Tag Archives: soul search

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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Profile Phriday: Jonah Nigh, Part 1

Jonah is a friend-of-a-friend, and joins me in the ranks of “reformed singers.” I recently read a thoughtful essay he wrote about his transition: the precipitating event and the aftermath. The article is focused through the lens of the liberal arts course of study he pursued (initially unwillingly!) as an undergraduate. I loved the article – it’s witty and touching. Next week Jonah and I will talk about the process of moving out of singing, transferrable skills, and his advice for folks who are questioning.

The article is here.

Some highlights:

I did not actually want a liberal arts education prior to coming to Lawrence. Like most teenagers, my definition of success was myopic in scope, and as an aspiring opera singer I could not fathom the need to study statistics, psychology, or any other subjects that were not immediately applicable to getting on a stage, singing loudly in a foreign language, and wearing a fabulous costume.

and

My story could easily be miscategorized as a cautionary tale for aspiring artists–as a warning to make a “Plan B” just in case a career in the arts doesn’t work out. On the contrary, a liberal arts education does not negate one’s unique capability or potential of being an artistic practitioner.

Many thanks to Jonah for allowing me to repost. Please join us next week for the continued conversation!

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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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Opportunity: Leadership Intensive

OpAmOpera America is again offering a fantastic professional development course for Opera professionals. The application deadline for their Leadership Intensive is January 31st. As a member of the inaugural class, I can tell you that the experience changed my perspective on the business and my role within it profoundly, and that’s in large part due to the people I met and worked with there. Their advice, expertise, and support have been really invaluable – and the fact that they’re great fun makes our continuing connection something I look forward to greatly.

It’s a wonderful experience – I recommend it wholeheartedly!

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Nigel Boon: A Leave of Absence.

Nigel BoonHappy New Year!

 For our first Profile Phriday of 2014, I’d like to introduce you to Nigel Boon. Nigel is the Director of Artistic Planning for the National Symphony Orchestra, a world-class ensemble based out of Washington DC’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (Their summer home is our place – so I may be a tad biased about how wonderful they are, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true!) His story starts in childhood, and winds through different countries (and continents!) before landing him on our shores. Here’s his story.

Nigel, tell us a little bit about your childhood, and when the classical music bug really bit.

Well I grew up in the south of England, but my dad was  in the British Military, in the Royal Navy, so every so often we’d move away for a couple of  years and then come back home again. When I was ten, we were living in Malaysia, because he was stationed at a naval base in Singapore.  I had a 27-mile  each way school-bus commute that required my passport, journeying from Malaysia to Singapore each day to school. (Ed. In comparison to my “walking to school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill BOTH WAYS” stories, you win. Hands down.) When I got back to my school in the UK my new classmates all looked at me as if I was this freak with a suntan! But I had already experienced living in a different country, in a different culture, and that’s one piece of advice that I have for people: live abroad – it will change your perception of life, the world, your own country, yourself, and your own possibilities. After returning to the UK, I started grammar school (correlates to middle & high school here in the states), and fairly quickly found myself at the top of my class in music and languages.

Very cool. What was your instrument?

I never learned to play an instrument – it never occurred to me, never occurred to my parents. We didn’t have much classical music at home, so it  never really came into question. But I really enjoyed my general music classwork at school. However, when I turned fourteen I had to deal with a formidable timetable clash – I was forced to choose between continuing with music or studying German (which we will see later was a great irony). The British school system channeled you very early into specific educational directions, so I was forced to choose the direction of my future university course of study by the time I was sixteen. So I chose German over music and therefore subsequently ended up on a language and linguistics course at University in York. I wasn’t smart enough or old enough at the time to understand all of the possibilities and ramifications of my decisions.

At university I rediscovered classical music. I had a friend who had what for me at the time was a huge record collection, with over a hundred-fifty classical LPs. I was looking through them one day thinking “Oh, I’d like to hear that! And I’d like to hear that! And that!” And that was pretty much it – I was hooked by music, and nowhere near as excited about my language studies. I thought that studying linguistics had only two possibilities: I could either teach or research, and I didn’t want to do either of those things. I just wanted to be able to speak languages.  So, come the end of my third year at university – the third year of a four-year course – I had managed to spend so much time and money listening and listening and listening to classical music that I had got myself into a situation where I had 80% of my university coursework to do in my last year.

