‘Absolutely worth it:’ Conductor Jessica Bejarano on choosing a $2000-per-year job in San Francisco over pursuing a PhD

Jessica Bejarano , conductor of San Francisco Civic Symphony, is unlike most conductors at concert halls. She has several tattoos. She’s Mexican-American. And she’s part of the LGBTQ community.

Bejarano grew up poor in Bell Gardens in southeast LA, raised by a single mom who worked three jobs.

She tells Press Play that she never listened to classical music while in LA. “It was not part of my education. It was not part of my family gatherings. It was not part of our family outings.”

Then during her first year in college, one rehearsal blew her away. The orchestra was playing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

“I was looking around like oh my goodness, what in the world is this repertoire? What is this music, and why is this the first time I’m ever listening to it? It was like an instant spark in my being, in my energy, in my body. I will never forget that evening,” she says. “I knew at that point, I needed to know more about classical music, and I needed to immerse myself as much as possible.”

Conductor Jessica Bejarano. Photo courtesy of Bejarano

Bejarano ended up getting her Bachelor of Music in Music Education from the University of Wyoming, and her Master of Arts in Conducting from the University of California.

She then planned to start her Doctorate of Musical Arts in South Carolina. But a friend insisted that she apply to an assistant conductor job in San Francisco -- simply for the experience of applying, interviewing, and auditioning. As a surprise to herself, she got the job offer. The pay: $2000 a year.

Bejarano asked her mentors, colleagues, and friends what she should do: take the low-paying job or pursue her PhD. They all told her to take the job, so she did.

“At that point, I realized that the struggle was going to be real. And so I had to hustle. I had to figure out how am I going to make this work, and is it worth it? Absolutely. I made the right decision. It was absolutely worth it.” she says.

To make it work in San Francisco, she juggled a lot of other jobs.

She says she got her industriousness from her mother. “She had an incredible work ethic. I knew that there was going to be a day where I was going to come back and tell my mother, ‘You're going to quit your three lousy jobs because I’m gonna take care of you for the rest of your life,” says Bejarano.

Unfortunately, her mother passed away from a massive brain aneurysm while Bejarano was pursuing higher education. “But I still know that there are other ways for me to make her proud, and to still represent her. And I know the work that I'm doing is important work for so many different reasons.”

Bejarano says it’s important to inspire young people through music, whether or not they decide to pursue a career in the industry. Photo courtesy of Bejarano

What’s important for Bejarano now is to give back in education, inspire youth, and represent minorities like herself. “By being a minority, by being a woman, I am also, just by standing on the podium, showcasing and being a voice for those other minorities that I represent.”

This Saturday, April 27, she’ll be the guest conductor for the American Youth Symphony as they play a free concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

-- Written and produced by Amy Ta