This is the second of a series of articles chronicling my career transition from employee to entrepreneur; from technologist to full-time musician; from the practice room to the stage at Disney concert hall; from the daily grind to the daily pursuit;
In this installment, I explore the role my “inner voice” has played in shaping my career choices.
There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you–just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
– Shel Silverstein
Growing up, my inner voice told me that a career in music was impossible.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have raw talent. Musically, I did well all through school…
In elementary school, my band director used to award giant Hershey chocolate bars to students when they achieved milestones in group lessons.
I won lots of Hershey bars.
Next, my growing belly and I were the only 7th graders in Jr. High Jazz Band.
Actually, I wasn’t even going to try out for that band. The night of the audition, my friend and fellow 7th grade trumpet player, Billy Schaffer, called and asked me if I was trying out.
“Oh, ok, sure, I guess I’ll try out. Can I catch a ride to the school with you?”
As it turns out, I made the band and he didn’t.
On to high school marching band where I was one of only two freshman picked to play 1st trumpet.
I was then setback with what many consider to be a death sentence for a young brass player.
Supposedly designed to straighten out a smile, I firmly believe that those metallic tasting, teeth hurting, gum shredding contraptions were really torture devices invented during the Spanish Inquisition by Grand Inquisitor himself.
The first time my band director saw my mouthful of metal, I remember hearing him cry out “Oh no!”
It turns out he had many students simply give up the trumpet because braces created such a horrible experience.
For the next four years I kept playing the trumpet despite the inside of my lips looking like the legs of my mother’s old sofa after the cat got finished sharpening his claws.
I fought through the pain, the inconvenience, and the lack of progress.
There was something about being in band, but more importantly, performing music that I really enjoyed.
I liked the rush of adrenaline right before a big show.
I liked the sense of achievement after nailing a difficult passage.
I liked the roar of the crowd at the end.
So now, I’m a senior year high school, braces still firmly attached, facing a moment of choice.
What to study in college
Let’s recreate the internal conversation of my 17 year old self…
“I have good grades in science & math and engineering seems cool.”
“Chemical and electrical seem to have great starting salaries. Which one?”
“I really enjoyed installing mom’s car stereo, and showing her how to work the VCR, so how about electrical engineering.” (seriously!)
“What about music? Even with my shredded face, I was still good enough to play first trumpet and win an end of the year award in band.”
“Yes but it’s hard to make money in music and it so won’t be fun anymore. Besides, you didn’t make district band so, you’re really not good enough compared to others. Just keep it fun and make money in engineering.”
And that was it – I made the decision to keep music in my life but to keep it “fun”.
I was listening to my inner voice and it made sense.
After four years of braces, and minimal progress on the trumpet, I was in no way prepared to take the next step toward a musical career and I knew it.
It would have been foolish of me to think that I could have gone to a music school or conservatory and performed along-side students that had accomplished so much more in music than I had at that age.
That said, I wasn’t going to quit playing the trumpet. I loved it too much.
Time for the next decision:
Where to go to college…
“I’m in the top 10% of my class, how about Ivy League?”
“Yes but they want 5 essays. Lehigh University is a great engineering school and it only has a one page application with one optional essay. Oh by the way it has an active music program.”
“Lehigh it is!”
My internal voice was kinda lazy and, yet, so very persuasive.
In college, with my braces freshly removed, I spent every non-engineering (and non beer-drinking) related moment focused on studying music and working to improve my abilities as a trumpet player.
As for the other members of the Lehigh music community, everyone around me was truly a peer. We were all enjoying the process of making music while studying for a future day job in some other field.
After a couple of years of study and musical development, I rose to the top.
I excelled – I was first chair trumpet in all of the top student ensembles during my junior and senior years.
I was a leader – I was band president and organized the band trip to Bermuda my senior year.
I was being recognized – I was asked to play taps for a veterans day ceremony that was broadcast on the evening news.
Musically, I was the big fish in a small pond.
Engineering, however, was a different story.
I liked it well enough, but I only had a 2.9 GPA and was ranked in the middle of my engineering class.
I graduated in 1991 during the height of a recession and my engineering career got off to a slow start.
Job interviews were hard to come by.
And so, to pay the bills while pursuing my first engineering job, I ended up working three jobs.
One of them was as a freelance trumpet player.
An opportunity for a music career?
Even then, music wasn’t a serious option to my inner voice.
“Hey this gigging thing is pretty cool – I’m definitely having some fun AND making some money.”
“Yes but it’s not enough to live on and you’re still not good enough to do it full-time.”
“Ok – I’ll stick to the original plan.”
I eventually got a job as a sales engineer at a multi-national fortune 100 company.
I provided support and assistance for customer projects that added $75 million in revenue to the company.
Also, I gave product and technology presentations to audiences of engineers all over the world.
I was gigging too.
On weekends, I would travel and play all types of gigs in Philly or New York, including the iconic music club, the Bitter End, in Greenwich Village.
At age 29, I moved to Boston and took over a critical field sales engineering role in a highly competitive territory. After just two months in the new job, the company doubled my salary.
From there, I was recruited by a competitor to move back to the Philly area and take on a strategically important role on a newly formed team that would transform the sales model for an important segment of the company’s product family.
I moved back to Philadelphia, and musically, I became the trumpet soloist and musical director for a professional 18 piece big-band.
I started gigging consistently and was making decent money on the side.
At age 31, listening to my inner-voice continued to be a good idea.
The plan I formulated in high school had worked.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson
After five years into the new job, my company decided that my team had done such a great job of transforming the company sales model, that we were no longer needed.
