About a month ago, I returned to my old stomping ground at Riverside Community College to visit the dance faculty. The moment I walked in, it was like I was home visiting my family. The studio still looks the same, with some minor changes here and there. The teachers are still the same, sitting in their office/green room where the core dance students hang out, while the students in the studio are rehearsing for their then-upcoming student-choreographed concert. I was quickly greeted by two enthusiastic "Hellos!" Followed by Rita, assertively ordering a dance student to get her ass off a chair so I can sit down. Ah, still the same. We quickly caught up, and one of the things Rita asked me was, "When are you going to write in your blog again? You have good things to say." So...Rita and RCC Dance...this is for you!
10 years ago, Riverside Community College gave me my first Dance Accompanist job. Here I am ten years later, and I've had the opportunity to play for major dance companies in the world, and for world renown dancers and choreographers. I owe my success to the people who pushed me into this career. I've written several drafts of what can I say about my job ten years later. I keep deleting it and rewriting it. Finally, I came to this. I will write about 10 things I have learned during the 10 years I have been working as a Dance Musician.
These are in no particular order. Just 10 thoughts that popped in my head in the last 5 months I have had to think about what I would write about 10 years of being a Dance Musician.
1) Keep it Simple
I use to think that you have to be a virtuoso 24/7 to impress the teacher. I was wrong. For one, I was exhausting myself. Two, I was playing the wrong music. Then I figured out, if I keep it simple in the beginning, and slowly build up to something big towards the end of class, it was more effective. Once I figured this works for me, I found myself not feeling drained or tired at the end of class and I was able to do it all day.
2) Work Hard, Be Kind
This was what Conan O'Brien said before he signed off on his last Tonight Show on NBC. It's true. Work hard, and be kind, and great things will happen to you. (Go Team CoCo!)
3) Stay Humble
If I let things get to my head, I am only setting myself up for failure. There's that saying, "You are only as good as your last performance." This is true for everything that anybody does in their profession. I am as good as my last class. I know I can always be better. If I'm cocky about what I do, I only become bitter, and also become an unpleasant person to work with. That's no fun for anybody. The only person I am responsible for is myself. So I have to be hard on myself. If I'm not happy with my last class, I have to try and figure out how to be better.
4) Be Professional
It's amazing to me how people get away with doing unprofessional things, and still have their jobs. Again, this is true for any profession. It's not difficult to show up on time, and report to your jobs when they are scheduled. If you don't show up repeatedly, you lose your job. It's that simple. At least that's what I tell myself. Where ever I am on the freeway at a specific time, if I know I should already be passing a specific exit, and I'm not quite there, I call and tell the teacher I may be late. I also do whatever I can to stay awake. I always have coffee. And no, you can't have a sip.
5) Don't Dance Where You Work
Don't sleep where you eat. Same thing. I use to do this when I started at RCC. Things just became a little too weird for me and for the other dance students. Am I a staff member now? Or am I a dance student? What exactly is my role there? I'm not exactly faculty, but I'm not exactly a student anymore. It was just easier to keep dance and work separated. There is always an exception to the rule. I have taken classes where I play, but most of the students are adults who are 30 years or older. So they understand why I take class.
6) Dance Teachers are Dancers First - They Are Not Musicians
One of the common things I hear when I talk to other dance musicians, is that sometimes dancers have a hard time trying to convey what they want. So we, the musicians are trying to "translate" what they want or need. So I always do my best to be patient when they are trying to speak my language. But I also believe that it's equally important to understand theirs. That's why it's important for me to take class. That way, I can kinetically understand the kind of music that would be appropriate for what dancers need.
7) It's Business, Not Personal
This is a sticky one. Because when you do something you love, it becomes personal. I've had a teacher tell me I need to play more like a Russian man. Uh...no. That same day, I called my boss and told him I really can't deal with this teacher for 10 more weeks. I've also had Russian teachers yell at me in Russian. I raised my rate after that job, and they never called me back. So sometimes when things get a little heated, I do my best to deal with it. This job is pretty stress-free. But sometimes, teachers and students get a little ridiculous. What do I do about it? I take it to Facebook! I spew and quote the things teachers do and say to me, and I turn it into a joke. My friends laugh, other dancers sympathize, and then we move on. At the end of the day, it's business. Sometimes I raise my rates to avoid working at certain places, and amazingly, people surprise you and are willing to fork up more money for you to be there. It's Business. Not Personal.
8) Invest Your Time in Potentials
If I see that an establishment has potential for growth, or it's already growing, I stay there as long as they allow me to. Once things become stagnant, and I start to feel like I'm in a sand-trap, I move on. If I stayed, I would become bitter, and lazy. I've been in places in the past where I felt like I wasn't going anywhere. The teachers I was working with were burnt out. They were either in auto-pilot, or in survival mode. I constantly need to be inspired. In a way, I'm an opportunist. I know what I want, and I will set goals to get there. For me to feel alive, I need to feel a pulse.
9) Be Grateful For Every Job
Ironic, after just talking about raising my rates for places I don't like, and walking away from places that are no longer growing. But at the end of the day, I am grateful that I get to do what I love to do. For years, my mother tried to tell me I don't have a real job. Remember? I have a Chinese mother. I didn't become a doctor. I don't even sit at a desk, or teach anything. I just play the piano all day. It wasn't until she realized I was doing something she could gloat about, as in, I get to play for "famous people," she told me I need to thank God that I get to do what I do. You know what? I thank God every single day, that I can get up and do what I love to do and get paid for it.
10) Never Forget the People Who Helped You Get to Where You Are
Ten years ago, the faculty at RCC dance approached me and asked if I would like to play for a few of their dance classes. Before that, I didn't even know I could make this a career and be successful at it. They encouraged me to continue my education, and they gave me their blessing when I moved away to Orange County. From there, I played for Marie de la Palme, who got me a job at Orange County High School of the Arts. From there, I met Alaine Haubert who was teaching a master class. She got me a job at a pre-professional studio. I can keep this chain going for pages if I wanted to. But it if wasn't for the catalyst, I wouldn't be where I am today. So thank you, for everybody who got me to where I am. Here's to another ten years, which means I have to come up with 20 new things!