Category Archives: Profile Phriday

Tom Wright

This week we’re talking with Tom Wright, the Director of Artistic Planning for Vancouver Opera. I met Tom during the Opera America Leadership Intensive, and it’s true what you’ve heard about Canadians being amazingly nice – Tom is a great guy! But even though his path has been consistently in the arts, he’s taken an interesting twist or two during his career. Here’s his story:

Ok, Tom. It seems like almost everyone I talk to started out as a singer. Are you a reformed performer?

Well, when I was in school I was musical – as a child I played violin, cello and piano. But I was really a theater guy. All through high school I was involved in technical theatre, setting up sound and lighting systems for everything from assemblies to full productions of musicals and plays.

Between grade 11 and grade 12 my high school (Handsworth Secondary School, North Vancouver, B.C.) granted me a scholarship to attend the Banff School of Fine Arts in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Banff is a beautiful town in the Canadian Rocky Mountains about two hours west of Calgary, Alberta. The Banff Centre (as it is called today) is a long standing campus of training in all aspects of the arts, including the dance, theatre, music, opera, literature and visual arts.

I went to the Banff Centre with hopes of becoming a lighting designer. However, after the first month of the program I realized that I was slightly colour blind; so I started exploring other options. 🙂 I then turned my attention to learning as much as I could about all aspects of technical theater: costumes, make-up & wigs, electrics, sound, scenic painting, carpentry, and stage management. After my first summer in Banff, I realized the stage management was something a really enjoyed. I went back to the Banff the summer after graduation from high school and was placed on the stage management team of the opera.

Ok, so after graduation you must’ve found your way back into the opera field. 

Yes! During the summers of 1986 and 1987 when I was back in Banff,  I was involved with Colin Graham’s productions of Falstaff and Eugene Onegin. They were probably the two defining projects that ultimately pushed me into opera.

After the summer of ’86 I received and offer to work at Calgary Opera starting as an Assistant Stage Manager…long story short, I was there until 1998, when I had been promoted upwards to be their Director of Production.

My boss was then head-hunted for Arizona Opera and he asked me to join him. In Arizona, I was the Director of Production & Artistic Operations. However, in the first years I also oversaw a massive IT overhaul of the company where I implemented a wide area network between the Phoenix and Tucson offices. (Ed. – we have difficulties producing in 2 theaters that are .5 miles apart…I can’t imagine the logistical planning that must go into producing in two different cities!) When I left Arizona for Vancouver Opera in 2007 I had spent 9 years running the Artistic and Production operations of a company producing 5 operas a season in two cities completely double cast. Whew!

What is your current profession?

I’m currently the Director of Artistic Planning at Vancouver Opera. I oversee all Artistic, Production and Education programs/operations for the company.

What aspects of your current job/profession give you the greatest satisfaction?

This year’s launch of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artist Program is a very satisfying achievement. I have been developing and implementing this program since I started here five years ago.

Well, to totally date myself by quoting a Virginia Slims cigarette ad, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby!’ Any regrets?

I do regret not continuing my music studies as a child but I was bit with the theatre bug and sports in high school and dropped music. Also, sometimes I feel that I should have gone to university to advance my education, (Banff Centre is not a accredited college or university so no degrees or certificates are awarded.) but in the end, I have always been employed in the arts, so I can’t really complain.

I’d say not! 🙂 But that’s a lot to figure out on your own…did you have a mentor?

My mentor was Colin Graham, first Artistic Director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Program Director of the Opera program at the Banff School Fine Arts (82-88) He was the director of the opera program and it was his mentorship of me that brought me to where I am today. He took my love of theatre and my passion of music and really taught me about the beautiful marriage that happens with this in opera.

Advice time: what would you tell a student struggling with his or her career path?

Move forward with whatever makes you smile and make sure you have a passion for it. Passion, desire and love of what you like to do is really all that matters. I hope that students who are thinking about their futures, who have a passion and drive in a certain field, will see that it is possible to be gainfully employed in the arts. Passion, drive, networking and a bit of luck is what has taken me on my journey thus far.

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Annie Burridge: Soprano and Senior VP

Profile Phridays are back!

I’m glad to introduce you to Annie Burridge, Senior Vice-President for Institutional Advancement for the Opera Company of Philadelphia. I had a chance to get to know her during the Opera America Leadership Advance, and I think her experiences will resonate with many “reformed singers.” Here’s her story.

How did you get your start?

Technically, my theater career began at age 6, when I was the Littlest Indian in a production of Peter Pan. My mom was a music teacher, and there was always music in our house. I sang all through school, was in musicals and community theater productions. I earned an undergraduate degree from Pennsylvania State University, majoring in Vocal Performance and minoring in Business. (There’s some classic foreshadowing for you, because even though I didn’t really know what Arts Administration was, I thought it sounded interesting.)

I had success and support at Penn State, but didn’t really know whether I was competitive on a larger scale. I did some graduate school auditions, and got a good offer from New England Conservatory. Right before starting the program, all of the incoming students auditioned for a spot in the Opera program, and I was extremely fortunate to be one four sopranos selected. (The entire program was capped somewhere around 25 singers) I worked with John Moriarty, and sang Mrs. Wordsworth in Albert Herring and Cunegonde in Candide. I was really happy with the opportunities that I was given while in school, but found my outside auditions to be a little less successful: I did a pay-to-sing in Salzburg one summer, but didn’t have much luck in the YAP realm until the December after I graduated. Des Moines Metro Opera called on December 23rd: they needed a Gretel for their January Opera Iowa tour, and even though I hadn’t had a live audition for them (I had sent a recording of Zerbinetta’s aria, because they had programmed Ariadne auf Naxos for the summer season), they offered me the role. I did the tour, and stayed on for the summer season. The following spring I did the Pensacola Opera Young Artist program.

It sounds like you were on your way!

Maybe, but it didn’t so much feel like I was on my way. On one hand, I felt incredibly grateful to have those professional opportunities; I learned so much! It was extremely frustrating. I knew that I could tackle difficult repertoire (Lulu, anyone?), but it didn’t seem to matter. It also didn’t matter that I was a good writer, or a natural planner. I rewrote my classroom presentations for the DMMO school tour, but having that eye for strategic planning didn’t make directors more likely to hire me. I had this whole host of talents that simply didn’t transfer over.

Ouch. That’s a hard place to be.

It was. When the Pensacola program finished I went home to Philadelphia – I had met a guy named Paul in between my residencies at DMMO and Pensacola, so I had some incentive. (He’s now my husband.) And I took an administrative job at the University of Pennsylvania to earn some money, as I was just tired of being poor. One of the perks of the job was that I could take classes at Penn for free, so I signed up for a Marketing class in their Non-Profit Administration program. After the first two classes I knew that I had found my thing, and weeks later I was offered my first arts administration position.

Huh! Did you make the decision to change right then?

Yes. It was a big moment for me. I’ve always been someone who commits fully to a career path, and I felt I needed to choose either the administrative career or the singing career – I didn’t want to dilute my impact in either arena by only giving it half my attention. I discussed it with my husband, cried for about an hour, and then made the switch.

Million-dollar question: was it worth it?

I had an epiphany in the car one day shortly after making the switch: I remembered the sitzprobe of Madama Butterfly at Des Moines, and just being moved to tears at the beauty of the music, the complete experience. I remembered sitting alone in the audience during a rehearsal of Barber of Seville in Pensacola when I was covering Rosina, listening to the overture,and again being moved to tears that opera was my job. And I realized that the moments that stuck with me the most weren’t moments in which I was actually singing. It was a revelation. So short answer? Indeed it was worth it. I call on the experiences that I had as a singer daily in my current position (Ed.: Annie oversees all the development and marketing efforts for OCP.) – my knowledge of the industry and passion for the art form allows me to inspire the people with whom I work and interact. I also feel so much more ownership in my current role at OCP than I did as a singer. I can watch a rehearsal and know that my efforts made a huge portion of this production happen. My traction with donors and the financial health of the organization dictates that I am part of the artistic process. Granted, if it were up to my personal preferences we’d be doing all Britten, all the time! But I enjoy being the person who represents our stakeholders and larger community in those discussions. And finally, those skills that I felt were underutilized when I was singing – writing, planning – I’m using every day.

It’s rear-view mirror time: What advice would you give to someone who is struggling through a dilemma similar to your post-Pensacola frustrations?

