Category Archives: Uncategorized

Checking in.

I’m furiously prepping for the summer season (won’t you join us?), and am popping in briefly to say:

  • Stay tuned – I have some wonderful profiles to share with you before the summer hits!
  • Read this: a lovely reminder of the necessity of redefining success multiple times across one’s career.

And, as a means of a sorry excuse, here’s the reason posting has been sparse this spring:


(Here’s to warmer weather, speedy housebreaking, and more profiles and articles to come!)

Growing pains.

There are a lot of growing pains in the operatic world today. San Diego Opera’s closing has elicited strong opinions from administrators and singers. My Facebook feed is full of commentary: some productive, some vent-tastic.

We’re accustomed to companies closing because of crushing debt; mismanagement. But when a seemingly healthy company like SDO chooses to close to go out on a high note, there are questions. Why? What are they doing with their assets?

The larger, unasked question, is “Is this a fool’s errand?”

We know that, measuring the answer solely by dollars, the answer is yes.

We also know that, measuring the answer by lives touched, the answer is no.

We struggle to maintain a high standard of performance, despite the growing costs and dwindling resources. We ask so much of our singers. Often, we ask even more of our administrators, stage managers, shop staffs, ushers.

We are losing. Losing audiences. Losing administrators. Losing artists.

We could chalk this up to the inevitable backlash of the expansion of the 90s, sure. But that’s a glib, too-tidy answer.

My two-penny thoughts, for what they’re worth. (maybe not even two pennies, actually.)

  • We need more collaboration, less ego. We can make more with less, but only if we work together. Across departments, across organizations. These partnerships are always messy at first, but they can grow in tandem into beautiful things.
  • Artistic standards must be impeccable. Every time you sing, it’s someone’s 1st time in the opera house. As an artist, it’s not enough to sing – it’s a ministry, and to ensure the continuation of the art form you need to convert the newly baptized. A singer a friend voiced on FB that we’ve all seen mediocre or poor performances: the ante is much higher now, and phoning it in means empty seats. (I’d extrapolate that this ties in to every kind of venue and performance opportunity…but I have a feeling you understand what I’m saying.)
  • We, as a community, don’t get to decide when one of our members walk away. We know a very small sliver of the story, and to prescribe action for a company with which we’re unfamiliar isn’t wise or helpful. (We can’t know what goes on behind closed doors: it goes for families and marriages and most likely opera companies, too.)

This news comes as I’m in the middle of a several-day spate of internship interviews. While the rest of the nation may be decrying the work ethic and writing skills of these Millenials, I’m finding these several days rewarding and frustrating, in equal measure. Rewarding, because these young people love opera, love the art form, want to gain experience and knowledge in this wacky, wonderful artistic medium. Frustrating, because their opportunities are shrinking.

We’ve been a niche for a long time, we opera folks. And part of me wishfully hopes that, someday, we’ll be cool again – like bluegrass and mandolin, like using Bach in techno samples. I think it can happen, but I also think that it will take a highly individualized, community approach.

So y’all? Bring a pal to the opera this season. Just one.

You’ll be glad you did. And we will be, too.

“Failure is the best thing for some people.”

The Telegraph UK has an interesting article written by Hanna Furness; a short interview with Tim Rice (That’s Sir Tim Rice to you!), the librettist who might be most well-known (at least to folks of a certain age, ahem) as the librettist for Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Lion King.

He had planned to be a lawyer.

He was good at tests, and he figured he’d ace his exams.

He didn’t.

In fact, every time he re-took them, his scores went down.

“When I went to do law, I kind of drifted through that and thought I can pass these exams. And I didn’t – I failed three times and each time I did worse and failed by a bigger margin.

“And that taught me so much. I always worry today when I see everybody has to pass – there’s very little failure these days. I think failure is the best thing for some people.

“It tells you whether you’re in the right job or the wrong one. It’s a cliche, but most people are good at something and most people are good at what they’re enthusiastic about.”

Failing stinks. It makes us feel icky – it challenges our perception of ourselves and our relationship with the world.

