Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dawn Webster, trumpeter and acupuncture student

Dawn Webster is a freelance trumpeter and an acupuncture student at Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Los Angeles. 

Dawn studied music and environmental geology in her undergrad at Rutgers University and earned a Master of Music from Temple University studying with David Bilger.

How long have you been in L.A. and when did you start acupuncture school?

I moved here originally around November 2010. I was looking to move to a new city because I felt like I had plateaued in Philly. So I moved here and it didn’t really go all that well at first. I mean, I made some connections and was playing a fair amount, but I couldn’t find a day job stay afloat while building up a freelance career.

I applied for more than 2,000 jobs in a period of about three months, mostly focusing on office-related work because I had a lot of experience in that area. But really anything: janitor jobs, coffee shops, waitressing. After about three or four months of that, I realized it wasn’t happening.

People told me—of course after I moved—that you need to have a year’s savings before you move here and try to make it as a freelance musician. I didn’t have that and I couldn’t find a day job, so I moved back to my parents’ place in New Jersey, where I grew up.  I hadn’t lived there since I was 18 and in high school. But they were cool and let me move back so I could figure stuff out.

I applied for a couple hundred jobs back in New Jersey and Philly and wasn’t having success there, either. I took this as a sign that I should try something else, and started looking at the medical field.

I like the idea of helping people. That’s one thing that attracts me to music—interacting with people all the time, both onstage and in your audience. And that’s why I also like teaching. I studied science in undergrad, so that’s why I started looking at the medical field.

Based on my research, I didn’t want to go into a Western modality because I feel that in most cases it doesn’t treat root of the problem. In many cases, it does more harm than good. So I looked at a bunch of alternative modalities and interviewed people in the professions. 

Acupuncture has something going for it, and there’s a fair amount of scientific research being done on it. And there are a lot of related treatments you can do, such as massage, herbal formulas, nutrition, and gentle movement activities like chi gong, yoga, or tai chi. You also have to learn a certain amount of Western medicine.

At the time I decided to pursue it, there was one school for which I hadn’t missed the deadline. So I applied and within two weeks I was out here in L.A. again. I’m now in my fifth semester of a twelve-semester program.

How did you re-establish yourself as a musician in a new city?

I knew a couple people from UCLA through the Banff Festival. I asked everyone I knew if they knew anyone in L.A., especially trumpet players. I sent emails and Facebook messages and tried to get together with whomever I could, mostly trumpet players though. 

As a result of that, I did find an opening in an all-female brass group, so that set the ball rolling and I got other gigs after that. I like Balkan music, so I contacted everyone in town for that and I helped start my own group. 

You have to really be out there and networking. Now that I’m in school, I don’t really have the time; but I’ve decided that’s not a priority for me right now, so I’m not going to worry about it, TOO much.

Could you have gotten into acupuncture school if you hadn’t studied science in undergrad—i.e., what were the pre-requisites?

Oh, yeah, definitely. Different schools have different requirements. My school required something like 60 or 90 credits. I don’t even think you need a degree, just a certain number of credits. So there are people here who are quite a bit younger than me who do not have college degrees. But most people come from really diverse backgrounds. I think the most popular ones are business or something like massage therapy.

Did you ever have a job in the science field between undergrad and your Master’s at Temple?

I had some internship jobs during undergrad. But I went straight from undergrad to grad school. I finished at Rutgers in fall 2004 and then started at Temple in January 2005. At that point I didn’t want to do anything with the science that I’d studied—possibly ever, but at least not then. I really wanted to try the music and put the eggs in just that basket.

What’s your typical schedule?

In addition to being in school full-time and freelancing, I work in the library about 15 hours a week and I occasionally work in the clinic as a receptionist. The library job is good for me because I can multi-task, which is a very big part of trying to do all of this stuff. 

This semester I’m taking 19 credits and auditing four additional credits at a different college. It’s kind of intense.  Many Western docs who do the program say they find it just as hard if not harder than their programs.  There’s A LOT of memorization AND connecting the dots.

This semester, my schedule has been a little bit scattered. In the previous semesters, I would go to UCLA from 7 to 9 almost every morning and do a basic practice routine with friends there, then head over to school for class by 10 o’clock. 

This semester, since they changed the time from 9-11 (I usually have to be at school by 9 or 10), and I’m taking a lot more credits, I get practice in when I can. It’s usually either early in the morning or after 8 or 9 o’clock at night. Sometimes I work on Saturdays for four hours at the school, but the weekends are freer, generally.

Are you playing every day in order to stay in shape?  I’d imagine that’s particularly important for a brass player.

