Pursuing my dreams vs. not dying penniless
February 3, 2014 8:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm an engineer by training and by day, with a comfortable paycheck. My evening hobby has been Music Directing community musical theater. I recently took a weeklong masterclass/intensive that has made me realize that I need this to be a bigger part of my life. Can I take it to the next level and make it my job?

Pertinent factors:
- I have an engineering degree, not any music/theatre degrees.
- I've been successful in the community realm, and I get good feedback, but I'm aware I'm not a instrumental virtuoso like some people doing this job on a professional level.
- I'm done with this particular day job regardless; the question now is whether to find a better job in the engineering field, or make a big jump to music.
- I have a mortgage, but also an amazingly supportive wife who's wondering when I'm finally going to quit the boring day job. We could almost survive on her pay alone for a while, though significant lifestyle choices would be required.
- We're in our mid-30's and are currently childless, but may not always be either of those.

So, questions!
- Have you changed careers mid-life to follow your passion? Any thoughts/regrets/recommendations?
- Are you in the musical theatre field? Any ideas as to how to get from where I am now, to being a full time music director?
posted by jeffjon to Work & Money (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Really super-talented people fail to make their passion their work. That's just the way it is. While you might love doing the musical theater thing, there are actual, professionals in the union who have been working their entire lives piecing together a living from gigs and shitty day-jobs.

So my advice is, if you don't like your day job, find a better one, one with lots of time so you can do your community, musical theater thing.

Sometimes being an adult means knowing the difference between a dream and a pipedream.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:54 AM on February 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

I am also a community theater aficionado, and I have worked with and in professional theaters, and I have to say that the leap is a really big one. Even if your city can support enough professional theater for you to get a regular gig as a music director, the pay is extremely low, especially at the beginning, and the competition is fierce.

I would keep this as a hobby/passion for now, because being able to bring home a decent paycheck AND doing what you love (I am at rehearsals at least 3 nights a week and drag myself to the office the next morning for about 9 months out of the year) is a really cool thing.
posted by xingcat at 8:57 AM on February 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

As someone who followed her passion into academia, and now as often as not regrets it, I'd urge you not to do this. A steady well-paying job is not something to be turned down lightly; plus, the working conditions at the theater job, if you had it as a main source of income, might begin to grate and stress you quite quickly. Even things that you love can become awful and exploitative if they're unstable in terms of decent pay and job security. I'd urge you to read this, for instance, and reconsider. Keep community musical theater as a beloved hobby.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:01 AM on February 3, 2014 [10 favorites]

To add: I'd definitely seek another job if you don't like your current one, but stick with engineering. See if you can find one where the work is more interesting to you, and/or something with more flexible/limited working hours so you can devote more time to the community musical theater. I don't know whether there are any engineering jobs that are half-time, or 3/4 time, but that might be something to consider if they exist. At the very least, don't quit engineering for the arts without giving another engineering job a shot to see if you can find something in your current field that is more interesting/enjoyable/flexible.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:05 AM on February 3, 2014

Hi, Mr. Arnicae makes a good fraction of his income music directing musical theatre. He has been doing it professionally since high school and has been playing the piano professionally for 25+ years. It is hard for him to make a living at it - hard enough that even though he enjoys it, he makes a lot of his income doing music work outside of music theatre.

I'm aware I'm not a instrumental virtuoso

What does this mean? I assume at a very base minimum you are a quite competent rehearsal pianist. You should be able to play parts confidently and comfortably and generally be comfortable directing, rehearsing and playing in/conducting the pit. Most music theatre productions are conducted from the pit, so I assume you're a confident enough pianist that you know your part backwards and frontwards - and can spend most of the show watching the stage and the rest of your pit to give them the cues they need.

If you can't play the piano at the "quite competent rehearsal pianist" level, that would basically exclude you from any paying work as a music director that I'm aware of. FWIW, this is mostly midwestern, Californian and southeastern music scenes.

So- if you want to make a go of this, start working on your piano skills. Sight reading is essential.

Mr. Arnicae doubles on most of the traditional instruments in the pit. Though piano is his primary instrument, this means he is good enough to - in a pinch - actually sub for any of his players. This is by no means mandatory, but a very important skill. Also, since he can play all of their instruments, it means he has a better understanding of their instrument's capability and knows when there is something wrong. At this point if you can't double on other instruments that may not be a skill you need to work on.

