Tag Archives: career changers

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.


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.


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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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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Opportunity: Leadership Intensive

OpAmOpera America is again offering a fantastic professional development course for Opera professionals. The application deadline for their Leadership Intensive is January 31st. As a member of the inaugural class, I can tell you that the experience changed my perspective on the business and my role within it profoundly, and that’s in large part due to the people I met and worked with there. Their advice, expertise, and support have been really invaluable – and the fact that they’re great fun makes our continuing connection something I look forward to greatly.

It’s a wonderful experience – I recommend it wholeheartedly!

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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.


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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Paulette Bleam’s career path, from figure skater to tv writer/producer to Sumazi. It’s a great story, and touches on a field that’s not all-that well known.

(And the Lionel Richie campaign? PURE. GOLD.)


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Continuing Education

Continuing Education

I was a part of the inaugural Opera America Leadership Intensive, and I cannot overstate the impact it has had on me – both on a professional and personal level. Applications are open for the class of 2014 – if opera is your thing, this is most definitely for you.

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Indirect paths, speechifying, and links galore.


I read a great post today by Brooke Berman about the differences between what success looks like when you’re a 20-something and a 30-something. (Taking into account that everyone’s definition of success is different – I’m not looking for hate mail, here.) In September 2013 I tried to talk to students at my alma mater about this very thing – the fact that the life and career that we choose is based on those things we find interesting, that hold value. I wish I had Brooke’s lovely, insightful article to reference in my talk.

And, because I’m way too chicken to post the video (that Carnegie Mellon captured and gave to me, which was very nice), I’ll post my speech. It’s long, and rambling, and there are no guarantees that this is what actually came out of my mouth; but it was what I intended to say.


I started my career a million years ago, as a Carnegie Mellon music student. (Voice Major, Music Ed certification. Light Lyric Mezzo) Since it’s been a million years since I sat where you’re sitting (actually, we sat over in Alumni Concert Hall, because this beautiful theatre was Drama Department turf in my day), I was trying to figure out where to start this chat.

I crowdsourced. I emailed colleagues. I called classmates. It was confusing, mostly because there were so many things to say. And because I really didn’t want this to turn into Storytime with Crazy Auntie Lee.

So let me take a poll: how many of you are going to make careers as performers? Look around the room at your colleagues. You’re all going to make it. I hope you do. But to put things in perspective: my class at CMU started with 24 students our freshman year. We graduated with half of that. And I think – at last count there were 2 who were still performing.


Harsh odds. Granted, I’m more than a few years out of school so many of my peers have at this point transitioned from performing to doing something else.  I’m definitely not one of those two. My singing – while I do it all the time, in showers and cars and while grilling and pulling weeds – is not professional caliber anymore. And it’s OK – actually it’s great! Don’t feel sorry for me for ‘giving up my dreams’ because I didn’t – as dancer Shawn Renee Lent said in her great article “Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up” it wasn’t that she gave up, it’s that her dream got bigger.

I spend a lot of time talking with “reformed” performers – folks like me who opted out of the performance life. There are a million reasons for doing so, some that you won’t experience until you leave: the anxiety of a largely freelance budget (otherwise known as “how long does this paycheck need to last me”), the highly nomadic lifestyle and its effects on personal relationships. Family. Getting to the end of your abilities before you get a career. It all can happen.

So, I’m going to chat with you a little bit about the state of the field as I see it. I’m going to talk about the job market that you’ll be entering and how to maximize your time here to up your chances of getting work out there. I’m also going to talk about discernment and self-knowledge, as those are the 2 things that you’re going to need in spades, and that no one can do for you.

Let me start with a little bit about my job, to give you some context as to where I’m coming from. (I have a dog, and a good friend after an incident that you can guess, coined the phrase “You smell what I’m steppin’ in?)