I’m playing almost every day, but I’m not freaking out about practicing every day like I would have done a couple years ago. Instead, I’m choosing when I want to practice. One thing that can help people is to have groups that they play with regularly. That keeps the motivation level up, because when you’re isolated, I find it harder to be motivated.

If you take time off, what do you do to get back into shape?

I’ve been finding really good success with the brass program called Breathing Gym and Brass Gym. It’s a routine that was developed by two really great tuba players, Patrick Sheridan and Sam Pilafian. 

It starts with breathing techniques that we use probably most specifically as brass players, but it’s pretty relevant to anyone doing something with their air.  They’ve even been doing medical studies with asthmatics for instance, with good results.

I have found that the results from that program stay even if I’m away from the horn, which is not something I’ve ever really run into before. So that’s been pretty amazing for me, not just physically but mentally, there’s so much less stress. I feel like my playing has gotten better than ever in the last two years just as a result of doing this program. When I’m off, I just go straight back to the routine. It may take a day or two but it gets you back pretty quickly.

Also, I’m not as stressed out as I was when I was just freelancing and worrying about money. I was so worried about making rent, but now not having that pressure helps, just being more relaxed in general.

You said that you had some recent success with auditions.

I took three auditions this summer. First one was Eugene Symphony, second trumpet. I advanced, but I didn’t win the job. They ended up picking two people to do one-year trials. They put me on the sub list and said I was their choice after the guys who won. So for me, that was positive.

The next audition I took was Spokane, WA, third trumpet. I didn’t advance; but it was unusual because a representative from the committee came to talk to us and said, “We had a really hard time deciding, and we really wanted to advance all four of you in this round. We really like your playing and we definitely want you to come back and audition if there’s another opening.” 

I thought that was kind of nice. I had never heard of that happening before.  There are two guys who have been in the orchestra a long while so it makes me think they were being truthful as well as nice; maybe the next audition is not TOO far off!

And I took Tucson. That one didn’t go as well, but I was happy that I kept my calm throughout the whole thing. I didn’t make any really crazy mistakes. I wasn’t feeling awesome, but I don’t think it really reflected in my playing.  Don’t take an overnight on Amtrak to an audition!

How did you prepare for the auditions?

Well, I hadn’t been doing very much classical for a couple years. As soon as I got out of school, I got interested in Balkan music and was playing a lot with West Philadelphia Orchestra and my own project, Galata Ensemble, which does Turkish music, as well as other gigs ranging from wedding bands to indie rock recordings to early music.

So I was doing a bunch of different things, but the classical gigs started going away, maybe because I wasn’t enough in that scene. I noticed people want to put you in a box. I’d been told not to tell classical people that I do this other music.

Your practice has to reflect what you’re doing, to an extent; since I was playing these other styles, I wasn’t practicing much classical. I found out about the Eugene audition about three weeks beforehand, which wasn’t a lot of time. 

So I just decided to really concentrate and go for it. I made the practicing a priority over my studying, which resulted in one really bad but isolated test grade. I took lessons with some people in the L.A. Phil. It was hard to set those up at the last minute, but it was worthwhile because I hadn’t played for them before. They’re all really nice and had some good comments.

I think that being in general good shape helps, and the knowledge that you get in classical programs doesn’t really go away. It’s just getting it under your fingers and getting a feel for it again, so it wasn’t quite as hard as I originally thought. If I was taking as many credits as I am this semester, it would have been a lot harder. I’m not sure how I would have done.

Where do you see yourself when you’re finished with acupuncture school?

Right now, I think I definitely want to continue doing music. I feel like that’s going to determine what I do after school for acupuncture. I’d like to be in an area where I’m going to be able to freelance a lot more than I’m doing right now, maybe in a smaller city where it would be a little easier to be one of the main people on the scene.  I’m not sure where the best places will be.

I’d also like to find a place where there’s not as much competition for acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Here in L.A., there’s a ton of acupuncturists. That makes it a good place to study, and the general public is into it and more aware of it. But it does make it hard, career-wise.

That’s also part of taking the auditions. If I win something, that’s going to be where I set up my acupuncture practice. The traditional mode of practice in the U.S., at least, is to open your own clinic. I still have another two years in the program to see different ways that people work. My priority is having a regular, good-quality place to play and I’m flexible about where it would be.

I’m also looking into opportunities overseas or on cruise ships.  I’m going to Turkey over break and will visit a clinic in Istanbul to see what practicing is like there (and hitting a few jam sessions too!).

Do you use things that you learned in your musical training or your musical career in your new field of study?