Be honest with what you want your life to look like. I was lucky in that I had some blazing arrows pointing me to my place in the industry, but I still have pals who are struggling through these decisions.Think about what you want your life to look like 5, 10, even 20 years down the road. What’s your ultimate goal? How can you pick up the skills that will get you there? Some people need to remain close to the creative process, so they might opt for teaching over an administrative job. Some may want to cobble five or six different kinds of performing jobs into a career. I knew that I wanted to be involved at the highest level of artmaking, and it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to reach that level as a singer. I wanted to be a part of the biggest game in town, and I wanted to be a big part of it.

I think you’ve made it! Do you have any parting words or wisdom?

My boss’ motto is to be nice to everyone, all the time. It’s a small industry, and once you build those relationships you’ll have a network of people to ask for advice and help…because soon that assistant will be running the program for which you’ve dreamed of working. It always pays to be nice.

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Stephen Brody: Scheduling Solutions

Since my head is still very much wrapped around Marci Alboher’s book and the concept of “slash careers”, today’s profile is of a singer/web designer. I met Brody in a pal’s office at the University of Maryland several years ago, and he approached us a few years later with a great idea for a scheduling program that’s in beta testing now and will undoubtably make my former administrative interns weep at the thought of all of their lost hours, proofing excel spreadsheets for typos and double-bookings. Here’s his story:

Where did you go to school?
I received a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance from Loyola University of New Orleans and a Master of Music degree in Opera Performance from the University of Maryland Opera Studio.

Did you want always want to be an opera singer when you grew up?
I grew up wanting to work for NASA. It was my dream as a kid to become an astronaut, and as I grew older I wanted to work in design and development for NASA in Houston, TX – where I grew up.  I was accepted into the College of Engineering at Texas A&M.

Huh! How did you get to opera from there?
In February of 2003, a week after I had been accepted to A&M, my voice teacher called me and my parents into her office. She wanted me to take a year to study music and recommended a baritone named Philip Frohnmayer  who was on the faculty at Loyola University of New Orleans. I was very hesitant and uneasy about the idea – after all, I had spent my entire life wanting to study Aerospace and Mechanical engineering at Texas A&M and actually got in! Texas A&M allowed me to defer a year and my parents convinced me to head down a few weeks later to audition. I figured taking a year off to sing and live in New Orleans would be fun! A month or so later I was accepted as a Vocal Performance major and in the fall I made my way down to the Crescent City to begin my music studies.

The second defining moment came the summer between my junior and senior year in undergrad. I remember the moment precisely; I was sitting in a rehearsal for Il barbiere di Siviglia at Opera in the Ozarks in 2006. I was double cast as Basilio and we were rehearsing the Act 1 finale. I was sitting in the audience studying my score as I watched my colleagues on stage and it was at that moment, that I realized I wanted to be an opera singer for the rest of my life. I loved the rehearsal process, the people, the travel and the craziness & hard work involved in bringing a character to life.

What is your current profession?
I am an opera singer by profession and a web consultant by trade. I think a better title would be ‘operapreneur.’

How does the web consultant piece fit into your operatic path?
I have never stopped performing but over the past five years or so I have embarked on two career paths simultaneously – both dependent on each other. My web design business grew out of friends and colleagues needing websites for themselves, the luxury for me was that everywhere I performed, I was introduced to new prospective clients! Web design became the perfect opportunity for me to fund my opera career without having to get a “real job.”

It has been a very gradual process. I knew even as a student at Loyola that, if I was going to be an opera singer, I was going to need a website to market myself. I didn’t have the money for a custom site and I hated the idea of cheap “cookie cutter” websites – so I set out to build my own.  I am almost entirely self taught as a designer and developer. Everything that I have learned about web design, development and marketing has come through trial & error.

I haven’t opted out of singing, but there have been some major positives and negatives along the way. In 2010, I took most of the year off to concentrate on my finances. I had been hired by a web agency in Bethesda, MD as a web designer with a nice salary, benefits and the like. They were a fantastic company, I learned an immense amount about the web business while I was there and they even let me leave for over a month to perform with Opera Fairbanks in Alaska that summer. While I was working full time, I realized that I was not cut out for a normal 9-5 job; the creativity that I thrived on was stifled by managers and stubborn, “old-school” developers unwilling to embrace new technology and design styles. I longed for my weekly voice lessons and time spent in rehearsals. I hadn’t learned any new music (aside from Masetto for Opera Fairbanks) and found it was increasingly difficult to concentrate on musical matters. A few weeks before the New York audition season began, we decided to part ways.

But you said that you were a web consultant by trade – are you still working in tech at all?
I am! Today, I am the CEO & Co-founder of Schedule Arts LLC. Andrew Lunsford (a tenor whom I met while we were singing with Opera New Jersey) is the President & Co-founder, and together we have developed a web based production scheduling application for arts companies. Our program reduces the time and money required for an arts organization to create and distribute their daily, weekly and monthly production schedules by 50% or more. We provide sophisticated conflict detection to prevent inadvertent double bookings, individual schedules so artists and staff don’t have to search through a maze of rehearsals to figure out their schedule, online request forms to easily organize & manage releases, coachings and rehearsals, along with many more features to reduce the time and stress associated with the production schedule. And it all came out of our mutual frustration with being double-booked for coachings and staging rehearsals!

Did your musical training come in handy in managing your two (very different) career paths?
My careers as both an opera singer and web consultant go hand in hand. My ability to communicate on stage has helped me better communicate with my clients offstage. I am able to calmly work with all sorts of people and create designs that break the mold from the “classical singer” website.

Was there a certain person who directly or indirectly influenced your decision?
Laura Lee Everett has been my cornerstone these past couple of  years. From day one at the Maryland Opera Studio, she worked hard to support me on stage and off. Laura Lee has helped guide both of my careers; providing me with constant advice, testing out my ideas, keeping me focused, and introducing me to invaluable colleagues and contacts. She convinced me to exhibit as a web consultant at the Opera America Convention in 2009 which opened the door for me as an operapreneur and has been an incredible influence with Schedule Arts.

Any advice to share?
My voice teacher in undergrad, Philip Frohnmayer, gave me the best advice; he said, “Brody, the most important thing in this industry is perseverance, to continue on regardless of how hard it gets.” I have never forgotten those words. They have helped me make it through countless 100+ hour work weeks, times where I thought I wouldn’t be hired for any opera, and the hardest times when I’m torn between leaving opera behind or pushing forward. My advice is to always try everything at least once and keep pushing forward – If I hadn’t, I’d probably be back in Texas at Johnson Space Center living a “normal” life. It sounds cliche, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Sure I would like to have been more prepared for some of my rehearsals or to concentrate a little more on my opera career. My path has been a roller coaster and the random twists and turns have led me to a very bright future – I couldn’t ask for anything more!

Brody will be at the Opera America Conference in Philadelphia next week, unveiling a beta version of the Schedule Arts scheduling program. I hope you’ll join me in checking it out!

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Vic Muenzer- Language and Sound

I spend 4 intense days each year with Vic, in a small, windowless room, with 3 other guys…sounds sordid, but on the contrary our only vices are the great cookies from Shirlington’s Best Buns bakery! We get together to  produce Wolf Trap‘s classical radio show, Center Stage from Wolf Trap. Vic is our producer and distributor, but he’s also a conductor… with a degree in …English? Here’s Vic’s story.

How did you get started?

I had wanted to go to Northern Illinois as a music major.  My father discouraged me early on after I studied violin with him, saying I had no ear.  Also, both parents felt that Northwestern was a much better school. (My mother was a NU alum, and my father was on the faculty at Northwestern, so we were entitled to get half off tuition.  That discount certainly helped direct my decision). I played piano, but I didn’t really want to be a piano major, and wasn’t up to the NU performance standards, and in all honesty I was more interested in recording.

I had just come off of a successful year in AP English (at Maine South H.S.) and coincidentally English was the most flexible undergraduate major at Northwestern.  So I had my cake and ate it too – I was an English major, but did every course a music major would have done except the performance requirement.  I graduated with a B.A. in English.

There were not many places one could go to learn the art of classical recording, but Northwestern turned out to be an ideal place.  Pick-Staiger Concert Hall had just been built and it had a new recording studio with no one to run it, so I was able to come in on the ground floor and learn by doing.  In retrospect it was a great opportunity.  By the time I had left NU I had produced 3 commercial recordings.

(Editor: Vic had a very specific experience that drew him to the art of recording, and wrote about it. It’s a beautiful essay, and one that I wouldn’t tinker with. You can find it at the end of this post.) 

So, the recording thing really started to pan out for you even before you graduated…

Truly.  Since the event that is described in the essay, I began regularly attending recording sessions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (I could because I was family) and I ended up befriending nearly every recording team that came through Chicago – from Decca to DG and RCA.

