Yes, And-ing Life and Working Outside My Comfort Zone

I haven’t officially been on stage, improvised with a team (yes, I was a pregnancy drop-out #hifidelities 😉 ) or taught in a classroom on a regular basis, since January 2015. However, performer and teaching artist is still my identity, my passion and very much my comfort zone.

2015 brought some big changes for me. The birth of my daughter was and has been firework, glitter bomb, nutella sandwich amazing, albeit a stretch on my emotions and sleepless sanity at times (new moms, it gets sooo much easier after they sleep, I promise 🙂 ). And my role at my, surrounded-by-super-awesome-artists and creative kids and families, job changed from managing teachers and curriculum to managing budgets, spreadsheets and deadlines. It was the later that really stretched my comfort zone.

I started to feel depressed. I was off mission and off my game. – When you’re feeling uninspired, it’s hard to inspire others. I began to feel like it may be time for me to move on and find someone else to take my job who had the same passion for numbers that I had for messy art projects and making up stories with kids. Well, around this same time, some big changes happened within our parent company and our building. “Closing,” they said. “June,” they said. I felt a rush of conflicting feelings. Of course I didn’t want our business to close. I wanted it to go on to thrive and grow. But here I had almost been ready to leave it behind. Did I want to stay out of a sense of duty to the staff and families? Or did I want to stay because I really wanted to take full ownership of this business?

I could see the life that I loved and knew I could handle laid out in front of me… We’d move, downsize. I’d pull that warm, comfortable blanket of my hometown, people I love and work as a teaching artist that I adore, up over my head and snuggle in to a cozy life with a yard, maybe a dog and grandparents to help with the baby.

But then what happens to this big, beautiful opportunity in front of me in this moment? What happens to the families who depend on our classes and space? What happens to our dedicated & talented team? Wait a minute… I’m feeling… that feeling… You know, that horrible, anywhere but here, pit of your stomach, want to crawl right out of your skin feeling?

Ugh. This is the feeling I so cavalierly talked about with my students and staff. “Welcome that feeling” I said. “It’s a good thing,” I said. “When you feel that anxiety, it just means that your comfort zone is stretching.” “Take a breath and push through it. The more you broaden your comfort zone, the less that icky feeling comes up.”

I decided to say, “Yes” to the offer in front of me. “Wait! This can’t close. I want it.”

I now own (another) business. A big business. A beautiful business. A business with lots of moving pieces, an exceptional team, high expectations and the need to relocate to a new location come the end of June.

Holy socks, I am now seriously out of my comfort zone. We’re talking meetings with banks, investors, architects, contractors and money … lots of money. Wait, didn’t I have like a numbers phobia or something?! But now it all ties back into my passion for arts education and moving forward to build something I believe in.

However, that doesn’t make it any more comfortable. At least not right now. I’m trying to catch up and learn as much as I can to move this forward successfully. Part of that includes saying, “Yes” to those people around me who are willing to help and working with people who complement what I bring to the table. Who will end up a part of this cast that makes the production artistically satisfying … and will put butts in the seats?

Throughout this process, I have to remind myself to let go of controlling the outcome, the ending of this scene. Right now, I need to be in the moment, listen and respond. – That’s easier said than done, though!

The other day, I sent a laundry list of questions to my potential business partner and at the end of it, I added, “Thank you for your patience with me. I am beyond out of my comfort zone!” My husband, who is being awesome and supporting me through this learning curve, saw this and said, “Stop self-deprecating. There is no need for that. You’re asking competent questions. You know what you’re doing. Do it and don’t apologize for it.” Of course. That makes sense. I would never walk into an audition and lead with, “Sorry, this may not be very good, I have a cold.” Or, “I just got these sides, so I might not be at my best.” Or, “I improvise much better with people I know.” I would walk in confidently, give my very best 16 bars, read or scene, say, “Thank you” and walk out knowing I did my best and I’ll get the part if it’s the right fit.

So, what am I saying here?

  1. That I need to take my own advice. Improv and theatre rules apply to just about every situation. Just because I’m out of my comfort zone in one element doesn’t mean I ditch my training – it all applies on stage, in life, in business!
  2. As a teacher and manager, I want to remember this uncomfortable feeling. I want to have more compassion in helping others work past the edge of their comfort zone. As adults, we almost always have the choice whether to push our comfort zone or not. However, each day children are faced with brand new experiences, people, rules & anxieties. Acknowledging their discomfort and helping them develop tools to work through it, is a big part of social-emotional development and just as important as any prescribed content.

