This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. For the complete interview, you can access here.
Kristine Dizon: Hello, my name is Kristine Dizon, and I'm the CEO and Founder of the Modern Artist Project. Today, I'm with Nathan Mertens, teaching assistant professor of saxophone at the University of Arkansas. Thank you, Nathan, for joining us today.
Nathen Mertens: Thanks for having me.
KD: So, can you tell us a little bit more about your background, not only in music, but in general as a person?
NM: Yeah, so I was born and raised in Nebraska in the United States. I was a very eager kid, but I didn't have a teacher, so I was self-taught throughout the whole process. I went to undergraduate school as a music education and German major because I wanted to... I wasn't sure what I wanted to teach, but I liked German and I liked music, so I figured I'd do both. But then they put me in a classroom right away, and I realized I didn't like it. However, I still knew I wanted to teach, so I talked to my teacher about what options were available. She told me that being a university professor was a hard road, but if I wanted to do it, I should start practicing a lot. So, that's what I did, and it set me on my journey of lots of practicing and building connections with others.
I did five years in Nebraska, then went to the University of Texas for my master's and doctorate. That's where I really grew as an artist and as a person. I felt like after an undergraduate degree, you have the fundamental skills to move forward. I was fortunate enough to get a grant from the Japanese government, so I spent two years in Tokyo studying and learning. That was another life-changing experience, being in a new place, with a new culture, and learning new pedagogy.
After that, I returned to the United States and got my first teaching job back at my alma mater, replacing my teacher. And now, I'm at the University of Arkansas teaching saxophone. I've bounced around a lot, and I think that's good because it has given me a variety of perspectives. Not all of them work for me, but I have them at my disposal to use with my students or colleagues.
KD: It sounds like you've had some really fulfilling experiences traveling the world and pursuing your passion for the saxophone. Can you tell us more about your journey, from your early education to your masters degree, and what led you to choose the saxophone? Also, do you have any advice for young professionals who are looking for opportunities to follow their passions like you did?
NM: Yeah, I knew that I wanted to pursue music, but I wasn't sure what direction that would take. I considered becoming a band director, but that wasn't really the right fit for me. So, I decided to focus on performance, which was a bit challenging for me, especially because my family didn't really understand my decision. However, I knew in my heart that this is what I wanted to do. My undergraduate teacher once told me that if I could see myself doing anything else, I should go do it because being a musician isn't easy. But, every time I thought about quitting, I realized that I didn't want to do anything else. I couldn't see myself doing anything else except for playing the saxophone and sharing my music with others. That's always been my dream. I know that this might not be the best advice for everyone, but for me, I just kept pushing forward, even when the market was tough and people told me that I would fail. I did fail plenty of times, but I never stopped believing in myself and my long-term goals. I knew that I just needed to keep working hard and betting on myself. There's a book called The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield that talks about something called the "unlived life." When I read that book as a young student, I made a commitment to myself that I never wanted to have an unlived life, where I look back and wonder "what if?" That's been a driving force for me over the past few decades.
KD: No, I think it's really inspiring the fact that you mentioned about these ideas of failure, really just having the grit to just continue and to be able to learn from those two and I think it's actually really great advice and this is actually advice that I give to my students is that, you know, it's okay to fail because of the fact that our society frames it in such a way that we always have to be perfect all the time.
And the thing is, well, how do we get there? How do we get to that idea of perfection? How do we get to that idea of, you know, making it to the next level? Right? And so I think there's a lot of really great things that you mentioned here in regards to not giving up and betting on yourself, because I feel like we could do that more often.
NM: Yes, and it's a lot about, I think, being able to sustain a career and even just practicing daily. My advice is to be happy where you are at the moment and enjoy the journey. If you're only results-driven, like wanting a specific job and then being happy, it probably won't work out. Instead, if you enjoy what you do and want to be impactful every day with your students, that will serve you well.
I want to give concerts and those are all along the path towards that thing. I don't think I'm ever going to arrive at the thing, but I want to have a good time and enjoy my life, sort of, in the process of getting towards that thing, even though I think it's always getting farther away. I want to enjoy that process and and enjoy the people along that process because you can't do it alone.
KD: I understand that burnout is a common issue among professionals, and it's easy to become focused on the result at the expense of the journey. However, the process is often what makes the journey interesting and rewarding. My suggestion to those who want to focus on the results is to try to find balance and appreciate the process as well. Remember that the process helps us learn and grow, and it is through this learning and growth that we can achieve our goals more effectively and sustainably. It's okay to have an end goal in mind, but don't forget to embrace and enjoy the journey as well.
NM: Yeah. This is something I talk about a lot in my teaching. I have two boards, one for success and one for process. Success is crossed out because if you're looking for one specific result in something like an audition, for example, maybe you'll get it sometimes, but it's very luck-based. However, if you go through the process, the process is the same every time and you're more likely to get the results. In the job market, there's no certain way to go about it, but my process has always been about my own work.
