real talk

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.