A Lyrical Soul – T.J.’s Student Loan Story
What sort of person becomes a composer? One thinks of a small, be-suited child, perhaps wearing a bowtie, a bit out of place and yet mature beyond his years as he sits eating dinner at a long, dark, candle lit dinner table in Manhattan. Rigoletto plays in the background as wine glasses clink and his parents discuss literature and art before launching into the pros and cons of the various preschools on the upper eastside.
T.J. Jamison* was not your typical composer. Born in North Dakota, the third of four children, he did have a penchant for sweater vests, but the similarities ended there. T.J. ’s father owned a small family farm; his mother was a housewife. When T.J. was five, his father had a falling out with his uncle, and he sold his share in the farm and went to Minneapolis to start a new life. He got a job in a hardware store and a year later, he moved the rest of the family to a small home in a nice neighborhood that he bought with the proceeds from the farm sale.
Though his family wasn’t wealthy, they had enough money so that when T.J. began showing signs of musical talent, they were able to pay for piano lessons. He soon took an interest in violin as well, and they bought him a cheap, but functional instrument and took him to lessons at the local music store. T.J. quickly mastered the violin and was sent to another, more advanced teacher. But after only a few months, that teacher too saw his superior talent and recommended him to a locally famous music teacher with ties to Julliard. His mother took a job to help pay for his lessons and soon, his new teacher was recommending him for a place in a Julliard-sponsored program for musically talented children. So his parents made the difficult decision to send him to New York City alone to pursue his gifts. He was seven years old.
T.J. ’s parents could not afford the Julliard program, but he had a sponsor. He went to live with an older man, a psychiatrist with a love of music, who sponsored him in his studies. The man was nice, but somewhat cold, and T.J. spent most of his time practicing the violin. His parents sent him $100 every two weeks and clothes sometimes, but for the most part, he lived on the charity of his sponsor.
As T.J. grew older, his talent grew but so did his worldview. He began to feel that, as much as he loved music, there was something missing from his education. When he was in his late teens, he turned down what would have been a full scholarship in violin performance at Julliard and instead returned to Minneapolis to attend an art magnet school where he continued to study violin and took up composition. He also began to take college-level courses in subjects like philosophy, art, and even law. “I was idealistic,” he says now about the decision. “I wanted to study the classics.”
T.J. thrived at the art high school, but at home, his life was falling apart. His parents were now working at the same prison – his father as a guard and his mother the kitchen manager. But things had grown tense. His mother, a manic-depressive, had grown ever more erratic and the summer between his junior and senior years, his parents divorced. T.J. became more and more convinced that he needed to learn not just about music but about life. When a high school guidance counselor recommended St. John’s, a great books school in Annapolis, MD, it seemed the perfect fit. But St. John’s was expensive, and T.J. knew his parents wouldn’t be able to contribute to his education. At 18, he didn’t care.
“I will take on as many loans as I can,” he remembers thinking. “ I want a true education, and I want it to be on my own terms. I want knowledge. And I don’t want to be force fed things. I want to know why I know the things that I know.”
T.J. was accepted into St. John’s. As he expected, his parents weren’t able to help him out financially. He didn’t want them to. “I am not making you pay for this,” he told them when they worried over his decision to turn down the Julliard scholarship. “I did this. I’m taking this on.”
Still battling with his father over the divorce, T.J. ’s mother refused to sign his FAFSA forms, even though it was her income that T.J. was living on. His father, who had a higher income, signed them instead, and T.J. wasn’t able to get much grant money. Still, he did get some free aid and some federal loans; the rest he took out in private loans from Wells Fargo.
Almost as soon as he arrived at St. John’s, T.J. realized he had made a mistake. Though he was quick to make friends, he missed music, and he longed for a program that would allow him to explore that side of himself while still learning the lessons of the great books. And though he didn’t recognize it at the time, he too, like his mother, was beginning to show signs of what would later develop into full-blown manic-depressive disorder.
He stayed for a year at St. John’s and then transferred to Bard College in New York City, taking on more student loans. He laughs when I ask him if he thought about the debt he was assuming. “When you start college, you have all of these little meetings that you’re supposed to go to. You have a checklist,” he says. “With financial aid, they sit you down in a room and they tell you that you’re going to have to pay this back eventually. They make you feel ashamed. You don’t know what they’re talking about. You’re parents don’t even know what they hell they’re talking about.”
“You have no idea,” he continues, sighing. “You’re idealistic. You’re 18 years old and you’re asked to sign your life away. You have no idea what you’re doing.”
T.J. ’s family tried to help out when he was at Bard, but they didn’t have much to give him. His father sent him checks for $100 now and then, but for the most part he was on his own. He had received $1500 at a graduation party from relatives, and that covered his expenses for one year. After that, he lived on about $20 a month, his meals and room paid for by student loans. “I mooched off of a lot of people,” he remembers.
As soon as T.J. decided that he wanted to become a composer, he knew that would mean graduate school. During his senior year, he realized that to be accepted into the top PhD or DMA programs, he would have to get more conservatory experience so he started applying to Masters programs. His top two choices were Peabody, housed at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. By this time, he had grown more practical.
“San Francisco was very interested in me,” he says, taking a drag from his cigarette. “But I couldn’t afford to go out there for the audition. Peabody was closer and I had friends from St. John’s still living in the area so I knew I could find roommates. It was a financial decision.”
T.J. moved to Baltimore, living in an apartment with two friends from St. John’s. He was accepted into Peabody, but there was a snag. His private loan didn’t come through in time; they said the paperwork had been confused, and he couldn’t start Peabody until the Spring term. He had a semester off, and he needed money so he started looking for jobs.