But oftentimes it either makes us look around for other options, or challenges us to dig in more deeply.

(So maybe it’s a win, even if it doesn’t really feel like it?)

Rock on, Sir Tim.

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Inspiration via a Homework Assignment.

Often I feel like things don’t count unless other people know about it. (Teh Interwebs make it a little too easy to be out there – twitter, instagram, tumblr, foursquare, facebook…all of it.)

But this article reminds me that it’s the act of creating that’s important.

The sharing is ancillary.

Homework that splits the difference:

Make something.

If you’re brave, comment with your initials. (I don’t want to know what you did…just that you did something.)

Let’s make Monday beautiful.Kurt Vonnegut


Defining success.

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 5.59.54 PMI’ve been struck in the last few weeks at the number of blog articles addressing the competitive nature of the field, and the relatively low odds of “making it” in opera. There are also a corresponding number of positive articles. (You’ll notice that two of the “you’ll never make it” and one of the “you’ll totally make it” articles all come from mezzo-soprano Cindy Sadler – who has a great perspective on this crazy art form and the accompanying lifestyle.

I’m reading these while we’re interviewing applicants for internships and seasonal positions. Let’s be honest – I’m getting older, the applicants are getting younger, and the things that seem obvious to one party are not at all obvious to the other – and vice-versa. I will say that many of these people are much more put-together than I was at their age. (I’m both thrilled and thankful that Facebook and camera phones did not exist when I was in high school or college…)

I keep returning to several themes:

  • Perspective & experience. Start your education in broad brush strokes, learning as much as you can with a view towards breadth. Narrow that perspective down as you gain experience. (If you decide that you’re going to be an architect but can’t pass calculus, suddenly you’ve got a decision on your hands that feels life-changing. If punking out on calculus happens early enough, it helps you to self-select out of fields that rely on it. (Or gives you time to conquer it, I suppose.)
  • Defining success. One person’s success looks like gigging at the local company so they can have a house and a family and a garden. Another person’s might be a career that takes them all over the world – and they’re cool about keeping their non-travel life in a storage locker or at their folks’ house. For some, performing is a life-long goal, for others it’s a chapter. Knowing what parts are important to you – and why – will make decision time easier.

Personally, I loved the collaborative aspect of rehearsals. I found performances stressful and anticlimactic. I wanted to be known for my brain more than my pipes (not quite sure that worked out… #blondmoment). And I wanted to have a home, to be known in my community. It took me a long time to separate my professional desires from my chosen field, and I’m lucky (oh so lucky) to have found a great niche. Had I been more honest with myself earlier, though, I might’ve found my path a little more directly. It’s often easier to follow someone else’s path, to cede your energy to someone else’s expectation when you feel that they have your best interests at heart. But ultimately, it’s your path….it should look like you.

A riff on ‘The Compassion Gap.’

A riff on ‘The Compassion Gap.’

I seek out Nicholas Kristof‘s opinion pieces for the NYT because they always illuminate a dark corner of which I was wholly unaware. Not surprisingly, this article about the Compassion Gap really touched a nerve for me.

I cannot count the number of people I’ve spoken with, in reference to this blog, who thought that teaching and performing were their only options, because those two professions were the only options that were familiar. 

When you magnify that myopia by whole communities, towns, cultures? It’s terrifying. 

Using this as a small lens on a small field?  It has reenergized me. These stories need to be told -to illustrate that there are options, to temper the shame of opting out of performing with the knowledge that fulfillment lies elsewhere, to justify (again, always again) the value of pouring one’s heart and soul into studying something that traffics in beautiful intangibles. 

I want to help you tell your stories. If your love of music didn’t fall neatly into “perform” or “teach,” I’d love to talk with you. 

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Profile Phriday (Ph)Recap

I’m so grateful to the people who have allowed me to share their stories on these pages. Some are just starting out on their career journey, some are established and highly regarded; all of them are quality people who successfully made a big transition into a career that they love.

If you’ve not had a chance to read them, here they are in a convenient list!

