[Just about a year ago, Marlissa Hudson emailed to say that she liked my blog, had ideas that synced with it, and wondered if we could meet. If I remember rightly, she’d put me on her mailing list (a good networking move), so I knew her name, and knew she was a soprano working in the Washington, DC area, where I live. And in any case I’m often contacted by people who read me, all kinds of people, by (for instance) the executive director of an orchestra in France, and by many music students. I always try to meet these people if I can. It keeps me fresh, and educates me in a warm and personal way not just about professional things, but about the human reality of change in classical music.
[Marlissa and I hit it off immediately. She’s warm and direct, and full of ideas and energy that come across more gently than you might expect from someone so entrepreneurial. Since I’m a father of a young boy, it didn’t hurt that — as the result of the kind of overlapping schedule that parents often can’t avoid — she brought along her son Hudson, a smart and solid kid whom I immediately liked.
[I say all this not because you need to know my history with all of our guest bloggers, but because after I’d worked with Marlissa on this two-part guest post, I looked with new appreciation at how I’d met her. I said that she’s entrepreneurial, and today and tomorrow you’ll read about her biggest project as an entrepreneur, a recording called Lust that she’s launched without any help from the usual classical music gatekeepers. I knew about this because, again, I’m on her mailing list, and because she’d email from time to time to tell me how things were going, or to invite me to events. I’d respond, and as I began to see what her project was about, I thought it would be a perfect subject for the blog, because it helps us all learn how independent projects can be done.
[So I invited her to blog, and as I worked with her on what you’re about to read (or what I hope you’ll read), I thought that midway through her second post, some people — learning that she had some high-level video collaborators — may think, “Oh this couldn’t possibly be something I could do. I don’t know the people she knows.”
[But that, I think, would be a mistake, and I understood why when I thought back to how I met Marlissa. She was networking, something we all do (or should do). But my reaction to her wasn’t as someone who’d been networked with. I just liked her. And respected her professionally, sure, and was interested in what she does, but above all I liked her. I felt that she approached me as a person first, and so I responded as a person. And, a year later, reading about how she did her project, thought, “Well, no wonder her collaborators were so happy to work with her! If when she met them she was as warm and honest as she was with me, then of course they liked her.”
[Which means that any of us could, just possibly, network more widely than we think we can, if we’re interested in those we meet as people, not just as targets. And that brings me to the way Marlissa’s post begins. You’ll see that she tells the backstory of her project, which is the story of her life. Not everyone would want to blog that way, and not everyone would be convincing doing it. But for Marlissa, I think it’s natural, because her work transparently comes out of who she is, and she couldn’t present herself in any other way. Which I’d think is yet another reason why she’s gathered such support.
[Enough from me. Here's Marlissa.]
Two years ago, I decided that I wanted to strike out on my own as a classical singer by creating and distributing my own album, and then building a tour around it. Mostly because I had an idea that I figured would freak out the prevailing conventional wisdom, but also because I was reaching a point where I really wanted to sing music that moved me instead of music for the sake of a check. I’ll explain the decisions I made, the successes and failures so far, and how I plan to move forward to make this an amazing experience for everyone involved.
My decision to become a singer was one of the toughest I’ve ever made. I’d been singing in public since the age of six, but all through school I never dreamed of being a professional. I thought of singing simply as something that brought me joy and fulfillment. When I was a freshman at Duke University, I realized that for the first time in my life I was feeling sad and couldn’t shake it. Why? Because I’d stopped singing. That made me take notice, and consider my music studies more seriously.
Second semester freshman year I began studying and never stopped, eventually finishing my M.M. from Peabody. To make matters more interesting, I transitioned from a lyric coloratura mezzo soprano to a lyric coloratura soprano, and my first soprano role was Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos! Nuts, I know. Luckily I was too ignorant to know the role was insanely difficult.
As is the case for many, I reached a point when my purpose was revealed to me — which was to reach others through music. Nothing else would fill the hole in my spirit. I wasn’t altogether thrilled when I realized this, but felt a distinct peace once I stopped fighting it. Hopefully others will be less stubborn about it than I was, because I fought it for years. I fought it after grad school, when I realized I didn’t have the money to actively audition and study, and in the midst of my marriage, when I realized that having a singer as a partner was a terrible decision for me.
And I fought it whenever I thought about the financial stability I could have had in a variety of other fields in which I excelled. It wasn’t until I was separated from my ex-husband, and was staring out the window at my mother’s house after moving back home to St. Louis (with a 3 year-old in tow), that I found absolute clarity. Singing wasn’t optional for me, and if I focused on it with passion and joy, I knew I would eventually be successful.
Turns out that being in St. Louis was a real blessing, because it led to my debut with the St. Louis Symphony as well as my first solo album. Call it luck, a blessing, or whatever, but I discovered there was a well-known composer named Fred Onovwersuoke whose son attended the same French immersion school as my son. Before we knew it, we put together an album called Libera, which included several of his works, along with spirituals arranged by Mark Hayes. I learned a lot about what is required to pull off a CD, but more importantly realized just how many administrative details are necessary to make it work. No creativity required on the administrative side, but discipline was critical.
I did have the backing of African Musical Arts, which served as my label. That meant I was shielded from having to distribute the album myself, and didn’t foot the bill for the recording or mastering. When you don’t have as much skin in the game, however, you also don’t reap the full reward. Just something to bear in mind for those of you who are considering projects in the future.
Things went so well in St. Louis that I decided it was time to find a larger market. Flying back and forth to New York was way too expensive, but I knew that the local music scene in the DC area, which I’d gotten to know when I was at Peabody, would provide a much larger base for an emerging singer than St. Louis could. I didn’t have the finances to make the transition comfortably, but I had to move in faith that I was doing the right thing. I’m a planner by nature, so I immediately reached out to what was left of my network in the area. Marvin Mills, who is my musical partner-in-crime, was the first to hire me. I performed a few arias and duets for the opening evening of American Guild of Organists national conference. That gave me the positive splash I needed to move forward.
Though it does take time to build a brand as a singer. I struggled for the first year, but had a lot of great support from friends outside of the classical music world who helped me turn my passion for music into a viable business. We created an annual calendar and an action plan, and we determined what fees I should charge as each year passed (and as my brand gained attention). If I hadn’t had a plan to increase my fees, I would now still be seriously underpaid for many of my appearances.
As my calendar filled, and my finances grew, so did my courage. The combination led me to decide to launch a sophomore album, and finally introduce everyone to my true brand of communication through song. In my next post, I’ll talk about how I did that — how, with wonderful collaborators, I created and promoted my new album Lust.
[One more word from me. Marlissa has a video that introduces Lust. You might want to watch it. You'll see — from the terrific workmanship involved — how much she's invested in what she does. And I think you'll also see the truth of what I said about her.]