One of my favorite things about the @ Percussion podcast is getting to converse with amazing guests every week. One of my other favorite things is the way it connects me to the percussion community at large—I have had so many great conversations with percussionists outside of the podcast!
I was recently speaking with rising Oberlin freshman Eli Geruschat about choosing a career path in a creative field. It’s one of the most exciting and intimidating things for a young student (and his or her parents!) to think about. I have reached the point where I would say I have finally “made it” (more on what that means to me in a moment), so I figured I would share bits of my story and some thoughts I’ve picked up along the way.
(As an aside, Eli is one of the most impressive young players I have encountered, and is someone everyone should keep on the radar—check out his awesome performance of October Night.)
To start out, I’d like to point out that my definition of “making it” is being able to fully support oneself financially exclusively doing the creative work he or she wants to do. For me, this means teaching full-time at a university and performing music that I love. It does not mean being rich or having everything one could possibly want out of life. (I could count the number of financially wealthy classical percussionists in the world on one hand.)
One other point before we really get started here: one deterrent for people looking to go into a creative career field is that the chance of success is generally lower than safer paths. This is likely true—I remember being a freshman at the University of North Texas, looking at my freshman class of around 30 percussionists (within a studio of about 150). This was at one university (admittedly a very large one). Multiply that out by few thousand universities in the US, and you can see how this begins to feel impossible. At the same rate, there is no guarantee of success if you go into a “safe” career path, and the fulfillment afforded by doing what you love is so rewarding that it’s hard for me to imagine choosing something else to make money. And if a career in music (art, animation, dance, etc.) doesn’t work out, it’s never too late to do something else.
(If I were to try to be hip, I would have just summarized the last paragraph with a Macklemore lyric: If I'd done it for the money I'd have been a lawyer. Yes, I censored that—you can Google it if you want to know where the F bomb goes.)
Ok, all that out of the way, here we go:
I would highly recommend reading Ed Catmull’s enlightening book, Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar Animation Studios, and his journey is astounding to me. The formation of Pixar took around 12 years, and then it was another 10 years before the company was actually a success. In short, Catmull’s history goes like this:
1963-1974 Undergraduate and graduate work at University of Utah. Spent 60000 minutes creating short film called Hand in 1972, sleeping on the floor near the computer to maximize time working. (Watch Hand and tell me you would have spent the equivalent of 42 nonstop days working on it.)
1974-1979 Worked at New York Institute of Technology, a startup research lab founded by Alex Schure, who dumped an estimated $15 million of his own money to keep things going. (Schure loved speaking in bizarre prophetic statements like “our vision will speed up time, eventually deleting it.”)
1979-1986 Worked for the Graphics Group, a part of Lucasfilm, a moderately successful group that brought computer animation into the realm of special effects. The goals of the group didn’t align with George Lucas’s vision, and he ultimately sold the group off to Steve Jobs for $5 million cash, plus a $5 million investment in the company (from Jobs)—the new company became known as Pixar.
1986-1995 Pixar floundered between hardware sales, software sales, and computer animated advertisements, effectively hemorrhaging money. It was during this period that Steve Jobs had to throw in a staggering $54 million to keep the failing company alive.
(If you’re keeping track of the math at home, we’re around $80 million in the hole at this point.)
1995 Pixar releases Toy Story, an overnight success, one of the greatest films of all time, with a box office return of $362 million. (Keep in mind that this figure doesn’t include all of the merchandise, home sales, etc., nor does it include the fact that Toy Story 2, released four years later, made $485 million at the box office.)
Now imagine being Ed Catmull’s mother in 1994. Your 49-year-old son has “wasted” millions of dollars and has never produced anything of note to the general public. He has chosen to go into the field of computer animation—quite frankly, a field that doesn’t exist. I am sure there were some awkward moments for Mrs. Catmull at cocktail parties.
(Another great story I won’t go into here for brevity’s sake is Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.)
The point here is that the investment you must make in a creative career field to succeed might seem ridiculously large, and you might not see a return on that investment for years, or even decades. The only thing you can do is believe in yourself and what you are doing; eventually success will come.
Riding on the coattails of the last point, it is important to point out that you must support yourself by whatever means necessary. If your goal is to be the next Evelyn Glennie, performing percussion concerti with the finest orchestras in the world, you will probably not achieve this goal by the age of 25. If you have rich parents that will support you indefinitely, great! If not, you will likely have to work a job to support yourself—and there is no shame in this at all. When Nancy Zeltsman started out as a marimba soloist, she worked in a health foods store by day to pay the bills and get health insurance. One of the most incredible percussionists in the world, Casey Cangelosi, worked at Old Navy. I had the glorious job of selling appliances at Sears. (If you ever need a refrigerator, I can answer all your questions!)
