Hybrid Life: Balancing Careers in Music and Writing by Chris Foley

Rhonda Rizzo Headshot.jpg

Today’s guest post is from Rhonda Rizzo, a performing and recording pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations.  If you’re interested in following Rhonda’s projects, check out her blog No Dead Guys. I hope that Rhonda’s account of managing her twin careers resonates with you the way it does for me - this is the way forward for many of us as we enter a much more entrepreneur-oriented era for success in the arts.

It took my first recital (age 6) to convince me I wanted to be a pianist.  It took selling my first story (age 15) to convince me I wanted to be a writer.  It has taken me decades to figure out how to balance the two.  I am, a career mentor once told me, a hybrid. She was the first one who saw the value of maintaining both career paths when most people told me I needed to specialize and choose between the two.  

Balancing two parallel career paths is tricky.  My focus zig-zags; sometimes it’s the piano that absorbs me and other times it’s writing.  This could be a sign that I’m not serious about either career, but it’s the path I’ve taken because I’m creatively incomplete without both disciplines in my life.  And, after decades of working in both art forms, I can see the common ground that feeds them both.  

Communication.  It’s the earth, the hummus, the guiding force, the creative stuff that dictates my writing and playing.  Some truths require the poetry of words; others go so deep they need the wordless communication of music.  The trick is to listen closely and obey the creative impulse, regardless of the communication channel.  

It took decades of working in these parallel careers before they fused in one project.  I’m a career non-fiction writer who found myself compelled to write the fictional story of a young pianist, Cassie, who survives the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas. The resulting novel,  The Waco Variations, is Cassie’s journey of healing—a journey made possible through her love of the music she plays.  In Bach and Barber Cassie finds the structure she lacks in her life.  In Rachmaninoff and Chopin, she learns how to grieve.  In the very act of delving deeply into music, she finds the healing she needs to transcend tragedy and create her life.  

The Waco Variations is a book I couldn’t have written had I not been a career pianist.  Sinking into notes, following musical lines, feeling the thrill of connecting with the mind of the composer—these are things that form the tapestry of my life as a pianist.  Conversely, had I not had decades of honing my writing skills, I’d have never been able to put these experiences into words.  

Since the novel’s publication, my duel career paths have returned to their individual, meandering ways.  The writing part of my life has allowed me to connect with other “hybrid” musician/writer colleagues, introducing me to people all over the globe. Through these connections I have a list of articles and guest blogs to write. My musical career continues to pull me to the music of living composers, which I record and write about on my blog.  I’m knuckle-deep into a new set of compositions that I’m lucky enough to be the first person (other than the composers) to hear and bring to life.   Most days find me with my hands on both keyboards—the piano and the computer—searching for ways to communicate truths living in music and life. I play with notes and words and I hope that despite the challenges of juggling multiple projects something beautiful enters the world through my hands.

Arrival Day in Carbonear by Chris Foley

Carbonear is a small town about an hour north-west of St. John’s in Newfoundland. I’ll be spending the next week here adjudicating for the Carbonear Kiwanis Music Festival. Below are some pictures from yesterday afternoon, when the temperature hit a balmy 16 degrees Celsius (61 Fahrenheit), easily the warmest day of the year so far. Last night’s cod supper is pictured at the bottom.


Year One for Professional Singers by Chris Foley

Zach Finkelstein has a new blog about how to survive and thrive as a professional performing artist, and his post on getting to a living wage as a singer is eye-opening. I feel his numbers are right on the mark regarding how much a singer should expect to make at various tiers of performing organizations. It’s not pretty.

Becoming a professional singer has almost nothing to do with the pedigree of your young artist program CV or elite conservatory or how many competitions you win. It is all about your ability to survive for a decade or longer while trying to build a professional career.

If you’re a student or recent graduate from a music program, this is recommended reading.

The First Note by Chris Foley


Some thoughts on performing from lesson notes sent to my first student of the day:

The moment your fingers touch the keys, you already need to have a clear sense of rhythmic pace, the sound you want, as well as your musical vision for the piece. Take more time before you start! Silence is the frame out of which your musical performance emerges. 

Get Into the Studio by Chris Foley

Steven Pressfield on the importance of showing up and starting:

Shut up and get into the studio. Once your physical envelope is standing before the easel, your heart and mind will follow.

If you want to write, plant your backside in front of the typewriter. Don’t get up from the chair, no matter how many brilliantly-plausible reasons your Resistance-churning brain presents to you. Sooner or later your fingers will settle onto the keys. Not long after that, I promise, the goddess will slip invisibly but powerfully into the room.

Technology vs. Business Models by Chris Foley

The development of business models behind technological innovation is what will fuel growth, argues Irving Wladawsky-Berger:

New technology alone, - no matter how transformative, - is not enough to propel a business into the future.  The business model wrapped around the technology is the key to its success or failure…

…Business model innovation has long been the domain of disruptive startups looking to compete against established companies by changing the rules of the game, - and, hopefully, creating new markets and reshaping entire industries.  But, it’s no longer enough for established companies to just roll out improved products and services based on their once-reliable business models.

This is something that I’ve emphasized in my workshops on technology in the music studio - having devices and apps won’t make a big difference in your teaching. It’s the agenda behind it (both core pedagogical process and business model) that will provide the impetus for making technology genuinely useful.

