. 

My town is two hours from two major metropolitan cities, 3-4 hours from 5-6 more, and a day’s drive to Chicago and Nashville. Local songwriters who have moved to Tennessee to “make it” come back to my local bar to gig. In a midwest town of about 100,000, I make 100% of my income from music. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot more work to be done to create a more robust and diverse local scene for independent creatives, but…it’s a privilege to get to maneuver that and be able to subsist and thrive in an unassuming locale.

“Why commit to that type of restructure?” I asked my friend.

She paused and thought about it.

“To empty my cup and re-fill it.”

So when I gave her the sign, it came with the addendum that  “where you are planted” could be anywhere.

If and when you’ve saturated your own market, moving on might be a solution. Re-learning what it means to be at the bottom again, to have to be on top of your game in a city you don’t “own” –  that is a valiant intent.

Especially if your new target area happens to be near a beach.

F*** it. Let’s move to the water.

52 Things musicians can do RIGHT NOW to further their career

Being a musician is friggin’ hard. I have non-musician (normal?) friends who, about once a month over margaritas, will expound upon the ins and outs of their jobs. Recently, I professed to one that at the start of every fall, I grapple with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“But you love your jobs,” they say.

Of course I do. It doesn’t matter how much I love what I do, or how good (or not good) I may (or may not) be at it. That doesn’t mean that every August, I don’t sit down with a 24-month calendar and meticulously chart the course of the months ahead, usually down to the hour and tens of dollars. That’s overwhelming, even for a seasoned freelancer who is not immune to burnout, and who, about once a year, contemplates the practicality of becoming a dentist.

This isn’t a slam on dentists or any professional with a traditional or even non-traditional nine-to-five (or seven-to-four or six-to-six, as the case may be). The difference is in the safety net, the invisible trampoline ten stories down that affords those in traditional institutions a sort of unspoken privilege, a space to free fall. Led by a bureaucracy, it is easy to overlook the work needed to grease the wheels, churn the product, keep the lights on and the people happy. As a musician, that’s all on me, and even in my funkiest of funks, I have to remember to move forward, as my success is a direct result of my productivity.

So here are some things I’ve been trying to make work. Each one of these might open up a whole can of worms in terms of time or financial investment, but the point is to get out of a rut and make progress! Throw this deck of cards in the air and cherrypick as they apply to you!

Happy making!

