Navigating Life after Music School: Finding your Priorities with Sarah Christianson
Sarah Christianson and I met while playing with the Skokie Valley Symphony. We performed some great pieces with that orchestra and I got to hear Sarah's outstanding timpani skills close up! It has been really fun to learn more about Sarah's musical background, her current projects, and her philosophies on music and life. In this interview Sarah discusses the importance of learning your priorities and how this has helped her to be successful.
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. SC: I studied at DePaul University for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, both in percussion performance. Prior to college, I basically had no orchestra experience, but while I was there, I developed a real passion for orchestral playing, specifically for playing timpani. In addition to studying, my student employment positions at DePaul were very impactful for me. Throughout my six years in school, I worked in the music admissions office, as manager for the ensemble set-up crews, and as head graduate assistant in the percussion studio. I also started getting active in Chicago’s regional orchestra scene.
After graduating with my masters degree in 2019, I started applying for jobs in arts administration. I ended up accepting a part-time position at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, which has allowed me to continue pursuing my performance career. Shortly after that I accepted a teaching position at The People’s Music School (TPMS). During the short period of time from Fall of 2019 to March 2020, my time was split between those two jobs and a good amount of freelancing on the side.
These days, I’m fortunate to still have my two part-time jobs and am able to participate in recording projects every couple of months or so. In addition to teaching percussion at TPMS, I’ve also taken on a few general music classes there and have accepted some additional teaching work outside the school. Oddly enough, during the first few days of COVID-19 lockdown, I joined a chamber group called The Achelois Collective that focuses on social justice through the arts.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? SC: One of the most important decisions I made in school was to prioritize my time in terms of the amount of people it impacted. So I tended to prioritize ensemble playing over personal practice, while still making sure I presented myself well in lessons. I also put a lot more time and effort into my jobs than most other student workers because I knew how many people were impacted by my work, whether it was the conductors and ensemble members relying on me to lead the set up crew or the percussion studio needing to operate smoothly. Ultimately I sacrificed some time in the practice room and also time in the gym or at parties in order to meet these priorities, but those decisions lead me to where I am today. I’ve seen a lot of people leave music school unable to find work that pays the bills, and sadly I’ve witnessed many of my friends and colleagues struggle to make ends meet during the pandemic. I’ve been fortunate that my decisions to prioritize others set me up really well for entering the real world after music school. I’ve led an active freelancing career and have had no shortage of teaching and arts admin opportunities, both before and during the pandemic.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? SC: Dealing with uncertainty. Even though I feel secured in my jobs right now, my future in 5–10 years still seems uncertain. And that’s a big change from being in school when I had a clear plan for 6 years. Once I was nearing the end of my time in school, I thought I had figured out what my life after school would look like. But all those plans ended up falling through, and I was left with just trying to make things work. Ultimately I did, and while I’m happy with what I’m doing now, I don’t anticipate my career will look the same in 5 years, and I honestly don’t know what to expect next. But I’m learning that that’s ok!
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up? SC: As I mentioned in my previous answer, I thought I had things figured out as I was leaving school, and it turned out I didn’t. I had three big auditions lined up during the last few months of grad school, and I figured that if I landed one, I would be set. I prepared well for all these auditions, and both my teachers and my colleagues thought I would be successful with one. In the end, I made finals for one audition, runner up in another, and didn’t even advance in the other. It was a pretty discouraging way to end my grad school career, especially because so many people expressed their confidence in me. After those losses, I decided to switch gears and apply for arts administration positions. There was one I thought I was guaranteed to get––I knew all the people that worked there and got along great with them, and the person who had formerly had that position wanted me to take over. But similar to some of my previous auditions, I made the final round and didn’t get the job. Having four big losses in a row was really challenging, and to be honest, it still hurts a little. What I did was put my head down and started working, or at least, started looking for work. I took the same energy and dedication I had for playing my instrument and channeled it into applying for jobs. After a few months of this, I was actually offered two different arts administrative jobs and made finals for another, and I decided that working at Roosevelt lined up best with my desire to continue playing. What I learned and continue to learn is that I’m most successful when I make the most of the work right in front of me rather than hope and strive for the next big thing. That doesn't mean I don't have dreams, but instead of only focusing on what I want to happen, I mostly concentrate on making the most of every opportunity I have now, trusting that good will come from it in the end.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? SC: When I was in school, my main goal was to win a job playing timpani in an orchestra. I’d still love to win a timpani job, but ultimately, my career goals are now to use music to create the social changes I wish to see. It’s a little frustrating pursuing an art that basically no one other than old people find important. I’d love to not only make classical music more accessible to people regardless of socioeconomic status but to further use it to provide disenfranchised communities with the expressive and creative outlets that communities with resources never lack. So basically I'd love to repurpose classical music from an elitist art form to something more practical, and if I can do that from a position as principal timpanist, even better!
