3 Tidbits about Virgil Thomson and his song cycle "Praises and Prayers" - Hear it June 22nd in Minneapolis!

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Virgil Thomson, composer

Virgil Thomson was a pillar of 20th Century American music and a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. Although he looks a bit grumpy in this photo, rest assured he was a productive, creative individual, producing 8 books in addition to his numerous compositions. He also earned 20 honorary doctorates. 20!

All that before the computer and "the internets."

1. Thomson was a paid organist at the age of 12 and attended Harvard on scholarship. (Link)

Having a regular gig from the age of 12 is pretty spectacular by any standard. A scholarship to Harvard? An amazing opportunity, one he used well.

2. He spent 1925-1940 in Paris and met/became friends with an impressive list of people:

Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, e e cummings, Aaron Copland, Jean Cocteau, Scott Fitzgerald, Christian Dior, and Orson Welles. Just to name a few.

Thomson also studied with Nadia Boulenger, one of the 20th Century's most accomplished and famous composition teachers. (If you are in my voice studio, you will be learning about her over the next couple of months!)

3. Thomson insisted on accompanying the world premiere of "Praises and Prayers" in 1963 and was reportedly sloppy in his rhythm and even skipped ahead a whole measure at one point.

That's like forgetting to put the milk in the fridge...dangerous. These songs are dependent upon their own rhythm and text accentuation. (Read:  these songs are hard and incredibly rewarding.)

Luckily Mark Sedio and I know what we're doing and we won't be skipping a measure when we perform 3 songs from this song cycle on June 22nd at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis. Here are all the important points in one:


Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

"Praises and Prayers" by Virgil Thomson

1. From The Canticle of the Sun (St. Francis of Assissi)

2. My Master Hath a Garden (Anonymous)

3. Jerusalem, My Happy Home (Anonymous stanzas on "Mater Hierusalem Civitas Sancta Dei" from The Meditations of Saint Augustine, Ch. XXV)

with Mark Sedio, piano

Central Lutheran Church

333 S 12th St.

Minneapolis, MN  55404

Call me back. I want to give you money!

on . Posted in Singing

We need to talk.

You and your phone...you're together 24 hours a day. You've got Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and Instagram and apparently you have email and hey, look--that thing even makes phone calls!12387035811999740766adam lowe Smartphone.svg.hi

Yes, that computer in your pocket--you can use it to actually talk with another person!

What I mean when I leave you a voicemail that sounds like, "I need a pianist/conductor/recording engineer/graphic designer/web developer/photographer for this project I'm working on, so please call me as soon as you can" that means I really want you to call me as soon as you can. I want you to call me. Even more:  when you call me back and say yes, I will actually pay you money.

I know, crazy, right?!

It seems so simple...yet it is so complex for some people. It's like the world of freelance has become the world of dating, where if you don't like someone enough for a second date, you just don't call them back. It's pretty immature. The world of freelance is becoming the world of "I don't care/the answer is no/I don't have time, so I'm not calling back."

And it's crap.

When you don't call people back or don't answer an email or don't respond to an inquiry, it sends the message that you are irresponsible, disrespectful, and makes you look like you don't care. It doesn't matter if "that's how people deal with things" these days. It's a load of hooey and you know it.

Worse:  it costs you money. Because you don't get the gig. AND you don't get the gig(s) that could have followed. I promise when you are a pianist who doesn't respond to an inquiry and you don't answer my email or voicemail, you get automatically demoted. You get put on the 'B List.' People I only call if I have to...because you're now my second (or even third) choice. I will call every single person on my A List before I will ever call you. And often, I will call people I don't know before I call you--because they will often call back when you didn't.

Answering inquiries and requests is a form of marketing. It's also good customer service, but think of this:  in marketing, it used to be that people needed to hear your message 7-10 times before they would respond. That was before Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, and every other social media site out there. Now it's likely multiple times that.

If someone recommends you to me:  your name is in front of me once. If you respond, no matter if you say yes or no, your name just got in front of me twice. See how it works?

