If you're a musician, you might not want to read this post.
If you wondered why I left a super-promising career in music, you want to read this post.
If you take the time to read this Boston Globe article about a recent sex scandal in the organ/church music world, please keep in mind that while it is not my place to publicly humiliate anyone, I could name so many more stories of powerful men in the classical music and church music world manipulating and exploiting young guys. This is not about one deviant outlier tainting an otherwise pure and pristine occupation. This situation is just one symptom of a dysfunctional community and society.
My story, and why I left that cult-like world, is not as extreme as the boys in this article. My story is more about the general, broader, shame-fueled environment of classical music, where addiction, sexual exploitation, "give up your entire life to pursue you 'dream,'" perfectionism, practicing by yourself (criticizing yourself) all day every day just to go to rehearsals with others (being criticized by others and doling it back out), and general unhappiness are all part of the trade.
Pursuing classical music made me egotistical, entitled, selfish, self-centered, competitive, and just generally not my best self. I saw people as objects to use and exploit for professional gain until I had depleted the resource. I operated under a mindset of scarcity and was not able to have friends or a community. I regularly uprooted my life in order to advance up the ladder. I lived my life constantly trying to one-up others but always feeling one-down. I spent way too much money pursuing a career which was more a status symbol than actual meaningful work. It was constant shame and constant comparison. I basically lived in a car or airplane the last two years I did it. I did not like how I showed up in that world, and the people I showed up beside were not the people I wanted to be around.
The older musicians in my life were gatekeepers, and they were mostly gay men. They had power and prestige, and in order to get anywhere in the world of music, you had to do what they said and bend to their will. They used shame and power. Some of them liked to say inappropriate things, but because of my upraising I shut that down really quick, and I'm clear that I lost opportunities because "I had a bad attitude" (I wasn't able to be controlled and manipulated).
The system killed my creativity and made me dislike myself and not enjoy life-for fifteen years!
There was one shining light in this world, a mentor I met when I was twenty. He was, and continues to be, such a positive guiding force in my life, and my life would be so much less vibrant without him in it. If he was posted as a gatekeeper that granted young people into the classical community, he was a welcoming figure rather than an ogre under the bridge.
18 months ago, I went to play a concert at Wells Cathedral and then went to Paris to spend a week at his quiet home south of the city. We ate, visited beautiful old organs, played a little music, but mostly just talked about life through our unique viewpoint as curators of music but also as gay men and people living in this place and this time.
By the end of that week, I finally had the strength to say out loud to someone for the first time that I no longer wanted to pursue classical music.
I thought that when I "arrived" at a good career, everything would click and all the dealing with alcoholic bosses and the neck arthritis that pursuing music induced would all be worth it. But by that visit with my mentor, I had already arrived professionally. I had achieved everything I had ever set out to do in music, both professionally and artistically.
Once I got everything I wanted in music, and saw that it still didn't feel good, the illusion vanished and things began to fall apart. But they needed to fall apart. An ego-based career was crumbling so that something new and better could take its place.
I cancelled concerts at some of the most prestigious cathedrals in the world (Notre Dame and La Madeleine in Paris, NYC, Atlanta, the list goes on), cancelled recordings, turned down a major job offer, quit a good job at an Anglican church, quit a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship at Southern Methodist University, and moved back to Houston to COMPLETELY start over.
The transition was extremely difficult and emotional. Some days I felt absolutely fundamentally incapable of being a human in the world. But there were good moments also. I got to see my friends a lot more. I got to read great books. I got to take my dog for walks and slow down and sit still and be quiet. I got to spend my summer going to the beach and amusement parks and Astros games and camping out and just being a kid.
I also let people help me a lot; my apartment is full of hand me downs from the people who love me, which feels super nurturing. The day that I put the sheets my mom gave me on a bed my friend helped me pick out, I felt such joy. I was no longer a wandering vagabond. I had home that I created with the help of the people closest to me. It was one of the happiest, lightest feelings I have ever felt.
