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Music grads hit high and low notes making a living

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2012 - In May 2011, Samantha Schmid graduated summa cum laude from Webster University with a B.A. in music, and an emphasis in operatic singing. But the job she landed that same month involved more provolone than Puccini.

Returning to her high school and college-break employer, Schmid took a position in the deli at Straub's, which also offered her some office work. Over the past year, she occasionally used her creativity to make store posters.

Only a few days ago, the 23-year-old was promoted to a full-time marketing position, which she hopes will come with a raise.

"I'm not sure how much it will be but it'll beat $9 an hour, and it's more up my alley than scooping chicken salad," Schmid said.

Jazz musician Andrew Miramonte, a 2010 Webster graduate, is making a living making and teaching music — but just barely. The $500 to $600 the 24-year-old earns every week as a freelancer doesn’t go very far in New York City — especially when $250 a month is earmarked for student loans — but it gives him the deep satisfaction of paying his bills by doing what he loves.

But "making it" involves wearing many hats and playing two instruments. A guitarist, pianist, composer and educator, Miramonte cobbles together a living with two teaching jobs, an assortment of restaurant performances and a collection of church gigs.

"It comes down to perseverance, really,” Miramonte said. “When I first got here, I went out every day for two months to hand out my resume on street."

Washington University 2011 music graduate Alena Wheeler also plays multiple instruments. Living in St. Louis, she teaches violin, fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin lessons; works as a studio audio assistant; and is in a band called The Root Diggers. This June, Wheeler, 23, is playing the mandolin in Opera Theatre’s "Alice In Wonderland."

She’s earning enough to stay afloat. But her career comes with a certain amount of worry.

"It's sort of like piecing it together however you can," Wheeler said. "You’re not really certain about financial stability — and that’s scary."

Working and networking

May 2012 music graduates, take note: Creating a patchwork of jobs is a typical livelihood, according to the chair of Webster University’s music department Jeffrey Carter. It’s how he spent the first 15 years of his own career before earning a Ph.D. in chorale conducting.

"I had no health insurance and no benefits. I was teaching at three colleges and a community music school; I had a private studio, a church job and I was singing at weddings and funerals," Carter said.

Networking makes it all happen. That’s something Carter learned first-hand during his freelance career, and that's what he now emphasizes to Webster students. One way to impart that message is to bring in adjunct professors who are active in the field, such as the former St. Louis Symphony employee who taught a music business course last fall.

"He essentially brought in his contact list, and also brought in a different guest speaker every week to address different aspects like copyright, intellectual property, recordings, website management and contract law," Carter said. "We’re doing the same thing this semester with music marketing class with a person who has a huge Rolodex, to use an old term."

Networking in New York City has definitely paid off for Miramonte.

“I did a church gig with this one guy. Then, he sent me an email that said he was going to Alaska for three days for a last-minute gig and asked, 'Hey, can you sub for me?' " Miramonte said.

Sometimes Miramonte’s odd jobs come with side benefits."One place pays under the table and the delivery guys teach me how to cuss in Spanish," Miramonte said.

Next stop: grad school?

Graduate school is another logical next step for those with a bachelor of arts in music or a bachelor’s degree in music, which requires more music courses than the B.A. About one-third of Webster's graduates go that route.

"Just yesterday, one of our composition majors was accepted to University of Southern California film school to do film scoring," Carter said. "Two weeks ago, one of my private students finished his lesson, checked his phone, and started crying — he’d just gotten a text message from Hebrew Union Seminary in New York saying he’d been accepted to graduate school to become a cantor in a synagogue."

For graduates of Washington University, the pursuit of an advanced degree is an even more typical path after graduation, and that degree is unlikely to even involve music, according to the director of jazz performance at Washington University, Bill Lenihan.

"They’ll do a music degree like a philosophy degree or other liberal arts degree and then maybe go to law school," Lenihan said.

As Schmid toils at Straub’s, she hopes to start graduate school in the fall of 2013 to study operatic performance, her dream job. In the meantime, she’s already had some work with St. Louis Winter Opera, and this fall, she'll apply to audition for the Metropolitan Opera National Council St. Louis District.

Schmid feels optimistic about the future for several reasons. One, is her versatility. She also studied jazz, and linguistics of the German, French, Italian and Russian languages. She can always offer private music lessons or even work as a translator.

The second reason has to do with her determination and skills.

"I feel like I have the talent and work ethic and brains to do it," Schmid said.

Neither Miramonte nor Wheeler is eyeing a full-time orchestra career, and are both happy to continue an array of pursuits. For Miramonte, living in New York is a career-builder because he gets to listen to, and even study with, many of the greats that he enjoyed growing up.

"I just keep trying to get better, and to get out there and play," Miramonte said. "I'll just kind of see where it goes."

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