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.”

Audio Transcript

Tom Whitman:  It's a great pleasure to welcome all of you today, and especially to welcome our very distinguished panel of alumni. We're very happy to have you all back, and just delighted that they agreed to come. Also wanted to offer a special thanks to Jen Barrington from the career office, who arranged this whole thing, did all the planning for it, said it would be a good idea, got the food and everything. Let's give a round of applause to Jen.

Jen:   Pure delight to partner with Music and Dance, and I think you guys found wonderful panels. Just looking at the brochure, it's amazing.

Tom Whitman:  Does everybody have a program? Okay. I don't know that I need to read everything about everybody here, because you can read it yourself. I'll just quickly say that Ed Spillane is a music teacher at the Community [inaudible 00:00:45] in Brooklyn. I'm gonna introduce everybody [inaudible 00:00:49]. Aaron Friedman ... this is in alphabetical order ... founder of Make Music New York, which is a non-profit organization that produces a citywide enthnomusical celebration in New York on June 21st. Kathy Glennan, who was actually a classmate of mine at Swarthmore here way back in the last century. Kathy is the head of monographs and music cataloging at the University of Maryland. Carmella Alero, '09, is a freelance dance and film artist based in New York. [inaudible 00:01:17] Dan Perelstein is a freelance sound designer, composer, and music director; and Jalisa Roberts, last but not least, writer, educator, Black Studies scholar, singer, and choreographer.

So what I thought we would do is just have everybody ... I'm gonna ask one question and have each of you answer it, and then I'd like us to be really informal. And after they say what they have to say, I would hope that each of you would have questions for them. If you want, we can ... if it seems like it's more practical to have break-out sessions later, we can do that as well. But we're just gonna start with the questions.

So "Chaotic Career Paths." That's actually the title of the program suggested by Jen in the Career Planning Office. So we presume here that the career paths have been chaotic. I don't know why we presume that, but that is what we presume. So my question for you is, in your case, is this title accurate for what's happened with you after Swarthmore, and why?

Aaron Friedman: Wrong panel.

Jalisa Roberts: We're starting with me?

Tom Whitman: Sure.

Jalisa Roberts:  So I wouldn't necessarily say that my career path from leaving Swarthmore was chaotic. I would say my time at Swarthmore was chaotic, but put lots of things in line for my career. And I think people looking at it from the outside might think that my career is chaotic because of what I do. But for me, it fits really well.

So I'll keep it short. But while at Swarthmore, I did a couple of things. I was in R&M and choreographed for Rhythm & Motion. I was a Black Studies and Dance double major. I was a SAM, and so I got a lot of help with mentoring and navigating academics at Swarthmore. And then I also was persuaded to pursue this dream I had of making a dance program that was accessible regardless of financial needs. And so being someone from New Orleans, it was really important to me to rebuild community in New Orleans East, which is where I'm from.

And so I ended up getting funding while here from the Lane Center to start a non-profit in New Orleans called The Cocoon, and was the first winner of SwatTank, which is what consider my [crosstalk 00:03:46] legacy.

Aaron Friedman: What's SwatTank?

Jalisa Roberts:  So SwatTank is Shark-Tank-style business plan competition that happens during the [inaudible 00:03:56] Conference. And so it was a really good opportunity to present in front of people, and what it prepared me for leaving Swarthmore was to be able to write for grants for the program. I currently teach kindergarten through eighth-grade dance at a charter school, and so all of that SAM experience and all of that navigating Swarthmore and advising other students on how to navigate Swarthmore prepared me for helping my middle-schoolers as they get ready for high school and all these highly competitive academic fields. And then I run The Cocoon as well.

And so during the week, I'm teaching kindergarten through eighth-grade dance; on the weekends, I'm teaching students how to be choreographers; and then outside of that, I'm dancing for myself, or singing, or reading, or writing. And for me, it fits. Everybody else seems to think I'm running around, but I'm doing what I love. And for me, it's really stable. So I'm getting paid to be a full-time teacher, like an English teacher or a math teacher, with health benefits. I have a house that I was able to buy with money that I was able to save through that type of path. And so it's pretty stable to say I'm an artist.

Carmela Alero: So I went second. Jalisa, my time here at Swat was extremely chaotic, and Dan and I were just talking about how surprised we were at how much we willingly took on extra beyond all of our requirements. But yeah, when I got the email that this was called "Chaotic Career Paths," I said, "Yes. This is me." So I was mostly a freelance dance artist and choreographer in New York. Freelance is very chaotic, because you're always trying to look for your next gig. You're not really sure how much time you have. New York is also ... you're tight on money. I don't have a house. And in another way it's chaotic because I kind of diverged from dance a little bit, so actually 2014 I attended Columbia University to get a post-bacc degree in pre-medical sciences.

