Music alumni speak on versatility and passions in an ever-changing field
Story by Tia Patsavas ’16
For the modern-day music major seeking a career in a constantly changing field, the
path may not be evident. Students should be open to taking an unforeseen path. “Keep
the persistence going and stay open to the versatility and the growth that can come,”
encouraged freelance opera singer Kate Tombaugh ’07 at a music career panel during
Friday afternoon of Homecoming weekend.
David Rayl ’77, Shawna (Cornwell) Lake ’87, Alicia Levin ’02, Kyle Pfortmiller ’92
and Tombaugh shared their experiences with current students.“You have to be open to
what the universe is willing to throw your way, and your career might take the path
that’s not quite what you thought it would be,” said Levin, who didn’t anticipate
teaching ear training for a few years after earning graduate degrees. She is now an
assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Music.
According to Rayl, who works in higher education at Michigan State University, the
career path a student has in mind today might drastically change in the future. “I
think there are many, many ways for a person to be happy and fulfilled and make a
meaningful contribution to the world we live in with the kind of degree that you’re
getting, beyond what you might think you’re going to do,” he said.
For Illinois Wesleyan students, their liberal arts education can help them determine
what path they will take. “It is not the job of an undergraduate degree to fully form
you as professional musicians,” said Rayl, who added that it helps aspiring musicians
develop the set of skills, talent and attitudes that may set them along multiple possible
Lake, who earned a master’s degree after graduating from IWU, added that Illinois
Wesleyan provided her with an array of choices. “You can’t expect an undergraduate
degree to be exactly on the money as to where you’re going to be in 20 years,” she
When asked about what career advice he would give to current students, Pfortmiller
encouraged students to embrace their mistakes. “It’s the mistakes you make now that
will in turn make you a better artist,” said Pfortmiller, who has appeared with the
Metropolitan Opera and numerous other companies.
Lake, who is now president of Oboe Chicago and a freelance professional oboist, said
that in her own experiences, failures that she thought were major turned out to be
times that she had to look for a new direction.
“Your failures do shape you and help you focus on the next thing that will keep you
excited,” Lake said.
But Levin reminded students that musicians often run the risk of their whole lives
becoming about their work. “No matter what discipline of music you work in, it’s not
9 to 5,” she said. Strike a balance between work, passions and life, she said. “It’s
important to remember to come up for air once in a while. Go for a run, or find yourself
a hobby or something so that passion can stay with you.”