Music majors often grapple with a sense of inferiority. This can range from the relatively mundane (“I’m not practicing enough”) to the existential (“No amount of practice will ever make me good enough”). Classical music culture bears, in my view, a sizable piece of the blame—those who reach very specific echelons are celebrated as classical music icons, while those who fall outside of those parameters are overlooked, if not ignored.
A quick scan of the “Notable Conservatory Alumni” page on the Colburn School website, for instance, reveals a laser-like focus on former students who’ve won international competitions and obtained principal positions in orchestras. Less visible in the community—for now—are those who break the mold, entering career paths that change the paradigm of a classical music degree, and what role it may play in a graduate’s life.
Twice a month, National Sawdust Log takes a closer look at the unconventional, interviewing musicians with degrees in music, prestigious or otherwise, who are propelling their careers in unconventional ways. Today, the Log examines what happens when music flips from passion to “day job,” sitting down with Isabel Hagen, a Juilliard-trained violist who takes the stage with microphone in hand even more often than her instrument.
The phrase “pursue your passion” might seem like it comes naturally to those with a degree in music. But what happens when, after nearly two decades of intense study, you realize your passions lie elsewhere?
As a student at Juilliard, this was Isabel Hagen’s struggle.
“At school, I was comparing myself to others all the time.” Hagen said in a phone interview. “I battled enormous performance anxiety that really held me back. I thought: ‘Well, this is just how good I’ll be at viola. Oh well.’ ”
But Hagen already knew that comedy was a serious calling.
“Ever since I was little, I always wanted to make people laugh. Hearing comics growing up, they weren’t just funny, but they were clear. They had this way of taking all of these feelings of anxiety and clarifying them, and somehow I was laughing. I knew I wanted to give that feeling to other people.
“Really my first ‘success’ in comedy was a video I made as a college sophomore called ‘How To Convince People That You’re Really Good at Chamber Music,’ inspired by the popular YouTuber Jenna Marbles. It ended up going viral in the classical music community, to the point where I would go to summer festivals and people would say: ‘Oh, you’re the girl from that video!’
“It felt great, honestly—like I could really do this, you know?”
After receiving her Master’s Degree from Juilliard in 2015, Hagen started taking comedy seriously. She estimates she’s taken the stage at bars or open mikes roughly 700 times: “Twice a day is a good benchmark among comics.” That grueling process, beyond providing a space in which a new comic can hone her craft and try out material, helped Hagen with her viola anxiety, too:
“When I started comedy, a totally new skill, the improvements I made felt more tangible,” she said. “I felt myself getting funnier by going to open mikes and bombing slightly less each time—which helped me fall back in love with practicing viola and enjoying the process.”
Indeed, Hagen’s viola still plays an essential role in her life. Thanks to her efforts in school to begin a freelance career, Hagen can sustain her comedic career with high-profile music gigs: some recent highlights include a stage shared with Björk and a New York City premiere of Steve Reich’s Runner, both at Carnegie Hall. She has regularly subbed on Broadway, including on The Lion King, Les Miserables, Sunset Boulevard, and Fiddler on the Roof. Not content to confine her work to the U.S., Hagen will travel to New Zealand this spring to perform with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and Max Richter, a renowned composer with credits across film and television, such as Shutter Island and Black Mirror.
Plenty of aspiring creatives take a “regular job” to fund their passion. For instance, The Daily Show correspondent Michelle Wolfe famously used her severance package from an investment firm to fund her first year of standup. But Hagen might be the first to fund a creative career in comedy with another creative career in music.
Her comedic style? Surprisingly, she tends to avoid music—her comedy revolves more around her experiences as a woman, including a signature opener about her own “resting sad face,” a play on the “resting bitch face” comedic motif. (“Oh no, it’s active,” she quips.)
But this avoidance does not reflect any lost passion for viola. “I haven’t yet found a way to make music funny enough to use it consistently,” Hagen laments. “It’s not that I don’t have passion for music. I still have deep moments where I get inspired during a great performance. But the image of ‘what I want to do’ with viola in the longer term is less clear.” She rejects the idea of a traditional music path: “I don’t feel compelled to audition for an orchestra, or join a string quartet. I certainly don’t want a solo career. Without those things, I don’t see, now at least, a concrete goal to aspire to.”
“With comedy, my goals are more tangible.”
What are those goals? Among many, a Netflix special “would be a dream come true,” but Hagen keeps her head in the moment to keep her sane, and urges anyone pursuing any creative pursuit, comedy, music, or otherwise, to likewise check in and make sure you’re enjoying the process.
“If you are an artist, it is so important to enjoy what you are doing, even before you ‘make it.’ If you don’t enjoy your craft now, you won’t enjoy it later.”
To an outside observer, Hagen’s work feels on the precipice of a career tipping point, though she cautions that this is still the beginning for her. She’s attained sufficient status to take the stage for “roast battles,” an opportunity to perform in front of big-name comics who act as judges, and she’s landed spots on key comedy festivals. She’s also considering submitting applications for regular employment as a writer on a late night television show—a highly competitive and coveted gig for comics.
Ironically, Hagen has already appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show—but as violist, not as performer. When I offhandedly suggest that she could be the only person to ever appear as background instrumentalist and guest (or guest writer) on the same show, you couldn’t miss the fire in her reply: “I’ve definitely thought about it. I want that so badly.”
While her Juilliard studies caused Hagen anxiety, the school also served, somewhat paradoxically, as a launching point for her pursuit of comedy.
“Bärli Nugent really helped me,” Hagen says of Juilliard’s Dean of Students. “I offhandedly mentioned my interest in comedy to her, and she immediately pulled up my YouTube videos in her office. I was nervous she would find them offensive, but she laughed and told me that that part of myself was important and valid, and that it was possible to just be completely myself, rather than hide a part of me to fit into the classical music mold.
“I’ve held onto that ever since.”
Isabel Hagen can be found on Twitter at @isabelhagen_. She co-hosts two monthly comedy series: “There Will Be Hot Girls There,” on the last Monday of every month at The Standing Room; and “Sit, Stay,” on the second Monday of every month at The Lantern.