Tag Archives: creative folks

From diverse sources.

I’ve recently stumbled across three articles that are swimming around my head in a interesting manner.

This is the first. That’d be a heck of a pie chart! But now, as I look back at the ways in which I’ve spend the approximately 32,000 hours (!) I’ve likely worked, it’s still difficult to characterize much of what I’ve “done.” And, as I let this blog languish and stall on other, non-professional writing projects, I’m reminded that I need to work a few hours a week on the things that make my heart sing.

This is the second. I read it in the print edition, and found it fascinating, mostly because one of the traits they illustrate concerns living in the moment, not projecting…and it sounds a lot like mindfulness, doesn’t it? Here’s a quote:

“I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything’s perfectly fine.

“So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”

(Now, if you read that in Yoga Journal? O Magazine? It’d be easy to turn into a mantra of sorts. But the context makes it a bit stickier for me to wrap my head around, somehow.)

This is the third. There’s an clear analogy here for a performing career; the Eagle Scout level of preparedness needed, the brutal slog of little money and an expensive vocation, the uncertainty surrounding each occasion, the crazy desire to fly. The luck that accompanies the right day, the right waft of air, the right conditions for an epic flight.

Happy Monday, all. Hope the week is great.

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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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Gia-Ninh Chuang – From Singer-Pianist to Fitness Professional

Ok, Gia-Ninh. Let’s start at the very beginning (“…a very good place to start…” I think there might be a few musical theater asides in today’s profile. It’s just a hunch.)

Well, starting at the beginning does indeed start with a musical! The Sound of Music, to be exact. I was obsessed with that movie as a child, and went to elementary school knowing solfege! I attended a private elementary school affiliated with the Southern Baptist church in my town. My non-practicing Buddhist Mom and non-practicing Catholic father wanted me to be challenged, and even though it was a sacrifice for our family they opted out of the public school. I was a boy soprano – with super high notes – and no stage fright. I sang in the choir. I remember the first time that I realized that I enjoyed performing was during the Christmas pageant. I played the shepherd Jesse, the shepherd that was leading the 3 Wise Men to the baby Jesus.  It was the first time my entire family came to see me perform, and having that support and buy-in felt fantastic! (Full disclosure – some of my relatives didn’t really get the story… one uncle still calls me Jesse the King.) (Ed. -That will be a great WWF wrestling name someday. Keep it!)

When I reached middle school, I hit the opposite side of that fantastic performance coin:  my voice changed in the middle of a solo at the Regional Choir Concert. I pulled a total Peter Brady. It was traumatic! When the teacher suggested that I lip-sync for the rest of the school year, I was crushed and stopped singing. I had started piano lessons the year prior, and threw myself into practicing – hours a day, just because I enjoyed it so much.

When I hit high school, I got back into singing, and found a strong role model (more on her later) in my choir teacher. I accompanied people, started an a cappella group (back before Glee made it cool…we were called The Suspenders – get it??), made it into All-State. As I approached senior year and college I started thinking about being a choir teacher. I won a piano competition at the Peabody Conservatory, and it seemed like studying music was going to be my thing.

So, you went to school for music.

No.

You see, once I started preparing for scholarship competitions and such, I realized that it was going to have to be my livelihood. And that took much of the joy out of it for me. I was struggling a little bit at home, too… I was in the middle of my coming out process, and it was tough. So, I started my freshman year at the University of Maryland with a Psychology major, and a minor in Opera.

Well, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. But when did your path change?

A pal of mine from the UMD Chorale was teaching aerobics classes at the campus rec center, and pretty much dared me to take a class. It was SO MUCH FUN, and I was instantly hooked.  I thought, “Wait, I could get paid for having fun like this?” Within a month I was enrolled in instructor training.

It allowed me to perform – which was something I enjoyed immensely – but it also allowed me to communicate with people, to translate concepts in ways that they could understand and use (which used the linguistic training I learned as a music minor). Plus, I was surrounded by music – the pulse of my classes was set to music, and having a strong knowledge of musical forms allowed me to customize my spin classes and aerobic choreography in a finely-calibrated way. So I switched my major from Psychology to Kinesiology.

Cool. What happened next?

I dropped out of school.

What?

