By Erin Farnsworth | July 2019
Your a great sister and I believe you can do good, and get something.
And if you don’t, you will always be the greatest person any one could even dream of having!
Erin Colleen Rhodes
p.s. I know for a fact you’ll do good!
While I would like to believe that my personal encouragement of my sister as a 7-year-old led to her greatest accomplishments, that may be a touch misleading. Even at that young age I could confidently write “I believe you can do good” because Stephanie’s high aspirations and hard work led me to believe there was no other option. I watched her do good. She is good to her siblings, her parents, her peers, her co-workers, mentors, and everyone she interacts with. She sees the needs of others and works to fill them in a selfless way.
I have watched Stephanie get “something” on multiple occasions. She showed me her work, shared her passions, taught me how to change lanes, and introduced me to the excitement of setting and achieving goals. After all, three degrees, national awards and recognition, extensive career opportunities, and the founding of a non-profit organization don’t simply fall into your lap–you have to work, to go and “get something.”
And while she has undoubtedly seen setbacks, I can still say that Stephanie is “the greatest person that anyone could even dream of having.”
As I asked her the questions that follow, I was reminded that I am not the only one to benefit from her strength, example, and friendship. Each member of our family, her co-workers, and peers can say that Stephanie has impacted their lives for the better. This commitment to others inspires and leaves me confident that I too am capable of “doing good and getting something.” You will undoubtedly feel the same.
EF: Your work in opera has taken you around the world. What new perspectives have you gained in your travels that shape your daily life?
SRR: There is a joy in traveling that stems from diversity—the unique nuances of a language, the discovery of a new cuisine, a breathtaking view that appears as you turn a perfectly ordinary corner, and endless variations of cultural and religious identity. But the most striking discovery of travel is not the diversity, it’s the familiarity. While the vibrant colors of diversity keep life from being monotonous, at the core of the human spirit, so much feels the same. People want to connect. They want to be heard, seen and understood. Our relationships—be they familial, friendly, or romantic—are at the heart of humanity, regardless of location. We all aspire, fail, hurt, grow, and love. Each individual experience may be unique, but we are far more connected than we may initially believe.
EF: What drew you to opera in the first place and what is one opera you think everyone should experience?
SRR: Opera encompasses many elements that I loved before I even knew opera existed: foreign languages, literature, history and, of course, the music. Those are all components that directly affect my work, but others are also involved in acting, set designs, dance, choreography, lighting design—the list goes on! It’s such a collaborative art form and when you experience a live opera, you are witnessing a product that took numerous people to create even if you may only see a few people on stage. With so many moving parts, there is never a dull moment in opera and no two performances are the same. This makes it a constant source of both joy and challenge, and I love that combination.
Introducing people to opera is one of my favorite past times. My husband Shane is a musical expert in 90s alternative rock, but had no interest in opera until we started dating. He’s incredibly supportive and before he attends a rehearsal or performance, he researches the plot (something I highly recommend!) and familiarizes himself with the storyline so he can follow the action without being totally dependent on the projected translations. We’ll talk through any gaps and I’ll play excerpts of the music for him. The second part of that statement is really inevitable, given how much of my practicing he has to overhear! This type of preparation really makes for a far more enjoyable experience, though the magnitude of the art form makes it pretty magical even without that work.
There is an opera composed by Puccini, La bohéme, that I think makes a great option for an operatic first, and it’s frequently performed which makes it easier to find. After my time working at the Bolshoi Theater though, all Russian operas have a soft spot in my heart and there are many that I think make for a fascinating operatic introduction! The important thing to remember is that not all operas are alike—I have some that I love and some that I really don’t care for. So if your first opera isn’t your favorite, consider it the same as a film that only scored 2 stars for you and head back to the theater to catch one you like better!
EF: After the success you experienced as a pianist, what prompted a career shift to conducting?
SRR: As an opera pianist, one of your primary goals is to replicate the sound and colors of an orchestra—you are typically playing a reduction and have to accomplish as one person the task of a large ensemble! Doing so, I fell in love with the orchestra. I studied violin as well as piano, so it wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar realm, but the desire to lead the orchestra was firmly planted in my mind the first season I spent in the Houston Grand Opera Studio and was given a backstage conducting assignment. I’ve played for many inspirational conductors and it teaches you a great deal and is immensely rewarding, But I knew that, ultimately, I wanted to be the one creating the inspiration. It is the quintessential creative collaboration. I will forever consider the opportunity to stand before a group of musicians a gift and hope to convey a sense of respect and trust to my colleagues.
