Busyness, attention, and deep meaning.

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I have a new weekly habit. Since my knees have forced me to give up jogging, I’ve spent the past few weekends logging 12-16 miles on my feet, but at a slower pace. It allows me to pay attention to the beautiful flowering of my little neighborhood, and to become reacquainted with the few miles around my house. I often find myself not quite ready to head home, because the best part of this new habit isn’t actually the walking, it’s the podcast On Being. Krista Tippett interviews engineers, philosophers and artists each week, to ask them the big, cosmic questions and by doing so teases out both heartbreakingly personal stories and universal motifs. As a lapsed Catholic, this serves in many ways as my church: the intellectual inquiry of deeply held beliefs, pressure points, difficulties and small triumphs. I find inspiration, solace, and millions of questions at the end of each episode.

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 9.21.07 PMThe most recent episode featured Maria Popova from Brain Pickings, another of my weekly pleasures. I’ve listened to it twice now, and only half-kiddingly considered tattooing the transcribed interview on my back, so that the words could actually become part of my being. Maria talks at length about how we desire deep knowledge, but are resistant to devoting the time that it takes to actually acquire that knowledge. We expect it to come easily, or we make our decision based on listicles and infographics. (The most popular/most expensive/most desired wins.) I’m totally at fault – I love a good infographic, but in line with Popova’s thought, it’s because it gives me just enough context to feel like I actually know more about situation than I actually do. She reads and writes all day, and I am delighted by the things she finds in the journals (not diaries. Journals.) of Thoreau, the writings of Seneca, books for children and books about time. Krista Tippett, too, endlessly discusses presence and attention; both in the mundanity of the everyday, and in those times of stress and transformation.

I struggle with wanting to take the easy answer. I admire those who do not. Why, then, do I not always strive for deeper meaning? I wonder if this inattention, this resistance to digging in and doing the work, pervasive? Are we all dilettantes, looking for the easiest answer to the problem? Or is it just me?

Rehearsal for the summer season starts tomorrow morning. So the timing of this desire for attention, presence, and thoughtfulness is not coincidental. I am, however, very much looking forward to spending another summer with people who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of deep knowledge.   Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 8.13.29 PM

Spotlights : Footlights.

Frank Bruni has a story in the NY Times that caught my eye this evening. It was about one of Hilary Clinton’s staffers, Joel Benenson – he’s one of her chief campaign officers, a pollster and political strategist.

And guess where he started? (If you’re reading this blog, you know he wasn’t a Poli Sci major.)

Queens College. Theater school.

You can read more here. In this season of recent college graduates maniacally interviewing for jobs, I hope it serves as a gentle reminder that the path to an amazing, fulfilling career can be, well, indirect. Stay open to the possibilities, and corraggio! 


The Lost Art of Browsing.

There was a lovely essay in the New York Times this morning by Stephanie Rosenbloom – she talked about getting lost in Europe, about stumbling onto statues, to Oscar Wilde’s childhood home…the lack of preemptive navigation allowed her to travel without direction, to observe her surroundings, and ultimately gave her a richer experience.

My iPhone finds the most direct route to anything I wish to see, which is why I turn it off. Keeping it on would mean missing out on countless small streets and dead-ends, all those quiet, beautiful lanes and impasses with names I don’t remember.

I’ve been speaking with a number of young people about their career trajectories, their struggles to find permanent work, the cycle of interviewing and waiting. Many of them are planners, and it’s obviously a stressful time for them, to have a destination in mind but not being able to somehow get from point A to point B.

It seems as though navigation has taken over not just our physical wanderings, but our professional ones, as well. 

In graduate school, my research methods professor pounded (nicely) into us the importance of browsing the stacks. Even if we thought we knew what we were looking for, he counseled, by browsing we might find something complementary, or something totally different but much more interesting. He spoke of it as a way to spark creativity, to broaden context, to inspire and delight. (In context, it was less helpful than you might imagine…I just wanted to write the damn paper! But in retrospect boy does it ring true.)  As someone who has delighted in bookstores and record shops, who loves to read every description and review on every bottle of wine at my local wine shop, and as someone who wandered quite a bit professionally   before finding a niche, I’m constantly reminded of how non-linear my paths have been, and how I’ve really enjoyed the “scenic route.” 

So, perhaps this is is actually an old-fart rant masquerading as a blog post: one that implores you to allow yourself to wander a little bit en route to your destination – or, maybe to reroute that trip from the expected to something that is both unexpected, and maybe even a little terrifying at first. 