(Via Wally Bock)

Remembering Roger D. Moore by Chris Foley


The Canadian musical scene just lost one of its most active philanthropists, as Roger D. Moore passed away last week. Having made his fortune in the computer industry, Roger decided to spend the rest of his life funding new work for the concert stage and theatre. The list of works he has commissioned is long indeed, and I am personally thankful to Roger for sponsoring Tapestry’s Composer/Librettist Laboratory for over a decade.

Many who live and work in Toronto noticed Roger riding his bike to concerts throughout the GTA. He was probably the most cultured person in town, and routinely saw between two and four performances a day, many of which he funded. He was the type of person that anyone would feel comfortable talking to, and I remember many conversations about the early days of both the computer industry and Toronto’s opera scene. He was highly trusted by both boards and performing artists, and at Tapestry he frequently advised both.

In computer science, Roger’s company I.P. Sharp Associates built the packet-switching protocols of IPSANET, one of the ancestors of the modern internet and one of the first packet-switching frameworks that allowed for the development of email.

One of Roger’s final projects was the cataloging of COC productions from 1950 to 2019.

Photo above is courtesy of Tapestry Opera. I’ll add more links as they become available.

Update: For those interested in attending the visitation, it will be from 2-4pm today at the G.H. Hogle Funeral Home, 63 Mimico Avenue in Etobicoke.

Here’s a tribute to Roger put together by Stacie Dunlop last year:

Nao on NPR's Tiny Desk by Chris Foley

There’s so much to like in this 20-minute Nao set which starts out strong and gets better and better. The moments where Nao’s vocals surprisingly dip into her lower range offer lots of contrast with her natural high voice. The counterpoint between Nao and the backup singers (especially the lower range of Taylor Samuels) is well crafted. The band shows lots of cohesion and groove, from the tonal quality of guitarist Ariel O’Neal, the excellent chord voicing of Joe Price in keyboards, not to mention the understated backbeat from Henry Guy on bass and Samson Jatto on drums. Put this recording on and listen all the way to the end.

The Quick Start Guide to Starting Projects in the Performing Arts by Chris Foley

I’m always inspired by stories of people in the performing arts who create new initiatives that serve the needs of their communities. Seemingly out of nowhere, someone has an idea, builds it into a project, makes it viable, and serves the community, creating a sustainable initiative that also provides employment for its creator and others. These are the types of initiatives that build genuine growth in the arts.

At the same time, I’m concerned by the number of people I meet who have great ideas that never get off the ground. What follows is a way to get from idea to action in a minimum of time so you can take advantage of the larger pool of outcomes that arise from being able to launch new initiatives, whether it be a new concert series, your first play, learning to create in a new medium, or simply upgrading your skills.

  1. Visualize yourself immersed in the process of what you want to do. No, I didn’t say visualize yourself enjoying the trappings of success on a beach in Hawaii or driving a McLaren down the street. You have to visualize yourself in the trenches, with your hands doing the actual work. Because if you’re going to make a go of your project, you’re going to have to show up to do the work, day after day, year after year, making something that will be viable and sustainable. What you discover in this step will determine whether you decide to go onward or choose another course of action.

  2. Take advantage of downtime. Life in the performing arts (and the entire freelance job market) often takes the form of feast or famine. Utilizing the spaces in your schedule is a strong starting point for any future endeavours. Time can be an asset if you’re motivated to create new work.

  3. Brainstorm. Pen and paper are the best for this. The free flow of ideas can unlock the vast realm of possibility, complete with ideas and connections between them. Research on the brain’s default mode has shown that the mental processes unlocked by daydreaming or taking walks is in fact what unlocks the full range of seeing possible future outcomes.

  4. Write a list of actions from start to finish. Your list can consist of either parallel or sequential actions. Your most important resources are money and time. Budget for both. Revise as you move through #5, 6, and 7.

  5. Leverage pre-existing skills, networks, and infrastructure. When I created the Tapestry Songbook/New Opera 101 program at Tapestry Opera in 2010, I took advantage of 20 years of new opera commissions from the company to compile a list of Canadian repertory arias that could be utilized to teach young singers and pianists about the new opera process. You have stuff lying around that can be repurposed. You have many skills, some of which are left dormant for years. You have social media and real-life communities all around you. Use them to create something new.

  6. Learn new skills as needed. Everyone’s education has gaps. In order to succeed, we need to fill them in. Skill acquisition can be a path towards a larger goal, or even the goal itself.

  7. Ask for help (or hire) as needed. Those around us have the answers to many of the questions we pose. Often a conversation with someone that knows the ropes can help. At other times, it’s best to hire someone, whether for services, consulting, coaching/teaching, or employment. Budgeting will be required in step 4.

  8. Work swiftly and mercilessly through your action list. Once you’ve got the steps mapped out, start executing. Taking action quickly can create an energy and momentum that is highly motivating.

  9. Launch your preliminary work quickly, then refine. Here your advantage is to move fast, and this is an asset that individuals and small organizations will always have over slower, more systematic large organizations. When you’re small, the principles of Agile philosophy become apparent: delivery a satisfying product early, and iterate quickly as it develops. A successful bootstrapped one-off concert can develop into a viable series as it gains an audience and funding.

  10. Commit for the long haul. After I made a mid-career decision to move full-time into piano teaching, it was still 6-7 years before I had a full schedule. In the interim, I was learning about piano pedagogy, apprenticing as an RCM examiner, learning the ropes of advertising, and building a teaching repertoire. If you’ve been honest with yourself in step 1, you can make it all the way to creating something viable and sustainable. The process at its end is transformative.

What are your recent success stories? What success stories inspire you? What have I left out? Leave a comment below and let’s talk.

(Image courtesy of Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash)