I read a great post today by Brooke Berman about the differences between what success looks like when you’re a 20-something and a 30-something. (Taking into account that everyone’s definition of success is different – I’m not looking for hate mail, here.) In September 2013 I tried to talk to students at my alma mater about this very thing – the fact that the life and career that we choose is based on those things we find interesting, that hold value. I wish I had Brooke’s lovely, insightful article to reference in my talk.
And, because I’m way too chicken to post the video (that Carnegie Mellon captured and gave to me, which was very nice), I’ll post my speech. It’s long, and rambling, and there are no guarantees that this is what actually came out of my mouth; but it was what I intended to say.
I started my career a million years ago, as a Carnegie Mellon music student. (Voice Major, Music Ed certification. Light Lyric Mezzo) Since it’s been a million years since I sat where you’re sitting (actually, we sat over in Alumni Concert Hall, because this beautiful theatre was Drama Department turf in my day), I was trying to figure out where to start this chat.
I crowdsourced. I emailed colleagues. I called classmates. It was confusing, mostly because there were so many things to say. And because I really didn’t want this to turn into Storytime with Crazy Auntie Lee.
So let me take a poll: how many of you are going to make careers as performers? Look around the room at your colleagues. You’re all going to make it. I hope you do. But to put things in perspective: my class at CMU started with 24 students our freshman year. We graduated with half of that. And I think – at last count there were 2 who were still performing.
Harsh odds. Granted, I’m more than a few years out of school so many of my peers have at this point transitioned from performing to doing something else. I’m definitely not one of those two. My singing – while I do it all the time, in showers and cars and while grilling and pulling weeds – is not professional caliber anymore. And it’s OK – actually it’s great! Don’t feel sorry for me for ‘giving up my dreams’ because I didn’t – as dancer Shawn Renee Lent said in her great article “Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up” it wasn’t that she gave up, it’s that her dream got bigger.
I spend a lot of time talking with “reformed” performers – folks like me who opted out of the performance life. There are a million reasons for doing so, some that you won’t experience until you leave: the anxiety of a largely freelance budget (otherwise known as “how long does this paycheck need to last me”), the highly nomadic lifestyle and its effects on personal relationships. Family. Getting to the end of your abilities before you get a career. It all can happen.
So, I’m going to chat with you a little bit about the state of the field as I see it. I’m going to talk about the job market that you’ll be entering and how to maximize your time here to up your chances of getting work out there. I’m also going to talk about discernment and self-knowledge, as those are the 2 things that you’re going to need in spades, and that no one can do for you.
Let me start with a little bit about my job, to give you some context as to where I’m coming from. (I have a dog, and a good friend after an incident that you can guess, coined the phrase “You smell what I’m steppin’ in?)
- I work for a non-profit called Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, which, along with the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts constitutes half of a crazy public/private partnership with the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. The land (100 acres)and money to build the theaters were given to the US Government by Catherine Filene Shouse. ( She also gave land for the headquarters of the first American Symphony Orchestra League) The gift was accepted by Congress in 1966, and the first theater was built in 1971. That theater (currently in its second iteration), the Filene Center – is a 7,000 seat outdoor amphitheater, and hosts a wide variety of acts, from oldies like Frankie Valli and Diana Ross to dance companies like Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet to pop acts like She & Him, Cat Power, Marc Anthony and Ke$ha. (I swear there’s STILL glitter on the lawn. For realz). I’m most involved with the performances of the National Symphony Orchestra. The other theater is The Barns at Wolf Trap – a 375-seat jewel box that presents comedians, singer-songwriters, community dances, blues, and a chamber music series that I program. It’s also the summer home of the Wolf Trap Opera Company. The opera company makes up about 80% of my job on a yearly basis.
- Every autumn, I read through over 1,000 applications from singers and pianists to work at Wolf Trap Opera (I’m going to focus on opera for a bit – instrumentalists, you can use some of these same stats to understand Aspen or Marlboro.)
- I schedule somewhere between 500-600 folks for live auditions. We don’t take audio or video submissions, and everyone has to audition, has to be in the same room with us to be considered. Singers are allowed 2 summers with us, no more.
- We are on the road for the better part of 6 weeks, doing the most extensive audition tour of any American opera company. 8-10 cities, trying to get close enough to most parts of the country to minimize the travel fees that you all have to pay.
- We choose, at most:
- 2 coaching fellows – pianists to work with the singers.
- 16 Studio Artists – the younger tier of singers, undergraduates transitioning to graduate study, trying to figure out if this field is really for you.
- 20 Filene Young Artists – emerging professionals who sing principal roles in our mainstage productions.Some of the alums during my tenure have been:
- And some of our more well-known alums are:
- The competition is fierce. It should be, because we choose the best singers every year and THEN choose the repertoire around them. We’re the only people in the country – maybe anywhere – who start with the singers and work backward from them to figure out the repertoire. It’s a crazy-making process, but it gives us some of the best results.
