Tag Archives: CMU

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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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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Mark Bradley Miller

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

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

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

What drew you to your chosen field?

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

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

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

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

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

So, what did you do next?

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

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

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

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

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

Any advice or parting shots?

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

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