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Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Secret To (My) Success

Recently, an article made the rounds on Facebook about how creative types succeed (or don't succeed) based on their abilities to network. I agree with much of the article, particularly the sentence about Luck playing an important part of success.

Here's a link to the article:

He references a terrific writer, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, who wrote a book that was pretty influential back in the 90s. I heartily recommend it: "Flow".

Here's the wiki link about Mihaly:

Go ahead, click on those links and read away!

Now that you've read some bits from the above links, we can move forward.

According to Jeff Goins, the author of "The Unfair Truth…", there is a systematic approach for creative types who achieve "success" (let's not even discuss what that word means!)
These steps are:
  1. Individual
  2. Field
  3. Domain
"First, an individual must master her craft in a given domain (art, science, mathematics). Then, this person must offer the creative work to a field of influencers in that domain who are trusted experts. Finally, the gatekeepers decide if the work is worth being accepted as authoritative into the domain."

I see this very clearly when I look back at my "path". Of course there's no PATH out there (I've blogged about that one a few years ago) it just seems like there's a path when one turns around and sees where they've been and how they got to where they are now.

But this Systems Approach is an interesting way of looking at How To Succeed In Creative Fields By Trying. There's some great stuff about needing a network, moving to find a better field, and talking about the idea of 'gatekeepers'. 

Let me explain by using my life as an example. Then, at the end of this blog, I promise to reveal the Secret To My Success!

PJH's "Systems Approach" history -- in an extremely truncated version!

Yes, I mastered my craft pretty early on. I was playing Beethoven sonatas in Jr. High and playing them well (Op. 2 No. 2 is not a sonata that most 13 year olds start out on, considering the leaping left hand 10ths.) I got noticed and found myself playing Chopin Ballades and the big Romantic concertos before I was even in high school. I discovered musical theatre and used my talents for faking dancing and my bass to tenor range (none of it all that great) to get me into school shows as well as community theatre. Because I could tap dance (sort of), I found myself in a community theatre show where I met a guy who was putting together a show in Omaha and they needed a pianist/music director. So at the ripe old age of 17, I got my first pro job as an MD for the "musical" Trouble in Tahiti. It was the perfect operatic start -- Bernstein courtesy of my musical theatre network (and my tap shoes!)

I offered my "artistry" to many trusted experts, from local stage directors wanting to take me out to bars with names like "Neon Goose" in Omaha's Old Market when I was barely 16 (welcome to the world of theatre…), to  Drake University piano professors who thought I was too distracted by musical theatre to be a "serious" pianist, to my teacher at Simpson College, Robert Larsen who opened up a literal whole new world for me at Des Moines Metro Opera during my first years as a wannabe opera coach. One person in this new operatic field was the DMMO apprentice program director, Stewart Robertson (who later became my boss at Glimmerglass and Florida Grand Opera.) My "Field" opened up considerably when I moved to NYC to accept a fellowship at the Juilliard School's Opera Center. All of a sudden I was playing for Marlena Malas' best students (including Troyanos on occasion), and playing repertoire I'd never gotten my hands on in Indianola, Iowa or Kansas City, Missouri. Seemingly overnight, I found myself playing on the Met stage (Levine in the house) for a soprano whose audition repertoire that day included arias from Lulu and Die Walküre. WHAT?! SERIOUSLY?! And on an upright piano, no less!

My Field had become the Opera World.

There were many mini-gatekeepers along the way who helped me move forward and opened doors. (Actually, I ran into many who thought they were THE Operatic Gate Keepers but I quickly was able to steer clear of their egos for the most part.) But there were three exceedingly important Gatekeepers in my life, two who intersected one day in line for coffee and the third I met because of the second Gatekeeper.

