Category Archives: Profiles

Profile Phriday: Jonah Nigh, Part 2

Jonah NIgh“You have to determine what success looks like for you.”

For today’s Profile Phriday we’re continuing the conversation with Jonah Nigh – if you missed last week, you can find his blog post about his undergraduate years in a liberal arts school, and how that education was a benefit as he transitioned out of singing. As you can guess, I had more questions for him, and he was both warm and generous in his answers. Here’s his story.

Jonah, you started as a voice major at Lawrence University. Grad school?

Grad school at New England Conservatory.

In your article you talk about the vocal incident that precipitated your transition out of singing. It must’ve been really difficult. Did you make the choice to opt out, or was the medical diagnosis severe enough to make the decision for you?

My come-to-Jesus moment happened during a follow-up appointment at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. I had had the surgery, had done the vocal therapy, and went in for a check-in. They said that I was healed, but I told the doctor that I just couldn’t get my voice to move the way it did prior to the surgery. He looked at me and said “I don’t know what to say.” The fact that, from a medical perspective I was healed, but that I had lost so much functionality made me realize that the pursuit of an opera career was not viable. I will say that the doctors said that my injury was most likely a genetic issue, so I felt better knowing that I didn’t do this damage to myself through misused technique. But, they also said the issue was likely to reoccur, and I knew I couldn’t go through the surgery again. But it was still a huge struggle – and I questioned whether or not I wanted to stay in the arts at all.

Why?

Well, because it felt like I had failed, and it was embarrassing. I didn’t want to continue to work in concert coordination, when my friends and peers were performing and I couldn’t. Prior to this I hadn’t really needed to draw a line between who I was and what I did –. So I gave myself some time away from the performing arts, and went to San Francisco. I enrolled in sommelier training.

That’s been a dream of mine for quite some time! But you’re not working as a sommelier now…

Correct – I am not. (I’m the Major Gifts Officer for the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University – more on that later.) I enjoyed studying and learning about wine, working for hotels, etc., but I had another one of those CTJ moments at an industry conference. Most of the other attendees were in the food and/or restaurant business, and they spoke about wine with a passion. I recognized that passion – it was the same that I felt when I spoke about music – but I didn’t share it. I realized that these weren’t my people.

Where did you find those people?

First, I moved to New York and took a job as a booking agent which I did not enjoy very much for a lot of reasons. In the meantime I was grant writing on the side to make extra money. I started getting more involved in fundraising at Opera America, and at the time I was considering working towards being a General Manager for an opera company, and many search committees look for people with that experience, for obvious reasons. It was a means to an end, and I never thought of it as a career unto itself. Most of my experience, up until I took my current position, was operatically or musically focused. My move to the Journalism School has been a big change – they approach fundraising in a very different way than the arts world. (Necessarily so – the project I’m working on is centered specifically on New York government accountability.)

Have you found that any of your skills from your training transfer over to your work in development?

Yes, certainly. One example is that I still practice – I may not be singing, but I’m practicing my talking points, working on my professional skills. In my profession, as in musical endeavors, I put in a lot of time preparing for a very short meeting during which I am quickly judged. I can’t riff as easily on New York politics as I could on all things operatic, so I plan out three different scenarios for every meeting and practice them. Just like practicing for an audition and trying to figure out how to manage a wayward collaborative pianist or other unforeseen circumstance, I like to make sure I have plan in case things go awry. (Ed. – I find that planning for that circumstance often seems to ward it away somehow.) I also think that studying music gave me that singularity of focus that allows me to really concentrate on one thing for a long time. It’s funny – the Dean for the School of General Studies here at Columbia, a bachelor’s program for non-traditional students, said his students are primarily former members of the armed services or former professional ballerinas, and that all the professors are frightened of the work ethic of the dancers. The discipline to focus for hours and hours at a time on a singular goal is a skill that is less common than one might think.

I’ve also found that I have an ability to read people from all of those years of working collaboratively on music and performing. I’m not afraid to call out the elephant in the room and find a way to work through it, rather than around it. And there’s so much to be said for knowing how to present oneself; in my position, having that kind of poise and confidence is crucial. (Especially when I’m not necessarily feeling confident about the subject matter at hand; I can at least fake it and make the presentation go smoothly!)

In a recent profile, Jeff Gaynor spoke of music school as a trade school of sorts. Going from a liberal arts undergraduate program to a conservatory graduate school, were you surprised by the differences in the programs?

I was. At Lawrence there was a core curriculum to tackle, papers to write, Plato and Faulkner to battle through…I only wrote one paper as a graduate student. My graduate program really focused on honing our performance skills.

What kind of advice would you give to a student entering school?

I will say that my most marketable skill has been my writing, and I would urge any student considering a conservatory course of training to make sure that you get that piece.

I’d also tell them that your job for the next 4 years as a voice major is to focus on technique and musical growth. You don’t have to be at a conservatory but you do need a great teacher. Make that your focus.

Think of this as the start to your career path, and start with as broad a perspective as possible. My vision of success as an 18-year-old was very narrow; it started and ended onstage at the Met. But when you are in a career that relies on your body working in an extreme way, and opera is extreme, you have to be cognizant that you run the risk of injury and possible physical failure. The recent Winter Olympics offered case study after case study on that very point. I’m an example of one of countless stories of singers opting out for a variety of reasons; while I was embarrassed when I did it, looking around 10 years later I’m so grateful for having figured out a new path.

As a closing point, I’ll quote something that a professor once told me. “You have to determine what success looks like for you.” As you get farther along into your career, whatever that may end up being, you need to a take a dispassionate look at where you are and ask yourself if you are truly accomplishing what you set out to do. The landscape looks different for everyone.

Ed. – Links to last week’s posting and Jonah’s website with his original post added above and in this postscript. Mea culpa!

