Liz Thompson: Building a Life in Music
I’ve learned countless valuable lessons throughout my musical education, but one piece of advice in particular resonated with me in a unique way. As an undergraduate student at Ohio State, I attended a convocation led by composer David Lang. A student in the audience asked for his advice on building a career in music. His answer was beautifully paradoxical: Don’t try to build a career in music; build a life in music. His explanation was essentially that when you dedicate yourself to building a life in music, the opportunities (financially and otherwise) will fall into place.
I heard this sentiment echoed several years later at Carnegie Mellon by another incredibly successful composer, Philip Glass. Glass also encouraged artists to say “yes” to as many collaborations and opportunities as possible, saying “It didn’t hurt Bach; it won’t hurt you!” As I transitioned from student to office employee to freelancer, I have tried to follow this advice as much as possible. Through doing so, I have begun to build a life for myself in music and picked up a lot of skills (and great stories) on the way.
When I was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, my friends mentioned an audition for the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra that was less than a week away. Although my initial inclination was that I wouldn’t be ready in time, my friends convinced me to take the opportunity. I’m grateful to them, because I was offered my first professional position as 3rd horn with WSO. Working with these wonderful musicians and music director Daniel Meyer has been a joy from the start, and it has opened many doors for me.
My next opportunity to say “yes” came shortly after I graduated from Carnegie Mellon. My roommate and good friend e-mailed me about an opening in a group that he had just joined himself called the Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra. I had never heard of them, but he explained a little bit about the types of projects they do. Although I knew that the group was comprised of volunteer musicians, I was excited about doing something different, and I didn’t hesitate to e-mail them my resume. My first show with E.L.C.O. was a (you guessed it) eclectic mix of arrangements by artistic directors David Matthews and Alan Tormey of songs from Beck Hanson’s Song Reader. Teamed up with some fantastic singers, we played the show to a standing-room-only house.
At our second rehearsal for the Beck show, E.L.C.O.’s flutist Jess Hohman approached me and asked “Do you play rock music?” I gave the closest answer to “yes” that I could, which was “Well, I don’t not!” She put me in touch with some musicians who had put together a band to perform The Who’s album Tommy (which yes, has French horn on several tracks) at the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh. I had no idea just how much fun I would have playing in that show. I got to work with some incredibly talented local musicians (including Guy Russo, who recently performed with E.L.C.O.), and I got high-fived by countless fans saying “The French horn ROCKED!” (Side note: This is probably the coolest that I have ever felt as a horn player.)
Since then, I’ve had a number of other colorful gigs. I subbed in a brass quintet that performed at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Faire, where I learned the valuable skill of how to improvise entertaining banter in old English, as well as how to maneuver in a Ye-Olde-Porta-Potty in a floor-length tapestry gown. I became a percussionist for a day by participating in an outdoor performance of John Luther Adams’ Innuksuit for 9 – 99 percussionists as part of the Pittsburgh New Music Festival in 2014. This concert is where I first met Federico Garcia, director of Alia Musica Pittsburgh, with whom I recently performed a new opera composition. I have done several performances with a fabulous new company called Resonance Works Pittsburgh, which most recently presented a dynamic program called Flamenco y Tango. Last week I performed a Memorial Day concert with The Brass Roots, another pervious E.L.C.O. collaborator. This summer, I will be embarking on a Huck Finn-style adventure, touring on a river barge with the American Wind Symphony Orchestra.
Most, if not all, of these opportunities were as much a result of the personal connections I’ve formed during my time in Pittsburgh as they were of my merits as a professional musician. As I’ve navigated building a life in music, my incredible network of friends in Pittsburgh has contributed to helping keep me afloat as I figure it out – whether it’s by putting me in touch with a potential student, finding me a performance opportunity, attending one of my performances, or setting me up with a pet sitting gig. I’m looking forward to collecting new stories and experiences as I continue to build my life in music.