Adventures in Adjuncting
You Never Forget Contingency
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.