Category Archives: Creativity

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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Snow Days and Creativity

 

My office is closed today, and I’m exceedingly grateful to have time to putter, write and read. Greg Sandow has a wonderful, thought-provoking article up at ArtsJournal today about music schools and the dearth of creativity found therein.

But how do we do this? How do we foster creativity — celebrate the students who already are creative, and encourage the others to be — without turning the school upside down?

When we hear auditions every fall, we hear hordes of singers who are doing everything right – intonation, articulation, dynamic variation, strong language skills, good dramatic arcs to their arias. And shamefully, afterwards I often struggle to remember their performances. Sure, some of my mental fog is due to the sheer volume of folks that we hear in a short time. But more often it’s because the performances we see are careful. They are note perfect and earnest but not very memorable. By memorable, I mean that the singer has demonstrated that they’re careful students and stewards of the repertoire, but they’ve left many of the most important questions unanswered: they leave the room and I find that I haven’t learned anything about them or their artistry, how the aria resonates with them personally. It’s like scanning a CGI crowd scene, looking for one true facial expression.

(Caution: there are those of you who are memorable, because you’ve put the passion into the performance but are not quite as careful as you should’ve been in the learning process. It’s a double-edged sword, I realize… but please know that the preceding paragraph is not for you – go practice!)

I’ll agree with Mr. Sandow – discipline is important. Strong choices are exciting. The two should not be as opposed as they seem to be. So I ask you – were you challenged in school to be creative? Who gave you the most support? Where did you struggle?

(The ArtsJournal article is one of a series. I hope you’re looking forward to the next installment as much as I am.)

 

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Back on the bicycle.

imgresIt takes a lot of courage to walk away from a career path that you thought was going to be your life’s through-line. Most of the time it feels like breaking up with a guy (or girl) whom you’re deeply in love with, but who is not really the best thing for you. (Haven’t we all had -at least – one of those?) It takes a lot of thought and preparation, soul searching to the highest degree.

Oftentimes it seems like the easiest thing to do is to walk away.

We justify our new career by throwing ourselves whole-heartedly at it, like we did with that first artistic love. We decide, since we’ll not ever be the Second Coming of Pavarotti that singing isn’t worth it at all anymore.

This is an extreme approach, admittedly. But for some folks there’s no middle ground – you’re either doing it, or you’re pointedly not doing it. Sometimes that separation is extremely valuable – allowing a reprioritization of life goals, and an amount of  personal freedom not found in pursuing high artistic ideals.

Here’s the kicker. After a while? Most of us really miss that artistic thing…the singing, the playing with an ensemble, the creating moments in time and space that are special, distinct, that have artistic value…the collaboration…the sensation of losing ourselves in a practice room or studio for hours on end, feeling like only minutes had elapsed. As we get older, that sense of flow that seemed so easy to capture as a young artist seems more elusive.

(When I use “us,”  “we,” “you?” I really mean “me.”)

I wound up, thankfully, in a job that’s intimately involved with the performing arts. It has its positives and negatives:

  • I hear singers all year round that could clean the floor with my best past attempts.
  • I am inspired and challenged as a listener.
  • I have colleagues who also have strong performance backgrounds – dancers, instrumentalists, actors, singers.

Sometimes those colleagues challenge me. They have a great idea for an ensemble, a send-up of a popular song, an original tune. And I am a willing volunteer to hack around in a practice rooms for HOURS on any number of projects. (I have always loved rehearsal – the exploration and growth that happens in the room is the most exciting thing IMHO.) But getting onstage? Never really an easy thing for me…not when I was singing or playing, and certainly not now when I’m so out of that routine. It’s terrifying.

But sometimes? They ask. And I bluff my way to a “sure!” And I sweat like a villain in a Bond movie.

And it actually ends up being OK. Fun, even.

Turns out that once you’ve learned to ride that bicycle? You can, in fact, still ride it years later. Maybe you can’t pop a wheelie or race anymore, but you can get from point A to point B.

(And by “you?” I mean “me.” And also, “you.”)

Thanks to KC and GB for letting me play along with this year’s Christmas tune. I had a blast!

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Singers in the City.

It’s the beginning of December.

If you’re a singer, you’re likely in (or have recently been in) New York, at Nola or Opera America or any number of other venues. Your binder is organized and you’ve made sure that the accompanist can see the bass clef on the bottom stave clearly. Your résumés are proofed and copied and pristine. You have several versions of your rep list, for good days, ok days, and i-shoulda-maybe-cancelled days. You have an audition outfit that makes you feel sparkly and special. You have a pre-show ritual that allows you to perform (i.e. have a positive, expansive experience) rather than audition (i.e. be judged, which triggers the fight-or-flight response in even the best folks). You run into people you know and love, people you know and don’t love, people who are stronger at intimidating or distracting others in the hallway than at auditioning.

You also have ways in which you reward yourself for putting yourself out there, in the face of rejection, over and over and over again.

You’re looking for a job. Something that will pay you to do what you love. You’ve worked diligently, paid your dues. It’s time.