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Profile Phriday: Jonah Nigh, Part 1

Jonah is a friend-of-a-friend, and joins me in the ranks of “reformed singers.” I recently read a thoughtful essay he wrote about his transition: the precipitating event and the aftermath. The article is focused through the lens of the liberal arts course of study he pursued (initially unwillingly!) as an undergraduate. I loved the article – it’s witty and touching. Next week Jonah and I will talk about the process of moving out of singing, transferrable skills, and his advice for folks who are questioning.

The article is here.

Some highlights:

I did not actually want a liberal arts education prior to coming to Lawrence. Like most teenagers, my definition of success was myopic in scope, and as an aspiring opera singer I could not fathom the need to study statistics, psychology, or any other subjects that were not immediately applicable to getting on a stage, singing loudly in a foreign language, and wearing a fabulous costume.

and

My story could easily be miscategorized as a cautionary tale for aspiring artists–as a warning to make a “Plan B” just in case a career in the arts doesn’t work out. On the contrary, a liberal arts education does not negate one’s unique capability or potential of being an artistic practitioner.

Many thanks to Jonah for allowing me to repost. Please join us next week for the continued conversation!

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A Craftsman of Ideas: Jeff Gaynor

Jeff-GHappy Profile Phriday! This week I’m thrilled to introduce you to Jeff Gaynor. Jeff started his collegiate education as a musician, and is now part of an esteemed computer think tank. Here’s his story:

Ok, so let’s start at the beginning. What got you interested in music?

It was the day my brother brought home the album Switched on Bach. I was probably 11 or 12 at the time. It was trendy enough that I’d listen to it in the first place.  The music was something else — I’d never really heard classical music before and I devoured that. Thanks to Wendy (Carlos) for giving me a lifetime source of joy! I played double bass a bit, so I ordered the parts to several of the pieces and got so I could play them along with the record. I tried playing a bass a year or two ago and found that all these years later I had the bass parts note-perfect memorized.  In any case, from there I got everything I could lay my hands on as far as Bach and more generally Baroque Music. I started my own chamber orchestra at 14 or so and started taking keyboard and composition lessons at Wittenberg University with a pupil of Paul Hindemith.

After I got into Indiana University as a bass major, I decided to switch to organ performance. Why? Well, it was less portable than a bass for one thing. Another is that most of Bach’s best writing is for the instrument. I own a nice 3 manual and pedal instrument and still play for myself and friends.

So, you got an undergraduate degree in Organ Performance, and a harpsichord minor. But your Master’s was in mathematics? Tell us about your path from undergraduate studies to graduate school.

There were several factors that converged during this time in my life.

The first had to do with the rigor of the course of study. At one point I started a Masters in Music at IU and one of the first classes I had was Music Theory. Now at this point I’d been happily taking Math classes as my hobby during my Music degree, so I had good exposure to great thinking, solid methodologies and what good theories look like; and frankly, Music Theory is intellectually an embarrassment. Not too long before this, I was accompanying a student of Josef Gingold, the famous violinist. He was a fabulous musician and teacher – one of the best I’ve ever met. He was amused because he had to rush off for a hearing related to someone’s doctorate in violin. He went on to state flatly that he never learned violin in a university and felt odd being at the center point of a degree program. He and the rest of the faculty he was going to meet were awarded honorary titles and such so that the university could make it look like there were academic credentials behind everything and he really did not take that too seriously. Why should he? He was a Musician’s Musician and didn’t need it. This, along with the above incident made me feel less like I was getting an education (which I was in the Math. Dept.) and more like I was being led on.

And that’s half the story. In the early spring of my senior year I re-injured my knee – an ACL tear. I had been working as a church musician for a couple of years by that point. I quit working and started a Master’s in Early Music the next fall, but it was clear that my knee was in dire need of repair. I got disillusioned that first semester and had surgery the next, taking the rest of the year off to ponder. And while that’s a pretty easy surgery these days, when I was having it done it was a pilot surgery and I was in a cast up to my hip. There’s no fitting behind an organ bench with a cast like that!  Fortunately I got some work for a couple of months as a computer programmer too which helped me realize that the Sciences were where I should be.  I actually played my senior organ recital at almost the same time as I earned my Master’s in Mathematics, so I have much less time between my degrees than most, at least on paper.

Wow. So you had a major surgery that forced you off the bench, and had been having second thoughts about the degree. Was it easy to walk away from music at that point?

I missed it at first and felt quite lost. But that ebbed since I knew that a change had to occur.You see I’d already been working as a musician while an undergraduate and that’s when the reality hit: Organists are among the most widely employed and heard (live) musicians around, and the pay is dismal. Holding down a few jobs, teaching and trying to eke out a meager existence is the reality. Also the fact is that musicians are contracted to play music, so generally as a player you don’t get to choose what to play, but are instead obligated to play what people want to hear. (Doesn’t matter how awesome that Boëllmann toccata is, the bride will kill you if you substitute it for her Celine Dion!) So what I observed with others who were working was that they gradually got more jaded and cynical then really slide into just going through the motions. My decision then was simple: I really love Music and decided not to let anything kill it for me.

You then went on to earn a Doctorate from Reprecht Karls Universitaet in Heidelberg, Germany, in pure Mathematics – with honors.

Yes. My specialty was elliptic functions and non-orientable minimal surfaces. (Ed.: I don’t even know what that means…but it sounds super cool!) I’m the only American student the faculty knew that did a complete course of study in Math in the German university system at that time, rather than just a few semesters abroad.

You mentioned feeling disillusioned with the scholarship and intellectual rigor as an undergraduate. Especially taking into account your experience with the German system, can you talk a little more about that?

The main medium of learning for people is cultural — sitting at the elbow of a master and being able to observe the hundred little things s/he does without thinking about them. Books, classes, workshops etc. will ever be a pale second to experiential learning, and this is why we have dismally poorly educated students coming out of schools and I do include colleges in this. There are scandals about football players with college degrees that can’t really read, but I don’t think that a lot of other students are too far ahead of them. So, the point of this paragraph is that people in the arts should be learning as apprentices. This gives them a good feeling of quality.  If you are in some art degree program that doesn’t park you next to a master, you probably are getting half an education. I also found that the rest of the degree was essentially trade school and had very little to suggest it should be treated as an academic subject. Sorry, that is the truth. The greater Truth here though is that if there is no real academic part of Music, why is it at universities? This is more of a cultural item in the US that everyone needs a college degree (at last count about 40% of the population in the US has attended college compared with roughly 10% in Europe.)

