Tag Archives: career transition

“Failure is the best thing for some people.”

The Telegraph UK has an interesting article written by Hanna Furness; a short interview with Tim Rice (That’s Sir Tim Rice to you!), the librettist who might be most well-known (at least to folks of a certain age, ahem) as the librettist for Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Lion King.

He had planned to be a lawyer.

He was good at tests, and he figured he’d ace his exams.

He didn’t.

In fact, every time he re-took them, his scores went down.

“When I went to do law, I kind of drifted through that and thought I can pass these exams. And I didn’t – I failed three times and each time I did worse and failed by a bigger margin.

“And that taught me so much. I always worry today when I see everybody has to pass – there’s very little failure these days. I think failure is the best thing for some people.

“It tells you whether you’re in the right job or the wrong one. It’s a cliche, but most people are good at something and most people are good at what they’re enthusiastic about.”

Failing stinks. It makes us feel icky – it challenges our perception of ourselves and our relationship with the world.

But oftentimes it either makes us look around for other options, or challenges us to dig in more deeply.

(So maybe it’s a win, even if it doesn’t really feel like it?)

Rock on, Sir Tim.

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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.

Why?

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.

and

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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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.

Ouch.

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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Profile Phriday: Nathan DePoint

Profile Phriday is BACK!

Today’s Profile Phriday focuses on one of the nicest guys in opera: Fort Worth Opera’s Company Manager, Nathan DePoint. Nathan started as a singer, but now works behind-the-scenes at one of the most innovative festivals in the country. I was lucky enough to get to know him last year during the Opera America Leadership Intensive, and I think you’ll find his story rings some bells – here it is.

Nathan DePoint

 

So, Nathan. What exactly is it that  you do?

I am currently the Company Manager for Fort Worth Opera.  That title means a lot of things, but ultimately I deal mostly with logistics and patience!  The fun parts of my job are hearing auditions and helping to plan future seasons and casting. I also enjoy casting and working with our chorus master to manage our chorus.  The stressful and biggest part of my job is handling all the logistics of our visiting artists.  I plan the travel, housing and transportation for each of our guest artists.   From the middle of March to the middle of May each year, I am on-call 24/7.  As soon as our artists arrive, I act as the first point of contact for them – anything from doctor recommendations and appointments to dry cleaners!  I also assemble and distribute the daily schedule during the festival and assist with many random production-based tasks.  Almost every single day is different – it keeps me on my toes!

Aaah…a juggler of sorts! So when did you get the opera bug?

Growing up in a small town in western NY, I never really had any exposure to opera.  My performing arts exposure was limited to mostly musicals; but while working on my BA, my voice really just opened up. That was when opera became a viable option, when I was hooked.

I can recall two very distinct performance moments that have led me to this point.  The first would be the first operatic role I ever learned and performed.  It was the role of Gil in Wolf-Ferrari’s one act opera The Secret of Susanna (we did it in English). It was such an amazing experience to perform my first opera “under the stairs” in Jones Recital Hall on the campus of John Brown University. From then on, I have basically been consuming opera.  The second specific memory I have is of seeing my first professional opera – Rigoletto produced by Tulsa Opera. Being at a small school, our productions were all done with piano.  To hear, live, the combination of the singers and the orchestra was overwhelming.  I remember getting goosebumps up and down my arms when hearing the “Sparafucilleeeeeeeeeeeeeee” and wanting so badly to be a bass!  (Obviously, I learned quickly that baritone was the best voice type.)

Hey, my guilty pleasure is Pierrot’s Tanzlied – you don’t have to sell me on baritones! So, you earned a degree in Voice/Opera?

 I have two degrees in music.  I earned my BA in Music with an emphasis in Vocal Performance from a small school in Northwest Arkansas called John Brown University, and my MM in Opera Performance from Wichita State University.  Starting my undergrad, I was actually a double-major in Music and, believe it or not, Construction Management (I have always been drawn to architecture, and that was intended to be a stepping stone to that end.)   I chose Music as the other major because I had always been involved in it.  I grew up singing – in church choir, the choir at school or in high school musicals. (GO MUSIC EDUCATION!) I can’t remember a time when singing wasn’t an aspect of my life.