Well, I was teaching full-time, in addition to my classwork.  But my passion for teaching and helping with my students eclipsed my academic goals.  And I won this big competition – the first ever winner of the AAAI/ISMA Aerobics Star Search in 2002… think American Idol for instructors.  I also had success in fitness competitions as an athlete.  I was 23, and suddenly had all of this visibility and momentum, and I pretty much thought this was my path. Heck, I was on Oprah and ESPN in the same year – if that’s not making it, what is? I decided to stop taking classes and ride that train.

But that certain path that I thought existed: win the competitions, teach great classes, give workshops at a conference, get a sponsorship, etc… well, that momentum started to slow down.  So in 2005 I went back to school. (Stay in school, kids…stay in school.)

When I was back in school, a pal told me that Equinox – a fitness company with a reputation for being the best in the industry – was opening its first location in the DC area. (Ed. – This is where I first met Gia-Ninh…I think it was a kettlebell class? I might’ve wept from the muscle soreness two days later, but I went back for more!) She suggested that I apply for the Group Fitness Manager position there. It was a great place to be – I taught, but I also used that psychology background to support and balance the diverse personalities of my instructors; I really felt that my job was to take care of my staff, so that they could do their best job.  And it taught me some valuable lessons about putting the success of my program and my instructors above feeding my own ego. It was both instructive and humbling.

So, from a boy soprano to a successful fitness professional…what skills or habits transferred?

You know, actually quite a number! A large part of singing well has to do with small, precise muscle coordination, and in fitness, you’re coordinating larger groups of muscles. Plus, both disciplines require a strong commitment to healthy living.  Both singers and fitness professionals ask their body to perform set skills on cue to do their job. Taking care of your body is taking care of your livelihood.

I referred to my high school choir director, Dr. Barbara Baker before, but I cannot overemphasize the influence she had on me, both professionally and personally.  There are several things that she said that have stuck with me through the years, the first being this:

  • The stronger your foundation (or, in musical terms, technique), the more you’ll be able to do, especially in less-than-optimum circumstances. Nerves, illness, they’re all things that performers have to work through… the key is to be able to do so without hurting oneself. I find that this particular message transfers tidily to my work in fitness, too – the better your form and technique, the more you can do and the faster you reach your goals without injury.
  • She also taught us humility, and to realize that we were just one part of a larger whole. No FIG JAM. (Ed. – Huh?) FIG JAM stands for “[expletive] I’m Good, Just Ask Me.”  Let your work speak for itself; everyone else will figure it out.
  • I was also constantly amazed at the ways in which she could ask us/inspire up to do more than we thought we were capable. Even as a fitness professional, my approach is about asking others to stretch themselves…don’t show them what you can do, show them what THEY can do.

What advice do you have?

Be nice. I’ve always wanted to be the guy who was amazingly good at his job, but that’s not enough; I want to also be the guy that people enjoy being around and is fun to work with.  When people want to work with you, countless opportunities to collaborate, learn, and gain exposure come your way.  Now, I’ve not always been 100% successful, but it’s something that I work towards constantly.

Protect your body. Being healthy and having a strong physical foundation in your discipline, lays the groundwork for making life easier and more enjoyable.

No FIG JAM. Don’t tell me how good you are, show me. No one wants to work with people who think they’re the better than everyone else.  It’s shorthand for staying humble and always thinking about how my decisions affect the people around me AND my own reputation.

Just do it. At this point in my career, I’ve taught over 15,000 classes. I take a huge amount of pride in the quality of my teaching, and also have found a deep confidence in that amount of experience.

Gia-Ninh has recently relocated to Idaho, where he is continuing his studies and maintaining a private fitness practice. For more information on him or his services, you can find him on the web at http://kineticedgefitnessconcepts.com/Home.html

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Thursday Link-O-Rama.

In a past blog life, I’d make lists of things that I stumbled across that were interesting and/or relevant. So, in that vein, I present The Inaugural Indirect Routes Link-O-Rama!

  • My fellow introverts? Proof that we know how to have a good time.
  • I tend to panic when I wake up (every night, ahem) at 2:30am, wide awake. This article says that maybe it’s not such a bad thing, and moreover, maybe I should leverage it for some real creativity.
  • The to-do list: more than an organization/procrastination exercise.
  • Creativity. Profanity. Beauty. Wayne White. Can’t wait to see it!
  • It might be heresy, but I wonder if we shouldn’t be thinking of work along these lines more often?

