Many classical musicians say that they would like to learn what works well for other genres and apply those lessons to getting their own music seen and heard. This continues our series of interviews with bands outside of the classical music industry, written by Hannah Sternberg.
Maryjo Mattea is a prolific musician in Washington, DC, actively performing in at least three bands as well as composing her own music and participating in many side projects. Sounds like someone who really dedicates her life to music — but music is actually only one half of Maryjo’s accomplishments.
She also has a PhD and works in public health. How does she do it all? To borrow a line she knows and loves well (one of her groups is a popular Beatles tribute band), she does it “with a little help from her friends.”
This sums up Maryjo best: when I asked her for her best advice to musicians seeking to build their communities, she replied, “My answer may seem fairly basic, but go to shows and introduce yourself to the musicians and other attendees.”
It is very simple advice, but it’s advice that artists of all kind need to hear, over and over again. Often, we seek complex formulas that will solve our networking problems for us — the code that will connect us directly to fame and fortune.
I know how easy it is to get stuck in your own orbit. For example, when I go to book festivals, it’s easy to fall into the attitude that I’m here to talk to potential readers — and forget that I can also make connections with other writers, just by talking to my table neighbors.
Being kind and inclusive, reaching out and saying hello to the other people around you, can transform your artistic life. At the very least, it can make it a lot more fun.
Here are more of Maryjo’s thoughts:
1. You’re one of the most accomplished people I know — a PhD-holder with a successful career in public health research, and the member of multiple, regularly-gigging bands in the area. Do you think there are any traits or skills that cross over to help you in both sides of your life?
Thanks so much! I’m not sure if being a performer has helped me with my public speaking and presentation skills or vice versa. Regardless, I find I am remarkably comfortable in front of people as a result, whether it’s giving a lecture or singing a song. My project management experience is also incredibly helpful.
Multi-tasking, effective planning, and strong organizational skills aren’t just useful for my day job; they’re how I can juggle gigs, rehearsals, etc. for multiple acts and still stay sane. I also teach Zumba once a week as well, so time management is key…
2. Have you noticed any similarities between pursuing a PhD and pursuing a career in music?
The keys to both, I think, are courage and tenacity. Obtaining a PhD is a long, grueling process and not everyone who starts it ultimately makes it to the finish line. The entire enterprise is founded upon a premise that requires everyone around you (professors and peers alike) to find holes in your arguments or flaws with your designs. Consequently, everything you do ends up being meticulously thought through and crafted to endure the scrutiny.
The crowning achievement of the PhD process, the dissertation, requires the creation of new knowledge. (No pressure or anything…) Music requires the creation of new art — and musicians similarly must withstand a certain level of scrutiny both from critics and colleagues.
I was actually incredibly reserved about sharing my original music for a long time. It wasn’t until I was in grad school that I started playing it in front of audiences, so it’s possible that pursuing the PhD provided me with the wherewithal to pursue music.
3. In addition to being one of the most accomplished people I know, you’re one of the busiest! Do you lean on your community to help you out when you’re dashing from shows to conferences and back again; and if so, how?
I am supported by some amazing people, both at my day job and across my various bands. The folks at my organization are strong proponents of the philosophy that happy employees are productive employees and are therefore very flexible with scheduling and time off. I’m so grateful that I work for an organization that permits me to the flexibility to do good work that I enjoy and still pursue my other passions.
My bandmates and musical collaborators are also all incredibly supportive of my multiple projects. Many of them are involved in more than one band as well, so really we are all mutually supportive of one another’s endeavors. I really loved seeing Dan Walker (of Doctor Robert and Penny Lane) and Josh Hunter and Roger Naressi (of Color Palette) out in the crowd at my EP release show in April. It was like members of my extended family showing me they all had my back.
4. You’re well-known in the DC music scene as a great networker and encourager of other bands and musicians. What’s the best advice you’d give to someone considering entering a music community, specifically from the viewpoint of supporting and connecting with others?
Brian Nelson-Palmer of Fellowcraft once took me out for drinks just to pick my brain on this very question, and it was incredibly flattering that someone would consider me a legitimate authority on this topic. My answer may seem fairly basic, but go to shows and introduce yourself to the musicians and other attendees. Be positive and eager, but also genuine.
Also, seek out pre-existing networks known for being welcoming and supportive. The Flashband community is a great example. The 7DL studio network is also comprised of positive, supportive folks. Some of the houses in the DIY scene are also really inclusive, like the Red Panda House, and the Lamont Street Collective (which, despite being recently evicted from their longtime home, still plans to host art and music shows in their new space under a new name).
In my experience, the people who make up these networks are actively working to build a music scene that is accessible and warm, and I try to align myself with them (and simultaneously promote or assist their efforts) as much as possible.
5. What do you do to recharge your energy (and optimism and enthusiasm) to pursue all these cool activities — from your band to your career, and everything besides?
I’m a sucker for the occasional Netflix/Hulu binge watch on the couch with a home-cooked meal and a glass of good wine. I feel like I spend so much time out and about, that being a homebody from time to time feels pretty good. When the stars align and my partner, Jonny, and I both magically have a day off together, we like to go on “marathon dates” that take us all over the city on foot or bicycle and usually involve art and great food.
I also derive a lot of joy from small gatherings of friends in living rooms, back yards, or rooftops. Interestingly, though, a lot of the activities that drain my energy can also re-charge my batteries as well. Playing a three hour bar gig or teaching a Zumba class are both physically exhausting, but with the right group of people, they’re simultaneously invigorating.
6. Was there ever a time in your life when you felt like your community didn’t have your back, or you felt alone and separated from your support community? What happened?
There are some networks within the music scene that can come across as fairly exclusionary; it can be easy to take offense when you just want to make new connections and share your music with different audiences and get shot down (or in some cases flat out ignored).
In these instances, I just move on. I don’t believe there is one single entity that grants entry into “the scene,” as it were. There is no one group to which I must belong that would signify I’ve “made it.” There are far more inclusive networks and people out there with which you should spend your time and energy. I save that energy for creating new music.
7. What’s your favorite memory of a music community in action, coming together for something?
I really can’t think of a single instance that stands out as a favorite because there are so many and they’re all special. I’ve seen musicians come together and plan benefits for victims of tragedies, like Lamont Street Collective‘s recent event to support the victims from the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando.
We also collectively raise money for causes; my band, Two Dragons and a Cheetah, was part of a multi-band fundraiser for Collective Action for Safe Spaces last year, for instance.
We also join forces to help one another out of unfortunate circumstances, like the benefit hosted at IOTA to help drummer and local music fixture, Ben Tufts, recoup expenses after having gear stolen. Most often, though, we’re there to support each other’s creative pursuits and indulge in their own personal love of music. We have built a beautiful community and it is thriving.
Hannah Sternberg is a novelist, creative writing instructor, and avid music fan. Her first novel, Queens of All the Earth, was praised by Kirkus as “modern and exuberant,” and her second novel, Bulfinch, was named a Notable Teen Book for 2014 by Shelf Unbound magazine. She teaches creative writing in Washington, DC and is the Events Manager of East City Bookshop. Learn more at HannahSternberg.com.