Ouch.

Yes. My supervisor at the time – who also loved classical music, we had gone to a few concerts together in Leeds – he said “You know, take a year’s leave of absence. Go away, think about what you want to do, and I’ll sign the form for you, I’ll authorize it.” That, I thought, was actually fantastic. And I’m still on my year’s leave of absence!

Really? (Slow clap from the Editor.)

I really have no doubt that I was too young for university – I even took a year off between grammar school and university to be a language assistant in Germany, but still, it wasn’t enough time.  I was a very young 19 year old and couldn’t realize all of the possibilities at the time. (My alternate theory is that we live our lives in the wrong order. Because what could be better after a fulfilling life of work than to go and learn? And then when you’ve learned, what about just playing?) (Ed. LOVE it. I could totally get behind that timetable.)

So, there I was. I moved to London, applied for a job at a music publisher – Boosey & Hawkes – and was interviewed by someone who is still, these many years later, a very close friend. The official part of the interview must’ve lasted 5 or 10 minutes – it was an entry level gopher job –  and then we chatted about all of the concerts we had been to, the one we were coincidentally both going to that evening, and I think he recognized a like soul, someone who was almost fanatically passionate about classical music. And I was, I was like a sponge, it was like osmosis, I was sucking up everything that I could find anywhere and everywhere. Which, given what I’m doing now, turned out to be really useful, because my knowledge base is very broad, very wide.

I was at B&H for two years, during which time I realized that what I really wanted to do was to work for a classical record label. I saw an ad in the London Evening Standard one day, and it was a completely basic, banal ad, obviously placed by an agency, and it said something like “Record company seeks person.” I mean, really so basic! But I thought I’d look into it, and contacted the agency, and they sent me for an interview. Deutsche Grammophon was the label, which was strangely the only classical label I had ever wanted to work for. It was the perfect label for me. I went for an interview, and it turned out that the job was for stock control. So, during the interview I said “Well, I’m not sure that this is the job for me.” And they agreed, and said that they’d keep my name on file in case anything else came up. Of course, I was pretty disappointed and went back to my office…but later that afternoon I got a call, and it was DG saying “Forget the first job, we actually have another job that’s about to open for Advertising Manager, Would you like to come and do that?”  “Of course I would, thank you very much!” And for three years I did the press, trade and program book advertising for DG and its sister label, Philips, in the UK. After three years I got a call from the head office in Hamburg, (and here is the aforementioned irony), inviting me to move to Germany to work in their head office in Hamburg because I was fluent in German. My love for living abroad made it an easy choice, and in 1984 I moved, and although I initially thought I would be there for two or three years, in the end I was there for 15 years.

Amazing. You were in the thick of things, at one of the biggest, best labels in the world, right when the classical music recording industry was really booming.

True. I went in as Product Manager, responsible for all new releases, and then a few years later became Head of Product Management, which included back-catalogue re-releases and some marketing responsibilities.  But I remember my first day, when I was meeting everybody, and I met the producers. And I thought “Oh, that’s the job I really want, but it’s really not a job I’m ever going to get, because I have no musical education.” And then ten years later I became a producer! There were two types of producer at DG, Recording Producers and Executive Producers. Executive producers are rather like those in the film industry – they look after the recording careers of soloists and conductors, putting together their recording schedules & plans, deciding rep with the marketing department, and then putting it all together and making the projects happen – booking the halls, soloists, etc.  I was lucky enough to work with a number of extraordinary musicians such as conductors Oliver Knussen, Mikhail Pletnev, André Previn, Christian Thielemann, Neeme Järvi, and baritone Bryn Terfel.

That job, and this job at the NSO, have been the two most fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had – I’ve enjoyed them all, but these two were/are the best.

You’re obviously not still with DG now – what happened, and when?