Yes, my success was really about standing in line for coffee in NYC with one Gatekeeper as he ran into an old friend, the other Gatekeeper. It is called LUCK. Here's the story (I wish I could animate it like the story of the three brothers in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"!):

It happened in my second semester at Juilliard -- Luckily, I was assigned to play rehearsals for a 20th century scenes program that was being presented by The Juilliard Opera Center during my first year as an Opera Fellow. The director was the legendary Frank Corsaro and the conductor was a rising young American, Hal France. Hal was, at the time, the husband of the amazing soprano Sylvia McNair and he'd later go on to be the artistic director for Opera Omaha. But for me, back then, he was what I wanted to be: an opera conductor. Yet I really had no idea how to go about becoming one. I had practiced the literature for the program and it was HARD SHIT. Berg, Stravinsky, Floyd, Walton, Bernstein, and some others. Maestro France seemed impressed, but he was there to coach the singers before stagings began and that was his focus. We were up in his Julliard apartment waiting for a singer to show and, as LUCK would have it, the singer didn't show. Hal finally said, "Do you want to go get a coffee or something?" I said, "Sure, would you like me to bring back something for you?" (I didn't even think he would go with little old me) and he retorted with "No, let's both go and we can talk about you."

Really? Talk about me? What was going on here?

You see, back in 1992 we didn't have "mentors", nor did we even describe our mentors as "mentors". That just wasn't in the vocabulary really. I was hoping to just not get fired, let alone find a "mentor" who could offer advice.

So off we went. We walked into some place across from Juilliard (no Starbucks in NYC then) and waited in a long line. 

Lady Luck smiled that day…

The guy in front of us heard Hal and I talking and he turned around and said "Hal?" and Hal said "Donald? What are you doing here?" and then Donald said "I'm auditioning pianists" and Hal said "You should hire this kid." Yes, that's a true story!

Long story short, Donald did hire me. He hired me based on Hal France's recommendation that happened in line in a coffee shop because a singer had forgotten to come to a coaching that I was playing because I was pretty good (frankly, fucking brilliant) at playing 20th century scores because I had no fear of opera because I had gone to Simpson where a great man, Dr. Larsen, had taught me that opera was something to never be afraid of, and that I met Dr. Larsen because a friend of mine in High School had gone to the Simpson College summer music camp and recommended it to me because she and I had studied with the same wonderful piano teacher in the 70s and 80s in Council Bluffs, Iowa (Berneil Hanson) because I had lost my first teacher when she and her husband moved out of the state.

If that first piano teacher hadn't moved out of town, I would not be typing these words now.

So Hal France was the first Gate Keeper.

The 2nd was the freaking god of all opera gods: Donald Palumbo!

You see, I had no idea who "Donald" was at the time I was standing in line waiting for coffee with Hal. In fact, while he asked me questions, I kept thinking "who is this guy, and what job am I up for, and how embarrassing it was for me that I had NO CLUE!"

In case you might not know who I'm talking about, here's a great NYTimes article:
NYTimes on Donald Palumbo

So my first big gig after leaving the midwest and getting to The Juilliard School (one has to capitalize the "T" in "The" when one speaks of The Juilliard School, fyi) was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Lucky Dog!

I played 15 operas under Donald Palumbo, who at the time was the chorus master for the Lyric Opera of Chicago (now he's working his magic at the Met.) Cosi, Wozzeck, Trovatore, Traviata, Boheme, Le Cid, Susannah, Don Quichotte, Tosca and others.  From Maestro Palumbo I learned that it was possible to be the pickiest musician alive and still get astounding results. I learned that if my ass wasn't on the piano bench 15 minutes before rehearsals began, I'd be fired. I learned that I would have to start at "Rehearsal 1" a thousand billion times in one night because the men couldn't get their first entrance in act one of Traviata to an acceptable level. I learned that there was no such thing as good enough. I learned that you had to insist on perfection in order to gain access to perfection's universe. I learned how the Boheme chorus goes, every last syllable of it. I learned how to redistribute choral lines in Tosca the way Toscanini did because that's the way Palumbo's mentor, the La Scala chorus master Roberto Benaglio, did things. I learned that the art of being a great operatic chorus master was a rare art and that Palumbo was the Michelangelo of opera chorus masters.  