When you don't respond at all, you cost people like me time and money. You didn't call me back. And because you were unresponsive/lazy/too "busy" to even send a 1-line email/too lost in your Facebook feed to come back to earth and get something done, I had to call multiple other people, ask for more recommendations, call and research other people. You who didn't call me back have wasted my time.

Do you want to know the easiest way to get more work? Call people back. Return their email. Respond to their Facebook comment. The best advice comes from this Entrepreneurial Guru:

Your future is in the follow-up.

~Ali Brown


Anybody willing to bet that isn't true?

Listen, you pianists, you singers, you composers, you conductors, you teachers, you working professionals whom other people pay to provide a service. Make it as easy as possible for people to leave their money with you.

Yes, you.

So check your spam folder as often as you check your email. (Yeah, and by the way, when you change your email, you should email everyone you've ever met and tell them. Except that person you went on 1 date with and don't like. You can skip that person.) Answer all your voicemail within 24 hours. Do NOT ever say, "Can you call me back in 2 hours?" Write it in ink on the back of your hand and call me back.

Here are a few great options for responses:

  1. Yes
  2. No

Any questions?

The Best Pencil for Musicians: Paper Mate Clear Point Elite

on . Posted in Singing

Confession:  I'm an office supply geek.yellow-pencil.hi

Having the right writing utensil is a goal for me (and I know a lot of other people who are like this, too). Having just the right pen or pencil is part of every-day writing, not just for letters or for signing contracts, but for making notes, writing down blogging ideas, marking scores, everything. And now I've found the perfect pencil for writing, score markings, and note-taking:  Paper Mate Clearpoint Elite. I'm a goner.

To give you the whole picture, we have to back up 1 step. A while back I picked up  Paper Mate Clear Point 0.5mm Mechanical Pencils (not the Elite version, they weren't available then) because:

  1. I need a lot of writing utensils for teaching, writing, note-taking, marking scores, etc.
  2. I have large hands (I can easily span a major 9th on a piano keyboard) and those thin, yellow pencils are hard for me to use.
  3. Running out of lead or eraser just isn't an option. Especially not in the middle of a rehearsal!

These pencils were great--with a larger barrel, plenty of space in the barrel for extra lead (0.5mm only--ever!) and a long, replaceable eraser. Yes, you read that right:  Replaceable! Refillable! Rechargeable!

4 brand spaking new pencils, all perfect, and there was always one at hand.

Then the clips broke off. First the blue one, then the green one, and then the other blue one, and then the other green one. Soon there were no clips left.

PapermateEliteSmallOffice supply snobbery hit, and so did a rehearsal in which I was tied up looking for a place to put the pencil, since I couldn't clip it to anything--not the folder, not the music, nothing. No clip = no storage. It was a rough day.

Then Paper Mate came out with the Elite version, with a metal clip. I'm a believer.

Elite is right--a larger, smooth barrel with slight ridges where your fingers grasp the pencil. A metal clip that is practically indestructible. The same spacious interior for copious amounts of 0.5mm lead and the same, large, replaceable eraser.

I bought two and haven't looked back. These are seriously the best pencils I've ever used for writing, marking scores, erasing markings, note-taking, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

If you are looking for just the right pencils for your markings, try a couple of these and please let me know what you think in the comments below!

Fellow office supply geeks unite!

Update 5/15/14:  Left in the photo you see the pencils I bought, the extra erasers and the lead. Pure score-marking awesomeness. ~NW

You Don't Always Get Your Ideal Fee.

on . Posted in Singing

Some organizations just don't have a large budget, yet they offer great concerts, wonderful experiences, and provide wonderful resume-builders for singers. And we should, for all reasons, sing them and bring music to people. That is, after all, the whole point. So let's look at a few ways that organizations offer and singers accept gigs that are perhaps lower on the pay scale but high on education, respect, and worthiness.

a/k/a How to ask a singer to sing your concert when you't have much money. And for singers, how to accept a good gig that's doesn't pay a whole lot.

a/k/a Rules to live by.

