Day jobs: local artists balance two careers
From The Post and Courier
Story by Adam Parker; photos by Adam Parker and Wade Spees
Cellist Tim O’Malley has been immersed in music since he was 9, and last week at the School of the Arts, he was coaching young string players tackling one of Beethoven’s early quartets.
“The tempo is great for what you are doing right now,” he told violinists Elliott Cihlar and Cecelia Ostapeck, violist Savannah York and cellist Andrew Englehardt. And he complimented them on their progress since September.
O’Malley, who performs regularly with Chamber Music Charleston, is among numerous local musicians actively working to cultivate a new generation of artists and arts patrons. He teaches private lessons and, recently, extends his expertise to area schools, thanks to a Chamber Music Charleston outreach initiative.
In the School of the Arts rehearsal room, he is following along with a miniature score spread before him, nodding and smiling, suggesting dynamic adjustments and quietly celebrating the group’s cohesion and musicality.
It’s a safe assumption that a busy professional musician wouldn’t have a lot of time left over for other things. But music is actually O’Malley’s second career: He works full-time as a fabrication specialist for Boeing. He rises weekday mornings as early as 4:30 a.m. to be at work by 6:30 a.m. and returns from his day job in Ladson around 3:30 p.m. to recharge his batteries and begin the music-making process. The production schedule at Boeing these days is as intense as a Beethoven quartet.
O’Malley, 44, is hardly the only one to juggle two occupations — many professional artists hold down day jobs to pay the bills.
But some artists have second jobs that are completely unrelated to the art they make. Those jobs might stabilize their finances even as they add logistical and emotional challenges to an already complicated artist’s life.
John Cobb, 51, is the go-to baritone saxophone player in town. He often performs with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and the Charleston Latin Jazz Collective, lending that essential, full-bodied lower voice to the bands’ sound. He plays a regular gig at High Cotton on Tuesday and Friday nights.
By day, Cobb is principal of Drayton Hall Elementary School.
Raised by his grandparents, Cobb grew up in Parkers Ferry and spent summers in New York City where his mother lived and worked. For something to do, he picked up saxophone in ninth grade. It was only an option because a cousin played the same instrument and they could share, Cobb said.
Cobb had no intention to make music his career. He moved to New York after high school and found work in a fast-food joint. On the subway, he saw an advertisement for the music program at Bronx Community College, the kind with little info-tabs hanging from the bottom. He pulled off a tab, contacted the school and enrolled. Soon, the saxophone became important in his life.
“I got serious about it,” he said.
Once, a colleague in the Bronx told him: “You are going to be a school principal one day.” It was not something Cobb could imagine.
He got a B.A. in music at Lehman College, and played for two years with Latin music bands. Then he joined the orchestra of the touring show “Sophisticated Ladies.”
He’d return home with cash in his pocket, but it would dry up before long. Another tour, or a well-paying gig, was not as regular as Cobb might have liked. He wanted to own a house, start a family and come back home.
So he decided to get serious about something else: education.
He started as a substitute teacher, even as he continued to play local gigs. The sax paid for his education at The Citadel, where he earned an Education Specialist degree and then a Masters of Administration.
He taught elementary school in Cottageville while playing weekends at the Topsider Lounge on Kiawah and at Charleston Place Hotel in the evenings.
R.W. Smith is an academic adviser at the College of Charleston. He also is an actor who works regularly with Pure Theatre. Adam Parker/Staff
People would ask him, “Are you an educator who is a musician, or a musician who is an educator?”
Years ago, he would have answered that he is a musician first, but not anymore, he said.
Cobb is married to Joy Vandervort-Cobb, a professor of theater at the College of Charleston and a regular with Pure Theatre. Their two children, Jaymie and Jonross, also have artistic pursuits (one plays viola, the other plays drums).
Husband and wife keep a shared calendar on prominent display in the house so they can keep up with one another’s hectic schedule.
These days, Cobb arrives at Drayton each morning at 7:30 and departs at about 4:30 p.m. — usually.
Once in a while, a surprised student or parent will see Cobb playing his sax. “Oh, wow, you do something on the outside!” one father exclaimed a while back, then turned to his young son, citing Cobb as an example of industrious enterprise. Sometimes, to make ends meet, or to satisfy a special talent, you’ve got to hustle, you need to do something on the side, one job doesn’t always suffice, the father told his son.