52 THINGS MUSICIANS CAN DO RIGHT NOW to further their career.

  1. Start a blog. Write three articles and set to auto-publish once a month.
  2. Pull out a calendar and set one goal for three, six, or nine months from now (or all three). Chart your way backwards, set a plan, and get to work.
  3. Book one paid gig for next month.
  4. Book one volunteer gig for next month.
  5. Invest in one piece of equipment (a mic, amp, instrument, book, etc)
  6. Book a house concert in a creative venue.
  7. Host a house concert for another musician.
  8. Host an express happy hour meetup for musicians. Ask everyone to bring their cards to exchange.
  9. Update your website. At the very least, it should have a visual, bio, and contact section.
  10. Make a video of yourself playing, practicing, giving a tutorial, or hosting a Q&A. Publish to youtube or a platform of your choice.
  11. Start a facebook group for area teachers, bands, performers, or singers. Use it to your advantage and offer your own deposits.
  12. Pick one song and arrange a cover. Record it and publish to a platform of your choice.
  13. Listen to one industry podcast episode while you exercise, cook dinner, or drive.
  14. Offer one free lesson, tune-up, track, coach session, or any other service you have under your belt that would help someone else out and forge a connection.
  15. Go to a performance in a venue you haven’t attended. Make it a point to learn one new name of someone involved. Give them your card.
  16. Review a show, performance, or album. Post it to your blog or platform of choice.
  17. Ask three brutally honest friends to review your website. Be open to changes and enact them proactively.
  18. Scope one new potential venue where you could perform. Be friendly, engage authentically with the establishment, and follow up with them when the time is right.
  19. Perform in a church service and negotiate with the music director or organization to sell your CD or other merch. Make sure to stay for lunch if they invite you.
  20. Learn a new DAW or recording software.
  21. Read “Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music” by Angela Myles Beeching. Take notes as you go.
  22. Identify a touring artist directory and apply to it.
  23. Research grants or residencies for musicians. Pick five and apply. You’ll learn a lot about yourself in the process.
  24. Google yourself and see what comes up. If you don’t like what you see (or don’t see), do something about it.
  25. Ask another musician to share a set with you at a location of your choosing.
  26. Subscribe to an industry magazine, podcast, blog, or other publication.
  27. Leverage social media: find one musician whose music you enjoy and propose a like for a like or a follow for a follow.
  28. Turn off all social media, go to a secluded place, and write a song. Do not emerge until it’s complete.
  29. Go for a ten-minute walk. Commit to coming up with five new song ideas (or other related ideas) by the time you’re done.
  30. Dust off your chops – pull out a piece of past repertoire and re-learn it. Play it for someone who would appreciate it.
  31. Play at a nursing home, retirement facility, or assisted living environment. Record your performance and use it for applications, on social media, and EPKs.
  32. Create a one-page EPK addition to your already-tricked-out website.
  33. Stage an online concert. Accept tips. Use it as paid practice time and rehearse your onstage banter, setlist, etc.
  34. Arrange a popular tune for voice or choir. Sell the sheet music online.
  35. Better yet, contact a local music ensemble or organization and offer to arrange a song tailored for their group (ask what they need). Donate a certain number of digital copies or offer a discount (or give it for free). Add the sheet music to your store.
  36. Launch an online store! If you don’t have a lot of merch, start small and sell digital downloads of a single recording.
  37. Launch a patreon account. Commit to a content plan for three months, then get to work.
  38. Design an infographic offering knowledge in your area of expertise. Post to a social media platform of your choice.
  39. Take another musician out for coffee for an hour and pick their brain.
  40. Launch a kickstarter, gofundme, or other crowdfunding campaign for a project of your choosing. Remember to give back to your donors generously.
  41. Donate a few dollars in your professional name to another musician or creative project.
  42. Start a newsletter and link a subscriber sign-up to your website.
  43. Make a lyric video for one of your songs or compositions.
  44. Learn a new video editing software.
  45. Live stream a practice session or rehearsal.
  46. Run a social media giveaway for your facebook page. Offer something in return for a facebook like or share. Engage!
  47. Invest in some paid advertising; set an amount, choose a platform, and see how far it takes you.
  48. Identify a need in your community. Is it pro gear rental? Low cost lessons? Now try to solve it using your skills and resources. Fit yourself into the puzzle and go do it.
  49. Publish something, some piece of content, anything. Don’t worry if it’s perfect. Work to publish.
  50. Find a songwriting workshop or trade conference and make plans to attend. Invite a friend and carpool.
  51. Visit another musician’s studio space or a music retail establishment you haven’t been to. Sit in on a lesson or rehearsal, or introduce yourself to the staff.
  52. Spend time each week doing something completely unrelated to music. Honor the space.

Disposability is the mother of invention

I can’t shake the feeling that we are a culture in descent. Are we are Rome, cresting before the crash? Maybe, in the throes of my thirties, the impending gloom of disposability has tempered my bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimism of my twenties, when I was thirsty for something, anything that could begin to somewhat validate my years spent in education and training. I’m grateful for my education, though half of it was unnecessary. I’m more aware and receptive to what I don’t know. But most of what I’ve learned, at least professionally, is a result of a shit-ton of trial and error that never has never touched the esoteric classroom walls. In this wild roller coaster gig economy, I’ve come to learn what rebranding means: adaptation in the face of a culture of instant satisfaction, a society that values now rather than later.

They say necessity is the mother of invention; if this is the case, then I am the mother ship of invention. Rebranding, that dirty word most musicians refuse to acknowledge, is really just a formalized coping mechanism forced by a culture of disposability.  In typical freelance fashion, when one source of revenue dries up, you seek another (and preferably before then). It’s usually never personal, no matter how hard I might try to make it about me (I am, after all, an artist). But damn, is it hard.