Jeff Gaynor (National Center for Supercomputing Applications)

Sarah Andrew Wilson (The Levine School)

Nigel Boon (National Symphony Orchestra)

Nathan DePoint (Fort Worth Opera)

Gia-Ninh Chuang (Fitness Professional)

Peter Zimmerman (Wolf Trap)

Tom Wright (Vancouver Opera)

Annie Burridge (Opera Philadelphia)

Stephen Brody (Schedule Arts)

Vic Muenzer (CD Syndications)

Tracy Cherpeski (Life Coach/Personal Trainer)

Kim Pensinger Witman (Wolf Trap – my boss!)

Sean McAuliffe (Boeing)

Tonya McKinny (Manager and Mom)

Jennifer Empie (U.S. State Department)

Joseph Craig (NextEra)

Melissa Collom (Performer/Planned Parenthood)

James Lynn (Insurance)

Mark Bradley Miller (Photographer)

Brava, reposted.

My colleague Kim Witman wrote a beautiful piece about a wonderful woman who practically created the Wolf Trap family. She retired a few weeks ago (two, to be exact), but she’s thankfully still around – and for that I’m quite grateful. She’s a role model, an inspiration, and I’m lucky to call her friend.

Thank you, for everything you’ve done for us, Ann McPherson McKee.

Gridiron incongruities.

I’ll admit it. I’m a football fan. (My dad was the high-school French teacher, yearbook advisor, and JV football coach; language, photos and football were as important as church in our house – maybe even moreso.) And this Super Bowl has made me happy in several ways (other than the glaring omission of my team in the lineup): the selection of Ms. Fleming to sing the National Anthem, and the aplomb and class with which she did so was a lovely, lovely thing. 

An opera singer delivering the National Anthem with ease and grace.

Halftime commercials with classical music and ballet featured.


Friends, could the tides, in some small way, be changing?

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Sarah Andrew Wilson: Two Choices.

Sarah Andrew Wilson

Today I’m talking with Sarah Andrew Wilson, who is currently the Assistant Director of Education for the Levine School of Music, a multi-campus nonprofit community music school with locations in and around the great Washington D.C. area. I first met Sarah when we were colleagues at Wolf Trap – here’s her story. 

How did you get started?

Well, when I was a high school senior, and I said that I was interested in pursuing music, I was told that I had two choices: to perform or to teach. I wanted to perform, so I chose that avenue, and attended University of North Texas for Flute Performance.  It’s a huge flute school, and also a huge jazz school. I’d hang out with the classical musicians, but I really liked what I saw the jazz students doing, and wound up going to a lot of jazz events.

My senior year of undergraduate work, I remember thinking “Wait. Am I ready to perform? I mean, I’m only 21…am I ready to take auditions now?” I decided to get a Master’s Degree (at Arizona State University) to fine tune both my playing and my options – and actually started it in Music Education. About a year in I realized that I was spending way more time practicing than I was on my music education coursework, so I switched back to straight performance. But I had a teaching assistantship, and I enjoyed it, so I decided that I would do both – perform and teach – when I graduated.

When and why did you move to the DC area?

Short answer? Because I was young and crazy. Right around the time I was finishing graduate school, my then- fiancé (now husband) was working in politics and received a job offer in DC. I was self-sufficient and movable – I could set up my teaching studio anywhere – so we said “Let’s move to DC! Adventure!”

So we moved!  I knew building a studio in a town where I knew no one would take some time.  So I decided to find a temporary full-time job; that way I could build up enough funds to live on, and then could quit and go back to just teaching and performing once I had enough students. I sent my résumé to companies that I found interesting, regardless of whether I was qualified for the job. (Production job at NPR? NPR is cool! I don’t know anything about radio or production…but what the heck, I’ll apply anyway!) After a while, I was hired at the Washington National Opera as a contracts administrator – I got to see contracts for AGMA musicians and independent contractors, worked with all the departments at the Opera, and even met the Artistic Director Placido Domingo on several occasions. I started to really enjoy it. I didn’t know that I could work with fellow musicians – my people – and help create something with a high level of artistry without having to either be a performer or teacher. It really opened my eyes.