  • Every autumn, I read through over 1,000 applications from singers and pianists to work at Wolf Trap Opera (I’m going to focus on opera for a bit – instrumentalists, you can use some of these same stats to understand Aspen or Marlboro.)
  • I schedule somewhere between 500-600 folks for live auditions. We don’t take audio or video submissions, and everyone has to audition, has to be in the same room with us to be considered. Singers are allowed 2 summers with us, no more.
  • We are on the road for the better part of 6 weeks, doing the most extensive audition tour of any American opera company. 8-10 cities, trying to get close enough to most parts of the country to minimize the travel fees that you all have to pay.
  • We choose, at most:
    • 2 coaching fellows – pianists to work with the singers.
    • 16 Studio Artists – the younger tier of singers, undergraduates transitioning to graduate study, trying to figure out if this field is really for you.
    • 20 Filene Young Artists – emerging professionals who sing principal roles in our mainstage productions.Some of the alums during my tenure have been:
  • And some of our more well-known alums are:
  • The competition is fierce. It should be, because we choose the best singers every year and THEN choose the repertoire around them. We’re the only people in the country – maybe anywhere – who start with the singers and work backward from them to figure out the repertoire. It’s a crazy-making process, but it gives us some of the best results.

If you’re here, you want to be involved in this crazy field in some way, so let’s talk about the field at large.

The field is changing. Daily. Revenue models that worked aren’t working as well. Donors are growing older, as is our reliance on their philanthropy in the wake of plunging ticket sales. In many ways, this is just retrenchment, paring back the excesses of the 1980s and 1990s when companies were sprouting up left and right. But make no mistake, funding crises, labor relations and fiscal mismanagement have shuttered some great organizations – Opera Boston in 2011, Virginia Opera. New York City Opera is pleading for donations on Kickstarter (and the Gawker crowds are voicing an opinion that we’re going to have to deal with more often, I feel). The Minnesota Orchestra  is embroiled in one of the nastiest disputes that I can remember. (If you’ve not read Drew McManus’ blog Adaptristration, go there now.  If you don’t know about these things – you should. This is the industry that you’re asking to support you.

What does that mean for you?

  • Well, it means that the number of performance opportunities that you’ll have will be diminished, and those that exist will be more difficult to win. If you look at Europe  – we’ll take the Vienna Staatsoper, since it’s ostensibly the busiest house in the world, and look at their season. They’re doing 51 operas, and most of them get 2 to 6 of performances. If you’re hired to sing a comprimario role at the Staatsoper, you KNOW you’re going on for at least that many shows. But here in the US, the number of opportunities is smaller. Look at the Met – they have 26 productions in their 2013-14 season and each one gets between 4&6 performances. Heck, let’s go closer to home – Pittsburgh Opera is presenting 7 productions with 4 performances of each. So, in order to win one of those US gigs, you have to be more put together.
  • For an organization like mine, every performance is a financial risk, or an investment. So, when we’re looking to hire people, we do quite a bit of research on them. We keep a database of every audition you’ve done for us – what repertoire you’ve offered, whether you’ve applied and been denied an audition, whether you cancelled your audition or simply didn’t show. We also keep track of who you’ve worked with, and we reach out to those people – not just ot confirm/refute what we heard in audition, but to find out what kind of musician you are – how dependable you are. Whether you’re a good colleague. Because if we’re going to hire you, we’re putting thousands of dollars behind you – maybe not directly into your pockets, but to give you first-class directors and conductors, to get the word out that you’re performing, to support you with costumes and sets and housing and coaches and all of that. Our dollars are too few to back someone who consistently doesn’t have their music learned before arrival, or who creates more drama offstage than onstage.
  • It means that 4 years of school are likely not enough for you to become a fully-functioning musical artist. You need to keep building your skills and experience after you leave here.
  • (Now here’s the rub: for one or two of you? Four years will indeed be enough. There’s always one or two who screw the curve for the rest of us, and kick-ass right out of the box. But if you think that’s you? Chances are it’s not.)

School looks at your potential; Opera companies and Presenters look at you as a professional. We don’t have the ability to nuture you like a 4 year institution does. So make sure that you’re ready to audition/apply/perform at a high level.