If you’re here, you want to be involved in this crazy field in some way, so let’s talk about the field at large.
The field is changing. Daily. Revenue models that worked aren’t working as well. Donors are growing older, as is our reliance on their philanthropy in the wake of plunging ticket sales. In many ways, this is just retrenchment, paring back the excesses of the 1980s and 1990s when companies were sprouting up left and right. But make no mistake, funding crises, labor relations and fiscal mismanagement have shuttered some great organizations – Opera Boston in 2011, Virginia Opera. New York City Opera is pleading for donations on Kickstarter (and the Gawker crowds are voicing an opinion that we’re going to have to deal with more often, I feel). The Minnesota Orchestra is embroiled in one of the nastiest disputes that I can remember. (If you’ve not read Drew McManus’ blog Adaptristration, go there now. If you don’t know about these things – you should. This is the industry that you’re asking to support you.
What does that mean for you?
- Well, it means that the number of performance opportunities that you’ll have will be diminished, and those that exist will be more difficult to win. If you look at Europe – we’ll take the Vienna Staatsoper, since it’s ostensibly the busiest house in the world, and look at their season. They’re doing 51 operas, and most of them get 2 to 6 of performances. If you’re hired to sing a comprimario role at the Staatsoper, you KNOW you’re going on for at least that many shows. But here in the US, the number of opportunities is smaller. Look at the Met – they have 26 productions in their 2013-14 season and each one gets between 4&6 performances. Heck, let’s go closer to home – Pittsburgh Opera is presenting 7 productions with 4 performances of each. So, in order to win one of those US gigs, you have to be more put together.
- For an organization like mine, every performance is a financial risk, or an investment. So, when we’re looking to hire people, we do quite a bit of research on them. We keep a database of every audition you’ve done for us – what repertoire you’ve offered, whether you’ve applied and been denied an audition, whether you cancelled your audition or simply didn’t show. We also keep track of who you’ve worked with, and we reach out to those people – not just ot confirm/refute what we heard in audition, but to find out what kind of musician you are – how dependable you are. Whether you’re a good colleague. Because if we’re going to hire you, we’re putting thousands of dollars behind you – maybe not directly into your pockets, but to give you first-class directors and conductors, to get the word out that you’re performing, to support you with costumes and sets and housing and coaches and all of that. Our dollars are too few to back someone who consistently doesn’t have their music learned before arrival, or who creates more drama offstage than onstage.
- It means that 4 years of school are likely not enough for you to become a fully-functioning musical artist. You need to keep building your skills and experience after you leave here.
- (Now here’s the rub: for one or two of you? Four years will indeed be enough. There’s always one or two who screw the curve for the rest of us, and kick-ass right out of the box. But if you think that’s you? Chances are it’s not.)
School looks at your potential; Opera companies and Presenters look at you as a professional. We don’t have the ability to nuture you like a 4 year institution does. So make sure that you’re ready to audition/apply/perform at a high level.
- Know where you are on a national level, rather than that of your school. Every year I see résumés for young men and women who are singing roles at their undergraduate institutions that they have no business singing in the real world. And this comes back to that potential vs professional point; your school is supposed to give you an idea of what you might sing someday. But you need to be realistic about the size of the orchestra that you’re singing over, the age of the character, and whether or not you’re actually hireable as that part.
SO, Who knows where the field will be in 2-4 years?
Not you either.
So, how do you figure out what your career’s going to look like?
Beats me. In fact, career seems to me to be largely a retrospective thing – you look back on a career. You can try to plan one, but oftentimes that pesky thing called life gets in the way.
In fact, I like to think about the differences between school and career in the same way I think about searching and browsing on the internet.
When I was prepping for this little talk, I looked for specific things:
- I crowdsourced on FB, trying to figure out where to start.
- I looked for info on Minnesota, City Opera, the HuffPo article I read about Shawn Lent. I had specific pieces of information that I was trying to track down, and limited time in which to do so. That’s like school – you’re trying to get a specific (and admittedly large) amount of skills and information into your brain and body. You learn the pieces your teachers assign or that you get hired to do. You study languages and theory and piano so that you can communicate and ostensibly teach yourself. You learn the stylistic trappings of half-a-dozen time periods and composers to be truer to the music. The basic skills and info are specific, and there are things you can customize to your interests and skills )– prolly not a lot of tenors specializing in solo viola rep of the late 20th century)
But when I graduated I started looking for something that I didn’t know existed. And for that you have to browse. Now, I cannot be the only one in this room who has gone down the reddit or youtube or HuffPo (I have a problem) rabbithole and emerged hours later after following link after link of things that were funny or silly or compelling. Finding a career is simply making a series of choices based on what you find enjoyable/challenging/fun. There are mistakes to be made, sure, and there are lessons learned.