To avoid sounding like a fortune cookie, I tell my students to make sure the only comparison they're making is to themselves from the previous day. When students tell me they're not as good as someone else, I tell them comparison is the thief of joy. As soon as we start comparing ourselves to others, our journey seems less fulfilling. I'm sure there is a 10 year old somewhere in the world who plays saxophone better than I did at their age, and that's fine. The level is constantly increasing, but I'm on my own journey and in control of my own process. So it may sound cliche, but focus on yourself and your own work. And be happy for your colleagues who are also doing good work, right? If you don't get the job, it's not great for you, but be excited for your colleagues. I believe in the philosophy that all boats rise with the tide.
KD: These are great insights you're sharing with us. When we think about community and building meaningful connections, not only with students but with others we encounter in life, kindness is key. We never know someone's story, so engaging with them in a kind way is always important. These are really impactful words, Nathan. Thank you. Do you feel that the university or college system is doing the maximum it can to prepare students for the competitive nature of the industry, or do you think there is more that could be done?
NM: It's a hard line to walk because you don't want to be discouraging to students. I will never tell them "I don't think you have what it takes." I will simply say that the work ethic you are exhibiting now does not match the goals you have told me you want to achieve. So I'm not saying you are not capable of achieving those goals, but the work you are currently putting in does not match what it will take to get there.
I think it's important, especially with my graduate students, to talk about the realities of the job market - like how many jobs are available and what they pay. And then we start talking about alternative career paths - or really, we should just call them music career paths. Because the academy and the music industry as a whole do such a good job of promoting only two paths - the orchestral path and the academic path. If you don't fit into either of those, then somehow you are seen as a failure.
And you mentioned burnout earlier - I feel like because those are the two paths that get the most recognition in our field, people who are pursuing other paths can feel like they are not good enough. I know that before I had a university position, I felt like I had wasted my doctorate and that I would never do anything. It's important to find value again in the daily process and the things you are doing - which is why I encourage a lot of students to write a mission statement. What is your personal mission behind music? I know that might sound very business-like, which sometimes gets a negative rap, but what is your personal mission statement? My mission is connection and advancement. So, even if I didn't have a university job, but was teaching at a high school, I’m connecting with students and helping advance those students. I am fulfilling my mission. It's about the work, not the title.
I know that talking about personal mission statements can sometimes have a negative connotation, but it's important to consider what motivates us in our work. For me, my personal mission is about connection and advancement. Even if I didn't have a university job, but was teaching at a high school, I would still be fulfilling my mission through connecting with and advancing my students. It's not about the title, but about the work itself.
However, it's also important for those in positions of authority to be transparent about the realities of their roles. We often see orchestral players and university professors portraying their careers as perfect, but they don't always talk about the challenges, such as committees and endless emails. It's important to find a way to discuss the realities of the market without discouraging others from pursuing their dreams. Does that make sense?
KD: It makes perfect sense. And I think you hit on a lot of points here, the idea of trusting someone or having confidence in their abilities, but being able to balance that with the reality of the work ethic needed to achieve our goals, whether we are successful at them or not. Success can be different for different people, but that doesn't devalue them. That's something we sometimes forget as musicians, that we are sharing something and want to exhibit something, no matter the genre. This is something our audience needs to hear because in 2020, there are so many different things we can do with music. After figuring out their mission statement, which I don't think is a bad idea, it actually helps students focus on their objective from the beginning and see how it grows over time. What do you encourage your students to do in that regard?
NM: Yeah, and that's allowed to change. That's what I say. It's allowed to be flexible, right? And so you could come in one year and say, "I want to be a music ed person," and then the next year you might say, "But I really like theory and I think I want to be a theorist." That's great. Or you know, I have a couple of students who say, "I want to be music producers." Great, let's figure out how to get you in alignment with that goal. Right? And so I think it's about helping students with their mission statement, but then it's also about finding opportunities and I think it's really important as a teacher to check my ego because it's easy to say, "Okay, I want all my students to be the best saxophonists."
However, sometimes it's important to also say, "In the lesson, we're going to take 10 minutes to help you find an internship so that you can pursue your goal of being a music producer. Let's find the courses and connections that will help you get there." It's tricky because applied lessons are limited, you know, I only have an hour with a student once a week and we need to focus on playing quite a bit. But I think if we only focus on playing, we're neglecting the whole student and we need to really help guide them towards their future.
We get a lot of students who, like a lot of my former colleagues, don't play anymore, and I feel like we pump out these great musicians who don't know how to market themselves, how to talk about themselves, or how to put all the pieces together to be the modern artist, right? Because it's so different now than it was when a lot of our teachers got their jobs. So we have to teach differently in order to help our students be successful.
