Use your music to find a career path that’s right for you

An article from the Actors Fund Career Center

Volume 121, No. 11December, 2021

Geoffrey Tilocca

Speaking at a recent panel about musicians and career paths were (clockwise from top left) Local 802 member Cecelia Hobbs Gardner, Career Counselor Supervisor Patch Schwadron, Bunny Hull, Career Counseling Intern Geoffrey Tilocca, Local 802 Financial Vice President Karen Fisher and Marcia Butler

As a former heavy metal drummer and current graduate student in mental health counseling, I have been appreciating how my own music background informs my work as a career counseling intern at the Career Center of the Actors Fund. I recently enjoyed a conversation at the Career Center’s Spotlight on Musicians, where panelists explained how they’ve parlayed their professional music experience and skills into a range of other career fields.

Earlier this fall, the Career Center surveyed musicians about their experiences during the industry’s shutdown. A diverse sample of 54 musicians responded to these prompts:

  • Describe your music career before the pandemic; what activities were you involved in during the shutdown?
  • What work have you done outside of music over your career?
  • What skills from your music career do you bring to other work settings?

There was broad agreement on how the utilization of creativity, technical ability and deep intuition have served these musicians in their career journeys.

At the recent panel, I learned even more about musicians’ experiences.

Bunny Hull, a Grammy-winning songwriter, singer, award-winning children’s author, producer, music publisher, and Emmy-nominated director, is dedicated to changing the lives of children through arts-based social emotional learning. Her enlightening anecdotes about being open to opportunity and saying “YES” to unexpected twists and turns in her career, resonated universally amongst the other panel members and attendees of the event. “My career has been very serendipitous. I was not looking to change careers. I just followed the breadcrumbs.” During the pandemic, Bunny pivoted to the production of educational webinars for children. Her webinar series is now being utilized by over 20 schools across the globe.

Karen Fisher began her musical career at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Aside from teaching clarinet privately and performing freelance gigs in New York City, Karen’s performance history is robust and diverse, with stints in the Filarmonica del Bajio in Mexico, Coast Guard Band, New York City Opera National Company, and various Broadway orchestras. Karen is currently immersed in her role as the financial vice president of Local 802, but her transition to work outside of performance was challenging. She opened up to our panel and attendees about struggling with her identity and ability outside of music. “Making music is an identity, never a hobby. Ego bruising messages growing up of selling out. I had no idea what else I could do. Until you do something new, you can’t know.” Karen also discussed how patience, fast learning, improvisation, preparedness, and professionalism were skills she acquired as a musician that transferred effectively into her current career outside of performance.

Marcia Butler, a former professional oboist who used to be a member of Local 802, is a documentary filmmaker, author, and interior designer. She is the epitome of shapeshifting within the arts and had this to say during the panel discussion: “As creative people we have a mandate for the empathic expression of being, to defy all that is discouraging. Music never leaves. I’m feeling more a musician now than before. It’s imbedded in our core. We’re playing our A-game all the time.” Marcia has been able to pinpoint the emotional and creative cornerstones of varying artistic platforms and applied the same passion, work-ethic, and care to any endeavor she chose with overwhelming success.

Cecelia Hobbs Gardner outlined a multifaceted career integrating her work as a professional violinist with more recent roles as an attorney, arts administrator, union activist and mediator. Highlights of her performing background include solo and chamber music concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall, Wolf Trap, Aspen Music Festival and the Royal College of Music in London. She has been a member of Local 802 for more than 35 years, advocating for improved working conditions for musicians overall, but especially for equitable and respectful treatment and hiring of people of color. She is currently an independent life and health insurance agent who specializes in providing Medicare insurance coverage. She continues to exercise creativity, focus, dedication to the quest for excellence, and a gift for inspiring and motivating people to action. She also stressed themes of flexibility and fearlessness in facing career change, “Don’t make anything too precious. Be open to feedback.”

I rounded out the discussion with the point of view of the younger generation of musicians who are comfortable exploring different career paths along with performance. Passionate about drumming as a young child, I was eventually being selected to play drums for the award-winning Xavier High School Blue Night Band, performing gigs for ambassadors at the United Nations as well as marching and playing snare in various NYC top parades, including St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. As a metal drummer, I performed with various acts at legendary clubs like CBGB’s, the Pyramid Club and the Starland Ballroom. As part of the discussion, I shared how my music and counseling education complement each other. As a counselor, I bring my musician’s intense listening skills to respond to what clients bring into our sessions and enjoy partnering with them in addressing and resolving their issues. I knew that I didn’t want to rely only on music for a career and potentially have to fall back on a plan B. My musical life and career life was all part of plan A. I plan to receive my certification to practice mental health counseling this spring — and to start gigging again.

To learn more about programs and resources at the Career Center, register for an orientation. All programs are virtual and available wherever you live.