Why I Quit Playing and Got a Desk Job (And Why You Should, Too)

This past July, after one of the busiest concert seasons of my life, I got really burned out on being an entrepreneurial violinist/writer. Desperate for some kind of change, I started applying for full-time day jobs.

I was really tired of:

  • not knowing where my next check was coming from

  • struggling to birth projects in the jungle of other people’s schedules and priorities

  • fighting for press, attention, attendance, and funding

  • cramming anxiously for my next gig

  • getting onstage with too little rehearsal    

  • … did I mention not knowing where my next check was coming from?

Maybe you’re familiar with some of the above struggles. Taken together, they paint a picture of how tough it can be to stay in good spirits, good health, and good financial shape as a creative musician in a big city. These are the complaints we hear from our fellow musicians so often, usually followed by a heavy sigh. These are the difficulties that sometimes send us looking for greener pastures.

Well, I found those pastures. After applying for a few positions, I was lucky enough to land a full-time, salaried job with a Chicago arts organization. I had great co-workers, a nice office, and work that played to my strengths  I felt like an orphan who had suddenly been offered a place at someone’s table.

Six months later, I sing a very different tune. I’ve transitioned to a part-time role at my office, and my perspective has dramatically shifted. I’m completely reinvested in being a musician, and I have a clear-eyed appreciation for the challenges and privileges of building a musical career. It’s not that my complaints weren’t valid -- they were -- but now I understand that they are the price of admission for the privilege of living a life in music.  

I was thirty years old by the time I took my first full-time “job job,” and its lessons have been invaluable. If you’ve ever longed for the comfort of a steady arts admin paycheck, you should absolutely go for it. Let me give you five reasons why:

1. You will find out very quickly how important your art-making is to you. What happens when forty hours of your life each week are eaten by nonmusical activities? Do yourself a favor and find out. Personally, my “ah-ha” moment was the week that I set my alarm for five-thirty every day so I could hustle to a downtown practice room and squeeze in 40 minutes of playing time before I got to my office. I thought I didn’t want to be a player anymore. The evidence suggested otherwise.

2. You will develop a deep appreciation for the people who work behind the scenes to make your gigs possible. At my organization, seven smart, wonderful people work full-time ensuring that rehearsal space gets booked, tickets get bought, seasons get planned, taxes get paid, and paychecks get mailed on time. They work tirelessly behind the scenes, and do not receive the standing ovations that the musicians do. If you watch a great admin team at work for any length of time, you’ll never see your gigs the same way again. Many musicians -- myself included -- could use a dose of gratitude and humility towards the people who enable their work to take place.

3. You may realize that “easy” isn’t what you want. Trying to assemble a rewarding, financially solvent living as a musician takes tremendous ingenuity, skill, and persistence. It’s totally natural to be exhausted, or need a break, or want to throw in the towel and do something easier. So go ahead, take a job that feels “easy” to you and see how long you can go before you brain starts asking for the old challenges again.  

4. The freedom-versus-security question will become crystal clear to you. There is a reason that full-time jobs pay you a reasonable salary. It’s because they take all of your time. The ability to choose gigs and projects, take unpaid time off for passion projects, and decide how your day is going to go, is a privilege that has both costs and benefits.

5. You’ll either get your ass in gear, or you won’t. I thought I might be someone who made a permanent, meaningful career move away from performance and into something different. Turns out, the hunger is still there for me. But the other outcome -- realizing that I’m happier in an office -- would’ve been okay, too. There’s only one way to find out.

Career Advice That Might Actually Apply To Musicians, Volume 1

I’m on a quest to find out if so-called “great career books” can help us musicians at all. Here we go.  

I’m about halfway through Cal Newport’s fascinating book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: How Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. But I can’t wait until the book is done to start writing about it. There’s some stuff in here we’ve GOT to talk about.

Part 1: Passion vs. Craftsman Mindset

Newport’s book is a takedown of what he calls the passion mindset, also known as the “do what you love and the money will follow” hypothesis. Instead, he lifts up the craftsman mindset. The craftsman focuses on developing unique and valuable skills — which he calls career capital — and offering them to the world. “No one owes you a great career,” Newport summarizes. “You need to earn it — and the process won’t be easy.”

Whom does he lift up as the shining example of this hardworking craftsman mindset? Uh, musicians. He visits a successful bluegrass guitarist, observes his obsessive and careful practice, and concludes that more working people need to be like musicians. It’s one of the book’s pivotal moments.

In so many ways, he’s right. Musicians are not afraid of hard work. We know how to get really good at something. We understand what Newport calls deliberate practice, i.e. how to constantly “stretch” and master new skills. This is something that many people in other professions have less experience doing.

Pat yourself on the back, sure. But keep in mind that 50 pages later, Newport will introduce his so-called “law of financial viability”: Do what people are willing to pay for.