Also, at Northwestern whenever I produced a recording for someone,  positive feedback kept coming back to me.  The feedback that made perhaps the biggest impression on me was when the first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet took me aside at the end of a session and told me I was quite good at producing and that I should pursue it as a career.

So, you self-define as a recording engineer?

Well…not so much. I am a radio producer and a conductor.  (Now there’s a combo)

Whoa! Ok, how did you get from point A to point…Q?

I continued to build a career as a record producer until the mid nineties.  In 1997 I left the record business:  after three years of producing for Daniel Barenboim, our company lost the contract to produce his records.  This led to many different efforts to save the company, one of which was a contract to produce “wholly owned” orchestra recordings for a company called NorthSound which provided classical music laced with nature sounds, which they sold in kiosks at museum stores and tourist shops.  This contract, ironically, led to my first conducting efforts, as it was cheaper to conduct myself than hire a conductor for the purposes of many of the NorthSound recording sessions.

In keeping my hand on the technical side, I also began producing radio shows. (Editor – This is the role in which I first met Vic.)

So now? I am a radio producer.   I am a “retired” record producer.   I am a conductor.   I am a mediocre trumpet player.   (haha)

So how did your training inform your path to your current profession? 

I have found that everything has fed into everything else.  Performance and musical studies have made me stronger as a record producer and subsequently a radio producer.  And my experiences working with top-notch conductors as a record producer have made me a much better musician and conductor. Northwestern did provide me with some big opportunities.  I probably got my big break when Cablevision came to Northwestern to do a pilot live performing arts show for a new concept called Bravo.  (Working on that pilot at Pick Staiger led to my becoming the first Associate Producer of the Bravo Network!) And, something I couldn’t have anticipated, but being an English major from Northwestern has really enhanced my abilities as a radio producer, because most of what I do revolves around the verbal presentation of the “stories behind the music”.  So research, writing skills, verbal communication and syntax are highly integral to my radio work in a way I would never have anticipated.   So the English major turned out to be important.

Lesson: Everything in life has value…eventually.  We learn from EVERYTHING!

I will wholeheartedly agree with that statement. So, what advice do you have for folks who are searching?

First of all, get to know yourself well enough that you can be honest with yourself. Then, look into your heart, listen to it, and follow it.  Determine what your true priorities are in life and build everything around that.

Thanks, Vic. Here’s his essay, Reverberations of a Ruin.

The images are eerie, even maudlin: the odd remains of a building built in 1826. The facade still stands, as do the side walls of the long building. Those two-story longitudinal walls remain filled with rows of window-like balconies, dusted with ornate Rococo filigree, partially melted by flame. The plaster handiwork of many nineteenth century artisans is evident everywhere. My eyes starve to see more. They strain to look deeper into the photos, and I move closer as if that could in some way let me see more. Macabre graffiti, the work of some very different twenty-first century artisans, covers many of the nineteenth century creations. Disturbing though the graffiti is, its oddly appropriate to the ruin. At least its an indication that life still passes through. The hallways to the great ballroom remain standing in defiance of time. The velvet red fabric that lined the ceilings of those hallways hangs in shreds like some great bleeding weep.

At my home in Chicago, on my laptop, with my wireless, I stare into the screen obsessed by these pictures that some creative photographer posted on the web. I thank him. The building—or the remains of the building—lay on Marxergasse in the third district of the Landstrasse district of Vienna. The computer I stare into is 4,700 miles away from Marxergasse. Yet these images throw knives into my heart. It is as if I am there. These pictures are burned into the very depths of my soul. In the bottom of the old building was a pool almost the full size of the foundation footprint. It lay under the grand parquet dance floor of the grand ballroom. The Sofiensaal started life as a public bath house in the 1820s. Soon though, the pool was covered over with a dance floor when the owners figured out that the society of Johann Strauss, father and son, preferred dancing over public bathing. Silly Austrians they must have been. But they knew what they wanted for the hall became a favored Viennese dancing spot, and those Strauss waltz-kings graced the Sofiensaal with their music for decades.

With the grand parquet dance floor now burnt and disintegrated, the pool is again clearly visible in the wreckage and a charred grand piano came to rest in its depths, a legacy of the last recording—a piano recording—made in the Sofiensaal, before fire took the building in August of 2001. The great wooden vaulted roof that covered the ballroom is gone. Lit now by bright yellow sunlight, the image of the piano perched in the empty pool is stark. With what remains now open to the elements, this picture lays bare the mystical core of the Sofiensaals greatness: that pool.

The Sofiensal was the place of dreams. It was where dreams were…well…made into permanent dreams, and then committed to funny little grooves etched in vinyl. It was where my dreams were made permanent. You see, my career leads directly back to that old building. And the pool is the key to it all.

When the pool was parqueted over, it was destined to be discovered as one of the greatest recording studio acoustics in the world with unbelievable warmth and bass response, combined with incredible immediacy. The mysterious pool that lay under the beautiful dance floor was the reason. With the parquet floor built over it, that pool resonated and grooved to the sounds of Wagner, Strauss, Beethoven, Verdi and Mozart.

The hall was so good that in 1956 the English record company Decca moved in and used it as their principle European recording facility for the next twenty-five years. The recordings made there are legendary and stand to this day as the greatest achievements in the history of recorded sound. The Decca producer who guided this effort was John Culshaw. With him was a legendary recording team who pioneered many recording techniques in use today on classical recording sessions and film scoring stages. Culshaw was not interested in reproducing the reality of the live performance. His purpose was to create a listening experience wholly unique to the gramophone. It was bigger, more intimate, more detailed, and had more impact than anything you could expect to hear live. Every opera recording was literally “staged” for the microphones. There were effects used in his recordings that were rarely possible in actual performance. He created recordings in the Sofiensaal that were so hyper-real, so much bigger than life, that they demanded to be heard. He did it this way because he knew that you, the listener, would listen to these recordings over and over, precisely because they were bigger than life.

Indeed, many recordings made in the Sofiensaal became definitive of the art. Wagners Ring Cycle conceived by Culshaw within the walls of the Sofiensaal, recorded with a young Hungarian exiled conductor known as Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic along with all the greatest singing talent available at the time, is simply known as the “Solti Ring.” The fifteen hour recording took seven years to make. To this day, it is considered the greatest achievement in the history of music recording and still supersedes all versions that followed. It does so not just on the strength of its cast or the brilliant leadership of Solti, both of which are formidable to be sure, but because the creativity with which the recording itself is conceived has never been matched. In that era, video was impossible for the consumer, so the recording had to be so vivid that it created visuals in your imagination. Indeed, Culshaw and Solti collaborated to create a “theatre of the mind” in recorded sound. They staged the operas in your mind. Culshaw didnt need video. He didnt make recordings, he crafted them. He loved doing it. And the Sofiensaal was his playground.

I knew about the Sofiensal when I was young. We had the Solti Ring at home. I listened to the whole thing many times, likely one of the few eleven year olds in Chicago to do such a looney thing. But I got it big time, the whole shebang: Wagner, Solti, The Ring, Birgit Nilsson, Gustav Neidlinger, Wolfgang Windgassen, Hans Hotter, Brunnhilde, Alberich, Siegfried, Wotan. But most of all I got John Culshaw. Even at eleven, I knew what Culshaw had done was special, it was something different. Having a father in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra that recently had the foresight to hire Georg Solti as its music director, it was inevitable that I was closer to the classical recording scene than most. Already, there was the tremendous legacy of Fritz Reiner and his recordings with the CSO on RCA. But at thirteen, I was unprepared for the privilege that would soon be mine.

In September of 1971 the CSO was to tour Europe for six weeks. For whatever reason I got to go along. The first week was to be in Vienna and the orchestra was recording the Mahler Symphony No. 8 at the Sofiensaal. I was there running around that recording session. I sat in a special sound control room. John Culshaw was there in spirit, if not in fact (He had left Decca by then, but I swear I remember him in the control room that day). Where I sat, a second Decca team experimented with quadraphonic sound in a room separate from the main control room, as the huge Mahler Symphony was recorded. They built enormous grandstands that stood beside the two stories of decorated balconies in the Sofiensaal. These bleachers accommodated two full choruses and the Vienna Boys Choir. In front of them were 7 soloists and a Chicago Symphony augmented to 120 for the occasion. All these forces were driven by Sir Georg Solti, as one would drive the finest Ferrari in the world. I imagined the glee on Culshaws face as the team played with the four speaker mix for the experimental quadraphonic sound. It was an effort, once again, to take recorded music to a level beyond that of live performance, so that you would want to buy it and listen to it over and over. John knew what he was doing. He defined an industry. Some of the opera recordings he made in the Sofiensaal outsold the pop recordings of the time, to the chagrin of Deccas competitors. In those two days, that smile, the power of the Mahler 8th, the unswerving musical genius of Georg Solti and the glorious sound of the Sofiensaal—that converted bathhouse, that Vienna party room turned recording studio —it all got to me. That day set my path. I was to be a record producer, a classical record producer, creating big productions like that. And I made it. I made it because of the Sofiensaal and Solti and Culshaw and the Ring and the Mahler 8th. In a day, a life was set. Those elements instilled in me an ethic of what making a recording was all about. Without those experiences, I would not have been the same, nor would I have had my career.

