Hi everyone! My name is Yael Cohen and I am currently the Get to Work intern at Maestra. I spent this past year as a trumpet player for the First National Tour of the musical Tootsie, and this is Part II of my two-part blog series that delves into my musical journey.
In this article, I will be taking us through my tumultuous experience on tour – namely, delving into the variety of challenges I had to overcome, as well as my general takeaways from this crazy, chaotic, and transformative ride. I hope that by sharing my experiences of being a young woman on tour and in this industry, I am able to offer insight and encouragement to folks pursuing a similar path.
Trigger warning: mentions of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Part I Recap
I landed my tour gig in an ultra-chaotic fashion and ended up quitting my cushy finance job to pursue my dreams. Instead of spending 16 hours a day crunching numbers in a gray corporate skyscraper, I chose to take on a 252-show run in dozens of cities across America.
If you want to hear more about my trumpet origin story, including how I booked this gig, you can find Part I here.
Me, Myself, and the Road
I’d like to preface this blog post by saying that I have no regrets about touring: it was way cooler than being miserable as an investment banker, and it allowed me to reconnect with my love of performing. Plus, I got to be a part of something that brings joy and laughter to thousands of people a night! That being said, it was the most testing year of my life.
I came into this tour with a pre-existing love for playing in pits. As a classically-trained musician, these were always exciting opportunities to pivot from the esoteric orchestral world towards mainstream culture. I really enjoyed the camaraderie and shenanigans in a less-uptight space, playing varied parts, and exploring the theatre world.
This tour, however, was far different from my prior engagements with high school and college productions. Up until my year on the road, my experiences were primarily five- or six-show runs with friends as an extracurricular supplement to my studies. I was used to my time with a show being short enough to feel constantly stimulated by its newness, and it was just one of the many musical commitments I took part in.
The transition from a college player to a professional touring musician was a huge shock to my system.
Suddenly, I was faced with the task of playing the same show hundreds of times in a row while moving between theaters constantly as the youngest woman in the company. My livelihood was now dependent on my ability to play well each night amidst these pressures.
As early as our 10th show, I struggled with the repetitiveness of playing the same material over and over. The restlessness, intense boredom, and debilitating fatigue set in, and it became draining to replicate the same three hours each night. My life became what I could best describe as a fever dream of a simulation – disconnected from my friends, family, and even my instrument.
Moving around helped a bit with keeping things fresh, but with constant traveling came constant instability. We set off to a new city each Monday, and these travel days were often the hardest days of the week: we had to load out the pit, pack up all of our belongings, and often endure multiple flights and long layovers. Very early on, I learned that although Mondays were called our “days off”, they were not actual days off.
Performing and traveling took an intense physical toll on me almost immediately. I have no idea how people older than me handled tour life because even as a 22-year-old, everything hurt all the time. My chops were busted, my shoulders and back were constantly aching, and I had developed basal thumb arthritis within weeks.
In addition to the grueling physical demands of touring, I was incredibly lonely. I refer to this chapter of my life as “Me, Myself, and the Road.” More than anything, I missed living my life and sharing it with my people.
Something I continue to struggle with is the idea that no matter how much I share about this crazy experience, nobody will ever truly know the odyssey that was touring this past year. I think it’s really easy to feel misunderstood and isolated by that truth.
It was a transformative experience – simultaneously good, bad, and ugly — that can only be understood by those who were out on the road with me. Even so, no one else in the company can fully relate to my experience as the youngest girl.
Gender in the Pit
I did not feel a strong sense of community or support as one of only two women in the pit. Rather, I had to constantly navigate difficult age, gender, and power dynamics.
For the first few months, I had a rocky relationship with my section leader, who was a man three times my age. He was very “old school” in his approach and behavior. I was the only other trumpet player in a five-person horn section, and he would lash out at me by questioning my abilities as a way to deal with his own insecurities. It felt like there was nothing I could do but take it because I was in a doubly-submissive position as a young woman and a player in a section he oversaw.
I also endured quite a bit of sexual harassment in the workplace from another band member. I was constantly confused and upset about the situation, but worst of all, I felt powerless. I had nobody to confide in, I was scared to report anything, and I felt stuck in a confined space where I couldn’t escape it.