Also one of the more important bits of advice I can give from having lived my professional life in and around universities is this: You are being systematically lied to by them. They are not interested in giving you good career advice: universities just exploit the very American idea that education will save us and lead to a better life. Since for many students the price is prohibitive, this means that the whole reality of student life is assuming crushing debt for no sure return. Hortatory nonsense about art for art’s sake or following your heart just masks this (and can be relied upon later to make you devalue yourself since “doing it for the money” is pretty much a sin). Debt will keep you impoverished and you can’t really start living your life well until you pay it off, be that 10, 15 or 20 years. Avoid debt unless there is a clear return. Departments need students to justify their existence, and universities now often approach 50 or 60 administrators per 100 students (was 3 per 100 in the 1960’s). All of these people need lots of students to pay their keep.

Them’s fighting words! The logical next question: how would you reform those very programs?

Administrators are not set up to change this from the inside nor are they capable of understanding the limitations on learning their institutions impose.

A school needs to provide the experience of learning at the elbow of a master. They need to teach strong critical thinking skills and lean on historical information so that students can pull together cultural and historical landmarks. To know when a piece or the performance practice was written simply skims the surface: to put it into a historical context with world events and the culture in which it was created (and that in which it’s being performed) allows the performer to relay the story with a cultural and historical awareness that is more informed, and I’d say much more compelling.

Who were the masters with whom you studied?

In Music I studied with Anthony Newman and later Marilyn Keiser. Newman gave me quite an appreciation of technique and Marilyn I think did more for getting me to just be Musical than anyone else. Can’t thank either of them enough. In Math. probably Dr. Challifour who was a Mathematical Physicist. He wrote up notes for each class every term which amounted to writing a text for each class. This was invaluable in many ways. Also Albrecht Dold, a famous Mathematician who wrote a scary hard book on Topology. I dearly loved his classes since the way he thinks is simple, elegant and profound — often annoyingly so (“NOW WHY DIDN’T I SEE THAT?????”). I really aspire to that still. My advisor, Friedrich Tomi, showed me the value of spare measured prose and how to approach thinking about hard problems. I had arguably one of the better educational experiences ever at Heidelberg. This has allowed me much perspective on education in the US.

Music. Math. What do you do now?

I work as a computer researcher in Cyber-security at the NCSA. This is a very venerable think tank that has, among other things, invented the web browser.

Can you cite anything from your musical background that has pulled through to your current position?

Attention to detail. A Japanese saying “One who has mastered a subject shows it in all they do” applies in spades. Getting good at something requires dedication, discipline and hard work — all of which are in very short supply in this world. You will go far if you have the work ethic of a musician.

I come from a family of craftsmen – master woodworkers, mostly. (You can see some of their handiwork in the rotunda at the University of Virginia) The family name is Critzer (pronounced without the “t”) and the road that runs in front of the old family is still called “Critzer Shop Road”. It was called that because on Sundays it would be packed with buggies waiting to be serviced for the week. You can see the road on the map here.

Doing good quality work was paramount: now that I’m an idea worker, the same principle applies.

I despise people that tell you to follow your heart as a career path, because you will ultimately be providing a service to make a livelihood and will, as I found, lose control of it. Make a split ‘twixt what you love and what you would feel comfy doing as a job. I really enjoy research and where I work, but when I leave at the end of the day, I’m off work. Then I can hop on the organ bench at home and make the cats really fluffy…

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

A story about Mozart, his father and sister is in order. When Mozart was younger (around 6) the three of them were travelling and ended up staying in a small monastery. The story goes that they all ate dinner and afterwards the kids, being, well,  kids, snuck into the church there and Mozart started playing — just improvising. The monks heard the Music and gradually come from the rest of the monastery,  then one by one they would walk a few steps into the church then be completely transfixed by the Music and stop in mid step. In this way he managed to turn a whole monastery to stone. That is the effect music should have on people. That is what art ought to do generally. (Famous painting of it is here.)

More to the point, I feel strongly that “Art is the only dignified human undertaking”. By this I mean getting something to work in an organic way, i.e. make doing whatever its own art form. Playing a piece of music slightly out of tune or with poor rhythm is glaring to a musician, most of whom will strive to fix it as a reflex. Apply that type of thinking to everything else and you will never want for a job. The only way you will ever attain this is to throw yourself at something you love and do it as a labor of love.

 Finding the art in every action…words to live by. Thanks for sharing your story, Jeff!

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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Nigel Boon: A Leave of Absence.

Nigel BoonHappy New Year!

 For our first Profile Phriday of 2014, I’d like to introduce you to Nigel Boon. Nigel is the Director of Artistic Planning for the National Symphony Orchestra, a world-class ensemble based out of Washington DC’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (Their summer home is our place – so I may be a tad biased about how wonderful they are, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true!) His story starts in childhood, and winds through different countries (and continents!) before landing him on our shores. Here’s his story.

Nigel, tell us a little bit about your childhood, and when the classical music bug really bit.

Well I grew up in the south of England, but my dad was  in the British Military, in the Royal Navy, so every so often we’d move away for a couple of  years and then come back home again. When I was ten, we were living in Malaysia, because he was stationed at a naval base in Singapore.  I had a 27-mile  each way school-bus commute that required my passport, journeying from Malaysia to Singapore each day to school. (Ed. In comparison to my “walking to school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill BOTH WAYS” stories, you win. Hands down.) When I got back to my school in the UK my new classmates all looked at me as if I was this freak with a suntan! But I had already experienced living in a different country, in a different culture, and that’s one piece of advice that I have for people: live abroad – it will change your perception of life, the world, your own country, yourself, and your own possibilities. After returning to the UK, I started grammar school (correlates to middle & high school here in the states), and fairly quickly found myself at the top of my class in music and languages.