  • Know where you are on a national level, rather than that of your school. Every year I see résumés for young men and women who are singing roles at their undergraduate institutions that they have no business singing in the real world. And this comes back to that potential vs professional point; your school is supposed to give you an idea of what you might sing someday. But you need to be realistic about the size of the orchestra that you’re singing over, the age of the character, and whether or not you’re actually hireable as that part.

SO, Who knows where the field will be in 2-4 years?

Not me.

Not you either.

So, how do you figure out what your career’s going to look like?

Beats me. In fact, career seems to me to be largely a retrospective thing – you look back on a career. You can try to plan one, but oftentimes that pesky thing called life gets in the way.

In fact, I like to think about the differences between school and career in the same way I think about searching and browsing on the internet.

When I was prepping for this little talk, I looked for specific things:

  • I crowdsourced on FB, trying to figure out where to start.
  • I looked for info on Minnesota, City Opera, the HuffPo article I read about Shawn Lent. I had specific pieces of information that I was trying to track down, and limited time in which to do so. That’s like school – you’re trying to get a specific (and admittedly large) amount of skills and information into your brain and body. You learn the pieces your teachers assign or that you get hired to do. You study languages and theory and piano so that you can communicate and ostensibly teach yourself. You learn the stylistic trappings of half-a-dozen time periods and composers to be truer to the music. The basic skills and info are specific, and there are things you can customize to your interests and skills )– prolly not a lot of tenors specializing in solo viola rep of the late 20th century)

But when I graduated I started looking for something that I didn’t know existed. And for that you have to browse. Now, I cannot be the only one in this room who has gone down the reddit or youtube or HuffPo (I have a problem) rabbithole and emerged hours later after following link after link of things that were funny or silly or compelling. Finding a career is simply making a series of choices based on what you find enjoyable/challenging/fun. There are mistakes to be made, sure, and there are lessons learned.

So, my path in the big building blocks:

  1. Graduate from Carnegie Mellon. Know that maybe I’m not the next Renee Fleming, but still think I’m pretty put together. Get called back for enough NY auditions to get an NYC PO box and voicemail, but not enough to bite the bullet and move there.
  2. Music direct a show at a local theater. Miss an audition in NYC. Decide that there’s plenty to do in town.
  3. Take a teaching gig (CLO). Sing in every choir in the city. Flirt with grad programs in psychology, pedagogy, performance, but nothing calls me so much that I HAVE to do it.
  4. Get a full-time teaching job. Run a 5k. Start a band. Play Club Café and record a demo with Scott Blasey (hey – it was 15 years ago!) and feel pretty cool.
  5. 9/11. Decide that maybe I should study again.
  6. Go to grad school. Change fachs. I’m now a newly married, new light-lyric soprano. Oh, and I’m 30.

The thing that you’ll notice is that I was trying lots of other things, but they were all musical. The stint selling pianos (DISASTROUS) and working in an engineering office were not musical, but they taught me that I WANTED to be doing something with music, with performing. Even if I was becoming less and less enamored of the actual performing piece of things.

So I finished school. Got my M.M. Found projects that I loved

  • Volunteering for Opera Lafayette
  • Directing for Opera Theater of Northern Virginia
  • Church gig. (The church that the Kennedys attended before taking office. I was married there. It was a great place.)
  • Explored internships, and landed one at Wolf Trap, helping with their world premiere of John Musto & Mark Campbell’s Volpone, one of the funniest and best operas out there. (No, I’m not biased. Even the Grammy committee thought so!)
  • Kept in touch (I hate ‘networking’ the word, but love what it does) with the people who I admired and enjoyed.

After I interned with Wolf Trap – assisting the director, helping in the office, I realized that I loved having my fingers in all sorts of different projects. It was an eye opener. And I pretty much stalked them (nicely) until they hired me. I’ve been there since in a full-time capacity since 2006, and during my time have helped produce 2 commissions/world premiere operas and 4 chamber music premieres. I do most of my work in the summer with the Studio singers – undergrads and 1st year grads who are trying to figure out if this field of work is for them. (Full disclosure: I’m just as happy if they decide NOT to go into the field – I just want them to have enough inforantion to make a good decision.)