ER: Tell us about your work with The Achelois Collective. I understand you are the percussionist and Music Education Coordinator for this ensemble. SC: Joining The Achelois Collective (AC) has been a huge highlight the past year! A couple months before the pandemic, I ran into a friend of mine on the train that I hadn’t seen in a while. She said she had just formed a chamber ensemble that was dedicated to social justice and prioritizing underrepresented composers, and they needed a percussionist. These ideals aligned so closely with my own that I just had to see what they were about. Since AC formed in the months prior to the pandemic, all of our performances have been online thus far. Our 2020–2021 concert series has been entitled “Here’s to…” and has “toasted” different female poets. These concerts have not only given me an opportunity to learn new solo and chamber rep but have further provided so much insight on the impact of poetry in the arts and in social justice.
In January I was elected AC’s Music Education Coordinator, and I’ve basically been serving in this post with the goal of providing a spotlight on accessible topics that are rarely taught in schools, such as new music practices, free improvisation, and pursuing justice through the arts. Something really cool we’ve been exploring in our education branch is the concept that anyone can learn. Our efforts are appropriate for school students, pre-professional musicians, and adult non-musicians. As I’ve been working on our education materials, I myself have been learning from the content we’re developing, which has been a lot of fun!
ER: Why did you decide to specialize in timpani and how has this affected your career path? SC: During graduate school, one of my teachers helped me realize that I can’t do it all. I was working multiple jobs and pursuing a percussion degree, which involves extensive study of several instruments. I had toyed with the idea of stepping back from work, but my teacher instead encouraged me to continue working and focus on the music that was most important to me, which was orchestral timpani playing. I think my teacher and I both realized that what set me apart from my colleagues was my timpani technique and my leadership and administrative skills, so I decided to focus my time on those two areas. I still continued studying all percussion instruments, but my lessons were focused on timpani, and I had basically written off the idea of taking any more orchestral percussion auditions.
I’m really glad my teacher helped me make that decision because it helped me realize what’s important in my career. No one can do it all, and sacrifices need to be made in order to be at peace with oneself. I still play other percussion instruments, but I don’t wish to ever hold a percussion position in an orchestra. I have days where I wish I could get my snare drum chops back up, but I realize that with just 24 hours in a day, something else more important to me would have to be given up, so I’m just content with doing what I can today.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? SC: Learn your priorities. When I was in school, I remember writing out a list of what was most important to me, and music actually came in at #4! In the moment, I sometimes didn’t understand why I continued to prioritize my job over an extra hour in the practice room, but looking back, I realize it was because the people I worked with were more important to me than excerpts. And that mentality has helped me to find work in the arts even in a pandemic. So figure out your priorities, and don’t be afraid to stick to them. You might realize that music isn’t right for you (and that’s ok!), or that music is super important, but maybe in a different way than you thought. Or even if your priorities confirm what you’ve thought all along, you can be sure you’re on the path that works best for you.
ER: Anything else you want to add? SC: Check out The Achelois Collective to learn more about social justice through music! This topic is super important to me, and I would be honored if other artists would join us in this mission.
ER: How can people find you? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org