What my side jobs taught me about music

I’ve worked a number of odd jobs in my life. There are loads of stories I could tell people about, but in this post, I’m reflecting on the jobs’ connection to music. I didn’t think about this at the time, but these jobs taught me some important lessons.

“Nail ‘em!”: lessons in improv as a haunted house monster

After finishing my PhD, I moved back to my dad’s house in the Atlanta area. I took on a few part-time jobs, including acting at Netherworld Haunted House. I basically worked every single night from the end of September through the first weekend of November.

A rare selfie–in ghost makeup for Netherworld

If you’re in line with a ticket when Netherworld closes, you get to go inside. That meant for some late nights–sometimes 3am by the time everyone got through. It definitely taught me a lot about endurance! And also I screamed so much my voice was basically like Robert Del Naja during the day.

We had a brief training, but effective haunting comes from improvisation and instinct. Finding the bravest-looking person in the group and nailing ‘em (no touching!). Finding your rhythm as different groups come through. Alternating types of scares (yells, lunges, standing motionless until the last second).

I’ve seen and been part of many free improv performances, and the audience is always the last thing people think about. You don’t need to pander, but a greater attention to reactions of the audience could lead to a better refinement of your improv approach. 

When to get out: lessons in dog walking

My time as a dog walker might not have taught me much about music, but it taught me a lot about being a freelancer and the gig economy. I was an independent contractor and given a set of dogs to walk. Owners requested a time frame for their walk, but otherwise I could schedule as I needed.

This sounds nice and flexible, but my schedule was ultimately at the whims of both the owners and the company. As walkers quit, the dogs weren’t divided among the other walkers. Instead, new people were hired and presented with full schedules. I was never able to build a full schedule, even though I was reliable and took on tons of extra one-off or fill-in walks.

This taught me not to wait around for gigs, and not to stick with something that wasn’t working. Dog walking was always a stop-gap for me, but I felt stuck for a long time. I did it for almost 2 years. Despite later working at Netherworld, this dog walking experience was my transition from the fun side jobs of a student to jobs that utilized my training and experience.

Flexibility and grace — lessons as a Segway tour guide

One summer I took a job as a tour guide around downtown Atlanta. The twist was that we took people around on Segway scooters. The clients for this business ranged from business folks with a spare free morning to local families looking for something different to do. Not only did I need to memorize about 3 hours of information, I needed to train people to ride the machines safely.

Segways are pretty easy to ride. They have a gyroscope that says to go forward when your body weight moves forward, and backward when body weight moves backward. It teaches people a lot about their posture. To stay still, you can’t hunch forward or put your weight on your heels. That was always lesson 1.

The lesson for me was presenting information in different ways. Some people think about “leaning forward” but they move their shoulders forward and their butt backward. Most of their weight is actually to the back. So for some people it’s better to think “press your toes down.”

During the summer I refined my stories, tried out different jokes, and found the balance of showmanship, playfulness, and trust needed to make this a great experience. This is the lesson for musicians (especially those in classical music). We need audiences to trust that we will play music competently, but we also need to do it in an engaging way.

Working with and against a format: lessons as a Bingo host

For a couple months, I hosted bingo in a bar. It was a pretty good deal for me as a college student. Cash plus a bar tab each week. It didn’t last long, but there were no hard feelings (I ended up being a regular at that bar).

What I learned from hosting bingo is that there are a lot of random opportunities out there. I got in touch with the bingo company through another musician I met at an open mic night. I had been frequenting a few open mics to network for audio engineering gigs. It’s not exactly the opportunity I was looking for, but it was a fun one!

This was an early “public speaking” gig for me. I learned about maintaining interest and momentum in an odd environment. Trivia and karaoke lend themselves better for bars than bingo, because their formats alternate songs and announcements. Bingo is a more constant game, punctuated by announcements. So I needed to keep things light and keep them moving. 


There are a few lessons from a few of my many random jobs. I’ll think about the others and maybe post a sequel someday. While these jobs don’t appear on my resume any more, they all shaped how I think and operate in my current roles. What random jobs have you had, and how did they shape you?

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