Very cool. What was your instrument?

I never learned to play an instrument – it never occurred to me, never occurred to my parents. We didn’t have much classical music at home, so it  never really came into question. But I really enjoyed my general music classwork at school. However, when I turned fourteen I had to deal with a formidable timetable clash – I was forced to choose between continuing with music or studying German (which we will see later was a great irony). The British school system channeled you very early into specific educational directions, so I was forced to choose the direction of my future university course of study by the time I was sixteen. So I chose German over music and therefore subsequently ended up on a language and linguistics course at University in York. I wasn’t smart enough or old enough at the time to understand all of the possibilities and ramifications of my decisions.

At university I rediscovered classical music. I had a friend who had what for me at the time was a huge record collection, with over a hundred-fifty classical LPs. I was looking through them one day thinking “Oh, I’d like to hear that! And I’d like to hear that! And that!” And that was pretty much it – I was hooked by music, and nowhere near as excited about my language studies. I thought that studying linguistics had only two possibilities: I could either teach or research, and I didn’t want to do either of those things. I just wanted to be able to speak languages.  So, come the end of my third year at university – the third year of a four-year course – I had managed to spend so much time and money listening and listening and listening to classical music that I had got myself into a situation where I had 80% of my university coursework to do in my last year.

Ouch.

Yes. My supervisor at the time – who also loved classical music, we had gone to a few concerts together in Leeds – he said “You know, take a year’s leave of absence. Go away, think about what you want to do, and I’ll sign the form for you, I’ll authorize it.” That, I thought, was actually fantastic. And I’m still on my year’s leave of absence!

Really? (Slow clap from the Editor.)

I really have no doubt that I was too young for university – I even took a year off between grammar school and university to be a language assistant in Germany, but still, it wasn’t enough time.  I was a very young 19 year old and couldn’t realize all of the possibilities at the time. (My alternate theory is that we live our lives in the wrong order. Because what could be better after a fulfilling life of work than to go and learn? And then when you’ve learned, what about just playing?) (Ed. LOVE it. I could totally get behind that timetable.)

So, there I was. I moved to London, applied for a job at a music publisher – Boosey & Hawkes – and was interviewed by someone who is still, these many years later, a very close friend. The official part of the interview must’ve lasted 5 or 10 minutes – it was an entry level gopher job –  and then we chatted about all of the concerts we had been to, the one we were coincidentally both going to that evening, and I think he recognized a like soul, someone who was almost fanatically passionate about classical music. And I was, I was like a sponge, it was like osmosis, I was sucking up everything that I could find anywhere and everywhere. Which, given what I’m doing now, turned out to be really useful, because my knowledge base is very broad, very wide.

I was at B&H for two years, during which time I realized that what I really wanted to do was to work for a classical record label. I saw an ad in the London Evening Standard one day, and it was a completely basic, banal ad, obviously placed by an agency, and it said something like “Record company seeks person.” I mean, really so basic! But I thought I’d look into it, and contacted the agency, and they sent me for an interview. Deutsche Grammophon was the label, which was strangely the only classical label I had ever wanted to work for. It was the perfect label for me. I went for an interview, and it turned out that the job was for stock control. So, during the interview I said “Well, I’m not sure that this is the job for me.” And they agreed, and said that they’d keep my name on file in case anything else came up. Of course, I was pretty disappointed and went back to my office…but later that afternoon I got a call, and it was DG saying “Forget the first job, we actually have another job that’s about to open for Advertising Manager, Would you like to come and do that?”  “Of course I would, thank you very much!” And for three years I did the press, trade and program book advertising for DG and its sister label, Philips, in the UK. After three years I got a call from the head office in Hamburg, (and here is the aforementioned irony), inviting me to move to Germany to work in their head office in Hamburg because I was fluent in German. My love for living abroad made it an easy choice, and in 1984 I moved, and although I initially thought I would be there for two or three years, in the end I was there for 15 years.

Amazing. You were in the thick of things, at one of the biggest, best labels in the world, right when the classical music recording industry was really booming.

True. I went in as Product Manager, responsible for all new releases, and then a few years later became Head of Product Management, which included back-catalogue re-releases and some marketing responsibilities.  But I remember my first day, when I was meeting everybody, and I met the producers. And I thought “Oh, that’s the job I really want, but it’s really not a job I’m ever going to get, because I have no musical education.” And then ten years later I became a producer! There were two types of producer at DG, Recording Producers and Executive Producers. Executive producers are rather like those in the film industry – they look after the recording careers of soloists and conductors, putting together their recording schedules & plans, deciding rep with the marketing department, and then putting it all together and making the projects happen – booking the halls, soloists, etc.  I was lucky enough to work with a number of extraordinary musicians such as conductors Oliver Knussen, Mikhail Pletnev, André Previn, Christian Thielemann, Neeme Järvi, and baritone Bryn Terfel.

That job, and this job at the NSO, have been the two most fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had – I’ve enjoyed them all, but these two were/are the best.

You’re obviously not still with DG now – what happened, and when?

In 1999 the writing was on the wall for the major classical labels. When I started in 1981 there were, I don’t know, maybe 15 complete Beethoven symphony cycles on disc. But by 1999 there were perhaps three or four times as many.  But there weren’t three or four times as many buyers and costs had increased, sales were down, and it was clear that product was flooding the market. The labels were looking for the next 3 Tenors, the next blockbuster, which didn’t fit with my aesthetic. And I was ready for the next challenge. I went to London and worked in artist management with Harrison Parrott. It wasn’t a great fit for me, because I was suddenly on the other side of the fence.  I think I felt more at home as a “buyer” and much less so as a “salesman”. It’s a subtle shift of perspective, but one that I struggled to make. I stuck it out for 2 years and then I was offered a position back in Germany, but I wasn’t quite ready to move back there or to take on that particular position. So I freelanced for a bit – I worked with a Baroque ensemble in the UK, a contemporary group in Oslo in Norway, a contemporary music festival, a music publisher, a couple of individual artists – and then three years later I got two almost-simultaneous phone calls.

