Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Starving Composer For Sale

Last night I listened to the State of the Union Address from President Obama. This being my composing blog, I won't remark on how I feel about the President or his policies. Let me say just two things that relate to my life as a composer.

I pray for Obama, literally - he is the one who is at the head of the nation, whether or not my vote was for him. I pray that his influence will be for good and help keep America the country it should be. In Rexburg, Idaho there may not be a lot I can do to support our nation, but I believe praying for our leaders is one valid way. It certainly won't hurt to ask that they have the courage, moral integrity, and even flashes of divine inspiration to do the right things for our nation. Just like I believe in the National Endowment for the Arts slogan "a great nation deserves great art," I believe that our great nation deserves great leaders, and those leaders deserve our prayers and support to help them be great.

The second thing I want to confess is that I actually broke down and wept, sobbing in my hands, when the President spoke of education reform. It isn't that the programs proposed will immediately effect me - they deal with leniency on loans and increase of Pell grants, etc. What particularly got to me was when he said why they are doing these changes, "Because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college." That touched me deep down at the core of what is going on in my life right now.

I got into college with the desire to make music. Over the course of my first year, that desire transformed solidly into composing. However, I found that BYU-Idaho didn't offer a degree in composing. After some thought and talks with my professors, I settled on Jazz Studies as 'the next best thing' and as a stepping stone to a later, graduate degree in composing. I also believed (and still do) that performance experience, I mean actually making music, is essential for a composer to understand how to write effectively. So, besides a two year break serving a mission for the LDS Church in St. Petersburg, Russia, I completed my degree in just four years. I even took classes in the summer sessions to keep this goal. Part of my rush to complete was the simple desire to move on: since BYU-Idaho didn't offer a degree in composition, I wanted to get my Jazz Studies degree and move on to a more focused education in composition. The other reason that I wanted to finish my degree in the traditional four years (unusual for a music student at BYU-I or many universities) is that I had committed to getting it in that time. The semester after I got back from my mission, I was offered a part time job teaching seminary. It was a great blessing. The generous compensation helped me get through school with relatively little dept. The job also offered the prospect of a career, if I were one of the lucky few who was chosen at the end of student teaching to get accepted full time. All they wanted in terms of educational experience was a degree, it didn't matter in what. I chose to stick to the degree I had already chosen, Jazz Studies, knowing that I could complete its requirements soonest. So it was that I committed to graduating in April 2009 so that I would be available for hire within about a two year period from the time my student teaching employment began. I stuck with it, even though it became increasingly apparent that not only was jazz not what I wanted as a career but even as it became more of a burden to pursue increased composing opportunities amidst increased demands from the jazz department. Pressure in the seminary program increased also as the time of hiring approached. I was visited in the classroom and interviewed by representatives from the regional offices and even Salt Lake.

Amidst all of this the economy collapsed. The LDS Church, ever quick to make fast the ship in the storm, as it were, initiated a hiring freeze that meant only a handful of student teachers (among hundreds church-wide) would be offered full-time jobs. That, among other factors, soon put an end to my hopes of having a stable career right out of college that would allow me to pursue composing on the side. Although it was difficult to be told 'no' I still interpreted this blow as a loving Father's way of saying, "I have something else in store for you!" It was still with a heavy heart I turned over my student teaching positions for the final trimester to teachers who still had a shot at being hired. I dedicated myself to finishing my studies as planned and moving on to plan B: immediately pursuing an education in composition. So in April of 2009 I 'graduated' from BYU-Idaho. However, it wasn't until the completion of my senior recital in July that I actually received my diploma. With a jazz band tour to California looming and suddenly out of the job, my wife and I took over a small managing position for a few girls' housing units on the corner of campus. While this provided no income, we had a place to stay. During the summer months I made the biggest mistake of my life, I think, and didn't actively look for a job until after my senior recital. The months and money slipped away as I practiced, composed, and began to get ready for grad school.