So even though I was pursuing dance, there was something about it that felt a little off. And I know there's like a million ways that you can go about navigating an off feeling, but I knew that I really missed learning, I really missed being in the classroom. And physical therapy and rehabilitation medicine is something I've always been interested in. And I kinda just took the plunge and decided to diverge chaotically to another career path. So I'm actually applying to doctorate programs now. But I'm well acquainted with the dance world, if any of you dance majors and minors have questions about that.

Tom Whitman:  So you applied for a doctorate in ...

Carmela Alero: Physical therapy.

Tom Whitman: Physical therapy.

Dan Perelstein: Thinking about the title and the additive "chaotic": it seems to be ... I thought, although Carmela's had a different experience ... it seems to be representative of a common mischaracterization of the life of an artist, and not in line with my experience. We were kinda talking a little bit about it before. We knew this was going to be the question, and I was saying that adjectives like "unrestricted" is maybe more representative of my experience.

One of the things I oftentimes think about about my career and how it differs from the careers of normal people is that there's this image that a lot of people use to describe their careers that is based on a ladder. And I have just found that image to be totally irrelevant in my life, and I feel like the work that I did in the first six months or a year after I graduated college is very similar to the work I'm doing now, and when I look at the people who mentored me and who I aspired to be like who are 40 or so years older than me, who have been doing this for decades, the work that they do is, again, indistinguishable from the work I do.

And oftentimes, I'm up for the same gig as the composer, sound designer who is 30 or 40 years my senior who's a Tony Award winner who lives in Philadelphia, and so on paper he's so much more qualified, and sometimes they go with me, and sometimes they go with him. And so it's really in my experience not at all like you work as the assistant to the assistant of a composer, and then if you're lucky, you graduate to be the assistant to the composer, and then if you're lucky you become the composer, and then the lead composer.

It's much more like you do what you want. And it's a little bit different because I work in the theater industry where unlike, I think, if I was to be a painter, or perhaps a dancer, or some other individual artist, there are regional theaters all across the country who have a season lined up a year or even eighteen months in advance, and they start ... every show needs somebody in my position, and they're hiring. So it's not like I'm waking up in the morning and saying, "Oh, what music am I gonna write, and is somebody gonna pay me for it?" But rather I tend to be booked at least a year in advance and know exactly what I'm gonna be doing.

And as I said, there are opportunities existing. There's a machine in motion without me really having to drive that machine, and I'm just lucky that I'm not a poet or a painter, although obviously they have commissions and other opportunities that can turn into [inaudible 00:09:54] commissions, so they're not entirely on their own. I'm just part of a very clear path in terms of the larger industry that I work in.

I have ... about being unrestricted ... I have found that especially as I get more comfortable and confident and burnt out, that I have spent a lot of time over the last three and four years, especially, brainstorming other things that I would like to do, and taking opportunities to go do things that are unrelated or related. And it feels really free. Most of my projects are three weeks long, so there's plenty of opportunities for me to carve out time for whatever else I can envision.

And with the background that we have as Swatties, and especially as artists, there are a huge number of related things to any discipline if you're interested in where you could pick up a little bit of extra money to do something else that you're more than qualified for. So over the last couple of years in particular, I've been finding ... I've been trying to create variety for myself, in recognition of the fact that this ladder is really like repetitive pool or something.

Aaron Friedman:  I completely agree with what you're saying about the career ladder not necessarily applying to the kinds of careers that we're in and that you might be looking to join. And I think even from a young age, you have this idea that, well, you need to do well in middle school so that you can get into this high school class, and take AP classes, and everything seems like there's a very linear path that's gonna lead to law school and ultimately Chief Justice of the Supreme Court if your parents are anything like mine were.

But at a certain point you realize ... a lot of people make really excellent homeless street preachers, like that's a calling you could think about as well, but no one's going to tell you to do it. But there's some things that ... I dunno. You might be doing something straight out of college that really is the thing you want to spend your entire life on. And I think given where you are at Swarthmore, and the kinds of people you surround yourself with, there's a lot of ambition, and that's generally a good thing, but the ambition can often lead to a place that you don't necessarily want to end up.