One call was from Boosey & Hawkes – their Director of Publishing, who had joined B&H when I was first there, asked if I’d consider being Head of Promotion for 6 months, while the incumbent was on maternity leave. The focus was on promoting the work of living composers, and I was excited by the thought of taking on something I had not done before. After a month they asked me if I would want to stay on beyond the original six months, and when my colleague returned from maternity leave we found that neither of us wanted a full-time job, so we very amicably divided the composers between us and continued to work together. It was the perfect job share.

The second call was from a former colleague at Deutsche Grammophon – she and conductor  John Eliot Gardiner had married, and he had made recordings of all of the Bach sacred cantatas – 57 cds – over the course of a year. DG had decided to not release them. But her invitation, “We’re going to set up our own record label – would you like to help?” was irresistible. So we set up a very special small record company that is still putting out recordings – Brandenburg Concertos, Brahms Symphonies, wonderful things all with John Eliot. I divided my time very happily between this new label and B&H for about two years.

I have to say at this point that I’ve been very lucky, and more than once – I’ve been at the right place at the right time a number of times, and I’m very aware of my good fortune.

Then, in the middle of 2006, I got another phone call, this time asking if I’d be interested in talking about an opening at the NSO, the programming position . It was again something that I’d never done, and it was again abroad – I was, of course, interested! I had an hour-long phone conversation with Rita Shapiro (the Executive Director of the NSO), and came to interview in September 2006. I started in February 2007, and here I am.

It seems, looking backwards, that you found the things that were interesting to you, and just kept looking for opportunities to learn and grow.

I have to admit that I’ve never really known what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work in music, I knew I wanted to work in the recording industry, but I had no idea of what my career trajectory would look like. However, now that I’m in this job, and only now, does everything I’ve done up to this point make any kind of sense. Because when the phone rings in my office, it’s almost always someone that’s doing something that I used to do. Artist managers, record company representatives, publishers – I have experience in all those industries and can put it to very good use in this job.

It sounds like your approach to going wide as far as skills and repertoire have served you well. What advice do you have for folks struggling to figure out their career path?

For me one of the most important things is to not force matters. When things don’t work out, or aren’t immediately clear, don’t feel you have to push to try to find an immediate answer. Don’t necessarily feel you have to make a decision under forced circumstances. Frequently if you wait for two weeks the answer will materialize, and the thing will suddenly somehow fit together.  Also, don’t feel you have to have your career path mapped out before you when you’re 18 or 20 or 22.  You don’t.  Try things out.  Learn from them.  Don’t worry if one thing doesn’t work.  Usually something else will work.  If you’re open to change and are flexible, it will appear to you that there are more possibilities.

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Profile Phriday: Nathan DePoint

Profile Phriday is BACK!

Today’s Profile Phriday focuses on one of the nicest guys in opera: Fort Worth Opera’s Company Manager, Nathan DePoint. Nathan started as a singer, but now works behind-the-scenes at one of the most innovative festivals in the country. I was lucky enough to get to know him last year during the Opera America Leadership Intensive, and I think you’ll find his story rings some bells – here it is.

Nathan DePoint

 

So, Nathan. What exactly is it that  you do?

I am currently the Company Manager for Fort Worth Opera.  That title means a lot of things, but ultimately I deal mostly with logistics and patience!  The fun parts of my job are hearing auditions and helping to plan future seasons and casting. I also enjoy casting and working with our chorus master to manage our chorus.  The stressful and biggest part of my job is handling all the logistics of our visiting artists.  I plan the travel, housing and transportation for each of our guest artists.   From the middle of March to the middle of May each year, I am on-call 24/7.  As soon as our artists arrive, I act as the first point of contact for them – anything from doctor recommendations and appointments to dry cleaners!  I also assemble and distribute the daily schedule during the festival and assist with many random production-based tasks.  Almost every single day is different – it keeps me on my toes!

Aaah…a juggler of sorts! So when did you get the opera bug?

Growing up in a small town in western NY, I never really had any exposure to opera.  My performing arts exposure was limited to mostly musicals; but while working on my BA, my voice really just opened up. That was when opera became a viable option, when I was hooked.

I can recall two very distinct performance moments that have led me to this point.  The first would be the first operatic role I ever learned and performed.  It was the role of Gil in Wolf-Ferrari’s one act opera The Secret of Susanna (we did it in English). It was such an amazing experience to perform my first opera “under the stairs” in Jones Recital Hall on the campus of John Brown University. From then on, I have basically been consuming opera.  The second specific memory I have is of seeing my first professional opera – Rigoletto produced by Tulsa Opera. Being at a small school, our productions were all done with piano.  To hear, live, the combination of the singers and the orchestra was overwhelming.  I remember getting goosebumps up and down my arms when hearing the “Sparafucilleeeeeeeeeeeeeee” and wanting so badly to be a bass!  (Obviously, I learned quickly that baritone was the best voice type.)

Hey, my guilty pleasure is Pierrot’s Tanzlied – you don’t have to sell me on baritones! So, you earned a degree in Voice/Opera?

 I have two degrees in music.  I earned my BA in Music with an emphasis in Vocal Performance from a small school in Northwest Arkansas called John Brown University, and my MM in Opera Performance from Wichita State University.  Starting my undergrad, I was actually a double-major in Music and, believe it or not, Construction Management (I have always been drawn to architecture, and that was intended to be a stepping stone to that end.)   I chose Music as the other major because I had always been involved in it.  I grew up singing – in church choir, the choir at school or in high school musicals. (GO MUSIC EDUCATION!) I can’t remember a time when singing wasn’t an aspect of my life.