I had successfully transformed myself right out of a job.
I was offered a new position with the company to extend my technology career.
When forced to confront this unplanned change, however, I realized the following truths:
- I liked the company, but I had no desire to travel more frequently or relocate to California (company Headquarters).
- I needed to continually develop new technical skills, but I really wanted to be a better trumpet player.
- I needed to make good money, but I day-dreamed of less profitable, but more enjoyable musical pursuits.
I had become comfortable with my life and I didn’t want a major change. I had no choice, change was being imposed.
This is the first time that the internal conversation seriously included music…
“I could be a full-time musician.”
“Yes but there’s a lot of security in the regular pay check.”
“But I’ve consistently made money in music for the last 15 years.”
“Yes but it wasn’t enough to live on especially compared to what you’re earning in technology.”
“Many people including full time professional musicians have told me that they enjoy my playing and respect my leadership.”
“Yes but you still can’t hit a high G.”
I listened to my inner voice and stayed in technology. But, this time, my heart wasn’t into it and I paid a steep price.
- I didn’t fully embrace the new job at my old company and I burned a bridge on my way out the door.
- I jumped feet first into a failing family business venture and lost most of my savings.
- I took four different technology related jobs in 5 years.
I had real accomplishments in those jobs, but unfortunately, I made emotional and life-style compromises to take them.
I was unhappy, restless and angry. Nothing about my career was right and I was making bad choices.
I would start a new job and almost immediately begin searching for the next job.
But, I also did something different…
I decided to respond differently to my inner voice.
During my next layoff in 2008, I took some time out of my job search to take trumpet lessons. After just a few months of focused practice, my playing improved dramatically.
“I can finally hit the high G. I can play well enough to do this full-time.”
“Yes but you have a kid in college and bills to pay, you’ll never get enough gigs to cover the bills.”
Sigh…on to the next technology job, but this time with a new twist.
I took a job with technology company but in a role that was focused on pure sales. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t expected to know the details of how the company’s technology worked. My only job was to figure out how to sell their multi-million dollar software system to a target account list.
In my first 9 months I sold over $2M of software to two fortune 500 target clients.
I was successful.
I was laid off for the 3rd time in 5 years.
During that time, I wrote the following in a Facebook post…
I decided long ago, that a career in technology would pay the bills leaving music free to be a pure source of joy in my life not corrupted by the need to make money. It was a good decision at the time, I don’t regret it for a minute, and it’s worked out pretty much as I expected. Looking ahead, however, I may choose a different path.
Time to have that familiar internal conversation…
“I’ve convinced 4 four different companies in the past 5 years to hire me and I sold $2M in software in 9 months. If I can do that, I know I can consistently sell my ability to play the trumpet.”
“Yes but the youngest kid is still in college. Keep searching for a new job, maybe you can do music full-time after she graduates.”
Finally, a chink in the armor.
During that final lay-off however, seemingly by divine intervention, gigs started coming from everywhere.
It was only then that my internal conversation FINALLY changed.
“I have 60 gigs/rehearsals in a 90 day period. I’m making a living. I’m actually DOING this.”
“Congratulations. You’re finally a full-time musician. Now get to the practice room. Go find more gigs.”
Boy my inner-voice is a real taskmaster.
In this classic scene from the movie White Men Can’t Jump, Sidney (Wesley Snipes) is trying to tell the clueless Billy (Woody Harrelson) that there’s a difference between listening to and hearing the music of Jimi Hendrix.
Essentially, he’s saying that the person who can “hear” Jimi’s music somehow receives a deeper, more meaningful message than the person who simply listens.
I agree that there’s a difference. I feel the same way about my inner voice.
When I was younger and simply listening on the surface, it sounded negative.
“Yes but, you can’t.”
As I matured, I realized that there was a deeper message.
“Yes AND here’s what you need to do to really make it happen.”
My inner voice wasn’t being negative. It was looking out for me. It was trying to help me prepare for the realities of a difficult career.
At age 17, I chose a different career path and had success.
At age 35, The choice stopped working. I mishandled change and I struggled.
At age 40, I finally believed that I could be a full-time musician.
And now, at age 45, the conversation continues…
“So far so good.”
“Sure, that’s because your inner voice finally changed.”
“Or maybe, after years of listening, I finally HEARD you.”
“BINGO! Now go to the practice room. Go find more gigs.”
“Thank you inner-voice.”
“Can you hear me now?”
– that annoying commercial and my inner voice
How about you?
What does your inner voice say when you’re listening?
Are you sure?
Can you HEAR Jimi?
About Bob Wagner
With a degree from Lehigh University, and training as both an Electrical Engineer and Musician, Bob Wagner spent the first 20 years of his career pursuing both technological and musical interests professionally until 2011 when he finally figured out what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Having made the choice to be a full time musician, Bob maintains an active schedule as a freelance trumpet performer, arranger, bandleader, and musical contractor based in the Philadelphia area.
As a performer, Bob has appeared as a soloist with various classical, jazz, R&B & theatrical organizations throughout the country; His talents have carried him to solo performances at some of the nation’s most prestigious concert halls including Verizon Hall (Phila), Strathmore (MD), & Disney Hall (LA)
Most recently, Bob has performed as trumpet soloist, arranger, musical director, and contractor with touring productions of “The Gene Krupa Story” and “Beatlemania Now”.
Bob also maintains a part-time interest in technology where his focus is on helping small business owners identify and implement technology to make critical business operational processes more efficient and automated.
Bob is available for consulting and speaking opportunities.