I’m in the thick of the annual talent search (a.k.a. the Dream-Crushing marathon), looking at student résumés and wishing that more of them were better proofreaders…I’m pretty forgiving, but the blatant typos are starting to wear on me. (I’m pretty sure Los Angels refers to the baseball team, and not the town…right?) Final passes for Cincinnati, Chicago, and Houston applications tomorrow, and screening for the home stand on Friday. But, most fun? (Boy, I wish sarcasm read better in print…) a big chunk of time spent trying to figure out exactly how many pennies we have for next summer and our best options for squeezing the most we can from them.

It’s easy work to do, until I try to do it thoughtfully and consistently…then it takes all of the time and brain cells I have. So, if you have brain cells to spare, or advice? I’ll take it!

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Peter Zimmerman – from Performer to Presenter

Peter Zimmerman is the Director of Programming for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. He’s responsible for booking the majority of the 200+ shows that the Foundation presents each year in two vastly different spaces: a 7,000 seat outdoor amphitheater (The Filene Center) and a 375 seat rough-hewn jewel box (The Barns). Peter’s a colleague and friend, and we’ve talked often about his path…I’m excited to share his story with you today!

So, Peter; start at the beginning. When did you know that performing was your thing?

Back in the 3rd grade! I played the little drummer boy in my school Christmas pageant – I really wanted to play that drum! And I still vividly remember being on stage, the audience all looking at me… and thinking “I really like this!” I played instruments all through high school – was in the school symphony, played in the pit bands for the musicals, but I was really interested in playing in bands. I wasn’t really planning to go to college: I figured I’d gig for a few years and then be a rock star.

But you went to school – where, and why?

I went to Adams State in Colorado. I initially majored in French Horn performance – got a full scholarship through my H.S. orchestra teachers Craig Bailey and his younger brother Brent Bailey. I really explored everything I could in the arts, and found myself more drawn to the acting side of things. It got to the point where I lost my scholarship because I wasn’t participating in any of the ensembles – I was taking Shakespeare and acting classes (as well as the education requirements that my mom insisted on), and they became my priorities. I was awarded a B.A. in Theater Arts, Speech Communications, Secondary Education and Music. (Editor: Please tell me that it took you more than 4 years to do all that!) I did it in 4.5 years.

Incredible! So, then you’re out of school. What were the Seven Stages of Peter’s Career? (Ok, that riff on the Seven Ages of Man didn’t quite work…forgive me.)

Well, my first gig was as a gravedigger – an important first experience for any arts administrator. (Editor: Seriously? That explains a lot…) I taught for four years in public high schools in Colorado and took the summers to work on my own artistry. I was part of the IATSE crew for the Denver Theater Center, but also acted in the ensemble. (It was a repertory company – talk about learning how to multi-task and prioritize!) Eventually I moved to New York, mostly because I wanted more visibility in Denver, but was told I had to go to NYC to achieve that. I lived there for 2 years and acted – film, tv, stagework, touring -with some real success. But I had some hesitations. My physical type was really common, and I wasn’t a triple threat the way my competitors were; it was going to take a whole lot of work to get me to the next level. And I had a three-year old…the schedule was making it really difficult for me to be the kind of father that I wanted to be.

So, how did you make the jump from acting to presenting?

Remember this: never burn bridges. My student teaching supervisor from college, Ken Foster, and I kept in touch throughout my public school years and my sojourn in New York. That connection got me my first presenting gig, at Penn State, where Ken headed the department. I started a little bit at a time, at first throwing myself into implementing Ken’s vision, and eventually to bugging him for more responsibility. He let me create a children’s theater series – and actually witnessed one of my biggest flops…Peter and the Wolf…don’t ask. He gave me the freedom to succeed OR fail – he was both a safety net and a sounding board, but if I didn’t seek it, it wasn’t forced upon me. And, even after the Peter and the Wolf fiasco, he never chastized me – just asked me what I had learned from the experience.

I cherished his mentorship – I stayed at Penn State for 9 years. I found that I could still be involved in the theater, but could also have the stability I needed in order to have a family.

Heck, I can’t imagine leaving – what could’ve been better?

Well, actually, there was something! I took a job as the CEO/Executive Director of the Colonial Theater in Keene,  New Hampshire. (Keene had been a big town during railroad heyday, but when I was there the population hung right around 60,000.) It was a beautiful small vaudeville theater with a lot of character, and interesting programming – The Kinks, Little Feat, the Smothers Brothers, all acts that I got to know when I was there. I LOVED it. It fit all of my skill sets: raising money, grant writing for 2 successful capital campaigns for theater and marquee renovations, presenting live acts and film. We increased our staff and our budget was in the black, so I think I was good for the theater, but the job was great for me, personally, as well.

