CJ O'Hara Productions

Musician│Teacher│Pianist


The Musical World of CJ

I'm a musical director, conductor, educator who loves to share my stories, thoughts and ideas.

New Year, and all that jazz

The New Year can be a time of rebirth for some people, a time for reflection or just having a great party and not thinking or worrying about anything. There have been years where I scoffed at having a New Years Resolution and years where I had so many, there wasn't any hope of me completing them. 


As a newly married man and studio co-owner, I'm very happy with where this past year has taken me. I'm also really excited for the possibilities next year! Working hard to try and set realistic goals for myself but also not getting overwhelmed and quit in March. As any gym membership salesperson or personal trainer will tell you in private, the sales at gyms skyrocket at the beginning of the year and then gym membership fades out by the end of January and most hope is lost in March. We over-plan and over-promise ourselves while also forgetting that we have social lives, day jobs and other commitments in the New Year.


What I've decided for myself this year is the completion of a task (Spanish fluency), begin French and become moderately conversational, grow the studio and run like crazy. These are things I think I can achieve. 


What I challenge all my students to do is choose 1-3 goals for the new year that you can stick to. Shoot for the moon but also be realistic. If you get it done, fantastic! If not, then you re-adjust next year. Push yourself, but don't beat yourself up if in 364 days you didn't accomplish the goal. Self improvement is great, but not at the cost of overwhelming yourself or over planning. 


Here's some ideas to keep in mind for next year: 

-self care is necessary

-breathing is good

-saying "no" is ok and often necessary for sanity

-get rid of the toxic in your life

-you are awesome, keep it up!


Yes, belting is safe...as long as you do it correctly

Growing up learning Disney music, showtunes and some classical music along the way, belting wasn't something I knew about or understood until college. I graduated in 2005 with my degree in music education, classical piano. We were trained to be fluent on a variety of instruments and styles. My choice was musical theatre. However, it wasn't until I sat in on several classical voice lessons from teachers that specialize in the cross-over from opera into musical theatre, that I realized the skills it required and how safe it actually was. We were often told "don't belt, it isn't healthy. You'll develop nodes". Not necessarily! I studied the lessons of several classical teachers and they showed me several exercises and techniques that would enable me to help a student take the leap into musical theatre. 


If you just start to walk again, are you going to be able to run a marathon right away? No. That's the analogy I give students when they first start belting. First, you learn how to breath properly. Then you get the placement. Then you build your repertoire. You are given new tools to use and it's so much fun! 


If you approach it properly, have a trained professional help you, and practice correctly, belting will grow your skillset and enable you to take on a wider variety of theatre roles.  


Practicing and motivation

We all have those days as professionals in our fields…the piano is staring at you, waiting to be played, the “next good book” is sitting next to you waiting to be read, meanwhile it’s the summer and things are a bit slower so you watch a YouTube video, and then another…look, it’s dinner time. What did I do today?

We’ve all been there. There are some days I just don’t feel like practicing. There are some days I don’t feel like opening that book and working on the next few pages of spanish grammar. There are days that go by where I don’t touch the trumpet. 

What motivates you? Sudden deadlines? Pressure? 

For me, designing a schedule for myself. If I happen to have a day or afternoon where I have nothing official planned, I design myself a schedule for that day. For some reason, I take that seriously and want to follow it to the minute. I also build in breaks for food or watching a SHORT YouTube video of a favorite pianist, trumpeter or other great musician to get my rear end kicked a little. 

I’m also lucky enough to have an amazingly talented fiancee who I often play for to keep my skills in shape. I’ll play a few things with her, make a list of what I need to work on. 

There are also days I keep reminding myself that I need to be the best musician I can be for my colleagues and my students. We are always auditioning. Keep the skills honed, keep cookin’ along! Make some great music!

-CJ
 
 

You get out of it what you put into it…

Any teacher will tell you that. When I was studying composition in my first years of community college, I had a great teacher but I didn’t do all the work I should have. Every lesson was “I just didn’t get the chance to…” from me and he said “you get out of it what you put into it”. Those words didn’t truly hit me until several years later when I was doing my undergrad, practicing copiously and studying. 

As a private teacher and someone who taught in private and public schools, I can tell you the saying is true…You get out of it what you put into it. It’s not the amount of hours you practice, it’s what kind of practice goes into those hours. 

In my studio, I have 3 main types of students. I have students that want to learn about how their voice works and expand their repertoire. They come in, practiced, with questions and are ready to go. We enjoy conversation here and there and small breaks but, in general, they get to the lesson, do the breathing warm-ups and are ready to soak up information and have questions. 