So let’s talk about disposability. I use this term to mean the pervasive and unnecessarily cutthroat mentality that if you allow someone else’s foot in your door, you might as well let it hit you on the way out, because you’re done. That, and the notion that no matter how good you may be at your job, your performance pales in comparison to the bottom line (usually money, resources, and time, usually in that order).

Where, in this grand gig economy, do I draw the line?

Let me talk a little bit about unmet expectations. In a 100% self-employed household, I find myself wrestling through situations, slogging through contracts, chugging away at jobs that expect the moon for next to nothing. I find myself having to explain to a client why ⅓ of a product is delivered (when the cut the overall budget by more than 2/3rds). I wait more than 48 hours to respond to students’ e-mails or texts because I fiercely compartmentalize my time, and must do so to preserve my sanity. I explain to a boss that if I go over 8 hours of work in my salaried position of 8-12 hours a week, my hourly rate becomes less than what I pay per hour in scholarships to students (or what I pay for a burger), so I’m actually losing money. I turn down well-compensated projects and likely let others down in the process, when I call out institutions to the realities of professional gestures like organizing a contract offer in a timely fashion, a professional courtesy that seems lost on people who play by different sets of rules. Holding myself to the ensuing circus of implications, the dramatically reduced likelihood of ever being offered work there again. I explain why intentions and sentiment are not enough, no matter how much you may like what I bring to the table, actions pay the bills. I figure out alternatives, which inevitably leads to never mentally clocking out, ever, even when I should be present elsewhere.

I refuse to play the game. I demand more without pricing myself out of a job, or a market. I constantly and carefully reword the statement “you’re asking too much and paying too little,” then I try to reach an amenable compromise that will move at least one person forward without becoming a martyr for my own cause. I try not to let the quality of my work suffer under the weight of the enormous chip on my shoulder. I put money where it should matter, only to turn down offers of $1,000 for half a year’s work (work that requires a master’s degree).. I resent the fool who turns around and accepts the work because they have to. I try to stay real and authentic and gracious, because it could always be worse. I know the cycle won’t break if nothing changes.

It’s exhausting.

But you know what? As bad as things get in a particular economy, rebranding has forced a line in my neck and a mirror in my face. Who am I, really?

As it turns out, the answers are intriguing. If I quiet my mind and still my body and just think…there’s something there.

And if you have something, then you’ve got something to share, and if you have a story worth sharing, then someone, somewhere, is waiting to receive it. Then you have an audience, eyes, ears, a niche, a tribe, a community. Before you know it, a safety net appears, a lifeboat. Then, all of a sudden, faring the stormy sea of creativity, where the mother ship of reinvention lurks, a great shadow on the horizon…

it all becomes a little bit less terrifying.

Suck-cess and Other Misnomers

The oboe has a certain timbre. It cuts through an orchestral texture. It’s penetratingly bright. It’s insistent. It’s Trey Makler’s instrument.

Trey just wrote a chamber opera. As if I needed another reason to feel grossly incompetent, a 22-year-old composition major preparing for his final year of college sits across from me in a coffee shop, picking on some glorious pastry that I wish I had in my mouth and telling me that he’s just had his work premiered by a university opera. I’ve set up our conversation by telling him that I’m not fond of titles, and he seems to ride in on the wave of his recent success, but not ridiculously so. He’s energetic, robust…and insistent. The bar is high, but I’ll quickly discover that our kinship lies in the shared belief that titles do not a successful musician make.

Hailing from a smallish eastern Missouri town, Trey is not from a musical family. In fact, he didn’t start private lessons until he entered college. A middle school band director started him off on that sexy icon, the saxophone, even though Trey had his sights set on the bassoon (an anomaly I can’t even begin to understand), an instrument his band director simply didn’t have the resources to support at the time. I might make the same excuse to avoid listening to a beginning basoonist, but then again, I’m partial to the lighter timbres.

