Panel discussions, at music festivals or elsewhere, are a great way to ask a variety of questions that might not fall under normal “how do I play this” or “what do I need to work on” categories. During my time at the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute this summer, I had the pleasure of attending several such panels. My partner, John, was along for the ride with me, and we both enjoyed getting each other’s take on the day’s discussion. The first day’s panel was about building a sustainable practice schedule, but as it progressed it expanded into performing and personal wellbeing, too. Toward the end the panel, one of our colleagues raised his hand and asked if the panelists had any tips about balancing work and life.
Before I go on, let’s be clear—that’s a great question and one that plagues many musicians at various stages of their careers. It’s one I’ve contemplated asking on various occasions. However, the direction the panel took the question caught me a little off guard. They talked at length about how it’s an extensive process to get your partner to accept your musicality and all the commitments that come with it (especially the practice schedules). They shared anecdotes about taking their horns on their honeymoons. They treated musicianship like something your partner has to accept about you, and that’s true—except when your partner is also a musician.
In my own life, I worry constantly about marrying my music and my personal life (see what I did there?) in a way that makes each sustainable and fulfilling, and my situation is both complicated and simplified by two things: one, John is in music, just like me; and two, he’s pursuing a non-traditional career path . . . just like me. We aren’t shooting for the orchestra jobs or the tenure-track professorships that many of our peers are. We not only want to build careers based on extensive freelancing and gig-based work; because of our musical environment, our age, and our current unwillingness to pursue doctoral degrees, we expect to. We know we’re going to make it work, but given that some members of the panel were musicians in committed relationships with other musicians, I wish the group as a whole hadn’t limited their feedback to musicians with nonmusical (or nonprofessional musical) partners.
It was also, largely, targeting the non-ovary-having contingent of the crowd. Ever since I realized that I wanted a career that challenges me for decades to come, I’ve worried about what will happen should I ever decide that children are the right choice for my family. That’s a question that tends to weigh heavier on women’s minds than men’s—even though guys are increasingly being asked to step up to the plate and be fifty-fifty parents, the heteronormative societal onus is still on women to give up months or years of their careers and earning potential to personally raise their children while their husbands go have the careers they’ve always dreamed of. I understand that faculty at a brass seminar might not want to address how do you deal with children, but they could have tied the same feedback into the work-life/practice discussion via one critical, relevant question: how do you deal with (and return from) an extended hiatus as a professional musician?
The concept isn’t too out there for any brass player—we are extremely injury-prone due to the strain we can incur if we don’t develop healthy playing habits, and taking months or years off due to an injury like focal dystonia or TMJ isn’t uncommon. (Those topics made it into the injury prevention seminar later in the week.) Sometimes, to get better, we need to stop playing for a while, and coming back from it isn’t easy. Though the motivation for asking the question might be different for an ovary-having individual who’s concerned that raising a child will irreparably impact their career, the question remains useful, particularly when you consider that our professional networks can suffer as much as our bodies during a hiatus.
So what’s the end goal here? More inclusive panel discussions. Answers that don’t just skim the surface or cater to one demographic. As much as students come to sessions like RMBI to network, we also come to get answers we wouldn’t find elsewhere. That doesn’t just stop at the brass playing. If panelists and mentors embrace not only tackling but pointing out the bigger, stickier questions, like what do you do when career disaster strikes, young musicians will leave their events better equipped to face the world around them. And that’s really what we’re going for—right?
Thanks for reading! What questions do you wish panels would tackle more frequently (or at all)? How do you balance your personal life and your career? Sound off below!
If you want my thoughts on RMBI as a whole, click here.