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  • Rachel Hands

“Am I selling out?" Coming to terms with separating your art from your paycheck

As a horn performance major in undergrad, I was afraid a lot of the time.


I had this very deep fear of “not making it.” As a bonus, that fear was really two fears:

  • Fear of not being good enough (failing my freshman ear training final did not help with this)

  • Fear of not being able to make enough money to pay rent and to eat. To live, as my former colleague Jess Hutchinson once put it, inside the house.


Those fears were fed, in part, by a narrative we hear a lot from current and former performing arts students: that you should only study performing arts if you really, truly, can’t see yourself being happy doing anything else, because that happiness comes at a steep cost. And like many folks I went to school with - both at a state school and at a university-affiliated conservatory - I contorted my self-image to fit that narrative. Of course I had to play horn, or at least study music history, for my living in order to be happy! I had declared my major, and now it was too late (or so I felt) for anything else to be the answer.


After grad school, I knew that I was done with school for awhile, but I had no idea how to answer the next question: now what? I had spent six years studying classical music - a pretty deep investment with not a lot of promise of return, especially as freelance and academic jobs in the arts seemed to evaporate before my eyes in the wake of the 2008 recession.


Like so many before me and so many since, I applied for dozens of jobs and took the two that were on offer: barista, and community orchestra librarian. (Yes, I made more money as a barista. I also made great cappuccinos.)


Eventually that orchestra librarian job turned into a role implementing a new ticketing/donation system and CRM for that same orchestra, which turned into a job working for the company that built that system (which has turned into my career in tech).


You might think the hardest thing about moving from working at an orchestra to working for a tech company would be learning the tech. That was the easy part. The google-able part.


No, the hard part was letting my self-image unfold itself from the twisted narrative I had been consuming during my time studying music: that what I was feeling couldn’t be happiness, because it wasn’t music. That I had given up on myself, failed, not made it, because I was getting my paycheck another way.


To get through the hard part, I had a lot to figure out (now that I could afford therapy!). I had to decide what, specifically, I loved about playing and studying music, and to figure out how I could get at those things through other avenues. I also had to figure out what parts of the life I had imagined for myself I really didn’t want (the driving around to gigs, the subsisting on rice and beans, the end of month panic about whether I was going to get paid in time to make rent).


Today, because of that work, and because of the comfortable living I’ve been able to carve out in the tech space, I’m able to help make art in ways I never thought possible: by investing money in commissioning funds, by becoming a subscriber to new music ensembles and experimental record labels, and by dragging inviting my friends to see weird concerts in art museums at every opportunity.


If you’re an arts student considering a career shift into tech, there’s possibility out there for you too. And I know you’re not afraid of a little work.


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