But how did you move from on-stage to off? (I hear that lattes were involved?)

I moved to Fort Worth, Texas following graduate school, and while I was working at Starbucks, I met Darren Keith Woods.  Darren is the General Director of Fort Worth Opera.  One of my fellow Starbucks employees worked for another non-profit that shared the building with FWO, so he made a call.  I am pretty sure that conversation went something like:

“Hey, so I am working with this opera singer at Starbucks”

DKW: “Oh, brother…”

“I’m just wondering if you would be interested in meeting him”

DKW: (being the generous human he is) “Sure.  I’ll just stop to get a coffee and talk with him for a few minutes”

Little did I know how instrumental he would be in my life going forward, and what an incredible mentor he would become.  After hearing me sing, he invited me to participate with the FWO Studio Artists in masterclasses, and when they needed to release the baritone from the studio, they called me up to replace him.  He asked if I could learn Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk (the two children’s operas) in time for a Monday performance.  This was Thursday afternoon.  So, of course I said, “yes” and faked my way through that first performance.  I finished out the year covering Sharpless in Butterfly and Ford in Falstaff, as well as creating (and retiring, since the role has been subsequently cut from the opera) the role of Jos in the world premiere of Frau Margot in the inaugural Fort Worth Opera Festival in 2007.

The final “defining” moment really was my final audition season.  It was fall of 2007. I had taken a “real job” at a law firm to please the parents of the girl I was dating at the time – that whole social pressure of the male being the provider – and it was wearing me out.  We broke up, and that left me with this job that was draining any joy from life. Then I went to audition! As you can probably imagine, it was just awful. I wasn’t singing well. I wasn’t satisfied with being the second choice, and quite frankly, I was a good singer, but not great. As I had been in the Fort Worth Opera studio the spring prior, I called up Darren and talked to him about moving into a job that would allow me to still be involved in the art form without having to be a singer.  It just so happened that they were looking for a Development Associate and the rest is history.

There are obvious advantages in starting an administrator’s journey as a singer: most obvious is knowing the repertoire from a different point of view. You know the score on a totally different level when you’ve studied them from a singer’s perspective rather than simply plugging in voices to a cast list.  You have a better idea of how voice colors do or don’t work in certain roles. My thought process while transitioning was this: to figure out what skills I needed to become a successful GD.  Starting in development was an obvious advantage: as a General Director, if you can’t raise money, you aren’t going to be very successful.  Looking back, I think being a singer was a waypost on my journey –  I don’t see this as a back-up at all! Administration was always something in which I was interested.

I think the solidifying moment for me; the moment that made me sure I had made the right decision, was when I was accepted, as one of twelve people world-wide, into the Opera America Leadership Intensive program in the summer of 2012.  The program is designed to recognize and cultivate the next generation of operatic leaders.

So, what are your favorite parts of your job?

Coming up with solutions. It sounds simple, but really, that is it.  Sometimes the solutions are easily achieved, but there are times when they are really a puzzle.  Those are the ones that give me the most satisfaction.

Another source of great satisfaction is when our guest artists want to return to Fort Worth. That tells me that the experience of being in Fort Worth was a good one beyond just the stage, and they want to relive it.  I know that I have a large part to play in that, and take that responsibility very seriously.  It’s fun when I get to see friends year after year come back. That’s when I know I’ve done my job well.

Do you regret leaving the stage?

I have never had one moment of regret since I made the transition: I am not the type of person that can do something halfway.  When I decided, I also decided I would never sing again. Period. Not practice, not dabble…it was cold turkey. The only exception I have made was when I sang for my little sister at her wedding (talk about nerve-wracking!!).  Other than that, I haven’t even entertained the thought of it. If you can honestly say that you won’t regret it, then you are ready.

