Tag Archives: career change

Off we go!

It’s been a staggeringly long time since I last wrote for Composing Kitchen. I could wring my hands about it, beat myself up about it, shut it down in defeat and resignation… but I’d rather try again and see what happens this time.

Karen and I are in the midst of a big upheaval: We are relocating, bit by bit, from Albuquerque to the Baltimore/DC area to be closer to some of my aging family members. In short, I don’t feel right about being this far away as they reach the need for care. I want to be there and be helpful — and Karen, huge-hearted as she is, essentially insisted that we go. And so off we go.

We decided this in August. Because Karen’s last job search took about six months, she jumped right in with enthusiasm – and her first two applications earned her interviews, and one of those an offer. She’s now with a right-minded, woman-owned small business that aligns very well with her personal values, judging by what we have seen so far. So she’s been gone since October 3. Meanwhile I’m holding down the fort, coordinating renovations to the house before putting it on the market, working my various jobs (composing, teaching music technology, freelance writing/editing) and exploring options in the Baltimore area.

Karen is living with my sister and paying her with excellent cooking rather than rent. For me, it’s very sweet to know that Karen is still connected with me through my family, and I’m so glad that she has my sister for company rather than being completely alone in a new part of the country on top of starting a fairly high-pressure new job. We’ve reminded ourselves many times already that plenty of families – in the military, particularly – deal with far more painful and dangerous separations every day, and we’re keeping it in perspective.

So a ton is going on for us right now, but there’s also a ton of wonderful stuff that’s happened since I last wrote and I intend to feature some of the highlights here. The short version? I got so busy with composing, and having a great time with it, that this blog fell by the wayside.

The original point of Composing Kitchen was to write about how Karen’s and my career shifts were working out in hopes of providing help, inspiration or at least the occasional knowing laugh to other musicians, artists, career-changers and attempters-of-new-things in general. So that’s what we’ll focus on.

Off we go!


Getting Better, Getting Pickier, Getting Better…

Ever seen the Web site There I Fixed It? No? Oh, go! Go now and check it out to see gems like this:

That should do it!

That should do it! [From There I Fixed It]

So, I haven’t done anything worthy of that site, but there was a time — early in my new-homeowner years — when I was just clever enough to pull off some questionable DIY feats… and apparently not clever enough to take the time to do things properly. The truth is, sometimes I preferred the wham-bam-done! method because I knew that if I tried harder, I might open a can of worms that I couldn’t handle. Or didn’t think I could at the time.

That’s the funny thing about learning: When you’re intimidated by something, you’re in no condition to learn; you’re too freaked out to handle the challenge! Evaluating your own work is much the same. When you’re unsure of yourself, you’re more likely to accept “good enough.” But if you want to go from amateur to pro, “good enough” never is. You have to raise your standards. And just as with learning, you’re much more capable of pushing yourself when you’re feeling secure.

Until I did it, I had no idea I could do it — and that’s the value of pushing yourself.

So I find this a fascinating chicken-or-egg question: Do you get better at something and then, from that new foundation of confidence, get pickier? Or do you start being pickier and then get better because you’re pushing yourself?

My experience points to the former, but who knows for sure? The one thing I do know is this: Once you discover that you’re able to do better, you’ll never want to go back. The first time I earned straight A’s in my undergrad years, that was it. I wasn’t satisfied with anything less for the rest of my education. But until I did it, I had no idea I could do it — and that’s the value of pushing yourself. It’s no coincidence that I loved all of my classes that semester. You’ve got to love what you’re doing enough to really, really dig in.

So, yeah, better and pickier… I’m not sure “which came first” even matters. As long as you keep things positive and healthy – don’t browbeat yourself; don’t impose unreasonable expectations – this is a great cycle to initiate and stick with. Whatever it is you do, make each finished work better than the last. Compare your best stuff to successful work in your discipline and reset your targets accordingly. Get pickier, get better, and then get even pickier. And whatever you do, don’t get featured at There I Fixed It.

One way to add that guest room you've always wanted.

One way to add that guest room you’ve always wanted. [From There I Fixed It]


A real workout: Reps within reps

I’ve written a lot here in Composing Kitchen about something not terribly flattering: self-doubt. I always just put it out there on the table because I figure if you’re reading this, you’re probably considering (or already) re-engineering your life, and let’s face it: That is scary stuff. You might feel like the proverbial 98-pound-weakling facing one of those sweaty WWF guys.

