Next Monday, May 18th, marks one year since my graduation from Eastman and subsequent entry into the “real world.” That year, which I’ve chronicled to some extent on this blog, has been one of enlightenment, growth, and discovery–but it’s also been one of surprise. It turns out that there are a wide variety of roles a young professional might need to assume to advance their interests–and ironically, many such roles don’t even involve playing an instrument. So, in light of my upcoming “real world” anniversary, I thought it could prove interesting to share some of the more unusual capacities I’ve assumed over the last twelve months, and the lessons I’ve learned from those experiences.
1. Theory teacher
While I generally enjoyed my music theory classes in college, I can’t say they were the highlight of my week–especially given my tendency to make careless mistakes (the worst time was when I analyzed the wrong piece on a final exam… I still don’t know how that happened). But I had to shelve my shortcomings this past winter when I was asked to take on a couple theory classes at one of the schools I teach at. One class has a very basic curriculum, but the other is significantly advanced, making me devoutly thankful that I hadn’t slacked off studying as an undergraduate. So, for those performance majors who think being able to play your instrument is all that matters, think again–you never know when academic knowledge will earn you some extra work in the future!
Although I had always thought it would be cool to conduct, I never really thought I’d be doing it in a performance–until this past spring. Another program I’m involved with was having their big year-end concert, and I was called upon to lead an advanced cello ensemble. At first, I had thought we could make it work with me just playing along, but as the piece had some tricky rhythms in addition to having five parts, it was apparent that conducting the group was the only option. My past experience was limited to a beginner conducting class taken ten years previously at a music camp (excepting some additional sessions in front of my bathroom mirror) but I managed to dig out my old baton and lead the ensemble in a successful performance, even though I did experience some upper-arm soreness afterwards (evidently it will be a while before I’m up to doing Mahler).
3. Improv teacher
If you had told me at the end of undergrad that I’d be teaching improvisation classes in the years to come, I wouldn’t have believed you for a minute. Being a somewhat shy person in general, I could hardly see myself improvising comfortably, let alone teaching others to do the same. That all changed when I started working for my aunt, Alice Kanack, during my time at Eastman. Alice runs a popular music school in the Rochester area and is the author of the Creative Ability Development improvisation series, which makes improv accessible to students of all levels and ages. Alice trained me in the method, and I soon began to recognize just how many benefits one can gain from engaging in improv regularly–it enhances one’s theoretical understanding while encouraging comfort and creativity in performance (for an excellent overview of CAD, check out this blog Alice wrote for Musicovation back in February). Now that I’m in Chicago, I’ve continued to teach the method at Wheaton College and most recently at the Music Institute of Chicago. It’s inspiring, fun, and often the highlight of my week!
As a single guy fresh out of college, I thought it would be years before I’d be running around trying to keep a bunch of kids in line, but I got a taste of parenting sooner than anticipated this past summer when I was asked to chaperone a high school orchestra retreat. I had already agreed to come along as a coach and performer, but when an unprecedented number of students signed up, the directors were desperate to secure additional chaperones, so I offered my services. Duties included putting tape over the kids’ hotel doors at night to ensure they wouldn’t sneak out (which I had to apply in excess as it proved decidedly unsticky), making sure nobody drowned in the swimming pool (they all survived, although I nearly drowned from the large waves they created in their excitement), and making sure my assigned group checked in with me every time they got on the bus (an often futile effort that involved them sprinting for the front doors to get the best seats in the back, and me attempting and failing to sprint after them yelling, “Wait! Wait! You forgot to check in!!”). Needless to say, it was an exhausting weekend. But, the group I coached did a good job, and I even got a new private student out of it, so it was all worth it.
5. Athlete! (?!)
As I walked out of the boys’ locker room at Conant High School for the last time in May 2008, I made a solemn vow to myself that I would never again engage in that painful and embarrassing thing called “exercise” for as long as I lived, so help me God. But it seems God had other plans for my physical fitness, as several years of stress and TV dinners in college compelled me to start exercising more regularly during my first year out of school. While I’m not exactly signing up for the Chicago Marathon, I do feel that exercising frequently has had a noticeably positive impact on my professional activities, enabling me to be more alert and relaxed as I go about my busy schedule. Additionally, the fact that I am no longer staying up late doing homework or practicing has enabled me to get an adequate amount of rest most nights, which has also proved to be an invaluable asset. So, I guess I must afford some long-overdue respect to my high school gym teachers (although I still resent them for making me do a flying somersault when it was painfully obvious that I couldn’t even do a normal one).
All tales of gym class aside, I do want to emphasize the importance of being open to engaging in activities or occupations outside of one’s comfort zone. I admit to having felt a little uncomfortable with most of the things I mentioned (especially exercising!) but with a positive attitude and will to succeed, I was able to do well with all of them. My theory students aren’t flunking out, the cello ensemble didn’t epically fall apart under my conducting, and I am now able to jog for longer than a minute without stopping (small victories!)–but none of it would have been possible had I locked myself in the practice room all year (like I did as a freshman at NEC). So, stretch your limits and embrace the unknown–just like everything else in the real world, it’s not as scary as you might think.