And so in my case, the chaotic thing, I thought, "Well, of course they're gonna call me, for something with "Chaotic Career Paths" in the title," because from the outside, my ... even the word "career" just seems like the wrong word, without belaboring the point.

So I left Swarthmore year 2000. I went to France for a year, just because I was ashamed of never having really learned to speak French, and wanted to do something about that. So I didn't really have a career ambition at that point at all. And I found myself teaching high-school English in a preppy school in Bordeaux, and then getting to feel like maybe France wasn't the most welcoming country for someone with a strong accent.

So I moved back to New York, partly because I had a couple of friends from Swarthmore who had gone there as well, and I started working at the New York Philharmonic and Boosey & Hawkes, and places that were music realm, but when I discovered the music of composer Tristan Murail, who I really liked, and his music was being represented by Boosey & Hawkes, so I got to meet him, I quit to become his private student and tend bar and do other jobs on the side. Which again, my relatives thought like, "This is the worst job! You're not even gonna get a degree. You're just gonna hang out with this guy?"

And then in the course of that, I was spending so much time at the piano in my apartment and listening to car alarms go off every seven or eight minutes because there were passing trucks and buses on my street that would set off the alarms on parked cars just from the vibrations. So I decided to start a group called Silent Majority: Citizens Against Car Alarms, and get all my neighbors on board with this plan to pass new legislation to ban car alarms from New York. I ended up getting a city councilwoman to introduce a bill that a lawyer friend of mine drafted. I was hired by a group called Transportation Alternatives to advocate for non-car transportation options in the city. I got the bill passed through an eighteen-month lobbying effort. There was an article in the New Yorker about my work that John Kerry's campaign manager read, leading me to work for the Kerry campaign in 2004 in Wisconsin for 11 months.

So I was very quickly getting very far from anything that I initially intended to do with my life. And it seemed to make sense to me, because each one of these steps, it was like, well, obviously. This is a big problem that only I can solve, and here I am, in a position to do something about it. And when I moved back to New York in 2005, I got some other political jobs that were fairly short-term.

I remembered this event that I'd seen in France, the Fete de la Musique, which is a huge participatory musical celebration every year on June 21st. And I thought, "Well, I speak French pretty well. I can talk to people in France who have done it. I've organized political campaigns, so I know how to get everyone out onto the streets on a single day, just like for an election." And through the work that I had done at different arts organizations in New York, I actually had a lot of connections to particular musicians and musical communities. Plus through the car-alarm thing I got to know people at City Council, and in the mayor's office.

So again, it was such a logical thing for me to start working. And it was something that was successful enough to turn into a career for myself. But yeah. I think a lot of it was just deciding that career paths were not something that I was gonna concern myself with, because none of these things seemed like a very good career move at the time.

And maybe they weren't: I'm not making the kind of money that I could be through the Supreme Court path. Anyway. The chaotic thing I think ... it accurately describes how it seems from the outside looking at a trajectory like this. But again, to me, it seemed like everything made a lot of sense, step by step.

Kathy Glennan: I have probably had a more traditional career path, although at the point when I graduated from Swarthmore, the economy wasn't good, I didn't have a job. I moved back home to the Los Angeles area. I had a music degree from a college nobody had heard of, because US News and World Report rankings weren't happening yet, and my work experience during college was in banking, and even my banking employer was in a down market, and they weren't really interested in hiring me for a while until I finally got my foot in the door there again.

 But while I was looking for work, my parents felt really sorry for me. And they were Swarthmore alums as well. So it wasn't ... they weren't really critiquing my choice of college or even my choice of major, although it was clear that I wasn't talented enough to really make a career in music as a performer, as a composer, and maybe musicology, maybe, but I'd never studied German and I knew that was a pretty big barrier.

So they said, "Well, look. Here's this extension course at the UCLA Extension Center that's career counseling," and it was a self-paced, mostly standardized tests. You met with a counselor several times, and after you took this whole battery of tests, they'd tell you what you tested well for. Five careers that you test well for. So I did that, and my five choices came up, and one was "librarian," which I hadn't really considered. And I thought, "Oh, wait. They have music librarians. I know George Schubert. He was the music librarian at Swarthmore when I was there. That would be really ... It would make my undergraduate degree make sense!"

 So I went to library school locally. I wasn't convinced this was really the right career path, so I only applied to one school. I figured, if I get in, that's a message. If I don't get in, that's a message. So they took me. And I picked this particular school because it was a two-year program with an internship, and I could make sure I got actual library experience. I certainly had plenty of experience as a user, but not actually as an employee. So that was important.