I stare now into the pictures, the bare hallways of the remains of the Sofiensaal, looking for signs of what once must have been the great control rooms that Decca created. I struggle to figure out which doors I must have used to get from the soundstage built in the great ballroom back to the control rooms. I look for signs of the adjacent Blauer Ballroom which the Decca engineers used as their reverberation room, as they did not have the digital reverb units with digitally reproduced concert halls that we have now. I stare hard at the close-up photos of the ornate plasterwork fragments that remain, and imagine the sound waves of the Chicago Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic bouncing around among all that wood and plaster. I imagine in my mind a day when musicians and engineers collaborated on an ideal: the “theatre of the mind”. Nothing stopped them from making the most perfect, exciting, dramatic recording they could, to be preserved for all time, and for all to enjoy. The Sofiensaal was a place where reality checked itself at the door. Inside that old bathhouse, indeed, dreams were made.

So I stare again at those photos on my computer screen, searching intently for signs of those dreams, of that creative ideal, of the ghosts of Solti, Culshaw, Nilsson, Windgassen, Neidlinger, Fisher-Dieskau, the Decca Recording team, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony who graced the acoustics of the Sofiensaal with its own glorious sound on three occasions. I look for signs of my own, however brief, presence. Honestly, I have to squint, struggling to reconcile the ruins with my memory. Yet I know in my heart that the Sofiensaal is alive with music, but not in those pictures. The Sofiensaal itself resonates no longer. But it will always resonate in my soul. I am grateful for what it gave me, and for that which it gave the world. The recorded legacy of the Sofiensaal still exists even if the building and the people who created that legacy do not. I celebrate the ruin of the Sofiensaal, even as it brings tears to my eyes. I look at my kids and wonder. What will be their “Sofiensaal”?

Click here for a Flickr slideshow of images of the Sofiensaal

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Tracy Cherpeski – Perpetual Motion

I’m taking you off of our normal track today to introduce you to a woman who was a big help to me in getting this project started. She’s not technically a trained performer or musician, but her love of language and commitment to physical health and well-being inform her daily life…so she’s definitely one of us! Tracy Cherpeski began her education immersed in the study of language, and currently is a certified Life Coach.  Here’s her story.

Where did you go to school?

Seattle University -BA French, Minor Spanish, Latin American Studies

University of New Mexico – MBA – International Management, MA – Latin American Studies & Economic Development

Ooh la la – an education with international flair!

I studied French and Spanish in undergrad because I decided to travel to France as an exchange student in my sophomore year of college. I loved the language, felt inspired by it, and loved the mathematical and musical challenge of it. I was intrigued by the history and culture, and originally thought maybe I would go on to study Romance Linguistics and become a professor of languages, or something related to languages. I minored in Spanish because when I returned from 7 months abroad and claimed my major as French, a ton of credits opened up and it made sense to learn another language, considering the path I thought I would take. (Of course, in a Jesuit liberal arts institution, following what I loved was encouraged and supported.) After finishing my bachelors degree, I took a year off to decide whether I would study languages or social sciences in order to advance to a Ph.D to become a professor. In that year, I learned a lot about the process involved, and became keenly interested in culture more than the languages or teaching languages. Upon reflecting, I realized that following my passion to be a helper to others, and use my language and social skills was the direction I wanted to be taking.

A defining moment in my undergrad studies happened in one of my humanities classes when a young man made a very judgmental comment about what people do and do not deserve in terms of getting basic needs met. I remember very clearly having a visceral reaction, even at only 19 years of age, feeling that it was so unfair to the people who didn’t choose the life they were given (as children) to be any less “deserving” of having their basic needs (food, shelter, health care, access to education) covered. Something switched in me and I realized that whatever career I chose, I would be helping people in some say, either thru business, entering the education system or development.

I started looking at advanced degree programs featuring either dual degrees in social sciences and business, or social sciences and law, focused on international affairs, culture and economic development. So, from a number of choices available, I chose the dual MBA-MA program at University of New Mexico, which has an incredible reputation for its Latin American Studies department for Masters and Ph.D-level programs, and was very highly ranked in this area of study. I really wanted to rely on my language skills, travel and make big changes in the world thru economic development.

What happened next?

When I finished grad school and moved to DC from New Mexico, I had a great opportunity as director of research and development for a non-profit organization with international reach. It was the best of both worlds: I got to use my understanding of managing international contracts and manage a team of support staff. I struggled to gel with my boss, however, so I  accepted an opportunity that dropped into my lap from the sky to work at an operational level for a large health club company. However, the culture I had become accustomed to in the international business world was not at all the same as in the health club industry, and I felt at sea. A few years later, I met someone who was working on a housing market assessment project in Nigeria, backed in part by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I was asked to join the team as a consultant in research, and acting as a liaison between government officials and the small consulting firm who had landed the contract. I felt like I was finally bringing “it all” together: international travel, research, strategy, working with government officials to bring moderately priced housing to those who really needed affordable housing in a market where there was money, but not enough housing, jobs but high unemployment, etc. I knew this would help create a ripple effect of good change by creating jobs, providing housing, creating a credit market that was culturally sensitive, and so on.

Then my husband got a temporary assignment offer to live in Southern California for a year, and then I got pregnant with our first child, and so it seemed natural and the right decision to phase-out of the project by finishing up what I could state-side, and easing out of the contract since my doctor strongly advised against travel in sub-Saharan Africa while pregnant. Plus, I was happy, life was good, a baby was coming……

I took a few years to be mostly at-home with children (we had a second child 2 1/2 years after) and was content. But then my marriage deteriorated. This was part of the catalyst, as I was starting to see that I had based my adult decisions on something I wasn’t totally convinced I would be able to pull off – changing the world – and very often shifted gears around my husband’s career to support him as the primary bread winner.

I realized that I’d been chasing something without a clear vision of how to get to it. I wanted to make money, but didn’t really worry about how much, yet wanted to be on a high payscale. I wanted a family, but had difficulty balancing career and children. I had wanted to support my husband, but our marriage ended. Now what?

What is your current profession?

I am a coach and wellness expert. I help people make empowered choices to change their lives in ways that are in harmony with their gifts. Some people change their career paths, some start big projects (Ed. – Indeed!) and others simply spruce-up the way they feel about “everything” and start allowing happiness and health to enter or re-enter their lives.

Whoa! Big changes! When did you decide to change career paths?

I made this change in July 2010, right after purchasing a house and quitting a job without setting my business up in advance. It was the second largest leap of faith I have ever taken; the first was when I decided it was time to end my marriage of almost 9 years. While I made the decision, I feel like in a way it was made for me. I had struggled emotionally in my career before because I never felt like the purpose I wanted to serve was working out. I was advancing, making good money, being offered more responsibility, etc., but was still not quite happy and not convinced that I was making a difference in the world.

One day over lunch, a very good friend told me, “Tracy, you are a healer. People come to be near you because of who you are, what you bring, and the light that you help shed on life. When you embrace that, that is when you will find your happiness.” At the time the term ‘healer’ sounded very new-agey, and therefore didn’t work for me in the paradigm I was living under.

I thought, “Who me? A HEALER??? Yeah, right!” and sort of laughed it off…but clearly the message stuck.

As if by magic, a job fell from the sky and landed in my lap (once again, in fitness). After a 6 year hole on my resume of anything I deemed meaningful in terms of career path, I had no idea what else to do… but I also realized that it wasn’t a long-term solution for me or my family. I was reminded of the conversation with my friend about being a healer, that people seek me out for a reason. A different friend suggested I should be a life coach after empowering myself thru the process of my divorce. I balked, as it didn’t fit the idea I had in mind of coaching, and certainly after all of those years of education, why would I “throw it away” to be a coach?

Was there a specific time where the choice became clear to you?