KD: I think that's something important to share. You know, when we think about how our society, our world has changed, I mean, even when we were much younger, it was completely different. And with digital marketing, social media management, and having to keep track of these things, it's important to be your own advocate. So how do you encourage students to be their own advocates in regards to what they're learning from you or in general from the university system?
NM: Well, I think it's important for them to really understand what they want to do, and then to understand who they are and what they have to offer. I always ask my students a question that was asked to me: What makes you special? Or another question I ask a lot of my students in entrepreneurship classes is, if you were an item being sold in a store, what would be the five descriptors you would use to describe yourself? This really gets students thinking about who they are and what they have to offer, because often when we're young musicians, we're trying to fit a mold. Don't stand out too much. I want to sound like everyone else.
But in order to win these jobs, often people talk about what we're hiring: a person. We're hiring an individual, an artist with an individual voice, a unique voice. Okay, well that's not fitting the mold. Right? So really encouraging students to figure out who they are, what they want to do, and then owning that.
For example, when a student brings me their recital repertoire, I ask them how the pieces represent them as an artist. I also consider whether the music aligns with their values and beliefs, and if it promotes a particular cause or demographic group. This type of conversation is important to me as a teacher because it helps students define themselves as artists rather than just following the crowd. By starting these conversations early on with students, we can help them develop a sense of purpose and identity as artists.
Sometimes it's uncomfortable because you're 19 years old and you're like, 'He's asking me about my mission and my values.' But again, it's all flexible. It can all change. But we're just starting that process of thinking about yourself as, I don't want to say a good to be sold, but something that is marketable.
KD: I believe it's crucial to have a support system and a sounding board in the competitive industry we work in. It can be easy to feel like we're not good enough or that we're not measuring up to the expectations. However, having support and someone to bounce ideas off of can be invaluable in helping us reach our goals and be successful in the industry.
NM: And I think it's important to be real and transparent about my own growth and journey as a professional because often we see university professors and orchestral players at the top of their field as if they've never struggled. I like to talk about my own experiences, like how I thought I would become a German teacher or my many failed auditions and grant applications. This helps me share what I learned through the process and how I became successful. I adopt the approach of Ben Kamins, a professor at Rice University, who said that when he practiced, the only thing he thought about was whether or not it was interesting. This helps me have an objective perspective on things, stay positive, and move forward. I try to instill this in my students by reminding them that we will inevitably face setbacks, but it's important to push through them and continue believing in ourselves. I wish I had more support along the way, so I try to provide this for my students so they don't feel like they're on their own if they want to pursue something unconventional.
KD: No, and I think that's the thing also too, when we think about the teachers we've had in our lives and the support we've received, whether it be financial support for education or even just emotional support because it can be emotionally draining to try to be positive, objective, and forgive ourselves while also understanding what we need to do to move forward. I think these are all really important things and having these conversations, especially with our students or even just for those who are listening, is really important because authenticity and genuineness is what our society craves, whether it be through technology or in-person interactions. I think you've hit on a lot of really great things here, Nathan.
NM: Yeah, and that connection is why I started music in the first place. It allows us to connect with ourselves and others. Music is about connection and community, and while a lot of what we do is done alone, like practicing as an independent artist, knowing and having support from the community is so important. My teachers were always there for me to lend an ear, and at the time I just thought that's what teachers do, but it's not something every teacher does. I want to be that for my students, so they can dream big and figure out the steps to get there. If that's their dream, we'll find a way to make it happen instead of saying the music industry is hard and they probably don't have what it takes. My story is that I'm from a town of 2000 people, I didn't have a saxophone teacher until I went to college, and this was before YouTube, so I couldn't teach myself online. I showed up to my first saxophone lesson in college without a saxophone because I thought it was syllabus day. I know things I would be upset about if my students did them. I had never played a real saxophone solo before and I think I only knew two major scales. I don't know why I was accepted, but I think I was just really excited and eager, and someone took a chance on me and believed in my spirit. I'm forever grateful for that.
KD: I just love it. It's like I thought it was syllabus day was so I didn't have my saxophone. But the thing is the fact that you have the humility to be able to share that with us, and to say that this is what it started, this is what it was before, and this is what it is now. Being able to take those people, I'm sorry, I'm just tearing up because I'm laughing. But being able to just be yourself and throughout the process, having that spirit and having someone take a chance. I feel like we need to do that more for people because a lot of the time, when people really want to do something and you can see that they are invested, it's like, all right, you may not have this right now, X, Y, Z, but I really like what this is right here. It's not just about what they are as players, but also who they are as people because ultimately the students that you work with are the people that you can work with.