But how did you move from on-stage to off? (I hear that lattes were involved?)

I moved to Fort Worth, Texas following graduate school, and while I was working at Starbucks, I met Darren Keith Woods.  Darren is the General Director of Fort Worth Opera.  One of my fellow Starbucks employees worked for another non-profit that shared the building with FWO, so he made a call.  I am pretty sure that conversation went something like:

“Hey, so I am working with this opera singer at Starbucks”

DKW: “Oh, brother…”

“I’m just wondering if you would be interested in meeting him”

DKW: (being the generous human he is) “Sure.  I’ll just stop to get a coffee and talk with him for a few minutes”

Little did I know how instrumental he would be in my life going forward, and what an incredible mentor he would become.  After hearing me sing, he invited me to participate with the FWO Studio Artists in masterclasses, and when they needed to release the baritone from the studio, they called me up to replace him.  He asked if I could learn Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk (the two children’s operas) in time for a Monday performance.  This was Thursday afternoon.  So, of course I said, “yes” and faked my way through that first performance.  I finished out the year covering Sharpless in Butterfly and Ford in Falstaff, as well as creating (and retiring, since the role has been subsequently cut from the opera) the role of Jos in the world premiere of Frau Margot in the inaugural Fort Worth Opera Festival in 2007.

The final “defining” moment really was my final audition season.  It was fall of 2007. I had taken a “real job” at a law firm to please the parents of the girl I was dating at the time – that whole social pressure of the male being the provider – and it was wearing me out.  We broke up, and that left me with this job that was draining any joy from life. Then I went to audition! As you can probably imagine, it was just awful. I wasn’t singing well. I wasn’t satisfied with being the second choice, and quite frankly, I was a good singer, but not great. As I had been in the Fort Worth Opera studio the spring prior, I called up Darren and talked to him about moving into a job that would allow me to still be involved in the art form without having to be a singer.  It just so happened that they were looking for a Development Associate and the rest is history.

There are obvious advantages in starting an administrator’s journey as a singer: most obvious is knowing the repertoire from a different point of view. You know the score on a totally different level when you’ve studied them from a singer’s perspective rather than simply plugging in voices to a cast list.  You have a better idea of how voice colors do or don’t work in certain roles. My thought process while transitioning was this: to figure out what skills I needed to become a successful GD.  Starting in development was an obvious advantage: as a General Director, if you can’t raise money, you aren’t going to be very successful.  Looking back, I think being a singer was a waypost on my journey –  I don’t see this as a back-up at all! Administration was always something in which I was interested.

I think the solidifying moment for me; the moment that made me sure I had made the right decision, was when I was accepted, as one of twelve people world-wide, into the Opera America Leadership Intensive program in the summer of 2012.  The program is designed to recognize and cultivate the next generation of operatic leaders.

So, what are your favorite parts of your job?

Coming up with solutions. It sounds simple, but really, that is it.  Sometimes the solutions are easily achieved, but there are times when they are really a puzzle.  Those are the ones that give me the most satisfaction.

Another source of great satisfaction is when our guest artists want to return to Fort Worth. That tells me that the experience of being in Fort Worth was a good one beyond just the stage, and they want to relive it.  I know that I have a large part to play in that, and take that responsibility very seriously.  It’s fun when I get to see friends year after year come back. That’s when I know I’ve done my job well.

Do you regret leaving the stage?

I have never had one moment of regret since I made the transition: I am not the type of person that can do something halfway.  When I decided, I also decided I would never sing again. Period. Not practice, not dabble…it was cold turkey. The only exception I have made was when I sang for my little sister at her wedding (talk about nerve-wracking!!).  Other than that, I haven’t even entertained the thought of it. If you can honestly say that you won’t regret it, then you are ready.

The interesting thing to me is that I haven’t even really MISSED it!  Every now and again, when I see a production of Nozze, I have the slightest pang of missing it (The Count was my favorite character to create), but it was the relationships, the bonding and the fun creating during the rehearsal process that I miss.  I was never one of those singers that enjoyed the performing part nearly as much as the process. That’s what I loved about being a singer; being creative, being allowed to explore and try things…also, not having my days start until 10 am was pretty great, too!

Do you have any advice for conflicted singers/performers?

The only advice I could really give to a performer faced with this decision is to ask them this question; will you regret it?  If any part of you can answer that with a “yes”, you aren’t ready to give it up.

Follow your gut.  It is almost always right.

Be honest. Be upfront. Be a good colleague.  Don’t be afraid to invest in others. Best advice I could give.

Words to live by. Thanks for sharing your story!

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Tooting One’s Own Horn

(In my case? Marching mellophone. Who’s with me?)

Kelley Rourke, on behalf of her fantastic colleagues at Opera America, asked me to do a little writing for their magazine. I was flattered to be asked, and used the opportunity to pick the brains of several folks who had interesting career trajectories. If you’re an Opera America member (and if you’re not, join the heck up!), you can read the article on their website. If not, click below to enlarge.

(Here marks my first print byline. What a great feeling!)

Gia-Ninh Chuang – From Singer-Pianist to Fitness Professional

Ok, Gia-Ninh. Let’s start at the very beginning (“…a very good place to start…” I think there might be a few musical theater asides in today’s profile. It’s just a hunch.)

Well, starting at the beginning does indeed start with a musical! The Sound of Music, to be exact. I was obsessed with that movie as a child, and went to elementary school knowing solfege! I attended a private elementary school affiliated with the Southern Baptist church in my town. My non-practicing Buddhist Mom and non-practicing Catholic father wanted me to be challenged, and even though it was a sacrifice for our family they opted out of the public school. I was a boy soprano – with super high notes – and no stage fright. I sang in the choir. I remember the first time that I realized that I enjoyed performing was during the Christmas pageant. I played the shepherd Jesse, the shepherd that was leading the 3 Wise Men to the baby Jesus.  It was the first time my entire family came to see me perform, and having that support and buy-in felt fantastic! (Full disclosure – some of my relatives didn’t really get the story… one uncle still calls me Jesse the King.) (Ed. -That will be a great WWF wrestling name someday. Keep it!)

