Tag Archives: inspiration

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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Reading List: Artistry, Discipline, and Measuring Success

I’ve found two articles that I think are worth reading – and they’re related, although not by intention.

The first is this, which talks about redefining musical success in areas other than winning competitions or selling hundreds of albums.

The other is this, written by this week’s Profile Phriday interviewee. We talked a bit about his devotion to a specific martial art (I learned about him initially through a mutual friend who is a fight choreographer), and though it didn’t make it into the final interview, it is a big part of who he is. With me, and in the attached article, he talks about the amount of time it takes to master an activity and makes a compelling argument for finding the art, the beauty, the discipline in all one does.

I’m considering this pairing my dose of inspiration for a long weekend.

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Turnover.

The Kennedy Center has a new leader, and this article about her is making swift rounds in my various feeds. I’m thrilled that the KenCen has opted for female leadership, but there’s a quote late in the article that holds a special resonance for me:

A lifelong lover of music and the arts, she noted: “I’m a failed musician; I studied, but I never thought I was going to be a professional musician. It’s just something I wanted to do and be around all the time. I actually consider myself a professional arts consumer.”

Welcome to the DC area, Ms. Rutter. We can’t wait to get to know you!

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Those darn kids.

I’m finally catching up on some reading, and came across this article about the University of Utah’s student led ArtsForce conference.

What a fantastic idea!

Networking. Résumé and CV writing. Discussing both employment prospects and job satisfaction. 

And did I mention that it was a student-driven event? Not something foisted on them by their school, but something that they wanted, that the school also thought was valuable. Win-win!

Tutti bravi to all involved.

(And, more importantly, who’s next?)

 

 

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Bigger Dreams

Bigger Dreams

I’ll be back to posting regularly soon, I promise. But in the meantime, here’s one of the most beautifully worded articles I’ve read about choosing worklights and desklights over footlights.

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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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I bet Moriarty was a multi-tasker…

Elementary, my dear Watson!I am a new convert to the BBC Series Sherlock. Being able to (correctly – there’s the rub) infer personality traits, circumstances, travels through observing someone? Well, that’s a superpower that I’d like very much to have.

So, when I ran across an article in the New York Times alluding to my guy Sherlock? It immediately caught my attention. The article challenges the concept of multitasking, and focuses on mindfulness. Author Maria Konnikova writes:

More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness.

Ack! The inactivity! Where is the knee-jerk response, the running out of the room, the mad dash to the crime scene? Sherlock slows – nay, stops – the clock and contemplates before he makes a move. (I find the concept thrilling, as it is so foreign to me.)

Ms. Konnikova goes on to talk about mindfulness having similarities to meditation – that its core principle is to drown out distractions and to focus attention. She cites studies that track mood boosts, greater relaxation during timed tasks, and improvement in memory and cognitive function.

My “a-ha!” moment: isn’t that what we were doing in the practice room??

We spent hours of focused attention, ignoring distraction (well, for the most part) to concentrate singularly on our craft. Afterwards, leaving the small space I remember my brain being exhausted, but feeling good about the work that I’d accomplished. (Again, for the most part.)

My job, while in the arts, is an administrative office gig… I am a slave to email and the phone and instant messenger. I need to drop things at a moment’s notice, and so I’ve become more adept with juggling several things shallowly than really digging into one task or problem.

I’m considering a more measured approach to 2013. One that might make me calmer, happier, and even a wee bit smarter. (Heck, I’ll take any help I can get!)

 

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More First-Person Advice

Ok, so Monday Inspiration is a little late this week, but it’s worth the wait.

Barry Hessenius from WESTAF posted an essay that is full of first-hand advice from prominent arts leaders. Some of my favorite tidbits?

From Randy Cohen, Senior VP of Research and Policy for Americans for the Arts:

Change is a constant condition. When faced with multiple choices, lean towards the one you fear most—that is usually where the greatest treasure is buried. Be brave!

From Claire Peeps, Executive Director of the Durfee Foundation:

I’ve learned that people are our most valuable resource and that it is in our collective best interest that they be nurtured and sustained. This is true for leaders who must take care of the staff who work for them, and it is true of emerging leaders who must remember to take care of themselves.

From Michael Alexander, Executive Director, Grand Performances, two different pearls:

“When the sea rises, all ships rise with it.” Devote part of your work time and your personal life to the causes that will benefit our field and our world. Your professional life and your personal life will benefit in the process. My most important role models in the arts each practiced this providing leadership by devoting time and resources to our field.

And this:

“To be interesting, be interested.” Former CAC member Fred Sands said he told that to all his employees. I think it is worthwhile for all of us to listen more and talk less. And listen everywhere. Our audiences have remarkable wisdom – even the children. Ask good questions. Remember too that different communities have different ways of addressing challenges.

I find Michael Alexander’s sea image of particular interest. I think that many of us approach the world on two levels, or maybe in two separate spheres: family and work. To treat the larger community as a confluence of those spheres? Well, (aside from being a kickin’ Venn diagram,) it would show the amazing personal power of the arts to transform families, communities…each of us from without and within. And to buy into the idea that one success influences other successes? Call me a Commie, (On a side note, does anyone actually call people ‘Commies’ anymore? Or have I totally dated myself?)but I think that paying it forward in that large a manner can only be a good thing.

(How’s that for inspiration? I hope it was worth the wait!)

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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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Profiles, from another angle.

I am a big fan of Lifehacker. I get it delivered to my inbox, and make a habit to scan the whole thing before filing (yes, filing…sending them to the trash would be akin to throwing away gold on most days.) it away for future perusal.

They have a great feature that’s called How I Work. In it, they feature profiles of interesting, creative people like Maria Popova and Christopher Jobson, and track the ways that they use technology to make life easier, their secret abilities, and the best pieces of advice that they’ve received. (I am a big fan of Maria Popova’s Best Advice. Sometimes simple is indeed the best.)

I invite you to hop over to Lifehacker for some words of wisdom (I’ll be spending some time with this), and then join me back here tomorrow for a new Profile Phriday. (This week? My pal and colleague Peter Zimmerman, a reformed-performer-turned-talent-buyer.)

originally viewed on Colossal (www.thisiscolossal.com)

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