EF: What steps did you need to take to make that career shift and did you find it at all daunting?
SRR: Comfort is never easy to abandon, but change and progress require discomfort. Trying something new or shifting directions may have moments of excitement, but it comes with much longer periods of doubt, frustration, and plain hard work. As I moved into conducting, I essentially needed to learn the technique of a new instrument. Since I’ve spent 30 years working to master the piano—it still feels like a work in progress! I have to be patient with myself. It is a complex skill and not something that can be perfected overnight, as much as I might want that to be the case! It still feels daunting at times, but I often think of an expression my high school calculus teacher used: proper preparation prevents poor performance. It turns out that math and music do go hand in hand, because consistent practice and preparation make all the difference in both confidence and performance on the podium.
Comfort is never easy to abandon, but change and progress require discomfort. Trying something new or shifting directions may have moments of excitement, but it comes with much longer periods of doubt, frustration, and plain hard work.
–Stephanie Rhodes Russell
EF: Amidst a new marriage, completing a doctorate degree, developing career momentum, and other projects, why the urgency in creating a nonprofit organization (Women’s ALI) now?
SRR: I can already say I have had a wonderful career, although it’s still in its beginning stages. But there have been many times that I have wondered what my career would have looked like if I had worked not only to develop my musical artistry and technique, but also business skills. To succeed in the arts requires intensive training and an almost singular focus—but where is that talent without marketing? How can life as a self-employed musician be financially viable? Navigating a career requires far more than practicing an instrument, but it earns little time and attention from most artists.
Throughout my work, I also noted an absence of women in leadership roles—be it within the administration of a company, on the conductor’s podium, or even within the orchestra itself. While there is a great deal of dialogue around this in the industry, I felt a need to act. I believe that sustainable change needs to begin with earlier education, and so Women’s ALI (Women’s Artistic Leadership Initiative) was born. We focus on educating young female artists from every discipline in leadership skills and business acumen. Our target demographic is high school juniors and seniors and college undergraduates, though we aim to expand our programs as we continue to grow. We’ve just completed our inaugural ALI Summer Leadership Intensive and have exciting plans for our current and future ALI Fellows! Change always requires urgency—I simply got tired of waiting and realized I needed to do something to make it happen.
SRR: No. It doesn’t exist! At least not in the way balance is typically portrayed. We have this concept of the perfectly balanced day: wake up early, journal, fit in a work out, cook a healthy breakfast, have time to wash your hair AND put on full makeup, give 150% to a job that requires more hours than can fit between 9 and 5, all while maintaining a perfectly kept house, making time for our relationships, and sleeping a full eight hours. With this version of balance, we are doomed to perpetually fail. I know I have! I now believe in stages of balance. There are weeks that 90% of my time needs to be intensively focused on a work project. The remaining 10% goes to survival. Another week, my non-profit might be the priority. And the weeks in between allow me to focus more fully on caring for myself and my relationships. There is always a small portion of each category present in a day: self-care, career, and family/friends. But the balance comes in a much larger time framework—the weeks, the months, and beyond. Ultimately, I think it will be most evident as we move through the various seasons of our lives.
Erin Farnsworth is an accomplished pianist, teacher, and entrepreneur. A graduate of Brigham Young University, she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in piano performance. Currently she runs a piano studio with more than 20 students and teaches additional group/private instruction throughout the Salt Lake City region. Erin has been a member of Music Teachers National Association for four years and presented teaching philosophies at two of their national conferences: 2017 National Collegiate Symposium (Austin, TX); 2018 National MTNA Conference (Orlando, FL). While Erin enjoys teaching, she is also passionate about business and applies innovative thinking to her studio model. This same passion is reflected in her work with Women’s ALI, where she serves as UX Designer and ALI Fellow advocate, focusing on effective business training for artists. Erin continues to perform and record with musicians of all backgrounds and frequently appears as a soloist, chamber musician, and accompanist. Connect with Erin on LinkedIn and on Instagram @erinfarnz.