The interesting thing to me is that I haven’t even really MISSED it!  Every now and again, when I see a production of Nozze, I have the slightest pang of missing it (The Count was my favorite character to create), but it was the relationships, the bonding and the fun creating during the rehearsal process that I miss.  I was never one of those singers that enjoyed the performing part nearly as much as the process. That’s what I loved about being a singer; being creative, being allowed to explore and try things…also, not having my days start until 10 am was pretty great, too!

Do you have any advice for conflicted singers/performers?

The only advice I could really give to a performer faced with this decision is to ask them this question; will you regret it?  If any part of you can answer that with a “yes”, you aren’t ready to give it up.

Follow your gut.  It is almost always right.

Be honest. Be upfront. Be a good colleague.  Don’t be afraid to invest in others. Best advice I could give.

Words to live by. Thanks for sharing your story!

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Make a new plan, Stan.

I had a great conversation yesterday about giving up dreams.

(You’ve just finished your autumn auditions, and you’re thinking “How could that possibly be a great conversation?!” Bear with me…)

I’ve known this pal since my Carnegie Mellon days. Both of us knew, at some point, that we weren’t going to attain the performance level that we wanted to – it was a physical thing. The voice, in my case, was likely never going to be as large or as distinctive as I wanted it to be, which was going to influence the roles and repertoire in which I could be effectively cast. And, while I could strive to make it the best it could be? It was likely never going to be quite good enough. For him, the combination of a past injury and the pressure to be perfect -which created a tension that affected his performances – kept him from reaching the level he wanted.

We both got pretty close. And then? We stalled out. And we both struggled to figure out what life would look like after this singular focus was gone.

It was like a break up, an ugly break up. I remember telling myself that I was not a quitter, and wouldn’t give up. As I continued to pursue the dream, it seemed harder to give up, as I had spent so much time and energy (and, let’s be honest, cashola) on its pursuit. I was firmly caught in that sunk-cost fallacy, and changing direction would mean losing face, admitting I wasn’t good enough, dealing with the feelings of shame and inadequacy that were part and parcel. I postponed the decision until, really, I couldn’t anymore…until the cons outweighed the pros, and the feelings of insecurity that I felt at my position in the field were greater than those that I felt at the prospect of changing career paths.

I’ve cited Augusten Burrough’s Two Minute Memoir before, in which he talks about giving up his initial dream (acting) because he finds he’s not as good as it naturally as he’d want to be. And he found something better – which he wouldn’t have, had he not actually been give a realistic view of his skills. He had a mirror to look through – the recorder gave him an unvarnished view of his performance, and he recognized that he was missing that something that would allow him to make a  career in theater.

As a teacher, I knew I had to tell the truth to my students – it wasn’t just a moral obligation, it was that they could smell falsity in the air. They knew if I wasn’t being 100% honest with them…most of the time. It gets harder to regulate your inner b-s monitor, however, when someone is telling you something you want very much to hear. And rather than surrounding myself with tough-love, I tended to surround my singer self with students and pals who thought I was amazing. (Good for the ego, terrible for the technique.)

Janine Shepherd gave a TED talk about her path to recovery after a horrible accident. She had self-identified as an athlete for all of her adult life, and her physical prowess was taken from her . The video is here, but let me share with you a quote that I found relevant to yesterday’s discussion:

The philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be.” I now know that it wasn’t until I let go of who I thought I was that I was able to create a completely new life. It wasn’t until I let go of the life I thought I should have that I was able to embrace the life that was waiting for me.

All this to simply say that if it’s not working for you? It’s ok – something will. Don’t be afraid to look.

(And as a side note? The song that the title’s taken from. I didn’t know what this song was about for a long time, but I loved it because my name was in it.)