He ended up on the oboe, which wasn’t exceptionally stimulating or earth-shattering, at least not right away. Lacking the adequate social skills to propagate friends (as many middle schoolers do), he traded up in the form of after-school practice sessions with various instruments, at one time giving up oboe altogether before realizing he wasn’t half-bad and that maybe he should pay attention to that.

All through high school, he had his heart set on a university in Indiana, where tuition was a gruesome forty grand a year. I could play the perspective game on this for a long while, but I’ll cage that animal. Upon visiting the program, Trey found the environment to be cold, rude, and uninviting. His parents decided to depart the tour before it was over; the college reps were oblivious to their absence (a huge marketing faux pas, methinks). The cherry on the cake: they required a level of preparation he simply didn’t have. It wasn’t a good fit, and he was devastated. His parents encouraged him to have a backup plan and suggested majoring in business, a tactic with mass appeal to the generation before ours, where loyalty and trust are accolades reserved for the company and not for the project-oriented self.

Trey started out as a music education major, dabbling in composition for fun. He applied for competitive composition scholarship and got it, set out with the gargantuan task of composing a piece for a major international performing ensemble…in one month. He was faced with major anxiety trying to prove his self-worth, so much so that during one of his lessons with a theory professor, ended up in complete tears. Barring the obvious societal problem that we would need to push a musician to the edge of sanity to elicit productivity, the trend of releasing the flood gates to the grand old faculty gods atop their pedestals seems to be a rite of passage for all the coolest musicians.

“How was that for you?”

He smiles over his coffee. “It sucked.”

On the event horizon of a complete breakdown, he threw his pride to the wind and ended up taking incompletes in three of his classes. Through some soul searching and with the support of his close faculty mentors, he came to terms with the fact that in five years, no one would really care about his final grade in basic conducting. No one class would make or break his career, and the projects before him were infinitely more important to the learning process and his individual success than final class percentages.

He’s right, of course, despite my misgivings for ridiculous cutoff gestures and inaccurately subdivided patterns. Too often during my training in the same program, I seriously contemplated what it would be like to just…not take 20 credit hours and live the life of so many other normal college students. Or, I don’t know…sing wrong notes on purpose and enjoy doing so. I wouldn’t experience either of these joys until my college career was well over and I was faced with a painstakingly normal musician’s life, somehow making a career out of allowing wrong notes to happen in favor of fun, companionship, and creativity. As it turns out, there aren’t really any wrong notes. 

He’s “endlessly angry” that schools insist on creating false expectations for musicians and training people like him for jobs that don’t exist,  but his personal validation comes from the fact that the better the projects get for him, the more support there is for what he does. Today, his parents have no problem with his chosen career path, and he certainly doesn’t.

“What’s the one thing to know about successful music-making?” I ask him.

He pauses for a long, long moment.

“Success is wholly intrinsic,” he insists. “You’re the only person who gets to decide if you’re successful or not.”

 

  • AMmaven

Falling from Grace: The Story of a Music Professor

Confession: my last post was supposed to be this one.

The cliffs notes version:

  • I’m interviewing my friends, but even close friends are afraid to be real.
  • The advantage to speaking with people I know is there’s already a trust in place. There’s less beating around the bush, more unabashed sharing of truths.

When I interviewed Melissa, I knew she would tell it like it is.

“I got some good shit,” she says, “but it has sort of a sad ending.”

The ensuing conversation was easily punctuated with upwards of 30 curse words, which was refreshing and not at all gratuitous. Melissa has four college degrees: an undergrad in music education, a master’s in education and classroom technology, or powerpoint, in her words. She has another master’s in vocal performance, and a PhD, all in music – related fields. As I write this, I realize I’ve failed in the note-taking department. Somehow, I managed to note that she once made me a funfetti cupcake when she hosted a sectional rehearsal, but did I write down the name of her degrees? No. Priorities…

I start to message her to confirm these things, and I stop myself. It doesn’t really matter. She’s educated, and she’s real. She’s real educated. She dons a pink shirt and sits in her kitchen on a Thursday night. She has just put her toddler son to bed and it’s like I’m there with her, sharing a robust red wine, even though we are a state away.