Me against myself

From the outset, self-doubt has been my most well-muscled opponent. And to hit my goal of a new piece of music every day, I’ve had to wrestle it down every day. I’m happy to say I’ve bulked up pretty well.

Sure, I still get butterflies when I enter my studio: What will I write? Will I perform the parts well? Will I record and produce it well? But over time, I’ve built up much more confidence — faith, maybe —  that I will, eventually and ultimately, come up with something worthwhile.

I think that has to do with reps: just doing it, over and over again.

It’s clear that the types of writing I’ve done the most come pretty easily now. Song form, with repeated sections, causes just about zero jitters. But for the last month or two I’ve been creating the soundtrack to a really sweet indie film called Roswell FM, and although many scenes work well with (and the director prefers) song-style backdrops, other scenes require through-composed music, meaning it has no recurring sections but instead changes moment to moment to support the action/dialogue. Not as easy.

Even so, my work on Roswell FM has been like a mini-study of how this reps thing works. Scene by scene, I gained a little more confidence about each phase of the work: Interpret the director’s comments and my own gut to determine what the scene needs; choose the right musical feel to achieve that; and then compose, perform and produce it pretty close to how I hear it in my head.

Each one of those steps is huge! The nice thing is, though, that in between film jobs I’ve done that last chunk so many times that I’m faster and more skilled with it than ever. And experience leads me to trust that the others — the interpretation part, and the more demanding skill of through-composing to a scene — will also get easier with repetition.

So what’s the lesson here? I think it’s twofold: First — and this one isn’t news — take that big, daunting project that you have in mind and break it down into sub-steps. But then figure out the specific skills required for each step. Are there some skills that you can boost outside of the “big project” context by doing, doing and doing some more, to the point that they get scratched off the list of worries? If you’ve got a screenplay in mind, are you writing something to sharpen your dialogue ear every day? If your goal is a photo exhibit, are you shooting and shooting every chance you get?

Break it down and say, “Bring it on! More reps! The more the better! Grrrr!” And pose like a WWF guy.

Grrrrr.


The First Two Weeks: A Tally

Since my last day at the corporate gig on July 15, here’s the tally of what I’ve gotten done, working Sunday through Thursday and a little on Saturdays.

  • drafted 2 light orchestral pieces and sent them to a collaborator, who will complete them and submit them for consideration for a reality-TV show (as I write this, it’s Thursday, July 28th, and I might crank out a third later today or possibly Saturday – yeah, that’s cheating! – to cap the week)

    A picture of my new office.

    My new office, complete with love notes and funny pictures thanks to Karen.

  • composed/produced 5 of what I’d call “upbeat light pop/rock” instrumentals and sent them to the requesting music library
  • drafted 1 theme for a local documentary film; the director likes it
  • created 32 alternate versions of approved pieces (9 pieces x 4 alts each). Alternate versions of a piece are basically useful variations on it, for example, without the melody instrument, just the rhythm section, and so on. They’re time-consuming but necessary.
  • completed lesson plans for 3 class meetings of the new course I’ll be teaching in the Fall
  • edited or proofed 13,301 words through an online editing service, for earnings of… wait for it… $163.29
  • received payment for a very quick-turn theater sound design – $150 – and discussed future engagements with the playwright/director
  • began researching how best to sell the soundtrack of the indie feature film Warrior Woman
  • wrote and posted a few blog bits (I like to call them bloggins), including this one at smaCK! (my music tech blog)
  • met with an SEO expert who also happens to be a musician, about helping her organize and structure a book
  • met with an attorney regarding whether to form an LLC for my publishing company, Smudge Creative Publishing
  • met with the fabulous owner of a very cool green business about her need for a good editor; she promised a contract in a few weeks
  • pestered the contracting officer at my former job about getting things in place so that I can contract with them occasionally; haven’t heard back after two pesterings in two weeks.

Clearly there’s not a lot of money being made at the moment. But there is a lot of potential, a lot of little pieces of me getting out into the universe. The production-music thing is a numbers game. The more music – let’s qualify that as “good music” – I have out there, the better my chances that something of mine will be used and create some income, and possibly some momentum.

Also, this doesn’t quite satisfy my target of a completed piece per workday, but it comes darned close, and the alternative activities were just as important. Building genuinely excellent, positive relationships will be key.

What Have I Learned So Far?

