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Seattle performing musicians balance creativity and 'portfolio careers'

A collage of four photos showing musicians with their instruments.
Titilayo Avangade/Steve Kim/Sharon Chang/Shaya Bendix Lyon
KNKX Graphic
Clockwise from top left: Percussionist and music professor Bonnie Whiting; bassist and retired music professor Steve Kim; flutist and part-time flute instructor Leanna Keith; and clarinetist and academic dean James Falzone.

There's that saying: “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.” For professional musicians working to survive on their artmaking, that’s never rung true. It’s more like, “Those who can, do, and also teach, and do freelance graphic design, and bartend.”

According to last years’ first-ever UK Musicians’ Census, approximately half of all working musicians in the UK earn less than 14,000 pounds ($17,300) a year performing. Over half of the 6,000 musicians who participated in the survey reported supplementing their performing careers with other forms of income, a phenomenon the census calls a “portfolio career.”

In the United States as well, portfolio careers have become even more of a necessity for musicians, particularly since the pandemic. Though the economic reality of being a professional musician has long necessitated that they work side jobs, the loss of performance opportunities during the pandemic shutdown made portfolio careers even more necessary for artists.

According to data from the National Endowment for the Arts, between 2019 and 2020, the U.S. arts economy “shrank at nearly twice the rate of the economy as a whole: arts and cultural production fell by 6.4 percent when adjusted for inflation, compared with a 3.4 decline in the overall economy.”

Even today, the U.S. live music economy is still struggling to recover, and as of 2023, a survey of 140 arts organizations in Seattle revealed that ticket sales were still down more than 60% compared to pre-pandemic times.

So, it's no surprise many musicians need to supplement performing in Seattle, which also has the ninth-highest cost of living in the nation. Many performing jazz and improvisational musicians in Seattle teach at universities, colleges, community organizations, or through private studios to make their income. But they also still take to the stage.

Finding inspiration in education

In April, a group including Cornish College of the Arts Academic Dean James Falzone and University of Washington Percussion Chair Bonnie Whiting held a release concert for their improvisational project entitled Six Artifacts at The Chapel Performance space in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

For teacher-musicians like Falzone and Whiting, they’ve structured their careers to balance a mix of teaching and playing because they prefer it that way. For others, this combination is necessary to make ends meet, and though they find it rewarding, it leaves less time and energy for making music themselves.

Falzone, a clarinetist, composer, and recently appointed Academic Dean of Cornish, is one local musician-teacher that found his groove doing both. Falzone’s been teaching for about 20 years, beginning right after he earned his master’s in Contemporary Improvisation. At the time, he and his wife had just had their first child and Falzone, who “really wanted to be performing and touring and composing” knew right away he would need to teach music to support his family.

Falzone became a part-time teacher at a liberal arts college outside of Chicago. At first, he admits had “no idea” what he was doing. But, with the tutelage of his “wonderful” department chair, he discovered a passion for teaching that eventually inspired him to move to Seattle in 2016 to become Cornish’s Chair of Music, and assume his current role as dean.

Musicians and educators Bonnie Whiting and James Falzone performing live. They released Six Artifacts in April, an improvisational album recorded with pianist Lisa Cay Miller.
James Falzone
Musicians and educators Bonnie Whiting and James Falzone performing live. They released Six Artifacts in April, an improvisational album recorded with pianist Lisa Cay Miller.

In tandem, he’s continued performing and composing as much as he can. At first, that required him to “plan every minute of the day.” Now, Falzone finds the time to teach, perform weekly with the Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble and regularly with his group The Division Quintet. He also travels to perform in Chicago, and records pennywhistle on people’s studio projects.

These days, the two aspects of his music career flow more naturally, perhaps because he’s so practiced at the time management necessary for the balancing act. He noted that the two aspects have a symbiotic relationship for him.

“[Teaching is] another part of who I am as an artist,” Falzone said. “And teaching has taught me so much about my own music. The kind of composer that I've become was, in many ways, because I had to teach all this great music.”

Whiting, Falzone’s musical collaborator who’s taught at UW since 2016, has had a similar trajectory. Throughout her career, Whiting’s held part-time and adjunct positions at various institutions, taught privately, and performed as an experimental percussionist.

