Navigating Life after Music School: Living an Artful Life with Erica Cherry
One of the first things I noticed about Erica Cherry was a feeling of exuberance! I met Erica when we were both Teaching Artists on a MusAid trip to El Salvador. This was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life. However there were certainly plenty of challenges. Erica inspired me with the enthusiasm she showed for embracing new experiences and meeting challenges with confidence and positivity. I'm so grateful that our paths crossed and that we became friends!
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. EC: I played both piano and clarinet growing up, and music was my thing from a pretty early age. I remember especially loving going to summer music camps in high school – it was so exciting to meet other young people who cared like I did about classical music. I ended up studying clarinet performance at Carnegie Mellon University, and then in graduate school at CCM (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music). I also participated in a Teaching Artist Training Lab at Lincoln Center as I began to get more involved in teaching.
Currently, I am the Executive Director for the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County (YOBC), which is a youth orchestra program that contains 8 ensembles, chamber music, and masterclasses and workshops in the Philadelphia suburbs. I also have a private clarinet and piano studio, and pre-COVID, did some freelancing.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? EC: When I was in graduate school at CCM I was also private-teaching a couple of days a week, exploring teaching artistry and arts administration through a local El Sistema-inspired program, and making an effort to support my peers who were involved in artistic projects. Looking back, I think it was learning to juggle and manage these activities and connections that really prepared me for life after school. At the time it was super busy, and I know that a lot of my colleagues were just hunkering down and practicing (I was practicing too, promise!). But, I’m really glad that I made time for different types of gigs and hustling, learned how to insert myself in a local music scene, and made strong connections. It definitely gave me a head start after graduation.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? EC: It was challenging for me to go from having the structure of a music school program, curriculum, and resources, to being on my own. I like structure and routine, so it was intimidating to have to make and stick to a plan that incorporated my goals. I remember feeling jealous of friends in other fields who had more of a blueprint on what to do next after school. Now, I’m glad that I was able to build a professional life the way I wanted it.
When I decided to start my studio from scratch, I had to learn to put myself out there, sell myself, and not be afraid to pick up the phone. All of that has gotten much easier over the years.
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up? EC: Absolutely. I’ve taken many auditions that didn’t work out as I wanted. Actually, when I initially auditioned for grad school I was waitlisted at a couple schools I really wanted to go to. At the time this felt like the most disappointing thing ever. (It did end up working out.)
It has helped me to think about what I learned from each of those experiences, and then apply that as data when preparing for whatever comes next. Make sure you surround yourself with people who truly know you and your abilities and can help cheerlead you in those moments. And, the more time passes the more perspective you get. Now I can look back and realize that disappointments that felt huge 8 years ago have helped me get to where I am professionally in this moment. Taking time to reflect can really help.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? EC: In school, my career goals were to win a position in a professional orchestra or military band. I was genuinely attracted to the idea of a career like this, but I also feel like the choices presented to me were “professional orchestral musician” or “band director.” In reality, there is so much more to the arts sector.
My career goals have absolutely changed. Learning about Teaching Artistry (there are lots of definitions, but basically an artist who chooses to include artfully educating others as part of her career) was life-changing for me. Now, I think of my career goals as more centered around ideas: I want to help young people live artful lives and achieve their musical potential. I want to be both artist and teacher. I want to maximize my impact in my artistic community.
It has been a tricky journey for me to come to terms with adjusting my goals, and occasionally I struggled with feeling like I gave up. I think many musicians are encouraged to have a tunnel-visioned view of what a career could and should look like. I wouldn’t have guessed that my full-time job would be in arts administration, but I also never really thought about it in school. In actuality, I discovered that I’m much happier and more fulfilled when I have my hands in many projects, when I am helping others, and when I’m both playing and educating.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? EC: I stayed in touch with mentors, teachers, and colleagues. I took a chance on new and different opportunities, such as teaching in Belize through a MusAid residency. (My connection with MusAid eventually led me to meet Emmy and many other amazing colleagues.)
I said yes to a variety of teaching and playing opportunities – some that I ended up enjoying and continuing, and some that I didn’t. It’s hard to predict how one gig or connection can lead to another until you see it in action. Be easy to work with and you’ll be surprised what doors spring open.
ER: I know you built a very large private studio. What advice do you have for people looking to start a private lesson studio and/or recruit more students for an existing studio? EC: I could talk about this forever! First, really do some thinking about what your niche is – what do your lessons offer that lessons with someone else might not? Are you great with serious, older students and audition prep? Do you love starting beginners? Do you have experience teaching adults?
In my studio, my goal is to set students up to live artful lives. I believe in challenging students, but in a warm and fun environment. I use a lot of game-based learning and care very much about my studio community. Being able to talk about the “vibe” and goals of my studio is really helpful in chatting with potential clients.
In building and recruiting for my studio, I started with warm and friendly contacts. I called and emailed every single person I could think of that was involved in the local music community. I took other local teachers out to lunch. I offered free sectionals and dropped off promotional post cards at local schools (postcard size works way better than business cards). I was assertive in following through with people and in making true connections - phone over email goes a long way! Especially if you’re in a smaller community, making and nurturing connections with other musicians can really help your studio.
It’s true that a lot of marketing tools – a strong web presence, active Facebook page, elevator pitch – help support your business, but most of my clients signed up and stuck with me because of my personality and my relationships with their kids.
Eventually, word of mouth picked up, and that has been almost exclusively how I’ve gotten new students in the past few years. If clients like their experience in your studio, they will talk you up and give your name to their friends without you even having to ask or incentivize.
I’ll also say that it is amazing to have a studio full of my ideal clients. It is okay that not every person will be in line with your teaching philosophy, studio policies, or scheduling preferences. Filling my studio with families who really respect my specific teaching and preferences makes me a much happier and less-stressed studio owner.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? EC: In music school, so much emphasis is put on how you play. While this is obviously important, I’ve found that how you work with people makes a bigger difference in life after music school. Be professional in all things - your communications, your preparation, being on time, etc. People will remember what it feels like to work with you more than the intricacies of how you sound.
ER: What is the most rewarding part of your job as Executive Director of the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County? EC: One of the many things I love about being the Director of YOBC is the impact I can have on young musicians. In providing the vision and direction of YOBC programs, I can influence many more students than I ever could just working on my own. I am really lucky to have an amazing artistic and administrative staff to help make this possible.
I love hearing how YOBC students not only progress musically but also socially, and as emerging young leaders. I truly believe that youth orchestra can be formative in a teenagers’ life and facilitating that and having a front-row seat to their accomplishments is very rewarding.
It is also awesome to have a role where I can connect and partner with other educators, artists, and organizations in our community. For example, we just finished an awesome collaboration with The Collective Conservatory and the Interlochen Center for Film and New Media where our students composed two short film scores and a symphonic suite (you can find them here). It’s amazing what we can do when we come together.
ER: How can people find you? www.yobc.org