…I was born this way:
I’m a musician. Within each cell, I carry this skill and passion, independent of what I choose to be when I grow up. I’ve wrestled a lot with this over the years, trying to figure out where my gifts would be best served. But I have never once felt like I shouldn’t or couldn’t pursue music.
I have been realizing lately how lucky I am. In the last several years, after leaving the shelter of Luther College, a community that blesses and believes in music, I – for the first times in my life – have been told things like, “You’re a musician? But how are you going to make money?” “I didn’t know people your age could be conductors.” “I didn’t know women could be conductors.” “I have a daughter who wants to do music, but I’ve told her to do something else; she can always do music on the side.”
I say I’m lucky because those words never echoed in my ears as an impressionable child. With both of my parents as professional musicians, it never occurred to me that music was hard to pursue, or couldn’t make enough money to support a family, or that women couldn’t conduct. I watched my mom conduct every week in the Lenoir-Rhyne Youth Chorus, and as soon as she would let me, I took leadership roles – leading sectionals, starting a vocal quartet, and now occasionally coming back as an alumni clinician. The progression seemed completely natural, and – thanks to the way my parents raised me – I have not once feared that music wouldn’t support me (in every sense of that word).
As I’ve caught a glimpse of the way the rest of the world views a career in the arts, I feel sick. My optimism tends to pervade, and I post a positive article on Facebook about the rise of female conductors, only to be countered with an article about the rise of a male conductor who believes women can’t effectively be conductors. Ugh.
Last Wednesday in the very early morning, I was headed to NYC with Neely Bruce, a well-known composer, pianist, shape-note guru, and conductor from Wesleyan University. The two of us were quite the pair, venturing into the city to co-conduct a piece for 52 trumpets, 3 percussionists, and piano, composed by Pulitzer Prize winner Henry Brant. The beautiful morning drive was interrupted with an NPR Morning Edition story entitled, “Why Women (Like Me) Choose Lower-Paying Jobs.” The four-minute piece looks at how much money we leave on the table by choosing a certain job over another. Lisa Chow, the interviewer, does a good (and, might I say, sassy) job of getting to the bottom of this mystery. It turns out that, “oftentimes, passion trumps money and skills.” Imagine that! But the fact that this interview even needs to exist makes my skin crawl. I’m reminded of the summer I spent in Senegal, West Africa. I met person after person who couldn’t speak English, with the exception of one phrase. After introducing myself in French, they would say, “Tu es americaine?” and then in their most careful English: “Time is money!”
In the last few months, with no income and the many expenses of moving, I have seen firsthand how essential money is. But for me, money is in no way related to vocation, and when we begin to mix these things up, we – as a culture – end up in a huge downwards spiral, with anxiety and selfishness rising to the top of our best selves, leaving no room for gifts we were born to use.
I couldn’t have asked for better parents to set examples of what it really means to pursue what you love. My siblings and I all reflect this, as we are all engaged in the arts in one way or another. I feel sorry for the man who was interviewed on Morning Edition, who has not found deep happiness beyond accumulation. And I feel a sense of urgency as a teacher to let my students know the secret: that time is not something to be spent, but rather a gift to be filled with joy and love and peace.