Tag Archives: Arts

Career Scaffolding

Rather than posting a personal profile this week, I’d like to direct you towards a post on Creative Infrastructure by Linda Essig, the director of ASU’s Arts Entrepreneurship Program.

(Side note – Arts Entrepreneurship? How awesome is that? While the 17-year-old-Me might’ve been all about performing, the [mumblemumble]-something Me is totally entranced by this program of study.)

She writes, in reference to a chance meeting with an arts worker in a metropolitan sushi bar:

The story of J is a good example of a person who uses his talents, skill and training in the arts to build a career, albeit not one he would have envisioned as an art student. Students enter study in the arts with many dreams and aspirations. […] If J had kept his head down, looking only toward the world of studios and gallery shows, he might not have seen the opportunities that have led to what became an enjoyable and sustainable career.

I can vouch for the undergraduate nearsightedness, and also for the value in keeping one’s eyes open to opportunities. If we think about our undergraduate (and, in some cases, advanced studies) as the scaffolding upon which we build a career, rather than the than the gun barrel through which we cast our aspirations, it free us up to look in any number of directions. Sometimes the straightest, most direct route is simply the easiest route, and not the best. Maybe we should co-opt Lysander’s words of wisdom for this little corner of the internet:

The course of true love ne’er did run smooth.

Amen…whether in love, or relationships or vocation or avocation…sometimes those crunchy places are trying to catch our attention. Listen. Look around, lean into those bumpy, rocky spaces.

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The Prestige Pitfall

It’s funny – I had the opportunity to sing last week for a retirement concert for a mentor. It was a tune I knew, with several colleagues whose company I enjoy, to celebrate a teacher who has made a large impact on my career.

And I politely declined.

I have two degrees in vocal performance. As a student, I loved the study and the collaboration, but what I really wanted was the applause, the fancy costumes, the name on the poster, the roses after the show. The singing was, sadly, secondary to all of the other noise surrounding the act of performing.

Now, I sing all the time. (Ask the manicurist who called me out yesterday for humming along with Shania Twain.) But I don’t sing “for real” anymore…and that’s a very good thing. Singing for other people made me feel insecure in a fundamental way, and in a pervasive manner that was unlike anything else…most likely because it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, but it was the only way in which I could figure out how to be close to the performers and the performances, both of which I enjoyed. And I enjoyed being the center of attention…but more for saying something witty or profound, rather than making a beautiful noise.

I’m happy speaking in front of a crowd, especially when the words are my own. I had the opportunity to address several thousand folks last summer, and several hundred for this retirement concert last week…and found both experiences totally enjoyable. But singing? It’s off the table…happily so, in my particular case.

There are articles upon articles that proclaim that the key to success is Doing What You Love. No dispute, there. But I personally had a difficult time distilling those things that I loved into a career.

Paul Graham wrote a great article called “How To Do What You Love.” And let me tell you, I wish that I had read (and internalized) this in high school. Among one of the personally salient points he makes? (Besides the truth that work should be mostly something that you enjoy?) Is that doing something for prestige (say, for the sound of cacophonous applause after your big aria, or for a sterling review) is in fact doing it for all the wrong reasons.

Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don’t even know? [4]

This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. [5] Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like. (emphasis added by the editor)

That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Brilliant, right? And an infinitely more sustainable approach than trying to enjoy something that fundamentally doesn’t appeal to you.

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Mark Bradley Miller

Mark is a professional photographer, specializing in portraiture, and more specifically headshots. (Those pictures that professional singers use as part of their calling card.) Here’s how he found his path:

Where did you go to school? (Please include program of study, and degree awarded)

I studied music education (vocal certification) at the Crane School of Music, part of the State University of New York at Potsdam. I earned a Master of  Music degree from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh in vocal performance.

What drew you to your chosen field?

My high school music teacher, Diane Abrahamian MacNally was an amazing human being. I was just floating around school – there wasn’t anything special about me, nothing I did really made me stand out. I auditioned for the school musical because there was a girl that I had a crush on, and because any guy that auditioned was guaranteed to get in. One day I was goofing around and really sang out – and caught the teacher’s ear. She  jumped on my potential, and I trusted her enough to do anything she asked. I always wanted to give back, to do for another student what she had done for me.

