Navigating Life after Music School: Just Keep Going with Michelle Flowers
One of the best things about going to music festivals is meeting great people who are doing interesting things. Michelle Flowers is one of those people. I had the pleasure of attending Michelle's fascinating presentation on self-handicapping at the 2019 International Women's Brass Conference. Later in the conference we had chance to chat and get to know each other a little bit. It's fun to find out things you have in common with people you just met, such as driving outrageous distances every week to teach!
I'm so happy that I got to learn more about Michelle through this interview. She has many interesting projects in the works and I am truly inspired by the work she has done and continues to do.
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do? MF: Currently I’m the Instructor of Trombone at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, TX. I teach the trombone (and occasionally euphonium) applied lessons, direct the trombone choir, coach the trombone ensembles, and help students with music research projects. I have also taught the Intro to World Music class, and have developed an Asian music course and a Film Score course for the catalog which will hopefully start up soon. Recently, I completed a Building Global Perspectives fellowship at TWU that focused on how to address issues of diversity in our fields and prepare our students to engage in a culturally diverse society. I’m looking forward to bringing those ideas into my teaching in the coming semesters.
In addition to my work at TWU, I have a successful private studio of trombone, euphonium, and tuba students (from beginners to high school seniors) in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Prior to the pandemic I worked as a freelancer in the D/FW area, mostly playing pit orchestra and show band gigs, but that’s all on hold for now until things open up again.
I’m a member of The Coal Hill Quartet, which is a trombone quartet that performs in the D/FW area and performed a showcase concert at Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) 2020. We’ve been invited to perform a showcase concert at the International Trombone Festival 2021 in Georgia, where we will also be presenting our research about how to make global music more accessible to audiences and students through small ensembles. Most recently, I was asked to be on the International Trombone Festival Women’s Choir Committee and will be playing with the inaugural International Women’s Trombone Choir at the upcoming festival.
On the more academic side I’m involved in a lot of research projects. My main two fields are the mental aspects of being a musician, and film score study. My dissertation was on self-handicapping within the musician population, how much of it is potentially going on, how it is impacting musicians, and how educators can help students avoid it. The results lead to more questions about how musicians respond mentally to the pressures of their field so I’m developing some follow-up studies on that. I write a column on Golden Age of Hollywood scores for Film Score Monthly Online Journal that covers everything from score analysis to composer bios to early recording tech.
Outside of music, I have two golden retrievers (one just a puppy) that I like to take running or hiking in the mountains. I’m trying to convince myself it’s time to learn how to ski, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. My fear of broken bones is high.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? MF: Learning to be self-motivated and to have the discipline necessary to get a task done without someone micromanaging me were super important skills that have helped me after graduation. When you get out of school, odds are if you are a musician you will be kind of on your own to get things done. Most musicians go into freelancing or teaching and if you can’t keep yourself organized, believe me, you will not be working long. I also kept copious notes in class (mostly as a way to keep my sleep deprived brain focused). These notes have been super helpful, especially when I find myself teaching the same classes. You never know what you will have the opportunity to teach during the course of your career, so I suggest keeping all your notes, quizzes, tests, and the syllabi you can use as a reference if you ever need them. Also keep your textbooks – even the ones you hate and are sure you will never use again. I never knew why I was still dragging around an old theory book, but when I got asked to develop and teach a high school theory course, I was very glad to still have that on my shelf.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? MF: Burnout. I was massively burned out after grad school. My last 18 months or so were pretty rocky because my mentor professor was diagnosed and subsequently died from cancer; that threw the studio into a fair amount of disarray (as you can imagine). The dissertation process was grueling, and I was teaching nearly 80 students at the time which required over 500 miles of driving a week. So I was pretty tired after I graduated. Because of this, I found myself really struggling with motivation and keeping my practice routine going. I had to take a step back and reevaluate my priorities and time management from the perspective of a professional trombonist/university teacher rather than a grad student. What did I need to be successful in these new positions? What did my students most need from me? And honestly, I had to be ok with taking some time off to run with my dogs at the park or binge watch Doctor Who. At first it felt weird not working 18-20 hours a day and I struggled with feeling guilty about not practicing all the time or cutting back on my schedule, but having a little down time was critical for me – especially at that stage. After a while I was able to find my feet again and start cranking it back up (but hopefully with more awareness of work/life balance this time).