R.W. Smith is an actor. He is also an academic adviser at the College of Charleston, helping students navigate the bureaucracy and manage personal challenges.
Smith, 44, came to acting late. First, he spent four years in the Air Force as an air traffic controller, then a year overseas with Raytheon tracking satellites and missile launches. He pursued a degree in aquaculture at Clemson University starting in 1997, minoring in theater. Then he came to a fork in the road. Neither wildlife science nor acting would ever make him a lot of money, he surmised, so he might as well pursue what he was most passionate about. And it wasn’t seaweed.
At 28, he auditioned for some roles in New York City to gain experience, then signed up for Louisiana State University’s three-year intensive conservatory program.
A family blossomed during these years. In 2000, Smith married the woman he met while at Clemson and the couple had their first child. After grad school, they moved to Chicago. Jen Smith worked office jobs while R.W. (who is called Smitty by his friends) found acting opportunities.
“Being a starving artist with a kid just was not that cool,” he said. So in 2004 they moved to South Carolina, their native state, where they had family support. Smith worked part-time for his father on lawn care projects and read about Pure Theatre, a new company mounting “Mercy Street” by Neil LaBute.
“Their views on theater, their preferences for gritty, contemporary works, was the same as mine,” Smith said. So he auditioned and was offered a role in the first play of the second season, “Jesus Hopped the A Train.”
That led to a production of “True West” in which he switched roles with colleague David Mandel every other night. He has been part of Pure’s core ensemble since then, and active also at Theatre 99 doing improv comedy. He has taught theater at Gregg Middle School in Summerville and at the College of Charleston.
When the family budget got tight during the Great Recession, he took a job in Atlanta, commuting to work the graveyard shift for Nationwide Hospitality. He was the liaison between airlines and hotels, helping secure rooms for stranded travelers overseas.
“That’s when my wife helped me find the job (at the College),” he said. “The theme through all of that is my wife is amazing.”
The academic adviser post suits Smith, he said. He works 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. then goes straight to rehearsal. Sometimes he auditions for a TV or film part. The biggest challenge is balancing family obligations (he has two young daughters) with everything else, he said. Then again, he and his wife both are accustomed to long hours.
“Our last name is Smith,” he said. “We work.”
After all is said and done, Smith considers himself lucky to have two careers at once.
“Lots of people have two jobs,” he said. “Mine just happens to feed my soul, feed my passion.”
Forging a path
Smith’s colleague at Pure Theatre, Laurens Wilson, is a manager at Trader Joe’s. Actor David Mandel runs a small photography and web design company. Painter Colin Quashie recently became a nurse. Local musician Bill Carson teaches in an elementary school Montessori classroom. There are many more, of course, whose art and work don’t always jibe.
O’Malley said he knew he was serious about cello by the time he got to high school in Albany, N.Y. He was practicing two hours a day. He went to summer music festivals, then attended Oberlin conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music. He joined the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in 1997 but lost his full-time position in 2010 when the orchestra was forced to downsize due to budgetary constraints.
His activities with Chamber Music Charleston continued, however, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of his wife, bassoonist Sandra Nikolajevs, who is the group’s president and artistic director.
The next year, on a late-night whim, O’Malley submitted an application for a job at Boeing. It wasn’t until March 2013 that he received a reply, an email out of the blue asking if he was still interested in the job.
After four weeks of training arranged through “readySC,” a program administered by The Center for Accelerated Technology Training, part of the S.C. Technical College System, O’Malley extended his preparations at Boeing’s Ladson plant, the Interior Responsibilities Center, learning all about industrial safety, aviation processes and tooling. He manufactures emergency equipment parts, he said.
“As a cello player, nothing ever ends,” O’Malley said. “You work on things, and when you’re away you still think about it.” Indeed, he often thinks about music while performing his tasks at Boeing. But he doesn’t think much about his Boeing tasks when he’s making music, he said.
The music-making continues apace. Chamber Music Charleston rehearsals are scheduled in the late afternoons or evenings, and his teaching schedule also follows his Boeing work hours. He maintains a studio of 10 private students.
The change has been significant, O’Malley said. Music is very much fundamental to who he is. Will he make Boeing a long-term career? It’s not out of the question.
“I’m taking it step by step,” he said.