Tag Archives: performing

Snow Days and Creativity

 

My office is closed today, and I’m exceedingly grateful to have time to putter, write and read. Greg Sandow has a wonderful, thought-provoking article up at ArtsJournal today about music schools and the dearth of creativity found therein.

But how do we do this? How do we foster creativity — celebrate the students who already are creative, and encourage the others to be — without turning the school upside down?

When we hear auditions every fall, we hear hordes of singers who are doing everything right – intonation, articulation, dynamic variation, strong language skills, good dramatic arcs to their arias. And shamefully, afterwards I often struggle to remember their performances. Sure, some of my mental fog is due to the sheer volume of folks that we hear in a short time. But more often it’s because the performances we see are careful. They are note perfect and earnest but not very memorable. By memorable, I mean that the singer has demonstrated that they’re careful students and stewards of the repertoire, but they’ve left many of the most important questions unanswered: they leave the room and I find that I haven’t learned anything about them or their artistry, how the aria resonates with them personally. It’s like scanning a CGI crowd scene, looking for one true facial expression.

(Caution: there are those of you who are memorable, because you’ve put the passion into the performance but are not quite as careful as you should’ve been in the learning process. It’s a double-edged sword, I realize… but please know that the preceding paragraph is not for you – go practice!)

I’ll agree with Mr. Sandow – discipline is important. Strong choices are exciting. The two should not be as opposed as they seem to be. So I ask you – were you challenged in school to be creative? Who gave you the most support? Where did you struggle?

(The ArtsJournal article is one of a series. I hope you’re looking forward to the next installment as much as I am.)

 

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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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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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On standby.

Tuesday is Travel Day!

Posting will be light for a while, as I’ll be on the road for our Annual Autumn Audition Extravaganza…over 500 auditions in eight cities across the country over the next four-and-a-half weeks. It’s an exciting and challenging time for us – we’re vetting repertoire choices as we’re listening to singers, trying to find the right mix for our 2013 season.

During this time, I’m always reminded of my own circuitous journey, that brought me to my seat on the other side of the audition table. I’m happy with where I am now, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that it was a rough path getting here. I’m hoping to post some reflections, and a little bit of inspiration, during this year’s tour.

This Friday I’ll post a recap of the profiles we’ve seen thus far. And – if you have a story that you’d like to share, or want to nominate someone whose story you’d think would resonate with readers, please email me at indirectroutes@gmail.com.

If you’re auditioning this fall, please know that I am in awe of your courage and that I’m sending you good wishes from my side of the table. And if you’ve decided that this is your last audition season, or that your heart’s not really in it, or that you need to try something else but are too scared? Well, I hope you’ll check back for a little bit of support and some real-life examples.

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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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Home Remodeling, as a metaphor for Career Transition

My morning started with a cup of coffee, the New York Times, and a jackhammer.

(You read that correctly.)

You see, we’ve finally launched into a much-needed home renovation project, and a 4-inch-thick slab of concrete needed to be excavated from my second-floor bathroom. Now, had I not had a family who tore houses apart for summer fun instead of going to the beach or Disneyland (for the record, stripping wallpaper is no where near as fun as riding rollercoasters or swimming or making sandcastles. Just sayin’.), I’d be scared. But even had the outcome been said cement ending up in the dining room below, it would’ve been OK. Not ideal, but we would’ve learned something important (and, likely expensive) about the structural issues in the house.

Investing in something, and following it wholeheartedly to its natural conclusion, is never a bad thing.

I’m reminded of this especially as our summer season has just ended. I can draw parallels from our Studio program, which is geared towards talented undergraduate and first-year-graduate students, to the significant kind of home renovation that I’ll be vacuuming up for days and days. The Studio program is designed to give singersfirst-hand knowledge of the field, from a professional viewpoint. We try to go beyond the rehearsal schedule (which is compact and intense), to give them exposure to industry folks, tax professionals, musical and dramatic coaches, and a whole host of people who have made careers in this crazy field. The number of careers that people have carved out, and the ways in which they’ve done the carving, are as varied as the people themselves. They also see peers and recent alums, all quite talented, but some seeing a strong measure of success, others struggling.

The part of the program that we don’t advertise as much, but that is just as important? It’s a place where they can get enough information to decide if this crazy career is, in fact, not the right thing for them. It’s an important decision, and one that may of them haven’t vetted through their years of schooling. Most summers there are one or two Studio Artists who start to ask questions about what other things are out there, what level we think they’ll get to with their innate talent (Answer: I don’t have a clue, ever… there are simply too many variables to take into account.), what we recommend. The process is not unlike tearing open dry wall, jackhammering cement, checking the subflooring for soft spots, and rebuilding from the inside out.

The great thing is that, eventually, they do figure it out. Some stay in the field, recommitted to a performing career. Some move to related fields, and explore administrative jobs, artist management, and the like. Some take the discipline that they’ve cultivated in the practice room and head to law or medical school. And while we believe in the musical talent of every one, we don’t stop believing in them because they’ve stepped away from the footlights.

So, as we limp through the last few weeks of August, towards Labor Day (aka the Educator’s New Year) and the beginning of the academic year, I have a challenge for you: Take some time to tear off some of the dry wall, check your subfloor. What parts of the room are worth keeping, and what needs a rehaul? Will a change a paint color be all you need, or will you be jackhammering cement? Look at the career you’ve invested in: it’s time to recommit or remodel.

(New profiles and a more-regular posting schedule will resume in early September. Thanks for hanging in thus far!)

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The Prestige Pitfall

It’s funny – I had the opportunity to sing last week for a retirement concert for a mentor. It was a tune I knew, with several colleagues whose company I enjoy, to celebrate a teacher who has made a large impact on my career.

And I politely declined.

I have two degrees in vocal performance. As a student, I loved the study and the collaboration, but what I really wanted was the applause, the fancy costumes, the name on the poster, the roses after the show. The singing was, sadly, secondary to all of the other noise surrounding the act of performing.

Now, I sing all the time. (Ask the manicurist who called me out yesterday for humming along with Shania Twain.) But I don’t sing “for real” anymore…and that’s a very good thing. Singing for other people made me feel insecure in a fundamental way, and in a pervasive manner that was unlike anything else…most likely because it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, but it was the only way in which I could figure out how to be close to the performers and the performances, both of which I enjoyed. And I enjoyed being the center of attention…but more for saying something witty or profound, rather than making a beautiful noise.

I’m happy speaking in front of a crowd, especially when the words are my own. I had the opportunity to address several thousand folks last summer, and several hundred for this retirement concert last week…and found both experiences totally enjoyable. But singing? It’s off the table…happily so, in my particular case.

There are articles upon articles that proclaim that the key to success is Doing What You Love. No dispute, there. But I personally had a difficult time distilling those things that I loved into a career.

Paul Graham wrote a great article called “How To Do What You Love.” And let me tell you, I wish that I had read (and internalized) this in high school. Among one of the personally salient points he makes? (Besides the truth that work should be mostly something that you enjoy?) Is that doing something for prestige (say, for the sound of cacophonous applause after your big aria, or for a sterling review) is in fact doing it for all the wrong reasons.

Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don’t even know? [4]

This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. [5] Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like. (emphasis added by the editor)

That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Brilliant, right? And an infinitely more sustainable approach than trying to enjoy something that fundamentally doesn’t appeal to you.

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