Navigating Life After Music School: Learning to Play through Fear with Monica Benson
I was a little nervous before my first day of teaching for Sistema Ravinia. I didn't know what to expect and hadn't done a lot of group teaching in the past. I arrived early and checked my email before going in. There was an email from Monica Benson, the person I would be teaching with that day. Monica's email was so welcoming and kind that I immediately felt much more confident that the day was going to go well. Inside I met Monica for the first time. She was just as welcoming and kind as in her email. Teaching with Monica was a very positive way for me to start my new job and the fact that she took the time to help me feel comfortable meant a lot to me and is something I still remember. Since that day Monica and I have become friends and played gigs together. Monica has an awesome job as the bugler for Arlington International Racecourse and is an active freelance musician and educator in the Chicago area. She is a great trumpet player but I think this story is a good reminder that the kind of person you are is even more important than the kind of player you are.
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. MB: I am a freelance trumpet player and music educator located in Chicago, IL. I am on the trumpet faculty at the Merit School of Music and DePaul Community Music School. I received my bachelors and masters degree from DePaul University. Just recently, I began working as the General Manager of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? MB: I think the biggest thing that helped prepare me for life after school was learning how to practice. When I first got to music school I had no idea what I was doing practice wise. I would spend hours trying to get a few measures perfect. It would take me forever to learn something. As I got more efficient with practicing I realized how important ear training is and how singing things can help make the practicing process much faster. If you can sing it you can play it. Repetition is also important but if you can't hear mentally what you are trying to shed it just won't come across on the horn like it needs to no matter how much face time you give it.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? MB: I would say that time management has been the biggest challenge. Because I am usually working on multiple jobs or projects at the same time, it can sometimes be difficult to manage my time in a way that assures I get everything done that needs to get done. Like everything, it is all about balance. Sometimes that work/life balance can be a struggle for me.
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up? MB: In March 2015, I was hiking with some friends when there was still a bit of snow on the ground. I slipped on a patch of ice and fell...on my face. I broke my front teeth and the bone right under my nose. It was quite a setback. Luckily, I didn't suffer any nerve or lingering damage. I had to take over a month off from my horn and my face did not fully feel back to normal for about a year. Like I said, I really lucked out that I had no permanent damage and I had some really great teachers help me though the rebuilding process. As far as disappointments go that was a tough one.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? MB: Honestly, in school I never really had a clear picture for what I wanted to do. I was a little bit lost during my time in undergrad. I knew I wanted to do something in the music industry but wasn't sure exactly what. The orchestral route never really appealed to me. I love playing in orchestras but did not want to do that full time. I realized when I was working many different jobs in the time between my undergrad and grad degrees that I really liked the variety that type of work brought. When I went back for my masters degree, I felt like I had a much better idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to do a variety of things. I wanted to play, teach and create a project of my own. I am happy to say that now, I am doing most of those things. I love my patchwork career. Sometimes balancing everything can be a little tricky but that's what makes it fun.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? MB: In the few years after graduating with my undergrad I always had the intent to go back and get my master's degree. I took three years off in between my undergrad and grad degree. In that time I worked a lot of odd jobs with different hours to make sure I would still have time to practice during the day. I think that was the most important action that I could have done for myself at that time. My schedule often looked like nannying in the morning with a break in the afternoon to eat and practice and then in the late afternoon/evening I would teach trumpet. Giving myself some built-in time to stay focused on my instrument was crucial when the structure of school went away. I also made sure I was playing with a group consistently each week. During this time I joined a local brass band and that helped keep my ensemble playing in shape.
ER: Looking back, what do you consider to be the most important step that you took for your music career? MB: I think the most important step I took was just making myself play through fear. I struggled with performance anxiety all through my undergrad and when I got the job at Arlington I was forced to play in front of large crowds every weekend. It was a pretty big adjustment period to go from the student mindset to performer mindset overnight. But honestly that was one of the best opportunities for my playing. It taught me that even if I had a trumpet call that didn't go well, I couldn't break down mentally. I had to go back out there and do it again 30 minutes later. There was no time to freak out, I just had to go out there and do it. Eventually, performing just stopped being scary. I had failed enough times in front of enough people to realize that even if my performance didn't go as planned, the world would not end. I also began to realize my mistakes were much bigger feeling to me than to the audience. This mentality helped me get a lot better at my instrument too. I got a lot better when I refused to give myself outs. If I wanted my playing to be there when I was performing, it had to be there in the practice room.
ER: Tell us about your job as bugler for Arlington International Racecourse. MB: Arlington is a pretty interesting place to work. My job there is to play the "Call to Post" fanfare at the start of each of the horse races. Depending on the day there can be 8-11 races and I play the fanfare before each one. It's a bit more than a playing job though. Audience interaction is a large part of it as well. After I am done playing I walk up through the stands and chat with people and usually get asked a whole slew of questions about my job at the track, what kind of instrument I play, and what I do outside of the bugler position. My favorite part of this job though is the horses. I stand in a specific spot before I go out to play and there are always horses standing nearby. There is one horse in particular who loves the sound of the trumpet. He always comes right over to me and nuzzles my arm while I am warming up. It is a truly unique gig in that sense. What other playing job puts you that close to live animals? It's really my favorite gig of the year. I play at Arlington every weekend from May through September and I am always a bit bummed to see the season end.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? MB: I would say get active in your local music scene as early as you can. Start going to performances and making connections with other musicians and people who are doing work you admire or want to do someday. It's really easy when you are in music school to hole up in a practice room and just work on getting better. That is extremely important but it needs to be balanced with human interaction. Music is a collaborative art form and the collaborative aspect should be nurtured just as much as the technical aspect.
ER: How can people find you? MB: You can find me on all social media platforms @arlingtonbugler and at my website monicabensontrumpet.com