Melissa was always interested in attention (her name was Lola…). From a young age, she liked making people laugh and was convinced she would be on broadway. She met her first husband at 14, and they were engaged by the end of her undergraduate degree (she was 21). The decisions she made then, including her choice to teach music in a tiny area school for six years, were all motivated by that relationship, which she would discover years later was actually poisonous and abusive. She wouldn’t look for jobs outside of the area, and never auditioned to be in the top choir because the commitment would take too much time away from her relationship. All of this sounds like a perfectly legitimate decision-making process until she describes the time that she didn’t get a lead in a musical, and her husband shoved her down onto the bed and berated her for being overly self-absorbed and thinking she deserved more. Gaslighting at its best (if you don’t know what this is, look this up).

Melissa was cast in oodles of other leads in community theater. Maria in West Side Story, Cinderella in Into the Woods, Marion in The Music Man, among others. I first met her after this chapter of her life, in the foul trenches of our respective graduate studies. I had just accepted a music directing gig on the side for Annie at a regional theater; at the time, Melissa and I were in choir together.

I distinctly recall walking down the street beside her on the way class, humming a few sections of the overzealous “I Think You’re Gonna Like It Here,” sung by the charming character Grace, a young, nurturing secretary, opposite of the icy Daddy Warbucks. Melissa promptly rambled off ten of Grace’s lines. I felt like the mother ship was calling me home. As it turns out, Melissa played Grace during her years in community theater. While it wasn’t her favorite role, that didn’t stop us from batting back and forth in an impromptu exchange, like two hikers who meet joyously on some distant plateau and leave with the distinct impression of having known someone else a little better. I remember feeling a little more at home, because in our classically-charged world of Mozart arias, APA style, and trying not to be the problem soprano, so few people knew musical theater, and even fewer actually liked it.

Until this conversation, that syrupy little moment was lost in the archives, and we both reveled a little in the rediscovery.

Melissa spent close to ten years with her first husband, performing community theater roles because she “was allowed to,” and he could control the sense of esteem that came with being a big fish in a small pond. Somewhere along the way, she got out, though it would take her two years to realize the toxicity of that relationship.

She met her second husband in grad school, and they ended up in school together in Missouri. Going back for graduate training was rough, though. She hadn’t sung “for real” in years, could barely manage a scale, and would lose her voice after a day of practice and rehearsals.

Today, she’s a university professor of vocal music education, where she teaches choral conducting (something she never thought she would teach). Her husband is also a professor at the university. Together, they spent a year working for a small school near Nashville, where he was a band director, but found himself schlepping way more than the agreed-upon work, and the promise of adjunct teaching for her was yanked away with less than a week’s notice (#welcometotheadjungle). Her current title is deceptive. Technically, she’s a visiting assistant professor, which means that while her position is annually renewable, none of the work she’s doing (research, publications, teaching, etc) will count toward any sort of tenure. She’s maxed out her earning potential, to a certain degree (no pun intended). She admits she is lucky to have a full-time job with benefits, a rarity for the modern musician/academic, and she can care for her kid, who she considers a much more sound, long-term investment than a performance with an opera company or some other short-lived glory in the spotlight. She’s proud of the conversations she facilitates on how teachers also need to be fantastic performers, arguably more so than performance majors.

The lure of academia is disillusioning, and she still misses theater some. “I feel like one day I might say, ‘remember that time I was a college professor? That was fun…’” She trails off with a lackadaisical uncertainty, as if everything golden could disappear tomorrow, and she wouldn’t quite care. “I guess I wouldn’t have this job if I hadn’t gotten my PhD. I do like it, but was it worth me getting four degrees? I don’t know…”

“What is your future?” I ask.

She wants to be her own boss, enjoy music, and enjoy her kid and husband. “Honestly, I just want to run a bed and breakfast and do pinterest crafts.”

That sounds like the most appealing, greatest possible fall from Grace, that elusive entity. If only we could all fall so gracefully.

 

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