Adventures in Adjuncting
You Never Forget Contingency
Stories about what happens when you combine nervous sweating, flute club politics and a tenure track job interview.
Names have not been changed because we all know I'm talking about myself.
As I was leaving my undergraduate degree, one of my mentors pulled me aside to have a chat about my future. His office was in the basement of the music building, near the rehearsal space. The hallway that connected his office to our rehearsal hall had the feeling of a backstage area, or a behind-the-scenes area of a restaurant. Its starkness suited him, and our conversation. Graduate school rejections had been particularly brutal, and I wasn’t accepted to any of my choices. The faculty were worried, to the extent that one worries about the future of a person who is not themselves, but trying to keep a positive face to keep me from getting worried.
Reader, I was terrified.
I was also crushed. Music is so deeply personal that it’s hard to separate your successes and your failures from your identity. I came from a fairly rural town with a very small school; I knew I had started college underprepared, and I knew how hard I had worked to correct the deficiencies. In all of the movies, that meant there would a montage of 80s power ballads to cover my suffering, and at the end I’d be seen in passing by the Dean of some prestigious conservatory and verbally offered a full ride over a sandwich. My ragtag band of friends would cheer and hug me as the credits rolled.
Instead, I had flown all over the country, played for the creme de la creme of the flute world, and watched as their eyes glazed over and their demeanors had shifted to one of boredom. It’s fairly typical to take lessons with prospective graduate school teachers, often at one’s own expense. To observe this custom, I had scheduled lessons with each teacher around my auditions - I paid one potential instructor $200 for a one-hour lesson. Five minutes in, she had said, “You have some work to do on your tone.”
I needed to fix my tone. The clock ticked loudly and I noticed that it was four and a half minutes into the hour. She may have said something else resembling an instruction. I watched her glance surreptitiously at the clock and realize how much time we had left. If she felt disappointed, she hid it well. I don’t remember what else she said, but had the distinct feeling of a date that was going poorly. Neither one of us wanted to be in the room any longer, but neither one of us wanted to be the one to say it.
There was also still the matter of the audition. Fifty more minutes to go. She kept me in the room until the hour was up so that there was no question the money was hers, but the lesson could have ended there.
I had flown to another, farther-flung schools with my dad - my dream school, and a city I’d been fantasizing about for most of my young life. I went in to the warm-up room to prepare. My dad lingered in the hallway, and heard the flutist say to a colleague, “I’ve already decided who will be coming next year. Unless someone today can knock them out of their spot.” I’m older now, and understand why this makes sense; if a school has limited spots, they want to make sure they are filled by students who are teachable. I was an unknown; his mind had been made up before my instrument was assembled. Dad bought me dinner and ice cream after the audition, and then shared that little tidbit. We had spent, collectively, almost a thousand dollars on flights, hotel, and a rental car.
It was how graduate auditions worked. You were supposed to take lessons with your prospective teachers months - even a year - ahead of the audition, so that they knew who you were. So that they had a general idea of whether you would be one of the chosen few. I didn’t know. No one had told me. They’d had lots of advice when my strategy of showing up, playing, and hoping for the best hadn’t worked out - but the early prep advice had been minimal, so I was flying blind. I didn’t realize it until it was far too late.
I’d had a ten minute audition slot on a Friday morning evolve into a seventy-five minute lesson on orchestral excerpts and tone. There were ten other auditionees waiting when I left the hall, over an hour after my designated time-slot should have ended. It was hard not to get my hopes up; I started to imagine what life would be like in that city, where I would live, the things I would do in the evenings, after practice was done …only to find a rejection letter in my mailbox the following Monday. I remember standing in front of my mailbox as I read, and realizing that my hand was shaking. They must have mailed it before I had even left the campus. The efficiency was impressive, if ruthless. At least I had driven to that one. I am a gainfully employed professional musician and twenty years later, I still catch myself turning over moments in that audition, wondering what I said or did to turn seventy-five minutes into a rejection.
Back in the basement of my college music building, where I was struggling with my pride, the mentor was trying to salvage the situation, lest someone ask the question: WHY was this student encouraged to audition at only the most elite graduate schools? I had basically applied to Harvard, Stamford, and Yale and not had a backup ready. Instead, he offered advice. I don’t remember if the advice came before I’d made the decision to move to San Francisco to attend a commuter school with a small, mostly adjunct music department, or if it was after. We’ll say it was after, because that makes the conversation more inspirational.