In 1999 the writing was on the wall for the major classical labels. When I started in 1981 there were, I don’t know, maybe 15 complete Beethoven symphony cycles on disc. But by 1999 there were perhaps three or four times as many.  But there weren’t three or four times as many buyers and costs had increased, sales were down, and it was clear that product was flooding the market. The labels were looking for the next 3 Tenors, the next blockbuster, which didn’t fit with my aesthetic. And I was ready for the next challenge. I went to London and worked in artist management with Harrison Parrott. It wasn’t a great fit for me, because I was suddenly on the other side of the fence.  I think I felt more at home as a “buyer” and much less so as a “salesman”. It’s a subtle shift of perspective, but one that I struggled to make. I stuck it out for 2 years and then I was offered a position back in Germany, but I wasn’t quite ready to move back there or to take on that particular position. So I freelanced for a bit – I worked with a Baroque ensemble in the UK, a contemporary group in Oslo in Norway, a contemporary music festival, a music publisher, a couple of individual artists – and then three years later I got two almost-simultaneous phone calls.

One call was from Boosey & Hawkes – their Director of Publishing, who had joined B&H when I was first there, asked if I’d consider being Head of Promotion for 6 months, while the incumbent was on maternity leave. The focus was on promoting the work of living composers, and I was excited by the thought of taking on something I had not done before. After a month they asked me if I would want to stay on beyond the original six months, and when my colleague returned from maternity leave we found that neither of us wanted a full-time job, so we very amicably divided the composers between us and continued to work together. It was the perfect job share.

The second call was from a former colleague at Deutsche Grammophon – she and conductor  John Eliot Gardiner had married, and he had made recordings of all of the Bach sacred cantatas – 57 cds – over the course of a year. DG had decided to not release them. But her invitation, “We’re going to set up our own record label – would you like to help?” was irresistible. So we set up a very special small record company that is still putting out recordings – Brandenburg Concertos, Brahms Symphonies, wonderful things all with John Eliot. I divided my time very happily between this new label and B&H for about two years.

I have to say at this point that I’ve been very lucky, and more than once – I’ve been at the right place at the right time a number of times, and I’m very aware of my good fortune.

Then, in the middle of 2006, I got another phone call, this time asking if I’d be interested in talking about an opening at the NSO, the programming position . It was again something that I’d never done, and it was again abroad – I was, of course, interested! I had an hour-long phone conversation with Rita Shapiro (the Executive Director of the NSO), and came to interview in September 2006. I started in February 2007, and here I am.

It seems, looking backwards, that you found the things that were interesting to you, and just kept looking for opportunities to learn and grow.

I have to admit that I’ve never really known what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work in music, I knew I wanted to work in the recording industry, but I had no idea of what my career trajectory would look like. However, now that I’m in this job, and only now, does everything I’ve done up to this point make any kind of sense. Because when the phone rings in my office, it’s almost always someone that’s doing something that I used to do. Artist managers, record company representatives, publishers – I have experience in all those industries and can put it to very good use in this job.

It sounds like your approach to going wide as far as skills and repertoire have served you well. What advice do you have for folks struggling to figure out their career path?

For me one of the most important things is to not force matters. When things don’t work out, or aren’t immediately clear, don’t feel you have to push to try to find an immediate answer. Don’t necessarily feel you have to make a decision under forced circumstances. Frequently if you wait for two weeks the answer will materialize, and the thing will suddenly somehow fit together.  Also, don’t feel you have to have your career path mapped out before you when you’re 18 or 20 or 22.  You don’t.  Try things out.  Learn from them.  Don’t worry if one thing doesn’t work.  Usually something else will work.  If you’re open to change and are flexible, it will appear to you that there are more possibilities.

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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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Make a new plan, Stan.

I had a great conversation yesterday about giving up dreams.

(You’ve just finished your autumn auditions, and you’re thinking “How could that possibly be a great conversation?!” Bear with me…)

I’ve known this pal since my Carnegie Mellon days. Both of us knew, at some point, that we weren’t going to attain the performance level that we wanted to – it was a physical thing. The voice, in my case, was likely never going to be as large or as distinctive as I wanted it to be, which was going to influence the roles and repertoire in which I could be effectively cast. And, while I could strive to make it the best it could be? It was likely never going to be quite good enough. For him, the combination of a past injury and the pressure to be perfect -which created a tension that affected his performances – kept him from reaching the level he wanted.

We both got pretty close. And then? We stalled out. And we both struggled to figure out what life would look like after this singular focus was gone.