OK, now I’m totally stymied: were you looking to leave the Colonial? How did you end up at Wolf Trap?

Actually, it was a personal ask from (Wolf Trap President & CEO) Terre Jones. Through some common acquaintances and a star-crossed raffle at APAP,  we got to know each other. It seemed like time to take a risk, to step up. And it was a good move – I’ve been here for almost 14 years.

What aspects of your current job/profession give you the greatest satisfaction?

I am a fan of the deal. There’s a price on my head for how much I have to book, how much money I need to make for the organization. Confirming a booking gets me jazzed – closing a deal and following through to completion is the best feeling. Speaking honestly, however, there are lots of amazing acts that get away – probably two for every one that actually takes the stage.

I also loved teaching – I feel that impacting young people is important, and I get a lot of professional satisfaction from mentoring. If I had to go back to teaching at this point, I think I’d love it!

And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to getting a bit of a rush from being one of the folks that has access to some of the best performers in the world. There’s a status that’s accorded the level of access that I have, and while it’s not the whole picture, I still feel pretty awesome when a performer that I respect calls my cell to say hi.

Indeed! I’d kill for a few of those numbers, myself! So, it’s advice time. What words of wisdom do you have for the next generation?

Make connections: there are geographical ramifications to this business, and it can be hard to advance in the same geographic/organization. Extend your network!

There’s weren’t any Master of Arts Management programs when I was starting out, so I’d recommend talking to a talent buyer who’s in their mid 30s-40s to get the lay of the land. And examine the differences between non-profit and for-profit companies – the cultures are very different, and the goals are as well.

Find out how your current skills overlap with the job you want. For example, I learned budgeting and marketing when I was gigging in college…from there it wasn’t so hard to parlay that into production schedules for my educational theater productions or to Penn State or the Colonial. I learned time management when I was working that rep/IATSE job at Denver Theater Center. It all transfers.

I’d also learn how to say no. In my business, ‘no’ is the 2nd best answer. (‘Yes’ is obviously the best!) Maybe is my least favorite word – decisiveness saves time and money.

As I said before, don’t burn bridges. No matter how crappily you’re treated, suck it up. I have a million stories from colleagues across the nation to back that maxim up, but it bears repeating. Show up early. Stay late. Make yourself indispensible to your superiors

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Tom Wright

This week we’re talking with Tom Wright, the Director of Artistic Planning for Vancouver Opera. I met Tom during the Opera America Leadership Intensive, and it’s true what you’ve heard about Canadians being amazingly nice – Tom is a great guy! But even though his path has been consistently in the arts, he’s taken an interesting twist or two during his career. Here’s his story:

Ok, Tom. It seems like almost everyone I talk to started out as a singer. Are you a reformed performer?

Well, when I was in school I was musical – as a child I played violin, cello and piano. But I was really a theater guy. All through high school I was involved in technical theatre, setting up sound and lighting systems for everything from assemblies to full productions of musicals and plays.

Between grade 11 and grade 12 my high school (Handsworth Secondary School, North Vancouver, B.C.) granted me a scholarship to attend the Banff School of Fine Arts in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Banff is a beautiful town in the Canadian Rocky Mountains about two hours west of Calgary, Alberta. The Banff Centre (as it is called today) is a long standing campus of training in all aspects of the arts, including the dance, theatre, music, opera, literature and visual arts.

I went to the Banff Centre with hopes of becoming a lighting designer. However, after the first month of the program I realized that I was slightly colour blind; so I started exploring other options. 🙂 I then turned my attention to learning as much as I could about all aspects of technical theater: costumes, make-up & wigs, electrics, sound, scenic painting, carpentry, and stage management. After my first summer in Banff, I realized the stage management was something a really enjoyed. I went back to the Banff the summer after graduation from high school and was placed on the stage management team of the opera.

Ok, so after graduation you must’ve found your way back into the opera field. 

Yes! During the summers of 1986 and 1987 when I was back in Banff,  I was involved with Colin Graham’s productions of Falstaff and Eugene Onegin. They were probably the two defining projects that ultimately pushed me into opera.

After the summer of ’86 I received and offer to work at Calgary Opera starting as an Assistant Stage Manager…long story short, I was there until 1998, when I had been promoted upwards to be their Director of Production.

