Navigating Life After Music School: Redefining Success with Corey Sansolo
I first met Corey Sansolo when I heard him perform in an Axiom Brass concert a couple of years ago. I really enjoyed the concert and especially liked the way the ensemble interacted with the audience and got us involved. A different member of the quintet introduced each piece and introduced themselves at the same time. In this way we got to know a little bit about all the members and also the stories behind the pieces. After the concert I was able to meet the members of the ensemble, including Corey. He was very friendly and welcoming. When I mentioned I was thinking of moving to Chicago he even offered to play duets when I arrived! More recently Corey and I have been teaching together through Sistema Ravinia. I can attest first-hand that Corey is an excellent teacher who is able to help students improve while keeping them engaged and having fun!
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. CS: I am a trombonist based out of Chicago, IL. As a performer I am a member of Axiom Brass and the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra and freelance with ensembles in the midwest and mid-atlantic. As an educator I currently direct the DC Trombone Workshop, lead a private studio, and teach for Sistema Ravinia. Additionally, I do arts administration work for Axiom Brass and the DC Trombone Workshop and recently became the development coordinator for the Young Artist’s Harp Seminar.
I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., went to the Eastman School of Music for undergrad, and completed my graduate work at the University of Maryland.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? CS: When I was at Eastman one of my biggest goals was to show up for things. Brass masterclasses (not just trombone!), orchestra concerts, chamber recitals, early music, contemporary music, jazz, etc. I wanted to expose my ear to as many fantastic musicians and sounds as possible.
In graduate school I invested a lot of myself into developing a private studio so that, upon graduation, I would be able to support myself with only trombone-related work. I also went to hear the National Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and DC military bands as often as my schedule allowed. Beyond enjoying their incredible musicianship, my goal was to have a really clear idea about where the bar is set to play in ensembles of that caliber.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? CS: As I mentioned above, I put a lot of effort into building a private teaching studio while I was working on my master’s. When I graduated I was fortunate to have a thriving studio where I saw 30 to 40 students a week. I am incredibly grateful for that experience - I had amazing students, my teaching skills matured a lot, and it provided financial stability immediately after graduating.
However, I got trapped in a cycle of not pursuing performing opportunities because I was focused on the stability that teaching provided. I acknowledge that this is an incredibly privileged challenge to have - I truly love teaching and I expect it to always be a part of my career - but my stronger passion is for performance.
It took a lot of conversations with friends and colleagues (and mostly my wife :P) to become comfortable with taking the leap into a performance focused career and trust that things would work out.
Once again, I think this challenge is one of privilege but it’s a scenario that many young professional musicians find themselves in. Finding a balance between stability and pursuing one’s dreams is tricky.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? CS: When I was in school I had my eyes set on winning a job in a full time orchestra or premier military band while teaching lessons and starting a trombone workshop on the side. I had a really strong passion for chamber music but distinctly remember thinking that wasn’t a viable career path for brass players…joke’s on me!
My career goals have absolutely changed since school. I’ve learned that I love freelancing, touring, and teaching, and that I have some valuable skills beyond the trombone that I can bring to the music community.
A big part of the evolution of my career goals was letting go of what was, for me, a narrow focus of thinking: I needed to go to school and then win a job of a certain salary. I’m learning to embrace the stability that can be attained through having a lot of income streams and I let my life goals have more influence in my career decisions by asking questions like: Where do I want to live and where can my wife and I both have fulfilling careers? What kinds of musical experiences do I want to have? What kind of change do I want to be a part of in the trombone, brass, and musical communities?
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? CS: This is a really tough question because my definition of success has changed since that time. During that time I was a really heavy practicer and I primarily focused on improving my fundamentals. I continued taking trombone lessons and Alexander Technique lessons to hone in my craft and better get to know my body and mind. I prepared for a constant stream of auditions so that I was never end-gaining with any particular audition, but continually striving to improve myself.
My idea of success in that first year or so after graduation was based solely on how I was doing in auditions, and what I was doing seemed to be fairly effective - I was regularly advancing in orchestral and military band auditions.
However, I’ve redefined success as being happy and allowing the music industry to show me where I fit in. To be honest, that first year or so after graduation was frustrating. I did a poor job investing in my family and friends and in life experiences. I had auditions where I made the finals or runner-up and I made it deep in auditions that ended up having no winner - and I let that get under my skin.
I started to realize that the journey my music career was taking outside of auditions was becoming something really special - I was traveling, playing chamber music one week and opera the next, my students were making tremendous strides - the hard work I had been putting in was reaping benefits when I chose to see it!
