Category Archives: Rah Rah! (Encouragement)

Out-of Office: Leadership Seminar

I’ve let this project lag just a little bit (Ahem. I may exaggerate a little…), but it’s for a great reason. As part of the Opera America Leadership Intensive, I’ve been spending the last several days in a sunny conference room in New York with 13 colleagues from the US, Canada and Europe, talking about the future of the art form – our art form – and our place therein.

I won’t lie: it’s an extremely exciting time for yours truly. My colleagues are smart, warm, witty, and generous. It’s a little ridiculous, actually, how fantastic these folks are.The facilitators are knowledgable and gentle, even as they push us outside of our comfort zones (hello, public speaking!) and challenge our assumptions of ourselves and the field at large. I count myself amazingly lucky to be counted among this group of students.

We’re all asking a lot of questions, sharing volumes of information. And of course, being in New York there are things to do, friends to connect with, any number of millions of directions to explore. Even if I weren’t in season (WHICH I AM. How am I not in the office? And more importantly, have you picked up tickets for Rake’s Progress yet?), I’d find it slightly overwhelming. I have an awful lot to chew on, with more to think about and tackle in the days to come.

On Tuesday morning, we were all tasked to give our 5-minute personal history to the group. Five minutes to let the group know how you came to be sitting around that table, focused and passionate about an art form that many would describe as a hard sell.

And can I tell you, singers who are doubting whether a performance path is for you? Those of you who fell in love with drama and theater and music but who realize that you may not light up a stage? (Or want to light up a stage?) Can I simply tell you that the group of people around that table – like me, maybe like you – had those same doubts at one point. They parlayed their love of the art form, and the self-knowledge that footlights weren’t their thing, into leadership roles at major and influential opera companies around the country. They are Development Officers, Artistic Directors, Community Programs Directors…the list goes on.

It is a beautiful thing, indeed.

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A Virtual Toast to Transitions.

(Does this come in an IV drip?)We hosted a small symposium this past weekend. Kim Pensinger Witman and I were fortunate enough to attend the Opera America Conference in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, and were both inspired and challenged in the seminars which we attended. But oftentimes our artists are bypassed from these larger discussions, or they’re expected to listen but not participate actively…the general directors dictate the tone and flow of the conversation. (It’s not a criticism – the GD’s are the ones who deal with those overarching principles on a daily basis…they should be the folks to initiate the discussions about strategy and the state of our art.) We wanted to give our singers an opportunity to join the conversation.

We called our two-day event Recitative: Plain Talk About Opera, recognizing that what we wanted to do wasn’t glamorous or sparkly…not aria-like in the least. We wanted to raise the questions that the singers/directors/artistic admins were pondering, but maybe hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss. And we asked a group of people who understood our demographic to help us with these discussions.

(Have I mentioned that, by and large, opera people are generous and helpful and agreeable? The colleagues who assisted with these discussions – artistic administrators and general directors and singers and conductors, from companies in our own market to Left Coast-ers, and even a representative from the Continent! –  surely were… we are indebted to them for their time, their thoughtfulness, their candor. Opera people are indeed pretty cool.)

It was a fantastic, provoking, sometimes heated two-day discussion. I was struck very early on with two observations: firstly, that there was such a passionate feeling towards both the art form and the collaborative structure of the art form. (not a surprise, certainly, but it was a wonderful realization of the intensity of feeling.) Secondly, that there were so many people who had started as singers who were now deeply involved – as artistic administrators, casting directors, general directors – in a non-performance aspect of the art. Do they contribute to the discussion as administrators? Most certainly. Do their words hold a different weight because they know firsthand what it’s like to biff a high note in public or trample over an overture in rehearsal with a respected conductor? I think that they might. They know what it feels like to perform at the top of their game. They’ve been moved by an exceptional performance, whether as an onstage colleague or an audience member. It’s invaluable information…and sure, a lot of it can be learned. But maybe not all of it.

It’s not an unusual path, for sure…transitioning from singer or actor to artistic or general director. I’m glad that there are so many people leading companies who, at one point, made the noise…stood in the spotlight…took the curtain call…and ultimately realized that they were meant to support the art form in a different way. Raising a virtual toast to transitions!

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Being Awesome.

How can anyone ignore a presentation titled “Stop Sucking and Be Awesome Instead”?

Yeah, I don’t know, either. This presentation is for the code-conversant among us, but there are so many great points raised that the discipline is less relevant than the message.

