Navigating Life After Music School: For Love of Music with Alex Piela
As teaching colleagues at Sistema Ravinia I have recently had the opportunity to work with Alex Piela to plan and teach online group classes. Working with Al, it's obvious that he is a thoughtful person and teacher who cares deeply about the students and creating the best possible learning environment. I've been inspired by his ideas for engaging and creative activities. Besides teaching, Alex has had some very cool performance gigs, including touring with the World Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra!
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. AP: Currently I work with an amazing group called Sistema Ravinia which brings music education to young students that wouldn’t otherwise have such an opportunity. It’s been an adventure over the last 8 months! I started working with them in February, and since then we have moved all of our instruction online. Before joining Sistema Ravinia, I spent almost two years touring with the World Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra as a trumpet soloist, vocalist, and social media coordinator. I was lucky enough to have had inspiring music teachers since I started playing in middle school. Throughout my time at UW-Eau Claire and at Eastman I continued to have incredible opportunities to work with inspiring, empathetic, and amazing educators. It was their example that pushed me to become a musician and educator!
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? AP: Mmm… this is a great question! I think practicing a ton, immersing yourself in music, and being around musicians might be a generic answer, but those experiences and connections undoubtedly helped me after I left school. When I started at UW-Eau Claire for my undergraduate degree, I didn’t pass the audition to get into the music department right out of high school. I spent the next year doing everything I could to improve including attending all weekly studio classes, practicing with the great players around me, and working my way into getting weekly lessons with the trumpet professor there before ultimately becoming a Music Ed major. Mr. Baca was an incredible mentor and teacher, and those early experiences in college helped me immensely. In a nutshell, don’t let failure deter you from what you want to do, and say ‘yes’ to as many opportunities as you can!
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? AP: I think the biggest challenge is where to go next! After I finished at Eastman with my Masters in 2016, I moved back to the Midwest and found some work as a substitute teacher and playing some gigs around the area. I took a cruise ship gig for a few months in 2017 before hearing from a few friends that there was an opening with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I sent an audition tape in and was lucky enough to be asked to join them in 2018. Getting to know other musicians and educators helped me find opportunities, and I’m thankful that I’ve met great folks that have helped me find the things I’ve been able to do. In music it always seems there are more avenues to pursue!
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? AP: Honestly, I didn’t have any specific career ideas in college; I just knew I wanted to make music a big part of my life. I had gotten some great advice from mentors of mine over the years to be as versatile as I could in music (ex. playing, teaching, writing), so I pursued a Music Ed degree to develop some teaching skill and experience, along with practicing as much as I could. Those skills I developed in the Ed program became extremely useful in lots of different musical and non-musical contexts; it helped having tons of great experiences with amazing teachers over the years to draw from.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? AP: I’ve always been diligent about working towards my goals daily. At UW-Eau Claire, a big part of the culture was getting up early to address fundamentals every day. Even now I look forward to starting the day off with a cup of coffee and starting in on some long tones and Clarkes! Another thing that was incredibly helpful was saying ‘yes’ to as many opportunities as I could, and through those opportunities I got to know people who helped me find more opportunities. Substitute teaching lead to private students, and playing gigs seemed to lead to more gigs; all the while I kept improving as a teacher and performer.
ER: Tell us about your experience touring with the Glen Miller Orchestra. AP: Wow, it was incredible. We played about 5-6 shows a week for about 46 weeks out of the year across the US, Canada, and Japan. I was a featured trumpet soloist with that group, so I was out in front of the band improvising quite a bit from night to night. This was an incredible opportunity and I tried to make the most of it! I remember thinking of truly improvising every night, avoiding stock licks or solos if I could. The time to practice while on the road was actually on the bus, late at night, typically after that nights’ gig. There was a group of us that would routinely practice between midnight and 4am every night, as that was really the only time to practice. During my time on the road, I’ve made some great friends, played with great musicians, and played for audiences all over the globe; it was a wonderful opportunity.
ER: Looking back, what do you consider to be the most important step that you took for your music career? AP: One of the things I’m grateful I did was to continue to pursue music no holds barred. There were certainly times where it was challenging, but those times were only temporary barriers that were washed away by a deep love of music. It's important to remind ourselves why we do what we do; music helps us become, and helps others become, more thoughtful, empathetic, and more depthful people (Is depth-ful a word?).
ER: How can people find you? Website: AlPiela.com