So, my path in the big building blocks:
- Graduate from Carnegie Mellon. Know that maybe I’m not the next Renee Fleming, but still think I’m pretty put together. Get called back for enough NY auditions to get an NYC PO box and voicemail, but not enough to bite the bullet and move there.
- Music direct a show at a local theater. Miss an audition in NYC. Decide that there’s plenty to do in town.
- Take a teaching gig (CLO). Sing in every choir in the city. Flirt with grad programs in psychology, pedagogy, performance, but nothing calls me so much that I HAVE to do it.
- Get a full-time teaching job. Run a 5k. Start a band. Play Club Café and record a demo with Scott Blasey (hey – it was 15 years ago!) and feel pretty cool.
- 9/11. Decide that maybe I should study again.
- Go to grad school. Change fachs. I’m now a newly married, new light-lyric soprano. Oh, and I’m 30.
The thing that you’ll notice is that I was trying lots of other things, but they were all musical. The stint selling pianos (DISASTROUS) and working in an engineering office were not musical, but they taught me that I WANTED to be doing something with music, with performing. Even if I was becoming less and less enamored of the actual performing piece of things.
So I finished school. Got my M.M. Found projects that I loved
- Volunteering for Opera Lafayette
- Directing for Opera Theater of Northern Virginia
- Church gig. (The church that the Kennedys attended before taking office. I was married there. It was a great place.)
- Explored internships, and landed one at Wolf Trap, helping with their world premiere of John Musto & Mark Campbell’s Volpone, one of the funniest and best operas out there. (No, I’m not biased. Even the Grammy committee thought so!)
- Kept in touch (I hate ‘networking’ the word, but love what it does) with the people who I admired and enjoyed.
After I interned with Wolf Trap – assisting the director, helping in the office, I realized that I loved having my fingers in all sorts of different projects. It was an eye opener. And I pretty much stalked them (nicely) until they hired me. I’ve been there since in a full-time capacity since 2006, and during my time have helped produce 2 commissions/world premiere operas and 4 chamber music premieres. I do most of my work in the summer with the Studio singers – undergrads and 1st year grads who are trying to figure out if this field of work is for them. (Full disclosure: I’m just as happy if they decide NOT to go into the field – I just want them to have enough inforantion to make a good decision.)
So my path to this Performing Arts career was very much a Browse, a trip down the ol reddit rabbithole. It was finding things that challenged me, that lit me up. And I was lucky in the fact that I use my training at CMU all the time in my work. I can talk about instrument ranges with composers because of methods classes with Lew Strouse. I have critical ears and can’t so much listen to classical music for fun anymore, but when I’m listening for work and it’s awesome? It’s the best thing ever.
I’m not alone. Many of my classmates found their paths by browsing around, following the projects and work that they loved, and making choices when things were difficult. I started getting in touch with them a few years ago, collecting stories of where they were, and how (and if!)they made the transition from artist.
- Andrew Copper – French horn player, now the Assistant Executive Director of the Usdan Center.
- Mark Bradley Miller – still performs, but is more known as a photographer and interior designer. He can make anyone look good!
- Sean McAuliffe – was one of the original 24, but is now a software designer and songwriter.
- Brian Deutsch – is a life coach!
- Jason Poole – is a writer/ethnomusicologist, studying indigenous Hawai’ian music
There are many other examples, and all of them deliriously happy with where they ended up. Not one (especially the Hawaiian music guy) could’ve predicted their paths when they were undergrads., but they were the right ones.
They listened to their guts, about
- What was important
- What wasn’t important
- They researched
- They floundered
Not ONE of them regretted the deep study and focus that they learned at music school. In fact, creative problem-solving was the #1 thing they credited their studies with developing.
- The ability to take criticism, weigh its usefulness and implement it.
Your jobs as students, as I see them:
- Go to class. If you break down the per-hour cost, you’ll see it’s a lot of $ to waste. And getting that feedback, that knowledge that you can get here, from these real-world folks, will be MUCH more expensive in the real world, if you’re working with folks of this caliber.
- Skills. Learn how to count, how to sing in tune (Don’t laugh – it’s WAY more difficult that you think.), how to speak a language or two besides English. Read, so that you can talk to people about real-life, rather than just music.
- Learn everything you can about your field. Deep knowledge in anything is a good thing, if because it teaches you how to dig and to persevere, even if the material itself isn’t translatable.
- See every piece of theater you can, while you have the student discount. Give up beer for theater, live music, of any genre.
- Know yourself. Introvert/extrovert?
- Personal board of directors – faculty, staff, pals who will help you figure things out.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Karl Paulnack of the Boston Conservatory:
“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
… I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. …”
You are here to become artists. If your path leads you offstage, there are still ways for you to become artists, to make a career in service to the arts.
(I didn’t realize just how many of my original typos and formatting issues made it into the initial posting. Mea culpa! – Ed.)