Degree from Michigan: English and Psychology
Current location: Portland, ME
Year graduated: 2007
Student Organization Involvement: Michigan Pops Orchestra, Campus Symphony Orchestra (violin), University Activities Center (board member), Armenian Students Cultural Association (member)
Other jobs held or graduate programs attended since graduation: Intern at Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra; League of American Orchestras Fellow at Aspen Music Festival & School, North Carolina Symphony, Spokane Symphony Orchestra, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Intensive Leadership Participant at Institute for Civic Leadership
CN: I am the executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. My role involves overseeing the 16-member staff of the Portland Symphony, acting as a liaison to our board of trustees, and working in tandem with my partner who is the music director (he oversees the conducting of the orchestra, while I oversee the business administration piece and the connection to the community).
KC: What do your day-to-day job duties entail as an executive director of a professional orchestra?
CN: Every single day is different – yesterday I was meeting with student community leaders to talk about how we can improve our community as a collective. Today I will be in a dinner with our top-level donors to talk about the great work that’s been happening with the symphony and how they’ve made it possible. Tomorrow we have a board meeting, so I’ll be updating them on our goals, voting on the budget, and discussing what they want next year to look like. It really just depends on the day.
KC: How did you become interested in pursuing this career path?
CN: At Michigan, I played violin in the Michigan Pops Orchestra, which is directly responsible for my current job. In my junior year I was the publicity director, and my senior year I was the executive director. When I was the publicity director, I started wondering if that type of role was something that people can do as a career. I reached out to the Ann Arbor Symphony to see if they needed an intern, and they said yes. I started interning there a bit during the school year and a lot during the summer.
I have the Bo Schembechler quote “The Team, The Team, The Team” currently hanging on the wall in my office. The Michigan Pops Orchestra was my team – it allowed me to see what happens when people believe in what they’re doing. It makes such a difference when musicians feel connected to the people that they’re creating something with. I think anyone can apply that idea to his or her daily life, and I try to apply that to my work in a professional setting. If people feel proud of the work they’re doing and they’re excited to work with their team, then the organization is going to be all the better.
KC: What other professional experiences have you had since graduating from U of M?
CN: At the beginning of my senior year, my friend sent me a posting for the “Orchestral Management Fellowship Program” through the league of American Orchestras. The idea behind the fellowship was that five people would be chosen to work with four different arts organizations or orchestras throughout the course of the year. I went through an extensive interview process and was flown out to New York for a final interview. Each of us started at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where we each managed an orchestra. We then went to three different orchestras of various sizes: the North Carolina Symphony, then to Spokane Symphony in Washington, and finally to the Baltimore Symphony. I spent 2-4 months at each of those places. It was wonderful because I was able to work with the executive directors of each orchestra and get to know the senior leadership and musicians. I tried to dive in and learn as much as I could.
In between each assignment, all five of us reconvened in New York to hear from leaders in the field. That’s when I met the then-executive director of the Portland Symphony. I was an English and psychology major at Michigan, so I did the New England Literature Program (NELP) in Maine after my junior year. A job popped up working with the Portland Symphony, and I realized it was 35 minutes from where the NELP had taken place! I moved out to Portland and took a “behind the scenes”-type job, which eventually grew into a general manger role. When the executive director eventually announced that she was leaving, I decided to put my hat into the ring and apply. I’ve been in this role for about two years now.
KC: What is the hardest thing about managing an orchestra that most people wouldn’t know?
CN: There’s always so much going on at once! There are so many things that can take your attention, and you need to be able to focus. At the top of that focus for me is always the question, “Am I making people’s lives better through music?” If I keep that question as my top priority, it gives my job more of a direction every day.
Also, it’s so important that all of the different departments, trustees, musicians, volunteers, and staff are receiving solid communication and that they’re able to get to know each other. That human connection and that ownership is something that I learned in the Michigan Pops Orchestra. I remember what it felt like when each member of the orchestra played their part in talking about what was happening on stage, and when everyone participated in social events. All of those things made the orchestra strong, and that applies to my job now too.
KC: How do you feel your degree has influenced your career path?
CN: I use my psychology and English degrees every single day. They both taught me communication skills and how to work one-on-one with people or with groups of people. It is so important to have those skills developed so that people feel like they can have an open dialogue with you and that they can trust you. Also, being able to write well is critical. The professor John Rubadeau taught me how to write in his class “Advanced Essay Writing.” If I had to choose a single class that impacted me, it would be his.
LSA teaches you how to be open-minded and think creatively about any given problem in multiple ways. Even though I’m not sitting down and writing a book, I feel that my degrees have trained me to be a critical thinker, to listen to people, and to approach my job as creatively as possible.
KC: What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing a similar career path?
CN: Call people in the field. Get coffee with someone who works where you want to work. People love giving advice, and they love talking about themselves. If you ask people why they do what they do, more often than not they’ll talk to you. You can make those calls all over the country, and that’s how you make connections. Just being able to pick up the phone and not being afraid to be bold makes a huge difference. Now, looking back, I would probably give myself a list of people to call.