Overall - I would suggest sticking with your day job and enjoying this as your hobby. Music theatre is a very hard place to make a living - that is why Mr. Arnicae does so much outside it. Mr. Arnicae is an amazing musician and has degrees relevant to music theatre. Even with the tremendous skills he has, he often is only making $100-150 a show (no income for the rehearsal period). He is asked to work for $50-75 a show almost weekly. He is asked to work for free so frequently I don't keep track. Luckily I have a steady income and he has other work outside music, but this is not an easy area to make money.

If you want to turn it into a living, why not start by seeing if some of your current contacts might pay you for the work you're already doing? Most community theatres will not be able to afford much, if anything, but a modest stipend might demonstrate if they actually find your skills valuable enough to pay for.
posted by arnicae at 9:12 AM on February 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you're looking for another job anyway, could you find a part-time job that might allow you more time to do the thing you love?

I am working two low-paid jobs at nonprofits. I really like the work, and it annoys me that the pay is low, but looking at our budget, I can afford to work for this little. We are saving and we are on track to retire fairly early, just because we don't spend much. So one way to approach this is to think about what matters to you--are you okay with not eating out ever if you can spend all your time doing what you love? Is there a midway solution between all engineering and all theater?

Good luck! It's awesome that your wife is so supportive.
posted by chaiminda at 9:30 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A few clarifications & answers to questions:
- By "not a virtuoso", I mean that I'm no concert pianist with amazing technical chops, nor can I play most wind/brass instruments. But yes, I can sightread piano well enough to play auditions, and have always played in my own pits.
- I am being paid now. In community theatre, I'm making usually $1k-2k per production, but the longer evenings-only rehearsal process means I can do maybe 6 of these a year at most.
- Part-time engineering jobs would be a nice compromise, but are pretty much unheard of in my experience.

Thanks to all for your perspectives!
posted by jeffjon at 9:38 AM on February 3, 2014

The simple answer is that it is not possible. However, one upside (?) to engineering careers is that they are usually prematurely short. If you are mid thirties, you only have five to fifteen years left as an engineer, anyway. I have many engineers in my family who never worked again after being laid off in their fifties. One of them was involved with community orchestra his whole life and now he spends a lot more time with it. Maybe you could make it a retirement project.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 9:42 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

With the clarification you offered - I still wouldn't do it. Mr. Arnicae is talented, very experienced and lucky - he not only has other work but he also has a partner that brings in a very solid paycheck. And he has amazing technical chops and has played as a concert pianist. BUT! I don't think his concert pianist skills or even the technical chops are what he needs to be successful as a music director. It comes down to - he is a skilled vocal coach, and knows voices very well. He knows everyone's job in the theatre, but mostly the musicians and performers jobs. He is a skilled orchestrator and can transcribe parts in his head. He's a tech genius and does a ton of work in Sebelius and Logic. The transcribing/orchestrating skills paired with Sebilius, Logic and a 8-core Mac Pro saves him literally hundreds of hours on shows.

If you really want to make it work, I'd build on the contacts you have in the community and start spending your annual leave with your current position to give you more time to explore additional venues and work. Having a single theatre that you depend on for all your support is always dangerous, and doesn't allow you to grow as a musical director. And if you concentrated more time on this this year you might learn the degree to which this is feasible for you.

Alternately, would your current work offer you a leave of absence? This might be a lifeline to a paying job if it doesn't seem like the music directing gig is working out.
posted by arnicae at 10:04 AM on February 3, 2014

Best answer: BTW, since I'm not in the music field, just the partner of someone who is, I asked Mr. Arnicae what he thinks. His response is:

If he has the chops and really hates being an engineer, I guess he could give it a shot. You know I always tell people to do what they love. Just be prepared to be waiting tables at Cheesecake Factory, the number of professional musicians that can make their living just from music is very slim. I've never had to work outside of music to make a living - and I know how rare that is.

1-2k per show is a lot for community theatre. He needs an AMD with the musical chops he lacks, sounds like, so he'll need to work at theatres that can afford to pay for two. I make 6-7k per show but that is on the high end of the spectrum, no way he could get that with the skills you describe. Tours you get$1200-2700/wk depending on the situation Broadway and large sit-down shows start at $2500/wk. I can't think of a major music director who isn't a real piano player though. You'd have to work in education for a while, make your name there with a rehearsal pianist at your disposal, then move in to the big leagues with the understanding that you don't play You can Definitely do community theatre without being able to play.... They'll hire church lady to play for you. The thing is that all Bway MDs started as 3rd keys off Bway and then made their way up. And 2nd keys is generally the asst. conductor chair. So they don't always self identify as pianists (though they generally do) but are good enough to sight read any piano part exactly off the page so they're still really good.

