Updated: Nov 3, 2020
After informing my high school flute instructor that I would be attending a Liberal Arts wing of the local state university in the Fall of that year, my news was met with silence as opposed to the congratulations I had expected. Instead, she asked, "why not audition for the music school?" Despite the fact that my entire high school career had been wrapped around numerous musical pursuits, I guess I decided that college would be an opportunity to break away from the skills I had developed to that point and discover an easy path to a fulfilling job. I had heard that the music business was a tough road, so I didn't even entertain the notion of going in to that. "What would I do with a music degree," I asked. What followed was the listing of various careers in music. I had heard this speech many times before during the many camps, masterclasses, and music symposiums I had attended. I realize now that what I was really asking my teacher was "what could I possibly bring to the music business that it hasn't already seen?" In other words, "what would 'I' (emphasis on 'I') do with a music degree?" In the process of giving me "the list,"she mentioned Music Therapy. "I could see myself doing that," I declared, surprising not only my teacher but also myself. At the time, I had only a few experiences of performing at nursing homes. But it didn't really feel like "performing" in the traditional sense. It felt more like a service or a form of therapy coming through me, presented to the audience and delivered by the music. The need and desire for "perfection" were removed from the process of playing the music, leaving me with a sense of calm and complete satisfaction with what I was doing in the moment. This is what I thought Music Therapy would be- playing music at the bedside of patients. "You may want to job shadow a Music Therapist before you decide- there are elements that you may not like about the profession," said my skeptical flute teacher. She really seemed to imply that an orchestral performance track was where I belonged. So, I did a little more research and discovered that Music Therapy was not merely providing music at the bedside. It also involved teaching patients to use music as a tool to heal and measuring how the music was affecting patients. It was also working with a patient population that I felt required a certain personality that I knew I did not possess and ultimately decided would not follow that direction.
I did, however, think about one gem that my teacher presented to me. She said, "it is easier to start a degree in music and transfer to something else if you do not like it than it is to transfer back into music if you realize you miss it." This comment transcended all of the other speeches I had heard through my high school years given by conductors and music coaches who managed merely to sound like they were spewing propaganda in order to keep their jobs and fill music schools everywhere. Would I miss playing my flute if I chose a non-musician's life? Yes! So, I auditioned, was accepted into the music program, and became one of the most insecure music majors I knew.
Don't get me wrong, there were so many things I loved about being a music student. I enjoyed practicing and the process of rehearsing in my ensembles. My mind was continually expanding by learning about composers, the historical development of musical culture, and at times the theory behind music construction. I was surrounded by peers that were also interested in these pursuits and encouraged me in so many ways to grow as a musician. But I was lacking a key ingredient, according to my professors: a healthy appetite for competition. I am not a competitive person. As a music student, I was encouraged to find my inner warrior and to learn the skills necessary for winning auditions. I would not "make it" if I did not have this competitive drive. This was one of the reasons I wanted to pursue my liberal arts degree in an effort to find something I could do with my life that didn't involve a need to prove my standing in the profession at every turn. Lacking this skill caused a struggle within me that kept my mind fixated on a quest to figure out what I would want to do instead of music. Education? Psychology? History? What would suit me better? The quest to find my true calling would grow stronger or weaker with each performance or audition. If an audition went well, I decided I was worthy of musician status. If it didn't go well, by my definition, I would start researching other career paths. I kept this routine throughout a bachelors, masters, and doctorate in music performance. I kept it even through my first jobs as a college instructor and orchestral musician. During one orchestra cycle, I bought a copy of a book entitled "What Should I Do With My Life," and continued wondering why I simply could not answer this question for myself.
My struggle in this quest at the beginning was mostly internally driven. I had developed an anxiety about choosing a career path at a young age: What if I didn't like my job? What if I discovered I wasn't good enough at my job? What if there is a job out there that I would like better? But the struggle became externally imposed as well: orchestral jobs were not abundant, flute-specific college teaching jobs were far away and seldom open, and it seemed the live-music business landscape was changing with each technological advance and every cultural shift. Yes, I was employed as a musician, but I could never seem to escape the moment when someone would ask "So, are you applying for a Job?" It was as if my field would never accept me as legitimate unless I achieved the golden ring of one single Job that came with a Title. My adjunct positions and freelance performing were mere stepping stones to a real job, according to them. I managed for a long time to allow these careless jabs to diminish the work I had been cultivating for over a decade, and as a result, I began to feel lost and hopeless. There is a moment in the movie The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo tells Gandalf: "I wish none of this had happened." And Gandalf responds: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." At a time when I had resigned myself to the idea that maybe I would never be accepted in the music community as worthy, my friend Melissa told me about a Therapeutic Music training program that certified musicians as Music Practitioners to play at the bedside of the ill and dying. "I can see myself doing that," I said to my friend, and realized instantly that I had returned to something that had been inside of me this whole time. Just when I thought that I would never understand myself or comprehend why I had continued pursuing an endless struggle, a giant puzzle piece suddenly appeared, and the picture was finally starting to make sense. Deciding to go through the Music for Healing and Transition Program has brought a sense of peace and resolution to my quest. In fact, my quest has actually changed. The quest for answering "what should I do with my life" or "how can I be accepted in my career," has become "how can I apply the talents and tools I know to be in my belt in the most fulfilling ways for me."
In a way, asking the question "what do you want to do with your life" is more about asking "show me the tidy path you see yourself traveling." I could never see that path because I hadn't started walking yet. My music training in college got my feet walking, and I participated on the journey much like a "vacationer" but never a resident, always wondering how I was going to get "home." When I finally accepted that "home" is what and where I decide it is, I could walk my path with a kick in my step and a sense of purpose. It doesn't matter what the outside world thinks of my path- only my eyes and heart are privy to that. My quest is my own, and I am finally discovering that the landscape of my path is not only gorgeous but also fulfilling beyond my wildest dreams.