Tag: lessons

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.


  • AMmaven

The Fiery Feeling in Your Belly: how one musician found hers

Hana is fierce and fiery, a word I reserve for the most intellectually sexy singers. In fact, “fiery” is a word that surfaced multiple times today as we skyped across oceans. She lives in Munich, Germany, where she makes her living freelancing as a professional ensemble singer. In the US, this job doesn’t really exist, unless you count “subsisting on food other than Ramen” as an indicator of choral success (which I do). It’s a whole different animal in Germany, where there’s a rife market for skilled singers who actually make a living in churches and “project” choirs: short-term, contracted and compensated ensembles that come together for a set number of rehearsals and concerts before parting ways. She made her way on the scene after meeting her significant other, Berthold, in grad school; he was a German exchange student and she studied choral conducting.

Hana is the tenth person I’ve “interviewed,” a term I use lightly because hell if I know what I’m doing (similar: “work,” “clean,” “dress myself”). My friend, Sintia, who’s another sexy intellectual, is a journalist / author / writer / globetrotter / all-around badass (new twitter description. You’re welcome, girl). Sintia said I should be careful interviewing friends and I’ve come to understand what she means. She also said that over time, I’ll develop an intuition for the right kinds of questions.

Hana answers my questions before I ask them. She’s articulate, and her words come easily, but there’s a certain passion and confidence to her story, which is partially why I’ve decided to write about her first. Upon learning that she was a “bottom tier” singer throughout high school and college, she quickly elevated to spirit-animal status in my book.

Hana didn’t make the top choir until her senior year of high school, when was a “horrible singer” (in fact, she says she didn’t really learn to sing well until graduate school…didn’t we all…). She played clarinet and was good at math, but wasn’t passionate about either. She knew she wanted to be a music major after playing a band adaptation of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium (which is a choral piece; the irony of this is not lost on me). But she didn’t get into any of the schools she auditioned for. None. Not one. 

So she started off as a math major at another place and auditioned two more times for the music program before being accepted as a vocal performance major. Then she went to grad school for choral conducting. Again here, she didn’t blow too many minds with her conducting skills (“the other TAs were better”), but found the experience of group music-making and score study to feed her passion for singing, which she enjoyed more than anything. She calls it the “fiery feeling in the belly,” the animal that needs released into the wild and is something that a) is usually only one or two things, for most people (for her: singing and choir) and b) a feeling many never find, which saddens me.

While in grad school, Hana dabbled in the education program before deciding she was ready to leap continents. Like many of us, she had to be given permission. Her advisor pointed out that Hana’s “wear your heart on your sleeve” attitude (read: jaw-dropping boredom) in the K-5 methods courses weren’t really doing anyone any favors, and gently suggested that it was okay for her to quit the program. This brought her great relief, so she promptly skipped town. Munich or bust.

This is grit (and not the kind you eat…although, if you have any, I’d like some). I like the word grit. It’s concrete, both as a verb and an adjective. Hana possesses the gritty perseverance and hardiness needed to succeed at something you’re not entirely good at. It’s like waving your hand over plants to prepare them for the elements. Most people have to have that done for them; Hana does it herself, and none of her decisions, including becoming an expatriate musician in Germany, seem to have remotely fazed her (I may re-interview her and dig a little deeper here; time will tell).

  • AMmaven

5 Reasons Why I Love My Job(s)

1. I used no less than eight curse words in a 30-minute lesson with a college singer, and also said the phrase “your ‘E’ sounds like soggy milk. Stout it up.”

2. I told a parent of a private student that he was my “magical good news unicorn.”

3. I spent a half hour shining my iPhone flashlight down my throat and using my own finger as a tongue depressor to demonstrate soft palate and tongue placement to a middle-school singer. It was slimy.

4. I accidentally called a nice woman a tart in choir rehearsal (I was trying to say “sing your part,” but instead said “sing you tart”).  Her husband, who was in the row behind her, chuckled surreptitiously.

5. I posted a picture of these on my pastor’s Facebook wall:

Golden Girls prayer candles: someone really made these.
Golden Girls prayer candles

…advocating their use in services. Her response was: “do you have an anthem to go with that?”

My response:

Replace the word “You” with “God.” Thank God for Being a Friend.


…This is why I love my job(s).


Five Strange Ways I’ve Gotten Students

I recently helped a friend come to the difficult decision of leaving her full-time teaching job and choosing a profile musician’s career (read about it in this post). After you make that sort of decision, you live in this weird, floaty dream period when all you think about is time. How much control you’ll have over it, how much more of it you’ll be able to enjoy, to spend exercising, with friends and family, or collecting pet rocks.

