Creating the New Face of Arts Education

When I was a kid growing up in the parochial schools of Rochester, NY, we had music and art classes several times a week. They were a mandatory part of the curriculum. You were also encouraged to join whatever music ensembles that existed and expected to play at several school concerts per year.  Sometimes there were more students in the concerts than were in the audience. We received a great foundation in music without traveling to lessons and without extra lesson or instrument rental fees or auditions for private music education. When I got to high school, I just took it for granted that all high schools had their fair share of extremely talented young singers and musicians and the means to cultivate that talent.

I  guess I never realized how fortunate we were to have that kind of education available right where we were in school. I cannot believe how much this has changed now. When I worked in higher education, I watched my music work-study students struggle to find student teacher placements in the local school system. The same for student art teachers. My friends’ kids now get their arts education primarily outside school from private teachers. But what about those kids who do not have the resources: money or access to teachers? It disturbs me to know that there is young arts talent out there who will not have the same great experiences we had.

I can go on about how studying music and arts benefits everyone, not just kids. However, you can do an Internet search and read up on that for yourself. Yet, as people bemoan the loss of arts education in our schools and the lack of funding for arts programming, the need for arts education is still very real. If funding for arts education is not returned to public school systems, then we need to find a way to reframe this problem to come up with viable solutions.

In addition, the old school model of higher arts education which emphasized education and arduous practice to make it to the top has not produced a plethora of graduates who have enjoyed better career satisfaction over the years. A large number of music graduates go on to a career in something else. Music and arts schools are still turning out graduates who may be skilled at music and arts, but little else, making it hard to make a living. Those schools who are offering business and entrepreneurship classes should be thinking of ways to fill that educational gap created by the slashing of arts education from the curriculum. It would fill a need for school kids and provides jobs for their graduates.

One general solution is promoting portfolio careers for new graduates where they do some performing, some educating, some entrepreneurial programming, etc. My experience is that these graduates are chockfull of ideas, and their proficiency with computers and the Internet can only help. Teaching lessons online or through community schools of music and arts, albeit not new ideas, are some ways to keep arts education going and graduates employed. However, there must be other ways to provide arts education to those people who can’t afford private instruction on their own.

Enter big corporations. I was in a local toy store over the holidays where they did free demonstrations with their musical instruments and arts and crafts kits. Obviously, it was shilling at its finest, designed to get the kids’ parents to spend money. However, every kid who stopped by to participate in the demonstrations learned something, regardless of whether their parents bought anything or not. These demonstrations also brought people together to share ideas, different ways to create Rainbow Loom bracelets or how to record rhythms on a synthesizer, for instance.

Maybe these corporations have hit on a way to sell while educating. However it happens, we need an approach, grassroots or corporate, to bring together the students who need arts education with those who are newly educated and beyond who can provide it.

When the Curtain Comes Down; Banishing the Lonely Blues

Whether you are a traveling consultant, a singer, an actor, a military person or a professional sports team member, it will come down to one fact, and that is: much of your working life will be spent on the road away from friends and loved ones. In addition, your schedule is going to be out-of-sync with most of the population as you cross time zones to do jobs that many of your friends and family probably don’t do or understand. It is easy to feel lonely and isolated once the show or job is over for the time being. Here are a few ways to prevent yourself from sinking into despair while on the road.

*Social media. Yes, everyone gets that Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites can keep you connected. Learn how to use them if you don’t know already and then get creative. Do you and your kids love crafting? Then create a Pinterest board where all of you can pin craft ideas. Sign up for Tumblr and post pictures of what you are experiencing. Skype your besties and follow up with a Twitter. Start and keep the conversations going on Facebook. None of these ideas take up a lot of time, and they can change your whole outlook when you are feeling sad.

*Bring something from home with you. One drug study monitor I knew brought a decorated Alltoids tin with pictures in it that her kids had made. It was small, easy to pack, something important to her that reminded her of why she was away from them. Don’t have kids? Keep up with the doings at your neighborhood club by liking them on Facebook. Or find something from home that has a logo from a favorite place and display it in your hotel or dressing room.

*Create a ritual. One of the loneliest times that my traveling clients speak of is when the show, the drug study or the tour of duty is over, and they have to move on to the next place. Not everyone can or wants to surround themselves with people at this point. However, the trick is not to let yourself get isolated. Create an aftershow ritual, one that pampers yourself, makes you feel better and keeps you connected. For some, it may be a Skype call home, while for others it may be going back to the hotel and ordering some awesome room service while watching their favorite movie or getting a midnight massage. If you are in a foreign country, learn the language. It makes it so much easier to make friends and feel at home.

*Rely on your professional networks. Your mama and your spouse may be the people who love you best in the whole world, but unless they have done the job that you do, they may not be able to easily empathize with your career problems. Even consultants who work alone can set up chat rooms or advance “coffee dates” to air their issues with colleagues who understand.

*Take a gap year. A gap year or month or couple of weeks can be time spent doing other things instead of or along with your career that keep you in proximity to your family and support networks. It may be consulting while cutting back on acting gigs or setting up a virtual music school while participating in fewer onstage performances.

***A special note about kids: As adults, we have learned how to say goodbye and that it does not always mean the end to relationships. However, kids are still new to this process, and repeated goodbyes bring with them fresh opportunities for grief and anxiety. This is tricky and not everyone can get it right all of the time. Witness the lyrics to Bonnie Raitt’s “Circle Dance,” a description of her relationship with actor dad, John Raitt. If you can understand that goodbyes can be super difficult for your kids, you’ve won half the battle. Part of that understanding means accepting that your spouse, your ex, or your parents are your kids’ world for a little while. Again, creating rituals can help. Mommy’s lap may not be always there to sit on, but the daily Skype call is coming or the online map always shows where she is. These simple rituals can provide tremendous comfort.

*Therapy is not a four-letter word. Talking it out with a therapist can help a lot especially when depression and displacement makes substance abuse seem like a great idea. Alcohol and drugs may provide short-term oblivion, but often have devastating effects on your mind and body, ones that can ruin your career.

Ultimately, these types of careers demand sacrifices from everyone involved. It is especially difficult when the career is more a necessity than a vocation. Reminding yourself why you do what you do and what your goals are can help.


Creativity and Problem Solving: If You Could be Any Toy…

I was always amazed in my over two decades of higher education experience at how difficult it was for college students to make the transition from accumulating knowledge for building a knowledge base to learning knowledge in order to problem solve. Some examples:

One day, a work-study student came into my office for his work shift, and he was completely enraged. He had just handed in an economics problem-set in which he was sure the answers were all correct. The professor then proceeded to divide the class up into groups and had them work on a case study related to the problem-set. The student was enraged because “there was no one right answer.”

Another student left a business case interview disgusted because one of the questions before the actual case was “If you could be any toy, what would you be?” She felt that it was a silly question to ask in a “serious” interview. The career staff pointed out that this was an excellent opportunity to flex her creativity. One answer could have been Mr. Potato Head because she could be flexible and change as needed. She considered the answer and said, “Ok, but flexibility is limited by the number of extra parts in the box.” So then the discussion became, “How do you expand the options? What are the consequences of expansion?” That really is what employers are looking for: Viable problem-solving options.

I know next to nothing about the Common Core curriculum, but I wonder how it is going to prepare students to take on the role of problem solver  in school and in work life. Workplace needs are dynamic, and what was the right answer last week may not work as a solution for this week’s problem. And your concept of the “right answer” may differ from those of your team mates. What to do? I asked a recruiter from Mitsubishi, “What happens when an automotive designer’s ideas clash with what the engineers come up with? Who is ‘right?’ Who wins?” His answer: “They both have to come up with a solution that works.”

In other words, in the real world of work, it is no longer enough to memorize the textbook, the white papers or the manuals to get the “right answer.” You still need that knowledge; however, creative application of that knowledge, often in conjunction with other people, is what is needed to solve problems.

This leads to a question I often get from parents of college students and college personnel: Which is better for getting a job: a liberal arts degree or a specialized degree? Both types of degrees are useful if students acquire a solid knowledge base while understanding how to use it to solve problems.  And letting go of the idea that there is one right answer frees up the process to let creativity in, to try on what-if scenarios and examine their consequences before implementing them. People do not always like that answer because it becomes clear that getting a job is not about who has the most knowledge and skills, but who can use those knowledge and skills to adapt to a dynamic workplace and be able to provide solutions.

When the Competition Becomes Fierce

Happy New Year! I think 2014 has a much better ring to it than 2013, don’t you? I am going to start the new year off with a post on one of my favorite careers: music. Yes, that huge American competition, the Grammys, is coming up at the end of this month. The category, Best Classical Vocal Solo is dominated by four of my favorite performers: Joyce DiDonato, Cecilia Bartoli, Dawn Upshaw and Jonas Kaufman. All possess completely different voices, especially among the mezzo sopranos, yet all recordings up for this award are wonderful. What to do, what to do? I am glad I am not a Grammys judge because I would be hard-pressed to decide.

This dilemma is similar to what hiring managers face when confronted with many excellent candidates and too few jobs to fill. And if you are a job seeker in this new year, you will also be dealing with fierce competition. I was once told in my academic career that my fiercest competitor should be – me. This advice held me in good stead all through college, keeping test and deadline stress at bay. It also helps in developing your own career. However, when you are writing a resume and interviewing for a new job, you cannot just ignore the competition. You should be benchmarking yourself against those other candidates.

One of the best ways to know how you stack up against the competition is to pay careful attention to the job description for the position that you want. Are you using the same words on your resume that are listed in the description? Do you have the knowledge and skills for which the employer is asking? How about certifications and licenses — do you have them or are you willing to get them? Make sure you let the employer know this. Put them on your resume or indicate in your cover letter that your are willing to go the extra mile and obtain anything you need for the job.

