The next few posts will recount unexpected, casual and revealing conversations I’ve had with musicians outside of my research over the past few years. Think of these conversations as preludes to my research findings that I will be revealing here soon. Let’s begin.
A few years ago, I had a piano student who, at age 16, was thinking beyond his high school years and had already decided he would audition for university classical music schools, including Memorial University of Newfoundland's music school here in St. John's. Barry (not his real name), from a small town in Newfoundland, had another teacher for several years before asking me to work with him when he was 14. He asked me to continue his learning and to help him prepare for his university auditions. Usually, Barry would leave at the end of our scheduled lesson time. This time, though, his father came to my studio door and asked to come in to have a chat with me. I invited him in, and the two clearly had something on their minds. Both seated facing me, the Dad said, “Barry wants to be a concert pianist just like you! So we would like to know how to make that happen.” Barry was silent, staring at me, not blinking, apparently excited, maybe nervous.
I asked Barry, “Do you want to stay in Newfoundland?” When he answered yes, I didn’t even give myself a chance to gather my thoughts. I hastily let them know that I’m not actually a concert pianist. I told them I’m classically trained, but the last recital I gave was in 2008, not very many people showed up, and I barely broke even. I said that I make my living from private teaching, accompanying kids at the university, accompanying some choirs, playing in church on Sundays, playing for weddings, funerals, private parties, and the scattered conference as background music. And it’s competitive. There are lots of pianists around. I added that to make a living here as a pianist, I need to play lots of music other than classical. If the bride and groom want you to play Michael Jackson, then that’s what you do, because they’re paying you to play Michael Jackson.
I realized in the moment that I may have come off as a little too blunt, if not a tad bitter. Barry and his Dad seemed dumbfounded. The Dad said, motioning in the direction of my driveway, “But there's a Beemer in your driveway, and you have this big house!” I responded, “The Beemer is my wife’s, not mine. She’s a doctor. If I weren’t married to her, I’d need to teach a whole lot more students and take on at least another job to get by, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to afford to live in this house.” Barry’s Dad, with a little nervous laughter, responded with, “…. I see….Okay...” Barry didn’t say a word. They left politely, quietly.
Did I just shatter Barry’s dreams? I didn’t mean to. I felt terrible.
I realized during my rapid-fire, no-filter responses to the lad and his Dad that I was feeling guilty, annoyed with myself, for not having this conversation sooner with Barry, or with my other career-minded students who have passed through my studio over the years. My blog last week (see below) recounted my time with my two childhood piano teachers. As much as I respected them in different ways, and as much as I ultimately credit them for nurturing my eventual career path, I didn’t have a clue what a music career involved. Of course I wouldn’t have expected Mr. Whitten to talk to me about a music career when I was 10 years old. But it dawned on me years after I quit taking lessons that, unlike Barry and his father, I never once thought, or had the courage, to ask anyone about how to make a living in music. And no one told me about it. So I came into the career with no knowledge about writing grant proposals, fiscal management, self-employment, self-promotion, hobbling together and balancing gigs and other work, and adapting my playing to the tastes of people who hire me. Even through all six years of my university music education there was not as much as a breath uttered about how to parlay music knowledge into meaningful, sustainable income. I had no musician friends, and no one in my family pursued a music career. So, good on Barry and his Dad for gamely having the conversation with me.
So what became of Barry? I remember thinking after he left that day, “Well, so much for his music career.” I thought for sure he’d quit because of what I said. But… he continued to coming back for lessons for a few more years, more determined than ever, and was successful in all of his university music school auditions. He’s now a university undergraduate piano major with his sights squarely set on a performance career.
It so happened that on the day of this piano lesson with Barry, I was just out of the starting gate with my Ph.D. and struggling with my research direction. This unexpected conversation with a young pianist and his father, and my unfiltered response to it, gave me the direction I needed. Depending on the family or the young musician, my experience in music could turn some kids away from a career in music, or draw them to it. For Barry, my description of my everyday lifted the veil off of a career that he imagined was very different and may have helped keep him on his musical path. His Dad opened the conversation by saying that his son wanted a career like mine. I responded with a dose of reality. But this was just my reality. So I began to imagine what an entire thesis of musician lives and work experiences would look like.
Check in again soon for another conversation.
Thanks for stopping by.