For a little while, I waited tables-which was super good for the humility factor. Then I found a church job that felt safe enough, and I decided I could use music as a tool while I pursued a second career rather than an identity (what it was previously for me, and what it seems to be for most classical musicians). Thankfully, I was accepted to the UH Social Work school and was able to begin getting my license so that I could work toward eventually working with gay teenagers and their families. Inadvertently, I found a whole new world of public policy advocacy, which I really enjoy. I'm exploring and learning about life and the world and myself-things I simply couldn't do when I was part of the music world.
These days, I don't make much money and am going back into debt through student loans, and there is I can no longer point to anything that is shiny or impressive in my life. But I get to learn. I'm no longer in a bubble of prestige and competition. I am a real person in the real world, and I like who I am, and I like how I show up in the world, and I like who I show up beside-the best friends a guy could ever ask for-and I like how I am able to learn every day and how I am living a life of serving others. And I like that my family and I are healing and re-integrating after a decade of fighting. And I like that for the first time in my life, I am stable enough and sit still long enough to be able to share my life with a dog. I would have none of those things if I had kept down the path I was on.
Sometimes, perhaps, success is a dangerous path. When it's not our success to have, or when we need the success in order to be okay. My sister told me just yesterday that she always saw me spinning my wheels and going through the motions in music, and that in this new field I am in, she sees my life as having meaning even on the hard days. That purpose seems to give me more success than all the extrinsic things I was given in music.
Lately, my life is not really my own. Instead, I get to help a bunch of teenage boys and girls find who they are and discover themselves. I really connect with them and provide something for them that I never got, and in the process I also get healed.
Classical music kept exacerbating those old childhood wounds.
In short, I left classical music because it emotionally, spiritually, and physically inflicted pain upon me, and I am now in a field where I am filled and healed and nurtured emotionally, spiritually, and physically. There is not much shame in my life these days.
I no longer live an empty, unhappy empty life based on others' acceptance of me, because I found a way to accept, or at least begin to accept, myself, flaws and all. It’s okay to make mistakes now. It was never okay to make a mistake in music.
The conversations are no longer about whether the trill goes on the main note or above, or organ building trends, or whatever. The conversations now are about pain and suffering and how to be resilient and live life bravely. It's real talk.
I never crossed paths with Mr. Christie, but I can say that my whole life, I have hated how people get publicly humiliated in the news. He is 65, and this will be his legacy, how he is remembered. That must be painful. As I read this story, I played the tape forward of what my life might have been if I had not left classical music.
What would an article about me at 65 as a musician say, and what would an article about me at 65 in this new line of work say?
This is what I came up with:
If I had stayed in music, I would have been a burnout. I would have been unhappy. I would have looked great on paper and would continue to get approval from others, but have to also continue to medicate myself (overeat, etc.) in order to deal with the frustration of self-betrayal.
I believe that in this new path, at the age of 65 I can look back and be proud. I hope that my legacy will be that I am a dad, and a granddad, and I will have been with a good man for a long time, and that I have a line of work which pays me a decent living and that is meaningful and helpful to others in a real, connected, authentic way. I hope I’ll have a house, and a dog, and that I will be able to look back and know I lived as cleanly as I could, with as much integrity and inner dignity for myself and others, as I could.
I realized that I would never really have a chance at all the hope in that second story if I stayed in classical music, so I left.
Leaving music and starting my life over at the age of thirty was the right choice for me. I grew up, and everybody noticed. Everybody in my life had a reaction, and they were very quick to cast their vote (judgment) on my decision; mostly to my face! Some people quit talking to me completely when I left music. Some people got angry. Some people-the ones who really knew me-walked with me through a very scary time and believed that I believed in what I was doing. I found out who my friends were, for sure.
I gave myself the label and identity of musician at an early age, and really wrapped up my identity and worth into it. By giving up the thing I was so attached to, that I thought defined me, I went through a painful process of emotional withdrawal. I walked through to the other side, and realized that by walking away I got to get to know myself and like myself.
I found calm, and peace, and sometimes even joy.