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up? MF: Oh boy! Have I ever! I sometimes wonder if I have had anything but. I think that music is full of disappointment and part of being able to succeed in this career involves developing a fair amount of resilience. It’s really hard to bounce back from disappointments, particularly if you have several in a row. As far as bouncing back up – I’m not sure it was the same every time really. Sometimes I got really angry and that anger fueled my resolve to be better. Sometimes I gave up and hid in my bedroom for a few days sulking. Sometimes I said, “Oh well, that sucked” and went to the local ice cream parlor with my friends. Friends are very key in our line of work. There’s a reason musicians tend to hang out with our own kind. We need people who understand our business and the blows it can deliver, that we can cry to when we need. “Normies” (non-musician friends) are great too and they can be helpful but until you have lived the life, you will never really understand how painful it can be. At some point after every single disappointment, I think there is a moment of introspection which usually comes after the “forensic analysis” (as my friend calls it) – after you have gone over everything with a fine-tooth comb to see what went wrong. When this moment of introspection comes I find myself asking questions like “Do you still think you can do this? Is it still worth trying for? Can you picture yourself doing anything else and being happy?” I don’t always say “yes, let’s give it another try” right away, but so far I’ve always come around to answering in the affirmative. And then it’s time to get back to work.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? MF: In high school I planned to be a physicist or engineer. Music was just something to do when I was bored and already finished with my school work. I switched my major over to music (long story there) and thought maybe it would be fun to play for soundtracks (John Williams was my “gateway drug” to orchestral music and I still love soundtracks. I did my honors thesis on Max Steiner and now write a regular column for Film Score Monthly Online Magazine) but was still planning on getting my degree in music and then going back to grad school to start my “real career” in another field. Another long story later, I found myself in a doctoral performance program and discovered I really loved teaching. So now my goals have changed a bit. I still love to play and hope/expect that will always be a part of my career, but I’d also like to get a full-time teaching job at a university somewhere. I’d still totally jump at the chance to play soundtracks though.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? MF: I was extremely fortunate to land a university teaching job right after I got out of school and I will always be grateful to my TWU colleagues for giving me that opportunity. The program I inherited at TWU was small – there were only 3 students enrolled in lessons at the time. Thankfully they were all very willing, eager, and open-minded students who worked with me and the changes I wanted to implement. One of the things I am absolutely adamant about is that if you have a trombone studio, you should have a trombone choir. So my first semester at TWU I formed the Texas Woman’s University trombone choir with my 3 students and a 4th trombone player who was doing his student teaching at the time. Because we had such crazy schedules the only time we could all meet was 9pm Monday nights and, being trombone players, we rarely stopped talking and went home before midnight (which made my 5am Tuesday commute really interesting). I know it can be a drag rehearsing if there isn’t a concert, so I scheduled a concert that first semester which we played for one of my very good friends, a supportive colleague, and the parents of one of my students. Yes, there were only four people in the audience. But the students were excited they got to play, and they sounded pretty good, all things considered. The next semester we had a couple more students join us so we could expand our choir and by the second year we were sounding good enough that I thought I’d try for a TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association convention) showcase. It seemed like total pie in the sky when I sent in the submission, but we were selected and it was a huge boost for my studio. You could see their confidence grow and suddenly our trombone studio that had been this sort of rag tag, weird little group was getting noticed by the other students, which only encouraged my students to keep working and practicing.
We are now up to 13 in the trombone studio this semester, all coming from a variety of racial, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. From day one I have insisted that our studio environment is collaborative, welcoming, and safe for all, and we all of us take this pretty seriously and work to protect what we have built. I think this has helped our studio grow both in numbers but, more importantly, as players. They are comfortable asking for and providing each other help, learning from their mistakes, and working collaboratively to solve problems. All these skills will help them immensely when they enter their future careers.
ER: Tell us about your research on self-handicapping. How has this knowledge helped you and what do you want people to know about self-handicapping? MF: Oh my goodness, how much time have you got?! There is so much we could get into on this topic but I’ll try to hold the nerdiness at bay and do just the basics. If anyone wants more info on it though, please feel free to contact me.
