Friday, October 14, 2016

The Career Magician - advice for my students while I'm away

Whenever I leave academia for a period to work professionally, there are a few things I'm reminded of and wish for all my students to know. So as not to feel completely guilty for abandoning them in the Arizona desert for three weeks, here's some advice from the road:


Obviously. Any of my students and former students know this is my big one. Read the libretto, know the music, the notes, the rhythms, the text, the subtext, the context, the language, the translation, the diction, the phrasing, the style, dynamics, the tempi, the orchestration, the traditions, the story, the history, the composers, the librettists, the authors, the recordings, the previous productions and performers, the social-historical context of the story (when it takes place, when it was written, why it was written, why it matters now), the inherent stereo-types, the potential pitfalls, your audience, your venue, and so on. Give yourself a year or more to learn a role. Sing it, play it, conduct it, stage it, choreograph it, cast it, design it - know every part. Know who you're auditioning for, who you're working with, what the expectations are, what to wear, what to pack, what to say, what to do, who's in charge, who not to bother, who's working harder than anyone else. You can always be more prepared.

Side note: I think ALL of us have to learn the preparation lesson the hard way. Even hard-nosed preparation sticklers like me had to learn it the hard way at some point, sometimes more than once.

Spoiler alert: There are many professionals who still haven't learned this. Just don't be one of them.


I think the biggest difference between students, emerging professionals and great veterans of the stage is confidence in making strong choices. This is normal, since strength in conviction often relates to age and experience. With many companies hiring young performers (I think because they often can't afford more seasoned professionals, and there are lots of young singers out there wanting the work - whether you like it or not), stronger choices become all the more important for younger artists too - especially as they are increasingly representing our art forms. Even most 20-something singers who think they've "made it" already, will see themselves nagged and coached within an inch of their lives by directors and conductors, and will disappear on the stage against more seasoned professionals if their choices aren't strong. Strong choices in one area will forgive weaknesses in others. Stage directors and conductors know this - so do magicians. Something interesting in one place will take the audience's attention from something else. Bold choices work.

At the same time,


Every teacher has seen it: we tell a student to take risks. They come in and fail. We start "teaching" them, and the student says or implies, "I was taking a risk." Well, that's great. You tried, you failed, now try again. This scenario happens every day. In a nutshell, that's our entire job as teachers. Yet sometimes I think students forget what goes into good risk taking.

If you want to try sky-diving, you don't jump without taking certain precautions first. You learn about it, take a class, learn about potential consequences, get all the equipment, find a reputable company, check the weather. When you're 100% confident that you're going to live, or at least willing to die trying, then you jump!

Mind you, this is coming from someone who will never EVER sky-dive in his life. My point being:

Risk taking and making bold choices require PREPARATION: research, consummate prior knowledge and firm ground to stand on, an awareness that you may be wrong and you may fail, as well as a willingness to...


This is one area where I see many seasoned professionals fall short. People don't like working with them or their careers falter because they are not flexible. Some are not flexible by accident - primarily through fear (in some cases, abuse). Others are not flexible on purpose. They make incredibly strong choices, they've performed a role 20 times (sometimes in a single year), and they know the role better than anyone else in the room. But they are inflexible. It's "my way or the highway," and they're quick to disguise their ego by treating the author as god and arguing their way out of any fresh new idea. Sometimes fresh ideas can come from the well-prepared novice. Sometimes the best ideas come from collaboration, cooperation, improvisation, compromise, listening.

Flexibility is probably the second most important trait I try to instill in my students. I think it's something they need to learn when they're young. Strong choices come with time. Flexibility seems to disappear with time... at least for some. I don't know, maybe when I'm older I'll feel differently about this - but at 37, this is my perception. But no one wants to work with you if you're not flexible - or at least I don't! Learn how to take others' ideas and share your own without being combative or defensive. Remember everyone wants the same thing: a great performance and good a time making it happen.


Everyone has to figure out how to make feedback work. I've found it helps if you try to put yourself in the driver's seat and ABSF - "Always Be Seeking Feedback." When YOU treat feedback as though it's something you WANT and VALUE, then you will grow to view it as a positive thing and not a negative thing. Also read Patrick Hansen's Opera Blog on "You Are Not Your Talent." Check in with the conductor, choreographer and director or their assistants after rehearsal for any notes (but don't be annoying about it). When you get notes in a coaching or class situation, be aware of how you come across in response. You may think nothing of it, but your body language may project something else. Argue at your own risk (I'm not saying "don't argue"), but try to keep arguments constructive. When it's tough, laughter is the best medicine - or sometimes a drink after rehearsal with a good friend (if you're of age, and never drink alone - as a personal rule). If you can't laugh, then breath or move or take a break. For god's sake do anything except be awkward about it. If it hits you hard, take it home and think it over for a bit.

Some feedback we can apply right away, some takes time - a day, a week, a month, or even years. Sometimes the most valuable feedback doesn't make sense until years later. Sometimes we know certain tough feedback is true but we're not ready to apply it yet. Sometimes we'll carry one person's words with us our entire life wondering what they mean (Ben Zander, in my case), and while on one hand it may irk us, on the other it may keep us on our quest for answers. Just whatever you do, don't let it paralyze you. Sometimes you just have to say to yourself "f&*^ it," and move on.

