“I quit my cushy finance job three days in to go on a Broadway national tour.”
By Yael Cohen
Prior to my current summer internship as Maestra’s Get To Work intern, I spent the past year as a trumpet player on the First National Tour of the comedy musical Tootsie. This article – the first in a two-part series discussing my experience on tour – talks about my musical origin story, pursuing music without a conservatory background, and the infamously-chaotic story of how I landed my touring gig. Part Two will solely focus on my tour experience and life on the road.
For now, I hope you enjoy this prologue of sorts!
Brass girl origin story
When I was 10 years old and it was time to choose an instrument for school, I was drawn to the trumpet because it was loud, obnoxious, and, well, shiny. Beyond that, I was a certified tomboy who deeply struggled throughout my childhood with society’s expectations of what a little girl “should” be. Furthermore, as the middle child and only daughter in my immigrant household, family dynamics often made me feel neglected, so I sought the attention I wasn’t getting at home through excelling at school and thriving in my extracurriculars.
I think that on some level, even back then, I saw the trumpet as an opportunity to challenge traditional gender roles, take up space, and explore an outlet that gave me permission to be loud and boisterous.
Before trumpet, basketball was my first love: I loved being the best player on the court and I equally loved having other people want me on their team. I wanted so badly to be wanted.
However, no matter how dominant I was, the boys I played with during recess never passed me the ball. They said I was “good for a girl”, but I didn’t just want to be “good for a girl”. I was furious. I wanted them to acknowledge that I was straight up good, I wanted to be included, and I wanted them to pass me the damn ball.
And so, when most of the jocks chose to play brass instruments in band, I followed suit because I was immediately drawn to the idea of competing against the very same guys I scrimmaged with during recess, but in a new kind of game. Since instruments and ensembles were not divided by gender like sports teams at my school, it was a more even, coed playing field where I could actually be “one of the guys” while pursuing being the best at something. Plus, maybe they’d finally drop the dismissive “for a girl” softener BS.
Throughout middle and high school, I was realizing that while I did thoroughly enjoy the validation I was receiving by virtue of being a good player (I am an attention-seeking brass monkey, after all), I also loved the other perks of being a musician. I was making a bunch of friends in ensembles, figuring out how to lead a section, and traveling domestically and sometimes even internationally for festivals and tours.
However, it was spending a summer at Interlochen Center for the Arts that changed my relationship with music into one rooted in community, rather than it being merely self-serving.
In addition to playing with some of the world’s best young musicians, I was exposed to a myriad of arts in which my peers partook. Throughout the summer, my interests expanded from orchestral trumpet excerpts and concertos to the unknown: how oboe reeds are made, the physics of dance, the history of film, and more. Those six weeks were pivotal, and from then on I promised myself a lifetime of personally investing in the arts.
I came back from the magical Michigan woods with an immense sense of purpose and wanted to share my love of music with everyone around me. A concert was no longer just a platform to show off my sound and technique, but also an opportunity to connect with others and evoke emotion. Outside of rehearsals and individual practice sessions, I started teaching an all-female studio and devoted myself to a music outreach program called the Back to Bach Project, aimed at kindling an interest in classical music at local elementary schools.
Although choosing to play the trumpet started as a childish fixation on extrinsic desires, it was the formative life experiences and opportunities along the way that led to the realization that trumpet is far greater than just an instrument that I make a lot of noise with. I had found my calling, but at the end of high school, one big question remained: am I going to music school to pursue trumpet professionally?
Pursuing music without a music degree
The start of the college application process marked the beginning of my ongoing struggle with what I should devote myself to. In other words, to trumpet, or not to trumpet?
Conservatories were an impossible sell to my immigrant parents, who thought I had taken this “hobby” too far and refused to pay for a music degree. Even my beloved private teacher was encouraging me to go down a more traditional path, repeatedly saying that “if you can see yourself doing literally anything else, do that.” On the other hand, my teacher resoundingly supported his other star student (and my trumpet rival), who was a guy, in his application to music schools. I was so hurt.
I was too stubborn to take no for an answer, and decided that I would simultaneously pursue academics and music at the highest level. I ended up committing to Columbia University, where I double-majored in Psychology and Information Sciences while taking lessons at Juilliard and playing in every ensemble I could make time for. I was daring enough to try to have it all.