Yes.  A client at the health club where I worked, and now a close friend (more on her in a moment), suggested I consider becoming a coach because it seemed people were drawn to speak with me and wanted to soak-up my positive energy and ability to find the learning and gratitude opportunities in every situation. This time I listened. Within the span of one month, I learned I needed to move out of the condo I was leasing, my divorce was finalizing and I was exhausted and totally burned out on working as a manager in the fitness industry. It was as if I had walked into a dark room, turned on the light switch and really noticed the art on the walls for the first time. I knew I was unhappy in my job, but the rest of my life was coming together…. I took a week off from work to move house, closed on the mortgage on a Friday and gave my notice the following Thursday. They asked and begged me to stay on for a while, offering all manner of incentives, but I politely declined, stating that I was going to take a little time to rest and recover with my children, and then pursue other interests. I had not the first clue how to be a coach, how to build a coaching practice or where to even start, so I started a blog and updated my profile on LinkedIn, and began sharing my insights on Facebook as well.

From that, and over the course of the next year, I learned about a fantastic coaching certification that helped me hone my skills and learn a beautiful bounty of new skills, which have helped me help others. I often pinch myself and realize that finally……FINALLY,  I am doing what I am meant to be doing. Expansion and exponential growth are next, with my sights set on a larger audience, sharing a message of hope, empowerment and harmony, and helping usher others into this new economy as people who have stepped fully into their power, and who are doing what they love and loving what they do.

Has anything surprised you in your newest professional incarnation?

I was surprised that people would take me seriously and respect me and my new field. I was also surprised that I absolutely love public speaking and shine when in front of a group of people who could very well be more educated and experienced than I am, but they look to me as an expert and trust me to deliver every single time. So, I think I was surprised that I could walk in and OWN my own gifts and success.

Growing my coaching practice was a little slow, so even though I charge a fair and excellent rate (both for me and for clients) the financial picture was a little bleak in the beginning, but every time I thought I should just toss my resume to a consulting firm and “get a job” I felt a calm knowing that everything would work out. My practice took off right after I let go of what I thought I “should” be doing, and embraced what I really want and love to be doing – helping others heal themselves thru unwavering support and guidance, based on their own personal vision.

When I first meet people, I usually open with this: “I help people make powerful choices to change their lives,” which is a real conversation starter.

So, was all of the education worth it?  Did your training come in handy in your current profession?

It’s hard to say an MBA is not handy. But, I believe that all of the studies I’ve completed, including certifications for group fitness and my coaching certification, also come in very handy. Understanding economics, business and having a background in languages and consulting helps me understand my clients, many of whom are mid- and C-level executives. But also knowing how to gauge the energy in a room without speaking with every person is a skill not every one is fortunate enough to develop. Teaching group fitness over the past 20 years has taught me proper voice projection, how to meet people where they are and bring them to the level I can see they are capable of and build that momentum for them in a way that is not only comfortable and encouraging, but also healing.

Was there a certain person or group (Professors? Classmates?) who directly or indirectly influenced your decision?

The person who influenced me most was the friend who told me that my outlook and ability to find threads of wisdom in every situation is the person who planted the seed, in my opinion. We had this conversation over margaritas a little over two years before I started my coaching practice, and the business idea started as a cathartic giggle fest about writing a guidebook on how to recover after a complicated divorce. Once we stopped cackling, we realized we were on to something and vowed to re-visit the idea when life settled-in.Today, she (Dr. Kacie Fisher – Clinical Psychologist & Yoga, Pilates & Fitness expert) is my business partner and we are creating coaching and educational programs for people who want to find the passionate, spiritual and happy life they know they deserve, but can’t quite reach.

What advice would you give to a student struggling with this decision?

Follow your heart. Even if it doesn’t make sense and you don’t know “how” to make something come together. Just do what you love. Study what you love, become well-versed in what you love. You can make any life experience into a successful and fulfilling career if you just allow yourself to let go of what you think or have been taught you “ought to” or “should” do. When we do what we love, we have more to give. If we know WHY we love what we do, then there is no stopping us.

What aspects of your current job/profession give you the greatest satisfaction?

It might sound weird, but it’s that moment when a client tells me that they know they have reached the place where they no longer “need” me and would like to phase-out of coaching. I miss them when they are gone, but I am a coach because I believe wholeheartedly that I can help people find out exactly what they want and help them go for it. When the light turns on for them, it inspires me to do more, learn more, SHARE more. How awesome is that?

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Kim Pensinger Witman – Constant Collaboration

Kim Pensinger Witman is known nationally for being the driving force behind the Wolf Trap Opera Company, one of the premiere young artist training programs in the U.S. But prior to her operatic life she studied in two different, yet ultimately related, disciplines. Here’s her story.

My transitions weren’t clean, and they were of two types – the first early one, from music therapy to the life of a freelance collaborative pianist; and the second one, from pianist to administrator.

Where did you go to school?

Elizabethtown College, B.S. in Music Therapy

Catholic University of America, M.M. in Piano

What drew you to your chosen degree field?

I identified as a musician from an early age – was active in every single musical thing possible in my childhood, from school choirs and bands to being an organist at my church at age 13. But I had no illusions about my ability to be a professional musician. I didn’t believe I had the chops or the work ethic to sustain all of that private practice time. In looking for a career that might allow me to stay in touch with music and still let me be with other people, I found music therapy. My music therapy professors were wonderful role models, and they reinforced my decision to embrace what was then a particularly new and kind of fringey career path in music. My piano teacher in my undergrad was also a composer, and although he wasn’t an R.M.T., he was heavily involved with the music therapy track at Elizabethtown.

In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I decided we wanted to get M.M. degrees. Just because. We figured we’d have kids fairly soon, and after that, such a pursuit would be unlikely. I really just wanted to immerse myself in the keyboard in a way I hadn’t before – and at 25, I was finally ready to do it. But I didn’t believe it would lead to a career change – I fully expected to continue as a therapist after getting the degree.

During my M.M. degree, I fell into a graduate assistantship in the opera program. (I filled an unexpected vacancy. I only got the job because the program was desperate, and I had a bag of tricks that allowed me to be functional – awesome sight-reading, a love for languages, and the ability to work easily with a range of people.) The decision to move away from therapy into playing the piano for a living was born of curiosity after I finished my degree. I really didn’t know if I had the chops for it but thought I would spend a few years in pursuit and see what happened. So, the first step into my collaborative pianist career was made for me; had the graduate assistantship not opened up unexpectedly, I would not be doing what I’m doing today. Full stop. But the next step – that of independently filling in the gaps in my opera education in the 2 years after my M.M. degree – was a decision I made on my own.

Even though I learned a tremendous amount at Catholic University, it didn’t have a lot to do with my transition to the opera business. Because I was so ill-prepared for my surprise teaching assistantship, I scrambled to stay one step ahead of my students and wasn’t really able to benefit from high level instruction of my own. The biggest influence at CUA was probably my piano teacher Thomas Mastroianni and my chamber music supervisor Robert Newkirk. Dr. Mastroianni saw me through a scary wrist/hand dysfunction (thought to be RSI but ultimately wasn’t) and gave me the confidence to know that if I wanted to make my living at the keyboard, I probably could. And Bob Newkirk presided over my first legit piano trio experiences, cementing a future love of chamber music.

I know lots of people who would agree that any kind of psychology degree is a boon in the performing arts. 🙂 But how did you make that jump from the piano bench to administration?

When my current job opened up in 1997, I was a pianist on staff at Wolf Trap. I didn’t intend to move to an administrative career (was not looking), but over a period of months I fell into it. (I seem to do a lot of falling into things…) The move into administration was a decision I made somewhat reluctantly. When my job opened up, I made no move to pursue it, for I couldn’t imagine taking a desk job. But when it wasn’t immediately filled, I began to think that such a move would allow me to continue to participate in the opera world, open up new creative possibilities, and (probably most importantly) let me move away from the musician schedule into a 9-5 routine during much of the school year so that I could see my kids more. Spending as much time as possible with my family was non-negotiable.

So here I am – currently the Director of Wolf Trap Opera & Classical Programming for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. Basically, I run an opera company inside a non-opera-specific organization.

How do you self-define?

Initially: I’m a music therapist.

Then: I’m an accompanist. (Well, a collaborative pianist, but such a thing didn’t really exist then.)

Now: I’m an arts administrator.

And simultaneously with all of the above; I’m a musician. (Which has less to do with how I pay my mortgage than how I see the world.)

Ok, speak to us a little bit about that worldview.

