Bending Life Around Your Career: Should You?

Brian A. Schmidt Feb 15, 2024

Learn more: artistic development, inspiration

Vibrant red stairs stand out against a white tiled wall as they ascend toward the top right corner of the image

I have been working as a choral conductor for 20 years now—and I love it. It has been challenging and rewarding beyond measure. I have had the benefit of working in different positions and, in each position, learned new things and discovered different aspects of the career which I am passionate about.


But about 10 years ago, I began to notice something. I wasn’t seeing a harmony between overall career direction and my personal interests, and I didn’t initially feel comfortable talking about it with others in the profession. It was then that I began to assess what typical career paths look like for choral conductors, and I also started talking with close friends.

The general consensus was that our profession has broadly determined a “correct” path, where one moves “up” from one job to the next, slowly climbing the (pre-ordained) hierarchy—like a stairway one climbs throughout their career. I began to observe (and hear from others) that following this path often required bending your life choices around your career. For some, this may work out well. For me, it caused me to begin thinking, “could one possibly structure a career around personal life and/or family?”

It took awhile but I began to give this real thought, and I owe that in part to the major shifts that became more present in tech careers and other industries. Workers of younger generations prioritize work and life balance, and the industry responded. I wondered if musicians could do that too.

I made a career switch about two years ago and in the process of doing so I connected with many people that have also made changes. Since making my own change, many others have reached out to talk through their own situations.

Here is what I have learned: you can bend your career around your personal life. And there are many stories which might be relevant for others in the music profession to hear.

For example, I know several full-time professional gigging singers that have taken a steady job that is now allowing them to build a life, stability, and/or family that they never imagined would be possible—while continuing to sing professionally. I’ve seen university professors leave academia and high school teachers with “top jobs” pivot to other work that might be seen as less prestigious, to balance their schedule for their family, personal interests, or mental health.

There is a stigma in our profession around leaving positions that the field has determined to be prestigious. Stepping off the typical career “stairway” will lead to falling out of the career. “If you leave, you’ll never get back in!”

But what makes a meaningful career for you?

I believe now is a good time for choral musicians and administrators to consider expanding the dialogue around what defines success in career paths as choral conductors, educators and administrators, and how individuals can achieve work/life balance.

1. Question

Start by asking yourself some questions that don’t relate to the level of choir you hope to conduct or type of institution you want to work for.

  • What are your life goals?
  • What activities do you (and partner/family) enjoy?
  • Financially, what do you want/need to support yourself and/or your family?
  • Professionally, are there other kinds of work you want to do outside of a main job?

All of these questions may significantly impact you and the life you hope to have, and it is absolutely okay to ponder these things AND career direction at the same time.

The dark silhouette of man's figure standing a top a sloping during golden hour, a warm rusty orange sunset in the background

2. Give it time and real thought

If you have considered this yourself, I encourage you to give it real thought. This part of the process is where you allow yourself to imagine the life and work balance that you desire. It begins in Step 1 with detaching your personal passions from your work passion.

Based on the things you listed for yourself in Step 1, can you imagine yourself in different geographical locations or climates that bring you happiness or allow you to participate in activities you enjoy? Is there a location closer to friends or family that might allow these important relationships to blossom? Would being in a larger metro area, or smaller town, allow you to pursue something that matters to you?

You are not crazy for thinking about making a change. It isn’t insane to veer from the “path” that our profession collectively endorses. Genuinely imagining yourself in different situations is critical to finding your place.

3. Plan your move

A career pivot is daunting, scary, and takes an intense amount of planning in any field—not just the arts. You have made lists of things that matter to you personally and imagined yourself in different places, possibly feeling drawn in a new direction. Now there are basic steps you can take such as:

  • cost of living research
  • starting to watch job boards, even before you’re ready to apply
  • investigate adjacent careers to see what options exist for alternative work
  • talk to people, ask questions, listen, and learn

Of these steps, I found the last one to be the most critical. Talk to people you know in areas you're looking to relocate to, or even people you know living in equitable locations and/or life situations. Ask questions and learn their perspective on life/work values and opportunities where they are living. The information will be helpful in developing your strategy, even if things don’t sound easy. Keep in mind that places that are desirable to live often have competition in the job market—but they also generally have more opportunities.

Once you’ve investigated things, the last thing to do is make the jump. Apply for jobs and hopefully get a job that gets you started in your new place. Things may not work out exactly as you planned but I am here to share that the many stories I’ve heard from people who have made changes are very happy stories. Obviously I’m not the first one to discover this, talk about it, or even venture into an “unconventional” looking arts career. And, this isn’t to say that the normal career path isn’t a great fit for you or for others. But I think it is important to share that the conversation of unconventional career paths is open for discussion.

There are many who will support you and listen, and if you are exhausted from bending your life around your career—know that you can absolutely turn that around. This is the same refrain I hear from many others, and I’ve never been happier myself.

What thoughts or resources do you have to share with our readers? Share any books, podcasts, etc. that you have found to be helpful in the comments below.


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Brian A. Schmidt

Brian A. Schmidt is a GRAMMY©-nominated conductor with a twenty-year career focused on developing meaningful musical experiences for audiences and artists alike. Schmidt currently serves as artistic director on the team of Gateway Music Festivals & Tours, helping design life-changing performance tours for bands and choirs nationally and internationally. He also works as a freelance conductor in addition to serving as a Lecturer at the University of Minnesota, teaching graduate choral courses and helping run the International Choral Academy, an intensive summer education program for conductors and singers. Brian lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul with his family and enjoys gardening/landscaping, cooking, and helping on the family farm in south central MN.

Brian A. Schmidt