“It’s about the forward movement, Elizabeth. Make sure every step is a step forward.” I nodded. Duh. He went on to add that not every step needed to be a big one, as long as I was sure it was in the right direction. I was busy looking at his shoes, which were nondescript and brown, and wondering why he had chosen to wear them with black slacks. The gap between was bridged by a pair of navy blue socks, and I was dimly aware that he felt what he was telling me was very important, but I was too disturbed by the contrast of black-navy-brown to make eye contact and acknowledge his good intentions like a normal person.
In that dark, industrial basement, he looked like a movie villain. Forcing me to relive some of the most upsetting moments of my young life, in that moment, he felt like the villain of my movie. He liked to stand in the center of the hallway with his legs spread and his arms folded, so that whatever he was discussing would be overheard by everyone in the area. The image of it is indelible in my memory; another alum recently shared a photo of himself and that mentor on social media in that spot, in that same hallway. In those black pants and still navy blue socks. Everything was the same, except in the photo they were smiling.
I was not smiling, but I do remember nodding vigorously and wishing that the conversation would end. If he had any inkling that I was uncomfortable discussing my abject failure in the public hallway, he never let on; his mustache always gave him the sort of malevolent grin that made it feel like he was being condescending. In my case, it might have been true.
I was impatient with him at the time. Of course. No one ever takes steps backward. I was not going to one of the elite programs my teacher had steered me toward, but I’d practice a lot, take lessons with a few teachers in the area, and transfer to the first-choice program the following year. It was a step.
I had inadvertently selected a smaller, more attainable school where I could still study with a member of a major symphony. I’d picked it for location - I had always wanted to live in San Francisco - but the teacher ended up being a great fit, and someone I would attempt to emulate for years to come. There was no way to know it yet, but she would sow the seeds for the future I wanted - it was just a less obvious path, which … it turns out is my thing. There was no way of knowing it would work out well, so while he spoke of taking steps forward, I wondered if I was marching in place. Or worse - was I taking a step backward?
Now that I know the end, I know it was the right decision. There were a lot of years where it was less clear. I didn’t take lessons outside of my program, and I did not transfer. I did spent a lot of time revisiting that conversation. Usually from the front seat of my car. Usually while eating. Sometimes, while having a pity-party of epic proportions. Often while contemplating life decisions. Make sure every step is a step forward. It doesn’t have to be a big one. It just needs to be a step. It has become something of a mantra; life is unexpected. Plans never work exactly as they are intended, and there were a lot of years it was tempting to stop, and to take steps in another direction. Any direction. There were days when I would do it - there were applications for positions outside of my field. I’d lean a little too hard into a “temporary” job and start to imagine what life was like for the non-musical civilians. Could I manage a retail store? Sure. Would I be happy …?
I would stare down the long, clear path of that future … and turn back to the circuitous, ambiguous path I’d been traveling. Small steps. Sometimes they were so small I couldn’t tell if I was moving. Even a decade later, I’d lament about my career ambitions to my husband over brunch, grandiosely threatening to quit - but the mentor’s advice rang in my ears like a dare. Small steps. A dare and that mustache. It would repeat on loop in my memory while I hated him for giving me advice I couldn’t reject. It echoed in all of my weak moments. What if this is the small step that gets me back on track? I say small steps now, but so often I’d leap without looking and hope to eventually land on solid ground; it turns out leaping without looking is also one of my things. I’d leap and hope the direction was forward. A five hour commute every week for a semester? Like any rational person, I would hesitate for a second, contemplate the word no, and hear his voice. Small steps. I never said no if I could help it. As long as they are forward. His grin, and those stupid navy socks. No was never an option.
Sometimes, I wish I had returned his eye contact. Or thanked him. Make sure every step is a step forward - it doesn’t have to be a big one has been the guiding compass for some of the best (and most questionable) decisions I have made from that moment to this one.
Music will take you places.
