How Tony Alonso Thrives with 2 Careers (Professor, Musician)

by | Nov 30, 2020

Meet Tony Alonso. He is an accomplished multi-careerist, working at the highest levels of his chosen fields. He is a professor of theology Emory University who focuses on worship and ritual practices. He is also a musician who recently released the highly acclaimed album Caminemos con JesúsIt’s not often that I find another Cuban music-loving, Atlanta-based individual who is interested in academic scholarship, so naturally we hit it off. What you’ll find below is his incredible story. He explains how he manages to thrive and find balance while pursuing multiple paths. His example is both instructive and meditative.

Tony’s careers:

  • Professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
  • Musician who writes, performs, and records sacred music. In 2015, he was commissioned to write a song for the first mass that Pope Francis celebrated in the United States. Tony’s recent album is Caminemos con Jesús, an album of Cuban sacred music.
  • Author whose book Commodified Communion will be released in 2021.

On motivations for having many careers

“Having two careers keeps my work in both fresh and exciting. They nourish one another other in unexpected ways. After finishing a major academic writing project, I often find myself at the piano within minutes working on a new musical composition to express myself in a different voice. After finishing a composition or a performance, I often find myself reflecting on new academic questions or thinking about how my work as a musician relates to my work in the classroom. Having these two careers energizes me and ultimately strengthens the work I do in each of them. Each motivates me to do the other better.”

No alt text provided for this image

On how long he’s had these careers

I have been composing, recording, and performing music professionally for two decades. Questions that emerged out of my music-making are what ultimately led me to academia in the first place. And academia keeps pushing me back toward music because so many of those questions can’t finally be answered in words alone. I went into doctoral study open to where the path might lead, even if it meant leaving music behind for a time. But when I began that intense period of study, I realized that my music-making was not in competition with my academic work. It was actually an essential part of what drove it. I wouldn’t be the scholar I am without my music. And my scholarship has strengthened my music.

Advice for aspiring multi careerists

“I think it’s essential to have a clear vision of what needs to be prioritized when. And that vision must be shaped by a person’s own personal and professional accountabilities. If it starts to feel like the people and institutions to who you are accountable in one or career or the other are not receiving the attention they deserve, it’s important to recalibrate. And there are seasons of life when one needs to take clear priority over the other. Learning the rhythm of different careers is crucial to knowing when to foreground one or the other.”

On overcoming obstacles

“My most significant professional setbacks have emerged when I’ve agreed to do too much without taking a long view. It’s easy to say ‘yes’ to invitations or projects a year or more down the road without seeing how they’re piling up on top of one another. I’ve learned to really sit with even the most compelling invitation for several days to think about how I’ll feel about it when it comes around as well as what else might be competing for attention at that same time. Do I have long terms goals like a new book or a new recording for which I need to block out time to do my best work? I’ve learned to say “no” to even really great opportunities to make space for passion projects that take time to come to full fruition.

On how multiple careers are mutually beneficial

“I can’t imagine any dimension of my careers without the other. For the first decade of my professional life, I was primarily a musician. Now as a musician and as a teacher/scholar, I feel that my musical work is stronger than it has ever been. There’s a richness of perspective and experience that feeds my music in ways that are seen and unseen, heard and unheard. And my musical work makes me a better teacher and scholar. Whether working collaboratively on arrangements, recordings, and productions, or just the simple act of breathing and making sound with other human beings, at their best, these practices have made me more empathetic, loving, and compassionate in my teaching and my scholarship. Music-making is a deeply human, embodied practice. I think all teachers should make more music.”

On balancing personal time

“Managing family commitments and expectations is probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my adult life. The rhythm of travel and constant deadlines has often meant missing weekends and holidays with those I most love. Over time, I’ve gotten better about prioritizing personal time. But one of the challenges of doing multiple things you love is that you often say ‘yes’ to too much work. I’m getting better. But I’m a work in progress. But anyone in close proximity to me would probably say I need to work more on that progress!”

No alt text provided for this image

On something he wished he had learned earlier

“I remember interviewing for doctoral programs and someone I really respected said ‘well, are you ready to give up the music?’ It was clear that he meant to enter academia meant giving up something I loved. I believed him, and I said I was ready to give it up because I thought it was the right answer. For many years, I still had his words ringing in my head, planting seeds of doubt about the possibility of doing both well. Over time, though, I’ve realized that some of the best scholars I know actually do other things really well. And doing those other things is part of what makes them great scholars and teachers. I wish I wouldn’t have had those doubts ringing around in my head for as long as I did. Once I learned to embrace both careers as a full expression of who I am, I realized that they were not in competition with one another, but instead fueled each other in complex and creative ways.”

On overcoming the stigma of multi careerism

“In some parts of academia, there is absolutely suspicion of a scholar who is doing anything but teaching and researching. I am lucky enough to work in a place that values the fullness of who I am. But whatever the situation, I think it’s essential to not let anything fall through the cracks, to not give anyone any reason to suspect that the thing they value is getting the short end of the stick. Everyone wants the work you’re doing with and for them to be the priority. And that’s exactly how they should feel! Anytime I’ve sensed the people around me do not feel like the priority, I’ve learned to make adjustments.”

On what to share about his multiple careers

“I tend to share about my musical work in the academic world only when it’s directly relevant or when people ask about it. I always want the people with whom I am working to understand that our shared work is my priority when I am with them. Anytime I sense that sharing about my other work might in any way detract from that, I don’t share about it at all. When I’m making music, we’re often so intensely focused on a recording or a performance that there’s rarely time to talk about anything else.”

No alt text provided for this image

A Day in the Life

  • 6:00 am – Coffee, breakfast, and the news
  •  7:00 am – Emails and review the to-do list for the day and/or read and research
  •  9:00 am to 12 pm – Meetings
  •  12 pm – Work out or go for a walk, light lunch
  •  1:00 to 5:30 pm – Office hours, meetings, teach, write, compose (sometimes mood-dependent, other times highly structured)
  •  6:00 pm – Dinner
  •  7:00 pm – Watch a show or two
  •  9:30 pm – Write a to-do list for the next day and clean up my workspace
  •  10:00 pm – Podcast + bedtime

Where to find Tony


Kabir Sehgal is a Multi Grammy & Latin Grammy Award winner, as well as New York Times bestselling author of fifteen books. His debut feature film production Fandango at the Wall is streaming on HBO Max. Follow: LinkedInInstagramFacebookTwitterSpotifyYouTube