It was like a break up, an ugly break up. I remember telling myself that I was not a quitter, and wouldn’t give up. As I continued to pursue the dream, it seemed harder to give up, as I had spent so much time and energy (and, let’s be honest, cashola) on its pursuit. I was firmly caught in that sunk-cost fallacy, and changing direction would mean losing face, admitting I wasn’t good enough, dealing with the feelings of shame and inadequacy that were part and parcel. I postponed the decision until, really, I couldn’t anymore…until the cons outweighed the pros, and the feelings of insecurity that I felt at my position in the field were greater than those that I felt at the prospect of changing career paths.

I’ve cited Augusten Burrough’s Two Minute Memoir before, in which he talks about giving up his initial dream (acting) because he finds he’s not as good as it naturally as he’d want to be. And he found something better – which he wouldn’t have, had he not actually been give a realistic view of his skills. He had a mirror to look through – the recorder gave him an unvarnished view of his performance, and he recognized that he was missing that something that would allow him to make a  career in theater.

As a teacher, I knew I had to tell the truth to my students – it wasn’t just a moral obligation, it was that they could smell falsity in the air. They knew if I wasn’t being 100% honest with them…most of the time. It gets harder to regulate your inner b-s monitor, however, when someone is telling you something you want very much to hear. And rather than surrounding myself with tough-love, I tended to surround my singer self with students and pals who thought I was amazing. (Good for the ego, terrible for the technique.)

Janine Shepherd gave a TED talk about her path to recovery after a horrible accident. She had self-identified as an athlete for all of her adult life, and her physical prowess was taken from her . The video is here, but let me share with you a quote that I found relevant to yesterday’s discussion:

The philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be.” I now know that it wasn’t until I let go of who I thought I was that I was able to create a completely new life. It wasn’t until I let go of the life I thought I should have that I was able to embrace the life that was waiting for me.

All this to simply say that if it’s not working for you? It’s ok – something will. Don’t be afraid to look.

(And as a side note? The song that the title’s taken from. I didn’t know what this song was about for a long time, but I loved it because my name was in it.)

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Back on the bicycle.

imgresIt takes a lot of courage to walk away from a career path that you thought was going to be your life’s through-line. Most of the time it feels like breaking up with a guy (or girl) whom you’re deeply in love with, but who is not really the best thing for you. (Haven’t we all had -at least – one of those?) It takes a lot of thought and preparation, soul searching to the highest degree.

Oftentimes it seems like the easiest thing to do is to walk away.

We justify our new career by throwing ourselves whole-heartedly at it, like we did with that first artistic love. We decide, since we’ll not ever be the Second Coming of Pavarotti that singing isn’t worth it at all anymore.

This is an extreme approach, admittedly. But for some folks there’s no middle ground – you’re either doing it, or you’re pointedly not doing it. Sometimes that separation is extremely valuable – allowing a reprioritization of life goals, and an amount of  personal freedom not found in pursuing high artistic ideals.

Here’s the kicker. After a while? Most of us really miss that artistic thing…the singing, the playing with an ensemble, the creating moments in time and space that are special, distinct, that have artistic value…the collaboration…the sensation of losing ourselves in a practice room or studio for hours on end, feeling like only minutes had elapsed. As we get older, that sense of flow that seemed so easy to capture as a young artist seems more elusive.

(When I use “us,”  “we,” “you?” I really mean “me.”)

I wound up, thankfully, in a job that’s intimately involved with the performing arts. It has its positives and negatives:

  • I hear singers all year round that could clean the floor with my best past attempts.
  • I am inspired and challenged as a listener.
  • I have colleagues who also have strong performance backgrounds – dancers, instrumentalists, actors, singers.

Sometimes those colleagues challenge me. They have a great idea for an ensemble, a send-up of a popular song, an original tune. And I am a willing volunteer to hack around in a practice rooms for HOURS on any number of projects. (I have always loved rehearsal – the exploration and growth that happens in the room is the most exciting thing IMHO.) But getting onstage? Never really an easy thing for me…not when I was singing or playing, and certainly not now when I’m so out of that routine. It’s terrifying.

But sometimes? They ask. And I bluff my way to a “sure!” And I sweat like a villain in a Bond movie.

And it actually ends up being OK. Fun, even.

Turns out that once you’ve learned to ride that bicycle? You can, in fact, still ride it years later. Maybe you can’t pop a wheelie or race anymore, but you can get from point A to point B.

(And by “you?” I mean “me.” And also, “you.”)

Thanks to KC and GB for letting me play along with this year’s Christmas tune. I had a blast!

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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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