Once a musician, always a musician

by Gwendolyn Hoberg, Special to MPR
March 6, 2014

Emma Nelson recently shared the stories of two people who earned music degrees but chose not to pursue careers in music. I've also been talking with people whose careers have diverged from music, my interest in the topic piqued by a Daily Circuit segment on "the art of quitting." Three of my sources — Qiuxia Welch, Kevin Welch, and Joe Schlefke — combined introspection about their work as musicians with international travel.

Spouses Kevin and Qiuxia are co-owners of the Boom Island Brewing Company in Minneapolis. Their interest in brewing beer began in the early 2000s when they were both playing french horn in the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra. The Duluth gig was one of many performing and teaching positions around the state that they combined to make a living as musicians. "We basically did everything a music major could do to make a living, besides being a full-time professor or full-time orchestra player," Qiuxia says.

By 2005, they had grown somewhat weary of the freelance lifestyle. As Qiuxia explains, they were also confronted by this reality: "We realized that being both horn players, the likelihood of finding an orchestra with two openings where we would both win the positions would probably be zero." The couple decided to move to China for a year-long break. There they performed on occasion (unusually for horn players, this was mostly at jazz clubs) and discussed every possible way they could return to careers in music. Ultimately, they agreed it wasn't workable for them. When they moved back to the U.S. they still made a living as musicians for a while, but started to actively plan for their own brewery. They opened Boom Island in 2012.

Kevin points out that he and Qiuxia are still active union horn players, and see music as complementing their main line of work as brewery owners. "Whenever we do events, we do horn calls to open the events," Qiuxia says. "The horn is a big piece of our story, of the brewery."

For former orchestral conductor Joe Schlefke, music is more firmly in the past than the present. In 2011, Schlefke's 13-year conducting career based in the Twin Cities was more successful than ever — but like the Welches, he was getting tired of the grind. "The constant studying, planning, rehearsing, improving, raising money, and nonstop thinking about it all was starting to wear me down. I was fearful of life passing me by — of my working and working in order to stay in the game only to realize that I had missed other life opportunities."

So when someone suggested that Schlefke go along on a road trip to South America, he said yes. He traveled with a friend for about a year, and during that time came to the conclusion that it was time to try something besides conducting. He now teaches students of all ages at an English academy in Oaxaca, Mexico. "I have very few possessions and rarely see my family," Schlefke says. "But I love everything about Oaxaca and I love exploring this other side of my being. Certainly, being a conductor all those years gave me great skills that could be transferred to teaching, such as organizational and preparation skills, the ability to connect personally with my students on their level, and the ability to fine-tune details while keeping an eye on the big picture." In addition to teaching English, he has one piano student, and would be open to taking on more if he had better access to a piano.

The world is wide, and these three people decided to offer the world other aspects of themselves. But even though none of them currently has a music-centered career, Joe, Kevin, and Qiuxia will bring their experiences in music with them as they go through life. They will always be musicians.

Gwendolyn Hoberg is an editor, writer, and classical musician. She lives in Moorhead, plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and writes the Little Mouse fitness blog. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.


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