Adventures in Adjuncting
You Never Forget Contingency
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.