Soon I will be posting about this new, exciting and certain-to-be-successful thing I’m doing. But in the meantime, I thought I’d share how totally freaked out I am … and how much I’m learning in the process. 🙂

Yes, annnnd we’ll see what happens next!


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Learning from Children’s Books: Barney Saltzberg’s, Beautiful Oops!

beautiful oops1A dear friend recently sent Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg to my daughter and I immediately fell in love.

Beautiful Oops! is a lovely representation of all the ways our mistakes, missteps and misunderstandings may turn into something more. It is a bright, whimsical and charmingly illustrated book of coffee spills, paint dribbles, crumpled paper and smudges turned into opportunities to create, devise and explore.

This book is a wonderful way to teach children (and remind adults) that a mistake or a failure is “an opportunity to make something beautiful!” This line of thinking is so important, especially as our students and teachers continue to be faced with the pressures of standardized testing, black and white answers and assessments. A recent article in The Atlantic talks about the academic pressure hoisted upon students as early as preschool. Fears about “school readiness” have permeated play and art-based programs. Recess, art and music have been swapped for “seat work” and vocabulary. Students are conditioned to think there are black and white answers to questions – very clear yes’s and no’s. Life described in multiple-choice bubbles.

Meanwhile, as many schools are feeling top-down pressure to raise test scores, research demonstrates that when it comes to predicting life-long success, other factors may outweigh academic knowledge. Nobel Prize-winning economics professor, James Heckman, emphasizes the importance of non-cognitive skills such as persistence, curiosity and motivation, but how can teachers best foster those traits in students?

Art. Drama. Music. Play. Story. Open-ended materials – and space to make mistakes.

Art comes from seeing beyond the literal, to externally express the internal. We’re told to think outside the box, but rarely are we taught how.

Thank you to Barney Saltzberg for this visual representation of resilience, creativity and reinvention in Beautiful Oops! You never know where a spill, chance meeting or so-called, mistake, may lead.

How do you embrace “oops” moments in life?

Beautiful Oops

“Holes in your paper are worth exploring.”



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Making Melodies and Making Learning Stick!

“All right, students, turn your theory books to page 15.  Today we will be learning about composition and how accompaniment relates to melody.  By the end of today’s lecture, you will be able to identify melodic steps, skips and leaps, recognize harmony and how composers add color to pieces with harmonics and sound effects like ponticello, tremolo, pizzicato and more. We will listen to recordings of pieces by Schubert, Bach, Shostakovich and Beethoven…”  zzzzzzzz… snoozeville — Oh no, not with Wolfgang Amadeus Schmutzinberry in the house!


Rami Vamos, elementary school music teacher, Lincoln Center teaching artist and playwright has created a fabulous and funny character, composer, Wolfgang  Amadeus Schmutzinberry, to introduce children to sophisticated musical concepts, compositions and engender a life-long understanding and love of chamber music. Rami has countless Schmutzinberry plays and performances under his belt. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to join him on stage for the past 5 years during the DoCha (Downtown Champaign) Chamber Music Festival. Each year, we have performed a new piece written and arranged by Vamos, exploring concepts like composition, rhythm and mood, with the aid of trios and quartets on stage, playing wonderful pieces live for children and families to experience in fun and interactive ways.

For the past three years, I have come back down to Champaign from my home in Chicago because I feel so strongly about the type of theatre Rami is producing and that the festival embraces. This is a wonderful introduction to chamber music and also a brilliant example of successful education theatre.  Educational theater is my passion and I believe it is the most effective method for creating meaningful learning experiences. Instead of teaching at students, educational theatre places them directly in the middle of the experience, engaging them in interactive problem solving and encourages curiosity and emotional engagement.

Instead of just talking about the concepts of melodic steps, skips and leaps, Rami demonstrates using a ladder and climbing up the rungs as the piano plays a melody from Beethoven’s Archduke Trio.

DoCha 2015 ladder

His character, Wolfgang Amadeus Schmutzinberry, creates a framework around any concept he is looking to teach.  The goofiness and in-expertise of his character creates a way-in where young students are able to become the experts, laughing and learning along with Schmutzinberry as he successfully navigates his culminating composition; demonstrating all of the new concepts learned during the performance!

Bravo, Schmutzinberry! Here’s to many more new compositions and the next generation of chamber music fans engaged through educational theatre!

DoCha Grandma

I’ll look forward to seeing you next year at the 2016 DoCha Young Peoples’ Concert! To learn more about the festival and how you can support through individual or corporate donation, please visit DoCha’s website.DoCha 2013

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