There are some students who just want to use me as a professional accompanist for an hour. They don’t care to hear about technique, they just want someone to play and record and review their repertoire. They may ask for a new song that fits them but it’s mostly just an hour of playing. 

I also have a few students where most of the lesson is discussion. It could be about audition techniques or what I think of a certain show. They also need to vent about something bothering them or just need to share how an audition went. Not much singing, a lot of good sharing.

Are any of these students bad? Not at all. They’re different. Some lessons are a combination of the 3 or any 2 of the descriptions.

When a student is done with the lesson, I always ask, “any questions”. I want the student to feel like they’ve done something in the hour we just spent together. Did you pick my brain for information? Was this a “keep in shape” lesson because you haven’t really had time to practice? Did you get out of the lesson everything you wanted?

You should ask yourself, before you get to a lesson, what do you want to learn or accomplish today. Share that with your teacher so they can help you achieve that goal. 

-CJ 
 

Working 9 - 5…or not…

I absolutely love owning my own business, along with my fiancee, and getting to set my own hours…sort of. 

I’ve been a full-time business owner for just over a year now and it’s scary, awesome, fulfilling, frustrating and amazing all at the same time. There are some months where we work without a day off for a month straight. Then there are some months or weeks when we have 2 gigs.

Many of our friends have the M-F 9-5 jobs and they enjoy that. They can plan vacations, they know exactly when they’ll be done for the day and when they start. Not so much for what we do. Here’s an example…

A week in March, my fiancee was working a gig that was 2 hours away, 3 days a week while also musically directing a show at night. I was playing the piano for 2 schools and musically directing another show at night and we were both playing a show on the weekends. It was one of our busiest months!

June comes along and her long distance gig is done as we are focusing on doing the shows that are running and working at the studio. We take whatever gigs we can get and whatever students want lessons. Sometimes that means we can get up late morning, exercise, teach for 2 hours in the afternoon and then we are done. Then I look at my weekend and I’m playing for auditions and then have students for the rest of the time. 

Needless to say, planning vacations can be an adventure. We had one set up for a few weeks from now and then we learned that we needed to be in town those days so we could accommodate another gig. It happens all the time. 

Budgeting and scheduling are often an adventure. Every gig, every student, every job we do makes a difference in our budget. That specific day, we may be teaching to cover the electric bill or rent. It all adds up and must be accounted for.

We love what we do and planning is very much an adventure. There are times we get frustrated because we know that if we try to take a day off or even 2 days off, we lose that income, unless we can move the students to a better day.

If you plan on going down this road as a full-time professional, make sure you manage your time wisely. Take those hours that you don’t have anything planned and make some contacts, exercise, and practice. It’s a great gig and life if it’s your style.  
 

Attitude is everything

In every audition workshop that I teach, every voice lesson, every rehearsal, I try to remind my students/cast members that attitude is everything. I will happily teach someone with less skill or talent that has a great attitude over someone with a bad attitude who is amazing. 

Remember that you are always auditioning. In voice lessons, in discussions with directors, in auditions, in rehearsals. I’ve played numerous auditions where we were ready to cast a person and the stage manager informed us that they had a bad attitude waiting for their audition…they were not cast. 

On the contrary, I love students that work their tails off, ask questions and have a great attitude. I will recommend them for gig after gig because I know I want to work with them.

Be kind, treat everyone with respect. You don’t know what’s going on in their life at the moment.  

Be open to ideas, respectful, try new things, try different things and do it with a mindset of “absolutely, let’s try this!” You’re already ahead of the game!

-CJ 
 

The joy of ensemble

As I am preparing for the amazingness that will be the Hunchback of Notre Dame auditions at Zao Theatre on Monday and Tuesday, I’m reminded of numerous discussions I have had with students and parents about being in the ensemble.

First off, some of the most talented performers I get to work with are put in the ensemble because they often have to be triple threats, make crazy scene changes, help with costume changes and be a jack/jackie of all trades. It’s quite honorable work for those unsung heroes. What bothers me is the following…I’ll only take a lead role. 

There are numerous exceptions to this rule for me. Do you live far away and can only make rehearsals a few times per week and are a very strong, veteran performer? I have a colleague who wanted to audition for a musical I was doing in Mesa and she lived quite far away. She wanted to audition for the show but, because of distance and time constraints, she only wanted the lead. She talked to me about it and explained the circumstances. I totally understood.

Several years ago, one of my students auditioned for a musical and had little stage experience. She is very strong vocally and can hold harmonies well. She wrote on her audition form that he would only take a lead role. I had a very strong conversation with her that, based on his experience and possibility of honing her craft, that she should have taken any role she could get as it would be a great opportunity for her. Needless to say, she has since taken a variety of roles and done very well for herself. 

