Listen: Music and Dance Alumni Trace "Chaotic" Career Trajectories

Dan Perelstein '10 went from Swarthmore to become a sound engineer, music director, composer artist, and actor. But for him, the key to his time at the College was the intellectual engagement.

"The things I take most from my time here are the ability to ask hard questions," he says, "the ability to listen to a piece or watch a play and have things to say about it, the ability to stand up for my opinions and articulate them."

Perelstein imparted this to students at "Chaotic Career Paths in Music and Dance," a panel discussion from the Department of Music and Dance, in cooperation with Career Services, earlier this semester. 

Some panelists’ career paths were less "chaotic" than others. Hannah Epstein '10 attended NYU for a music education degree, and then began teaching music at a charter school in Brooklyn. Aaron Friedman '00, on the other hand, taught English to schoolchildren in France for a year, returned to the U.S. and became a composer’s private student, worked for an alternative-transportation advocacy group, and had a stint with John Kerry's presidential campaign before founding the nonprofit Make Music New York, which he serves as board chair.

Jalisa Roberts '13, a dance teacher, choreographer, and founder of a New Orleans nonprofit called The Cocoon, says “people looking from the outside might think my career is chaotic because of what I do, but for me, it fits really well.”

Questions from students ranged in subject from the practicality of a career in music journalism, to the career path of an arts administrator, to the best way to make a living simply making music.

“Everybody has financial imperatives, and there are all kinds of different ways of supporting that and balancing out your life in the arts versus your financial needs,” says Perelstein. “Someone who has a deep appreciation for and care of the art that they're working on makes a huge difference.”

While the panelists noted that going into music or dance as a career can be daunting, they assured students that it is a very doable and rewarding path.

“It's a question of how you compare yourself to other people, what you consider to be success,” says Friedman. “The kind of success I've seen my friends have in the arts ... they're changing the cultural conversation, they're having an effect on the whole city and the environment that they’re in.”

“Don't get discouraged if people are going at it a little differently than you," adds Carmela Ollero '09, a freelance dance artist. "But once you find people who respect your work, respect your work ethic, keep them close. You want to build your own community wherever you are.”

Every panelist noted the impact their Swarthmore education had on their career, and how it prepared them for life after graduation.

“I would not have started the Cocoon the way I did, when I did, if not for the resources at Swarthmore,” states Roberts. While at Swarthmore, she received grants from SwatTank (of which she was the inaugural winner) and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility to start her nonprofit, which offers free dance lessons to children in eastern New Orleans.

“Take advantage of your classmates, your colleagues, the opportunity that the College offers you to get your finger in this, to sample that," adds Kathy Pearson Glennan '82, a music librarian at the University of Maryland. “This is a great time to experiment.”

“Really take advantage of your time here, especially with your community,” says Epstein. “You're living with people who are so smart and so creative. At Swarthmore, there's nothing you can't do.”