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Reading Room

On my reading list for the holidays? This new book from Clara Pressler. She says, in a post on the Fractured Atlas Blog:

When I went through my career transition, I couldn’t find any resources that spoke to my challenge of positioning my performing experience as the right fit for another job or industry.  And so I did a ton of research and pieced together my own process for finding a new career that was an even better fit.  In my second career as a marketer, working with arts service businesses, it’s become clearer to me what can be done to strengthen a performing career or gracefully transition to an entirely new role.

 

One of the most daunting things about the career transition is figuring out how to translate performing experience into language that other fields can understand and value…it can often feel like hammering a square peg into a round hole. With her performing experience and marketing savvy, I’m betting she has great tools, and I’m geekily excited to dig into this book. If you’re in NYC and attend one of her events, please let me know about it!

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Back on the bicycle.

imgresIt takes a lot of courage to walk away from a career path that you thought was going to be your life’s through-line. Most of the time it feels like breaking up with a guy (or girl) whom you’re deeply in love with, but who is not really the best thing for you. (Haven’t we all had -at least – one of those?) It takes a lot of thought and preparation, soul searching to the highest degree.

Oftentimes it seems like the easiest thing to do is to walk away.

We justify our new career by throwing ourselves whole-heartedly at it, like we did with that first artistic love. We decide, since we’ll not ever be the Second Coming of Pavarotti that singing isn’t worth it at all anymore.

This is an extreme approach, admittedly. But for some folks there’s no middle ground – you’re either doing it, or you’re pointedly not doing it. Sometimes that separation is extremely valuable – allowing a reprioritization of life goals, and an amount of  personal freedom not found in pursuing high artistic ideals.

Here’s the kicker. After a while? Most of us really miss that artistic thing…the singing, the playing with an ensemble, the creating moments in time and space that are special, distinct, that have artistic value…the collaboration…the sensation of losing ourselves in a practice room or studio for hours on end, feeling like only minutes had elapsed. As we get older, that sense of flow that seemed so easy to capture as a young artist seems more elusive.

(When I use “us,”  “we,” “you?” I really mean “me.”)

I wound up, thankfully, in a job that’s intimately involved with the performing arts. It has its positives and negatives:

  • I hear singers all year round that could clean the floor with my best past attempts.
  • I am inspired and challenged as a listener.
  • I have colleagues who also have strong performance backgrounds – dancers, instrumentalists, actors, singers.

Sometimes those colleagues challenge me. They have a great idea for an ensemble, a send-up of a popular song, an original tune. And I am a willing volunteer to hack around in a practice rooms for HOURS on any number of projects. (I have always loved rehearsal – the exploration and growth that happens in the room is the most exciting thing IMHO.) But getting onstage? Never really an easy thing for me…not when I was singing or playing, and certainly not now when I’m so out of that routine. It’s terrifying.

But sometimes? They ask. And I bluff my way to a “sure!” And I sweat like a villain in a Bond movie.

And it actually ends up being OK. Fun, even.

Turns out that once you’ve learned to ride that bicycle? You can, in fact, still ride it years later. Maybe you can’t pop a wheelie or race anymore, but you can get from point A to point B.

(And by “you?” I mean “me.” And also, “you.”)

Thanks to KC and GB for letting me play along with this year’s Christmas tune. I had a blast!

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Profile Friday Roundup

Greetings from San Francisco! (I bet that curtain weighs hundreds of pounds...)

As I try to acclimate myself to the west coast (it’s been three days and I’m finally waking up at 5:30am, rather than 4am. Progress!), I hope you’ll skim through the profiles that we’ve featured here over the last few months.

(Listed in order of appearance.)

Mark Bradley Miller

James Lynn

Melissa Collom

Joseph Craig

Jennifer Empie

Tonya McKinny

Sean McAuliffe

Kim Pensinger Witman

Tracy Cherpeski

Vic Muenzer

Stephen Brody

Annie Burridge

Tom Wright

Peter Zimmerman

Gia-Ninh Chuang

At the very least, there are some salient points to be taken from each of these journeys. At best – and that’s personally where I think these stories and intentions belong – they’re tales of discernment and courage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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