This can’t be understated. Everything I learned about people, about the intersection of art and life, had its roots in my study and brief practice of music therapy. I went into that specific field because the abstract study of music felt somehow isolated and irrelevant, and I was only interested in spending a life in music that felt as if it enabled connection with “real life.” (A naïve statement in its frankness, but it was how I felt at the time.) Even now, two career shifts later, my whole approach to the people in this business – the artists, the patrons, the audience – is shaped by those early years of never considering art as being outside of daily life.

And everything I learned and did as a collaborative pianist continues to play into my life as an administrator. It taught me empathy for performers, a respect for the dynamic and nonlinear processes in the rehearsal room, and an appreciation for the high levels of research and preparation it takes to do good work.

What advice would you give to someone struggling with this decision?

Lest any of this seem too tidy, I should mention that while I was a music therapist I was supplementing my income by playing in piano bars and gigging as accompanist for choral societies and theatre groups. While I was a collaborative pianist, I was a church organist/choir director, piano teacher, pit orchestra member, dinner theatre music director, college adjunct faculty and mom. Some of that stuff followed me into my arts admin days but gradually fell by the wayside as the demands of my job increased and my stamina gave out. So be aware that some of the clarity comes with the retelling…

Aside from the obvious (know yourself, be true to yourself, don’t do any of this to please other people), I guess I’d have to caution against black-and-white thinking. This is all so very and so wonderfully gray that it need not be as frightening as you think. I’ve always been terrible at the 5-year/10-year plan thing because it seems so much more legitimate to focus on today’s decisions, next week’s goals, or (at the outside) next season’s dreams. You may be the kind of person who needs to project beyond that in order to move forward. But I believe that it hamstrings us unnecessarily to frame our decisions as part of a linear path in such an extended time horizon.

Life happens.

Plans change.

And this is not always bad.

Be flexible, keep your gaze forward but your feet underneath you, and you’ll know what feels right. And generally, those unexpected things are way better than anything you planned.

And now that I think of it, probably the most important thing is to ignore the voices in your head (or the people outside of it…) who tell you that if you have X years or X thousands of dollars investment in training for a specific career, you have a moral obligation to see it through. If you know it’s not the right path at any point, that’s the time to set a new course. And although the next year or two of transition may be difficult, it’s nothing compared to the desperation you’ll feel if you keep blindly putting one foot in front of the other and end up in a life you hate.

Furthermore, none of what you learned is lost. Seriously. No matter how specific those skills, the only way they’ll go untapped is if you don’t value them.

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Finding the through line: Sean McAuliffe – from Songwriting to Software Design to… Songwriting?

Sean started his undergraduate career as a Vocal Performance/Composition major at Carnegie Mellon, and currently works as a Multimedia Designer. Here’s his story:

I went to a private prep school in Baltimore. My mom worked there so I was able to go for a very reduced cost. My parents never would have been able to send me there otherwise. I was a horrible student — I never had any motivation to do school work. But if it was something creative I would be very motivated. So I did well in creative writing classes, art classes, music, etc. I didn’t become seriously interested in music until I was around 12 or so. When my grandfather died we got his piano, an old upright which I still have. He was a very talented jazz piano player who played in a small group in Baltimore. I began to tinker on the piano and immediately discovered an aptitude for making up my own little melodies and songs. I took lessons for one year and did none of the work that was required. I hated the practicing. My teacher told me I was a very talented improviser, and since it came naturally that’s what I focused on. I started to consider the idea of becoming a “songwriter.” I also liked jazz and did pretty well improvising over basic bluesy stuff – but I was never motivated enough to really develop the technical chops required.

My parents learned about a school for young composers called the Walden School – it was every July in New Hampshire. Many of the teachers were from Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but there were many from other places as well.  I went for 3 summers, and it really changed me in a lot of ways. I grew as a musician, and by the end, I started to think of myself as more of a legitimate “musician” rather than someone who was “into” music. At the same time, I never felt like I was the same as the other students. They had started at a very early age and were very accomplished technically. Almost all of them were excellent players as well as composers – they could sight read (which I never learned to do), they listened to classical music and contemporary “serious” music and seemed to operate on an intellectual level I didn’t.

During my senior year in high school I was really doing a lot of music. I was in a band with some friends (we were pretty serious – we played actual gigs in clubs and recorded a demo in a studio), I was in a “folky” singing group with some classmates, I was starting to write a lot of songs and had picked up the guitar, and I was encouraged to try out for the school musical (The Mikado). This still makes me cringe, but when I auditioned for the musical, I sang a James Taylor song. They stopped me in the middle of it, and one of the teachers pushed me to open my voice up and do some “real” singing. It was pretty embarrassing, she stopped the whole audition and in front of all these people was giving me an impromptu voice lesson. But suddenly it clicked and this booming voice came out. Everybody looked sort of stunned. She gave me the part of the Mikado and she also pushed me to study voice and apply to Carnegie Mellon as a voice major.

Since I had also had the composing experience and was interested in that as well, I applied as a Voice/Composition double-major. I got in. I really had no idea what I was getting into.

So, you got in! And then you got out…

I left the music school after one year. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I wasn’t going to do what my peers were doing. There was a real “weeding-out” process at CMU which I resented at the time, but looking back I appreciate. There were like 20 or 25 freshman voice majors, but the graduating class was about half that. When I looked at who those people were and compared them to myself – I knew I had to get out.

I still felt that I would be some sort of musician professionally, but I didn’t want to take an academic route. I had an uncle who had a recording studio in Jersey and I would go there during the summers and work and record songs. I really started to think that that was how it would go – I would work for him, start to meet other musicians who were more into popular music, and maybe get lucky somehow. Someone would “discover” me. I did go to work for him. I worked for him for 10 years! It took me in a completely different direction though – I discovered a real love of computers and the technical side of things. I trained to become a recording engineer and worked in postproduction for about 6 years. I somehow miraculously transitioned to multimedia design and programming – but that’s a whole other story… (editor: and one that we’ll look forward to hearing in installment two…)

Decision time. 

There was a definite point at which I stopped being something-until-I-make-it-as-a-musician, and just became something. I used to feel the need to qualify myself when I told people what I did (I’m a recording engineer – but I’m really a songwriter). I was saying it to myself more than anyone.

Taking the pressure off of myself to “make it” as a musician, whatever that meant at the time, was what I needed to do. I began to hate making music at a certain point – and that scared me. For a little while after college I was writing music for commercials. I would get so incredibly stressed out I would get sick over each job. I couldn’t detach myself from it. Every criticism was like a knife in my heart. I still face the same thing as a designer, but since it’s not music, somehow I’m able to brush it off. Part of that was just growing up. But I also know that music is just something that’s too personal to me to detach myself from.

Do you regret it?

There’s part of me that regrets it, and I worry that a lot of the decision was based on fear and not wanting to do the hard work. There is some truth to that. But I made the decision myself, and it was the right one for me. Looking back, I know now and I’m not the kind of person that can focus on one thing for too long. That’s not something I would recommend for anyone, because it’s a heck of a lot easier to get by in the world when you’re an expert in something and are driven to excel in one particular field. Your path is defined and as long as you stick to it and do the work, the world will usually reward you for it. To this day, I still can’t resist peeking down the other paths and dropping what I’m doing to go see what’s down there. Luckily, I’ve been able to do that and support my family! But there’s been a lot of luck involved.

Well, what would you have done differently?

There are things that I learned about myself later that surprised me, and looking back, I wish I’d been aware of them. If I was applying to CMU again, I’d have no question about what major I would pick from day one. It would be computer science. That pretty much sums it up right there I think — how the hell would I have known that at 18?  I know so many people who knew exactly what they wanted, and went and got it. There was never any question. I used to wish so much that I was that way. Looking back, I’m so glad I’m not. I’ve been fortunate that I could make a living being that way, because it makes things much more challenging.

Challenges, huh? Tell us more!

I’ve been doing a lot of songwriting and recording at home this year. I’ve got 9 songs in the can and I’ve put them on SoundCloud, and have also created a Facebook page for my music. I’ve gotten a lot of encouraging feedback so far.

Stay tuned: Sean will be back to talk with us a little more about creative process as his personal through-line.

Tonya McKinny – from Actress/Model to Around-the-World Mom

Tonya McKinny started her professional life armed with degrees in acting and women’s studies. She now finds herself in the role of a lifetime as an on-the-road mom (as opposed to a stay-at-home-mom) and wife to a professional opera singer. Here’s a little bit about her background, and the different hats she wears in a day.

How did you get started?