For some of you? It is, in fact, time! And you’ll wrap up the audition season with a contract or two, refreshed energy, renewed contacts…

For others? Talented, driven, dues-paying others? You could end up empty-handed.

This article is from the theater world, but it still applies. Consider this a gentle reminder that the whole process is mostly out of your hands. If you’re cool with that? I am your fan, and am in awe of your generosity, resilience and persistence.

If you’re not? Stay tuned, as we’ll have some more articles and profiles heading your way over the holidays and beyond!

If you’re interested in what I’ve been doing this fall, you can check out my colleague/friend/audition-tour-compadre’s writing here and here. And if you just need some inspiration? Check here and here and hereIMG_2965!

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Monday Morning, 8:38am

My usual weekday mornings look something like this:

7:00 hit snooze

7:05 get out of bed. Hope that I remembered to make coffee and set the brew timer before bed last night. If not? Coffee-making-time.

7:15 feed the cat and dog. Let the dog out.

7:18 caffeinate. wish for a faster coffeepot.

7:25 journal/write/doodle

7:35 skim email (and then wish I had waited until the caffeine truly hit) & google reader.

7:45 walk the dog

8:15 hit the shower, blow-dry, spackle

8:55 realize that I’m going to be late to the office. Again. Offer to pick up breakfast as compensation for being late.

I’ve read two articles recently on The Creativity Post about creativity. The first details the ways in which my morning routine might be the very thing that saps my creative thinking.

In a study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning last year, researchers Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks reported that imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused. The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made.

They offer more insight into the positives of non-linear thinking (boy, you know for a long time I thought that non-linear was a bad thing…I’m rethinking) by citing three things that can help with divergent thinking and building flat associative networks (i.e., being able to jump creatively around from one idea to another, loosely-associated one):

  1. Sleep.
  2. Humor.
  3. Alcohol.

Many major breakthroughs happen in the unlikeliest of places, whether it’s Archimedes in the bathtub or the physicist Richard Feynman scribbling equations in a strip club, as he was known to do. It reveals the wisdom of Google putting ping-pong tables in the lobby and confirms the practical benefits of daydreaming. As Einstein once declared, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

If you’re like me, free time almost always becomes To-Do time; errands, chores, things I need to do/should do/ought to do. I’m pledging this week to take a little bit of time to let my mind wander: a half-hour at lunch without being strapped to a smartphone or iPad, a larger chunk of time to doodle in the morning, some time with a blank page and a glass of wine in the evening. I hope you’ll join me.

Happy Monday, all. Here’s hoping your week brings some lovely, surprising insights and ideas!

Profiles, from another angle.

I am a big fan of Lifehacker. I get it delivered to my inbox, and make a habit to scan the whole thing before filing (yes, filing…sending them to the trash would be akin to throwing away gold on most days.) it away for future perusal.

They have a great feature that’s called How I Work. In it, they feature profiles of interesting, creative people like Maria Popova and Christopher Jobson, and track the ways that they use technology to make life easier, their secret abilities, and the best pieces of advice that they’ve received. (I am a big fan of Maria Popova’s Best Advice. Sometimes simple is indeed the best.)

I invite you to hop over to Lifehacker for some words of wisdom (I’ll be spending some time with this), and then join me back here tomorrow for a new Profile Phriday. (This week? My pal and colleague Peter Zimmerman, a reformed-performer-turned-talent-buyer.)

originally viewed on Colossal (www.thisiscolossal.com)

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Artistry + Kindness = Leadership?

One of my great pleasures post-opera season is catching up on reading. I’ve slammed through three books, countless magazines and a daily date with the New York Times, and am trying desperately to get rid of all of the (1,000+) notations on my Google Reader.

(It’s a bit of a task, as I am something of a virtual hoarder. Before you ask, I will not be going on Bravo tv to reveal the size of my email archives or the shopping lists from 2006 that are still on my computer’s hard drive. The answer is an unequivocal “No.”)

I stumbled across two great articles in the Harvard Business Review that really speak to me.

The first (which you can find here) focused on the traits that great artists and great leaders share. The author, Michael O’Malley, calls out twelve specific traits ranging from Intent (the desire to be superlative) and Skill (having the tools to bring a vision to fruition) to Pleasure (providing occasions for emotional buy-in and fulfillment) and Criticism (looking for and incorporating feedback). I for one think that any kind of arts training sets up these building blocks in concrete ways, and can cite several examples from my own experiences. (I’d share mine, but I’m guessing that you’ve got one or two yourself – I’d love to hear yours, either via email or in the comments.)

The second (you can find it here) is about the importance of kindness in business. William C. Taylor cites some beautiful examples about businesses who made a personal connection -and tangentially won significant attention – because they did the right thing and were nice to someone in need. It’s easier in the arts I think to cling to this idea, because we all know how negativity can sabotage the most promising production/process. It’s one of the areas in which my boss excels (although she’s pretty darn clever to boot – make no bones about it.), and that contributes to a wonderful atmosphere, high retention, excellent product and strong word-of-mouth press. It’s not a surprise that I found this book on her bookshelf several years ago…and if you know me, also not a surprise that it’s still being held hostage on my bookshelf.