You may not know who else is applying for that coveted job, but you DO know yourself — your strengths and what makes you stand out from your competitors. So don’t just repeat buzzwords from the job description on your resume. Ask yourself, “How am I a maverick in this field? How is that going to help my next employer?” Be careful. This takes a bit more finesse, more research into the culture of the company. Will having some unique qualifications help you or hurt you? For example, will it help you to have experience in several related fields for one specific job? Find out by networking. Tap into your family and friends, their contacts and forums on the Internet. Going into the interview armed with this information may very well put you ahead of the competition. Good Luck!

As for who will win Best Classical Vocal Solo at the Grammys this year? I cannot even begin to guess. Everyone who is nominated has put forward their best work. This means that while I am at a loss as to know whom to choose, the ultimate winner is sure to be a stellar musician with an excellent album.


Online Degrees: What You Need to Know

College tuition costs are heading sky-high, and not every college student wannabe has the money or the time for expensive, traditional higher education options. An alternative can be an online degree that you can pursue at your own pace to achieve your career goals. Here’s what you need to know:

*Accreditation makes the difference between a legitimate program and a diploma mill, and more employers are considering online degrees because they are accredited and show discipline in a potential employee. Look for an accreditation statement before you buy. Accrediting bodies like Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities or the Western Commission on Colleges and Universities are recognized by the US Department of Education and ensure that you are getting a quality education. In addition, your area of study may also have an accrediting body. For example, if you are studying nursing, look for accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Accreditation also helps you secure students loans and a job when your degree is complete.

*Understand the cost of tuition. Some online degrees are not cheap, and some may require you to be on campus for certain classes. This means that travel and housing while you are on campus can add to your cost.

*Know what you need and make sure the program you choose offers it. Many online schools offer a combination of degrees, certificates and licensing courses. Don’t make the mistake of signing up for a certificate course, thinking you are going to get an Associates degree.

*Read online college reviews with a grain of salt. An online degree seems like an easy way to get a degree, but it takes discipline from the get-go. People get excited about the program and sign up without having a good understanding of the program commitments and then are disappointed in the results. 

*Stay motivated. Have a plan as to how you will arrange your life around studying. Not everyone who pursues this type of education finishes the program and are then dismayed when they realize they still have to pay back the student loans.

*Do not be shocked if your previous class credits do not transfer from a traditional college. Online classes have very specific objectives, and if your previous classes did not fully meet those objectives, you will have to take the required courses for your degree/certificate.

*Keep track of your classes. Although you may be assigned a mentor or an advisor, it is up to you to make sure you understand the degree or certificate requirements and that you are on track to graduate. Check in frequently with your school to make sure that the program and graduation requirements have not changed. It is very easy to miss a crucial email announcement when you study online.

*Realize that online learning is only one part of the continuous process of life-long learning. Many employers will still require you to attend workshops, get continuing education credits or units, and renew licenses to stay current in your field.

Casting the Diva: Learning to Create an Opera Career

I am honored to tell you that my guest blog on creating an opera career was recently published on Opera21′s blog on Tumbler. You can read it here. Have a great weekend!

Musicians: Preventing Burnout

Whether you are a rock star, an opera diva or a musical theater performer, your professional schedule is often out of sync with those who hold 9 to 5 jobs. Add travel into the mix and burnout becomes a reality. Here are a few tips to manage your stress and to prevent career-ending burnout:

*Look at the big picture. When you are first getting started, you probably accepted every performance opportunity that came your way. But that can be exhausting when you perform for any length of time. Try to plan your performances in large chunks of time, say 6 months to a year out. You will have an idea as to what’s coming and can plan ahead for life events.

*Build in breaks. Schedule family time, vacations and holidays into your performing calendar. If you are working with a management team, let them know you are serious about these breaks and do not give them up. If you plan breaks far ahead, there should be no problem.

*Make time for special projects and giving back. Whether it is connecting with fans, doing a master class or performing for a charity, special projects remind you how fortunate you are to be in a career you love and give you an opportunity to share your talent. You love music, right?

*Learn to Skype. Phone calls, emails and letters are all very nice. However, they cannot take the place of face-to-face interactions with family and friends. Skype is easy to use and is usually free.

*Bring your loved ones with you. Maybe your family can’t be with you on the road all of the time, but a vacation or visit planned around a performance can make all the difference and bring you closer.

*Manage stress. Take a workshop, read a book, practice yoga or do a hobby, anything that helps you reduce stress. You will feel better and perform better.

*Take care of chronic problems such as illnesses or addictions that can cause your career to come to a crashing halt. Develop relationships with your doctor and counselor who are willing to be available and make referrals, especially when you are working on the road.

*Plan for the future. How will you know when it is time to stop performing? Will you be able to retire? Find a financial planner whom you can trust.

*Build your network. Your performing schedule may be out of sync with the 9 to 5ers, but there are many others out there — musicians, actors — who are on the same schedule as you. Form friendships and supportive relationships with these people to make your career easier.

*Use resources. There are tons of resources out there for musicians. The 411 Guide lists many of them. The Emergency Musicians Fund helps classical musicians. The Actors Fund also helps musicians and others in entertainment. also lists resources for those music and sound specialists in the film and TV industries. There. Now you have four resources to get you started. Just one resource on the internet will lead you to more, so start looking.


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