There are other factors to consider as well such as the type of show…Parade has great ensemble work in it and amazing music. It also has a lot of secondary characters as does Beauty and the Beast. Anything goes, not so much on the ensemble front. Ragtime, Hunchback, Music Man, Joseph…all have great ensemble work to do. You need to consider the show and what you want to do in order to make that decision. Also, who is in the cast? Who is the directing team? Do you want to work with them?

The main reason for this blog/rant is to say “be careful when you will only accept a certain role”. Be open minded. If I had a dollar for every time an actor said “I didn’t think I’d like playing this role, but now I really enjoy it!” 

Don’t do it if you’re coming to rehearsal with an “it’s all about me” mindset. Do it with an “it’s all about the show” mindset.

Do it for the love of it. Do it for the great people. Do it for your own growth. Make some great theatre!2 notes
 
 

The business of show business

I’ll admit, I was inspired by my colleague Kelli James’ post on Facebook and used the same title. She does this full-time as well as numerous other performers/directors in the valley. 

I’ve been full-time with my business for almost a year now (psst, that’s the next blog post) and I can tell you that I wouldn’t have it any other way. More details on all of that when my 1 year anniversary of CJ O’Hara Productions full-time comes up.

As professionals, we need to get paid for what we do. Yes, we all have those gigs that we do pro-bono, just like lawyers. However, rent does not get paid and food does not get put on the table with “thank you’s” and other such words of appreciation. Is it nice? Absolutely! Being thanked for a job well-done is always appreciated, however, so is payment.

We as musicians and directors do crazy amounts of work on our own in preparation for jobs. We practice scores, block scenes, orchestrate, put together musicians, answer questions, coach, etc. A lot of people that have hired me fail to understand that. 

Numerous pianists I know can walk into a rehearsal, sight-read the score and just get it done. However, the time and practice put into sight-reading is altogether a different animal. We practice sight-reading constantly. I always have all my students work on it like crazy because it’s 90 - 95% of what I do as a pianist.

The reason I felt compelled to write this blog regarding the business of everything is that once you get hired to do a gig, make sure you confirm, sign a contract or do whatever is necessary to ensure you get paid. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been hired for a gig, played the gig and “the check is in the mail”, or “you have to send an invoice and once it’s processed…”

If I’m warned ahead of time that I won’t be paid at the gig, it’s not such a worry. However, often, you play the gig and then “send us an invoice and a check will be sent out to you”. Then you get to deal with the bureaucracy of school systems and other such entities that don’t care when you get paid. 

As you’re confirming the gig, get the payment details in writing. I’ve had to prove to many a director the price that was quoted and payment method from an email. Everyone forgets, it happens. 


Also remember to value your time on gig payment. What is required of me for this gig? How many rehearsals? What do I normally charge per hour? Drive time and wear and tear on the vehicle or bus tickets. Yes, $50 or $100 is nice but not if you have to do several multi-hour rehearsals and travel a lot to get to the gig. Things to think about. Value your time and the quality of your work.

As always, feel free to contact me with questions or comments. If you do this full-time or are looking at doing this full-time, make sure you budget appropriately. 

-CJ
 
 

Rehearsal and lesson etiquette

I hope you enjoyed the previous blog about active listening! This week, rehearsal etiquette!

I’ve musically directed numerous shows over the years, as well as serve as the rehearsal pianist and I can tell you stories! In fact, I will! The names and small circumstances will be changed to protect the actors who perpetrated the acts.

A few basic rules of rehearsals for those of you who are new to theater and/or music lessons…

-SHOW UP ON TIME (probably my #1 pet peeve)

-SHOW UP ON TIME (it drives me so nuts that I had to list it twice)

-BE PREPARED

-dress appropriately (if it’s a dance rehearsal, there’s often a specific dress that’s needed)

-have done your homework

-specific to music: bring a pencil or have some way of making notations

-be polite and responsive

-don’t be a pain in the ass

-take direction

-ask questions when appropriate

-thank the rehearsal leaders at the conclusion of rehearsal

So let’s dig into some of the above. Show up on time. If I leave my house early enough to grab some food and arrive 10 minutes early to get prepared for a rehearsal with you, you must be there on time ready to go. If you don’t, it shows a lot of disrespect to me. Now, if you contact me and have a legit excuse, that’s fine. However, showing up late to a rehearsal and not letting me know, huge point of contention. I have a long memory for that.