But boy did he scare the shit out of me every single rehearsal that first summer. During the first month of rehearsal, I would wander home at night and my wife (we'd been married 6 months by that time) would ask "how'd it go" and I'd say something like "I missed a few notes in the Tosca and Maestro gave me the look of death but the Verdi went better, only a dozen or so notes missed". Later, I started to focus on what he was hearing, how he'd react, how he was fixing things or drilling certain sections, and I'd think to myself "he's going to stop for this". And guess what, slowly and surely, I was there. I was understanding his process and his expectations. His ears were simply the best in the business!

I learned so very much from Maestro Palumbo, and I'm certainly indebted to him for not firing me, and for rehiring me for the next season of rehearsals because that's how I met my 3rd Gate Keeper.

In the middle of June I think, Maestro Palumbo turned to me at the end of a rehearsal and spoke to me. I was stunned. He didn't really speak all that much to me, in a direct way, about anything other than "2 before rehearsal 45" or the occasional "don't drag". Come to find out, he'd recommended me for an assistant chorus master position at Pittsburgh Opera. Really? I practically cried on the L going home that night. I was elated. I had been recommended by my operatic god! For a job!

SO --- I prepared my audition (Storm scene from Otello, Komponist from Ariadne -- no problem there, it was my party piece as I sang it up the octave in my best dramatic counter tenor voice, "Salut!" aria from Faust, and the opening of Rigoletto and probably Carmen quintet) and was flown to Pittsburgh one fateful July 4th weekend. The audition was an awful experience. A dour chorus master who did not appreciate my fabulous high Bflat at the end of Komponist said "please play it again and sing down the octave" with a face that said "please die and leave my space".  I had knocked that Strauss outa the park, thank you very much.

I didn't get the job, but I had met Tito Capobianco and a few others there, and somehow I'd made an impression (in my youth, I was rather charming.) Side note: Three years later I was hired by Pittsburgh, probably because of that impression. Anyway, I was back at Chicago and my contract was coming to an end. It was August and it was hot in the city. My time at Juilliard was at an end and so I was looking at trying to struggle through being a freelance pianist in Chicago. Not. An. Easy. Thing. To. Do. In 1993…

Just as I was contemplating looking for a real job selling watches, I got a phone call from the third Gate Keeper. It was Michael Ching.

Michael had been up at Pittsburgh Opera doing an onsite evaluation and so had known that Pittsburgh had just pulled in a few young guns to audition for their assistant chorus master position. Michael called up Tito at Pittsburgh because he was looking for a rehearsal pianist in Memphis and asked him who his second choice was. They gave him my name.

Michael is the third Gate Keeper because he opened up a whole new section of the operatic world for me. Michael gave me my professional conducting debut (a matinee of Gretry's Zemire et Azor,) He got me my job as Resident Conductor for Ash Lawn Summer Festival, where I conducted 36 performances of 4 operas and 2 musicals in just six weeks during my two seasons. Later -- years later -- he would hire me back to direct an Orpheo in Memphis and then yet later -- a few more years later -- recommend me to David Hamilton (Fargo Opera) who was looking for a stage director for Fidelio (FIDELIO! I GOT TO DIRECT FIDELIO!) But more importantly, vastly, he reconnected my operatic DNA to my musical theatre DNA and allowed me to realize how I had ignored my musical theatre background while pursuing classical music. This ultimately led me to Ithaca College, btw.

Oh -- Michael's second in command was the operatic prodigy Karen Tiller. We were put together as the artistic team for Opera Memphis' The Turn of the Screw and loved working together. Later Karen would hire me to be the Music Director for the Opera Festival of New Jersey for which she was the general director at the ripe old age of 16. Okay, maybe not 16, she was in her 20s I bet. 