My boss was then head-hunted for Arizona Opera and he asked me to join him. In Arizona, I was the Director of Production & Artistic Operations. However, in the first years I also oversaw a massive IT overhaul of the company where I implemented a wide area network between the Phoenix and Tucson offices. (Ed. – we have difficulties producing in 2 theaters that are .5 miles apart…I can’t imagine the logistical planning that must go into producing in two different cities!) When I left Arizona for Vancouver Opera in 2007 I had spent 9 years running the Artistic and Production operations of a company producing 5 operas a season in two cities completely double cast. Whew!

What is your current profession?

I’m currently the Director of Artistic Planning at Vancouver Opera. I oversee all Artistic, Production and Education programs/operations for the company.

What aspects of your current job/profession give you the greatest satisfaction?

This year’s launch of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artist Program is a very satisfying achievement. I have been developing and implementing this program since I started here five years ago.

Well, to totally date myself by quoting a Virginia Slims cigarette ad, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby!’ Any regrets?

I do regret not continuing my music studies as a child but I was bit with the theatre bug and sports in high school and dropped music. Also, sometimes I feel that I should have gone to university to advance my education, (Banff Centre is not a accredited college or university so no degrees or certificates are awarded.) but in the end, I have always been employed in the arts, so I can’t really complain.

I’d say not! 🙂 But that’s a lot to figure out on your own…did you have a mentor?

My mentor was Colin Graham, first Artistic Director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Program Director of the Opera program at the Banff School Fine Arts (82-88) He was the director of the opera program and it was his mentorship of me that brought me to where I am today. He took my love of theatre and my passion of music and really taught me about the beautiful marriage that happens with this in opera.

Advice time: what would you tell a student struggling with his or her career path?

Move forward with whatever makes you smile and make sure you have a passion for it. Passion, desire and love of what you like to do is really all that matters. I hope that students who are thinking about their futures, who have a passion and drive in a certain field, will see that it is possible to be gainfully employed in the arts. Passion, drive, networking and a bit of luck is what has taken me on my journey thus far.

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Tips from the Lectern

The number of great, inspiring graduation addresses that hit the web every spring always leave me feeling a little more excited for the future, a little happier with my personal vantage point, and eager for the new graduates to inject some life into our daily workings. (My strange love of a good commencement speech is a little less creepy when you realize that my summer work force is largely composed of these bright young minds.)

Have you seen Neil Gaiman‘s address for the University of the Arts commencement ceremonies?

Because if you haven’t? It’s worth it. Gems of wisdom for the newly-minted creatives among us. Here’s one pearl:

Looking back, I’ve had a remarkable ride. I’m not sure I can call it a career, because a career implies that I had some kind of career plan, and I never did. The nearest thing I had was a list I made when I was 15 of everything I wanted to do: to write an adult novel, a children’s book, a comic, a movie, record an audiobook, write an episode of Doctor Who… and so on. I didn’t have a career. I just did the next thing on the list.

Kim Pensinger Witman‘s post from a few weeks back touches on a similar theme, of thinking of the next exciting step, rather than trying to “do” the whole career at once. And while Mr. Gaiman does talk about having a idea of what he wanted to become, his “mountain,” he also speaks about the flexibility and choices that he made in order to get closer to that less-direct, slightly fuzzy goal. (I’ll tie some of this in with a review of Marci Alboher‘s One Person/Multiple Careers in the next week or so.)

He also has a few valuable snippets for freelancers, points that currently ring quite true in the arts community:

People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

Be prepared. Be flexible. Be nice. A good professional mantra, even if you’re not quite sure what exactly you want to be when you grow up.

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Career Scaffolding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Daydreaming

I’ve been searching for and, happily, finding great resources for creatives looking for their next step. There are so many interesting articles and points of view! But at this point it feels a little like my head is a very vast space (I’m stuck on the image of a train station…Union Station in DC, or perhaps Philly’s 30th Street Station…something with lots of marble), filled with many people…there are fragments of ideas bouncing off of the walls, careening into other thoughts, dashing some into pieces and integrating others into a larger, more complex idea. It’s part rock concert, part flea market, part art exhibition, part carnival.

Here are some contributors to my mental cacophony:

I’ve been reading her blog for a while now, but I’ve just picked up Danielle LaPorte’s book, The Fire Starter Sessions.

And I’ve been spending time reading the Communicatrix, who has coincidentally just reviewed Chris Guillebeau‘s (you read him, right?) new book The $100 Startup.

