Navigating Life After Music School: Carving your Own Path with Émilie Fortin
When Émile Fortin reached out to me about my blog I was thrilled - thrilled that she was finding it useful and wanted to share her own story and thrilled to connect with a creative musician like Émilie. When I looked into her a little more I realized that we had some connections and shared interests. We had both attended the Fresh Inc Festival (though not in the same year) and we have both have been involved with teaching abroad programs. Émilie Fortin is a Montreal based freelance trumpeter specializing in contemporary music and free improvisation. I think you'll enjoy hearing how she discovered her passion for contemporary music and started carving her niche.
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. EF: I started playing trumpet at 12 years old in the wind ensemble of my high school. I remember watching the Broadway show "Blast" and finding it so cool that the trumpet often had the melody! Luckily, I was able to make a sound on it as soon as I tried it. There's a conservatory in my hometown (Val-d'Or, a small town 6 hours away from Montreal) that I was accepted to at age 14. This is when I started to have private lessons and ear training classes. I've always been a disciplined musician, but also a really curious and busy person. I completed a double degree in Cégep (which is between high school and university) in humanities and music, then had to move to Montreal to pursue my dream. My first year at University of Montreal was in musicology, because I unfortunately thought I wasn't good enough to be in performance. I moved in 2011, the year when the big student strike happened. This time spent striking - so far from my instrument - made me realize I wanted to play music more than ever, not just read about it. I asked to be transferred to performance. Then I went to McGill University for my masters. Today, I mostly work with composers to create new repertoire for trumpet and I'm the founder and artistic director of Bakarlari, an ensemble of soloists aiming to promote new music. I'm also active on the free improvisation scene, teach in different high schools, and also give private lessons - making the best out of the freelancer life. Let's not forget that I bike a lot as well, take care of my numerous plants and love discovering any kind of arts!
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? EF: Going to summer festivals every summer - it made me meet so many amazing colleagues and friends from all around the world. It also made me discover different types of teaching, so I could be way more challenged than I was at school. Now, I can always find a couch to sleep on most anywhere in the world because of all the great connections I developed.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? EF: Balance. I was - and still am - living in an apartment where I can practice at any time because it has two floors. That made me think it would make sense to start practicing at 10pm because I didn't have time before. (We all know most of us are not that efficient at this time of the day!) Or because I'm a freelancer, I can do admin work at any time. It took the pandemic for me to understand that setting up my boundaries is a way to respect myself. I have the right to not answer a work email after 9pm if it's not urgent, or take a day off in the week. It's hard because I'm surrounded by other freelancers and I work where I'm living. It's a slow process but it's worth it. I'm learning to not beat myself up if I didn't do everything I wanted to accomplish. In the past, my days "off" had an underlying feeling of guilt because the word "should" took the fun out of my passion, and I want to enjoy being away from my trumpet, as well as enjoy my practice time. When everything becomes an obligation, there's no way you can find motivation to accomplish what you want to.
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up? EF: Hum... the institution of classical music. I don't understand why most universities still teach as if it were 30 years ago. They still make us think that the orchestra way is the most valid one, and that success comes through it. The reality is that there's not enough orchestra jobs for the number of musicians that exist, and that we should encourage diversity of paths. Why do major orchestras play the same works over and over again? I'm sad that creativity is not the main focus, but achieving perfection is. We need to seriously review our way of making and teaching music, and take example from other art forms.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? EF: I thought I wanted to play in an orchestra because this is the only thing I was exposed to. When I played in the contemporary ensemble at McGill or took a seminar about Vinko Globokar's music, I discovered a whole new world where I could unite all my interests - dance, theater - while playing music. I realized I was not successful at playing excerpts because this is not where my strengths lie. They lie in trying weird sounds or playing on my back, for instance.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? EF: Creating my website and advertising for my teaching, as well as applying for any new music festivals or workshops I could attend. This helped me build my network, despite making me quite poor at the beginning. I took this financial risk! I also enrolled in the Global Leaders program, a twelve-month Executive Graduate Certificate in Social Entrepreneurship, Cultural Agency, Community Development, Business Management & Teaching Artistry. It gave me confidence in my teaching skills, as well as making me travel the world and develop human and work connections.
ER: How did you come to specialize in contemporary music and improvisation? EF: Through playing in the contemporary ensemble at McGill and taking a seminar about Vinko Globokar. I was feeling "on my X". Then, I attended four contemporary music festivals (that was a busy summer haha) at the end of my masters and I was feeling I had potential and so much fun in this niche. Back in Montreal, I was surprised to see how many colleagues or friends were disillusioned with the audition lifestyle or just with playing in orchestras. At the same time, I was shocked to rarely hear trumpet in the new music shows I was going to, not to mention not many trumpet players playing contemporary music. This is when I decided to really go for it. I discovered such a welcoming community, where any ideas are welcome. I was way more "useful" to the music world by discovering new sounds and technics and creating new repertoire than I was at practicing Mahler 5 in my basement.
ER: Looking back, what do you consider to be the most important step that you took for your music career? EF: If I'm looking back, it would be moving to Montreal. I come from a small town and nobody else in my family plays music. A career in the arts was scary for my parents and it would have been easy to choose the 9-5 lifestyle because of the influence I was feeling. I'm financially independent since I moved and it wasn't easy all the time. Still, I worked a lot during the school semesters to be able to have my summers free to attend music festivals. It was risky. I had no models and I carved my own path, which I'm really proud of.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? EF: Be adventurous and find what makes you feel good. Maybe your dream job hasn't been invented yet, and you'll have to create it. Don't wait for others to call you - we have been mislead to think that if we're good enough on our instruments, people will come to us. The reality is quite different; most of us are creating our jobs. Also, don't be fooled by social medias. Everyone is struggling in some ways, even if this person just won a job or seems to travel everywhere. Sharing vulnerability is the best way to connect with others.
ER: Anything else you want to add? EF: Your self-worth isn't related to how busy you are. Find things outside of music that nourish you, because we're humans first, not musicians.
ER: How can people find you? https://emilie-fortin.tumblr.com/