Cue freak-out about shrinking markets, folding orchestras, Spotify, Amanda Palmer, etc.

Cue freak-out about shrinking markets, folding orchestras, Spotify, Amanda Palmer, etc.

The conundrum here? As every musician knows, it's making the connection between craftsmanship and money that is our greatest challenge. 

Part 2: Winner-take-all Markets vs. Auction Markets

Later in the book, Newport makes the distinction between two types of job markets in which people “spend” career capital. There’s the winner-take-all market, in which one very specific type of capital is valuable, with many people competing. And there’s the auction market, in which many different types of capital are valuable, and each person might generate a unique collection.

You can probably guess that Newport places musicians in the winner-take-all category. (He puts Hollywood script writers and lifestyle bloggers there, too.) To stand a chance in hell of surviving, we’ve got to be really good. Better than everyone else, in fact.

Of course, this is the premise on which traditional conservatory education is based. For performers, the level of our instrumental skill is of paramount importance. 200 people show up for one orchestral job; we’ve got to just be better than everyone else, right? And that means more deliberate practice, right? The craftsman mentality will work … right?!

I just don't know anymore.

I just don't know anymore.

Newport isn't an arts education expert, so he doesn't deal with this next topic. But this made me think immediately about arts entrepreneurship, which in some ways is the musical establishment's acknowledgment that the craftsman mindset has its limitations. “You do you,” arts entrepreneurship says (in part). “Every musician is a unique snowflake and there’s room for most of us at the table if we can find our niche.”

So, my questions are these:

  • are we seeing music education reconceptualize the arts economy, which they used to see as a winner-take-all market, as an auction market instead?
  • by applying the “unique snowflake” theory of entrepreneurship, are we attempting to sidestep the craftsman mindset?

  • in music, is there really only room for “the best”? And what does that even mean?

TALK TO ME: I read a lot of this career literature nonsense, and this is one of th most thought-provoking books I’ve picked up on the topic. Readers, what are your thoughts? Leave a comment or tweet @ellen_mcsweeney. 

Savvier, and more exhausted, than ever before

Last night at about midnight, I crawled into my bed here in Chicago, utterly exhausted and delighted to be home again. I'd just finished a 14-hour road trip back from the Savvy Musician in Action workshop in South Carolina. Not only did Chicago Q Ensemble participate in the chamber music competition as a finalist, but we also spent five intense, VERY long days in a kind of mini-MBA program/Shark Tank for musicians. The initiative's director, David Cutler, describes the event as "extreme experiential learning," and the extreme part is definitely correct. I can't remember ever being this exhausted! 

Golden light in Indiana. We didn't win, but we DO look pretty good after 10 hours on the road. 

Golden light in Indiana. We didn't win, but we DO look pretty good after 10 hours on the road. 

In the six waking hours I've had since returning from the conference, I've been amazed at how much I'm already using what I learned at Savvy. For example: 

  • I've learned there's no shortcut for actually DOING THE WORK. Being at Savvy Musician reawakened my dream of writing, recording, and touring my own music. I've talked for months about wanting to record my next album, but I've been stuck in "pre-planning" (aka "do nothing") mode. But first thing this morning, I spent an hour organizing my song material. I gathered voice memos, finished songs, and even song fragments in order to see how much I've already written and which songs are the strongest. No one will make this album for me, and I feel much more ready to make it myself now!
  • I've learned that artistic possibilities are everywhere. This morning, I just happened to schedule a phone call with a possible community partner for Chicago Q Ensemble. During the conversation, I was able to "hear between the lines" and see the tremendously exciting potential (rather than the obstacles) of the partnership.  
  • I've learned about the power of brainstorming. In the same phone conversation, I suggested that our next step was to get together, brainstorm, and dream big about what the beginnings of our partnership could look like. I cannot wait to learn about what this community partner envisions, and generate outside-the-box ideas for how Q can help. 
  •  I've learned that my uniqueness as an artist is my greatest asset. Today, I've got a second-round interview for a church musician position in forward-thinking congregation. They've asked me to play a hymn on the piano, to "reimagine" another hymn any way I like, and to perform a piece of music that demonstrates "who I am as a musician." After Savvy, I feel more comfortable presenting myself naturally, without "faking it" or apologizing. I'm arriving at the interview knowing that my singing, violin, and uke playing may be able to win them over in spite of my very average piano playing. And if they feel that someone else is a better fit, I am completely okay with that. 
One of the best friends I made this week, the amazing  Greg Sandow.  

One of the best friends I made this week, the amazing Greg Sandow. 

I met so many tremendous people at this conference, and I know their brains are probably percolating as much as mine is! May we continue to reap these benefits, and may we pass them on to everyone in our communities!