I find it reassuring when I read of someone successful that I admire, and find that they’ve had a series of ‘normal’ jobs and lived a pretty much ‘normal’ life before they found their success. It should be self-evident, that successful people are not born full-fledged successful from the brow of some god, but I can get jealous or envious, thinking that somehow they’ve been blessed with a special life. I recently read, and loved, Steve Martin’s biography “Born Standing”, where his slow rise to the top is warmly and honestly told. Yes, magic eventually happened, but it came after years and years of hard work and more or less ‘regular’ life. So, in the spirit of Steve Martin, or humanity in general: Here are my jobs and experiences. Just in case any of you were thinking that my successes, such as they are, were just handed to me on a silver platter. (Although I must say, I do feel very lucky and very grateful for the life I’ve been given).
Selling YMCA peanuts door-to-door
Record store clerk
Dishwasher in Fraternity
Practice Room Clerk, Concert Hall Guard
Dishwasher (1 afternoon)
Sheet Music Store Clerk
Video Store clerk (assistant manager, even!)
Music Director/Composer for dozens of theatre productions
Composer for dance, film, TV, radio, etc.
Composer for Video Games (Atari, etc.)
Paperboy sub (2 weeks), age 10. I don’t think I was a particularly lazy kid, but getting up at 5am for those 2 weeks was murder. I had always envied kids with paper routes. This job ended my envy forever.
Babysitting, age 13-18. Now this was work I could enjoy! 50 cents an hour for playing with some kids for an hour, then putting them to bed and either practicing my guitar for a few hours or listening my way through the family’s record collection. Not bad!
Recycling Center, age 13-24. My dad ran the Palo Alto Sanitation Company, and somehow it was legal to hire young kids to work at the recycling center at the Palo Alto dump. I was one of the lucky ones. I liked the work, really hard and sweaty, and it paid pretty well. My weekends were usually spent working. And later, hungry for work after college, a friend of mine ran the El Cerrito recycling center and hired me there, where I ran truck routes and got my forklift driver’s license.
Garbage Man, age 18. My dad set the rule that his boys would work for one week as a garbage man, a kind of rite of passage to prove one’s manhood and know what real work was. He also refused to pay for any kind of higher education (except Chiropractor College – go figure!). So, I went beyond the rite of passage and worked full time as a garbage man, saving up enough ($3,000) to pay for my first year at UC Berkeley. I worked until my back gave out, then moved on to retail…
Record store clerk, Banana suit, age 18. Working in a record store, a dream come true! Half my money went to buying records at wholesale price, so it didn’t contribute much to my college fund, but it increased my record collection substantially. Also provided my first paid job as an actor: The store was called Banana Records, and they had a huge foam banana suit that I would dress in and wave to passerby on El Camino, enticing them to either buy records or go elsewhere and buy a banana split.
Dishwasher in Fraternity, age 18. $3,000 for a year of college ain’t much, even in 1974 dollars, so I worked where I lived that first year, Pi Lambda Phi. I was a good dishwasher, and it kept my fingers limber for piano playing!
Custodian, age 19-20. Moved into an apartment for the summer with my good friend Dan Phipps. He had a cush job as a custodian at UC – like $10 hour! These were jobs that were usually reserved for high-profile athletes and other anointed ones, but I pestered the hiring guy so persistently that he gave in and hired me for the summer.
Practice Room Clerk, Concert Hall Guard, age 20-22. Another great couple of jobs. In order to use the practice rooms in the music department, you had to sign out a key. Various students were hired to watch over the keys and the rooms. You could get in a LOT of chatting while sitting in that chair! And, being the guard at Hertz Hall meant having the keys to the hall, letting in famous visiting musicians for rehearsal (Beaux Arts Trio, Tokyo String Quartet, etc.), listening to them rehearse while doing homework, then locking up. If you just happened to be a pianist and the piano just happened to be needing to be put away, you could while away some time playing the 9 foot Boesendorfer or Steinways…
Dishwasher (1 afternoon). age 22. Fresh out of college, I had a vague notion that waiters made good money, and that being a waiter would be a good way to get by until I figured something else out. I dressed in my best clothes and went from restaurant to restaurant one morning, ready to sell my talents. Everyone wanted someone with experience. But, one manager looked me up and down and asked if I had experience dishwashing. I sure did! He handed me an apron and set me to work. Here’s a tip – washing dishes for a fraternity is very different than washing dishes during a very busy lunch hour in a restaurant. Believe me. I ruined my best shoes and pants, and got $20 and a stern look that said they never wanted to see me near their dishes again.