This led to me feeling numb and uninspired by music, exhausted and achy from living on the road, lonely and isolated without a support system, and on-edge at work. Everything together was too much and my mental health suffered greatly those first few months. On my low days, I would only leave my bed to schlep to the theater and play the show (or rather, just get through the show).
If I wanted to make it through this tour in one piece, I needed to pick myself up and make some changes – fast.
Finding a Silver Lining (or Two)
Maestra unknowingly played a large part in my comeback story.
There was one night in particular when the sexual harrasment went too far, and this time there were many witnesses. Later that night, I was at a bar with a few pit friends and one of them mentioned how creepy the guy who kept bothering me was. I opened up about the situation, and for the first time since the tour started, I felt like people cared about me. I felt seen.
The friend encouraged me to file a report and suggested I check out Maestra as a community to find support, receive mentorship from other women, and stand up to the patriarchy that permeates this industry.
I had never heard of Maestra before and was shocked that there was a community already set up to connect and serve people like me. That night, I walked into that bar feeling violated and defeated, and left feeling like I wasn’t alone because of this “North Star” organization that I could follow. As I returned to the hotel and immediately made a profile that night, a fire was lit under me once again.
A few weeks later, I befriended one of the women in the show’s cast and it was a game-changer. We became fast friends and I ended up confiding in her about everything I was going through. She not only encouraged me to report the sexual harrasment, but offered to come with me for extra support. I felt so empowered, and we went to report everything later that day. I was so grateful for her, and for the power and impact of strong female friendships on a larger scale – something I was sorely missing on the road until then.
Reclaiming my body and my voice lifted a huge weight off of my chest and gave me fresh motivation to express myself through a new medium as a way to move on and heal.
This was only augmented by the fact that trumpet no longer felt like a creative outlet because I was playing the same show each night and nothing else. I landed on creating a music-themed podcast as a way to share my own story and amplify others’ musical journeys.
I named my podcast “The Brass Ceiling,” and it has since become a platform where I interview primarily female and nonbinary musicians about their journeys and relationships with music. We engage in a rigorous dialogue about how to make the arts more equitable.
Maestra was a motivating catalyst to get this project off the ground. I am always looking to connect with new artists who would like to be guests on “The Brass Ceiling,” so please reach out to me Instagram or email me if you are interested. I would absolutely love to feature more Maestras!
One day, while still on tour, I came across a post saying that Maestra was hiring interns and I applied. I was invited to an interview, and I knew it was my time to seize this opportunity. I was asked what led me to Maestra, and I spilled everything.
I opened up about how hard tour was and that the silver lining of dealing with sexual harassment was being introduced to Maestra. I shared that Maestra inspired me to start my podcast, and I talked about the duty I feel to use my own privilege and opportunity to uplift others from marginalized backgrounds at all levels — the desire and calling to fight the good fight. My willingness to be vulnerable paid off and I got the gig.
It felt so validating to be chosen to do important work in a space that I occupy, where I could personally devote myself to dismantling the systemic inequities and injustices that had let me down this year. Through the podcast and this internship, I discovered new modes of self-expression and connection that have continued to ground me in reality and free me from the simulation.
From Struggle Bus to Party Bus
Things were starting to look up and I realized that in order to maintain my momentum, I would need to work intentionally to add stability to this turbulent lifestyle. This led to one of my biggest triumphs of tour: adopting a mindset of time affluence.
The key to feeling time affluent is recognizing that time is the most scarce and valuable resource that exists, and remaining grateful for the time we have.
Before time affluence, I just wanted to skip from show to show and fast-forward through my days so I wouldn’t have to sit alone with my thoughts. But with this mindset, I was able to be present for each moment and revel in this newfound luxury of ample free time that touring provided for the first time in my life.
I decided to put this free time to use, and I found power in routine. I began calling people daily, working out before shows, reading, delving into my podcast project, relearning Spanish, and taking online courses. I felt thoroughly stimulated from engaging my mind and body outside of the show, gained appreciation for having time to adequately rest, and made more time to explore cities and discover the best local spots.