Well, for starters, the freelance editing gig takes a bunch of time (for me, right now) for not very much money. I also have to time it very carefully; for example, I can’t take a 7,000-word job in the morning if I definitely need to start composing by lunchtime. Not right now, anyway. Maybe I’ll build speed, but for now, as a new contractor with them, I’m very focused on ensuring top quality at the expense of time and therefore $/hr. And that’s OK. They’re a good company, and I believe in their value to their clients as well as to their editors. It’s just a matter of learning the ropes and building confidence and speed. Oh, and memorizing a few new style guides.

Second, and more positive, is that in all of these ventures I learn something every day. I learned specific music-production skills on Tuesday that I applied again on Wednesday; I learned about some new editor resources; I learned some small-business law (I’ll forget that, most likely…LOL); and I was definitely inspired by the people with whom I met.

I had some pretty severe anxiety on Day 2, but I got through it by doing the main thing I know how to do: work my butt off. I expect these little attacks to crop up occasionally; any healthy, smart person would be a little scared right now.

It’s cool (she says on the outside…).


The Transition: A mini-diary

As we neared the big day when I’d give notice at my job, I documented some of the ups and downs we experienced. Here’s a little of our roller-coaster ride, with some helpful info woven in.

Sunday, June 19, 2011: We’re just under three weeks from my proposed last day at work. I haven’t yet given notice; we’re lining up a few things first – well, one big thing, which is health insurance – before I make the move.

And so with that hanging over our heads, last night was rough. We were having dinner; Karen finished first and thought to check the mail. She brought it back to the table to deal with together while I finished eating. Among the junk and bills was a letter from the health insurance provider to which we’d applied the previous Monday. She opened it and began to tear up. My stomach turned, and I pushed my plate away: They’d declined her. They cited her chiropractor visits due to back pain. She was devastated.

Sure, back pain can be caused by chronic conditions, and anything chronic or that says “I’m on my way to surgery!” is a big red flag for underwriters. But in Karen’s case, the visits were more like tune-ups: She’s a massage therapist. It’s manual labor. She gets sore, and she makes a real effort to take care of herself; it’s as simple as that. But it’s also a matter, as our broker had warned us, of “a bunch of little things adding up.” Too many visits to a specialist like a chiropractor, and apparently the underwriters think you’re treating the system like a candy shop. Never mind that all of the charges were approved at the time she used the service. She apparently wasn’t supposed to use the care that we were paying, with every paycheck, for her to have.

Here’s the safety net: She works just 26 hours (that’s plenty for a massage therapist) but she can buy into her employer’s insurance. Losing her insurance through my job constitutes a “qualifying event” to make her eligible outside of her employer’s normal enrollment period. It will cost us about $200 a month, but that’s very likely what we’ll do.

Here’s a link to a great set of tips for those of us applying for individual health care.

http://www.mymoneyblog.com/application-tips-for-individual-health-insurance.html

 

Friday, June 24: This past week was a big one.

Karen confirmed the details of getting on her work health plan, so I think we’re good to go there. So yesterday morning, I gave notice at my job. I’d set the effective date as July 8 but agreed to delay it to July 15 to cover for a vacationing colleague.

The deed is done. No turning back now.

Wednesday, June 29: I’m a little freaked out.

Deep, cleansing breath.

We’ve done all the stuff we’re supposed to to prepare for a change like this: saved aggressively, tied up loose ends related to everything from home repairs to personal health, and lined up both baseline income and secondary/optional work for when I need it to stay afloat.

And I keep reminding myself of something: I have a bizarre history of good luck with this kind of leap. Not like this counts as a strategy, but every time I have taken a financial risk – when I have known that it’s the right thing for me – money has shown up. And I mean shown up, as in completely unexpectedly. My favorite example of this, because it’s so simple and literal, is “the blue jeans story.” It happened almost 20 years ago when I’d just moved to Albuquerque with my then-partner and her/our child. I was working part-time for $12/hour, trying to support our family with occasional help from my partner’s mother. At one point I needed new jeans just to have something decent to wear to work, but the $27 that Sears wanted for some Levi’s at the time felt like a splurge. I bought them anyway. The next day I received a letter from Cincinnati Gas & Electric. My grandfather had bought stock in them for me decades earlier. Turns out they’d been trying for six years to track me down, because they had a dividend payment for me: $28. That’s what I’m talking about.

I hope my luck holds.