Rock Star Day Jobs: From teaching to cyber security, Columbus musicians thrive in chosen careers

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

On a recent Monday in early December, Sean Gardner, singer/guitarist for Winter Makes Sailors and Bookmobile, struggled to tame an unruly crowd.

"Can you guys [in the back] move up a bit," he said. "I don't want you to get trampled."

Though it sounded like the musician could have been addressing the audience at a rowdy club gig, he was actually directing a classroom of third graders in his role as an associate teacher at Gahanna's Columbus Academy, positioning the students so everyone had a clear view of an oversized map of Franklin County.

Every day, Columbus musicians wake up - occasionally bleary-eyed from late-night gigs - and fan out across the city, applying the same talents they share onstage (creativity and an ability to adapt on the fly included) to a wide range of fields and professions. Yes, many work as bartenders, servers and coffee baristas, since the flexible schedules tend to coordinate well with the odd hours many musicians keep, but they're also educating the young, working as delivery drivers and, in at least one case, handling cyber security for major financial institutions.

Growing up, Gardner, 36, always had an interest in teaching, but it wasn't until he got married in 2010 that he decided to pursue a full-time career in the classroom. Initially he thought it would be an easy transition - "If you're good at entertaining you feel like you should be able to lead a classroom," he said - but he soon discovered the heightened responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with the job.

"The smallest mistakes can really touch a child," said Gardner, who incorporates his love of music into everything from his classroom décor (one bulletin board displayed student work under the header "Red Hot Chili Papers") to his method of getting his students' attention (striking a single note on a handheld chime). "When I make a mistake in front of an audience I'm like, 'Eh, I'll get to do this again.' But kids remember everything you do, and that hit me pretty hard early on. You really have to be careful and keep in mind the views of every child."

Unlike Gardner, who grew up idolizing teachers and always had an interest in the profession, Bummers singer/guitarist Jeff Pearl generally detested school, so when his mom suggested he pursue a career in education his initial reaction was, "Ehhh, we'll see," which, judging by his tone, translated roughly to "Are you out of your mind?"

A Valentine's Day visit to the Harmony School in Bloomington, Indiana, altered this perception.

"All the teachers were onstage with the kids covering all these Beatles songs for the parents, and I was blown away," said Pearl, 30, who is currently in his second year teaching kindergarten at St. Vincent Family Center in Olde Towne East following a stretch at Cranbrook Elementary and a stint teaching English and debate in South Korea. "I thought, 'Well, if I can take my love of music and have fun with it…'"

Teaching has turned out to be an ideal fit. The guitarist described himself as "a goofball," admitted he has the artistic skills of a 6-year-old ("A lot of these drawing are mine," he said waving to some crude sketches tacked to the classroom bulletin board) and said he regularly tells his students growing up is the worst thing he's ever done.

"These kids just understand me," he said. "And I get them."

Like Gardner, Pearl regularly incorporates music in his lesson plans, and he said most days he totes a guitar to work. He also taught the kids how to read the calendar with a "Hip-Hop Days of the Week" song. Alternately, the students have inspired a couple of Bummers tunes ("A kid will say a weird phrase and I'll say, 'Oh, I'm going to make that a song,'" he said), and his class has evolved into something of a burgeoning fan base for the rising surf-rock crew.

"If [the students] want a treat I'll be like, 'What's the greatest band ever?'" he said. "And they're like, 'Bummers, dude!'"

While Gardner and Pearl could accurately be termed musicians-turned-educators, Samantha Kim described herself more as a lifelong teacher who stumbled onto a side career in pop music. At 10 years old the local violinist shadowed her sister's high school orchestra teacher for Take Your Daughter to Work Day ("Even though he wasn't my father," she said), and the experience cemented her desire to pursue a career in music education.

"I don't think most kids decide on [a career] that early," said Kim, 29, who currently works as an orchestra director at a public school in Granville in addition to playing in the folk-leaning Ghost Shirt. The musician will also be performing at the fourth annual Beatles Marathon, which takes place at The Bluestone on Saturday, Dec. 28. "When I was younger it was because I loved music so much I wanted to be around it all the time. Now that I'm well into my career it's become so much more. I know it sounds cheesy, but I get to be a part of who [the students] are, and they become a part of who I am."

All three educators stressed the difficulty of balancing the demands of the job and band life - "I don't sleep," Pearl said matter-of-factly - but at the same time all expressed immense pleasure in finding a career so well-tailored to their unique personalities and skillsets.

"You can put your heart in [teaching]," Gardner said. "And that's why I started playing music."

Ryan Vile, who plays keyboard in power-pop collective The Girls!, actually started playing music for far more analytical reasons. Vile, who described himself as an "awkward and nerdy looking" child, tended to gravitate toward more logical pursuits, and he only joined a band because it seemed like a challenge for someone who, in his own words, lacked a real artistic sensibility.

"Music seemed really extra challenging for me," said Vile, 35, who works in cyber security for a bank. "Now the joke is I sit at a keyboard all day and then go to band practice and stand at a keyboard all night."

Even though a career in computer technology appears far-removed from his new role as a gigging musician, Vile said playing in a band has given him a confidence that carries over into his day job, as well as helped him develop his people skills.

Adam Hardy, drummer in rowdy rock duo Cliffs, also attributed his full-time gig as a delivery driver for local clothing company Homage with helping him establish new skillsets.

"I get to see something that started in a basement evolve into a multinational company," said Hardy, 26, whose knack for loading the band's tour van has come in handy when packing the company delivery truck ("I'm like a Tetris master"). "It's cool to see that transition and then compare that to other things I do in the band, like talking to vendors or to different [concert] venues."

Watershed singer/guitarist Colin Gawel, 44, has similarly applied lessons gleaned from a life time in rock 'n' roll to his role as owner of Colin's Coffee, a small, inviting spot tucked away in an Upper Arlington shopping plaza.

"You're always on a budget, so it's, 'What can we do for free?'" he said. "We're on Twitter and Facebook because they're free, and I think a lot of that comes from being in a band like Watershed where you send out mailings and whatever."

After purchasing the shop seven years ago, Gawel also stripped things back to focus on a few key elements (namely coffee) because it reflected his more streamlined approach to making music. If he didn't use effect pedals onstage, he reasoned, his business should be similarly free of flash. This sensibility is reflected in everything from the humble sign posted in the parking lot that reads "Colin is in" ("Literally, Colin is in the shop," said the guitarist, who mans the counter most mornings) to Gawel's dressed-down wardrobe. On a recent visit in early December he looked something like the protagonist from Radiohead's animated "Paranoid Android" video sprung to life, decked out in jeans and a T-shirt and with a stocking cap perched high on his head.

"I've never had [to wear] a tie," he said, and laughed. "I don't know what I'd do if I wasn't here. I'd probably have more money, but I don't think I'd be as happy.

"It's that musician's mentality of, 'It's lots of work [and] fun, but no money.' So you're not going to see me rolling around in a Porsche with vanity plates that say 'COFFEEMAN' anytime soon, but I love it."