I landed in New York and hit the ground running. I was taking lessons at Juilliard, I was the principal trumpet player of the Columbia University Orchestra, and I was performing at Carnegie Hall as the principal trumpet player of the New York Youth Symphony. I was playing in pit orchestras for Columbia’s musical productions each semester, and I even served as the composer-lyricist/MD for the 125th Annual Varsity Show: a student-written and -produced satirical musical about life at Columbia.
I was living out my fantasies in New York, but even so, I felt crippling imposter syndrome as a non-conservatory student. It was both exhausting and defeating to try to keep up and hold myself to conservatory standards while double majoring at a top-tier university. I was half-assing everything, and despite being able to accomplish a lot, I still felt like I wasn’t reaching my full potential in anything. I was incredibly self-critical and my mental health was suffering.
For someone who is so hyper-competitive, I had to learn how to do the unthinkable: to let go of comparing myself to everyone else. Although it did not come naturally and I still struggle with blocking out the noise, coming to terms with the idea that I am on my own unique path, has kept me somewhat sane.
It felt like I was sprinting on a hamster wheel trying to do the most, on the brink of burnout at all times. That is, until Covid hit and life came to a screeching halt.
Throughout college, “to trumpet or not to trumpet?” was still the million-dollar question, and it filled me with existential dread. But all of a sudden, the new worry became: “did my music career just abruptly end before it ever really began?” Not only was I maybe never going to perform at Carnegie again, there was a possibility that I would never perform in any capacity ever again. I was struck with so much grief and so much loss over the future I had envisioned for myself.
To trumpet, or not to trumpet?
During the first Covid summer back in 2020, I was interning remotely as a summer analyst at an investment bank… and I was miserable. Every day for months, I worked 16 hours a day while rocking the “blouse-on-top and sweats-on-the-bottom” pandemic look during meetings.
When I got a full-time return offer at the end of the summer, I knew that taking it would mean sacrificing having any semblance of a balanced life, but I was told by countless adults to sign on for the job security and ridiculously-high starting salary. I signed the offer, and although I was relieved to have post-graduate plans amidst all the uncertainty in the world, I also felt a pit in my stomach knowing very well that my future as a musician was going to be effectively kaput.
That entire school-year, I was praying to the universe for a golden ticket that would get me out of selling my soul to finance. I spontaneously applied to a prestigious orchestral training program, and made it to the finals of the audition. I got my hopes up so high, as I told myself that this was the opportunity I had been manifesting, and it began to feel like the only way out.
So when I ended up not winning the audition, I was crushed. I turned my phone off so nobody could reach me and went on a long, melodramatic late-night walk all over Manhattan. I walked to Lincoln Center and sat by the fountain in tears. I walked to Carnegie Hall, a stage I was so privileged to call home court, and sobbed.
My patience for letting things fall into place was long gone because it’s the hope that kills you.
My Ted Talk moment: quitting my finance job three days in to do a Broadway national tour
A few days later, I called my friend, a fellow Maestra, in hopes of boosting morale a bit. They were super supportive and reassuring, and they mentioned off-the-cuff that they’d heard about an open call for the pit orchestra of the First National Tour of the Broadway musical Tootsie. I told them that I had nothing to send to the music coordinator, but they pushed me to just send in some classical excerpts that I had already recorded anyway. Since I didn’t hear back for months, I assumed they’d hired someone else. I told myself, “Oh well, it was a long shot anyway.”
A few months later, my friend reached out with exciting news. They had also applied for the pit as a reed doubler, and they had heard back! The coordinator wanted them to list references, which seemed like a very promising next step. I was absolutely ecstatic for my friend and was happy to be their cheerleader on the sideline. A few weeks after that, they heard back that they were unfortunately not selected, which was a bummer (and again, I thought that was the last we would hear from the show).
Then, about a month later, as I was making arrangements to move across the country in less than two weeks before starting my investment banking job, the coordinator emailed me out of the blue asking if I was still interested in the position. I completely lost it. There had been so many almosts and I didn’t have it in me to be disappointed one more time. I didn’t want to submit, but I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t give it a shot.