Then a little gnarly Reality demon rudely interrupts that perfect bubble and you’re left quasi-frantically crunching numbers, sort of sweating, and legitimately solving systems of equations to figure out how many sets of students at x-rates you need NOT to fall down the Ramen Hole, Land of Broken Dreams.

I have maintained (and always will) that the universe works in weird ways. Every time I’ve needed a student, I’ve had one. I’ve never had trouble filling slots. Every time a student has left, I’ve easily been able to replace them. Every time I’ve thought “man, one more student this semester would pay for my plane ticket to Cancun,” someone has (literally) shown up at my door.  I attribute 80% of that to old-fashioned toiling: marketing, making myself visible, networking, all that stuff I generally hate, but that I do because it’s necessary and funds my expensive cheese habit. There’s the usual suspects – a lot of my business comes from word of mouth, referrals, other teachers, my various networks. The other 20% happens mysteriously.

Here are some straight-up wacky ways students have fallen into my lap:

I Donated My Hair
I almost never cut my hair because it grows like redwoods on steroids. About every two years, I chop it all off and donate it, and since hairdressers have PhDs in guerrilla conversations, I ended up walking out of a salon once with a new student (and some rocking bangs, which promptly disappeared after two weeks).

I Trolled Craigslist
Judge all you want, but some of my best, most consistent students have come from craigslist. One CL candidate took lessons from me for over two years. I don’t really use the website anymore, but with the right balance of caution mixed with negligent decision-making, you too can make the List work for you without ending up on America’s Most Wanted.

I Sold my Stereo (on Craigslist)
I had an older stereo set that wouldn’t sell, but that I couldn’t bring myself to give to Goodwill, so I put it up on craigslist. I’m pretty sure I was wearing paint-stained shorts and no shoes when the guy showed up at my door to buy it. I ran inside to get change, he saw my piano and ended up putting his two kids in lessons.

I Wrote a Blog
In recent years, I’ve aimed to be in a more sharing place. Building people up is essential. It’s how we get by. So I’ve written a few blogs reviewing local musicals (like this one or this one) and I try to name individuals that catch my eye. One such person was so flattered he contacted me for lessons (he also goes to school with one of my current students). Score one for sharing the love.

I Lesson-Traded
I wanted to take drum lessons. He wanted to learn how to sing. It worked out for both of us but mostly me because I like to hit things. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Yes, you may not always get what you want, but you’ll always what you need….

Unapologetic Teaching Outfit

Yesterday, I wore this to my job:

Yoga pants.
Yoga pants.

Anytime I get down and out about life, I remember that I could still be teaching in public schools, or work a corporate gig, or have to clean up poo, and I remember how wonderful it is to get to throw on a pair of these, make myself a hot cup of tea, and head downstairs to teach.

in my yoga pants. Without shoes.

…and I remember that life is about the little things, like teaching in your most unapologetically comfortable (yet strangely flattering) clothes.

…five years ago, I most definitely would have been concerned that this would reflect poorly on my character…

Today, do I really care about that?



Have a wonderful Thursday, everyone, and may today be as comfortable as a nice, stretchy pair of socially acceptable pajamas.



Remembering the Tie

A few weeks ago, one of my students called the musical tie symbol a “unibrow.”

The prodigal student returns…

Me (pointing to tie): remember this? What’s this called again?
Him: I think I called it a unibrow.
Me: yes, but that’s not what it’s called. It’s a… :::starts pantomiming the tying of a bowtie:::
Him: String? Knot?….Chokehold?

…said the TWELVE YEAR OLD.

:::shakes head:::

Yes. The ever-prevelant musical chokehold, ladies and gents.

choking notes since the dawn of music


Fifty Shades of Grey fans, unite (outside of this blog because I’m not one of them).



The Roles We Play: When the Hardest Performance Ends

Thursdays are my hardest day. They always have been, as long as I can remember. In high school,  Thursdays meant two more laborious days of mind-numbing school (stoichiometry, anyone?). In college, Thursdays meant hanging out in my PJs until midnight while everyone else was out partying. Did you know that Thursdays became the new Friday sometime around 2005? Yeah. Me, neither. I stayed in and studied for my weekly Friday morning sight singing test. Every damn Thursday.