It’s one of those phrases that resonates and has a habit of echoing through my mind at odd times. Music will take you places. I’m not sure I ever thought music would take me to downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, but the thought was there, in the back of my head, as we walked into the wind. It was below freezing before windchill, and one of those cities where the tall buildings turn the streets into a funnel. The Nebraska wind was so cold that the funnel sucked the breath right out of you. I was carrying a homemade music box, as one does when walking down the streets of downtown Lincoln. The melody was uneven and unsettling in the best of circumstances, and cranking it at the slowest possible speed, so as to more accurately capture the mood of the day. And also to needle my friend, the composer who had written the tune that the music box was mangling.
We were there for a musicology conference; I had put together a proposal of piccolo music by Nicole Chamberlain for reasons which weren’t entirely clear. Maybe I wanted to hang out with her? Maybe it was part of my theory that I needed to perform more in public? I had toyed with the idea of branding myself a “piccolo specialist,” which was my way of saying, “I want to be unique but I don’t actually want to put any independent thought into how.” The world has sufficient piccolo specialists without me; it was one of several professional identities I tried on during that phase, and one which I discarded almost as hastily.
It’s important to keep up one’s scholarship, even as an adjunct, so I cycled through those identities, trying them on for a conference or two. I’d discard them almost as quickly when no one else at the conference was interested. It’s important to keep up one’s scholarship, but when you’re driving 39,000 miles a year, there isn’t time to invest a lot of energy into original scholarship, so you make do. I had always been a strong student, and strong scholarship had always been my thing. The shoddiness of it all rankled me, but I was fortunate in that there wasn’t much time to dwell. Publish or perish! turned into See and be seen attempting to try.
It wasn’t even my best half-baked idea, but was a small conference so it got accepted. Nicole had, at the time, three or four pieces which incorporated piccolo. I had commissioned another, though it wasn’t supposed to be completed in time for the conference; in my desperation to stay academically relevant, I figured we could recycle the presentation again when there was new material. There we were, walking down the street, accompanied by the incessant, demented, uneven music box, trying to carry on a conversation.
Back home, my dog was recovering from a bout of pancreatitis It would be upsetting to anyone, but I was overly attached to the dog and silently crumbling. It was one of those tricky situations where she was too healthy to euthanize, but needed expensive treatment to have any quality of life. Veterinary bills can mount quickly, and I had spent an entire semester of adjunct work in a single weekend, trying to get her stabilized. She was stable, but only just - I was doing the mental math of the dog’s IV, my conference hotel, and the meals I bought for myself. How far behind would I be when we left Nebraska? What if the dog didn’t stay well?
Neither the dog or the conference seemed optional.
Somewhere in the middle, it was time for the conference. I’d driven the 150 miles to rescue Nicole, the composer, from an airport in Omaha, and then stayed up half the night in a Nebraska hotel threading the music box which was to feature heavily on the next day’s performance - it was a kit you could order online for $19.95. It involved a tiny, specialized hole-punch, and carefully counting lines and spaces on the threaded sheet. Any mistakes meant a wrong note which would thread through the music box at least ten times during the piece; there was one backup sheet. A sane person would have done it ahead of time - or ordered a backup. I was not a sane person; I was a person who drove three, four-hundred miles a week and never saw her ailing dog. Sane people ate meals off of plates, at tables; my meals were always wrapped in paper. It was midnight, then two a.m., and then three a.m., and my insides were vibrating from stress and exhaustion as I counted. Punch. Count. Punch. My body would start to sob involuntarily between punches and I would school myself back to neutrality. Punch. Count. Punch. There would be time for a breakdown later.
Fortunately, in the haze of doggy health disaster, I had noticed that the music box needed to be mounted on something large and wooden, to act as a resonator. I had chosen a decorative wooden tissue box, which made the box a very unusual sight. The provided screws weren’t actually sturdy enough to penetrate the wood (what did they intend you to post it on? To this day, I still don’t understand. The packaging was spectacularly vague), so I had found four full-sized carpentry nails and hammered away. They were taller than the music box, and protruded from both sides of the tissue box, making it resemble an instrument of torture or a particularly bizarre pincushion. The contraption wouldn’t fit into a suitcase or bag without crushing the delicate mechanism, so I had to carry it loose in my hands, which was probably what lead to my playing it. It was uneven, unsettling, and maybe a bit creepy. It felt like an anthem. I made this bizarre, uneven music box, it sang, So that you could see how active I am. Creative! I’m still with it! I’m still doing things. Listen to the weird thing go. Don’t mind the nails.