Sheet Music Store Clerk, age 22. In a musty shop, where all the sheet music was kept behind the counter in rows of SteelCase file cabinets, I revisited the retail workforce. It had none of the glamour of a record store, it was sometimes hard to stay awake.
Singing Telegrams age 22-24. My dream job. I dressed up in a bellboy outfit and was sent out to sing to people at home, at work, at restaurants, at parties, wherever. Sometimes there’d be hours between telegrams, and I’d stop in at a local library to read, or read a book at a local park. I LOVED the improvisatory aspect, where even though you knew the song you were going to be singing, every circumstance was new and unknown. Some recipients were deeply embarrassed (and I had to somehow make it easy on them), some wanted to take over the show (and I’d have to muscle them out of the spotlight), sometimes you are singing to someone alone at home, sometimes you have to take over a whole sports bar and make them be quiet. I just loved it.
Music Teacher (private piano, Crowden School) age 23-26- present. I’ve taught in short spurts over the years. I absolutely love turning people on to music, exploring it with them, finding new ways of reaching people with music. But I also tend to burn out quickly. So I teach when the mood grabs me. I just finished two years of teaching choir at my sons school. It was great. Now I need a rest!
Piano Accompanist age 22-26. Sight reading is a challenge for me, but I can read chord symbols and basic rhythms and thus fake my way through most broadway fare (especially if I’ve heard it before). So I worked for a time for some voice teachers, and learned much of the broadway songbooks. My biggest faux pas? Playing for a master class in UC Davis, and someone put “I Could Have Dance All Night” in front of me. Original score, no chord symbols. I thought I knew it, some kind of waltz, isn’t it? So I plowed right in. The singer was totally lost. It is not, I learned, a waltz. Poor singer…
Video Store clerk (assistant manager, even!) age 23-24. The singing telegram company I worked for was going out of business, and I found good work at a video rental store. Got to take home a VCR and all the movies whenever I wanted, and spent my days hanging out and talking about movies with other movie fans. Low pay, but great benefits!
Music Director/Composer for dozens of theatre productions age 20-present. A dear professor in college got me hooked into arranging and writing music for theatre, and I got all kinds of great experience, taking any job that came along and claiming I could do anything (and then learning how to do anything while on the job). It’s still the way I work, basically. AND, this got me into an appreciation of and love of acting and performing.
Jingle Singer age 26-present. I’m rather out of the loop these days, but when jobs come up for talented singers, why, I’m available. There were some busy days back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, when there was a fair amount of advertisement in SF, and when they used singers for everything from Hondas to detergents.
Actor/Singer/Performer age 25-present. I got bitten by the theatre bug when I was music directing a lot in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and longed to be more in the spotlight. To that end, I started the Bobs, and studied method acting for 4 solid years. The stage is a place where I feel comfortable and free. And I love having an audience.
Jingle Writer (one only) age 29. Whereas I had no problem singing the praises of cattle for the National Beef Council, I found it almost physically painful to write music for commercials. I wish I could have found a way to enjoy it, for the money is useful and very good. But I only eked out one (for H2O, a Pepsi brand of bottled water).
Composer for dance, film, TV, radio, etc. age 26-present. I feel like I’m talented in many ways, but the easiest skill and task for me is composing. Lyrics? Kinda hard to squeeze them out. Writing? Difficult. Performing? A thrill, but hard work. Composing? Sure, sometimes it’s work, but it most often feels effortless, and thrilling to see what comes through me.
Filmmaker (for my dad’s garbage company, later for Svetlana) age 40-present. I was hungry, poor, in debt, and my father, who used to own and run the garbage company in Palo Alto, offered to pay me to make a series of training videos for his company. I learned a lot about filmmaking in the process. After that, I studied screen writing, and even wrote a screenplay or 2. Then, the farming community my brother was working at in Russia needed someone to make a documentary of their work to help them do fundraising. I jumped at the chance for adventure. It was 3 weeks of adventure traveling and filming. And then 10 months chained to a chair in front of a computer, editing the film. Maybe again someday…
Composer for Video Games (Atari, etc.) age 38-present. I was pretty down-and-out financially in the mid-nineties, and my prospects for employment were grim. A degree in music just don’t go that far in the marketplace. But lo, via a friend of a friend, I heard that Atari games was looking for a composer. I applied, and even though I had no computer skills at all, they liked my skills as a composer, and hired and trained me. The first 6 months were learning programming and the arcane way of writing for their hardware (these were coin-op games). I’m SO grateful for everything I learned there. And I enjoyed the challenges of writing for video games. The musical needs of the game, the aurally assaultive environment of the video arcade, having to fit all the music on one tiny 128k chip. Kind of like writing for a string quartet. Or an acapella quartet 🙂