When you're offering:

1) Don't ever call it "exposure." Just take the word out of your vocabulary. See my previous two articles for reasons why. If you're still not sure, read them again.

2) Be up-front:  when you ask a singer about your concert or service, give them the who, what, when, where, and how much. It's rude to make someone ask "What is the fee paid?" and it puts the recipient in an awkward position. So just lay it all out on the table right away. This sets a great precedent for being upfront and goal-oriented; clear communication makes everything quicker and easier.

If you're emailing the offer and not calling, send all of these facts in ONE email with a descriptive subject line like "Handel Messiah on December 15 in Ourtown, OurState?" It's so much easier to refer back to one email with the facts than to have to search 8-10 emails and put everything together.

When you send a confirmation letter or contract, you can copy and paste the information between the email and letter/contract, which saves you time, too.

3) Keep things hard-and-fast:  stick to your rehearsal times and keep your emails succinct and to-the-point. This keeps everything productive and efficient for everyone involved.

Then if you send an extra reminder email or you need to notify everyone of a change, they will take note simply by the fact that you've sent an additional email or perhaps you've sent this email with urgent status.

4) DO offer what it is:  experience, possibly new repertoire for the singer, education for everybody all around (since we musicians really can't afford to stop learning) and a great time together making beautiful music.

Music is a small world and if you like to work with someone, or think you will enjoy working with them, then ask! There are so many reasons for performing and creating great music together. We cultivate our working relationships this way and quite literally:  you reap what you sow.

5) If your budget is tight right now but will be more generous in the future, only offer future gigs when you know you will follow through.

This happens when organizations are just starting out or when they're transitioning in their own set-up or mission. If you need a favor, call it in from someone you know, trust, and would be open to hearing it. If you can honestly say that you'd be happy to offer them something in the future, go ahead. But don't make empty promises. You'll reap that fairly quickly in return.

When you're accepting:

1) Watch out for red flags like wording that insinuates that you're young/inexperienced/need the work. Exercise caution if things aren't spelled out in the first email; AVOID ACCEPTING right away. To get more information and better insight, ask the questions you need to know. Ask who, what, when, where, and how much. Ask why if it's a fundraiser--which organization is receiving a donation from the event?

2) Be very clear on why you’re singing it. Whether it's a new piece, another line of experience on your resume, a piece you've always wanted to sing, "easy money" for a piece you've already performed, networking, or an excuse to wear your new suit or concert dress, know why you're doing it. This is for you and only you.

Remember it can be as simple as "Because I want to."

3) Turn it down if you don't have time to do it well. It's still work, so if you can't do it well, don't accept it. (Or you can learn this lesson the hard way. ;) )

4) Frequently building a career is akin to creating a mosaic. There are lots of different parts to it and in music, those different parts pay different amounts. Be sensitive to the fact that the organization offering you work may be on a strict budget. Remember, music is a small world (a very, very small world). Treat others with respect unless you need set a boundary and be assertive, and still do that with respect and class.

If you would like to work with someone, or think you will enjoy working with them, then accept! There are so many reasons for performing and creating great music together. We cultivate our working relationships this way and quite literally:  you reap what you sow.

Is there an echo in here?

5) Treat every singing event as if it were paying you your ideal fee. While you never know when one gig might lead to another, you're still meeting new people and making new connections at every concert; showing up ready to do your best is one of the best ways to create a solid, respectable reputation. It's like the theater adage, "There are no small roles, only small actors."


Myth: "Exposure" is Legitimate Payment for Singing. BUSTED!

on . Posted in Singing

It’s time to mythbust [insert dramatic music here] “Singing for Exposure!”

(N.B. this is not singing for free according to the Singing Donation Budget or when you take a lower-paying or free gig because it makes you happy and proud even when it doesn’t fill your pocketbook; this is concert presenters who ask you to sing for a lot of hours for dirt cheap.)

More and more frequently people offer ‘exposure’ as a benefit for professional musicians to sing a gig that’s poorly paid (or not paid at all), as if exposure were directly equal to and as effective as money.

