Music & Writing: Life as a Dual Artist

by Jennie Dorris –

My name is Jennie Dorris, and I’m a musician AND a writer.

It used to feel like a confession. Since I was young I’ve liked both arts, but I’ve always gotten criticized for trying to excel at two disciplines. I’ve heard time and time again that some day I’ll have to focus on one or the other, and I’ve heard outright from several professors (while I was working on dual degrees) that I “can’t have it all.”

I decided to ignore them and try to have it all, and I’ve been working professionally as an interdisciplinary artist for almost six years now. And here’s the secret: Being a dual artist is the very reason I’ve been successful in my career.

Combining Passions in Music and Writing

I started out by managing my disciplines separately — I wrote a column for a Boulder, Colorado daily newspaper while I got my master’s degree at the University of Colorado Boulder College of Music. My first year out of school I worked part-time writing at the paper, and used the rest of my time to prepare for weekly recitals. (I lucked into a situation where performing once a week paid for my rent.)

However, after one year of living this perfectly balanced lifestyle, it all fell apart. The newspaper went under, and my living situation became more complicated then just playing a recital for my rent. (Note: Get these agreements in writing!) I was scrambling looking for a place to live and trying to buy groceries from a tiny unemployment check. So when I was offered a job at a music festival in upstate New York, I threw most of my possessions in my car and spent the summer in the woods.

You can do a lot of thinking when you don’t have cell phone service or email access. When I returned to Boulder (where I thankfully had found roommates), I was determined to start combining my passions. I started a live concert series called Telling Stories. We performed a mix of original essays and classical chamber music once a month in a coffee shop. And things took off. Music critics came to review us. The Denver local paper Westword gave us a “Best of Denver” award. And we outgrew our venues, moving to breweries, art galleries, and cafes.

While Telling Stories was growing, I still had to manage my careers separately. I wrote freelance articles during the day and drove to orchestra rehearsals at night. But I also started getting hired as an interdisciplinary artist; teachers liked to work with me because I could integrate two arts into their curriculum.

Telling Stories then got picked up by Colorado Public Radio and turned into a radio show, and as its profile grew, I finally felt proud to be a person who could excel in two areas. And that lead me to greater focus in each discipline. In music, I branded myself as a soloist and chamber musician. With writing, I hung up my reporting hat and focused on essay writing and fiction.

Now, most of my work is as an interdisciplinary artist. And the field is growing rapidly. Cross-disciplinary studies are booming in colleges. I’ve discovered that cultivating two disciplines doesn’t mean I’m trapped in the “jack of all trades, master of none” stereotype; it actually means that in this artistic climate, I can have it all.


musician Jennie Dorris

Jennie Dorris is a writer and musician living in Pittsburgh, PA. She earned degrees in journalism and music from Drake University and received her master’s degree in music at the University of Colorado Boulder College of Music. She currently works with the Music Entrepreneurship program at Carnegie Mellon University, as a teaching artist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and as a percussionist with Alia Musica.

Comments

  1. Kelly

    Hello, I am an English major and I’m thinking of doing a music minor, but I don’t know what I can do with the minor (I’ve tried googling it , but it only shows music majors). I was thinking of being a blogger or songwriter but again, I’m not sure if it’s worth the time and effort since I don’t play intrusments (yet) but I’ve always loved to write songs/express my thoughts on a song. Do you think the combination is good enough to live on?

    • Not all schools offer a music minor so you’ll need to check with your school. Talk with the department chair if you can’t find what you need on their website. Since there are no guarantees as to what a music minor will lead to, why not consider taking some electives in areas of music you’re interested in?

  2. Sharther

    Thank you for this article. I too have been struggling with the idea of combining my passions. This was very inspiring.

  3. Roxanne

    Hello, I second the other person’s comment about how inspiring this article is.
    I’m majoring in music and minoring in writing. I am a cellist, but far from pro. I lack certain techniques, but still plan on doing something with it because as musicians and writers we are always improving. I want to compose as well as perform (even if it’s at a small venue or wedding), and would like to use things I’ve written like stories and poems with my music. I am in my last semester at Rollins College in Winter Park Florida pursuing my Bachelors, and would like to know if you have any advice as to where I should look for a career once I’m out.

    • Jennie Dorris

      Hi Roxanne,
      That’s so neat that you are pursuing both! I wonder if you could combine them in some way — maybe as an educational program? You also might be the perfect person to help local arts organizations express themselves through their materials, writing program notes or a blog to bring the music to life. Your skills on stage really only serve to make you a more valuable writer!

      thanks for reading!
      Jennie

  4. Dee

    This article gives me hope I can excel as an English Communications major and a Music minor. Most people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them which degrees I’m pursuing. How did you manage to handle everything you did? I feel like I am overwhelmed with music classes and essays at the moment. I’m trying to incorporate my love of writing and playing music together, but I’m having a hard time doing so. This article is refreshing and inspiring; it’s just what I need right now. Thanks!

    • It is admittedly hard at first. But as you juggle both loads, I think you’ll find overlaps you love in both themes and your approach to each. I’d urge you to really embrace those; they will help the two come together and make sense. I recently read it’s okay to pick some work to do as “b+” work, meaning you don’t have to excel at every single thing. I wish I would have cut myself some slack while I tried to do two degrees in four years, I think that might have helped me along!
      – Jennie Dorris

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