If he isn't sure if he's a good sightreader, he probably isn't. But if he wants to test himself, play the following without studying them:
1) "King of the World" from Songs for a New World
2) "Juggernaut" from the Lippa Wild Party
3) "The Beauty is" from Piazza
there are definitely harder things out there, but that's what you're going to run in to if anyone ever tests your sightreading skills (this happens to me regularly with new theatres or new directors I haven't worked with before, and I always test my AMDs using similar pieces).
posted by arnicae at 10:15 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Based on the location in your profile, I'm going to say no, unless you already have a lot of contacts within the Boston theatre community and music scene.

If you were in NYC or Los Angeles, I would lean towards yes, because in those cities there's so much theatre and music that there'll be some project out there for you to get your feet wet with. No, you're not likely to make a paying career out of it, but at least you could go do an off-off-Broadway thing, meet some people who do this professionally, and see where that takes you.

Having a lucrative career in an in-demand field like engineering can, in a lot of ways, be a good insurance policy for dipping your toe into a creative career. I know the showrunner of a cable series who started out in finance and then left in his 30s to be a comedy writer; my understanding is that it worked out largely because he had the savings to put the time and energy into comedy writing even when it didn't pay. I have a friend who started out as a software engineer but later turned to writing, which has worked out well because a background as a software engineer gives you all sorts of skills that translate well to a lucrative day job.

But, bottom line, where are you going to do this professional theatre and/or music career, and is that a viable scene for you to get into? That should really be your first question, not "do people change careers". Because of course people change careers, but do you actually have the ability to change into this specific career is really the most important consideration.
posted by Sara C. at 10:35 AM on February 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Man this is a tough one. I too am an engineer by day and artist hippie by night. It is a tough divide to live in, and I totally understand the desire to just ditch that calculator for good. Many many engineers feel that way, feel sick of so exclusively using such a limited set of their personhood.

I think your answer will depend on your priorities and personality.

Many people become engineers because they like certainty and dislike ambiguity / uncertainty. They like stability and predictability. They believe things can be numerically quantified. Also engineering pays well for relatively little work. You are probably feeling very relaxed right now about finances, so you forget of the stress of not having $10k in the bank for "just in case." And it is really really hard to go back down in financial earnings. Try a month not buying all the good quality stuff you like. Engineering is a good cash cow to milk while you can. I spoke with a financial planner about this and she said if I could work until 40 or 45 and then switch to my lower paying dream career, I would be really set. Typically your 30s are your time to build your nest egg. Also if you duck out of engineering for >1 year then it may be hard to get back in.

From my community theatre experience, the people involved are very very different from engineers; to be successful you have to network, read the social tide, kiss the right asses, become friendly with the right people etc. It is a weird (not very meritocratic) world. I can't assess your actual music skills, but there is a lot of luck and social skill involved here.

Consider your true life priorities. What are you willing to lose. What would be your bigger regret - not having a good retirement fund and your kids having not a lot of education savings, or missing the chance to put your musical theatre chops out there. I don't doubt that your passion is much more personally satisfying. But what are your life goals?

I can't tell you what to do, but one option is to make your job as streamlined as possible - 9-5 with little stress. Maybe you do change jobs, but keep it stress free. Then spend all your time doing what you love. Make a proper financial plan (retirement, kids, education) and then work leaving engineering into the plan. Then do your dream job after you've set yourself & your family up right.

(Btw I highly disagree with the poster above who said engineering has a limited lifetime. Usually people leave in their 50s because they already made enough money to call it quits and do their dream work :) But if they want to continue to work, their experience is valued.)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:06 AM on February 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

"When you hear about my experiment, or Mike Rowe's experiences with dirty jobs, our society's obsession with "follow your passion" begins to seem bizarre. Why, we might ask, do we so easily accept the assumption that we're hard-wired for a specific economic pursuit? The alternative explanation -- that it's what you get out of your job, not the specifics of the work, that matters -- begins to seem a lot more reasonable."

Don't Follow Your Passion.

It's written by Cal Newport who also wrote a thoughtful book on why following your passion is likely (but not always) putting the emphasis on the wrong thing.
posted by storybored at 9:24 PM on February 3, 2014 [5 favorites]


Everyone above is very helpful with their advice, but considering that I actually know you, I think you can definitely make this happen. You might say that you "aren't a virtuoso", but you actually kind of ARE. I think there is a big difference with some people asking this kind of question that are coming in out of the blue with "I'd really like to try X", but I don't feel like this is the case here.

My two cents: if V is supportive of you giving it a try, why not set things up so you can take a year or so in between jobs and really tackle this and go for it?

DO IT. You never know what might present itself.
posted by stefnet at 6:58 AM on February 22, 2014

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