Here’s to finding something breathtaking around that first corner.  


Old Dog, Meet New Trick. (WOOF.)

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I’m on record as being a big fan of trying new things – my own career path is a twisty one, that largely echoes those experiences and topics that I find interesting. But, I have to be honest – I’ve got a great job, a great personal life, and it’s all remained pretty static for the last few years. There are inherent challenges in both professional and personal aspects of my life, but they’re not of the earth-shaking kind. (And I’m quite grateful for the stability and comfort – life is good!)

One of the projects I’ve been closely involved with for the last several years is Center Stage from Wolf Trap. The chamber music series that I program for The Barns at Wolf Trap spins off into a nationally-syndicated radio show that’s heard in Fairbanks AK, San Juan Puerto Rico, and on hundreds of public radio stations in-between. I’ve been involved as a producer for years – which loosely translates into doing research for the on-air personalities, listening for inaccuracies in their narration, and keeping them plied with coffee and munchies to keep the train on the tracks. Spending a few intense days in the studios at WETA talking music nerdery of the highest order with some great musicians is a respite from the opera world that I both enjoy and have come to crave. It’s fun!

This year, we weren’t sure if we were going to continue the series: we had a million internal discussions about its future, about the communities that we were trying to reach. (I personally reach for Sirius or Spotify or Pandora before terrestrial radio most days…is public radio relevant anymore? I’d hope so, but who knows?)  We threw everything – every aspect of the program –  up into the air. When the pieces reassembled themselves? Well, the series had survived. I was named Executive Producer! (Sounds so fancy!) The format had changed a bit, as had the on-air personnel.

They put me in the booth.

To talk.

On air.


It’s been admittedly years since I listened to my own voice through a headset – likely when I was singing, trying to critique my technique or performance for improvement. But I was always singing someone else’s words, with beautiful music behind it. Now it was just me – nothing in the sonic landscape to distract from my voice, as I prattled along. RK, a veteran radio announcer colleague and pal, fed me lines and tried to encourage me.

It. Was. Terrifying.

I’m thinking that one circle of Hell is a plane of existence where you have to listen to everything you’ve ever said, played back to you. (Here’s the breakdown: It’s 20% vocal ticks and fillers, 75% sounding reeeeeally dumb; maybe 5% of the time something gets from brain to lips that sounds both clear and vaguely intelligent.)

I had watched the guys banter effortlessly for years from the control room. They made it look easy! But it sure wasn’t. I got home that first night with a fatigued voice (because I usually don’t talk for 8+ hours in one day), and a foggy mind. But I also felt really good – I had tried to develop a new skill, and while I still sounded like Howdy Doody, I was enjoying the process and was starting to feel like maybe it was something I could actually do.

By the end of the second day in the studio, RK and I were starting to work out our back-and-forth, and were really having fun. We wrapped 13 shows, and afterwards we all walked across the street to grab a beer, chat about what had worked, and talk about the new direction the series was taking.

It felt like a new start, an exciting beginning. And I’m grateful to have had the chance to learn something new.

You’ll be able to hear Center Stage from Wolf Trap on a public radio station near you beginning in July of 2015. And there’s an email address listed as part of the broadcast that you can give feedback: I’d love to hear from you! (But be gentle – it’s my first time!) Thanks to the gang – Rich, Vic, and Bruce – for being so patient with me, and for the folks at Wolf Trap and WETA for being so supportive. Can’t wait for the next sessions!

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Artist + Leader

Becky Bermont from RISD wrote a lovely piece for HBR about artist-leaders. I’m especially interested in item #3: iteration.

According to our Provost, iterating on a concept or plan is a lot like teaching — it’s feeling the moment, and responding with real-time agility.

I’m a big proponent of DWWR. (For those of you who have worked with Choral Conductor and all-around dynamo Robert Page, you’ll recognize the shorthand for “Do What Was Rehearsed.”)  But to do so without responding to the room, the audience? Well, it would be a missed opportunity on a large scale, no?

Flexibility, responsiveness, agility – as artists, and especially as performing artists, these are things at which we excel.

“Not yet.”

There’s a beauty in striving. And while meeting a final goal is important – whether it’s a quota, or the completion of a professional project, or remembering to eat our veggies or be more mindful in our personal lives.

