Fresh Hell Friday: Four Lessons Learned From the Worst Music Job I Ever Had

Today, I’m going to ruminate on the one of the worst music jobs I ever had. It’s painfully ironic that said position happened to occur during a spell with one of my favorite musical pastimes – the THEATRE (spelled “re” for pedantic reasons). Part of me wants to go to town and start slinging specifics, but I won’t go there, I suppose. If you’re truly curious and enjoy a good story, do call me up and let’s go out for beer and fried goods. Nothing gets me dishing like onion rings and a honey wheat.

It’s been nearly three years since this all went down, and I’m in an infinitely healthier place now, professionally and personally. When a friend of mine recommended I write about this, I cackled. It all seems so unquestionably trivial now. While the list below is going to seem like I traversed hell, just know that today, I abide by this life motto: drink your french press and keep doing you. Nothing else really matters. Except maybe the aforementioned libations.

I was a music director for a community theater production, the director of which had cast me in a previous performance that was, shall we say, atrocious. It was so bad I don’t even include it on my resume. I went through so much Bailey’s during that show that I actually started making my own (thanks, pinterest) to avoid forking over $22 every time I wanted to drown my sorrows, which was often. Bailey’s really isn’t the hardest liquor, so I’ll let you do the math on that.

So I should have surmised from the beginning that it was all going to go to hell in a hand basket. Being a naive, idealist educator, I foolishly believed that by agreeing to work with this director, I could help them become better. Surely an individual assuming a leadership role in the feelings business (i.e., acting) would be self-cognizant enough to want to do their job better, right?

As it turns out, I’m a glutton for punishment.

In this discussion, I’m going to refer to the director as “They.” Hopefully by remaining gender-netural, I’ll avoid a libel suit. Here were the issues, and the lessons I learned:

The Issue: Mind Control and Head Games
I don’t know how politicians do what they do. There’s way too much guessing, scheming, reading between the lines, rising to the top, and backstabbing. Community theater is no exception, which is somewhat unexpected. In this particular job, I found myself becoming an unwilling player of Head Games: Director Edition (eat that, Milton Bradley). As much as I tried to remain impervious to all the bullshit, no amount of kindness, grace, or forced neutrality could position me in such a way that I wasn’t straight-up being bullied by someone with fewer credentials and experience (and yet had suspiciously risen to a position of power). Amidst the battle, I was able to gain a little insight into the director’s M.O., and was told that they were basically 100% insecure in their abilities. Surprise, surprise.

The Lesson: Unless you want to be an involuntary pawn in a never-ending Battle of Intellectual Wits (also known as a Pissing Contest), you should never work with people who just shouldn’t hold the power. You’ll know pretty quickly if that is the case. Get out.

 Issue No. 2: Complete Lack of Communication
Here’s how a typical decision was made: I’d propose something trivial, like a schedule shift. I’d hear nothing from the director, which left me no choice but to move forward, after which the director would finally do their job and then tear me down for going about business “incorrectly.” All this left me maneuvering a truly volatile working environment. Every rehearsal became a guessing game of what was actually going to happen. Then when I would attempt to address the issue (with professionalism and respect), the director proceeded to cold-shoulder me (see no. 1: head games). It was laughable how often this happened. Not only did I experience these schedule snafus, but so did the other cast and crew members, and every time anyone tried to do something about it, they’d be ousted, Mean Girls-style. And yet, the director remained in power.

The Lesson: when you are doing everything by the book and yet are made to look bad for doing your job, it’s probably because of a failure to communicate. Get out.

Issue No. 3: R.E.S.P.E.C.T – I Found Out What It Means To Me
I try really hard not to be into titles. They need to exist so people are clear on who does what, but when I introduce myself, I avoid beating my chest and saying “Me Director! You Peon!” Ultimately, titles should be about respect. Respect for people’s abilities, time, and contributions, none of which I received while in this job. I don’t need a ton of money or fringe perks, but I do expect respect, which means communication, support, and transparency in the process. During this job, I was made to believe by the director that I didn’t really know what I was doing, which in hindsight is ridiculous. Nobody in their right mind (hopefully) would hire a poor candidate for any job. And yet, I found myself questioning my abilities. Me. The girl nobody touches (except my husband…). Needless to say, this was silly.

Other respect-related issues: the director would sit at the back of our music rehearsals and every time something was not to their liking, they would interrupt. We couldn’t get through one song without being asked about things that were completely counterintuitive to the learning process. One time the director literally paraded to where I was conducting, in front of the whole cast, and tried to “discreetly” ask me to switch someone to another voice part because they just weren’t blending (a step of the process that any good choral director knows comes after the notes and rhythms are learned). I attempted to communicate (see Issue no. 2) my needs was met with Head Games (see Issue no. 1). They would ignore my calls, texts, and e-mails and then in person pretend that everything was okay. Not unlike freshman sorority girls bickering over trite roommate issues. I should have just cut my losses, forfeited the payment and left, but I felt obligated to my friends and thespians to follow through. The cast, at least, welcomed me to opening night and thanked me for helping them sound significantly less shitty, so it wasn’t all for naught.

The Lesson: Respect others. Then have the self-respect to leave when you’re not garnering at least a base-level amount of human respect. Get out.

The Final Issue: Toxicity In High Amounts
There were very few redeeming moments during the Job From Hell. I was physically exhausted and all supposed boundaries were totally unclear. The professional network I was supposed to consult for help was either involved in the show (and therefore untouchable), completely unaccommodating, or nonexistent. It was all hellishly reminiscent of a poorly designed sports bra – so little support, so much pain. I was questioning my abilities as a musician and teacher, and I distinctly remember feeling completely lost. It couldn’t have helped that I was in the final stages of my master’s degree, a situation I disclosed well in advance to the director and cast, under the mutual agreement that my studies came first. That was ultimately ignored, and I remember one night the director asked me to rehearse two hours outside of what was scheduled, and it happened to fall the evening I was asked to attend a once-in-a-lifetime awards banquet for an incredibly important teacher-mentor of mine who had just received a $10,000 Kemper Fellowship award for outstanding teaching, and wanted a handful of his long-time students there with him. Stupidly, I had to cut the evening short so I could acquiesce to a job I hated. I didn’t quite believe in the healing properties of “No” at the time (also, head games), and to this day I will never forget returning home and feeling utterly, hopelessly alone in the situation. Nobody should feel that in a job they love, and I questioned whether my path as a music educator was even valid.

The Lesson: to the best of your ability, make yourself invaluable. Recognize when it’s time to walk away. Get out. You can always get out. If you can’t, make it so you can, and for heaven’s sake, try your best not to make it personal (a difficult matter for people in the business of emoting feelings).

These days, It’s a lot easier to determine where I should and shouldn’t be, and as a result, I’ve never been more in my element. But Lordy, did I journey through some doozies to get there. Haven’t we all?

What’s the worse job you’ve ever worked?


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