Basically, self-handicapping is a behavior that some people engage in to either protect or enhance their self-esteem. For self-handicapping to occur, a person needs to identify with a particular skill or task (i.e. it is important to them to be good at this thing), be uncertain whether or not they are actually any good, and then have their abilities at this skill tested. What self-handicapping does is it shifts any possible failure to an external reason rather than an internal one. In other words, the person being tested can blame some external temporary impediment for a poor performance (such as “I didn’t practice” or “I had a headache”) rather than it reflecting on them (“I wasn’t good enough” or “I can’t compete at this level”). This protects the person’s image of themselves as competent at the task (or enhances it if the person succeeds despite the impediment). Unfortunately, this also can potentially severely limit the achievement of the person over time.
For example, you are a young musician preparing to audition for a college program. You are not sure you are good enough to get accepted into the college program, so you start to find reasons not to practice as much as you should. When the audition comes around you stay up way too late hanging out with your friends, despite knowing you need to be mentally sharp the next day for the audition. When the audition comes, and you bomb it you can blame staying out all night and not practicing enough for your failure because without those impediments you might have succeeded. Therefore, your image as a capable musician is preserved because you have invalidated the results of the test. On the flip side, if you nail the audition despite the impediments listed, you feel really good about yourself as a musician because you were still able to achieve even though you were not at your best.
So I designed a couple of studies to look into this behavior specifically among musicians and then compared those results to studies that had looked at other populations. There were some really interesting findings. For example, professional musicians had significantly lower levels of self-reported self-handicapping than amateur musicians did. Also, female vocalists had a significantly higher level of self-reported self-handicapping than any other group. I’m particularly proud of this result because I can now say I have statistical proof that sopranos do indeed bring their own drama.
Having spent so much time looking into this, I have become very aware of the signs of it, both in myself and in my students. I think it has helped me be a better educator because I can point it out to my students when I notice them starting to engage in it and help them avoid getting trapped by it. I’m more aware of the feedback and motivational environment that I create for my students and myself because some environments are more prone to encouraging self-handicapping than others.
ER: Looking back, what do you consider to be the most important step that you took for your music career? MF: This is a tough one because we often don’t see the results of our steps until years later and a lot of times it isn’t just one step but a whole bunch working together so it’s hard to tell which one was the “magic step”. And I think, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, there is a strong element of luck involved in creating a successful music career.
I suppose the most important step I took is one that I’m still taking – I just kept going. There were lots of times it would have been easy to quit and walk away, lots of times I felt like I sucked, was the stupidest person alive, and should just go home, but I’m stubborn and kept plodding away, trusting that something would turn up somewhere when I needed it the most. Thank heavens so far that’s always been the case.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? MF: The first thing I would say is you need a work/life balance. It is so easy to spend every waking moment pursuing your career. It always feels like there is a never-ending list of things that needs to be done, and once you reach the end of your list there is always going to be more practicing to do. You can, and will, drive yourself crazy if you don’t carve out room for other things. Don’t let your whole identity be about music. Find other things that will bring you fulfillment. If you don’t, you will find you have missed a giant chunk of living.
Secondly, you need friends; you won’t survive without them. Networking is great but it’s not the same as friends. So pack the horn up once in a while and go buy silly hats at the dollar store to wear to masterclass (true story: my friends and I did this once. Thankfully we had professors that were ok with this. Be sure you do too before trying it. This stunt could have gone very badly). The weekly lunch hour is just as important as anything else you will do during the week. And don’t pick your friends based on how well they play or what you think they can do for you later. Find good people who will stick by you no matter what. The people are part of what make our career wonderful. If you aren’t taking time to enjoy that, you are missing out.
Third, and this one probably comes from my experience being a woman in a largely male dominated field - if you feel uncomfortable in any situation, it’s ok to speak up. You don’t have to stay in that environment. It’s ok to speak up and say you are uncomfortable. Most of the time people will be accepting of your feelings and try to make things better. If they don’t and you feel you need to walk, walk (as politely as possible). No gig is worth your physical or emotional safety.
And most importantly, there will be far more disappointing days than there are successful days, at least at first. Relish the successful days but don’t let the disappointing days get you discouraged. They are all part of the game. Just keep going.
ER: Anything else you want to add? MF: Thanks for inviting me to be a part of your blog! I’ve enjoyed thinking about these questions and hope my answers can be of some help to someone. Best wishes to all!
ER: How can people find you? MF: My website is www.tromboneflowers.com and there is a contact form on there if you want to reach me.
Or if you can follow and contact me through the TWU trombone studio Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/twutrombonestudio