I got a degree in music education with a vocal performance focus from SUNY Potsdam, and while I felt I learned my craft, I felt like I was unprepared to teach. I wanted to perform, and so I applied for grad degrees at NEC, Curtis and CMU; I wanted the opportunity to study both operatic and musical theater literature.

After graduation from CMU, for several years I made the majority of my living as a singing actor. Sure, I took some supplemental jobs (hotels, restaurants, catering), but I was doing tours South Pacific, Beauty and the Beast, regional theater & off-Broadway shows. But the closer I got to Broadway work, the more elusive it became…and the harder it got when the in-room confirmations didn’t materialize into contracts (Or worse, when the contracts dissolved.)

In October of 2004, I had a turning point. I had a small operation, and planned to take the following holidays off, intending to re-evaluate the whole career thing after the first of the year. But something went wrong with the operation, and I was in the hospital for 5 days with collapsed lungs – resulting in 50% of their original capacity. I felt like my decision was made for me.

I had a gig that I had been hired for before the surgery that I was committed to – a production of The Fantasticks in North Carolina. I struggled – the breath that was so fundamental to my technique, to my ease onstage was gone. I made it through the production, but realized that I couldn’t do it anymore, nor did I feel the same desire and drive I once had.

So, what did you do next?

A friend in Charlotte asked me to help decorate her beautiful 100 year old home. I had done similar projects for friends and family, but she finally said “You’re so good at it, and so happy doing it, why don’t you do it?” I couldn’t think of a good reason not to.

I went to work at Marshall Watson Interiors, a design firm on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was a small firm specializing in residential design. I remember applying: I had no formal training in design, but had a little portfolio of the work I had done for the people I knew, and a friend got me an interview. I got the job and worked there for almost three years. After living a freelance performer’s life, the predictability of the schedule was wonderful! I had a full-time job, a place to go every day, something to do. I didn’t have to be self-motivated. And, most importantly, I felt really needed. There were always so many people clamoring for singing gigs that they never felt secure: I knew that there was always someone waiting for the opportunity, who would kill to be in my shoes.

While the schedule and the work were both really gratifying for a while, both the predictability and eventually the lack of autonomy started to wear on me after a while. When I started feeling really frustrated, I began taking photography classes. I found it really gratifying, and spent a year doing it as a creative outlet before deciding to make it my vocation, rather than an avocation.  I’m currently a headshot photographer, working with people who are, in many ways, in my old shoes. I love shooting performers (with a camera, obviously!) My education background and work as a vocal coach helps me to see the best in people; it was always one of my strengths, and I can capture those positive aspects of them on “film”, as representations of their best selves. And my experience in the business comes in handy: I know what’s expected and how best to portray them.

The freelance schedule really fits me better than the traditional office schedule did: I needed the structure for a while, but I truly love project-based employment. And I love being my own boss! I’m confident with money, so that helps – my dad gave me a good foundation, both in finance and in being handy – and I rely on all of those skills as the owner of my own business.

The thing that I miss the most from performing was the family atmosphere: being in a cast, a group of people with lots of commonality. There was an instant connection on a deep level. And those rare moments when I was onstage, really creating and connecting with the audience – I miss those, too. But I get some of those moments back in shooting, in creating those strong, and very quick, connections to people help me to parse out how to show them in their best light. I get positive feedback, rather than the cold “thank you” of the audition room. And I get to be creative on a daily basis. But mostly, I feel that I’m doing something worthwhile: by staging a comfortable, relaxed shoot, having a good time, and then seeing my clients so pleased with the end result solidifies that my choices are worthwhile, and what I do has value.

Any advice or parting shots?

I don’t regret studying music: it’s made me uniquely suited for the professional niche in which I find myself. I count myself lucky to have been successful in three very different creative career paths, and to know that I can carry forward all three in some manner throughout my life. Nothing’s off the table.

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