Sarah Andrew Wilson: Two Choices.

Sarah Andrew Wilson

Today I’m talking with Sarah Andrew Wilson, who is currently the Assistant Director of Education for the Levine School of Music, a multi-campus nonprofit community music school with locations in and around the great Washington D.C. area. I first met Sarah when we were colleagues at Wolf Trap – here’s her story. 

How did you get started?

Well, when I was a high school senior, and I said that I was interested in pursuing music, I was told that I had two choices: to perform or to teach. I wanted to perform, so I chose that avenue, and attended University of North Texas for Flute Performance.  It’s a huge flute school, and also a huge jazz school. I’d hang out with the classical musicians, but I really liked what I saw the jazz students doing, and wound up going to a lot of jazz events.

My senior year of undergraduate work, I remember thinking “Wait. Am I ready to perform? I mean, I’m only 21…am I ready to take auditions now?” I decided to get a Master’s Degree (at Arizona State University) to fine tune both my playing and my options – and actually started it in Music Education. About a year in I realized that I was spending way more time practicing than I was on my music education coursework, so I switched back to straight performance. But I had a teaching assistantship, and I enjoyed it, so I decided that I would do both – perform and teach – when I graduated.

When and why did you move to the DC area?

Short answer? Because I was young and crazy. Right around the time I was finishing graduate school, my then- fiancé (now husband) was working in politics and received a job offer in DC. I was self-sufficient and movable – I could set up my teaching studio anywhere – so we said “Let’s move to DC! Adventure!”

So we moved!  I knew building a studio in a town where I knew no one would take some time.  So I decided to find a temporary full-time job; that way I could build up enough funds to live on, and then could quit and go back to just teaching and performing once I had enough students. I sent my résumé to companies that I found interesting, regardless of whether I was qualified for the job. (Production job at NPR? NPR is cool! I don’t know anything about radio or production…but what the heck, I’ll apply anyway!) After a while, I was hired at the Washington National Opera as a contracts administrator – I got to see contracts for AGMA musicians and independent contractors, worked with all the departments at the Opera, and even met the Artistic Director Placido Domingo on several occasions. I started to really enjoy it. I didn’t know that I could work with fellow musicians – my people – and help create something with a high level of artistry without having to either be a performer or teacher. It really opened my eyes.

You know I have to ask: did you leave after three months?

No. I stayed for a year and a half – it was just too interesting to leave! But, after that year and a half, I was doing too much – teaching and performing and administrating. Something had to give, so I left the position and focused on building my studio and lining up performance opportunities. For two years after that, I played, I taught, I ran the Flute Society of Washington, and conducted a small ensemble.

But I eventually found that I missed it. It sounds really nerdy, but I missed a lot about administration – the structure of it, the variety of people I would interact with on a daily basis. As a teacher most of my interactions were one-on-one with my students, and I started to feel a little isolated. I started to realize that I’m more of an extrovert than an introvert – I’m not totally outgoing but I feel more comfortable around people. I also missed the coolness factor – having Placido Domingo say, in his accent “Hello Sarah” was an unrealized perk, and I missed that, too.

My next three positions were at two different organizations: I jumped back into the administrative side of things working for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. I had a love of jazz from my undergrad days, and I got what those guys were doing. It was a fairly small operation, and they accepted me on a provisional, week-long basis. I worked my hardest to make it my best week ever – I kept talking about the future, setting up meetings for the following week, talking about ways that I could help…it must’ve worked, because they hired me full-time. It was a cool job – I managed education tours for musicians like Thelonious Monk, Jr. and Herbie Hancock. Watching those great artists teach, invest in the next generation, just hit me in the heart. I was still on the education side of things, which felt comfortable, but instead of teaching I helped to support them, and make sure they had what they needed.

When I felt like I was ready for a new challenge, I took a position at the Wolf Trap Foundation. It was great to go from a small company to a larger department, a larger organization. I was in charge of any education programs that took place onsite: from Baby Artsplay and community music classes to master classes with dance companies to managing the award-winning Internship program. (This is where I met Sarah. – Ed.)

Two years into my work at Wolf Trap, the Monk Institute called – they had created a new position with national reach and a great compensation package, and I couldn’t turn it down. (It’s not something that’s often discussed, but it’s difficult finding something that you’re passionate about that will also allow you to pay your mortgage.) The programs impacted thousands of students across the country, and I got to travel a lot, which I really enjoyed.

But the saying “you can’t go home again” really did apply, and after several more years at Monk it was obvious that it wasn’t a great fit.

So I took some time off.

I applied for new positions, but also worked a great part-time job with an events company: it was flexible, and I enjoyed it. And, because it was flexible, I was available when WPAS called because they needed an artist handler for Jean-Yves Thibaudet. (Ed. – Shut. Up. So cool!) The time off afforded me the time and mental clarity to find and pursue a position that I really wanted. The Levine School had been on my radar since moving to DC, and when I saw that they had a position open I contacted the people I knew who worked there, just to let them know that I was interested and applying. It’s funny – at other times in my career I’ve known when it’s been time to move on, but since arriving at Levine I feel like I’m at home. I work with 150 wonderful musicians and educators, and it’s so easy to advocate when they’re your people. I understand their struggles – filling their studios, developing programs, schedule flexibility, travel to keep their musicianship relevant; I’ve been in their shoes.

Congratulations on finding your place, and your people. Any advice or lessons learned?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. College conservatories aren’t set up to be trade schools –they’re set up to teach you how to think critically, how to get through a discipline, how to do detail work, how to research. Even folks with performance degrees are likely not going to be performing right out of school, and that post-school can be really difficult and demoralizing. The long view is important.

Go with whatever comes your way and try different things. I think of the music industry as a tree – different branches that grow out of a common language and shared discipline and creativity. If you’re exposing yourself to those different branches, you’re learning about what you do – and don’t – want to be doing. It’s just as important to listen to your negative experiences, and analyze them to see what parts to carry forward and which to discard.

In thinking back over our conversation, it sounds like I’ve bounced around to various positions, but that’s what it takes to find your way.  There are many branches on the tree, and eventually you find the one that’s right for you.

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