In New Jersey I got to conduct Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. BLUEBEARD'S FREAKING CASTLE!! My favourite one act of all time! In Hungarian! With the players of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia! And did I get a good review? I got a freaking awesome review from a Pulitzer prize-winning critic that used the phrase "pyschosexual angst" in a sentence talking about my conducting! 

And, in New Jersey I learned about treachery first hand; but that's not part of this blog, that'll be part of my book.

BUT back to the present day -- Here we are now in 2015, I'm living in Ontario, Canada, still teaching at McGill and still freelancing down in the states. After years at Ithaca College and lots of summers at Brevard and a few daring, daunting years at Florida Grand Opera, I'm returning to conducting this January. It'll happen at the end of January, 2016 -- Opera McGill's production of L'elisir d'amore in Pollack Hall. I'll be sure to blog about that process, and it's being webcast in HD so anyone reading this blog can watch it.

So, as promised -- the Secret To My Success!

We have to go way back to the summer of 1984. There I was, pouring a gin and tonic for the director of the DMMO apprentice program, Stewart Robertson. I was at DMMO because of LUCK. I got the job this way -- I was playing a voice lesson for a student of Doug Duncan, DMMO's general director, and he said something like "you wear nice clothes, how would you like to work at my opera company?" "Um… sure… I guess…"

So I was a house staff member for DMMO that summer (hearing my first Nozze, Dialogues des Caremlites, and AIDA!) answering phones, sharpening pencils for bitchy NY coaches, taking notes at Dr Larsen's feet during orchestra rehearsals, moving xerox machines and pianos on and off trucks, and tending the bar in the lobby of the theatre. But I also tended bar for private receptions and I found myself speaking with the wondrous Stewart Robertson.

Back to Stewart and his Gin and Tonic -- Stewart, in his very dashing Scottish brogue asked me if I was a student at Simpson. I said "yes." He asked if I was a singer. I said "no, not really, although I do sing, I'm a pianist." Then we talked a bit, I don't remember anything specific. I do remember saying to him something about how I loved playing Trouble in Tahiti in high school and how I loved playing Hansel and Gretel my Freshmen year but that there were too many notes and how frustrating piano reductions were. I was desperately trying to say something that was impressive.

Stewart's a nice guy, but he had people to see. So he ended our little talk with this nugget: He leaned in and said "Next time, don't try to play all the notes; just be careful to choose which notes to leave out." And he turned and walked away. There should have been mist. He disappeared into the mist. I sort of remember the moment with mist...

That's the secret. Don't try to play all the notes.

I've left out hundreds of thousands, if not millions of notes over the years. There's simply no way to play them all. That's been my secret.

But I'm not just talking about notes on the piano, or notes in an operatic score. There are other notes.

These notes are all around you. They are distractions to learning your craft. They are ugly people in your face saying ugly things to you or about you. They are your inner demons keeping you from focusing on your dreams. They are also your family, the people who love you, the people you love. They are the wonder of the world and its beauty. These notes connect us all to the past and give life to the present. They speak to the future as well - where we might go, what we might become. It is so important to remember that they are not all equal, these notes. 

Let some of them go. Forget about them, just as your right hand forgets about playing all of the octaves in a Verdi cabaletta. Let the bad notes go, for sure, because they don't belong in your opera anyway. Embrace the notes that give you purpose, that give you strength, harmony, and a backbone of rhythmic drive to get things done. 

Learn as many notes as you can, but know that you will not learn all of the notes. It is impossible. Even our operatic idols dropped a few, or more likely a million. Absolutely.

So go out and work on your CRAFT as an INDIVIDUAL. Then go out and share that art with others in your FIELD. Gravitate to those who are positive influences and those who help others become successful, or at least help them along the way. When you get to a Gate, say YES and know that you are ready to move forward.

And most importantly, don't forget to help as many others as you can. 

But most of all, learn to pour a really good Gin and Tonic. Be generous with the Gin, make sure the tonic is fresh, not too much ice, and the lime: juicy.