Definitely the ability to interact with largely different types of people. If I was only in one genre of music, I might only run into one genre of people and only be comfortable around them. I think in the medical field, you want to have some decent social skills and be comfortable around most people.

Musicians always have to work hard, so the idea of discipline definitely transfers into working until the job gets done or you know what you need to know. There’s always something more to work on or to study, and that’s definitely true for acupuncture and Chinese medicine, too. Most of the people in my school are very disciplined. This school usually has the highest pass rates on the board exam I believe, so I think there’s a high level in general.

Also, time management and multi-tasking. Even as I’m here talking to you, I have my notecards up. I’m paying attention to you, but when you were gone for a second, when the call dropped, I was looking at my flashcards. That’s why I like working in the library, because I’m getting paid but I’m also can study or do other things. I think that’s very important—how good you are at multi-tasking.

And, like I mentioned before, the brass program that I do is the most efficient and effective way that I’ve found to practice and keep my chops up. Efficiency is very important, because you’re not going to have the time, or even energy, to mess around. You need to go with what works, what’s going to get you results, and do it in a small amount of time.

How do you keep track of your schedule?

I pretty much keep everything in my head. A lot of my classes, work shifts, and rehearsals happen at regular days and times. I do use iCal to keep track of any things that are different, although I find that I don’t usually reference it. But I think the act of writing it down makes it stick. With rehearsals, there are usually so many emails going back and forth coordinating them that you know when they are.

Do you have any downtime, and if so, what do you do for fun or hobbies?

There’s not as much downtime, but I’ve been trying to travel a little bit more. I went to Mexico last year to visit a friend. I took Spanish lessons, which was good because I have a research project coming up in Panama, which I’ll need to know some Spanish for, and it’s also helpful for gigging in L.A. I was even offered gigs when I was in Mexico, so that was cool. 

This coming break, I’m going to Turkey. I love Turkish music, so I’m going to try and do some playing when I’m there, and also relax. I guess my hobby lately has been planning where I’m going to go travel and learning about cultures. And I like gardening. I grow things that I can eat, which saves me money. I also like to cook.

I think that’s a big thing: It’s ok to have some downtime and do things like that. I think it’s combining all these things that you want to do in the little amount of time that you might have. For instance, I like to bike, so I bike to school, and that’s also a good part of the exercise that I do.  And I save money which is great too!

And, music-wise, in addition to gigs I think it’s good to have an actual, tangible thing that you’re working toward to keep you going, so you’re not just doing your job. Even if it’s something small. I just downloaded some new, amazing CDs and I might transcribe or learn to sing some of these tunes, for example.

Some people don’t like this question, but I keep trying it with everybody. Who are your role models, or who inspires you?

In terms of how I live my life, I feel very inspired by the works of Gurdjieff. Also some people over at, an alternative news website. They have some really good philosophies on how to live your life in a pretty conscious way, but dealing with reality.

At this school, I have some good mentors. Two of my teachers here were actually full-time professional musicians before they entered school. One of them, a former trombonist, decided that he was done with the whole music thing, and was choosing a new adventure. The other guy, a guitarist, decided he wanted to do it on his own terms. He didn’t play for a year or two when he was in school, but he eventually got back into it. He doesn’t gig in public but he says he practices a couple hours every day. He loves it. 

They’re really great mentors as far as the medicine goes too. I’m very inspired by their style of practice, their knowledge, and the way they interact with their patients and students at the school.

What advice would you give to young people considering careers in music?

I would say go for it, but don’t pay for it. Having that debt is a very serious thing. More and more people get trapped in that, and it really limits what you can do afterwards. That was definitely a big consideration for me. I did not go into debt going to music school; I was actually paid. So I would say, it’s fine if you want to explore that. Totally go for it and do the best that you can. 

But people are really going to try to sell you on their schools and no one can guarantee you a job. You can work your butt off, but it’s just a fact that there are so many really talented, qualified musicians out there. You might not have as much freedom to do what you’d like to do, or even to change your mind if you take on a lot of debt. I wouldn’t be in acupuncture school right now if I had outstanding debt from before.

Be realistic about what sort of life you want to live, too. I think one reason I did reasonably well in Philly is that I don’t need a lot to be happy. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t need to live in the richest neighborhood or have a huge apartment. There’s no shame in wanting those things, but you have to know what sort of a life you want and what financial resources that lifestyle requires.

There are still going to be opportunities to play music even if you’re not doing it full-time in an orchestra. I’ve interacted with many people—especially outside of the classical world—who have day jobs and play music, and they love it.

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