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Tell me about your work is a new interview series published by the Division of Jazz Studies at UNT. We're interested in knowing more about the work life of our alumni, what role their musical education plays in the work they do, and what their musical lives are like now. Knowing this will give current students a broader sense of the career paths they could follow, and could suggest ways to prepare for them while they are still studying at UNT. --John Murphy
B.M. in Jazz Studies, 2004
What sort of work do you do?
I am a guitarist by trade, which means I do quite a lot more than simply playing the guitar. I own a small guitar school that specializes in group lessons in a rehearsal studio, as well as private lessons on a housecall basis. I have had this business, in some form or another, since 2003, which means it moved with me from Texas to New York in 2005.
I also have a performance-based business that has two branches: I do freelance session work in and around New York that varies from sitting in pit orchestras on Broadway, playing private corporate events, and functioning as a musical director or lead guitarist in other people's projects. This means that I am often working on music in a number of different genres concurrently, and go from playing rock and roll clubs to wedding receptions to rooms like Birdland and 54 Below on an almost daily basis.
The other branch of my performance business is as musical director, road manager and front person for the Rocket Queens, a (mostly) female tribute to Guns N Roses in which I play lead guitar. Of all the gigs I manage on a weekly basis, this one requires the most precision, the highest level of physical endurance, and the most active engagement both emotionally and intellectually. The group requires quite a lot of me as an improviser and as a technician, and takes me all over the US and Canada on most weekends. I built the band from the ground up, so I also own the production company that books the group and am solely responsible for contract negotiations, staffing, travel and accommodations, managing our budget, choosing repertoire and running rehearsals. The band plays an average of 120-180 minutes a show.
What led to you doing this sort of work?
I have had a guitar in my hands since the age of 7 and don't intend to put it down any time soon. My father was a guitarist, and so as a result both of his daughters--my sister and myself--became guitarists. He always used to say, anything that kept a guitar in his hands beat doing pretty much anything else. I would tend to agree. What we do is very much a family business, and we have a very specific and measured approach to how we look at being musicians in a world where that term means many things to many people.
What I do now is something that has evolved over a number of years based on my skill set, but is also an open and honest reflection of who I am as a person and as an artist--I love to plan and execute projects, I love to figure out what makes music 'work,' and I love to be onstage. When I am onstage I feel often as if I am somehow helping people. I consider myself to be a part of the service industry, not a part of the entertainment industry, and this distinction has been one of the defining details of my adult life.
How did you prepare for it?
My father was a session guitarist and began showing me what he knew when I was still in elementary school. He was self-taught and had a highly detailed knowledge of just about every kind of guitar-based music. I was fortunate to have a University education that rounded out my fundamentals quite a bit in terms of being able to read and being exposed to and encouraged to explore music that wasn't necessarily built around the guitar. But most of what I do now as a player comes from the time I spent trying to figure it how to actually make a living as a player, which meant diversifying my musical interests to the point where my playing was of enough value to enough people to create a financial scaffolding for me to stand on.
The guitar is a relatively 'blue collar' instrument, so much of my knowledge I picked up by living it. I spent a lot of my 20s on the road with a country band and with a math rock project that I ran as a composer and instrumentalist. I spent even more time looking obsessively at guitarists whose playing, to me, typified 'mastery' in a given genre--lots and lots of days and nights spent transcribing and analyzing the techniques, note choices, thought processes, body language and harmonic structures that make any given style of music feel 'authentic.' Individual 'heroes' in these genres spend a lifetime perfecting their craft in just one style of playing! This commitment is not to be taken lightly by 'educated' players, just because we were lucky enough to learn about some things in school.
I moved to New York when I was 22, and most of my training since then has been 'on the job.' Failures that I explored until I found the reasons for them, and successes that were sometimes accidents that I studied and learned to reproduce. A lot of what I do is very 'old school' and very rooted in the tradition of the guitar, as opposed to specifically in the tradition of jazz and improvisation that I studied at UNT. At a certain point I realized that my father, who had been a quiet but forceful presence in the session business since the late 1950s, was a great and relatively untapped natural resource. I had studied with him from when I was 7 to 17. When I was 27 I showed up in New Mexico one afternoon and asked him to start showing me everything he knew. As a result I ended up doing most of my professional development in an apprenticeship as opposed to through academic means. I apprenticed with my father until it got to a point where we became business partners. We began to formulate a teaching method that belongs uniquely to us as a family, which has become a series of books that are about to make their way into the world. My apprenticeship lasted until my father passed away in 2016. I am still coming around to the idea that my education is formally over, and that I have probably gotten to be pretty good at what I do.
What's a typical day like?
Long! Most days I manage booking and scheduling emails, generate content for social media and a few magazines that I write for off and on, plan advertisements for students and events, teach between 3 and 7 lessons, and have a rehearsal or a gig. As I have gotten into my mid-30s and my career has become more demanding and required more travel, I have started to think of myself as an athlete. I have an Iyengar yoga practice that I take seriously, and I see an occupational therapist and chiropractor on a weekly basis as well. As a result, I very rarely have a full day off (I have about 10 days off a year, including weekends). I am largely okay with this, because my hobby is also my profession! Most of my days will include a bit of each of these things, unless I have a recording session or am traveling to play out of town. Neither of those things lend themselves to multitasking.
