Navigating Life after Music School: Finding Opportunities for Growth with Olivia Meadows
Thank you to Olivia Meadows for sharing her experiences and wisdom for this post! Olivia and I met as grad students at Arizona State University. Since then she has lived and worked as a musician in Hawaii and Maryland. I'm very happy to have the opportunity to learn more about her life and career path!
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. OM: I’ve been playing clarinet since I was about 8 years old. I did my undergraduate degree in performance at Florida State University, where I studied with Dr. Frank Kowalsky and Dr. Deborah Bish. I then went straight into my masters degree, and subsequently my doctorate, at Arizona State University, where I studied with Dr. Robert Spring and Dr. Joshua Gardner and was fortunate to be their teaching assistant for four years. I also worked for several years as an admissions assistant at the ASU School of Music.
Since then I’ve had several jobs and moved a few times; while living in Honolulu, HI I played as a part-time clarinetist with the Royal Hawaiian Band and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, and taught on faculty at Punahou School. I’ve performed recitals, lectures, and masterclasses at the San Francisco Conservatory, Sacramento State University, San Jose State University, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and as part of virtual festivals such as New Music DC and WoodwindFest. I’ve also performed several world premieres at the International Clarinet Association’s ClarinetFests (2018, 2019).
I am now based in Maryland and on Adjunct Faculty at the Community College of Baltimore County. I am continuously promoting my doctoral research “A Program of Study for 21st Century Clarinet Techniques Featuring Five New Compositions for Unaccompanied Clarinet”, where I researched the pedagogy of some extended techniques for clarinet, and commissioned and recorded five new unaccompanied pieces for teaching these techniques.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? OM: There were a few things during my graduate studies in particular that I feel set me up for success in life after school. First, I played in so many different chamber groups that I truly feel comfortable playing in pretty much any ensemble. I said "yes" to almost everyone who asked me to collaborate with them and actively programmed chamber music into almost every one of my required recitals. Second, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. This was aided in part by my teachers/mentors, but it was a conscious choice that I made and one that I would HIGHLY recommend. I said “yes” to professional experiences that I wasn’t always confident about (but that I knew I COULD do), I programmed repertoire that sometimes felt daunting, I contacted acquaintances or even strangers about job opportunities or to make connections, and I took advantage of every developmental opportunity that was offered to me. This is what led me to what ultimately became my doctoral research and one of my primary passions. Third, I honed in on what I TRULY wanted to do professionally, and then looked realistically at the workforce and how it is changing. It took me a while to figure out what it is that I actually feel passionate about and to come to terms with the fact that my skill set is unique to me, but that I do have something to offer as a musician and educator. That being said, learning to be realistic about the job market is something that I am always working on.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? OM: Going from 100 to 0 in what felt like an instant. In school, I was working several jobs, in a position of leadership in the clarinet studio, and was busy all the time. (In hindsight, I truly have no idea how I was functioning like that). After completing my doctoral coursework I made a choice to move with my spouse to Hawaii for his job, where I had exactly one professional connection, and really struggled with suddenly having...basically nothing to do. I was able to turn it around and begin working again within a few months, in addition to completing my doctorate remotely, but it took me about a year to comprehend what life after school was REALLY going to be like as a freelance musician and educator, to learn to say yes to most things but no to some, and to start to feel like myself again.
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up? OM: My biggest disappointments as a musician have definitely been with auditioning. I have never really considered auditioning to be my strong suit, but I do feel confident in my abilities as a clarinetist. I find it extremely disheartening to put so much effort and so much of yourself into repertoire for an audition, and then have the committee cut you off after just a few minutes. I have immense respect for my friends and colleagues (and most importantly, my husband!) who have won auditions and great jobs, but I’ve realized that path is not for me. It was initially a little disappointing to feel like I wasn’t good enough for the performance route, but ultimately my passion lies elsewhere and I feel more confident dedicating my time and knowledge to pedagogy. Plus, I’ve realized that you can still be an active performer in many different ensembles without winning an orchestral or military job!
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? OM: My career goals have changed so many times! As a kid, I wanted to be a pit musician. As a young adult, I wanted to play for film soundtracks. Then I wanted to freelance and cultivate a private studio. When I realized how tough freelancing can be and (more importantly) how much I love teaching in higher education, my goals shifted towards academia.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? OM: I pushed myself to “cold call” (email) people to promote myself and my research. I said "yes" to jobs that maybe weren’t my ultimate goal, but that I knew would provide me with important experience. I began to value my time and experience and say "no" to jobs without adequate compensation or that I could not fit into my schedule, where previously I would just be overworked and deal with the resulting exhaustion and burn-out. I also tried to approach every gig or work day with a positive, amenable attitude and to be someone with whom people enjoyed working. In my experience, being good at what you do and being a good coworker are equally important.
ER: Looking back, what do you consider to be the most important step that you took for your music career? OM: Going to ASU for my graduate studies. My teachers at ASU provided me with so many opportunities to grow as a musician, teacher, and leader, which ultimately allowed me to discover my passion. I also made so many invaluable connections, personally and professionally. I don’t think I would be where I am today or even have the same goals if I had not done my graduate studies in a program that fostered so much creativity and provided so many opportunities. I always try to encourage students to study wherever they feel they can grow, with teachers who will help them become the best version of themselves, and not just at “the best” school.
ER: I know you have commissioned several pieces. What was the process like for you and do you have any advice for those thinking of commissioning works? OM: I love commissioning music and I’ve done so quite a lot (8 pieces in 4 years!), so naturally I have some opinions about the process! Commissioning is fairly simple: in most cases, you reach out to the composer, explain what type of music you are looking to create (for what ensemble, how long, any extended techniques you want to include, what difficulty level you’d like the piece to be, etc.), include your budget or ask how much they typically charge, specify your “deadline”, and so on. It helps for your first commission if you have a pre-existing relationship with the composer, but is absolutely not necessary.
My advice for commissioning: Work with composers whose music you actually enjoy playing and/or listening to, and who have written for your instrument before. Be transparent about your budget (or lack thereof); if you are in school, your peers (composition students) might be the perfect collaborators! Provide a deadline that leaves some wiggle room for delays and/or editing. If you want to collaborate with the composer to create a specific type of work, make sure they are amenable to that and try to be as detailed as possible when explaining what you are looking for and while editing. Consider who your audience is for the piece: Who are you hoping will perform it? Lastly, don’t commission music just for the sake of it. As with most things, if you are invested in what you are doing, it shows.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? OM: Get involved in the community outside of your school-bubble. Pay attention to what it’s really like in the workforce and try to be realistic about your professional goals. If a guest comes to your school for a masterclass, volunteer to play or go up and speak with them before they leave. Try to be kind, pleasant to work with, overdressed, and over-prepared; the music world is small and the impressions you make/relationships you develop in school will likely remain important as a professional.
ER: Anything else you want to add? OM: Not much—just that I’ve worn many hats and love speaking about working as a musician and commissioning music! Readers, please reach out if you want to chat!
ER: How can people find you? Website: olivia-meadows.com
Facebook: Olivia Meadows