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Climbing Down from the Ivory Tower

A Winter 2018 Update

A few years ago, I was a regular blogger at a site called Music Collective, and at that time, I was also an extremely stressed out adjunct professor with private students on the side. As you’ll read below, I quit those adjunct jobs and grew the private studio side of my business. Five years later, I would say it was a successful gamble. These days, I have a large, thriving private studio, and although I am also once again an adjunct professor, I’m now teaching flute rather than classes, and I am fortunate that the pay and benefits in my current position are very generous for adjunct work. I also have a part time orchestra gig and do other freelance work when it comes up and I can accept it without destroying my regular schedule.

So as you read what I wrote back in 2013, understand this: my real point is simply that a life in music can be abundant and happy without following one of two narrow paths.

my real point is simply that a life in music can be abundant and happy without following one of two narrow paths.

There are many ways to make a living and many ways to be happy while making a living in music. I feel fortunate every day to have stumbled upon a very good setup. Taking a step to the side, onto a slightly different path was the best decision I could have made. I’m not ready to say I’ll never apply for another full-time teaching job, but as things stand, it’s not likely!

Climbing Down from the Ivory Tower

I haven’t posted here at Music Collective for quite a while, because I’ve been trying to decide how best to write this post. I’ve wanted to write about some recent changes to my professional life, partly because, for once, they are choices rather than reactions to unfortunate circumstances. And I’m hoping, if you’re still reading after attempting to understand that last bit, that you’ll find this post uplifting.

Ten years ago, in May, I graduated from the University of Maryland with a Doctor of Musical Arts degree. Initially, I was someone with many interests. I was singing in choirs at age 4, playing the piano at 6, and finally the flute at age 12. I composed and arranged music, I loved to improvise, and I became a passionate performer of both recorder and Baroque flute.  By the time I got that DMA in 2004, I had whittled all those interests down to one (flute) and was determined either to win a full-time orchestra job or a university position.

Letting go of half of that dream was easy. I discovered, after holding down two part-time orchestra jobs and subbing with a great symphony, that I find that work to be boring. B.O.R.I.N.G.  Seriously.  As in “Thank you, maestro, for inviting us to this violin sectional!” I enjoyed the performing but hated the endless rehearsals, hated not having artistic control over the product, etc. Realizing that, I quit taking auditions and focused solely on an academic job search.

In my first position, I discovered, as do many of us, that only rarely does a university job involve teaching only your instrument, and this is how my interest in other areas of music began to come back into my life. In between university gigs, I did what I always do: I went home to Nashville, took gigs, and taught children flute and piano lessons. Five years ago, I came home and added an adjunct classroom teaching position to the lessons and gigs, and I settled in.

This summer, I found myself dealing with financial stress, job stress, all kinds of stress. I really enjoyed all of my work, but something had to give. I was pulled in so many different directions that I felt was not doing anything well. I found myself longing to let the university job go. Now, understand this before you read even one word further—I was an adjunct teaching gen ed courses at a university where adjuncts are treated well, in a department where adjuncts are treated very, very well—and I have taught at a wide enough variety of institutions to know the difference. However, there is something inherently abusive in the use of adjunct faculty, and no matter how much I loved my colleagues, I couldn’t ignore that forever.

On the other hand, I have a real affinity for working with children, and my flute students were and are successful in the ways that we measure those things for pre-college kids. What held me back from making this change for a long time was an assumption that I couldn’t make ends meet as an independent music teacher. When I actually sat down to do the math, I realized that ten additional private students would cover the income I was making as an adjunct professor.

I could replace the income of (counting outside hours of grading and prep) what amounted to a thirty-hour –per-week job with five hours of private teaching, for which there is only rarely more outside work than remembering to pack a certain new book or email a parent.

Long story short, I resigned. I, who still believes ardently in my doctorate and the power it holds, who has traveled across the country more than once to gain experience as a sabbatical replacement or one-year professor, sure that it would all come right in the end—I quit.

It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

Quitting was not easy, not one bit. We graduates of good music schools with multiple degrees are not supposed to walk away from the hunt, and I have found my friends and acquaintances to have a mixture of responses to my news, ranging from happiness to envy to pity from those who think I’m just giving up. That last crew really does not get it!

I didn’t feel like a flutist anymore, spending my time in the classroom, grading things from the classroom, preparing to go back into the classroom. Now I rarely leave the house without a flute. I’m also teaching piano again, and recorder and Baroque flute. I’m performing on all four instruments, and when I come home at night and set down my stuffed flute bag, I am done. I knit. I see friends, watch TV, create recipes. I write fiction, which is another passion I’ve had for years but only rarely indulged. I no longer feel like my entire life is on hold, waiting for a tenure track flute job that may or may not ever appear. I’m making more money—a modest amount more right now, but there’s room for growth—and I find that my stress level is manageable. I also feel empowered with a higher level of self-respect, because even in places where adjuncts are well-treated, there is always that knowledge that we are second-class citizens. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

These days, I call myself a small business owner. It’s what I am. I manage my schedule, my finances, my clients and my mission on a daily basis. I am the sort of person who thrives on that work, along with the joy I get from teaching music and from helping the children and teenagers who populate my studio (along with a few heartily fun adult students). I must admit that I am living a much more balanced, happy and fulfilled life, although at only seven months in, it might be a bit too early to tell.

Here’s the point of this long story: if you are getting your degrees but not sure what exactly you’ll do with them, I encourage you to think outside the ivory tower, to think off the symphony stage. If you’ve finished school but are struggling to find your way into meaningful work, take heart. There are more paths available to us than only those two major roads through the musical landscape. Don’t be so bound by tradition that you cannot hear your own heart. Things are changing in our professional world, and we all must be more resourceful and more creative than ever before, if we are to make careers in music.

  1. Great article Jessica. Should be required reading of all flute majors, possibly either Jr. or Sr. year. I have sort of been where you are now, and know you will be very successful. You can also submit this for re-publication in some other flute magazines, so that it does make the rounds!

  2. […] Flutist Jessica Dunnavant discusses her complicated relationship with university teaching. […]

  3. This is definitely a must read, regardless of instrument (flute is far from my primary, but it’s getting more time in my play/work time). Must respect for making that leap!

    I do wonder how you make time for gigs / performance opportunities with a lessons schedule? That’s where I seem to be stuck. If I want to keep evenings and/or weekends open for musicals and such, I only have a couple hours a day for lessons. The math there doesn’t quite add up to the minimum for cost of living in my neighborhood.

    • Jessica Dunnavant

      Well, I don’t take gigs if they interfere too much with my teaching schedule or personal life! My regular orchestra gig is a weekend thing once a month, and I am able to minimize the damage to the schedule. And, bottom line, nobody dies when they don’t get a flute lesson, so if something really good comes along, I cancel what I need to cancel to make it possible. I also live in a place where lessons teachers are able to be printed and have background checks run, and then go into the public schools during the day to teach—the majority of my teaching happens between 9 am and 5 pm, with a couple of later nights. I find it works best when I am comfortable with the chaos!

  4. John Bowden

    I hardly know where to start. First of all, I am a terrible e-mail correspondent. I do not always check my mail on a consistent bases.
    I just now discovered this letter and found it very interesting. I am a older student in my serior years of life, taking lessons from a great
    flutist. A very modern, progressive, understanding and patient teacher I would not trade her for the world. This article “Climbing Down the Ivory Tower sounds like my teacher and her life’s schedule. I really appreciate the in site of this article. A sort of good thinking outside the box. I look forward to reading more information from the Flute Examiner. Thank you.

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