I ran to my go-to brass shop in Manhattan, bought a lead mouthpiece, and started shedding the book. I recorded excerpts over the next three days and sent them back to the coordinator, saying that I was about to move to start another job, so I needed to find out if I got it ASAP. I was reassured that I would find out within a few days, but then a few days went by and I hadn’t heard back. I didn’t know whether I should keep packing or hold onto my last shred of hope.
This tour would be the exact opposite of my finance gig, and all I could do was wait and see which extreme lifestyle I would end up living. I was debilitatingly anxious and on-edge because, again, it’s the hope that kills you.
About a week later, I was asked for a resume and references and sent over the materials immediately. No response again for a few days. I started to turn my phone off when I left the house because I was so scared of finding out in a random setting whether I got it or not , and I would spend hours at home on the couch every day waiting for an email. I begged my screen to just tell me yes or no, to put me out of my misery.
It was the first day of my new banking job and my anxiety was at an all-time high. Thankfully, the finance job granted me a few weeks of remote training, which bought me some much-needed extra time in the city. I signed on to the Zoom meeting, dead inside. And because there’s never a dull moment in my life, I was asked to play in a recording session with Billy Ray Cyrus for the 4th of July programming on CNN with the New York Youth Symphony on that same day, so I turned my camera off and, still on Zoom, rushed to the TV studio downtown.
After we finished recording, Cyrus sat down with us and talked about the importance of persisting when it comes to following your dreams. While it was moving and relevant, it felt comical to hear as I was awaiting my fate. This whole situation felt like I was being strung along for some elaborate prank on “Punk’d”. Was that session my last?
Fast forward a few days to the Fourth of July, and I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. Not even seeing myself on TV with Billy Ray Cyrus raised my spirits. The next morning, two friends and I woke up at the crack of dawn, rented a car, and drove to the Berkshires in Massachusetts to drop me off at a brass quintet summer festival I had signed up for months ago, prior to knowing of my official banking job start date, and I secretly never opted out – I know, more self-inflicted chaos. My friends sat with me in the car, hoping that we’d find out about my destiny on that drive, and that they would be there to support me either way. But still, no email.
The following day, I was alone in the Berkshires at this festival with a bunch of strangers. After a full day of rehearsals and pretending to be at a training for my new job, I returned to my room to take a nap, and I woke up to the long-awaited email saying I got the gig!
I had never felt more relief in my life, and immediately I called everyone I knew to share the news. This moment was not just my own triumph, but one that I wanted to share with my family, friends, and musical mentors.
The following day, I quit my cushy finance job, and, as expected, it wasn’t pretty. I felt very guilty about the whole situation and how it unfolded, but at the same time, I wasn’t in control of the prolonged timeline, and I knew this tour was something I had to do; quitting taught me that I always have some agency, and that it’s up to me to seize the moment and follow my dreams.
After such an agonizing hiatus of live performances and fearing that the pandemic would end my music career, I got the opportunity to be part of the wave that brought live music back to people’s lives all across America. Despite the chaos that was waiting for the tour to fall into place, I remain forever grateful to Tootsie for taking a chance on that 22-year-old girl without a music degree.
My whole life seemed like a series of events that had led up to that offer, and I allowed myself to revel in the pure bliss of that moment.
I recently read the essay “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley, in which the author uses a last-minute plane landing in Holland rather than Italy as an analogy for dealing with life’s unexpected twists and turns. Emily shared that when her unborn child was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, she landed in Holland. Not a bad place to be, but like most moms, she wanted to be in Italy. However, she navigates through this experience by finding unexpected beauty in Holland:
“It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around… and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills…and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.”
This analogy clicks so beautifully for me, as it highlights the beauty in the unexpected, and furthermore it invites us to lean in and work towards acceptance and optimization of whatever life throws at us. Life doesn’t always go according to plan, and while you can mourn the change and a life you had envisioned for yourself that will no longer pan out, the alternative route often isn’t as devastating as it seems.
This radical acceptance is easier said than done, but it is a beautiful and worthy pursuit to grapple with during the unprecedented times we’ve all been living through for over two years now.
Despite the uncertainty at every turn during the pandemic, and amidst the self-pity, I needed to stay the course and believe that no matter where I would end up and in whatever circumstances, there would always be windmills, tulips, and even Rembrandts. Little did I know that my version of Holland was about to be a wild ride!
Stay tuned for Part Two, where I talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of life on the road.