These folks are smart and courageous. They write like they’re speaking to a friend. Some of it’s inspiration…some is tough love…and some are case studies, examples of how others have opted into or out of places and spaces.I have to say that there’s never been a better time to rethink yourself, your path. These are brave, eloquent people who have found unconventional success…and moreover, have defined that loaded word “success” in their own way. I like to think of having one of them on my shoulder, to provide perspective when my inner demons are telling me that I’m not good/smart/kind/industrious enough to amount to much.

But the first thing that I’m seeing in all of these folk’s philosophies? Is that they daydream. They practice cultivating those crazy, out-of-the-box thoughts…much like we practiced auditioning. Daily. Specifically. Focused. They allow themselves to daydream, without a censor telling them that they can’t, shouldn’t, will-never-be-able-to.

They’ve allowed themselves to think about those things that they want…without putting the onus of merit on their dreams. Let’s remove from the equation for just a moment whether you feel you deserve something, or all of the things, or nothing at all. And let’s just go with the thought that someone thinks that you deserve to dream.

(Heck, I think you deserve to dream! Add one person to your mental cheerleader list.)

Now, from that empty place? Dream.

What do you want? How do you want to feel? No judgements. Nothing is too vast or too shallow – it’s dreaming.

I want the metabolism of a 20-year-old; I also want the wisdom and smarts of someone older and wiser and smarter than I. I want respect. I want inner peace. I want to be able to hold my liquor. I want people to love being around me. I want to be on Oprah someday. I want to write a book. I want children. I want to give my friends and family stories and songs to remember me by. I want to stand up for myself more often. I want a big-girl purse. I want to be able to shave my knees and ankles without bloodying them. I want to write letters in longhand. I want to be more creative.

(There’s my top-of-my-head, all of the things I can type in two minutes, daydream list. I could go on. I bet you could too.)

My challenge to you is to take 5 minutes, create a google doc or grab a notebook or send yourself a voicemail. And daydream about the things you want. Do it every day for 7 days. Think of it as getting yourself into the practice room…for your next chapter.

Let’s check back in here next week and see what we come up with…shall we?

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Kim Pensinger Witman – Constant Collaboration

Kim Pensinger Witman is known nationally for being the driving force behind the Wolf Trap Opera Company, one of the premiere young artist training programs in the U.S. But prior to her operatic life she studied in two different, yet ultimately related, disciplines. Here’s her story.

My transitions weren’t clean, and they were of two types – the first early one, from music therapy to the life of a freelance collaborative pianist; and the second one, from pianist to administrator.

Where did you go to school?

Elizabethtown College, B.S. in Music Therapy

Catholic University of America, M.M. in Piano

What drew you to your chosen degree field?

I identified as a musician from an early age – was active in every single musical thing possible in my childhood, from school choirs and bands to being an organist at my church at age 13. But I had no illusions about my ability to be a professional musician. I didn’t believe I had the chops or the work ethic to sustain all of that private practice time. In looking for a career that might allow me to stay in touch with music and still let me be with other people, I found music therapy. My music therapy professors were wonderful role models, and they reinforced my decision to embrace what was then a particularly new and kind of fringey career path in music. My piano teacher in my undergrad was also a composer, and although he wasn’t an R.M.T., he was heavily involved with the music therapy track at Elizabethtown.

In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I decided we wanted to get M.M. degrees. Just because. We figured we’d have kids fairly soon, and after that, such a pursuit would be unlikely. I really just wanted to immerse myself in the keyboard in a way I hadn’t before – and at 25, I was finally ready to do it. But I didn’t believe it would lead to a career change – I fully expected to continue as a therapist after getting the degree.

During my M.M. degree, I fell into a graduate assistantship in the opera program. (I filled an unexpected vacancy. I only got the job because the program was desperate, and I had a bag of tricks that allowed me to be functional – awesome sight-reading, a love for languages, and the ability to work easily with a range of people.) The decision to move away from therapy into playing the piano for a living was born of curiosity after I finished my degree. I really didn’t know if I had the chops for it but thought I would spend a few years in pursuit and see what happened. So, the first step into my collaborative pianist career was made for me; had the graduate assistantship not opened up unexpectedly, I would not be doing what I’m doing today. Full stop. But the next step – that of independently filling in the gaps in my opera education in the 2 years after my M.M. degree – was a decision I made on my own.