Furthermore, I made progress by challenging my feelings of jealousy and resentment of my loved ones living more conventional lives without me. I was able to practice acceptance by acknowledging those feelings while simultaneously recognizing what a gift my “Me, Myself, and the Road” year had been.
As a result of all of the work I did on myself, my playing greatly improved. I felt engaged and focused, and I was getting along better with my fellow musicians. My sound opened up, and I opened up.
It clicked for me that every decision and lifestyle choice I made was directly correlated with whether or not it would boost performance that night. I truly had to treat my body like a temple: I had to eat healthy, stay in shape, get good sleep, avoid getting sick, and stay on top of my mental health in service of being able to achieve peak performance.
As these good habits solidified and my mental health continued to trend upward, I realized that this routine was all effectively self-care. In addition to improving my performance, my wellbeing alone was enough of a reason to take care of myself. I was feeling better than I had in a long time, and my feelings of self-worth were at an all-time high.
All this to say, the difficulties of touring did not automatically vanish. I still groaned every travel day, my back still ached constantly, and I found myself habitually counting down the number of shows left until the end of the run. Every two-show day took a lot of willpower to get myself out of bed and into the pit in time to play our matinées (or what we referred to as “breakfast shows”).
However, being grounded in a sense of time affluence and gratitude painted the overall picture as one that was net-positive. I recognized that the privilege of tour, contrasted with the sacrifice of tour, were two sides of the same coin. I was finally seeing the struggle and beauty of it all.
Complicating my Relationship with Music
I ended up making it through the tour in (mostly) one piece, but I returned home with the age-old question that I had been constantly back and forth on since high school: to trumpet, or not to trumpet?
In other words, now what?
I proved to myself that I could do it, but many questions remained. Do I enjoy being a touring musician? Do I enjoy being a professional musician? Do I even have the desire to perform anymore after completing such an exhausting (and exhaustive) run?
One of my biggest takeaways is that pursuing your passion as a job can make it feel like a job, which sucks. The monotony of playing the same show over and over again indeed felt maddening at times, but it took me months to realize that taking performing for granted is what truly wore me down.
After an agonizing hiatus from live concerts and shows, performing every day sounded like a blissful fantasy. However, in reality, when performing was all that I did, the rarity was lost and my joy was dimmed.
Feeling goosebumps during the bows sequence at the end of almost every show was one of the few things that kept me going, and I held tightly onto that feeling. But sometimes I didn’t feel anything. I was numb.
On those less-inspired nights, I was calculating how many shows I had left while playing the exit music, and was dreading to go through the simulation all over again the following night. I realized through this experience that I need variety in my work, but stability in almost everything else.
I’m currently in the process of moving back to New York City post-tour, where I will be working in the impact investing space, staying on with Maestra, and pursuing trumpet as a freelancer. I think that living as a multihyphenate with a home base will help me restore balance, ground myself in community, and heal my relationship with music. Why not just dare to have it all?
I want to be clear here: this is not giving up. I want to continue to chase new experiences and opportunities that enable me to make high-quality music. I’ve just realized that I don’t need to play a show eight times a week to feel like a real musician. It turns out, I am a real musician. The real deal. And with that, I’d rather perform a little less often if that makes room for more variety so I can actually enjoy the thing that I love doing the most.
Overall, this experience was wild — a complete 180 from everything I’ve ever lived — and while it consisted of a lot of struggle, it was without a doubt a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A year ago, I thought my music career was over. Instead, this year has been a gift by making up for the life experiences, travel, music-making, and time lost to the pandemic. I have no regrets.
Bringing laughter and levity to thousands of people a night all over the country was not only a feat, but an act of love.
This tour, this journey, this life… it’s so much bigger than trumpet — it’s about this persisting and relentless human desire to make people feel. I’ve realized that all I really want is to love and be loved, to tell stories, and to lead a life of meaning and impact. I thank the trumpet for being my greatest guide through life and towards this goal.
I’m stronger and more self-assured than I’ve ever been because I made it through this tour. I now know that I am a real musician, a multifaceted creative, and both an evolved and constantly-evolving human. And now, I’m ready to close this chapter that I aptly named “Me, Myself, and the Road,” and I’m ready to take the world by storm.