Navigating Life After Music School: Building Connections with Eliana Firmani Alcocer
I have had the privilege of being friends and colleagues with Eliana Firmani Alcocer for the past two and a half years. Eliana is an amazing percussionist and one of the best people I know. She inspires me with her drive and can-do attitude! In the competitive music world it can be hard not to feel just a little bit down when you hear someone has won a great job and you haven't. One of my favorite things about Eliana is her genuine delight in the successes of her musical colleagues. In this interview she discusses supporting each other, having each other's backs. This isn't just talk! Eliana is a fantastic example of how to build relationships and truly support each other.
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do.
EFA: I am a percussionist and I play some bass too. I enjoy collaborating in a variety of settings whether it's as a soloist or in a rock band. I also really enjoy teaching. Pre-COVID I was teaching through a few different sources and doing some freelancing and now during COVID I still have the opportunity to do some teaching but I've had to make some adjustments and take a few steps back, but I know I'm not the only one.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school?
EFA: Staying involved on-campus but especially off-campus. Meeting as many people as possible. Going to see live music. Going to masterclasses. Performing. Being exposed to as many different things as you can. My professors were all very wonderful and provided me with plenty of resources and opportunities!
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school?
EFA: Looking for work and finding the balance between work, practice, and my personal life. I think balancing all of this is still a struggle. My professors weren't kidding when they say school is the most time you'll have to practice.
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up?
EFA: I would have to say not being accepted into graduate school when I first auditioned was my biggest disappointment. I auditioned at 2 prestigious schools and it didn't work out. It felt like the end of the world when in reality, looking back, it doesn't even feel like a disappointment anymore. I've always enjoyed learning things and would go out of my way to study on my own whether I was in school or out of school; so, why would I change any of that? I just continue to keep working on becoming a better musician and person no matter where I am. I'll try again sometime, but no rush. In school, sometimes there's this pressure of what you should be doing and playing and it can be draining. I'm thankful for the change and the realization that school is nothing like real life. In the 2 years since this "tragedy", I have had the opportunity to learn so much about myself. What I like and what I don't like. I've learned what I thought I wanted wasn't what I actually wanted. I've had the opportunity to learn through teaching and playing. I've met some wonderful people. The list goes on. I don't think I ever really considered myself getting back up, but I just kept doing my best to move forward and I ended up in a better place and gaining a lot from it.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed?
EFA: I guess I've always wanted to play in the pit on Broadway! I still would really like to do that. In school, I was set on getting into an orchestra too, but I think more because it would feel like I "made it". I've never had a super-specific goal to work towards that would make or break me if I didn't get there; rather, I've always been interested in doing a lot of different things. Now, I still want to collaborate in a variety of ways, however they come up. I'd like to get my own projects going as well and eventually have my own teaching studio!
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful?
EFA: Probably just applying for jobs and taking whatever work was available; however, I would say I have had the most opportunities from the support and relationships I built with people.
ER: Looking back, what do you consider to be the most important step that you took for your music career?
EFA: I don't think there has been any single step, it has just been a lot of little steps over the years and I'm still taking them.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school?
EFA: First off, you’re not alone in the challenges you face. I would encourage you to pave your own path, whatever that may be. Being a musician or better yet, an artist, is not a one-size-fits-all. Think about all the mentors you look up to and all the things they do. I think we are under this impression that we are either going to make a living performing full-time or we are going to be a music teacher full-time, and that we are failing if we don’t. The best advice I received about that was from a seminar I attended. The clinician was implying that as musicians, our jobs are like pie charts. We don’t do one thing all the time. The second thing I want to point out is that failure is not the end of the world; in fact, it’s part of the process. What matters is how you recover and learn from those failures. My third point is: don’t feel inferior if you didn't attend a prestigious music school. It doesn't matter where you go, all that matters is what you can do! I went to a small school and still work with people that went to prestigious schools—we ended up in the same place but I don’t have the debt! My fourth point is to build those relationships with people, they will have your back and you can have their back. Work together, learn from each other and support each other--the only person to compete with is yourself. My fifth and final point is: don’t stop challenging yourself. Stay a little uncomfortable. That means you’re learning and growing! Go for it. The pieces will fall together from everything that you do.
ER: I know you worked at a coffee shop for a while. What are your thoughts on having a non-musical side job?
EFA: During college, I was working at a coffee shop on the weekends and during the summers. I really did enjoy it overall. It's my favorite spot in town! I love coffee, it's a really wonderful environment, my boss was so supportive and loving, and my co-workers were awesome. After graduating, I was still working there, and since I wasn't doing music-related work all the time, I felt like a failure. Especially when people would ask what I was doing now that I had graduated and I wasn't using my degree! Anyway, after I left that job, I realized you are not a failure if you have a side job that isn’t music-related; you’re still doing great. We all have to make a living and to be honest, there are some days where making coffee isn't as bad as playing a gig I don't enjoy that I absolutely have to be at because I need the money. What's the point of having the opportunity to have music in your life if the majority of the time you don't enjoy what you're doing with it. There are certainly other things I like in life and having a part-time job that involves those other joys, in addition to music, wouldn't be so bad, especially if that means I could devote more time to things I love.
ER: Anything else you want to add?
EFA: I'm still working on may "career". It's an ongoing process for me; however, these are my experiences so far as I continue to figure out what's next.
ER: How can people find you?