Theses Doctoral

Five Stories from Post-Professional Musicians

Proffitt, Justin Carey

Many professional musicians change careers, and yet there is little research on this topic. The experiences of post-professional musicians are largely unknown, their stories untold and uncelebrated. Informed by phenomenology, this dissertation explores the experiences of professional musicians who leave successful careers as performing artists. It looks at the challenges, beauty and complexity of their musical life stories.

Out of this phenomenological inquiry, the mystery of composing a new life story emerges. Guided by hermeneutic phenomenology, this inquiry centers on story-crafting as a means of allowing meaning to reveal itself, while affirming the role of the inquirer in the story crafting process. Central to this study are the ways in which encounters with its insights occur and are held in a state of wonder. The semi-structured phenomenological interview serves as the primary source of data collection. A digital journal functions as a secondary source.

The role of the researcher is accounted for through movement within the hermeneutic circle. It is here that the effect of both the inquirer’s fore-sights / fore-conceptions, ranging from personal biases to knowledge of the literature, and presence (Dasein – being there) are addressed. Data exploration (analysis) and reflection (synthesis) are approached through nuanced readings for apparent insights in which the essence of the phenomenon might reveal itself. Study findings are rendered through five musical life stories. In addition, a general narrative forms a composite description of all five stories, and a general description relays the structure of the composite experience.

Findings reveal that all five participants experienced successful careers as professional musicians, while simultaneously maintaining interests in other endeavors. Considerations that moved them toward a decision to leave their music careers varied: from health or physiological challenges to the desire to increase earning potential or from a growing sense of fatigue relative to the effort required to remain competitive to a sense of having accomplished everything anyone in a music career could reasonably expect to accomplish. Another consideration for some of them centered on a sense of restlessness and no longer feeling sufficiently challenged.

Once established in a new career, all became once again successful, as evidenced by fast career trajectory and increased earning potential. All participants have made a new post-performance life defined largely by music-listening and inter-arts engagement. For the most part, they no longer play their primary instrument. With one exception, when they do make music, it is on their secondary instrument, and it is non-performative, meditative, participatory or for leisure. They have lived their dreams of becoming and being a professional musician and find themselves now living out the realization of a new dream.

Summary reflections consider the costs of building, maintaining and leaving a music career and the benefits of setting clear intentions in the context of leisure music making. Recommendations center on questions for music educators and topics for related future study. They imagine a more dynamic role of composing a musical life story throughout a music educative experience.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Arts and Humanities
Thesis Advisors
Allsup, Randall Everett
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
March 2, 2022