I keep coming back to one particular kernel of truth: once an artist, always an artist. I am encouraged to see the for-profit sector embracing the thought of artistry in leadership, but I wonder if the gatekeepers – those HR personnel charged with finding creative problem-solvers – know enough about the training to actually place some of those non-traditional resumés in the Yes pile, to take a risk on someone who might have the skill base but not the industry experience. I challenge the industry, and all of us who have started as performers and art-makers, to find actual, practical value in an arts education, and to once and for all lose the tired stereotype that artists are scattered and unreliable and far too difficult to work with. You cannot value the traits without also valuing the artists who exhibit those traits, who study to perfect those skills, and the institutions who shape their careers as working artists, recreational artists, arts consumers, and at-large members of the national workforce.

Thanks for listening. Let’s all try something a little out-of-the-box, shall we?

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Giovanni, interruptus

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This weekend reminded my little company of the importance of flexibility. We were about two-thirds of the way through the opening night performance of Don Giovanni when a derecho (a word I didn’t know until Saturday morning) blew through, taking with it our power, our beautiful projections, and endangering the safety of patrons and performers alike.

It was frightening, and heartbreaking: hours and hours of focused work, rehearsals, a set and costumes built from scratch all abandoned in an attempt to shelter from the high winds and horrible lightning. Yet Don Giovanni was not dragged to hell by the Commendatore – rather he remained alive, able to seduce for another day.

Fast forward to the following Sunday – a matinee performance, and one which had been sold out for months. It was a 90+ degree day, and much of the region was still without power. Our theater and offices were also without power, so the performance was obviously not going to happen.

We met at the theater: the box office staff, my boss and her boss, our production manager, the house manager. We grabbed cell phones and computers, and BB brought a mini generator to recharge as we needed. We called the orchestra and cast and crew to schedule a replacement performance, which came together much more quickly than we could’ve hoped. We crafted language for the website and patron emails, and our Web Manager SaM pushed the content out. We pulled up lists of ticket buyers for the show and everyone – even the Senior Vice-President – started calling patrons to let them know that the performance was cancelled. As cars pulled into the lot, people met them to explain the situation.

I know that there were some people we did not reach. I know that many folks – including the entire cast and crew, and frankly the admin & artistic staffs – were supremely disappointed. But rather than saying “oh well….nothing to be done”, we investigated other options and quickly made a plan. That flexibility is one trait that many artistic types have, and I was very happy to have been surrounded by a group of artists and musicians – turned- administrators when the chips were down.

The takeaways? When something unexpected happens (and I think this could apply to both good and bad things), take stock and make a plan. Give that new plan room to grow and morph. Titles don’t matter when there’s a job to be done, and in fact the leaders I revere the most aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

Still no power on campus (as of this writing), but we’ll be working offsite in several homes to continue preparations. And we’ll all be crossing fingers and toes that the power comes on in time for tomorrow’s rescheduled performance. (Let’s be honest, having Giovanni still running around is a bad thing, karmically speaking!) Wish us luck!

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Common Sense, Illustrated.

I’m a huge fan of  Jessica Hagy, the author of Indexed. She has a new graphic up at Forbes.com called 20 Ways to Find Your Calling. And, in her beautifully succinct manner she defines steps to becoming an adult. (My favorite is obviously #3. (“Say yes to odd opportunities.”)

(Isn’t that how I got myself into this mess in the first place? Indeed, I think, happily, it was.)

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Many happy returns

The Opera America conference was a whirlwind of faces and topics and information that was, quite frankly, a lot to digest. I’m still processing most of it, I have to admit. But spending several days talking about Creative Resurgence and the ways in which people and industries reinvent themselves has my mental hamster on the ol’ exercise wheel in a significant way.

The model for opera in the US is changing – not many would dispute that. Companies are folding, chamber opera is being championed (a lovely thing for my own venue) to an extraordinary degree, and there’s a serious push towards adding to the American operatic canon…all these are part of the changing landscape. But I’d argue that there’s a huge swath of singers that are struggling with these changes…there’s a group of fantastically talenter singers who aren’t young artists, but who also aren’t Terfel or DiDonato or one of the handful of singers with name recognition, who are being squeezed out by economics. (In a related comic turn, a baritone for whom I have a great deal of respect and adoration – and who falls squarely in the Working category –  has a black biography on his website…in beautiful marketing-speak, and in his case belying his significant career.)

The big take-away that I find from many of these discussions is that our educational institutions must find a way (and I realize, budgets and time hardly allow for the learning as it currently stands) to not only help students discern their skills outside of vocalism but also help them figure out how they might leverage said skills into careers…onstage or off. As the field becomes more entrepreneurial, so must both the artists and the institutions that train them.

Specific reflections on the conference coming soon, as well as thoughts on the role of higher education in the process… this topic warrants many (happy) returns.

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