Saturday, June 25, 2011

On Being Poor, and Following Bliss

Liz, one of my colleagues from the BYU School of Music, recently wrote a post asking how we felt about majoring in music now that all was said and done.

Let me explain my current situation, and we can delve into the details from there.

I have Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Cello Performance from BYU and UNT, respectively.

I am working two jobs (one totally unrelated to music, another more related), and teaching privately . . . and living below the federal poverty line. I married an idealist like myself--and, to be clear, that is exactly why I love him--who would not be happy working at a job that wasn't fulfilling at some deep level, and so, we're holding onto our hope that we can find some combination of fulfillment and sustainability . . .

We live in a tiny, 3rd floor apartment, we buy our groceries on Food Stamps, and for "health insurance," we try to exercise, eat right, and pray that nothing will happen to us. We are the working poor.

I've rewritten that last paragraph several times already, trying to remove any twinge of bitterness that may still come across, but the honest truth is that when I see people who are the same age as me (or, better yet, younger!), who are living "grown-up" lives, I can't help but feel bitter. Alas, envy green isn't a flattering color on anyone (especially not half-Asians whose skin, already tinged with yellow, looks especially jaundiced by any green), so back to the discussion at hand.

Do I regret majoring in music?

The short answer is no.

The long answer is no, but I regret everything about how I did it.

Why music, anyway?

Both of my parents are musicians. Growing up, I knew one thing: I liked playing cello, but I did NOT want to be a music major in college. However, that all changed when it came time to actually choose my major.

During my senior year of high school, my youth orchestra played a concert featuring a handsome young piano soloist, Alessio Bax.

During that concert, in a flurry of handsome-pianist-playing-Rach 3-induced passion (that piece is sexy), I knew more surely than I've ever known anything else in my life that


It's the rush that I get when I'm onstage, the feeling that nothing else matters, the compulsion to expel every emotion I've ever felt and many that I haven't so that someone can hear me, understand me, and appreciate me. It's that feeling that made me cry when I last saw a Symphony orchestra performing live, and even sometimes when I hear a piece on the radio. Even as I write this now in the public library, my eyes are welling with tears. It means a lot to me.

So, what do I regret about majoring in music?

1. I shouldn't have done it at BYU. This is tough. I was looking at my old pictures from the HFAC this morning, and I *love* my BYU friends, and I cherish the memories we shared. At the same time, I spent a lot of time at BYU being very lonely, depressed, and self-hating. Aside from that, it wasn't a good place for me to develop as a musician. There are myriad reasons for that, only most of which I blame myself for, but I was never my best at BYU. Which leads me to . . .

2. I should have worked a hell of a lot harder. I gave my all onstage, but never in the practice room, where it would have reaped more reward. As a result, I've always been (by my less-than-humble estimation) a compelling but sloppy performer. I've always thought it was much better to be "compelling-but-sloppy" than "clean-but-boring", but I never really figured out that I could be "clean-and-compelling" if I just worked my tail off (and, to be sure, it's still just a theory).

3. I should not have allowed myself excuses. I am simultaneously too hard on myself, and too lenient. I berate and belittle myself while I'm working on something ("You are so stupid, why can't you get that bowing right?!"), and give so many allowances after the fact ("I've been too busy to practice lately, or else I could have nailed that audition!"). [In case you're wondering, that is always how I talk to myself. When it's negative, it's a "you" statement, and when it's positive, it's an "I." I can't even own up to my own weaknesses in my own thoughts!] I regret not having been more honest with myself, especially about my level of playing, and what I could expect from the amount of effort I exerted.

4. I should have dreamed bigger. I shied away from the dream of playing in a Major Symphony Orchestra--too competitive. I shied away from the dream of playing chamber music--too hard to come by. Everything I could have done seemed inaccessible, which left me with the reality of playing Pachelbel's Canon (all 8 notes of it) in wedding quartets (see below).

No musician can tell me that this doesn't sound familiar. Unless you're a musician from Utah; in that case, you're thinking, "Whoa! $30 to play music?! Cool!!!"

If I'd had a complete, envisioned dream, I think I would have been successful. Thus, I can't say it was a mistake to be a music major.

My mistake? Not having a plan.

As a result of my poor planning, I'm still trying to figure out the place music has in my life. Sometimes, I forget why I loved it so much. Some days, I don't miss playing at all. But some days, it aches so much that I cry, and I remember that a part of me is dead. Some days, it feels like no one can ever really know me again, because Musician Rachel has disappeared, and she's the only Rachel that really ever had anything interesting to say.

I believe that if you work hard enough, you can succeed at anything.

What do you believe? Are you happy with your career choice? How do you wish you'd done it differently?

(P.S. Here is another interesting take on the subject. I just read an adapted version in my BYU Alumni magazine.)


  1. Rachel, I was so intrigued by this sucked me in and i'm glad I read this. Even if you did have a plan, things probably wouldn't have turned out like you wanted them to so maybe it's better that you didn't. I have a lot of "maybe I should have done it another way" thoughts about school. But I just think about those tender moments when i knew that I was pursuing what I needed to pursue knowing the Lord was backing me up 100%. Of course that's hard when we have no money and jobs are hard to find, but I'm happy that I am doing what I know the Lord wants me to do. Anyway, i completely understand the feelings. They are so familiar to me.

  2. Rachel, you are in that in between place in your life...between poor college student and self sufficient adult. So many people forget about the poor working college graduate! I brought home $1100 a month in my first teaching gig. I lived alone on that, including car and student loan payments! You can do this - whatever "this" is. Sometimes making money and doing good are mutually exclusive...sometimes they're not. Todd left a potentially MUY lucrative career after Sam was born because he hates 80 hour weeks and feeling like he was making greedy people richer. He makes good money now, but it will never be a LOT. We will never be "rich" no matter how hard he works. That's ok. But it took a long time for that to be ok! And it's funny - we used to say that making $30K was LOT of money. Then, when he surpassed that, suddenly $50K was a LOT of money, etc. etc. Enough is never enough - until it is.

  3. Everyone else said it well. Now that I don't play soccer anymore and I don't use my math degree right now, I often wonder if playing soccer in college and my studies were worth it, and what I should have done to be my best. Your message reached me. I love you, and I know we will find peace in our decisions, with maybe a bit of resolve to somehow give our all in what we are doing in the moment.

  4. Rachel, this is a great post. It has given me a lot of food for thought. I've been on the road of wondering why I did what I did for so long now, it's just where I live, and I work around it. In fact, I wondered so hard that I went back for a little more, and I'm still not sure I have it all worked out.

    I don't think there's a good answer to the questions Liz asked. Twenty years ago, the answers I would have given are different than the answers I would have given yesterday. And maybe they're different than the answers I would give today.

    The way I have to live my life now is playing with sub-par groups when I get the chance, (almost always on a volunteer basis), having my student's parents tell me I charge too much (and I'm the cheapest teacher with these qualifications and experience in Utah Valley!), and always being asked to put together musical numbers for Sacrament Meeting and Relief Society. I'm not always happy about it.

    But I loved the time I spent as a music major. Especially my Master's Degree. If I had the chance to do it all again, I probably would.

    So hang in there. Life will happen, and you'll find a place where you can be happy and you'll probably even find a way to make some money. I'm so grateful that you were at BYU when I was there. You're one of my happy memories.