1. Embrace the suck.
2. Do it in public.
3. Pick stuff that matters.

You are never too young/old to admit that there are things that don’t come easy to you…I can think of several that pertain to me just off the top of my head (anxious; highly distract-able; subject to verbal diarrhea; all come to mind), and the folks who work with me likely have a whole other list of ways in which I should Get My Act Together.

I get it. I’m not, and may never be, a finished product. And that’s ok. I strive to be open about my shortcomings… I don’t have a carefully crafted public persona… and I choose to spend my time helping folks and an art form that, frankly, I feel honored to support.

(I subscribe to the maxims above, obviously.)

But I think it’s telling that, in her May 2012 address to the Harvard Business School, Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s COO) talks about knowing – and addressing – those things that she struggles with:

One trick I’ve discovered is that I try to speak really openly about the things I’m bad at, because that gives people permission to agree with me, which is a lot easier than pointing it out in the first place. To take one of many possible examples, when things are unresolved I can get a tad anxious. Really, when anything’s unresolved, I get anxious. I’m quite certain no one has accused me of being too calm. So I speak about it openly and that gives people permission to tell me when it’s happening. But if I never said anything, would anyone who works at Facebook walk up to me and say, “Hey Sheryl, calm down. You’re driving us all nuts!” I don’t think so.

Transparency… Self-knowledge… Broaching the tough subject… the elephant in the room… These are all things that we deal with as artists on a daily, consistent basis.

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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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Talking…it’s how EVERYTHING gets done

I have a small admission to make: I stink at small talk. Flop sweat, stammering, a too-loud laugh…you can watch me do ALL THREE if we’re strangers and you ask me a question. (It’s like a three ring circus for my personal insecurities. Where’s the cotton candy??)

The only time I’m really good at it is when my conversation partner stumbles (or strategically hits) upon one of my strengths or passions…when it doesn’t? Well, I’m as awkward as I was in junior high.

But – and here’s the thing – small talk is the very thing that invites larger conversations, that finds common ground. You have to be willing to expose personal parts of your life to make those connections…trying to seem too with-it, too professional will leave you with nothing to talk about except for your resume. But oversharing is also, obviously, a conversation-killer. (AWK-ward.)

Lifehacker has a good one-size-fits-all tip: share small details. Bringing up a topic that you’re passionate about, whether work-related, or concerned with affairs beyond the office walls (family! great restaurants! travel! books! youtube!), is an easy entry into a rewarding conversation. Because no one wants to spend all night talking platitudes…case studies are much more interesting.

Puttylike shares two other benchmarks that ring true to yours truly:

  1. We all want to connect with other people, but we just need to feel safe first.
  2. If you open up, others will, too.

Performers, you’re accustomed to putting yourself out there in every audition, every performance – to give a piece of yourself to any number of largely anonymous audition panels, audiences. You can do this!

As you’re vetting a new career, finding those points of entry can become even more crucial…advice, anecdotes, even connections for professional advancement can all lie in your ability to make connections. The good news? Is that you’re already fantastically equipped to do just that.

gaping voids, full of cartoons.

I’m a big fan of Hugh MacLeod. Have been for years. I get his daily email, that usually has a bright, graphic doodle (I hope that’s not an offensive term: it’s an abstract line drawing, to be less casual) that accompanies a strong thought or a pithy adage.

See, this is a career path that’s both creative and non-traditional. He took something that he enjoyed doing (i.e. writing modern-day adages) and used a medium that was infinitely accessible (pen & ink on the back of business cards).

Now, if you pitched that to someone:

“Hey. I’m going to draw cartoons on the back of business cards. And I’m going to share small snippets of real-life wisdom. And, on the backs of these tiny business cards, I’m going to build a MEDIA EMPIRE. Mwahahahaaaaaaaa!”

Yep. They’d likely ask the bartender to cut you off, and call you a cab.

But he did it. Because he realized that his art was accessible, and that there was a social component to what he wanted to do.

He’s an artist. But he didn’t spend years in the studio, working through academic crits, being graded refining his craft. He did those things while sitting at a pub, talking to people – there was a community aspect to what he did that integrated his love of the visual.

He found his sweet spot.

Do you have things that you’re passionate about, but that couldn’t possibly coexist in the same career?

And, are you willing to rethink that “couldn’t possibly coexist” clause?

Odds and Ends

I spent Monday home sick…it’s not often that I get my butt kicked sideways by a bug, but I’ve learned at this point that the absolute worst thing I can do is drag myself to the office on days like this: contaminating my space and my colleagues, feeling like crud, and usually getting little to no work of quality accomplished.

It’s a lose-lose situation, if you will.