ER: You have experience freelancing in both Washington DC and Chicago. Did you notice any significant differences in the freelancing challenges and opportunities between the two? What general tips do you have for those looking to freelance? CS: Some general freelancing tips:
- Be the best musician you can be, be the best person you can be, and be YOU. Then take that best version of yourself and share it with a lot of people - through playing for people, reaching out to people, showing up to events, etc.
- The better you can play a note the more you get paid.
- Create opportunities for yourself and for others.
- Be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do (in my experience the industry is going to quietly give you that feedback).
- Seek out people that will give you honest feedback.
- Take lessons from freelancers that are doing the things you want to be doing.
I’ve really enjoyed freelancing in DC and the mid-atlantic and Chicago and the midwest! The areas are quite different but, of course, my observations are through the lens of my experiences.
My freelancing career began in DC. As a trombonist I’ve found that both the best part and the most challenging part of the scene there is that it is overly saturated largely due to the incredible musicians of the military bands and those that are retired from the bands but still very much in the prime of their musical careers. The awesome part about this is that you are constantly surrounded by really, really high level brass playing. The challenge being that the supply is higher than the demand.
Chicago also has an incredible level of talent and has a rich history as a brass city. I’ve found there to be a bit more structure in the veteran freelancing circles and the younger talent seems to come and go more frequently than I experienced in DC. A huge plus is, if you are willing to drive, the radius of work that you can pursue in the midwest provides a lot of opportunity.
ER: You're a member the quintet Axiom Brass. Tell us about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into running a successful chamber ensemble. For Axiom, how is this work divided and what is your role? CS: A lot of behind the scenes work goes into keeping a group like Axiom running. A lot. Everything from doing taxes for the business to selling and programming concerts that are 18 months away to deciding who’s going to drive the rental van on tour.
Axiom strives to divide the work equally amongst the five of us. We are all co-owners of the group so we all have to be kept in the loop and take responsibility for administrative and artistic decisions.
My primary roles in the group are centered on logistics and development. I schedule our rehearsals and meetings, take care of travel, accommodations, and itineraries for our tours, and work through a lot of the details for concert presenters and university residencies.
On the development side I take the lead building relationships with donors and designing and executing fundraisers for projects. I’ve really enjoyed the projects I’ve gotten to pursue in this capacity. Right before the pandemic we fundraised to bring our educational show “Let’s Make Music” to Chicago elementary schools. Of course COVID had some different thoughts about that so we pivoted to producing a recorded version of the concert which has been able to reach students across the country.
This past winter I had the great pleasure of putting together a successful fundraiser and consortium to commission Kevin Day to compose a new work for brass quintet. We cannot wait to see what he writes and to share this new piece! Our upcoming project is for an Astor Piazzolla album Axiom is recording this spring to celebrate Piazzolla's centennial.
I also write Axiom’s monthly newsletter. You can sign up for it at axiombrass.com to keep up to date with our projects, performances, and more!
ER: I understand that you do a lot of arranging. How did you learn this skill and how has it benefited your career? CS: I don’t have any formal arranging training so I’ve learned on the fly! I definitely ‘stay in my lane’ in that I almost exclusively arrange, transcribe, and compose brass chamber music. Score study has helped a lot as well as trial and error and asking questions of my colleagues.
The skills that I bring to this arena are definitely informed from my experiences, artistic preferences, and…pet peeves…from playing a lot of brass chamber music. For example, an artistic preference that I use a lot in my trombone ensemble works is the use of alto trombone. I think it is a beautiful and underutilized instrument and it can really freshen up the timbre of the entire ensemble.
Arranging and transcribing has been a hobby of mine for a long time. I don’t know that it has benefitted my career but I really enjoy the process of learning about composers and works written for voice and other instruments and bringing them to the brass community.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? CS: - Always play at your highest level. Whether it’s an audition or a rehearsal, whether you’re playing for your teacher or you’re teaching a beginning student - make a habit of sounding your best all of the time!
- Be the person today that you want others to see you as five years from now.
- It’s cliche but…“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” To add on to that, the best basketball players make really good decisions about their shot selection. They know what shots they should be taking and they know when they should be taking them.
- Play every note with a great sound and be a world class listener.
ER: Anything else you want to add? CS: The pandemic has created a really tough situation for so many in the music industry and I can only imagine how challenging it is for the music school graduates of 2020 and 2021. Prioritize taking care of your mental health and look for ways to remind yourself why you love music. The road forward might be bumpy but there will be live music again.
ER: How can people find you? Website: www.coreysansolo.com