When Eric Kang was in middle school, his music teacher told him that if he could imagine himself doing anything besides music, he should do that. Kang took the advice and entered Williams prepared to become a doctor. After helping direct the music for a play his freshman year, however, Kang’s love of music started to take over. His schedule went from one music class to two to three. “As I proceeded through college, I realized that music was becoming the only thing I wanted to do.”
When graduation rolled around, Kang abandoned his medical school aspirations and went to New York to try and make it as a musician. Five years later, he is hard at work on a number of fronts—directing shows, performing, teaching, and taking on a handful of odd jobs to help pay the bills. “I’m very blessed to be doing what I’m doing—I feel that way almost every day.”
I caught up with Kang in Midtown Manhattan to hear about his journey and learn about the ups and downs of life as a professional musician.
What did your journey into music look like?
I grew up playing piano and got into theater in middle school. When I got to Williams, I was planning on being a doctor. I joined Cap and Bells freshmen year and played in my first musical that spring.
Upon graduating, I moved to New York and immediately realized that while I had learned a lot at Williams, there was so much that I didn’t know. I was a decent piano player, but I needed contacts and a couple years of solid music work both technically and in terms of music direction.
I could either go backstage and try to meet every musician walking out the door until someone hired me or I could go to graduate school. I don’t have the disposition to randomly say hi to people, so I went to NYU for grad school.
I finished NYU with a couple of great contacts, and they’ve basically given me all of my work since. I’ve done work at schools, off-Broadway, and some regional work.
What does a typical month look like for you?
If I’m doing a show, it’s usually a couple of weeks of rehearsals, which run from 10-6 Tuesday-Sunday. I spend most of the rest of the day either prepping for rehearsal or doing side jobs—playing for singers’ voice lessons, playing auditions, transposing music.
Does your passion lie more with the directing side or the playing side?
I view my playing as a means to an end. I’m really passionate about story telling through singing, which is why I’m drawn to musical theater. I enjoy working with cast members in a show or with vocalists in a concert.
Were you always aware of this interest in musical story telling?
I don’t think I had words for it until late in my time at Williams, but thinking back on my musical taste, it was always there. Growing up, I listened to a lot of tone poems, which are 19th century romantic pieces of music. They were written without words but were meant to tell stories. As early as ten years old, I was fascinated by the possibilities of storytelling in music, but I don’t think I understood what that interest meant until graduate school.
What are some of the harsher realities of making it as a musician?
New York is one of the most expensive cities to live in in the US. There was a particularly scary month last fall where I was waiting for checks to come, and they weren’t coming. I used to say that I only wanted to do musicals I was interested in. I quickly realized that I couldn’t afford to do that.
Were there moments of fear when you decided to move from medicine to music?
There was one moment of fear and doubt—and it was my entire senior year. I talked to the resources I had at Williams, but they were all academics at heart so they were directing me to staff positions at schools. I wanted to go and do it for real for a little while.
My first big connection was William Finn ’74. I ended up assisting him and driving him around for Barrington Stage. He told me about NYU, and that’s how I got into that world. It was about asking anyone and everyone who would listen to me, and then getting lucky.
Did you have any backup plans for what you might do if music didn’t workout?
Moving home with my parents and getting a waiter or cashier job. I figured I could go back and do a post-bac if I had to and do the doctor thing or go to nursing school.
There’s a stigma that if you’re a music major, you won’t get a job. What are some of the different paths you’ve seen available for musicians?
The first thing I realized is that performing and teaching are not the only viable pathways for a musician. There are tons of pianists who make their living doing voice lessons and side jobs. You can do computer work, keyboard programming, and transposition. I’ve also found learning how to play a dance class to be incredibly helpful. Everyone’s looking for someone who knows how to play a waltz.
If you could dream up a future 5-10 years from now, what would that look like?
I would love to be in this business for five more years and get as far as I can and then go into the classroom. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and I would like to bring whatever I learn from the professional world into the classroom to inspire kids.
What advice would you offer current Williams students?
I’ve found it incredibly helpful to sit down and assess my skills and my deficiencies. Understanding that I’m really good at these five things, and I need improvement in these five things helped me figure what I needed to do in order to make it to the next level musically and professionally.
Also, people will not necessarily be kind to you because you have a diploma from Williams. The first show I did at graduate school, the music director could not stand me. He would never let me play, and the few times he did, I would play four bars and then he would kick me off the piano. We’re on good terms now, and we’ve done shows together, but I remember thinking in that moment, “I can’t do this, I’m not a good pianist, I can’t make it in this world.”
You will hit those moments and you can’t let that deter your sense of right and wrong and good and not good. Don’t let the setbacks discourage you.