So instead I napped on the couch, listened to the landscapers banter in Spanish as they planted three big ol’ Cypress trees in the yard, and started making my way through the unread items in my feed reader.

(As it turns out? I may in fact be in the running to star in Hoarders: Digital Media Edition. Yikes.)

But I did come across a few gems as pertains to the creative workforce:

  • What Recruiters Look For (via Lifehacker). They spend 6 seconds (! It makes a 16-bar audition slot look positively luxurious!) looking at your resume…best to make sure that those important things are easy to find…
  • Mentors. As creatives, we can all certainly name a specific teacher in our chosen discipline who served in that function. As you’re looking into something different, however, it’s as useful – perhaps even moreso – to find someone to help  you put your building blocks together in a  different way. And one of the points that Susan Adams makes that I love? You don’t have to have just one. There’s no competing-studio bias, no  teacher-centric cult-of-personality. (A refreshing thought, eh?)

And finally, this clip from John Cleese about creativity.  The clip I’ve posted is abbreviated, but Blurbomat has posted the entire lecture and it’s worth watching the whole way through. BrainPickings also pulls out several of the important points, so rather than reading my redundant ramblings, how about just taking a look-see?

Discernment, part deux

As I said before, I’m a sucker for a good to-do list. I have no fewer than 3 apps to keep track of grocery lists, t
I stumbled across this article by Kathy Caprino this evening. (The 8 Stages of Career Transformation.) And I can remember, so very vividly, going through this process when I was finally deciding to invest my time and efforts in a career that wasn’t performance-based. But I’ll disagree with the author in one fundamental way: I don’t think that it’s a linear process, and I think that often these steps happen simultaneously. For example, Disengagement from one’s present circumstances can – and I think often does – happen at the same time as Discovery, when you’re delving deeply to find those things that ring your bell, so to speak. o-do lists, bucket lists, and everything in between. Lists, structured steps, plans of action: all important things to me, and a real hindrance to any kind of free-lance career.

What do you think? Is the list complete? Would you add anything? And, if you’re seeking, do you recognize your place on this list?

3BR, 2Bath in Search of a Second Career?

The New York Times today is celebrating several career changers who made the transition from performing careers (actresses, rappers, even a hand model!) to selling real estate. The performing aspects of sales, the flexible schedules, the professional autonomy, all plusses for many performers seeking out a Plan B.

Selling real estate has long been a second or third career choice for most agents, a place to turn when the children grew up or Plan A didn’t quite work out. And while in much of the country moonlighting homemakers and former lawyers dominate the field, New York City is a different story. Here, the arts are a magnet and the dreamers run thick, so the first career of your real estate broker might just be a doozy.

“People come to New York from far-off lands and states with a dream,” said Leonard Steinberg, a managing director at Prudential Douglas Elliman and a former fashion designer. “Oftentimes, those dreams don’t pan out as well as you’d like them to, and then you start looking at alternative careers.”

What do you think?



As performers (and, perhaps more truthfully, auditioners), we all have ideas about the image that we project.

We’ve been coached by teachers that our audition begins before we even set foot in the room. We know that, in order to give our best audition that we need to be fully prepared. We know that it’s our job to make a connection with the panel somehow, and that, more importantly, that connection needs to be positive.

We visualize walking into the audition room: entering with confidence, greeting the panel, discussing rep with the pianist. We visualize how that first piece will go, how that wild-card second piece (because they will naturally ask for it) will somehow be even better than the first. We see ourselves leaving the room feeling good about our performance, the reactions of the panel, and our future prospects. We know that running through that scene in our heads and filing it with positive value will help us give stronger auditions.

And even though our hearts may be busted if we don’t get the job, we know that that impression that we’ve made on the panel will follow us, making things easier or harder in subsequent auditions. It’s the reason we celebrate a good audition in addition to a job offer: because the audition is important; and the way we present ourselves, personally and artistically, is as important in the audition room as it is onstage.

These visualization techniques are one of the Jedi mind tricks that author Olivia Fox Cabane cites as a way to improve one’s charisma. In an interview for Fast Company, she talked about the several types of charisma that exist  (focus; visionary; authority; kindness), and how one might cultivate those characteristics. (I for one was pretty excited to find that introverts can excel at developing focus charisma, as it calls for blocking out everything save for the person with whom you’re talking.) She talks about the ways in which charisma is essential for building businesses.

And I have to say that, of the performers I know? Well, y’all are not close to being short on charisma.

Take this as just one skill that, while it might not show up on your resume proper, will help you through this professional journey.

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