Tag Archives: arts education

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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Age of Reform

ImageKurt Ellenberger wrote a thoughtful article for the Huffington Post about the arts and higher education. In it, he talks about the ways in which college music programs prepare students for a field that is shrinking, and doing so using models that are based on the artistic realities of the 1950-70s. Key faculty are charged to recruit, to provide the economic engine that will power the educational train: but, with undergraduate degrees costing near 50k, graduate degrees close to if not more, it’s a lot to spend for a career with no clear path to employment at the end of the journey. I’d agree with him that we need to rework the system a bit.

I remember talking with one smart, savvy singer a few years ago…he was frustrated at the lack of a clear path, and remarked “My buddies who are going to law school know how long they’ll be in school, how much it’ll cost, what they can expect to earn when they get out. I’m going to have close to the same amount of training in my field as they will in theirs, but I may not even be able to make an honest living.”

He was frustrated, and rightly so. There are very few guarantees in our current economic climate, but among artists they number even fewer. One could place the blame on the academic institutions, for taking students who obviously couldn’t make the grade. But, as someone who auditions a fair number of undergraduate singers every year, I can say that the rates of change in a young voice can be both profound and quicksilver: even during the small window between their autumn audition and their arrival in late spring for rehearsals a Studio Artist can sound – for better or worse – like an entirely different animal. 

So, how to reform this model that obviously doesn’t work? Mr. Ellenberger talks about diversifying: finding the things that make each program special and capitalizing on those key elements. You can likely pull the names of schools who have done this off of the top of your head: Berklee for jazz, Juilliard for classical music: Rice in Houston has a reputation for singers with strong technique, University of Maryland for skilled singing actors. (There are many more…but there are also many programs whose strengths are not clearly defined.)

I think it’s a step in the right direction. Rigorous coursework, one-on-one mentoring and quality performance opportunities are still the building blocks to strong, vibrant musicians, regardless of discipline. But I’d also, in this age of specialization, call for two other aspects that should be mandatory in that education:

  1. Exposure to professionals in related fields, or professionals with that same undergraduate degree who have transitioned into something different. A panel, once or twice a year with a group of people who sat in the students’ places, but have found a non-traditional way to use the knowledge that they gained. 
  2. Cuts. (Controversial, no doubt.) Being asked after a number of semesters to rethink your choice of a degree if your teachers see you struggling with the coursework/physical demands/lifestyle is not a bad thing. (Although at the time I think it probably can feel very much like one.) To have a group of people that know you give you honest feedback and offer you options? It seems like a very responsible kind of guidance. And also, to know you have to dig in to succeed, to stay in the program? (Or to ultimately prove them wrong?) Well, taking that responsibility upon one’s own shoulders can be empowering.

Thoughts? Put on your arts education reformer’s cap, and tell me what you’d recommend.

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Many happy returns

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

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

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

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

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