And in my second year, I designed an internship where I worked both in cataloging behind the scenes at UCLA, and also in the public services side, where I did reference on the reference desk sometimes; I helped build the collection a little. I got an assignment to see what Villa-Lobos scores were available for purchase that the university didn't own yet and make some recommendations. And they had me read the copyright policy and tell them whether ... what they were letting kids do in the listening room about downloading recordings, was that legal or not. And I'm like, "I'm not a lawyer; why are you making me do this?" But it's a real concern for libraries, what copyright restrictions are out there, and libraries can be liable for these kinds of things.

So then I ended up getting a one-year NEH grant-funded position to work at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, which the grant was to catalog the most significant things in the collection over a period of one year, and the Institute held all of the literary things ... books, magazines, family photographs ... so that's not literary ... paintings, games Schoenberg invented. He invented a four-sided chess game. And these were not well-described, and so I was hired to catalog the published scores, both by Schoenberg and others; the music manuscripts; and then 2,000 family photographs at the image level and try to identify where they were and who was in them, and where they were taken, and things like that.

And I do have ... Probably the most chaotic part of my career is what I encounter as a music cataloger, and I thought I could actually show you some images of some things I've cataloged, because it might not make sense to you, what does a music cataloger do, anyway? So here are a few things that I just pulled out, so you can see some of the weird stuff that you might get working on.

So when I was at the Schoenberg Institute, not only ... the cataloging rules were pretty much set up to deal with published materials. And you could do manuscripts as well. But I actually had to describe something like this. I'm not sure I actually described this particular thing. He made tone-row tools to keep track of the various roles in the opera and the tone-rows that were assigned to them and their inversions and everything else. And then he made the box that stored them. And I had to take the regular cataloging rules that says, "Okay, you have a book, and it has 275 pages and some music illustrations, and it's 30 centimeters tall," and try to fit this into that kind of model. So that was challenging enough.

But the fun thing of the family photos ... this is actually one I did catalog. The collection ultimately ... the family got really mad at the University of Southern California, that held the collection at the time I worked there, and they pulled the collection, and it now resides in Vienna.

But I actually cataloged this picture of Schoenberg with Charlie Chaplin, and Chaplin actually autographed the photo. And here's ... this is my description of that. It's still available in WorldCat. And I had a summary: "Charlie Chaplin standing with Arnold Schoenberg outside in Los Angeles" ... didn't know exactly where. And at ... the notes at the bottom here: "One original photo print is signed by Chaplin." And it also has ... we were doing at the image, so there's a description and we put the ... we had four different photos. Only one was signed by Chaplin. And we had the negative as well.

So we just came up with also ... And people wanted to know ... one of the things we came up with that year ... was people would come to the Institute and want to know, "I want a picture of Schoenberg from the '30s. I want a picture of ... I want a ... I'm gonna use a ... I want a profile. I want a full-face." We came up with our own classifications so that people could try to find ... If you were illustrating a book of Schoenberg's, and you wanted a picture of him, do you want a whole body? Do you want a torso? You want just the face? You want a profile? So we came up with a local system to try to allow for retrieval with that. So that was probably the most interesting and challenging stuff I've cataloged in my career.

Then I got the regular full-time cataloging job at the University of Southern California, where I worked for 14 years on-site and six years tele-working. My husband's jobs moved us across the country. And yet I was able to convince USC that I should still be an employee and that they should send everything to me. Not surrogates, the actual items, so I could catalog them and then send them back. And that worked for six years until the head of the library decided she didn't want to support that any more.

Then I got an equivalent ... more or less equivalent position at the University of Maryland. So CDs came into libraries during my career. This is one that I cataloged about five or six years ago. I just love the title. And it's a challenge to catalog something like this because we have multiple composers on this disk, multiple pieces, a single performer. We want to make sure that any of you that are looking for this music can actually find it, and know that you've found this recording that you want. So part of the cataloging challenge is to make sure that I'm describing things so that you can find them. So this is part of the cataloging record for that particular disk, and it includes a contents note in a formatted way that catalogers know and love. Subject headings for all of the instrumentation; the forms that the pieces are in; the dates; the fact that it's a CD and not an LP. Certainly during that transition, that was really important, to try to make sure that people knew what they were getting.

