I haven’t admitted this publicly to anyone, despite having felt this way for a little while now.
So, here goes:
I don’t like my job.
And I'm trying to, but it's just not happening right now. I used to. But it's harder than I expected.
Hang with me: this isn't entirely what it seems. This isn't about "dislike" so much as it is about "lack of fulfillment." I think there are plenty of musicians who feel the same way, but choose to hide their feelings because of the potential career ramifications of such a disclosure. And really, don’t get me wrong, I love teaching and playing the cello. Both pay the bills and both fulfill me in ways that I don’t think other jobs could. So, keep reading. I'll explain how I'm feeling.
The financial reality of a music profession, the desire to do “more” without the know-how to do so, and other, non-music, external “life” realities have all weighed on my psyche and have brought me to this point. I'm not 100% sure that I actually wanted to be a musician in the first place.
There is nothing - NOTHING - better than watching a student overcome an obstacle and succeed. And for me-the-performer, raucous applause at Carnegie Hall fills my soul like a good laugh must fill Colbert’s! But the career isn’t what I had hoped or expected, and from where I sit, the future looks bleak.
There aren’t many options out there for musicians who choose a career path at 18 and come to dislike it at 30. I have three degrees in music, a mountain of student loan debt, and few other marketable skills. That, and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I decided to become a musician because I didn’t know what else to do. That isn’t (necessarily) a profound statement of “music as a calling.” Rather, I really just couldn’t think of anything else that I thought I was good at, and majoring in music was the next thing on the checklist after "All-State Orchestra" and "Prominent Summer Program." So I went to college for music.
Now like many who picked their life-long profession just a handful of years after puberty, I am regretting that decision, and I don’t see a way out. I realize how entitled this sounds, and I know that I am incredibly privileged. But, it doesn't change how I feel.
It’s not that I am a starving artist; my monthly income is probably better than many of my musicianly friends and colleagues (those who aren’t employed by one of the Big Five). And it’s not that I feel ground into dust by the work-a-day life; I have five solid weeks of funded vacation each year to take whenever I choose and unlike many, my weekends are free. It’s not even that I hate classical music; while I don’t listen to it exclusively, nothing makes me more emotional than the Heiliger Dankgesang, and little excites me more than a great performance of a Bach Cantata.
There’s just something that isn’t there anymore. Something that I had in my hand in grad school, lost in the couch cushions during my doctoral work, and the dog must have eaten since then.
Some might say that I - and my colleagues - have an enviable occupation: our profession is what others do as a relaxing hobby or after-work passion; we don’t have to work regular, structured business hours; in many cases we are our own bosses; and our profession is more profound than that of the run-of-the-mill salary man.
But, unfortunately, this profession isn’t always so enviable: what was once a passionate pursuit is now a job, where money is sometimes hard to come by, must be made any which way, and ideals thrown by the wayside; those irregular business hours often lead to late nights, early mornings, and absolutely no weekend time, making a personal life more a punchline than a potential; being your own boss often means developing your own revenue streams, becoming a member of an orchestra/organization (where you are no longer your own boss), or worse: working at Starbucks (if you can even schedule around your irregular hours). Finally, the profundity of the profession quickly gives way to the winner-take-all reality of the American economy, where music itself is seen as an unnecessary luxury, and musicians as beatniks who have thus far refused to get a “real job.”
Teaching cello is delightful and I consider it, along with performing, one of the passions of my life. There isn’t a student in my studio that I dislike. In fact, I think they are all downright awesome. I have been lucky enough to cultivate a studio with passionate students who care about getting better and achieving the seemingly-unattainable goals that I set for them. Teaching, though, is exhausting, mentally and physically. I was trained as a performer, with few courses in pedagogy. I spent all of my time in a practice room, not a classroom or a private studio. Though I’m able to teach in the moment, I currently have trouble planning for the long term. I spend large amounts of time preparing a plan of attack for a student, only to be forced to change it days later, requiring a complete rewrite of my original plan. Though I have and continue to get much better, sometimes, it takes me six months before I’ve even figured out how to communicate with the student! The frustration and doubt that I have with my teaching abilities only add to my job dissatisfaction, despite all the joy that I receive from watching students become wonderful, thoughtful cellists and people.
Perhaps my student loan debt is what leaves me disliking my job. After three performance degrees, my debt is well into six figures. That’s the cost of doing business when you go to private, semi-private, and doctoral institutions. (Full disclosure: I was “fully funded” for my doctorate, with a monthly salary, but it wasn’t enough to cover all of my bills during my study - private loan companies, boys and girls, do not wait until you are done with your education before pay back begins!)
But I can pay my bills...now. However, there was a time when, much like many artists, I couldn’t, and falling behind sucks. One’s credit gets wrecked and it’s difficult to claw back. Combine my student loan payments with the cost of living in a big city, the up-front costs of maintaining a performing career, and various career related expenses, and the disposable income I enjoy quickly disappears. It becomes harder to book out of town gigs that pay well enough to cover travel costs and don't interfere with the teaching schedule. As those go away, so too goes the dedication to the job and the dedication to practicing that is necessary just to keep up with everyone else.
I love performing. I LOVE performing. I’m not good at the rat race of performing. I’m not good at multitasking and dividing my concentration between teaching and performing. I’m not good at promoting myself (Musician = Crippling Self Doubt). I’m not good at programming music. And I’m not good at giving up a personal life to devote myself to (practicing) my craft.
In many professions, the most tenacious employees are often those who are quickly promoted and get ahead. That is true in music, too, but with one caveat: tenacity alone will only get you so far. You must also be extraordinarily good at what you do; music is one of the few remaining true meritocracies. Even the pretty faces with the big record contracts or the “child prodigies” on Ellen have to be good. It isn’t enough to have a kick ass PR Manager if you can’t hack it on stage. So when one enters into this state in which I currently find myself, the drive to get better falls by the wayside. I might still be tenacious and want to succeed as a performer, but for one reason or another, I might not always want to get up and practice. If I don’t practice I get worse, or at the very least, don’t get better. You use it, or you lose it. It is a terrible cycle in which to find oneself.
So while both teaching and performing are passions of my life, and I can't imagine doing anything else, I am left feeling empty. Both areas of my career fulfill different requirements that I need to feel complete. They are complimentary halves to my whole musical self. But even when operating at full steam, there’s still something missing. Something that I once had and have since lost. Something that could remind me why I was doing this in the first place. There is no conclusion to this blog, and that's because I don't know what to do about how I've been feeling.
Right now, at this moment in my life, though it is the only thing that I want to do, and the only thing that has the potential to make me happy, for reasons I can neither describe nor understand:
I don’t like my job.