Be prepared. If I’m musically directing and I’m running a rehearsal for a duet, solo or group number, I’m going to make sure I come to rehearsal prepared to teach that number to my full capacity. If you come to my rehearsal and are not prepared by either listening to it, reading it through, memorizing the lyrics or whatever assignment I may have given you, you are not prepared and therefore have set up the rehearsal to not be as productive. It shows a lack of respect for the person running the rehearsal. On the other hand, if you show up having questions ready to go and show that you’ve done your research, the lesson or rehearsal can be really productive, creative and a lot of fun! 

Referring to the above paragraph, I can tell you about several actors that I’ve worked with where I said “come to rehearsal tomorrow night ready to…” and listed several things. Then, they showed up to the next rehearsal and I ended up giving them the same notes and critiques I had previously given them, which they didn’t even write down. It’s very frustrating and counter-productive. Don’t do it. Be prepared!

Dressing appropriately is more of a safety concern, especially for dance rehearsals. It’s also important in general music lessons and rehearsals to not wear anything that will constrict the air flow or make it uncomfortable to sing or move. 

Having your homework done has been discussed in be prepared so I won’t go into extra detail about that one.

Bring a writing implement, usually a pencil. Unless you are using an iPad, then a stylus or finger is appropriate. In the “old days” of music rehearsal, when everyone needs their libretto to rehearse, a director and/or musical director will give you notes and you will write them down in your book. If you do not have a pencil, you cannot write it down and therefore will forget and…you’re aware of the rest already. Bring a pencil, that is all.

Be polite and responsive, don’t be a pain in the ass, take direction. I cannot tell you how many actors I’ve worked with either are not polite and respectful or give me no response whatsoever when taking a note. I sometimes get attitude ranging from “how dare you” to “I’m too good for this” or the like. Well, guess what? You just went on my blacklist of actors I will never work with again.If you’re too good to take my direction, don’t be involved in the show. Go and audition for Broadway or touring or regional theater. Trust me, with that attitude, you’ll get kicked out of rehearsal very quickly.

The last few are very self-explanatory in my view. Asking questions is good, it shows you’re paying attention and thinking. 

Last but not least, thank the directors for their time in working to make the show great. It’s a small thing, but it means a lot. Do it.

Questions? Want a session? Email me at cjoharamusic@gmail.com, send me a Facebook message, text me, call my business number 602-266-1520, follow me on twitter @cjoharamusic2 notes
 
 

The act of listening

As my first official blog post, I want to discuss something that has been on my mind for several months now…active listening. Not just listening, but ACTIVE listening. My gosh is there a difference!

As an office worker by day, I get numerous phone calls from customers asking for pest control or to pay their bill. If I have to ask them to repeat themselves, it’s because I’m probably not actively listening. I’m just passing the hours waiting for lunch or to go home at the end of the day. In fact, in the mid-morning, probably my most productive time, I had a customer at an apartment complex needing service. I listened very closely to her problems and made a few recommendations based on what I knew about the situation. What really impressed her was that I listened to her. I didn’t interrupt or talk over her or anything. I sat and was an active listener. Taking in information, using what I could, coming up with a cogent, meaningful response. She was very appreciative that I sat and listened to her and thanked me.

Now, for a completely different side of listening, my business/job…musical director/pianist/teacher. In this position, I have many different types of listening. There’s me listening to a singer when they’re performing and making small adjustments to my playing so as to make the best performance. This requires stepping outside oneself and putting all the focus on the performer while you focus on the nuances they are communicating to you. No easy task for the singer or the pianist. However, that level of communication is imperative when performing live.

There’s also the teaching side of listening. When a student comes to me and explains their story or why they’re having difficulty with a certain section I need to direct 100% of my focus and listening attention to what they are telling me in order to most effectively diagnose and help them with their musical conundrum. 

In a completely different part of my life, I’m a private pilot with an instrument rating. I went up for a lesson this morning and realized that I need to work on my air traffic control listening and communication. While getting my taxi clearance, my instructor pointed out that I missed a few things and helped me correct them as I communicated with air traffic control. I needed to really listen to the instructions I was given or else I would have to be rapidly corrected by the tower or my instructor. It’s all about the active listening to what they are saying.

One of the main reasons I decided to write this blog as my first is that I don’t think it’s something we think about very often. We usually brush off listening skills as just hearing another person rather than actually taking in the new information and doing something with it. There is something special about people that you communicate with when you know they are active listeners. They don’t just nod their head at you but really tune in to what you are saying. You can see them take it all in and then often respond with something that furthers the conversation. It’s a wonderful time!

So, with my first blog entry done, I invite you to actively listen to your friends, colleagues and the like. Find out what you’ve missed and continue to be the excellent listener that you know you can be! Until then, like my Facebook page, find me on twitter @cjoharamusic and sign up for a session and we’ll work on listening together!2 notes