His first job was canvassing door-to-door for a children’s charity. “I wasn’t very good at it,” he says wryly, but there is pain in his voice. His manic-depression, still undiagnosed, had gotten worse, and he had a hard time finding a job. Finally, he took a position acting as a reader and teaching assistant for a blind law professor. The job was ok, but it didn’t pay enough to live on. He took a second job training people to sell clothes in a large department store.
“I had never worked in a department store,” he laughs. “But I had studied at Julliard and I was wearing tweed at the interview so they said, ‘you should teach!’”
Once T.J. started school at Peabody, things looked up a little. He took out more student loans to pay for his tuition and rent and he continued working various jobs – reading for the blind law professor, doing administrative work for the alumni office, and finally, working in the school’s library. Still, life was grim at times. “I couldn’t afford to buy a closet,” he remembers. “So all of my clothes were piled on the floor. And I almost never washed them. My roommates would give me money for food.”
During his second year, he met L, a high school drama teacher who soon became his boyfriend. “L changed my living situation,” he says. “I had been living very meagerly. He was a teacher. He had credit.”
L convinced T.J. that he should get a credit card so he could buy his own food. He told him, “I don’t have enough money to feed you.” T.J. got a card easily, and soon had $5000 in debt, almost exclusively from groceries. He didn’t even buy new clothes. “I’d been wearing all of the same clothing since my sophomore year of college.”
Still, T.J. ’s education had paid off. He graduated in December of 2006 and was accepted into the University of Michigan, arguably the best school in the country for music composition, for his doctoral degree. He continued working at the Johns Hopkins alumni office and the library for the semester, and then, in the summer of 2007, he and L moved to Philadelphia, where L was planning to enroll in graduate school. He needed a job for the summer until school started, but nobody wanted to hire him. “’All of your skills are in composition,’” he says, imitating the voice of an over-worked administrative assistant. “’Why do you want to work here?’ I had to lie just to get a job. Tell them I was taking time off from music.”
And for the first time, T.J. began to have problems with his student loans. He didn’t realize it, but during the six months off he’d had between Bard and Peabody, he’d used up his deferment. He started getting phone calls in Philadelphia, Wells Fargo demanding $1500. He told them he was going back to school, and the woman on the phone said angrily, “Well, that’s not a good enough reason.” In the end, after spending hours on the phone, he was able to defer the payments.
That fall, T.J. moved to Michigan to begin his doctoral program. The school had given him a full-ride, plus a stipend, but it wasn’t enough to live on and he had to take out more student loans to pay off his credit card debt. Still, being at Michigan had its advantages. His manic-depression was finally diagnosed and he started taking medication, which eased the symptoms. He was doing well in school, and things seemed to be looking up. And then, the summer arrived.
Michigan didn’t fund him for the summer, and T.J. had been planning to live with L and work in Philadelphia. But two weeks after he arrived, the relationship fell apart, and he was left homeless, jobless, and without money. He couldn’t afford his medication or therapy, and he began to come “untethered” as he would say. He got a job teaching a few classes for gifted students at a Michigan summer program, “The Institute for the Very Wealthy,” he dubbed it, but it wasn’t enough to live off of for the summer. He travelled from city to city, staying with sympathetic friends and racking up more credit card debt. When school started in the Fall, he was relieved, even though he had briefly considered not going back.
But it wasn’t a good year. During the Fall, his mother, who by this time had been hospitalized permanently for her mental illness, was diagnosed with cancer. T.J. , who was finally back on his medication, went off of it again, a common occurrence for manic depressives. “I needed to feel,” he explains it now. “She was crazy so I needed to go crazy.” He flew home for Christmas break and was with his mother for her first chemotherapy treatment, but her illness was too far gone, and in February, she passed away. That, on top of his lost relationship, was too much, and T.J. felt like he was falling apart. His teachers encouraged him to “take it easy,” and he finally agreed, dropping out of a few classes that he knew he would have to make up later. On top of it, one of his close friends was having financial troubles, and though he couldn’t afford it, he began helping her out, charging more and more to his credit card to take care of her as well as himself.
When summer arrived, he was once again left without funding, but this time, even his credit cards were failing him. He had gotten back on his medication after his mother’s death, but now he couldn’t afford it so he went without. His credit card companies kept calling him, and he ignored the calls. Then he was hit with more bad news. Wells Fargo told him that some of his student loans were now due, and he could no longer defer them even if he was in school. He had gotten another summer teaching job, but they wanted $500 a month. His father, who didn’t make much money himself, had to take over his payments so there was no one left to turn to for the other creditors who kept calling. He spent his summer wishing his vacation would end so he could go back to school and get more loans.
T.J. is now in the third year of his doctoral program at Michigan. He took out loans to pay down the credit cards, and his friend is trying to pay him back. But he’s scared. Because of his lighter course load the semester his mother died, he will likely need to stay in school an extra year to finish his course requirements and dissertation. But Michigan will only fund him for three years, so he is scrambling for grants and fellowships so he can finish his degree.
When he graduates, T.J. will have around $125,000 in student loan debt. The market for composition teachers is tight, and he expects that his first job will be as adjunct faculty somewhere. If this happens, he can expect to make between $30 and $40,000 a year. He plans to take one of those positions if he can get it, but he hopes it will be temporary.
Successful composers can ultimately make up to $1000 per minute of writing, and this is what T.J. aspires to someday. But it won’t happen right away, if it happens at all, and in the meantime, he must contend with his illness, earn a living, teach, and keep composing if he hopes to succeed. And while he does all of that, he will be faced with enormous student loan payments, payments for the education he had to get in order to have any hope at all of making it in his field.
“I can’t think about it,” he says, when I ask him too many details about how he will make his loan payments. T.J. is an artist, born in the wrong time, the wrong place, to the wrong social class. He traffics in beauty in a culture that only pretends to value it.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy