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Tonya McKinny – from Actress/Model to Around-the-World Mom

Tonya McKinny started her professional life armed with degrees in acting and women’s studies. She now finds herself in the role of a lifetime as an on-the-road mom (as opposed to a stay-at-home-mom) and wife to a professional opera singer. Here’s a little bit about her background, and the different hats she wears in a day.

How did you get started?

I earned my undergraduate degree at Portland State University,  a double major in Women’s Studies and Theatre Arts (BS)  and then attended University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (MFA). I also spent a summer at ACT in San Francisco, 6 months at the National School for Drama and Dance in New Zealand and a short study at the National Theatre Academy of China in Beijing and I did 6 months at the University of Louisville and volunteered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The funny thing is that I didn’t actually want to go to college, and my senior year of HS I got very very sick and didn’t apply anywhere.  My sister, an over-achiever, was applying to several out of state law schools and we agreed that I would go to which ever town she went to and go to school there.  She choose Lewis and Clark in Oregon and I went to PSU. While there, I got some good advice; “choose a city you want to live in or go to grad school”.  I went to grad school.  (I’m Cherokee Indian and school was free for me, so why quit and get a job?)  I went to UWM because I had met the head of the department while volunteering once and thought I could learn something from him.  And I did.  I was a very good actress.

When did you decide to change career paths?

When I met Ryan.


Yep. So I’m a trained actor, living and working in NYC. I had just auditioned for a tour, was working on a show and in a Columbia student film (that director won the Sundance award last year and now she’s famous!). I was busy!  And then I met Ryan. Two weeks later I got the call from the tour and they offered me the job and a 6 month contract… and I remember talking to Ryan about it and decided that I’d rather see how it worked out with him instead of leaving town for 6 months.  So basically I decided then that my career wasn’t as important as I had thought it was.  I don’t regret staying in NYC with him and then giving up theatre.  I miss the theatre.  All the time, but I love my family more.  (There’s enough drama here.  I’m sure you understand.) We also decided before we became engaged that I would travel with him, and we knew that meant no acting for me.  When we moved to Houston, I found out I was pregnant and that was the end of all auditioning for me.

Whoa! It’s a love story! 

It is!

So, What have been the big surprises in the ensuing years?

I didn’t miss the career as much as I thought I would. And I’m really surprised at how everyone else reacted.  I’m so tired of people thinking that “I need something for me.” (That really just feels like something else I’m supposed to do so that I don’t disappoint everyone else.) As far as positives, I’m not lonely and poor living in NYC as I always thought I’d be.  But on the negative side, no one claps for me, and my job is never over and finding time for myself is a huge struggle, though Louis will sometimes give me a “Brava” after we sing “twinkle twinkle little star”. Bless him.  The hard times are just as bad as I expected, but the good times are better than I ever dreamed and it evens out and usually the good wins by a landslide. I’m proud of us for doing what other people tell us is stupid and won’t work.  We are just making it up as we go along and so what?  Just because no one else has thought of it before doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

I love my life just the way it is – seeing the world with the love of my life and my family.


Wow. Sounds like it’s all first class and bon bons

Ha. While there are pretty dresses sometimes, being the “Stage Manager” of our lives, with two small kids and a husband with an international freelance opera career is a pretty complicated job. I wear more hats in a day than I can count.

Really? Take me through a typical day.

Ok. Here’s a normal, non-performance day – this is the routine regardless of what country we’re in: US, Germany, Switzerland, whatever.

Our day starts at 6:30am.

  • The kids wake up (they’re remarkable consistent, regardless of where we are in the world…which in and of itself can be a challenge). My first job? Short order cook. Gotta get food in their bellies.
  • Maid. Clean up the breakfast dishes and the table.
  • Teacher. I homeschool Emma often (in some European countries it’s illegal, so in those spots she’ll attend public school); we have a routine, and there are requirements that she needs to complete each day.
  • Simultaneously, I’m an entertainer, helping to keep Louis occupied while Emma works on schoolwork. We spend about 90 minutes doing this in the morning. (And let’s be honest, sometimes I’m a mediator between the two kids.)
  • We then head out of the house, often to the gym. The kids get craft time with the instructor, and I either work out or spend the time in the lounge getting our files in order – insurance, taxes, travel plans. So I guess this would be my CFO time.
  • Back to nourishment procurement – it’s lunch!
  • After lunch Louis goes down for a nap, and Emma has unstructured play time. (There are two rules: no technology, and the play has to be self-directed so that I can get some things done. Often this is domestic stuff (laundry, etc.) or else I’m in scheduler mode, looking at then next few moves, thinking ahead to make plans for the kids, and working with Ryan to make sure that our family schedule syncs with his professional schedule.
  • Stealth educator.   (ed. would that be a  ‘Steducator’?)After Louis wakes up, we do something outside the house. I work about three cities ahead to schedule activities for the kids: library visits, children’s museums, NASA, playdates…it’s learning disguised as play.
  • Personal shopper. We swing by the grocery store to grab dinner and breakfast fixings.
  • When we’re together and Ryan’s not in rehearsal we have dinner together as a family. Ryan usually cooks. After dinner we all clean up together, and engage in some serious fun before dessert. (We’re big fans of chase!)
  • ChanteuseAfter dessert it’s bedtime for the kids. We sing to them. (ed: it must be a little intimidating to sing for a opera singer, even when you’re married to them. Right?)  I love singing, but try singing around an Opera singer sometime.  It’s not a good idea.  Especially if they love you.
  • Once the kids are asleep it’s time for more paperwork: Negotiator (a recent example -for a car. It’s so much easier to do online, without the haggling!), Travel Agent (researching flights for Ryan’s next gigs), Event Planner (finding activities for the kids to do for the next several gigs – I usually work 2 gigs out, trying to place them in activities). When that’s done, I’ll add Blogger to my list, as I write for a few travel mom and expat sites (www.trekaroo.com is my favorite – check it out!), and I keep up with a wide range of folks through their blogs.

Obviously, there are differences for travel days and for Ryan’s performance days…but this is the normal routine. And because we move every 4-6 weeks, we tend to plan get-togethers with friends as often as we can, wherever we happen to be – I guess you can add Party Planner to the list! Maybe especially because we are on the go so much, I want to share these amazing experiences with my kids and friends in a way that underlines how special they are. Some people would say that we’re nomads, but I disagree. Everywhere’s our neighborhood. Oh, and a tip – until you bake something, you’re not home. So you can definitely add baker to the list.

And I also have to say Collaborator is the one title that’s not on the list, but is a big part of my day: Ryan, even when he’s singing, only spends a few hours away from this same list…we’re a team, in every sense of the word.

So, what traits/skills have you carried forward from your academic and professional lives?

Oh a love for the arts has been a big help, and of course a love for and knowledge of the stories that relate to opera helps me to talk out the shows with Ryan.  It also helps that I’m not afraid and am actually comfortable with just about anyone, so all the dinners and events and new towns aren’t a big challenge for me they’re  just part of the day.

What advice would you give to someone struggling with a similar decision?

Do what you can sleep with at night.  I had to try it – I went to NYC and I was a working and sometimes paid actor with an independent  movie and some print modeling work, with an agent, and everything I thought I wanted and needed from life. It was very exciting – I loved it and I won’t trade those memories.  But I also loved working in the corporate and non profit worlds.

I also love being a mom.  Being Mom is the only thing I couldn’t give up.  This family is mine forever.  The shows were fun and at the time important, working was fulfilling, but this is who I am now.  We all change.  Change is good.  Just make sure it’s the change you can live with.

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Jennifer Empie – Flute Performance to Foreign Service


Jennifer began her studies as a Flute Performance/Music Industry major. She currently works for the U.S. State Department, and is posted in Rio de Janeiro. Here’s her story.

First Steps

I went to a very small high school where the fact that I pursued music at all made me pretty much the most musical person in school.  My teachers all convinced me that I had to major in music in college and that I should become a music teacher.  No one ever introduced me to other options so, without any real guidance, I decided on music education.

When I entered college I soon realized that there were many more careers in music than teaching and I still wasn’t sure I was really cut out to be a music teacher.  Syracuse University had a good music industry program and I decided that major would give me the most options so I changed to it.  The only problem was that the program focused mostly on popular music management so even though I really enjoyed the coursework, it still didn’t quite fit.

I interned at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra during my semester abroad in London.  This was the first time that I learned about the existence of education programs in arts organizations.  I really enjoyed working with these types of programs and decided to pursue education again and would look into graduate schools when I got home.

I thought I wanted a masters degree in music education (as I still hadn’t learned about arts administration programs).  I’m really thankful for my friend Andy, who was a graduate student at Syracuse, for knowing what I needed and setting me up for it before I knew myself.  He encouraged me to go to Florida State University because he went there and they had a great music education program.  He also arranged for me to get an assistantship in the Arts Administration program office where I would get to do things like manage the summer music camps and get to know the Arts Adminstration staff and students.  As he expected, I realized that was where I belonged and switched my major to Arts Administration. That decision really set me on the path that, though winding, led me to my career with the State Department.

Life after Grad School

After graduate school, I moved to Washington, DC for an internship with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.  This was a great introduction to the practical world of arts management.  The Kennedy Center is an interesting organization because it is so large and in some ways has an incredible amount of resources while individual departments still have very small staffs and you have to be creative to get things done.  I liked this grass roots aspect under the umbrella of a large organization.

After that, I decided to stay in Washington, DC and began looking for a job.  This did not turn out to be as easy as I thought!  After a lot of searching, I accepted a position in the Artistic department at Washington Opera.  Although I would never admit it at the time, I had never seen an opera before and had no idea what an Artistic department does!  I quickly learned about auditions, casting, and contracts and soon fell in love with opera.  A year later I was managing the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program where I was responsible for the daily training and rehearsal schedules, production, budgeting, and planning.  Even though I was not a singer, I learned everything I could from my opera colleagues and relied on advice from those more expert than me every day.  This taught me that you do not have to stay in your comfort zone.  What you know can apply to a lot of different things.

Although I would not trade my six years at the Opera for anything, I never felt that the arts were the only thing for me, the way many of my colleagues did.  I knew I needed to do other things in my life and there were aspects of arts management that were starting to negatively affect my life.  I was working for very low pay, which added stress to my life, and I was working very long hours, rarely getting even a day off on the weekend.  This takes a toll after a while.  I wasn’t sure my music background really qualified me for much else so I went back to school part-time to get my MBA.

Studying business at the University of Maryland was a great opportunity to meet people who had a wide variety of careers.  I learned about things like finance and business strategy and found a world of new opportunities.  In the end, I landed a position in supply chain at Black and Decker.  I was thrilled to work for a large corporation that I expected would offer many more opportunities to learn, try new things, and travel.  Unfortunately, my timing was a bit off.  I entered my job in 2007, just as the economy was taking a downturn, and suddenly I was faced with the same pay cuts, layoffs, and lack of mobility that I faced in the arts.  At the same time, I realized that the culture of the organization is just as important as the work and I did not fit into this culture.

So, where did you fit in?

I had always had in my mind that I would like to join the Foreign Service with the Department of State.  I loved the idea of travel, learning languages, living abroad, and working in international affairs.  So in 2009 I took a shot and was fortunately hired!  Since then things have fallen into place so well that I know this was exactly the right decision for me.

I now work as a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State.  I am currently posted to Rio de Janeiro where I work in the consular section, processing visas and working to help American citizens abroad.   In my first year, I have had amazing opportunities including being interviewed for national TV news (in Portuguese!) and organizing the motorcade for President Obama’s visit.  My future jobs could focus on a variety of areas including operations, reporting to Washington about issues in that country, or public affairs.  Next year I will move to Seoul, Korea.

The thing I love most about my job is the people.  I am surrounded by interesting people from all different backgrounds who are all very happy to be here.  This does an enormous amount for morale.  Because we all came from different backgrounds, there is no assumption that one person is more qualified to be here than someone else.  So we are all given a lot of responsibility and trusted to make good decisions.  The work is never boring – embassies and consulates are involved in so many areas that something new and exciting is always coming up.  Finally, I am confident that that I have a career path ahead of me.  This is the first time I have ever been in a place where I know I will not have to send out resumes every year to find the next opportunity.

Definitions are overrated

The unforeseen positive was that giving up performing allowed me to redefine myself.  I had always defined myself as a musician and I clung to that for a long time but now I could allow myself to be defined as more than only that.

When I was at the opera, I always felt the need to define myself as a former musician in order to justify why I would be qualified to work in Artistic or the Young Artist Program.  When I moved to the business world, people tended to see music as irrelevant to my work so I started to say that I came from the non-profit world, rather than the arts.  The Foreign Service is, by nature, made up of people who come from all different backgrounds.  Diversity is embraced so I have no qualms about saying I came from the arts and studied music.  At this point, I have not performed in a very long time so I do not define myself as a musician anymore.

Personally, I see it more as a path that a destination.

I don’t want to define myself as a musician, or arts administrator, or business person.  I like the idea of doing lots of different things and being less defined by my job, although it is very fun to write “diplomat” on my tax return.

Toolkit: what skills carried through to your current position?

Music training is great for all professions.  It taught me discipline, creativity, and commitment.  Arts Administration taught me resourcefulness and flexibility.  You are always being asked to do things you have never done before and you just have to figure it out.  The standards that I was held to (or held myself to) at the Opera were far greater than anything that was expected of me or my colleagues in my for-profit position.   Working in the corporate world, I was really surprised at how much stronger my work ethic was that that of many of my colleagues.  Working in the arts, we are used to putting in as many hours as it takes and sticking to deadlines- once you announce the date of the performance, that is the date.  The Department of State actually has a lot in common with the arts.  Although the Department itself is huge, I work for a small consulate with limited staff and budget and we are always trying to creatively accomplish more than we realistically have the resources to do.  Every day I draw on the foundation I built during my time in the arts.

 Any parting shots?

Even if you are convinced that you will always have a career in the arts, learn about more than just music.  You don’t know where life will take you.  When I explain my varied career path, most people think it makes no sense but to me, I know I needed to take each one of those steps to become who I am now and get to where I am.  I do regret closing my mind to things non-music when I was younger.  I should have learned more about other disciplines and maybe studied a language.  By the time I realized how important that was, I had a lot of catching up to do.

You can only consider the options you know exist.  Talk to lots of other people – performers, former performers, non-musicians – and find out what they do and why they like it. Most importantly, no decision has to be final.  You can always change directions later.  But don’t turn down opportunities to learn something new because you think it is not relevant now, it may be later and in the end, everything relates to everything.

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I’m a sucker for to-do lists, and maps to get from point A to point C in the most efficient manner.(Looking back on my own path, it’s part of the reason why classical music appealed so much to me: there was a seemingly tangible, organized trajectory to get from music student to professional opera singer. When that started to not quite be the case, well, part of the attraction fizzled.)  But, as I’m learning (yes folks! SHE CAN BE TAUGHT!), a pre-prescribed path doesn’t work for very many of us. It’s easy to be reactionary, to make a choice – or a whole series of choices – based on external factors: what I should do, what pays the most, what my family will have the most respect for…the list goes on.

But it’s difficult to talk about discernment.

We struggle to talk about feeling unfulfilled (especially when family and friends are supportive of our talents), we worry that talking to people about wanting to change careers could hamstring us if we ultimately decide that performing is our thing. We struggle to find the time and space to soul-search, to ask questions and really listen to the answers. And we look at our resumes and wonder if we’d ever be able to make a transition, even if we wanted to, with the plethora of stage credits and comparable lack of office/teaching/business experience.

It’s an extremely personal process.

And, like most large projects, it’s better divvied up into small chunks. (One of the beautiful things that tends to hamper we creative folks is that we rush right to the end result in our heads, and decide whether or not it’s going to work before we’ve even begun the journey. Or maybe that’s just me?)

This article very quickly combined my love of lists with a succinct small step/big question discernment exercise. Three steps, maybe thirty minutes of your time.

  1. What do you want?
  2. Dive into why you want it.
  3. Gain information and momentum.

Even if you end up with more questions than you started with, you’ve at least started the process, right?

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