Another thing that I cataloged at USC ... and one of my colleagues found this and referred it to me ... This was purchased for USC's artist book collection, and yet it was called "A Musical Book," and it had an instruction sheet in it that told you that to perform this, you operated on the leaves that were in between the wooden covers. And that includes mesh, bubble wrap, parchment; and to perform this, you could pop the bubble wrap, you could scrape along the screen, you could set the parchment on fire. My archivist heart ... because I am still colored by the fact that my first job was in an archive ... went, "Well, this is a preservation problem. This is terrible!"

So this I actually cataloged as both a book and a score. You can see the image up there in the graphic, that it has the book and the music. Because it is actually both. And it was 15 unnumbered leaves, and it's chance composition, and different materials, and included this instruction. So thankfully I was very grateful that my colleague said, "You know this might actually be a score." Didn't look like it to most people.

This is something I cataloged within the last seven years or so. It was actually a fascinating video called "On Bartok's Piano." And it included video about restoring Bartok's Piano, and concerts in Bartok's house, with his piano, which doesn't have the traditional number of pedals, so it actually influenced some of his compositions.

I'm not supposed to spend my time watching this stuff. I'm really just supposed to catalog it and get it out there; but I was trying to assign subject headings, and I just got sucked into ... "Wow. This was really interesting."

So this is the cataloging record for that. And one of the challenges ... up at the top, you'll actually see that the title's in Hungarian. And this is one of the things that catalogers face, is that we're supposed to take the resource as it describes itself. But on that cover, it was in English. So we make sure that the ... any way you might be looking for this title, it's available.

So that's the kind of work I do when I get to catalog. I also do authority work. And this is to create an authoritative way of referring to people or to works that can then be used ... these are shared internationally. And this particular one drew on all of my music education here at Swarthmore. This is Nemtin's realization of Scriabin's last work that was not completed. And one of my biggest challenges was trying to figure out if it was Scriabin's work or Nemtin's work. And that's a really big deal in the cataloging world, and hopefully it dovetails with what musicologists are thinking as well.

So the top thing is the final heading that I decided on, that it was Nemtin's work. There're all these variants, ways that this thing has been published or referred to in reference works, both by Nemtin and by Scriabin, because not everybody is going to know that it's not by Scriabin. And then I also have form of work, and the date that it was created and updated, and instrumentation, and then there is all this justification ... this is also in the record ... all the sources I cited by going mostly on the web and finding articles or things in New Grove or something like that, saying why it is that I came up with what I did. That's mostly for other catalogers to know that I wasn't crazy, and that actually that I changed an existing record, cause it was not that preferred title, initially. So I want to justify everything so somebody doesn't to and change my work. So this was a major challenge, and I just did this at the end of 2015.

The other thing that I found myself doing not only just being ... moving into some management in libraries, but also as you noted in my bio, I've gotten into the international cataloging rules, the creation and development of those. And this is the group that met in Frankfurt in November. We met for five days discussing changes to the cataloging rules. You have to really be into this stuff, otherwise it's nap time. A really great group of people, however, and it's been a really wonderful experience to get in ... deep and dirty into the theory of what's going on behind the cataloging rules.

And then I also make presentations at conferences, largely about that work, so you can see this was from the Music Library Association meeting just last year. I'm tiny. The screen is big.

So that's the kind of stuff that I do. As I did mention the Music Library Association ... a great, great opportunity. Most people who are members of MLA and have music librarian jobs have a master's degree in music and a master's degree in library science. Somehow I've managed to make it with just a master's degree in library science and a music degree from Swarthmore, for which I am grateful. But there are plenty of people who get into the music librarian world who do it from a PhD in musicology or something else as they look for career choices. Librarianship is ... MLA is a great group of people. We have a local chapter in the Atlantic area. And there are national meetings every year. And I'm happy to talk to you more about that group, or I know that Donna can certainly fill you in, especially about the Atlantic chapter.

So that was just my images so that you could have a little sense of what it means to be a music cataloger.

Hannah Epstein:  Hi, I'm Hannah. I probably had the least chaotic career of anybody here. I graduate from Swarthmore as a music major, but I've always loved teaching. So I tutored full-time for two years after college, and then decided that I wanted to become a music teacher. So I went to NYU and got a music education degree, and after that worked at a charter school for two years, which sounds a lot like your school. And then now I'm at my second school. So I have not had a very chaotic career, although there have been very chaotic moments in my career teaching K through eight is not always super easy. Even now, teaching pre-K to fourth is not always really easy. But I think that I got some great advice at Swarthmore, which was that if you get a master's in music education, you can kind of do anything. So I feel like my career has not been chaotic up until this point, but I would love to explore the option of teaching other grades at other levels, or using my music education education and my music education to do other things in music as well.