I would say, though, to try to limit this sort of job as much as possible—in so many words, if you can work 20 hours a week and pay all of your bills, or work 40 hours a week and drive a nice car too, opt for the former. The goal is to support yourself, while still allowing as much time as possible for your creative activities. (Composer Mark Applebaum once referred to this as "the Taco Bell plan"—working at Taco Bell to support yourself while creating art elsewhere.)
(I thought about trying to be a middle school band director for a few years to make money after my undergraduate degree; Mark Ford advised me not to do this, as I would probably enjoy making money and not have enough time to practice. It is also a terrible idea to do something like teach middle school if you are not passionate about that; I think middle school band directors have one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and I have so much respect for what they do.)
It is also notable that if you are creative (which you probably are), you can find ways to money doing things related to your field. Because you are a specialist in your field, you can probably make more money this way, albeit available work will likely be more limited. In this regard, I maintained a private studio of mostly high school students (which I enjoyed significantly more than selling dishwashers). I also found freelance work (i.e. “gigging”) and wrote concert reviews for a newspaper. All of this can add up to great supplemental income.
However you make income along the way, you will learn valuable lessons you didn’t expect to learn. Working at Sears taught me a lot about large-scale planning (i.e. making large purchases), made me more comfortable dealing with people, made me thankful to have a career path I was passionate about, and so on.
You will most likely have to make some sort of sacrifices along the way. The most obvious is the financial sacrifice—at 22 years of age, a lot of people graduate college and start making good money. I spent five years in graduate school at that point—not a great way to turn a fast profit. I also took out student loans, which pail in comparison to the sort of money we were talking about with Ed Catmull.
One of the hardest things to do when you’re pursuing a creative career is to start a family. If you’re a starving artist on year 5 of graduate school, you have probably moved across the country a couple of times; finding a husband or wife that has a flexible enough career to go on this journey with you is tough, and having kids is very expensive. You might have to put these things on hold for a bit—but I would also like to point out that you might not need to. I have met some happily married couples, sometimes with both people in the arts. So this isn’t necessarily something that will happen, but certainly something that can happen. (It’s impossible to predict where you will end up with any certainty, especially in this regard, so I wouldn't live in fear of it.)
You will come to certain brick walls that feel like they are attempting to stop your career. A deadline to learn a new piece that is so soon it seems impossible. A dire financial situation. 20 failed job applications. (These are not made-up scenarios; in fact, I have suffered through all of them—and more.)
My favorite book, Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture addresses brick walls:
“The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”
I would like to add to that: the brick walls make what we do much more meaningful and valuable. I would have loved to be where I am today when I was 22 years old and fresh out of my undergrad. I would also not value everything I have earned to the same degree as I do now. I worked for over 10 years to “make it” (child’s play compared to Ed Catmull), and I value every single aspect of my life so much more because of it.
Talent is almost a complete myth. I have met exactly two people in my life I have ever considered talented. I am certainly not one of them. These are superhumans that can do unthinkable things with seemingly no effort. Both of these people have worked their fair shares—don’t get me wrong—but it seems as if what they are able to achieve is untouchable. If you want to see what I’m talking about, one of these two talented people is Michael D’Angelo, who I would say is as close to a musical equivalent of Superman as we will ever get.
That being said (and quoting John Cage here), “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch onto things.”
If you think there are a significant number of people more skilled than you are, you are correct. That will never change. All you can do is work to become the best person you can be. When I stopped comparing myself to others, I found that I felt liberated. Yes, music is competitive, but that doesn’t mean I have to live in fear of what other people are doing. Which leads me to my penultimate point…
The best person doesn’t always get the job (I would almost go as far as to say never gets the job). This sounds like a bad thing on the surface. It is not a bad thing; in fact, it is a wonderful thing.
Here’s the thing: probability dictates that you will never be the best person to apply for a job. No matter how good you are, there will always be a Michael D’Angelo in the world. Your “talent” (really your hard work) will get your foot in the door; the other skills you have will get you the job. In so many words, there is no substitute for the hard work to get you there, but the other skills you have will put you over the top.
In my case, I was going up against an established percussionist that I greatly respect for the job at Tarleton State University. His credentials blew mine out of the water, and he was an extremely impressive performer the two times I saw him in concert. I don’t know how his on campus visit went, but I have a feeling that my ability to talk (largely acquired from working at Sears and co-hosting a weekly podcast, as well as writing concert reviews) was a large part of what put me over the top. On paper, he was the far better candidate, but for some reason I won the position.
Lastly, the reward for taking the risk of a creative career path is so good I can’t even come up with a word for it (perhaps “scrumtrulescent” is adequate). I have been able to travel so much because of my field, I have met so many wonderful people, I have had so many great experiences performing concerts—I could go on and on. You could give me a stack of million dollar bills and it wouldn’t be as valuable as one great performance or one good person I have met.