Higher Ed Supported Me Until My Career-Ending Injury — Then I Got Ghosted

One of the worst break-ups I ever endured came from a four-year relationship that I invested all of my time and energy into. I left my home and family, moved across the country, and even took on debt that I’m still struggling to repay. Promises were made, but when I found myself needing extra help and support, I was ghosted. Her name? Higher Education.

For 16 years, my identity was centered on being a saxophonist. But toward the end of my Artist’s Certificate studies, I suffered a career-ending performance injury and was unable to complete the program. I had earned my master’s degree from the same institution, and after a four-year relationship with the school, the only advice I received from my advisors was to file a request for medical leave until I could figure out the trajectory of my injury.

Stress velopharyngeal incompetence is an under-studied injury that affects the soft palate: the muscle in the back of the throat that separates the mouth and nose and aids in breathing, speech, and swallowing. During one of my final certificate recitals, I suddenly felt an excruciating pain, as if someone had poured a gallon of hot water up my nose. My soft palate had fully collapsed, and all the air I had been blowing into the horn was painfully escaping through my nose instead. I simultaneously knew exactly what had happened and had no idea where this intense pain was coming from, or how to handle the situation on stage.

Soft palate collapse is common for wind instrumentalists, but it’s usually a short blip, a brief sign of fatigue that can be successfully treated with rest. I knew that my injury was more serious than just a momentary collapse, but I didn’t know that it might be permanent.

Mariah Goulet -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Mariah Goulet — Photo courtesy of the artist

A few months later, I started to realize this was more than just a “weird thing that will get better on its own,” as described by professionals at my university, so I went to see a general practitioner and eventually a plastic surgeon who specializes in velopharyngeal insufficiency and cleft palates. My short-lived moment of hope was brutally crushed when the specialist told me that since “my everyday life would not be affected” by the injury, there was nothing they were willing to do.

I could never play my instrument again, and no one at the institution ever followed up. End of relationship — except for those donation solicitations, which continue to roll in several times per year.

Although I was forced to say goodbye to a career in performance, many music school graduates ultimately choose to pursue different paths for a multitude of reasons. Normal adult experiences, like changing interests or relocating for a partner, can cause musicians to leave the field. Financial burdens can also be the catalyst for graduates to leave a full-time music career and pursue a more lucrative, properly compensated position. Lack of opportunity and the idea of having to move to the middle of nowhere for that one available university position is not a sacrifice everyone is willing to make. Or maybe the sheer physical and mental toll this career can take on a person is reason enough for them to seek other options.

However, institutions often don’t acknowledge alternate career paths outside of music or academia as a possibility, and are not equipped to support or prepare students who deviate from the established course.

Mariah Goulet -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Mariah Goulet — Photo courtesy of the artist

For students, the return on investment in higher education is supposed to be a degree that can open doors, create new and higher-paying opportunities, and advance their career. And while this is technically true, the available opportunities for music school graduates are increasingly rare, highly competitive, and not necessarily sustainable. Universities often promise a better future for their graduates, but in order to fulfill that promise, they need to provide more than a fancy piece of paper. Otherwise, the higher-education relationship begins to feel toxic: being asked to give everything of yourself, but receiving insufficient support in return.

As musicians, we are expected to hustle, work all hours of the day, constantly network, and practice until our reeds are bloody and our fingers weak. And this hustle culture is just as prevalent in academia, where burnout is considered the norm. The combination of music and higher education doubles the pressure on music students, who are conditioned to push themselves to the limit in order to earn praise from the institution. When all that hard work leads to depression, physical ailments, anxiety, and financial hardship, the institution is still so proud — as long as you are working in the field.

But when music school graduates find themselves on a different path, and even thriving in new environments, that institutional support and recognition evaporates. Maybe it’s just because I am a product of music school, but it feels like there is more judgment cast upon musicians who leave the music field than, say, on someone who went to school for finance but now works in hospitality.

I ended up becoming a full-time bartender and immediately started receiving derisive comments from people in academia and the music industry. (“So is that like a… career move for you?”) I could not even begin to figure out how to respond to the insinuation that I should still try to find a job in music despite not being able to do what I was trained to do. Higher education did not prepare me for the scenario where I obtain advanced degrees in music, suffer a performance injury, and then find a job in a field that triggered my trauma.

After my injury, I felt so lost, alone, and exhausted from trying to get medical and institutional help. I had no idea how to turn my two music degrees into a career when I didn’t even see myself as a musician anymore. I had no idea what the next step was, but I knew I needed to figure something out because in addition to everyday expenses, I had medical bills from my injury.

When I eventually tried to get back in touch with my institution, I was desperate for advice, resources, or anything that once-trusted professionals could offer me. But every time, I came back empty-handed and disappointed. Part of me understands, because, truly — what the hell does someone do after spending 16 years of their life working toward a career that is suddenly no longer physically possible for them? The problem, though, is that I was not just looking for an answer; I was looking for support to help me work through this experience.

Beyond the narrow paths that academia offers students, there is hope, possibility, and fulfillment.

Something I didn’t become aware of until a few years after graduating and taking a permanent medical leave was that most universities have resources outside of the music department. Career Services offices assist both students and alumni with everything from resume and cover letter assistance to mock interviews, career exploration, job searches, and salary negotiation. These offices often go underused by music departments, which tend to view themselves as independent from the rest of the university. But career counseling, mental health resources, and physical wellness services are just as important to music education as lessons, theory, and ear training.

I eventually bounced back after leaving higher education. I went on apps like LinkedIn, looked for new jobs, and ultimately found opportunities that I am so grateful for to this day. I did not have an exorbitant income, but I was able to provide for myself and have fun while doing it. Working as a bartender and as a marketing/events coordinator was incredibly fulfilling, and I learned things in these positions that I never could have learned in the classroom. And the most beautiful part is that I found support in a new community.

Mariah Goulet -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Mariah Goulet — Photo courtesy of the artist

It was eye-opening how much validation I received from people outside of the music and higher education fields. I was finally understood and cared for by people who weren’t even part of my student years. But even today, I can’t help but question why my institution wasn’t able to provide me with half that amount of care. Maybe you could argue that’s not the responsibility of the institution; that the system is purely educational and a tool to develop your professional skills. But if that’s the case, then music school curricula should better prepare students for the reality of life beyond school, whether that leads to a career in music or not. Advanced musical training, performance experience, musician wellness education, workshops, career guidance, and mental health resources and practices should all be a part of a musician’s higher education experience.

Sometimes, you don’t realize a relationship is toxic until you’re out of it. Time, distance, and perspective can help you recognize unhealthy situations. Since my injury, a little over two years ago, I have been able to process and mentally heal from the trauma of the entire experience. Research on stress velopharyngeal incompetence has allowed me to understand my injury and advocate for musician wellness. I have presented at a national conference and launched a website to bring awareness and personal accounts of injuries to the music community.

My life feels more naturally balanced than ever before. Even though I have developed new interests and pursued new opportunities, I am still a part of the music field. I am still a musician, even if I am not playing my instrument. Beyond the narrow paths that academia offers students, there is hope, possibility, and fulfillment. And while I am not grateful for my injury, I appreciate the things I have learned, the people who have come into my life, and the story I can share because of it.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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