Finally I took up a job at a call center, part time. It is the kind of work that would have been just fine as a busy college student needing a small amount of income, but with a diploma in my hand, and wife and child to support, and high hopes, it was a bitter-sweet experience to have the job. I have been unable to find more work since, with the exception of a few grueling weeks in the fall driving trucks for the potato harvest. Several eateries in Rexburg have gone under, stable employers like the grocery store haven't hired in months. My wife Qait and I have had to move in with my parents. I can't even say how grateful I am for my parents doing this, or how difficult it is to be a married college graduate living at home again. Not only is it demoralizing and embarrassing, it seems to have taken the wind out of my sails. The only thing I managed to accomplish all fall semester (besides potatoes) was to compose a piece for harp, arrange my prelude and fugue, rework my string quartet, and chose and apply to universities. That was a huge process, don't get me wrong. But I wish I could have done it alongside a full time job, and I wish I could have done still more. Technically, I should have applied a year ago so that I could already be in grad school, but a year ago I was just trying to graduate and get hired to teach seminary. In a lot of ways this has felt like a low point of my life. When my car broke down, I had to borrow my grandma's car, since she couldn't drive right after her stroke, and I could in no way afford to replace my car. My wife doesn't have a place to call her own, it has been difficult to see her go through this. I rely on the generosity of my parents for nearly all that we have, from phones to car insurance to food. I am grateful and I feel awful.

It was a ray of light last week when I got to go to Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon University called me out for an interview, saying my portfolio had received positive faculty feedback. University of Pittsburgh was kind enough to also accommodate meeting with me on the same trip, and so I had a fantastic weekend dreaming of what it could be like to continue my studies and launch my career in such world-class institutions and such a well-connected location. However, the trip burned through some of the last savings I had from the potato job.

Maybe it is my fault for not getting a degree in engineering or financing or high school teaching or something else that is useful 'right out of the box.' I know that besides being a benefit to and advancement of our culture, my degree in Jazz Studies and pursuit of a degree in Composition offers little that is of immediate value to society or the economy. But I chose this path, and swore myself to it, at a time when I thought our culture, our economy and nation could support and use some of the 'higher things'. This economic crisis has already ended one potential career for me. Even though my degree can't even get me a burger-flipping job, I am determined to make it work. I have to admit my heart would be broken if I didn't get into any of the schools I applied to (three of seven have already said no, thank you, good luck), but I will continue to compose, to pursue this dream that I can make music needed by our society, my religion, and our culture. I suppose plan C would involve getting more specialized training in something useful like paper-filing or even a teaching certificate for high-school level. Plan D would involve joining the armed forces, who respect the fact that I got a degree, and would start me at a higher rate of pay for it.

So it was that I broke down (and quickly looked around to see that none of my sisters was looking over my shoulder) when Obama, the President of the United States, reaffirmed what I have been feeling for months: That no one should go broke because they chose to go to college, or in other words: education should matter. It is no use for me to wish that my professors would have talked me out of my degree, or complaining that they didn't prepare me for a career. This isn't their fault. I am the one who rushed to graduate like a good boy, knowing that Jazz Studies was a performance degree and that I am not a jazz performer at heart. So I hope to find 'salvation' in more education, and not only that, but the relative stability that comes from being a student, the professional opportunities that come from it, and hopefully someday, a stable career doing exactly what I've always wanted to do: teach and make music. In both of those pursuits I can hopefully give back to a society I am praying will help me get through this without making me feel like I can never pay back the debt, financial and otherwise.

It probably isn't chance that I just answered the phone to hear my dad tell me, "you are a good boy, a great boy." I am glad he still thinks so. I also hope that I can hear him someday call me a great man.


Qait said...

I nearly cried reading this.
I love you, Michael, and I am proud of you and your accomplishments. It doesn't take someone else telling me you're qualified. I already know it.
Honestly, I'm excited--curious, interested--to find out where our lives will go. It's kind of a neat feeling to think about a plan being all set out for us, and we can find out what that plan is, but for the meantime, we have to be patient. I don't mind.
I feel patient.
I'll support you and love you no matter what happens.

Rae said...

"Maybe it is my fault for not getting a degree in engineering or financing or high school teaching or something else that is useful 'right out of the box.'"

Oh, Michael. The kind of degree you have, the kind of knowledge you are acquiring, is the kind that builds, that flourishes with life experience and patience and adversity and the relief of finally coming out on the other that when you finally do have the great joy of making a living doing exactly what you love, it will mean more to you than it ever could were it something you could do right out of the box.

I have complete faith in you, your ability to make incredible and lasting musical contributions to this society/life, and complete faith in your ability to provide for your sweet family. The road to where we want to be is always a little crackly and crooked and never quite what we expect. But the Lord has the end of that road in mind; he knows how to combine what we want AND need so that we find ourselves whole and joyful.

Carry on. You are already a great man.