No one is stopping you from doing what you do. Believe it or not, they are trying to help (with some exceptions). And few have time for the proverbial "feedback sandwich" you learned about in your education/pedagogy classes: one thing positive, one thing to improve upon, and one more positive thing. You're far more likely to get a list of things you need to fix and no compliments along the way. You're also just as likely not to hear anything at all, which can be even more nerve-wracking. If you aren't getting feedback, ask for it. If you are getting feedback, say thank you like you mean it, apply it if and when you're able, and move on.

Which brings me to...


I only have realized the importance of this in the last couple years. You need a healthy mind and a healthy body to do this. The travel, interacting with people you don't know and may or may not ever see again, trying to please so many people, being a leader and a compromiser, collaborating, not to mention performing; it all takes a lot of energy. In your 20's, you may not realize it. But you'll eventually get tired. You won't eat well. You won't sleep well. You won't remember things. You won't have time to be your best. You will be missing your home, family, loved ones, friends, important events - your past - it's hard. You'll be surprised how quickly your health matters. The sheer physical pain of stepping off the podium after an opera is what ultimately made me address some technical and posture issues in my conducting and got me to the gym. An inability to be "in the moment" during performance, which has always been the one and only place I felt I could be "in the moment," is what got me to a psychologist.

You'll perform better with a healthy body and mind. In your schedule, give yourself lots of space and time to be an artist. Easier said than done, but possible. Have no shame in seeking counseling. Go to the gym and eat the best you can, which can be hard on the road. But it's possible. Have your team, "your people." Find your support network everywhere you go. Get massages!


I debated whether or not to make this a separate blog post, but it's relevant and it's been weighing heavily on my mind lately:

As an educator, I've always been a bit annoyed by the complaints from the profession (singers, administrators, and others) that the academy doesn't prepare artists for the practical aspects of our business.

First of all, we do teach students important career skills: those which they need to know to get to the immediate next level, helping them get set up with the next phase of their career, be it auditioning, employment or further training. While giving students a strong technical foundation and assuring them perhaps the only formal opportunity they'll have to study technique, theory, acting, dance and movement, languages (not to mention history, sciences, arts, and everything else they need to know), there's not much room to get into the dirty details of the business - and let's face it, some just aren't ready to go there. The best of us will show them how to make a resume and a website, how to represent themselves well in a variety of media (head shots, audio, video, social media, etc), and the very best of us even teach them some professional etiquette, how to do their taxes, and maybe give them a sense about how the financial aspects of our industry work. The most important business skills I try to instill in my students are the values of self-representation and networking. But there's not much room to prepare every single student for every possible scenario that they will encounter in their own unique career path.

I got my degrees in piano. In some bizarre and backwards corner of institutionalized arts training in the military-industrial education complex, I was graded on how I played Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I learned about suites and sonatas, art song, chamber music, and composers for the piano whom I haven't heard of since.

My job now entails a bit of playing and conducting, a substantial amount of preparation and research, but a LOT of organizing, planning, negotiating, managing people, places and things, season selecting, marketing and advertising, scheduling classes and events, writing and providing feedback on curriculum and assessment, hiring, casting, recruiting, and WAY too many committees and spreadsheets. I never took any classes in these things! I learned how to do all this the same way I learned how to be a coach, conductor, and teacher - by watching others, doing it myself, asking for help when I need it, and reading a few books along the way.

The practice, the drive, the discipline, the perseverance, the willingness to accept feedback, the trying, maybe failing, trying again, having an awareness of music's ability to communicate on profound levels, and the value and integrity of art - I learned all of that from Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and the incredible people who taught me how to play the piano (Xun Pan, Read Gainsford, Veronica Jochum).

Much to the dismay of my classical piano teachers, I also know how some good old-fashioned fakery and guess-work is essential in every discipline. Some of it can lead to surprisingly positive results. Sometimes failures too, which you also learn from. Just know that there will always be someone who knows when you're faking it - so fakery is only a temporary solution.

Ultimately no one can teach you how to get a gig, how to get into a young artist program, how to get into grad school, how to get an agent (that one drives me crazy), how to work in Europe, how to handle contracts. Everyone is different, and every situation is different.

We can show you what's out there, we can help you be the best performer and smartest person you can be, we can help you learn how to get the information you need, and we can help you learn how to learn. We can teach you self-awareness and how to be aware of the world around you. We can teach you how to make educated guesses, try, fail, learn and try again. But the rest of the details you have to figure out yourself just like we did (and still are).

Your world is very different from ours - thank god. Learn from us, learn from our mistakes. Learn from the good as well as the bad examples you see around you. Eventually surround yourself with the good, as much as possible.

How boring would our profession be if we taught "the profession!" You'd end up with a bunch of people with the same skills and the same expectations, likely making the same mistakes. An assembly line. That wouldn't necessarily lead to great art-making, and frankly, it wouldn't work.

The truth is, the profession is filled with people who are unprepared, don't make strong choices, are inflexible, avoid taking risks, don't take care of themselves, can't take feedback, and couldn't make a good-looking resume to save their lives. But they are all good at something. Occasionally it's performing! At the very least they're good at getting hired and re-hired. One could argue that if they're particularly horrible in any one area, then they are particularly good at something else, and exceptionally good at getting hired. They are all like good magicians. You may study them and study them and never know their tricks. But they entertain, and they're making money at the same time.

Everyone is different. Remember how unique you are. Remember how lucky you are. And contrary to what you may have heard, anyone can do this. So get to work.