So my path to this Performing Arts career was very much a Browse, a trip down the ol reddit rabbithole. It was finding things that challenged me, that lit me up. And I was lucky in the fact that I use my training at CMU all the time in my work. I can talk about instrument ranges with composers because of methods classes with Lew Strouse. I have critical ears and can’t so much listen to classical music for fun anymore, but when I’m listening for work and it’s awesome? It’s the best thing ever.

I’m not alone. Many of my classmates found their paths by browsing around, following the projects and work that they loved, and making choices when things were difficult. I started getting in touch with them a few years ago, collecting stories of where they were, and how (and if!)they made the transition from artist.

  • Andrew Copper – French horn player, now the Assistant Executive Director of the Usdan Center.
  • Mark Bradley Miller – still performs, but is more known as a photographer and interior designer. He can make anyone look good!
  • Sean McAuliffe – was one of the original 24, but is now a software designer and songwriter.
  • Brian Deutsch – is a life coach!
  • Jason Poole – is a writer/ethnomusicologist, studying indigenous Hawai’ian music

There are many other examples, and all of them deliriously happy with where they ended up. Not one (especially the Hawaiian music guy) could’ve predicted their paths when they were undergrads., but they were the right ones.

They listened to their guts, about

  • What was important
  • What wasn’t important
  • They researched
  • They floundered

Not ONE of them regretted the deep study and focus that they learned at music school. In fact, creative problem-solving was the #1 thing they credited their studies with developing.

  1. The ability to take criticism, weigh its usefulness and implement it.
  2. Flexibility.

Your jobs as students, as I see them:

  1. Go to class. If you break down the per-hour cost, you’ll see it’s a lot of $ to waste. And getting that feedback, that knowledge that you can get here, from these real-world folks, will be MUCH more expensive in the real world, if you’re working with folks of this caliber.
  2. Skills. Learn how to count, how to sing in tune (Don’t laugh – it’s WAY more difficult that you think.), how to speak a language or two besides English. Read, so that you can talk to people about real-life, rather than just music.
  3. Learn everything you can about your field. Deep knowledge in anything is a good thing, if because it teaches you how to dig and to persevere, even if the material itself isn’t translatable.
  4. See every piece of theater you can, while you have the student discount. Give up beer for theater, live music, of any genre.
  5. Know yourself. Introvert/extrovert?
  6. Personal board of directors – faculty, staff, pals who will help you figure things out.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Karl Paulnack of the Boston Conservatory:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. 

… I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. 

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. …”

You are here to become artists. If your path leads you offstage, there are still ways for you to become artists, to make a career in service to the arts.

Thank you.

(I didn’t realize just how many of my original typos and formatting issues made it into the initial posting. Mea culpa! – Ed.)

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It’s so difficult to represent ourselves accurately on paper. When you’re trying to move from a performance résumé to an academic CV, or from the professional world to academia, or from performing to the non- or for-profit worlds, it’s hard to reframe experiences in a way that makes sense.

Linda Essig has a lovely outline for artists trying to put together a CV for academia. It makes sense to me – what do you think?

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Live from Vancouver

I’m writing from the lovely city of Vancouver, BC – and really, beautiful does not begin to describe the city, the weather, the geography, or the people. I’m here for the Opera America conference, and have been making some good connections and learning a lot – I am a big fan of professional development and enrichment, and while this introvert is looking forward to some quiet time, I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to attend and learn.

This article came up on my newsfeed today. I love the fact that the NYTimes is tracking the career paths of performers who have had alternate careers. As a voice student, I was in awe of all things Juilliard. It’s nice to know that the self-examination, struggle and discernment that I went through wasn’t unique to my circumstance.

Look back on your last 10 years. Where are you now? Where did you think you’d be? Are you content where you are?

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