Sometimes, we need to strive for things that are slightly beyond us. We learn so much from stepping outside our perceived boundaries. I could argue that that particular kind of striving set me on my very strange, non-linear career path: I had been accepted to 4 colleges for creative writing when I took my sole music school audition. After that audition, I was convinced that it was the path for me – it was foreign and had rules that I didn’t understand, and was something in which my family had little to no background. I could totally succeed, right?

In many ways, I did. In some, I did not. But it was a challenge, during which I was often reminded that I didn’t quite have it, yet.

The power of “yet” is the subject of this TED talk. I love the implied possibility that, regardless of where we are in our career path, our personal path, we can continually improve.


Musicianship and Entrepreneurship

Like peanut butter and chocolate! Laurel and Hardy! Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard!

(You get it, right? Two great things that are better together?)

One obvious part of being a professional musician is the same as being an entrepreneur; being pulled together and able to kick ass in what is essentially a pitch meeting, an audition. But Fast Company makes a more robust case for musicianship skills translating into entrepreneurship. The author talks about the solitary skills that B-school teaches; business plans, role-playing, etc; but the communication, responsiveness, and fluidity that musical training demand give us critical skills for success.

Pretty cool, huh? Now go write that business plan!

From the road

I’m writing from O’Hare, sitting cross-legged on the floor, waiting for our next flight. It’s Audition Tour time, and we’re about halfway through: possible repertoire for our 2015 season is fluctuating wildly!

I saw this article this morning, and it resonated with me. It took me a while to truly find my niche, and I think the advice here makes quite a bit of sense.


Happy weekending! (And if you have some positive travel karma to share, please send it our way!)

From the road: Thoughts from the Audition Tour

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Home base: the stage at The Barns at Wolf Trap

Every fall my colleagues and I embark on an audition tour, trying to find the best emerging talent in the country. (It must be the most involved HR hiring tour of its kind!) Every year it teaches me new things, so from time to time I’ll post about the most striking discoveries.

We’ve only been on the road for a few days, only two full days of auditions under our belts. Here’s what I’ve observed so far:

  • Preparation is perhaps the only weapon we have against rampant nerves. Auditioning is a weird construct: we all recognize it. But those who do it often tend to do it well…
  • It is what it is. I get a lot of flak for embracing this saying, so let me describe the ways in which I employ it.
    • Sometimes an audition is a legitimate interview for work. Sometimes it’s an opportunity for practice, to try something new…there are many reasons to take an audition. Realize the opportunity for what it truly is, embrace it, and learn from it.
    • Things don’t have to be so difficult. Sometimes it really can be “I’m going to go in and enjoy myself.” Often it’s sufficient, both for you and the panel. Leave the expectations at the door, and let’s have some fun!
  • Every year between where I am and where I was when I was singing, I realize how little right I have to give you advice: I’m not singing anymore, and I remember viscerally how difficult it was. I do hear a lot of folks every year, and yes that gives me information on the state of the art form and that overarching view. But really, I’m in awe of the work you do, the time you put in, and your willingness to navigate the audition gauntlet over and over again. That generosity of spirit is a wonderful thing; it’s why I love working with you, and why I can truly say that I have the best job in the world.

Looking forward to hearing more of you over the coming months. Toi toi toi, al!

Oh maturity…

…why do you show up now, when I could’ve used your lessons a full decade ago?

(answer: You did. I wasn’t listening. Whoops.)

I don’t have any real bitch about growing wiser and older simultaneously. Heck, I’m one of the lucky ones – someone who makes a living in a field for which I feel a strong attraction & affection. But the field wasn’t my first choice – in fact, my audition was a bit of a Hail Mary pass. How very fortunate I was to have been given an entré! And how hard I’ve worked to stay in, stay relevant, find the niche that most closely reflects my affinities and talents.

I stumbled across this article in Fast Company that resonates with me, about choosing “must” over “should.” When we opt for “should,” the author Elle Luna argues, we choose other’s views of us. When we choose must, we choose our own unique path.

Should is how others want us to show up in the world–how we’re supposed to think, what we ought to say, what we should or shouldn’t do. When we choose Should the journey is smooth, the risk is small.

Must is different.

Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self.

(Side note: am I the only one whose heart says a little cheer when big business recognizes wisdom from the arts community? Because HOORAY!)

We all have the opportunity to decide how “must” and “should” manifest in our daily life. I’m going to try to listen to that small voice a little more closely this week. Join me.

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