NM: I always talk about my students and how I want to teach them to be the next generation of colleagues that I will work with. I can't wait to be old and have the field filled with students that I have once taught. I want them to be good people, good communicators, kind, empathetic, welcoming, and inclusive. These are important qualities for me as a teacher and how I teach. I want the field to be filled with amazing people who are not only good at their instrument but also good people. Earlier, you mentioned making sure they are good players. Part of being a mentor is also having difficult conversations about personality traits that might not be conducive to a professional life. It is important to address these things early on so that students are aware of who they are as a person and have a 360-degree view of themselves. It is not only about feedback on their musicianship, but also feedback on how they are as a human.
KD: This is great. I think that awareness is something that, sometimes, we're not fully aware of what we're doing because we're so focused on what we need to do as musicians. But being able to be aware of how our culture and society operates, how we can interact, and how to instruct or help our students is important. We need to prepare them for the digital world we live in today, with platforms like YouTube, Spotify, and iTunes.
NM: The digital world - I feel like I'm preparing them for the world they currently live in, but not the future because I have no idea what that is. But I'm preparing them to use as many resources as possible. We record every lesson and put them on a cloud device for everyone to watch. I hope email is a thing of the past in 10 years, but I hope it's better than email. Email etiquette, how to use email properly, is important. Students often send emails like text messages. Digital literacy is really important, and understanding that anyone can put something on YouTube. So we have conversations about professional recordings and where to find them. YouTube is great, but as a first-year student studying standard repertoire, we should be seeking out professional recordings produced by the top of the field. I rely heavily on my colleagues and the music technology area to help students with that.
Preparing them for the current world is important, but also the future, since I have no idea what that looks like. I encourage my students to use as many resources as possible. For example, we record every lesson and put them on a cloud device for everyone to watch. I also hope that email becomes a thing of the past in the next 10 years. Digital literacy is important, as well as understanding that anyone can put something on YouTube. We have conversations about professional recordings and where to find them, so that we can listen to the top of the field. I also help students with websites and branding, and teach by example with my own studio's Instagram. In terms of teaching technology, I rely on my colleagues because we have limited time to focus on personality goals and saxophone skills.
KD: Yes, that's true. It's important to consider the small things in understanding what you want to represent and share with the world, as well as what makes you unique. These points are not always communicated clearly, and I think this conversation is really great.
NM: Sorry, I was just going to say that one of the hard things about what we do is that there's so much to pack into lessons. There's repertoire, scales, how to practice, intonation, articulation - I mean, lessons can be three hours long and we still don't hit everything. And then we have to address career goals and all of the other things that go into being a modern artist. It's not something that can all be taught. That's why I like to instill in students an inquisitive nature - so that if they want to make TikToks, for example, they can seek out information and connect with other colleagues who know how to do it. It's important to stay curious about what the market is like and learn more about it.
All of the stuff that there is to be a modern artist can't be taught, and so I think it's important to instill in students an inquisitive nature. They should seek out information and stay curious about the market and what's going on, rather than just relying on information being given to them. Even if I don't have experience with something like TikTok, I'll connect them with colleagues who do, and we can figure out ways to explore it together. The idea of staying curious and being able to be scrappy and look for information yourself is essential, no matter what educational setting you're in. It's important to be able to adapt and keep up with the constantly changing world of artistry, even if it can be exhausting at times.
KD: Staying curious is essential for personal and professional growth, but it can be difficult to keep up with the constantly changing world of artistry. It's important to be adaptable and try new things, even if it means learning something new and potentially feeling exhausted at times. With the right tools and a scrappy attitude, you can look for information and resources yourself and try out new things, like creating website designs and writing a biography. I know I had to learn how to do all of these things myself, and over the last 15 years of learning, I was able to come to where I am today. Do you ever get tired of how fast the world is changing with regards to this type of artistry?
NM: I get tired, but it's important for me to try new things and stay curious, especially when there's something new on the horizon. For example, I'm planning to learn more about TikTok this summer because I don't use it and don't want to be out of touch with what my students are using. It's important to not be too attached to any particular platform or concept and to always be thinking about where the future is headed. As an educator, I'm always looking to the future and trying to prepare my students for what's coming next. I'm always learning new things, and my students even teach me new lingo sometimes. It's important for me to stay connected to their world, even though it may be different from my own. We're all living in the same world, and it can be very meta at times.
KD: This is great. I think we're going to leave on that note. So thank you for joining us today and for sharing your experience and thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing the amazing things that you continue to do for our community. And I really look forward to hearing more about what you do with your career.
NM: That sounds great. Thank you so much for having me Kristine.
Kristine Dizon is a multi-faceted performer, teacher, writer, author, linguist, and entrepreneur. She is Founder & CEO of the Music & Language Learning Center, The Modern Artist Project and co-founder of the Gran Canaria International Clarinet Festival and American Single Reed Summit. She is an artist for Uebel Clarinets and Silverstein Works. Learn more at www.kristinedizon.com.