I earned my undergraduate degree at Portland State University,  a double major in Women’s Studies and Theatre Arts (BS)  and then attended University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (MFA). I also spent a summer at ACT in San Francisco, 6 months at the National School for Drama and Dance in New Zealand and a short study at the National Theatre Academy of China in Beijing and I did 6 months at the University of Louisville and volunteered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The funny thing is that I didn’t actually want to go to college, and my senior year of HS I got very very sick and didn’t apply anywhere.  My sister, an over-achiever, was applying to several out of state law schools and we agreed that I would go to which ever town she went to and go to school there.  She choose Lewis and Clark in Oregon and I went to PSU. While there, I got some good advice; “choose a city you want to live in or go to grad school”.  I went to grad school.  (I’m Cherokee Indian and school was free for me, so why quit and get a job?)  I went to UWM because I had met the head of the department while volunteering once and thought I could learn something from him.  And I did.  I was a very good actress.

When did you decide to change career paths?

When I met Ryan.


Yep. So I’m a trained actor, living and working in NYC. I had just auditioned for a tour, was working on a show and in a Columbia student film (that director won the Sundance award last year and now she’s famous!). I was busy!  And then I met Ryan. Two weeks later I got the call from the tour and they offered me the job and a 6 month contract… and I remember talking to Ryan about it and decided that I’d rather see how it worked out with him instead of leaving town for 6 months.  So basically I decided then that my career wasn’t as important as I had thought it was.  I don’t regret staying in NYC with him and then giving up theatre.  I miss the theatre.  All the time, but I love my family more.  (There’s enough drama here.  I’m sure you understand.) We also decided before we became engaged that I would travel with him, and we knew that meant no acting for me.  When we moved to Houston, I found out I was pregnant and that was the end of all auditioning for me.

Whoa! It’s a love story! 

It is!

So, What have been the big surprises in the ensuing years?

I didn’t miss the career as much as I thought I would. And I’m really surprised at how everyone else reacted.  I’m so tired of people thinking that “I need something for me.” (That really just feels like something else I’m supposed to do so that I don’t disappoint everyone else.) As far as positives, I’m not lonely and poor living in NYC as I always thought I’d be.  But on the negative side, no one claps for me, and my job is never over and finding time for myself is a huge struggle, though Louis will sometimes give me a “Brava” after we sing “twinkle twinkle little star”. Bless him.  The hard times are just as bad as I expected, but the good times are better than I ever dreamed and it evens out and usually the good wins by a landslide. I’m proud of us for doing what other people tell us is stupid and won’t work.  We are just making it up as we go along and so what?  Just because no one else has thought of it before doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

I love my life just the way it is – seeing the world with the love of my life and my family.


Wow. Sounds like it’s all first class and bon bons

Ha. While there are pretty dresses sometimes, being the “Stage Manager” of our lives, with two small kids and a husband with an international freelance opera career is a pretty complicated job. I wear more hats in a day than I can count.

Really? Take me through a typical day.

Ok. Here’s a normal, non-performance day – this is the routine regardless of what country we’re in: US, Germany, Switzerland, whatever.

Our day starts at 6:30am.

  • The kids wake up (they’re remarkable consistent, regardless of where we are in the world…which in and of itself can be a challenge). My first job? Short order cook. Gotta get food in their bellies.
  • Maid. Clean up the breakfast dishes and the table.
  • Teacher. I homeschool Emma often (in some European countries it’s illegal, so in those spots she’ll attend public school); we have a routine, and there are requirements that she needs to complete each day.
  • Simultaneously, I’m an entertainer, helping to keep Louis occupied while Emma works on schoolwork. We spend about 90 minutes doing this in the morning. (And let’s be honest, sometimes I’m a mediator between the two kids.)
  • We then head out of the house, often to the gym. The kids get craft time with the instructor, and I either work out or spend the time in the lounge getting our files in order – insurance, taxes, travel plans. So I guess this would be my CFO time.
  • Back to nourishment procurement – it’s lunch!
  • After lunch Louis goes down for a nap, and Emma has unstructured play time. (There are two rules: no technology, and the play has to be self-directed so that I can get some things done. Often this is domestic stuff (laundry, etc.) or else I’m in scheduler mode, looking at then next few moves, thinking ahead to make plans for the kids, and working with Ryan to make sure that our family schedule syncs with his professional schedule.
  • Stealth educator.   (ed. would that be a  ‘Steducator’?)After Louis wakes up, we do something outside the house. I work about three cities ahead to schedule activities for the kids: library visits, children’s museums, NASA, playdates…it’s learning disguised as play.
  • Personal shopper. We swing by the grocery store to grab dinner and breakfast fixings.
  • When we’re together and Ryan’s not in rehearsal we have dinner together as a family. Ryan usually cooks. After dinner we all clean up together, and engage in some serious fun before dessert. (We’re big fans of chase!)
  • ChanteuseAfter dessert it’s bedtime for the kids. We sing to them. (ed: it must be a little intimidating to sing for a opera singer, even when you’re married to them. Right?)  I love singing, but try singing around an Opera singer sometime.  It’s not a good idea.  Especially if they love you.
  • Once the kids are asleep it’s time for more paperwork: Negotiator (a recent example -for a car. It’s so much easier to do online, without the haggling!), Travel Agent (researching flights for Ryan’s next gigs), Event Planner (finding activities for the kids to do for the next several gigs – I usually work 2 gigs out, trying to place them in activities). When that’s done, I’ll add Blogger to my list, as I write for a few travel mom and expat sites ( is my favorite – check it out!), and I keep up with a wide range of folks through their blogs.

Obviously, there are differences for travel days and for Ryan’s performance days…but this is the normal routine. And because we move every 4-6 weeks, we tend to plan get-togethers with friends as often as we can, wherever we happen to be – I guess you can add Party Planner to the list! Maybe especially because we are on the go so much, I want to share these amazing experiences with my kids and friends in a way that underlines how special they are. Some people would say that we’re nomads, but I disagree. Everywhere’s our neighborhood. Oh, and a tip – until you bake something, you’re not home. So you can definitely add baker to the list.

And I also have to say Collaborator is the one title that’s not on the list, but is a big part of my day: Ryan, even when he’s singing, only spends a few hours away from this same list…we’re a team, in every sense of the word.

So, what traits/skills have you carried forward from your academic and professional lives?

Oh a love for the arts has been a big help, and of course a love for and knowledge of the stories that relate to opera helps me to talk out the shows with Ryan.  It also helps that I’m not afraid and am actually comfortable with just about anyone, so all the dinners and events and new towns aren’t a big challenge for me they’re  just part of the day.

What advice would you give to someone struggling with a similar decision?

Do what you can sleep with at night.  I had to try it – I went to NYC and I was a working and sometimes paid actor with an independent  movie and some print modeling work, with an agent, and everything I thought I wanted and needed from life. It was very exciting – I loved it and I won’t trade those memories.  But I also loved working in the corporate and non profit worlds.

I also love being a mom.  Being Mom is the only thing I couldn’t give up.  This family is mine forever.  The shows were fun and at the time important, working was fulfilling, but this is who I am now.  We all change.  Change is good.  Just make sure it’s the change you can live with.

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Jennifer Empie – Flute Performance to Foreign Service


Jennifer began her studies as a Flute Performance/Music Industry major. She currently works for the U.S. State Department, and is posted in Rio de Janeiro. Here’s her story.

First Steps

I went to a very small high school where the fact that I pursued music at all made me pretty much the most musical person in school.  My teachers all convinced me that I had to major in music in college and that I should become a music teacher.  No one ever introduced me to other options so, without any real guidance, I decided on music education.

When I entered college I soon realized that there were many more careers in music than teaching and I still wasn’t sure I was really cut out to be a music teacher.  Syracuse University had a good music industry program and I decided that major would give me the most options so I changed to it.  The only problem was that the program focused mostly on popular music management so even though I really enjoyed the coursework, it still didn’t quite fit.

I interned at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra during my semester abroad in London.  This was the first time that I learned about the existence of education programs in arts organizations.  I really enjoyed working with these types of programs and decided to pursue education again and would look into graduate schools when I got home.

I thought I wanted a masters degree in music education (as I still hadn’t learned about arts administration programs).  I’m really thankful for my friend Andy, who was a graduate student at Syracuse, for knowing what I needed and setting me up for it before I knew myself.  He encouraged me to go to Florida State University because he went there and they had a great music education program.  He also arranged for me to get an assistantship in the Arts Administration program office where I would get to do things like manage the summer music camps and get to know the Arts Adminstration staff and students.  As he expected, I realized that was where I belonged and switched my major to Arts Administration. That decision really set me on the path that, though winding, led me to my career with the State Department.

