A Knave in the House of Cards

A meditation on dayjobs

A long time ago I was an undergraduate, a university student fresh out of high school. At the time a summer job was indispensable to help me afford my life between September & May, living in my apartment & studying.

As I look back, hindsight suggests that Socrates was right when he said “know thyself”. I envied those who had a narrow path to follow, circumscribed by the things they disliked.  I knew people who really only liked one thing and so could follow through single-mindedly.

Not me.  If you’re not sure what you are going to do, your choices become a bit more challenging. I am omnivorous, I love everything, as a student, and as an artist. There’s something to be said for specializing, for choosing one thing and sticking to it. If you are not limited by your taste, though, it becomes tougher. In my 20s I was sometimes a composer, sometimes a performer, sometimes a writer, music for plays, for film, for dance, a couple of musicals…. I was a coach, accompanist, a music director. And I was exploring the synthesizer and electronics, but also playing classical piano, and sometimes rock & jazz. 

I don’t think this makes me in any way unique.

And the whole time that I was exploring different aspects of music – theatre, I had a variety of jobs to support myself. Whereas the university experience precluded jobs in the winter, as I gradually segued into something outside the school year, the emphases changed, especially once I married & became a father.  The game becomes more serious.

I recall interviewing Philip Glass in 1981 before Satyagraha came to Artpark in Lewiston NY. He spoke of dayjobs in his recent past (I think he mentioned work as a cab driver and as an electrician… it was long ago, I wonder if I remember it right?). As I was still in my 20s I took that to heart, remembering the taunt in the back of my head that I couldn’t forget, namely “don’t quit your dayjob,” the ultimate insult to a serious artist. No I did not spend very long sustaining myself entirely on the avails of music.   So indeed I went back to a dayjob. Sometimes I worked in a bookstore, sometimes a library, sometimes I did construction, landscaping, carpentry, shipping-receiving, lugging & lifting. I got a job delivering mail at the University of Toronto, and got lucky in someone else’s misfortune. When the boss got sick, I became the new Manager, a job I’ve now held for 3 decades.
While I felt lucky to have the position, there’s cognitive dissonance, because my identity is in the arts, not in admin. It’s crazy when I’ve now spent so much time working.   I managed to mitigate those feelings somewhat by seguing into the academic realm, studying the disciplines academically that I had previously practiced. Even so, whether I was making music or studying it, that was all jammed into the spare time left to me after working a fulltime job, a divided life.

I mention this in context with the wonderful interview I shared from Margarete von Vaight, another person living a life divided between her art, her professional life & her studies. I feel it needs to be said in 2020, that you’re not a failure if you have a dayjob. At least that’s what I tell myself. Even so I feel like a turncoat, a traitor, a person whose loyalties might be suspect. That’s what I meant by the headline. Today especially the world of artistic creation feels profoundly disturbed, unsustainable, shaky at best.  The current business model? It’s a house of cards. Great opera singers have been staggered by the sudden disappearance of the medium due to wholesale closures around the world. The Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, have all cancelled huge parts of their seasons, while leaving us wondering what will happen with the loss of revenue. What will become of the performers who lost the gigs & their fees? What is to become of the art?

And the same applies in many other disciplines.

I don’t take comfort in having taken the safe path. I can’t claim to be smarter just because I survived, so fascinated with my job that my artistic activities were often shoved into the background. I had a fulltime job, while I finished my BA, then did an MA & a PhD in my spare time (although in fairness I cannot call myself “Dr”, as I didn’t finish) and also did at least a show a year, sometimes as many as 5 shows a year. There was the year when I did two operas in the space of a year, while going to class & working fulltime.


Self-portrait? the stack is the job, the building academic study, the blue space: what’s left over

My vacation days were pretty wild that year.

The curious thing about the job activities is how seductive they can be. I learned computers, web design, finance, spread-sheets, learned a smattering of skills in labour relations, management… It made me a better teacher, a better music director. If you know who you are, venturing off into a new line of work can be fun rather than a threat. If you aren’t sure who you are, the money & the gratification can be so alluring as to lead you astray. I’m not saying I got lost, not when I’ve been having such a good time.

While I’ve asked myself “do you work to live or do you live to work” I try not to over-analyze. If I’m enjoying myself then I think I’m okay. I’m about to retire from my job with a pension, able to devote myself completely to creative pursuits. I will now have time.
It’s a strange world. Will opera be back in the usual way? Time will tell. And what of the young artists coming into the field? I’m hardly a person to give advice except to say that education is invaluable.

And universities & institutions of higher learning may function the way monasteries did in the Middle Ages, to preserve culture in a kind of dark age.

These are interesting times.

This entry was posted in Essays, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, University life. Bookmark the permalink.

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