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  • Writer's pictureAlaina Chester

Falling for Pittsburgh

One of these days, hopefully soon, I will be able to write more often. I’d like to talk specifically about my experiences instead of just sharing major life updates. Things change so fast, and by the time I get a chance to write and reflect, I’m on to the next thing! Which I’ve been absolutely loving.

The big announcement this time is that I’ve moved back to Pittsburgh as of last July!

I know, what? This girl can’t make up her mind. Loving being in my 20’s….

I lived for one year (almost) in Texas and I was ready for something new. Or old. The money from teaching privately and selling reeds was great, but I knew the kind of work that would keep me creatively motivated is in teaching artistry projects and collaborations. Many of you might have no idea what that means or if I can even make money doing it, but rest assured I already have and will! Sometimes I won’t though.

I really enjoy private teaching, but doing it all day every day (not to mention driving to all of my students) left me exhausted, generally uninspired, and feeling underappreciated. I’ve learned so much and am grateful I experienced my year in Texas, saw some awesome sights - but thank you, next.

The competitive stresses and pressures put on Texas musicians at a very young age (and even band directors) are a big reason why I left because it often wasn't, in my opinion, conducive to fostering well rounded, critical and creative thinkers. It was hard to teach an instrument that didn’t fit into the band narrative of Texas and hard to get my students to value the same things that I do (especially when met with conflicting and often uninformed demands from band directors). These kids are exhausted, anxious, and stretched too thin. I could maybe provide a new perspective and relief to their tunnel-vision approach; I can’t change a whole culture and I would get extremely frustrated with this on a daily basis.

I often felt like my knowledge was undermined. As a younger looking adult who was new to the area, I must not know what I’m talking about, even though I was specifically asked to teach at certain schools based on my resume…(still salty) I’m very fortunate to not experience much sexism in my field, as oboists are pretty well respected. But when I do, it’s always from an older male band director who doesn’t want to get caught still not knowing what he’s talking about when it comes to the oboe.

It was hard to have my own plan for individual student’s levels because they had to fit into the mold of being a competitive “Texas band student.” They had to play pieces they were nowhere near ready to play, and were pushed to learn vibrato before they could even play with proper air support, let alone understand how to play in tune. It was a teaching nightmare...imagine all the “bad habits” that start to form under these circumstances, no matter what I advised.

On the flip side - being a teaching artist gives me that interactivity between my love of teaching and my love of performing. Teaching artistry is about bridging the gap between your community and your art. How much more would you learn to appreciate and enjoy something if there was someone there to guide you through all the ways this art could connect to your everyday life? Especially with an art form that is not tangible or visible. Music is for everyone, literally everyone listens to music. But not everyone knows how to listen to classical music. The age old argument about it dying is a misguided one. Because it’s classic! It stands the test of time! However, not many people know why it’s classic beyond being told “this is a great piece of music.” People love movie soundtracks and how it adds to storytelling, but that’s just scratching the surface of what classical music has to offer.

What keeps younger generations of band geeks interested enough to become professional musicians? I think the duty of today's classical musicians is to pass down the reasons we connect to classical music with others, especially those who can’t afford to go to the symphony (that would be most of us, hence the ever impending death). Usually, all it requires is a bit of extra information about the pieces we would play as kids and the drive to perform it meaningfully and accurately enough to do the composer/music justice.

I want to invite people into my world as I perform. Maybe I’ll share a personal experience or insightful doorway into the music with my audience. Just that small amount of additional knowledge can tune them into my world while I play, which opens a new dialogue and potential passion they can use themselves. For younger audiences, it might just be a fun game related to the music that keeps them engaged with what I’m playing. This positive experience can potentially be memorable enough to jumpstart an appreciation for classical music later in life. That’s what I love, sharing why I’m passionate about something and seeing people enjoy it with me.

Is a similar joy found in private teaching? Absolutely! I constantly use these tactics with my students as well, but I found it difficult to pass these values on to students who live in such an unnecessarily demanding and competitive environment for their age. Also, I don’t get to really perform when I’m teaching, I demonstrate.

Could I have been a teaching artist in Texas? Absolutely! And that was my original plan. But as we never stop learning, sometimes people and plans fall through.

I decided to go back to where I learned what a teaching artist is, and how to be one. This way I can work with previous mentors and great collaborators who took the same classes with me and have the same understanding of what the future of classical music could ultimately be.

And also so I could move in with my awesome boyfriend so we could be awesome together instead of 1,500 miles apart, which is 1,500 times more awesome!

I love the feeling of being in control of my career. I’ve always been prepared to take whatever potential job offer and move wherever I needed to move for it. And that’s a big part of being a musician, but I am getting the opportunity to see that I am capable of creating a career and life in music where I want to be, for the most part. It feels very freeing.

In just two months, I’ve again become financially independent through music. I teach some of my former students online which has been working out way better than I even imagined possible! I still make many of my old students’ reeds. I have one student in Pittsburgh, after emailing literally all the band directors, because they don’t have the oboe as an option to learn. I am part of a chamber group collaboration, called Ears Engaged, with a creative partner and team that keep me thinking and inspired everyday. I’ve finally gotten to use my arts admin degree through that collaboration and by being the assistant to a mentor that changed the way I saw my future in music. I get to be involved with her project and learn up close what it takes to be successful; she is constantly inspiring and teaching me whether she knows it or not.

I am so lucky to not have to work a minimum wage job outside of my field like I expected, at least for now. I’m constantly inspired. I get to have daily fun and cuddles with my boyfriend and his cat. Sure it would have been nice to be in grad school right now like my original plan was, but life is good! Life is hard in many other generic adult ways, but life is good.

Most of the time, I can’t catch a break. I can remember a few simple things that (when slightly adjusted) could have changed my career trajectory for the “better.” But I can also see how this is the path I was meant to be on and how these years are actually the ones that will matter the most going forward and something that few musicians get to experience. When I go back to school, I’ll have more purpose, intention, and drive to get everything out of the degree that I have been looking for without the existential worry of my ability to support myself as a musician. I don’t love every minute of this personal exploration, but I can accept it by intentionally choosing to see new opportunities – and even enjoy it with the kind of support system I have surrounded myself with.

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