Life after Grad School

After graduate school, I moved to Washington, DC for an internship with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.  This was a great introduction to the practical world of arts management.  The Kennedy Center is an interesting organization because it is so large and in some ways has an incredible amount of resources while individual departments still have very small staffs and you have to be creative to get things done.  I liked this grass roots aspect under the umbrella of a large organization.

After that, I decided to stay in Washington, DC and began looking for a job.  This did not turn out to be as easy as I thought!  After a lot of searching, I accepted a position in the Artistic department at Washington Opera.  Although I would never admit it at the time, I had never seen an opera before and had no idea what an Artistic department does!  I quickly learned about auditions, casting, and contracts and soon fell in love with opera.  A year later I was managing the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program where I was responsible for the daily training and rehearsal schedules, production, budgeting, and planning.  Even though I was not a singer, I learned everything I could from my opera colleagues and relied on advice from those more expert than me every day.  This taught me that you do not have to stay in your comfort zone.  What you know can apply to a lot of different things.

Although I would not trade my six years at the Opera for anything, I never felt that the arts were the only thing for me, the way many of my colleagues did.  I knew I needed to do other things in my life and there were aspects of arts management that were starting to negatively affect my life.  I was working for very low pay, which added stress to my life, and I was working very long hours, rarely getting even a day off on the weekend.  This takes a toll after a while.  I wasn’t sure my music background really qualified me for much else so I went back to school part-time to get my MBA.

Studying business at the University of Maryland was a great opportunity to meet people who had a wide variety of careers.  I learned about things like finance and business strategy and found a world of new opportunities.  In the end, I landed a position in supply chain at Black and Decker.  I was thrilled to work for a large corporation that I expected would offer many more opportunities to learn, try new things, and travel.  Unfortunately, my timing was a bit off.  I entered my job in 2007, just as the economy was taking a downturn, and suddenly I was faced with the same pay cuts, layoffs, and lack of mobility that I faced in the arts.  At the same time, I realized that the culture of the organization is just as important as the work and I did not fit into this culture.

So, where did you fit in?

I had always had in my mind that I would like to join the Foreign Service with the Department of State.  I loved the idea of travel, learning languages, living abroad, and working in international affairs.  So in 2009 I took a shot and was fortunately hired!  Since then things have fallen into place so well that I know this was exactly the right decision for me.

I now work as a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State.  I am currently posted to Rio de Janeiro where I work in the consular section, processing visas and working to help American citizens abroad.   In my first year, I have had amazing opportunities including being interviewed for national TV news (in Portuguese!) and organizing the motorcade for President Obama’s visit.  My future jobs could focus on a variety of areas including operations, reporting to Washington about issues in that country, or public affairs.  Next year I will move to Seoul, Korea.

The thing I love most about my job is the people.  I am surrounded by interesting people from all different backgrounds who are all very happy to be here.  This does an enormous amount for morale.  Because we all came from different backgrounds, there is no assumption that one person is more qualified to be here than someone else.  So we are all given a lot of responsibility and trusted to make good decisions.  The work is never boring – embassies and consulates are involved in so many areas that something new and exciting is always coming up.  Finally, I am confident that that I have a career path ahead of me.  This is the first time I have ever been in a place where I know I will not have to send out resumes every year to find the next opportunity.

Definitions are overrated

The unforeseen positive was that giving up performing allowed me to redefine myself.  I had always defined myself as a musician and I clung to that for a long time but now I could allow myself to be defined as more than only that.

When I was at the opera, I always felt the need to define myself as a former musician in order to justify why I would be qualified to work in Artistic or the Young Artist Program.  When I moved to the business world, people tended to see music as irrelevant to my work so I started to say that I came from the non-profit world, rather than the arts.  The Foreign Service is, by nature, made up of people who come from all different backgrounds.  Diversity is embraced so I have no qualms about saying I came from the arts and studied music.  At this point, I have not performed in a very long time so I do not define myself as a musician anymore.

Personally, I see it more as a path that a destination.

I don’t want to define myself as a musician, or arts administrator, or business person.  I like the idea of doing lots of different things and being less defined by my job, although it is very fun to write “diplomat” on my tax return.

Toolkit: what skills carried through to your current position?

Music training is great for all professions.  It taught me discipline, creativity, and commitment.  Arts Administration taught me resourcefulness and flexibility.  You are always being asked to do things you have never done before and you just have to figure it out.  The standards that I was held to (or held myself to) at the Opera were far greater than anything that was expected of me or my colleagues in my for-profit position.   Working in the corporate world, I was really surprised at how much stronger my work ethic was that that of many of my colleagues.  Working in the arts, we are used to putting in as many hours as it takes and sticking to deadlines- once you announce the date of the performance, that is the date.  The Department of State actually has a lot in common with the arts.  Although the Department itself is huge, I work for a small consulate with limited staff and budget and we are always trying to creatively accomplish more than we realistically have the resources to do.  Every day I draw on the foundation I built during my time in the arts.

 Any parting shots?

Even if you are convinced that you will always have a career in the arts, learn about more than just music.  You don’t know where life will take you.  When I explain my varied career path, most people think it makes no sense but to me, I know I needed to take each one of those steps to become who I am now and get to where I am.  I do regret closing my mind to things non-music when I was younger.  I should have learned more about other disciplines and maybe studied a language.  By the time I realized how important that was, I had a lot of catching up to do.

You can only consider the options you know exist.  Talk to lots of other people – performers, former performers, non-musicians – and find out what they do and why they like it. Most importantly, no decision has to be final.  You can always change directions later.  But don’t turn down opportunities to learn something new because you think it is not relevant now, it may be later and in the end, everything relates to everything.

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Joseph Craig – Painting to Programming

Joseph is a software engineer who started his career as a visual artist. Here’s his story:
I started my undergraduate studies at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. In high school I had enjoyed drawing and painting , and had an influential teacher Bobbie Russell – who had attended Edinboro and who encouraged me to develop my talents. I earned a BFA in Fine Arts/Applied Media Arts (Graphic Design).
So, happily ever after, easel and all?
Here’s the thing. I struggled with the client-artist relationship. For example, shortly after I graduated, Coors came out with a campaign that featured geometric shapes in pastel colors…and most of the people that I was working with wanted something that echoed that (at the time, very trendy) campaign. I realized that art was so personal for me, that I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – subject my work to the whims of others.
What was your next step?
After graduating, I entered a limited placement  business program, trying to find what I liked. (I eventually earned my MBA and also an MIS) with a specific focus on marketing. I surprised myself – the math and business classes came much easier than I thought they would. As part of the curriculum, I had to take a software class. The professor teaching that class, Father Dave Cottingham, saw my potential and placed an extra effort in introducing me to the computing world. It was there that I found my niche. You see, there’s a large amount of graphic design involved in developing user interfaces – especially in web oriented applications. So, I’ve been able to use my knowledge both in designing user interfaces, and in communicating with the graphic artists hired to design those interfaces.  I think the combination of having a strong Foundation in both Design Principles and Software Engineering is  important.  Often, Graphic Artists learn programming to design user interfaces or programmers try their hand at design.  To have had a solid background in both provides me with the skill sets to communicate with both to better relay what is required and to understand the walls they may be running up against in a project.
I’ve found that I really enjoy analyzing business processes and transferring those manual processes over to software.  For example, I consulted for a bank which had a complex system of meetings interspersed with printing out documents and sending them up a chain of approvals before they could provide a loan to a corporation.  I worked to automate that process where the documents were instantly available to everyone, they could comment as needed and the chain of approvals was controlled so that it couldn’t go to the next level of approval until prior requirements were fulfilled.  The project incorporated analytical skills while providing a measure of creativity in addressing addressing user needs, which I really enjoyed.
Loaded question: do you still make art?
I do! Actually, the most positive aspect of switching careers was that I was still free to do MY art while pursuing a career that I enjoyed and paid well. (Although, I found that I didn’t spend
as much time as I envisioned doing painting, which I’ve corrected within the last year and a half.)
(Editor: I’m looking forward to a Joseph Craig original for my walls!)
What advice would you give to someone struggling with their professional situation?
Don’t worry about making the wrong choice.  Instead, focus on finding the right career path.  Just because you have a degree in one field doesn’t mean you need to limit your career to that field.  The switch may be daunting, but, in the end, you need to be happy doing the work you do.  If you really want to be involved in a specific field and find it isn’t for you, look at careers that incorporate elements of that field but are more suited towards your strengths.
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