Somewhere along the line, my Thursdays eased up some, but not really. They just became second nature and I enjoyed them more. In the professional world, Thursdays mean show openers and concert nights, sometimes auditions. Other times, Thursday means late-night margaritas because Fridays are my coveted (and only) day “off.” This specific Thursday, today, means ten lessons divided up into two teaching blocks that sandwich a droopy, midday lunch/practice/get-shit-done session during which I play (and inevitably lose) the mental game of “don’t drink coffee while you sing.” It is what it is.

Last Thursday was the hardest Thursday of all my life.

I found out my grandmother died.

It doesn’t really matter what you know or what you don’t know, or even what you think you know, or know you don’t know. Nothing prepares you for death. Nothing. No amount of assumptions or expectations can prepare you for the moment your own mortality becomes disturbingly real. Tangible, even.

The arrangements were swift. Found out on Thursday (damn you, Thursday), dropped everything and drove across the state the next morning, funeral Saturday, reluctantly returned on Sunday, the “day of rest.” Life resumed on Monday. Damn you, too, Monday. You’re just as bad as Thursday. Damn all the days.

Being me, I volunteered to sing at her funeral. Volunteered. To my family’s credit, my mother’s immediate reply was “are you sure you want to do that?”

Of course, I said. I’m a professional. This is what I do. I choose music, I play, and I use my voice to celebrate the life and times of people who have gone on.

I kept it together like a fiend. Like a BRICK.….okay, I almost lost it. Almost. I did allow the grief to flow after the songs themselves were over (Homeward Bound by Marta Keen and Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which shouldn’t need a link). I even got to jam with my cousin, who is a guitarist, though it’s ironic that the one and only time we’ve played together was in that moment. The roads we take….

It was hard. Really hard. I witnessed my depression-era grandfather, with his total rock-solid demeanor and unending loyalty to his wife, break down in tears several times, which is something I’ve never seen in all my life. The hour before I left, he gave me some of her jewelry to keep. That’s something you think you’re prepared for, too, and when it happens, trying not to totally lose your shit is, well…impossible. I’ll never be able to erase the image of him with his hands planted on her casket moments before it was to be lowered into the earth. You just think you’re prepared for it, and you never will be, not ever.

My mother, my beacon, my shaper. I don’t know if I’ll ever be strong enough to do for her what she did for her mom last weekend. One day, I’ll have to, and that’s mortally terrifying.

Her ceremony was simple and beautiful. She loved pink roses, so we cleaned out every flower shop within a 40-mile radius. I stood by her with the family that raised me and my cousins that I grew up with, each of us decades older in that moment. I spent the day pretending (successfully) like I knew what I was doing in the kitchen, and if nothing else came together, at least there’d be good, strong coffee. My other grandma brought a fruit tray and made dinner for us on Friday (“sometimes, all that’s left to do is cook,” she said). We ate fried chicken and chocolate cake and laughed about how we used to play pranks on her because she liked a meticulously organized fridge and we were little shit-stirrers who would go in and move the dressing bottles around and wait to see how long it would take before she noticed. She hated that.

When the laughter settled and those thick pauses dissipated, we said our goodbyes. I stripped off my black boots, my knees aching from a long day of kitchen-managing in heels, and broke down in my husband’s arms. My husband, the only person who is allowed to see my vulnerability, who knows that the best, most “with-it” version of myself can only serve as a fortress for so long until the walls have to come down.

Yes, the hardest things happen on Thursdays.

Today marks one week since her death. I thought I was fine until a colleague asked me how I was and I lost it.  It wasn’t the most lost version of lose-itness. When I really get going, I develop these ridiculous headaches because all the muscles of my face contort into this blubbery, mascara-laden mess when I have a good cry, resulting in some fairly attractive sinus swelling. I didn’t get all the way there, but I did immediately attempt to tuck away that sad vulnerability, that sense of utter mortality that makes us human and beautiful, and I just couldn’t bring myself to withstand yet another performance. Sometimes the performances have to be turned off, the roles are no more, and what are we left with? Nothing but our most naked, sensitive, exposed, and unguarded versions of ourselves. I had never met that version of myself until last week. It’s sort of like the Raw-Chicken-Robin: tender, full of holes, and pummeled by a meat mallet.

It’s still inside me, that “non-performer” that doesn’t feel the need to keep it all together or have all the answers. My grandma always knew me as that version, though she was proud of me and my life, and always took the opportunity to tell me.

If only I could have had one last opportunity to tell her that her legacy will live on….

photo 3
damn kids. 

photo 1

Something tells me she’ll know.

Happy Thursday.