I remember frantically apologizing to Nicole as I was hastily assembling the music box. I shouldn’t have waited so long - I shouldn’t have been so unprepared. Procrastination and lack of preparation are especially dirty words for performing musicians. She commented that most people would have pulled out of the conference when their dog’s health started to decline; she has one of those dry voices that made it difficult to tell if she was offering forgiveness or admonishment. I was too busy threading the box to admit that the thought had never crossed my mind until she had said it; after six years of freelancing and adjunct work, I had gotten so used to darting from thing to thing, from moment to moment, that it never occurred to me that doggy panic was a reason to bail. I was always panicking. I never felt prepared. I never had the opportunity to do my best work because it took all of my best efforts to just survive. There was always another music box to thread - there usually weren’t people watching me while I did it.
Nicole is not an academic. I can say this without fear of hurting her feelings because she started her presentation at the College Music Society - arguably one of the more academic music organizations - by saying, “I am not an academic. Y’all better get ready.” She is from Georgia, but I think she exaggerated her accent for effect. As a fellow Southerner who worked hard to shed her drawl, I was simultaneously mortified and enthralled.
The College Music Society manages to encompass all of the sub-fields of music, and the regional conferences are always a strange mix of study areas that never seem to overlap. “You have to consider range of the piccolo,” she said. Audience members tittered, “For most of you, this is ungodly high. For me, it’s just another Tuesday.” Her presentation was classic Nicole; we were presenting about piccolo writing to a room full of people who weren’t flutists, and probably didn’t care about the piccolo music of a very specific composer. I was taking it too seriously, under the vain hope that someday of the attendees would be on a hiring committee and that might make the difference between employment and … not. Nicole was treating it exactly as what it was: ridiculous.
Music will take you places echoed again as we stepped out of the wind, into a Panera Bread, and I cranked the music box one more time. For me, it’s just another Tuesday. The entire situation was so ridiculous, and so pointless. It was one of the most sane moments I had during that semester, and I was playing a hastily assembled music box as I wandered the streets of downtown Lincoln.
I spend a not-insignificant amount of time thinking about what my life would look like if it were a TV show or a film. Some of it may be delusions of grandeur, but I think a large part of it is just a coping mechanism. This is ridiculous is a thought that is frequently followed by Think what a hilarious scene this would make in a movie. It’s a survival tactic and makes conversation flow more easily at parties. Listen to this stupid thing that I did, I like to say, You’ll never believe how it turned out.
I spent seven years as contingent faculty and freelance musician, and I spent most of that time in the Plains states, where the next city over was 90 miles away. I have done a lot of driving. I have done a lot of overnight driving. I have developed strong opinions about hotel booking apps and have favorite rest stops on most of the major interstates. I have eaten more six-inch roasted chicken subs from Subway than any one human being should eat, and I have strong opinions about the frying techniques used at several chain restaurants in the Four States area. All Chik Fil-As use the same recipes, but they don’t all cook their chicken the same way, and I will fight about it.
The year that my academic career felt like it was finally starting to take off, I had a MWF class at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas at 9 a.m., and another from 11:30-12:30 p.m. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I covered flute lessons for a friends’ maternity leave in Weatherford, Oklahoma, which was approximately 5.5 hours away. I taught in Kansas until 12:30, ate a quick meal (usually in my car), and began teaching in Weatherford at 6 p.m. Lessons went until 9 p.m., at which point I would check into the dorm across the street, set up my room for the night, and try to imagine myself back in college. (Nelly Furtatdo’s “Like a Bird” played endlessly on repeat in the background of both dorm experiences, for the record.) The following day, I’d teach from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and drive back to Kansas, generally arriving at around 11 p.m., if I ate dinner in the car. If I didn’t, it would be closer to midnight. Classes started again Friday morning at 9. I did this for ten weeks and managed to only cancel classes once. (There was a KMEA conference that morning and most of my students were performing. I actually stopped mid-commute in Wichita and watched their concert.)