“I started in a program that was a double degree in music education and performance because I knew I wanted to both perform and teach. I have always known that about myself,” Whiting said.

Whiting say students often ask her about how she’s sustained both elements of her career. She tells them it’s about, “defining for yourself, what it means to be an artist, and defining for yourself what you need for happiness.” For instance, teaching days are long and she doesn’t have much time to play or work on her own music. But, she said this sacrifice affords, “an amazing opportunity to help develop the next generation musicians and I totally love that.”

At the same time, Whiting acknowledges her privilege. She and Falzone have what Whiting calls, “unicorn jobs” — full-time, tenured university positions that include, even prioritize, time for their musical projects outside of the classroom.

This helps afford more balance for the teacher-musician, but jobs like these are much more scarce today as colleges and universities rely instead on the less expensive labor of part-time and adjunct faculty. People working in such contingent roles say it devalues time for research and professional development.

When the balance tilts

A woman with a red streak in her short hair, wearing a graphic t-shirt and silk pants holds a large silver flute with a curved head.
Sharon Chang
Leanna Keith
Flutist and instructor Leanna Keith has a constantly fluctuating teaching schedule, which impacts her performing career.

The growing emphasis on non-tenured music faculty is happening nationwide and comes at a cost to musician-teachers’ creative practice, according to flutist and educator Leanna Keith.

Keith is a part-time, non-tenured flute instructor at Cornish, who also maintains a private teaching studio with 19 students. The nature of her adjunct position means she may have a full course-load one semester, and a nearly empty one the next, making it very difficult to budget time for practice, performing, composing, and recording.

“It ends up being in the 70:30 zone where I'm mostly teaching and then spending less time devoted to my performance practice, which is not the balance that I want, by the way,” Keith said.

Still, Keith, whose solo bass flute and electronics album called Body of Breath comes out in September, loves teaching. She also relies on it to continue doing music professionally in Seattle.

“I'm a better artist because I am a teacher...On the other hand, though, it’s sort of a brain drain, like, you don't teach for eight hours straight, and then afterwards go ‘Yeah, I'm going to be able to work on my creative projects,’" Keith said. “I'm still sort of figuring out what the solutions are.”

A man with a gray beard, clear-framed glasses poses for a portrait in a fedora hat and blazer.
Steve Kim
Steve Kim taught music privately and at Shoreline Community College for decades, often teaching six days a week. Now retired, he's preparing to release a record of original compositions.

Retired Shoreline Community College music professor and bassist Steve Kim, echoes Keith’s experience. Kim, who spent much of his early career touring extensively, began teaching at Shoreline Community College in the late 1980s so he could be home to care for a sick family member. He intended to balance teaching with performing, but he found that teaching gradually began to take over his entire schedule.

“It eventually grew until I was [at SCC] all the time...I was teaching six days a week — five days there, and then again privately for the sixth day. So, at some point, I was doing nothing but teaching,” said Kim.

Since retiring, Kim, who still teaches at Jazz Night School and has a record of original compositions with guitarist Dave Peterson coming soon, has had time to reflect on how his teaching life impacted his artistry.

“In my own creative pursuits, it makes me accept my own way of learning,” Kim said. “What conditions exist that make me learn most effectively...what’s my style of learning?”

Harder than ever

There was one perspective shared by all the musician-teachers KNKX spoke with: Professional musicmaking in Seattle today is harder than ever, even for those with portfolio careers.

The way Whiting compares her early career in Seattle to that of her current students speaks volumes.

"I had flexible work as a caterer. I worked at a weekend music school, so I didn't really do K-12 teaching or academic teaching," Whiting said. "I took whatever gigs there were and in the arts. You could do that. In this city, in the arts."

She didn't make a lot of money but she paid her bills and didn't have a ton of roommates. Whiting said it was pretty easy at the time but what was possible for her, isn't the reality for her students. That raises tough questions for Whiting.

"How does it feel okay, to continue to graduate music students?" she said. "How do we ethically keep music in people's lives?"

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on arts & culture. Her journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Downbeat, and The Seattle Times, among others. She’s currently co-authoring a book on the Seattle jazz community with jazz critic Paul de Barros, due to be published by The History Press in 2026.