When I reached middle school, I hit the opposite side of that fantastic performance coin:  my voice changed in the middle of a solo at the Regional Choir Concert. I pulled a total Peter Brady. It was traumatic! When the teacher suggested that I lip-sync for the rest of the school year, I was crushed and stopped singing. I had started piano lessons the year prior, and threw myself into practicing – hours a day, just because I enjoyed it so much.

When I hit high school, I got back into singing, and found a strong role model (more on her later) in my choir teacher. I accompanied people, started an a cappella group (back before Glee made it cool…we were called The Suspenders – get it??), made it into All-State. As I approached senior year and college I started thinking about being a choir teacher. I won a piano competition at the Peabody Conservatory, and it seemed like studying music was going to be my thing.

So, you went to school for music.

No.

You see, once I started preparing for scholarship competitions and such, I realized that it was going to have to be my livelihood. And that took much of the joy out of it for me. I was struggling a little bit at home, too… I was in the middle of my coming out process, and it was tough. So, I started my freshman year at the University of Maryland with a Psychology major, and a minor in Opera.

Well, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. But when did your path change?

A pal of mine from the UMD Chorale was teaching aerobics classes at the campus rec center, and pretty much dared me to take a class. It was SO MUCH FUN, and I was instantly hooked.  I thought, “Wait, I could get paid for having fun like this?” Within a month I was enrolled in instructor training.

It allowed me to perform – which was something I enjoyed immensely – but it also allowed me to communicate with people, to translate concepts in ways that they could understand and use (which used the linguistic training I learned as a music minor). Plus, I was surrounded by music – the pulse of my classes was set to music, and having a strong knowledge of musical forms allowed me to customize my spin classes and aerobic choreography in a finely-calibrated way. So I switched my major from Psychology to Kinesiology.

Cool. What happened next?

I dropped out of school.

What?

Well, I was teaching full-time, in addition to my classwork.  But my passion for teaching and helping with my students eclipsed my academic goals.  And I won this big competition – the first ever winner of the AAAI/ISMA Aerobics Star Search in 2002… think American Idol for instructors.  I also had success in fitness competitions as an athlete.  I was 23, and suddenly had all of this visibility and momentum, and I pretty much thought this was my path. Heck, I was on Oprah and ESPN in the same year – if that’s not making it, what is? I decided to stop taking classes and ride that train.

But that certain path that I thought existed: win the competitions, teach great classes, give workshops at a conference, get a sponsorship, etc… well, that momentum started to slow down.  So in 2005 I went back to school. (Stay in school, kids…stay in school.)

When I was back in school, a pal told me that Equinox – a fitness company with a reputation for being the best in the industry – was opening its first location in the DC area. (Ed. – This is where I first met Gia-Ninh…I think it was a kettlebell class? I might’ve wept from the muscle soreness two days later, but I went back for more!) She suggested that I apply for the Group Fitness Manager position there. It was a great place to be – I taught, but I also used that psychology background to support and balance the diverse personalities of my instructors; I really felt that my job was to take care of my staff, so that they could do their best job.  And it taught me some valuable lessons about putting the success of my program and my instructors above feeding my own ego. It was both instructive and humbling.

So, from a boy soprano to a successful fitness professional…what skills or habits transferred?

You know, actually quite a number! A large part of singing well has to do with small, precise muscle coordination, and in fitness, you’re coordinating larger groups of muscles. Plus, both disciplines require a strong commitment to healthy living.  Both singers and fitness professionals ask their body to perform set skills on cue to do their job. Taking care of your body is taking care of your livelihood.

I referred to my high school choir director, Dr. Barbara Baker before, but I cannot overemphasize the influence she had on me, both professionally and personally.  There are several things that she said that have stuck with me through the years, the first being this:

  • The stronger your foundation (or, in musical terms, technique), the more you’ll be able to do, especially in less-than-optimum circumstances. Nerves, illness, they’re all things that performers have to work through… the key is to be able to do so without hurting oneself. I find that this particular message transfers tidily to my work in fitness, too – the better your form and technique, the more you can do and the faster you reach your goals without injury.
  • She also taught us humility, and to realize that we were just one part of a larger whole. No FIG JAM. (Ed. – Huh?) FIG JAM stands for “[expletive] I’m Good, Just Ask Me.”  Let your work speak for itself; everyone else will figure it out.
  • I was also constantly amazed at the ways in which she could ask us/inspire up to do more than we thought we were capable. Even as a fitness professional, my approach is about asking others to stretch themselves…don’t show them what you can do, show them what THEY can do.

What advice do you have?

Be nice. I’ve always wanted to be the guy who was amazingly good at his job, but that’s not enough; I want to also be the guy that people enjoy being around and is fun to work with.  When people want to work with you, countless opportunities to collaborate, learn, and gain exposure come your way.  Now, I’ve not always been 100% successful, but it’s something that I work towards constantly.

Protect your body. Being healthy and having a strong physical foundation in your discipline, lays the groundwork for making life easier and more enjoyable.

No FIG JAM. Don’t tell me how good you are, show me. No one wants to work with people who think they’re the better than everyone else.  It’s shorthand for staying humble and always thinking about how my decisions affect the people around me AND my own reputation.

Just do it. At this point in my career, I’ve taught over 15,000 classes. I take a huge amount of pride in the quality of my teaching, and also have found a deep confidence in that amount of experience.

Gia-Ninh has recently relocated to Idaho, where he is continuing his studies and maintaining a private fitness practice. For more information on him or his services, you can find him on the web at http://kineticedgefitnessconcepts.com/Home.html

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Peter Zimmerman – from Performer to Presenter

Peter Zimmerman is the Director of Programming for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. He’s responsible for booking the majority of the 200+ shows that the Foundation presents each year in two vastly different spaces: a 7,000 seat outdoor amphitheater (The Filene Center) and a 375 seat rough-hewn jewel box (The Barns). Peter’s a colleague and friend, and we’ve talked often about his path…I’m excited to share his story with you today!

