Music & Academia (In or Out): Interview with Jolene Masone

In this series, I interview musicians about their experiences in academia. I hope their stories will help readers forge their own paths, in or out of the institution. Content warning: this interview discusses mental health and thoughts of suicide.

Recently, I interviewed Jolene Masone. Jolene is a bassoonist based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who specializes in contemporary music. She holds a DMA from the University of North Texas and an MM from the Peabody Conservatory.

ASN: Although you hold a DMA, you decided not to pursue an academic position. What were some of your reasons?

JM: I chuckle about it now. I don’t think I ever wanted to truly be a bassoon professor, I think I just wanted to talk about music a lot. I probably should have become a musicologist, because I love talking about art, politics, and music, and I love stories. Half of musicology is telling a story. I think, if I had it to do all over again, I would have become a musicologist. You still have to deal with assholes, but at least you get to own them on paper.

Academia was a rough experience for me. A memory from Facebook came up the other day that I literally graduated 5 years ago with my DMA. Now that I look back on it, a lot of my coloring of Academia was also what was going on in my life, which was awful at the time. The last year of my doctorate, I was working 3 jobs, I had no money, I had just gotten out of a very intense and difficult relationship (and I was still living with the person), and everything about that year was awful. At one point, I was highly suicidal, and the only thing I could stomach was cucumbers and Cheetos. I thought that was all I deserved. I remember my mother calling me just to see if I was alright, and I broke down in such sobs, that my roommate asked if I wanted her to call an ambulance. I didn’t really share any of this with my professors. How can you tell your committee, “Oh yeah, I didn’t really finish that chapter last night, because I spent the evening looking up the highest bridges in DFW, to see which one I could throw myself off of”? I was definitely in the throes of grief and depression, and I was pretty sure I was beyond help. I wrote in my journal at one point, “It’s this document, or me. I feel like it’s the only thing keeping me alive. If I don’t finish it, I’ll die.” I thought that if I finished it, at least I could kill myself accomplished. I obviously didn’t kill myself. Stepping away from academia was certainly a big part of that recovery. 

My mom made me walk for graduation. I think she had lived through so much of my crying through my masters and my doctorate, that she felt like she deserved a graduation as much as I did. It was honestly therapeutic to walk and get hooded. It felt like I could figure out what I actually wanted to do with my life. I still have specific dreams about what I want to do musically in my life, but not once have I thought about being a part of academia since the day I graduated.

Professors hate when I say this, but there’s a reason that we call music schools, asylums, and prisons “institutions”. I felt institutionalized. I went all the way through from high school to my Doctorate. No gap years, no rest. If I had been smart, I would have taken a year or two off in between each one. When I graduated, I felt like the only thought I had ever had, had come from someone else. I didn’t even feel….creative. Even after I had created a document, that I still get people emailing me about all the time, I still have the sense that I created nothing that was really my own during that time. I couldn’t do that to myself again. Not to mention, what was I going to do now, create more bassoonists? Being a bassoon professor (or an applied prof in general) is a noble, and sometimes thankless profession, but it just wasn’t for me.

ASN: Can you tell me about your creative life (pre- and post-pandemic perhaps)? What are some of your favorite projects/ensembles?

JM:

  1. The Ex-Mus Ensemble kept me alive, and saved me after my doctorate. It was the first thing I ever felt I had created entirely from my own head. Creatively, spiritually, intellectually. After I graduated, we spent a year experimenting and putting together an album. Without Chaz Underriner, none of it would have happened, but that ensemble will always sit as some of the best years of my life. I love the album we produced, and I’m a better musician and person, because of those two amazing guys I played with. 
  2. I play with the Lone Star Wind Orchestra, and serve on the board. That has been a great learning experience of the work it takes to build a large organization. And the money. Holy crap the money.
  3. For years I collected solo works for bassoon, and I’ve sworn I was going to make an album for them, for a long time. I don’t want acclaim or money from it, I just want it for me. I’m actually a good bassoonist, despite what my darker self likes to tell me, and some of those works were never professionally performed.
  4. I’m also working with an artist to create another version of the Major Arcana Tarot deck for me, and I’m going to create a series of improvisations surrounding the Major Arcana, and the spiritual journey it represents. I’m hoping it will be as much a journey for me, as it is for the listener. This is going to be a years-long project, and as I get older, I’m interested to see how it progresses. 
  5. Putting together a series of recitals. For nothing else, as a reason to keep playing. 

ASN: You have a day job unrelated to music–how does that help or hinder your musical pursuits?

JM: I work for a major airline. Honestly, I work a 40 hr work week, and I don’t have to bring any of it home. I get paid time off, health (dental and vision), and flight benefits. I took an audition in 2019, because I wanted to, and I could. It was the most low-stress thing I had done in years, because I didn’t care if I got it or not, and I had to pay for the night in an Air BnB. I have enough PTO built up, that if I wanted to go to a bassoon camp for fun, or a festival, I probably could, and I would be just fine. It might not be as good as a college paying for me to go to festivals, or whatever, but I make about the same as a college professor in Texas right now, so, I’m doing pretty ok, and it’s a third of the work. Also, did I mention the flight benefits? 

Hear some of Jolene’s work with Ex-Mus Ensemble:

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Welcome and thanks for checking out my work! -adam

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