What do you find most rewarding about it?
I have wanted to be a session guitarist since I was 7 years old, and now I am one! I think this is pretty cool.
What do you find most challenging about it?
Nothing about being a musician is easy, but I find the industry's acceptance of gross gender inequities as status quo to be incredibly wearing. Dan Haerle also said to me, on the first day of my first year at UNT, that if I wanted to be a musician I should come to terms with the idea that I am going to be tired every day of my life, for the rest of my life. I have determined, through extensive self-research, that Mr. Haerle was quite correct.
What role, if any, did your musical education at UNT play in preparing for this work?
While a majority of my work requires me to transcribe and internalize music very quickly, my reading is at a level that makes it possible to step into a certain kind of gig without having to keep certain complex things in my 'memory bank.' This leaves room in my life for things that need to be played by rote, without limiting me to only doing a certain kind of gig. Every aspect of the trade requires the appropriate tool--just as charts are an incredibly inefficient way of articulating the ins and outs of rock and roll (an MD once handed me a 14-page lead sheet for Sweet Child O Mine), memorizing the complete book for a one-off cabaret show on short notice is an incredibly inefficient way of being a player-for-hire.
UNT also taught me how to properly prepare for and take an audition. I have a very internalized sense of what it feels like to be prepared, and more importantly what it feels like to be unprepared. I am consistently amazed by musicians who walk into a room thinking they can 'wing it' among other seasoned musicians, and that everyone will somehow think this is okay. The great players aren't winging it. They are studied enough, and prepared enough to what they do look easy as breathing, but this is because they get up and work after it every single day.
If I am unprepared, I have a pretty good sense of how much time it will take and what I will need to do to GET prepared. I am extremely grateful to UNT for allowing me to feel the absolute mortification that comes from being unprepared in public in a relatively closed environment. I watch my peers and people in my employ go through this occasionally and it's not a pretty experience for anyone. I have definitely learned how to ride the bike by falling off more than a few times, so to speak. I'm happy that a lot of this happened pretty early on, largely because at this point in my career I like to be able to eat.
What might you have done differently during your time at UNT if you knew you would be doing this sort of work now?
I have always planned to be doing exactly what I am doing now, because what I do now is what my family has done for as long as I have been alive. However, I emerged into the NY market with absolutely no idea that my gender would be such an issue for so many of my male peers, or that it would ultimately become a defining feature of who I am as a guitarist. I didn't think about myself as male or female really, until I got to college and it was pointed out that my presence in the guitar program was unusual to the point of being intrusive to the status quo. I would have begun articulating my rights as a female musician more clearly and searched for more allies both within the program and around the country, rather than shrinking away from these observations as if they were somehow relevant to the work my peers and I had at hand. There were more than a few small battles that I could have fought better and with more resolve, that would have prepared me for the considerable challenges that lay ahead. Sadly, managing the political conflicts that arise as the result of being a gender minority in this field continues to be a part of my professional life that I do not enjoy. The time spent advocating on my own behalf puts me at a disadvantage in comparison to my male colleagues simply because they have more hours and mental space available to navigate the challenges of the day. This is something that became apparent to me as I was studying in school, and in retrospect it would have been wise to begin speaking openly about these inequities much sooner than I did.
What else would you like readers to know about your work?
I have a very challenging, very exhausting life. But, I also believe I have the best job in the world. I have also never stopped writing, even though circumstances have conspired to keep me from releasing anything new for a little while yet. I look forward to sharing some new things soon, now that my playing has matured, but the deeper I dig into my roots as a musician and an improviser the less I am inclined to call my music 'jazz.'
What other jobs have you had since leaving UNT?
Everyone in NY works a bit while they are getting established as players because the field is so competitive and the cost of living here is so high. Some people maintain this balance their entire lives here in the city, and this doesn't diminish their value as players or their level of musicianship in any way. When I was getting started here I worked in the sample room at a textiles design firm and then later for a high-end kitchen designer based out of Berlin. I learned autoCAD in three days in order to be able to do the interview, at a time in which I was basically desperate for work. I credit my time at UNT for this one; I studied the software as if it were a saxophone solo and was able to figure out which parts I could work through intuitively, which parts I would be able to master after digging into some details, and which parts were better off skating over because they were beyond my ability at the time.
During the Great Recession I lost 90% of my students almost overnight because a large percentage of working adults lost their discretionary income when the banks crashed. I was fortunate to find a job in the publishing department of Alcoholics Anonymous and this kept me afloat while I waited for the economy to rebuild. I live in constant fear of having to go through this process again. Much as we hate to admit it, musicians in this country are heavily dependent on the financial well-being of those who make considerably more than we do in other fields.
RHU, the project of 2014 Jazz Studies alumna Jordan Coffing, has released their debut EP Transitioning. Fellow alumni Ben McDonald, Ethan Stalbaum, Aaron Holthus, Connor Kent, and Spenser Liszt contributed to the EP.