The following year, we relocated to Norman, Oklahoma. Of course since we were living in Oklahoma, I was now working in Kansas and Missouri - leaving at around 10 a.m. to teach and rehearse 400 miles away in Salina, Kansas, until about 9:30 p.m., at which point I would drive to Joplin, Missouri and arrive between 1 and 2 a.m., sleep for a few hours in a Quality Inn (paid for at my own expense), and then teach from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. with only a thirty minute lunch break, scheduled at the very reasonable hour of 3 p.m. I generally used it to get gas for my car, so that I could leave more quickly at the end of the teaching day. Then I would drive back to Norman, sleep a bit, and teach lessons at a local middle school (7 a.m. commute!) or work a shift at my retail job.
I played for the Topeka and Salina Symphonies, which each held concerts once a month.
Somewhere in there, I was hired for a woodwind quintet that did elementary school outreach events in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We visited elementary schools on 22 separate occasions, adding a fourth leg to my strange commuting triangle, and a lot of early mornings to the already bizarre schedule. The outreach was pretty close to my “main” adjunct job in Joplin, and if the two overlapped, the group in Fayetteville covered my hotel. I considered it a money-saving venture, and secretly hoped that the orchestra associated with the organization would hire me more often to play their larger concerts.
It sounds ridiculous and impossible on paper.
It probably was.
I don’t know why I say probably.
I thought of it - and to an extent, still do - as the hard work montage in the movie of my life. All of the other arts and sports films have a series of scenes in the middle where Eye of the Tiger or Final Countdown plays while Rocky Balboa runs up and down the stairs, or the aspiring dancer practices leaps and falls and falls and falls until she doesn’t fall anymore. My leaps were long-distance, late night commutes. My Final Countdown was Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
If a film-runner ever decides to capture those moments of my life, I want to hear Waltz of the Flowers in the background while some impossibly beautiful actress pretends to drive frantically from one end of Kansas to the other, eating french fries out of a cardboard container on her lap. She will not gain any weight because she is in a movie and calories do not count in movies. It should be noted that this was not my real-life experience.
There should be actual ballerinas rehearsing the actual Nutcracker overlaying sitting in rush-hour traffic. If you know the piece, Waltz picks up speed, instruments, and intensity. More ballerinas, more french fries. Driving faster! Spilling ketchup down the front of so many dress shirts, spinning ballerinas, and driving even faster. The actress will learn to keep Shout wipes in her glove compartment so that she doesn’t have to teach in ketchup stains.
The music continues! Waiting out a hailstorm by practicing flute in the car. Trying to hold conversations with normal people who have normal schedules, more spinning ballerinas, more french fries! Frantic crying jags while definitely practicing more music in a dark parking lot (because it’s too late to make sounds in a hotel). More spinning! More french fries! And beautiful, pink, sparkling ballerinas!
The actual ballet becomes more and more frenetic, eventually exploding into a cadence that no one entirely anticipates. There’s another shorter, slower piece in the ballet - some conductors say it’s a musical metaphor for the passage from adolescence into adulthood - but either way, two hours of music comes to a close with the constant movement that is Flowers, there’s a forgettable slow movement, and then it’s time for roses an applause.
It sometimes feels like the adjunct and freelance phase of my life was the same. I drove nearly 39,000 miles in that last year, for work alone, and then it just … stopped. There are still days when I feel out of sorts or somehow not like myself, and I find myself buying fast food for lunch and eating it in the drivers’ seat of my car. I often park the car outside the building where I work. Eating in a stationary vehicle would have been an unimaginable luxury just a year before, but eating in the vehicle feels more normal, somehow. It feels like where I’m supposed to be. (This is the very definition of Stockholm syndrome. I don’t really enjoy the french fries.)
I talk about it occasionally. It feels a bit like surviving a traumatic experience - my friends already know the details, so they just kind of laugh and roll their eyes. Periodically, one of them has to make a late night drive and comments incredulously that they don’t know how I survived it, which tells me they knew, but they didn’t know. I made the mistake of trying to talk about it in a panel about freelancing and adjunct work at a conference, and discovered that it doesn’t translate well to strangers - particularly those who live in more metropolitan areas. Or maybe it does, but we’re only supposed to talk about the sparkling tutus to keep the illusion that the arts - the ballet, music - are only the beautiful parts.
My experience has a had a lot of beautiful parts.
But it’s also had a lot of french fries in the car.
Don’t forget the Shout wipes.