“Exposure” is wrongly offered to singers as a concrete, quantifiable benefit, similar to a 401(k) match or an employer’s share of a health insurance payment. Your neighbor works in an office and gets a 1% match for 401(k) funds, you get exposure from a gig. Your friend has a low-deductible health insurance plan through her employer, you get exposure from singing.

Myth #1: Exposure is a benefit directly derived from the gig.

BUSTED: Exposure is a nebulous, unquantifiable element. It is a RESULT of work completed; exposure is what happens when the work is completed, it exceeds expectations and happens to be heard by just the right people. So it’s the right work, done in the best way possible, at just the right time and just the right place for the right people to hear it and act upon their excitement so as to hire you immediately.

In other words, the stars must align and multiple human beings (all with free will) must seize the opportunity in the same way at the same time.

How often does that happen?

Myth #2: Exposure is a form of payment.

BUSTED: Have you ever heard of a corporation including “exposure” as part of the pay & benefits for an employee? Or even for a contractor? People work, which gets them experience and perhaps results in exposure, but they work for money.

“Pay me less and get me exposure!” said no employee ever.

For a lot of people the archetype of the ‘starving artist’ holds fast in their minds. As if money doesn’t matter to us somehow, like we don’t have rent, car insurance, food, and clothing to pay for, it just magically appears. Overflowing grocery bags of complete meals with fresh vegetables magically manifest in our kitchens when we return home from rehearsal at 10 p.m., the dry cleaning bill is mysteriously paid when we pick up our gowns and tuxes, and we just get free cars from the dealer. Random people on the street give us lunch because they can see the invisible sign above our heads that proclaims,

“I’m an artist! I do it for love, not for money!”

It’s so moving to them they can hardly find a sandwich fast enough.

Myth #3: Exposure is a benefit equal to money.

BUSTED: As in any business, there is an exchange of a good or a service for money. You exchange your work (practice time, coachings, travel, rehearsal time, singing in the performance) for a pre-determined fee, known as the Artist’s Fee, a/k/a an Honorarium. With any reputable organization, you will have all this in a contract well before the concert or at the very least a confirmation letter. It’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

So let’s add “exposure” to the mix. Put on some gloves, this gets messy.

Exposure happens during the concert and after, with audience members who hear you and maybe they will find your website and see more of your concerts, other musicians who might ask for your business card and call you later to collaborate, maybe a reviewer may like you and write something nice, maybe another conductor who is friends with the concert presenter hires you. These things may be there, or maybe not.

The determining factor here is that exposure of your singing to others is completely out of your control. You cannot make another musician call you, you cannot make other musicians collaborate with you, you cannot magically please a reviewer into giving you a 5-star review, and you cannot make another conductor hire you based on what you sang last month.

It is all up to them.

You can only do what is fully within your control—you CAN offer your singing through concerts, sing many auditions and competitions, you can post on social media and send out a newsletter, you can blog. Increasing your output (via concerts sung, posts written, your newsletters, announcements in alumni papers) increases your readership and your networking, and this could lead to some particularly advantageous situations, however those situations are RESULTS and all of that is completely out of your control.

Myth #4: Sometimes one concert leads to the breakthrough a singer needs! Who cares if it doesn’t pay?!

BUSTED: There is no such thing as an overnight success. Singing is a long, slow burn of a career—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Singers are not ‘discovered’ from a single concert, they get work through auditions and recommendations; it’s a culmination of hard work, determination, and an astounding amount of people skills. Singers have a career of momentum that needs to be kept up. Think of it as a wave that grows and changes as it nears the shore--whatever that singer's goal is, that's the shore.

One concert may very well be the tipping point—the wave starts to break and they can stand up on that surf board and ride the wave--indeed that happens to performers—they worked hard, connected with others well, someone called them up out of the blue and voila they were jumping in for someone who was sick, saved the day, got rave reviews, and all of this flurry of activity helped their awesome reputation spread like wildfire. These singers seized particular opportunities but/and they were ready to jump when the opportunity presented itself. They hit the shore.

