Hybrid Life: Balancing Careers in Music and Writing / by Chris Foley

Rhonda Rizzo Headshot.jpg

Today’s guest post is from Rhonda Rizzo, a performing and recording pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations.  If you’re interested in following Rhonda’s projects, check out her blog No Dead Guys. I hope that Rhonda’s account of managing her twin careers resonates with you the way it does for me - this is the way forward for many of us as we enter a much more entrepreneur-oriented era for success in the arts.

It took my first recital (age 6) to convince me I wanted to be a pianist.  It took selling my first story (age 15) to convince me I wanted to be a writer.  It has taken me decades to figure out how to balance the two.  I am, a career mentor once told me, a hybrid. She was the first one who saw the value of maintaining both career paths when most people told me I needed to specialize and choose between the two.  

Balancing two parallel career paths is tricky.  My focus zig-zags; sometimes it’s the piano that absorbs me and other times it’s writing.  This could be a sign that I’m not serious about either career, but it’s the path I’ve taken because I’m creatively incomplete without both disciplines in my life.  And, after decades of working in both art forms, I can see the common ground that feeds them both.  

Communication.  It’s the earth, the hummus, the guiding force, the creative stuff that dictates my writing and playing.  Some truths require the poetry of words; others go so deep they need the wordless communication of music.  The trick is to listen closely and obey the creative impulse, regardless of the communication channel.  

It took decades of working in these parallel careers before they fused in one project.  I’m a career non-fiction writer who found myself compelled to write the fictional story of a young pianist, Cassie, who survives the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas. The resulting novel,  The Waco Variations, is Cassie’s journey of healing—a journey made possible through her love of the music she plays.  In Bach and Barber Cassie finds the structure she lacks in her life.  In Rachmaninoff and Chopin, she learns how to grieve.  In the very act of delving deeply into music, she finds the healing she needs to transcend tragedy and create her life.  

The Waco Variations is a book I couldn’t have written had I not been a career pianist.  Sinking into notes, following musical lines, feeling the thrill of connecting with the mind of the composer—these are things that form the tapestry of my life as a pianist.  Conversely, had I not had decades of honing my writing skills, I’d have never been able to put these experiences into words.  

Since the novel’s publication, my duel career paths have returned to their individual, meandering ways.  The writing part of my life has allowed me to connect with other “hybrid” musician/writer colleagues, introducing me to people all over the globe. Through these connections I have a list of articles and guest blogs to write. My musical career continues to pull me to the music of living composers, which I record and write about on my blog.  I’m knuckle-deep into a new set of compositions that I’m lucky enough to be the first person (other than the composers) to hear and bring to life.   Most days find me with my hands on both keyboards—the piano and the computer—searching for ways to communicate truths living in music and life. I play with notes and words and I hope that despite the challenges of juggling multiple projects something beautiful enters the world through my hands.