Even though I learned a tremendous amount at Catholic University, it didn’t have a lot to do with my transition to the opera business. Because I was so ill-prepared for my surprise teaching assistantship, I scrambled to stay one step ahead of my students and wasn’t really able to benefit from high level instruction of my own. The biggest influence at CUA was probably my piano teacher Thomas Mastroianni and my chamber music supervisor Robert Newkirk. Dr. Mastroianni saw me through a scary wrist/hand dysfunction (thought to be RSI but ultimately wasn’t) and gave me the confidence to know that if I wanted to make my living at the keyboard, I probably could. And Bob Newkirk presided over my first legit piano trio experiences, cementing a future love of chamber music.


I know lots of people who would agree that any kind of psychology degree is a boon in the performing arts. 🙂 But how did you make that jump from the piano bench to administration?

When my current job opened up in 1997, I was a pianist on staff at Wolf Trap. I didn’t intend to move to an administrative career (was not looking), but over a period of months I fell into it. (I seem to do a lot of falling into things…) The move into administration was a decision I made somewhat reluctantly. When my job opened up, I made no move to pursue it, for I couldn’t imagine taking a desk job. But when it wasn’t immediately filled, I began to think that such a move would allow me to continue to participate in the opera world, open up new creative possibilities, and (probably most importantly) let me move away from the musician schedule into a 9-5 routine during much of the school year so that I could see my kids more. Spending as much time as possible with my family was non-negotiable.

So here I am – currently the Director of Wolf Trap Opera & Classical Programming for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. Basically, I run an opera company inside a non-opera-specific organization.

How do you self-define?

Initially: I’m a music therapist.

Then: I’m an accompanist. (Well, a collaborative pianist, but such a thing didn’t really exist then.)

Now: I’m an arts administrator.

And simultaneously with all of the above; I’m a musician. (Which has less to do with how I pay my mortgage than how I see the world.)

Ok, speak to us a little bit about that worldview.

This can’t be understated. Everything I learned about people, about the intersection of art and life, had its roots in my study and brief practice of music therapy. I went into that specific field because the abstract study of music felt somehow isolated and irrelevant, and I was only interested in spending a life in music that felt as if it enabled connection with “real life.” (A naïve statement in its frankness, but it was how I felt at the time.) Even now, two career shifts later, my whole approach to the people in this business – the artists, the patrons, the audience – is shaped by those early years of never considering art as being outside of daily life.

And everything I learned and did as a collaborative pianist continues to play into my life as an administrator. It taught me empathy for performers, a respect for the dynamic and nonlinear processes in the rehearsal room, and an appreciation for the high levels of research and preparation it takes to do good work.

What advice would you give to someone struggling with this decision?

Lest any of this seem too tidy, I should mention that while I was a music therapist I was supplementing my income by playing in piano bars and gigging as accompanist for choral societies and theatre groups. While I was a collaborative pianist, I was a church organist/choir director, piano teacher, pit orchestra member, dinner theatre music director, college adjunct faculty and mom. Some of that stuff followed me into my arts admin days but gradually fell by the wayside as the demands of my job increased and my stamina gave out. So be aware that some of the clarity comes with the retelling…

Aside from the obvious (know yourself, be true to yourself, don’t do any of this to please other people), I guess I’d have to caution against black-and-white thinking. This is all so very and so wonderfully gray that it need not be as frightening as you think. I’ve always been terrible at the 5-year/10-year plan thing because it seems so much more legitimate to focus on today’s decisions, next week’s goals, or (at the outside) next season’s dreams. You may be the kind of person who needs to project beyond that in order to move forward. But I believe that it hamstrings us unnecessarily to frame our decisions as part of a linear path in such an extended time horizon.

Life happens.

Plans change.

And this is not always bad.

Be flexible, keep your gaze forward but your feet underneath you, and you’ll know what feels right. And generally, those unexpected things are way better than anything you planned.

And now that I think of it, probably the most important thing is to ignore the voices in your head (or the people outside of it…) who tell you that if you have X years or X thousands of dollars investment in training for a specific career, you have a moral obligation to see it through. If you know it’s not the right path at any point, that’s the time to set a new course. And although the next year or two of transition may be difficult, it’s nothing compared to the desperation you’ll feel if you keep blindly putting one foot in front of the other and end up in a life you hate.

Furthermore, none of what you learned is lost. Seriously. No matter how specific those skills, the only way they’ll go untapped is if you don’t value them.


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