To Sum It Up:

Offering ‘exposure’ as a benefit an excuse as to why a singer should sing a poorly-paid or unpaid gig is just plain dumb. Key is that presenters who do not offer ‘exposure’ as a benefit don’t need to. They know the value of their own organization and their audience. And they know that is the fulfillment of the agreement--everything else is icing on the cake.

It is immoral to suggest that one particular concert will lead to a career breakthrough. Just as no teacher can ever promise that her or his student will 'make it big,' no concert presenter can ever reasonably suggest that their concert will make a career.

I don't ever promise my mechanic that giving me a break on a tire rotation will make their months' cash flow goal because I might tell the right people who might become customers. I’ve never asked the mechanic to work on my car for cheap, either. I don’t promise him that he’ll get more work when he does work on my car. He does the work, I pay him, end of transaction.

Does your local sandwich shop ever say, “Sure, you can pay in exposure! Which concert did you sing?”

Usually they just want you to pay for your sandwich with cash.


Read more:

An experiment on payment in doughnuts http://creativeinfrastructure.org/2014/03/21/just-say-no/

A handy flow-chart on saying yes or no http://shouldiworkforfree.com/clean.html#no5

The economic impact and several ideas of how to retain the value of your art (through the lense of physical art, not sound art) http://katevrijmoet.com/blog/broader-economic-implications-donating-your-art/

"Exposure" isn't Payment for Singing. MONEY is.

on . Posted in Singing

I once received an email asking if I would sing a series of concerts for what was a very low sum of money. As is typical in negotiations, I countered with an offer that was higher and noted that if my request exceeded their budgeting, I would gladly put them in touch with other singers. Pretty standard.

The presenter said there were no more funds, but s/he could offer exposure, which is when I ended the exchange with a friendly “My fee for this would be $X and I’d be happy to work with you later for less time and/or more money.”

To put it in terms of clothing, I was offered minimum-wage pricing, I countered with discount-store-level pricing, and forewent industry-standard prices because they were unrealistic for the situation. (Calculated out by the hour, this gig paid significantly less than the temp job I quit in December.)

It didn’t work out. Oh well—c’est la vie. This was a situation in which I thought, “Hey, ok, maybe another time. What’s next on my list?” and went on my merry way.

Then came the second round of emails. Keep in mind the first conversation had completely ended and weeks had passed since then.

What I read was the most disrespectful, patronizing email I’ve ever received. It was a helping of “I’m going to give you a second chance,” flavored with “You’re young and you need this gig,” a splash of “this opportunity could mean the difference in you getting future gigs,” a dash of “OUR organization gives you credibility and WE will give you exposure!” a greasy side of “Your colleagues are doing it for what I offered you [then listed  my colleagues who had accepted the fee],” and topped it off with “You’re not making the right decision.”

Hold the phone. “I’m going to give you a second chance”?! What is this, the cheating ex-boyfriend come back to beg?! No, my response was no. No is a complete sentence. Thus endeth the conversation. And this person had the audacity to come back and tell me that *I* was being given a second chance?

Puh-lease. I was not born yesterday.

My response was a blunt three lines of 1) I told you the first time, I do not bank on exposure, 2) my colleagues can do what they want, and 3) my answer remains no.

That relationship has ended. And I’m OK with that—no one has the right to talk to anyone else like that and I absolutely will not tolerate it. And to tell me which of my colleagues agreed to what fee—highly unprofessional, disrespectful, and back-handed.

Mama don’t play that game.

The point that I hoped had gotten through, although I highly doubt, was that I do not bank on exposure—literally. I bank with money, just like everyone else. Occasionally I bank with favors (thank you Steven Covey) and on swaps—traditional barter culture is alive and well. But really, I am a human being who has invested a ginormous amount of money in her education and training, I’ve got great experiences under my belt, and I love to expand my skills and learn new pieces, all the while working with great organizations from small church congregations to pillars of music in the Midwest. We are all in the same industry and partake in the same market. We are all in this together.

