When it comes to building a career as a musician, there is no “typical” path to take–and Baldwin Wallace Conservatory alumnae Paige Zilba ‘16, Rachel Hagemeier ‘19, and Sabina Balsamo ‘18 know that personally. Whether it happened while they were still students, after they graduated, or during the COVID pandemic, all three music professionals have had to define their professional trajectories their own way.
Zilba was working as a music therapist in LA, making TikTok videos on her lunch break, when she blew up as a social media content creator, even landing a feature on the NBC Today Show. Now–after COVID cut her job responsibilities and inspired her to pursue her new passion–she works in social media full-time, partnering with brands like Venmo, GLAD, and Disney+, and making her living creating videos just like the ones she used to play around with as a young child.
“I always had an imaginative brain,” Zilba recalls. “I always liked making sketches for videos, even as a kid. When I started to learn more skills like piano or singing, I just started to integrate that into having fun making sketches.”
During her time at BW, Zilba remembers having to think on her feet, finding ways to carve her own path despite not quite fitting into a “perfect mold.” But she credits BW with encouraging her to creatively problem-solve. While she was a student, she founded a capella group SŌL, which still runs today.
“I think the creativity just never stopped coming because I allowed it to come in. And I just went with it. The practice of working with people on a day-to-day basis with music, and being creative with that, allowed me to be creative with my own space, in my own world of videos.”
For Balsamo, being in opera productions with the BW Opera program gave her a similar result of pursuing her own path. “I’ve always been really interested in small scale, chamber operas, and opera up close where you can really see the performers. I think my experience with Scott Skiba has made me see that,” she says.
As she ventured into her career post-BW, Balsamo pursued performing in such productions, as well as producing them through SOHAP, the new music ensemble she co-founded with her husband Chas Barnard. And while she’s appreciative that her time at BW allowed her to see that she loves performance most of all, she has realized that she also enjoys other aspects of working in music.
“I never thought that I’d be producing opera, but it’s really fun to see things come together. It’s really fun to be able to commission a piece, get the grant, and then record it. There’s a lot of avenues you can take that are not just one thing. Closing your mind off and going for the prize–that works for very few people.”
Balsamo has had to run all aspects of SOHAP with her husband, from business to production to marketing and fundraising, which “has been such a huge challenge,” she says. “I’ve been reading books, going from scratch, talking to a lot of people to figure that out. It’s such a difficult skill to learn to ask for money.”
This is where she adds that taking the Arts Management emphasis program would have been “really, really helpful.” She suggests that current and future BW students consider focusing on areas of Arts Management that are needed to run an ensemble, specifically citing courses like AMG 301-Marketing and Audience Development for the Arts and AMG 303-Fundraising for the Arts.
“If I did the emphasis I wouldn’t have had to learn myself,” she explains.
Hagemeier agrees that there is much to offer in the new emphasis programs, since she has also had to learn on the job other skills that she never expected would be included in her career.
Originally given the position of Manager of Education and Community Engagement with the Canton Symphony prior to COVID, Hagemeier had to go through major shifts in her job responsibilities once the pandemic prohibited schools to visit their facilities and participate in programs in person. Namely, becoming the founder and producer of a podcast and blog “Orchestrating Change”, about the need for further focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in orchestral music.
She cites the Contemporary Media emphasis as one that would have been extra helpful for her.
“I create all educational content and community partnerships. How that has looked more recently has been much more of a digital focus,” she explains. “I work a lot with videographers, and I have learned how to run sets, and that’s been a really fun thing for me to learn.”
Much of her work has been focused on the podcast, especially focusing on conversations around DEI in their community of Canton, Ohio.
Hagemeier and her colleagues found that, especially in the summer of 2020 when movements like Black Lives Matter continued to push the conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion within the world at large, that the same topics were being discussed in the orchestral community she worked in.
“The podcast has been a really interesting way to not only connect with the community, but to create a conversation across the nation.”
This wasn’t something that Hagemeier expected to see in her career when she was a student at BW.
“Nothing really prepares you to start a podcast until you do it, but the initiative of just starting programming and projects is something that’s very much a mental game. You just have to do it and go into something knowing you don’t have all the answers,” she says. “When I was at BW, good examples of this are student-run projects. Things like PRISM, Misfits, and BW Band Scramble. Looking back on it now with things I know now [...] it taught me a lot of lessons that led me to be able to start projects like the podcast.”
“In terms of the emphasis programs,” she adds, “I think that definitely the Contemporary Media one is interesting.” Even though she is able to hire editors when she has the funding, “being able to use the proper language to ask my editor for changes” would be really helpful.
While BW did give Hagemeier, Balsamo, and Zilba the chance to lead projects, become self-starters, and adapt to the ever-changing landscape of their fields, all three alumnae agree that BW students now have excellent opportunities to dip their toes in subjects that will prepare them even further for their careers through the new emphasis programs.
“The world is changing in terms of how we do entertainment,” says Zilba.
“You are your best advocate. You never know what the future of performance is really going to look like. You are at college to learn as much as you can, as much as you want to, so you can be a well-rounded individual. Everything you’re learning in college can have a benefit to you later in life. With all of these new courses that are coming out I would say, take them. You never know what you can use them for.”
Written by Megan Kuhar '08
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