You know I have to ask: did you leave after three months?

No. I stayed for a year and a half – it was just too interesting to leave! But, after that year and a half, I was doing too much – teaching and performing and administrating. Something had to give, so I left the position and focused on building my studio and lining up performance opportunities. For two years after that, I played, I taught, I ran the Flute Society of Washington, and conducted a small ensemble.

But I eventually found that I missed it. It sounds really nerdy, but I missed a lot about administration – the structure of it, the variety of people I would interact with on a daily basis. As a teacher most of my interactions were one-on-one with my students, and I started to feel a little isolated. I started to realize that I’m more of an extrovert than an introvert – I’m not totally outgoing but I feel more comfortable around people. I also missed the coolness factor – having Placido Domingo say, in his accent “Hello Sarah” was an unrealized perk, and I missed that, too.

My next three positions were at two different organizations: I jumped back into the administrative side of things working for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. I had a love of jazz from my undergrad days, and I got what those guys were doing. It was a fairly small operation, and they accepted me on a provisional, week-long basis. I worked my hardest to make it my best week ever – I kept talking about the future, setting up meetings for the following week, talking about ways that I could help…it must’ve worked, because they hired me full-time. It was a cool job – I managed education tours for musicians like Thelonious Monk, Jr. and Herbie Hancock. Watching those great artists teach, invest in the next generation, just hit me in the heart. I was still on the education side of things, which felt comfortable, but instead of teaching I helped to support them, and make sure they had what they needed.

When I felt like I was ready for a new challenge, I took a position at the Wolf Trap Foundation. It was great to go from a small company to a larger department, a larger organization. I was in charge of any education programs that took place onsite: from Baby Artsplay and community music classes to master classes with dance companies to managing the award-winning Internship program. (This is where I met Sarah. – Ed.)

Two years into my work at Wolf Trap, the Monk Institute called – they had created a new position with national reach and a great compensation package, and I couldn’t turn it down. (It’s not something that’s often discussed, but it’s difficult finding something that you’re passionate about that will also allow you to pay your mortgage.) The programs impacted thousands of students across the country, and I got to travel a lot, which I really enjoyed.

But the saying “you can’t go home again” really did apply, and after several more years at Monk it was obvious that it wasn’t a great fit.

So I took some time off.

I applied for new positions, but also worked a great part-time job with an events company: it was flexible, and I enjoyed it. And, because it was flexible, I was available when WPAS called because they needed an artist handler for Jean-Yves Thibaudet. (Ed. – Shut. Up. So cool!) The time off afforded me the time and mental clarity to find and pursue a position that I really wanted. The Levine School had been on my radar since moving to DC, and when I saw that they had a position open I contacted the people I knew who worked there, just to let them know that I was interested and applying. It’s funny – at other times in my career I’ve known when it’s been time to move on, but since arriving at Levine I feel like I’m at home. I work with 150 wonderful musicians and educators, and it’s so easy to advocate when they’re your people. I understand their struggles – filling their studios, developing programs, schedule flexibility, travel to keep their musicianship relevant; I’ve been in their shoes.

Congratulations on finding your place, and your people. Any advice or lessons learned?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. College conservatories aren’t set up to be trade schools –they’re set up to teach you how to think critically, how to get through a discipline, how to do detail work, how to research. Even folks with performance degrees are likely not going to be performing right out of school, and that post-school can be really difficult and demoralizing. The long view is important.

Go with whatever comes your way and try different things. I think of the music industry as a tree – different branches that grow out of a common language and shared discipline and creativity. If you’re exposing yourself to those different branches, you’re learning about what you do – and don’t – want to be doing. It’s just as important to listen to your negative experiences, and analyze them to see what parts to carry forward and which to discard.

In thinking back over our conversation, it sounds like I’ve bounced around to various positions, but that’s what it takes to find your way.  There are many branches on the tree, and eventually you find the one that’s right for you.

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