There is a deeper level at play here that is not obvious at first glance and may push buttons for a few people so let's go:  I’m a woman asked for what I wanted (I negotiated) and then I said no (I ended the conversation).

*Nicole pushes random buttons and ticks off a whole bunch of people.*

In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker aptly notes that

when a man says no, it’s the end of the conversation;

when a woman says no, it’s the beginning of a negotiation.

In my totally unscientifically-researched, real-life experience, this is very much true for a large portion of the population. Not everyone operates in this way, but in enough of it that when I need to negotiate, I brace for either impact (worst-case scenario) or further development (best-case scenario). Occasionally the response is a resounding yes, and then I go celebrate.

The early seeds for learning to negotiate began with the book Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Just the chapter titles give you an idea of the breadth of this topic: “Opportunity Doesn’t Always Knock,” “Nice Girls Don’t Ask.” “Low Goals and Safe Targets.” Babcock & Laschever thoroughly hash out the conundrum women face every. single. day.

Luckily they also wrote a second book entitled Ask for it: How women can use the power of negotiation to get what they really want. BOOM. Read it. Understand what to do and then do it.

Add to it that I run my own business—it’s an entrepreneurship or, because it’s just me, I qualify as a “Solopreneur.” I’m a female solopreneur. I deal with money, I’m comfortable talking about money, I like to learn about money, and I enjoy taking care of my money. I even geek out over finding efficient ways to enter transactions in my bookkeeping.

I’m a female entrepreneur who knows her own value. That can be really uncomfortable for other people. I have the brains and support network to determine if a gig is going to make me happy enough, proud enough, and/or paid enough. I do not call myself satisfied when someone else has "been kind enough to let me do something.” (Barf.) This can rock the boat for a lot of other people—people who are happy to assume that when you are mid-30s and a single female, that you are either a) still supported by your family (?!), b) receiving alimony (!!!), or c) have a sugar daddy.

The saddest part is, within the last 18 months, people have asked me each of those last three questions.

Just stop and take that in for a second.

So even though I am comfortable with money, budgeting, and investing, have my head straight on my shoulders in regards to which gigs are good projects, and I run the two branches of my business (music & German) with organized flair, my being is often reduced to someone who is a female artist and therefore I must be dependent on my family, my ex-spouse, or I must whore myself out for nice clothes, fancy dinners, and a boyfriend who’s 20 years older than I because other people need to think that “someone is taking care of me.”

I work. I teach. I sing. I coach. I adjudicate. I practice. I write. I recommend. I network. I hustle to get things done and I know what my time is worth down to the quarter-hour.

And my time is worth a lot more than the suggestion that someone else should “take care of me,” the heinous idea that it’s ok if I don't get paid much because someone else is paying my bills, and that “exposure” is something for which I should hope because God forbid I actually form a career out of good, old-fashioned hard work and get paid appropriately for it.

What I really hope for is to be an excellent example for my teenaged students—currently all girls. I hope that in every lesson, they see that I am young and single and I am my own boss. I hope they realize that it is not a marriage/someone else's money that will define them, but who they are as people, and that it is possible and achievable for them to run their own business(es), too. If they want!

What I pray for every time I adjudicate is that I can create a sense of accomplishment for the student when I fill out that adjudication form—that no matter their score, they will feel respected and challenged and that it will give them new motivation for singing and give them the true sense that they belong in music.

What I strive for when I sing is to connect with everyone listening. To give all the listeners a moment in time that takes them away. Life is hard and music makes things a lot better. To entertain people, to give them something to laugh at, to be moved by, to bring tears to their eyes so they might revisit a precious memory or work through a bit of grief.

This is what I bank on.

It takes money to get there—money to pay the rent, buy groceries, pay the cat’s vet bill, put gas in the car to drive to adjudicate, to pay for coachings so I’m ready for gigs, buy flight tickets. It takes me managing my money well and negotiating conditions and fees high enough that my business runs, pays me enough to live on decently, and I can continue to work in this business. It makes me happy and keeps my bank account happy, too.