So, Peter; start at the beginning. When did you know that performing was your thing?

Back in the 3rd grade! I played the little drummer boy in my school Christmas pageant – I really wanted to play that drum! And I still vividly remember being on stage, the audience all looking at me… and thinking “I really like this!” I played instruments all through high school – was in the school symphony, played in the pit bands for the musicals, but I was really interested in playing in bands. I wasn’t really planning to go to college: I figured I’d gig for a few years and then be a rock star.

But you went to school – where, and why?

I went to Adams State in Colorado. I initially majored in French Horn performance – got a full scholarship through my H.S. orchestra teachers Craig Bailey and his younger brother Brent Bailey. I really explored everything I could in the arts, and found myself more drawn to the acting side of things. It got to the point where I lost my scholarship because I wasn’t participating in any of the ensembles – I was taking Shakespeare and acting classes (as well as the education requirements that my mom insisted on), and they became my priorities. I was awarded a B.A. in Theater Arts, Speech Communications, Secondary Education and Music. (Editor: Please tell me that it took you more than 4 years to do all that!) I did it in 4.5 years.

Incredible! So, then you’re out of school. What were the Seven Stages of Peter’s Career? (Ok, that riff on the Seven Ages of Man didn’t quite work…forgive me.)

Well, my first gig was as a gravedigger – an important first experience for any arts administrator. (Editor: Seriously? That explains a lot…) I taught for four years in public high schools in Colorado and took the summers to work on my own artistry. I was part of the IATSE crew for the Denver Theater Center, but also acted in the ensemble. (It was a repertory company – talk about learning how to multi-task and prioritize!) Eventually I moved to New York, mostly because I wanted more visibility in Denver, but was told I had to go to NYC to achieve that. I lived there for 2 years and acted – film, tv, stagework, touring -with some real success. But I had some hesitations. My physical type was really common, and I wasn’t a triple threat the way my competitors were; it was going to take a whole lot of work to get me to the next level. And I had a three-year old…the schedule was making it really difficult for me to be the kind of father that I wanted to be.

So, how did you make the jump from acting to presenting?

Remember this: never burn bridges. My student teaching supervisor from college, Ken Foster, and I kept in touch throughout my public school years and my sojourn in New York. That connection got me my first presenting gig, at Penn State, where Ken headed the department. I started a little bit at a time, at first throwing myself into implementing Ken’s vision, and eventually to bugging him for more responsibility. He let me create a children’s theater series – and actually witnessed one of my biggest flops…Peter and the Wolf…don’t ask. He gave me the freedom to succeed OR fail – he was both a safety net and a sounding board, but if I didn’t seek it, it wasn’t forced upon me. And, even after the Peter and the Wolf fiasco, he never chastized me – just asked me what I had learned from the experience.

I cherished his mentorship – I stayed at Penn State for 9 years. I found that I could still be involved in the theater, but could also have the stability I needed in order to have a family.

Heck, I can’t imagine leaving – what could’ve been better?

Well, actually, there was something! I took a job as the CEO/Executive Director of the Colonial Theater in Keene,  New Hampshire. (Keene had been a big town during railroad heyday, but when I was there the population hung right around 60,000.) It was a beautiful small vaudeville theater with a lot of character, and interesting programming – The Kinks, Little Feat, the Smothers Brothers, all acts that I got to know when I was there. I LOVED it. It fit all of my skill sets: raising money, grant writing for 2 successful capital campaigns for theater and marquee renovations, presenting live acts and film. We increased our staff and our budget was in the black, so I think I was good for the theater, but the job was great for me, personally, as well.

OK, now I’m totally stymied: were you looking to leave the Colonial? How did you end up at Wolf Trap?

Actually, it was a personal ask from (Wolf Trap President & CEO) Terre Jones. Through some common acquaintances and a star-crossed raffle at APAP,  we got to know each other. It seemed like time to take a risk, to step up. And it was a good move – I’ve been here for almost 14 years.

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

I am a fan of the deal. There’s a price on my head for how much I have to book, how much money I need to make for the organization. Confirming a booking gets me jazzed – closing a deal and following through to completion is the best feeling. Speaking honestly, however, there are lots of amazing acts that get away – probably two for every one that actually takes the stage.

I also loved teaching – I feel that impacting young people is important, and I get a lot of professional satisfaction from mentoring. If I had to go back to teaching at this point, I think I’d love it!

And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to getting a bit of a rush from being one of the folks that has access to some of the best performers in the world. There’s a status that’s accorded the level of access that I have, and while it’s not the whole picture, I still feel pretty awesome when a performer that I respect calls my cell to say hi.

Indeed! I’d kill for a few of those numbers, myself! So, it’s advice time. What words of wisdom do you have for the next generation?

Make connections: there are geographical ramifications to this business, and it can be hard to advance in the same geographic/organization. Extend your network!

There’s weren’t any Master of Arts Management programs when I was starting out, so I’d recommend talking to a talent buyer who’s in their mid 30s-40s to get the lay of the land. And examine the differences between non-profit and for-profit companies – the cultures are very different, and the goals are as well.

Find out how your current skills overlap with the job you want. For example, I learned budgeting and marketing when I was gigging in college…from there it wasn’t so hard to parlay that into production schedules for my educational theater productions or to Penn State or the Colonial. I learned time management when I was working that rep/IATSE job at Denver Theater Center. It all transfers.

I’d also learn how to say no. In my business, ‘no’ is the 2nd best answer. (‘Yes’ is obviously the best!) Maybe is my least favorite word – decisiveness saves time and money.

As I said before, don’t burn bridges. No matter how crappily you’re treated, suck it up. I have a million stories from colleagues across the nation to back that maxim up, but it bears repeating. Show up early. Stay late. Make yourself indispensible to your superiors

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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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