Every Gift Has a Story:
Esther Lee (BM '98, MM '00)

Alumna Esther Lee, the Director of Admissions at Village Community School in New York City, attended the Alumni BBQ this past summer and has recently been inspired to re-engage with the Manhattan School of Music community. In this interview, Esther shares how MSM and the skills she learned as a musician helped her succeed in her career and what led her to make her first gift to MSM - to name a chair in the soon to be renovated Neidorff-Karpati Hall (formerly Borden Auditorium).

How did your education at MSM impact or prepare you in life?
I loved my time at MSM. From the lessons, the coachings, the interactions with other singers and professionals in my field and other fields, my time at MSM gave me valuable life skills. Although I chose not to be a professional musician, I apply what I learned then into everything I do in my career today. The ability to be disciplined, to be a quick thinker, how to adapt to any new situation, how to multi-task, to be on time, to be organized, to be kind, to be considerate, to be respectful, to be a team player, to listen (not only hear, but listen!) to people, how to present yourself, how to think of yourself as a marketable product, how to be a leader, how to nurture and support young talent, how to be ambitious, how to network…all of these skills that musicians use every day, I implement into my world of independent school admissions more than I would have ever imagined. I thank MSM and my teachers for giving me a platform to grow and to hone these important skills in everything I do today.

What encouraged you to re-engage with MSM?
I sing and work closely with the New York City Master Chorale (their Founding Artistic Director, Thea Kano, was my high school choir teacher, and when she heard I wasn’t making music, she grabbed me and said, “Shame on you. You still need to make music!” She was right!). As a singing member and also as their recent Board Chair, I really wanted to give back to the music community. While in the shower (where I do my best thinking), it occurred to me to re-engage with MSM’s Opera Department by giving young talent real performance opportunities to sing solos with a great choir and orchestra. Of course, not only would we be helping young singers build their resumes, but we would also pay them. After all, no lesson is greater than the opportunity to perform (and of course, if you get paid doing it, that’s a bonus!). I know MSM has some of the best talent out there, and I would not be doing my part in the music world if I did not help young talent get on stage. I am so proud that we helped 3 young MSM singers make their Lincoln Center debut. Knowing I played an integral part in their success? Truly priceless.  

What inspired you to give a significant gift to MSM?
A wise person who is very dear to me once shared a valuable lesson, “In life, you live through the 3 S’s: Survival, Success and Significance. In your 20’s, it’s all about Surviving, and “trying to make it;” in your 30’s (hopefully sooner!) you find Success in your career, and certainly after you reach Success, you realize the importance of Significance in life.” I have a great life and a great career: I love the work I do in independent school admissions. Yes, what I do has nothing to do with the performance degrees I got from MSM, but I cannot stop thinking about the fact that the career I have now uses so much of the skills I learned at MSM. When I heard about the new renovation plans for Borden Auditorium (now called Neidorff-Karpati Hall), I was thrilled! Great musicians need a great performance space (and for us singers, a nice backstage with plenty of space). To have a seat in the new hall with my name on it really means a lot to me. Guaranteed whoever sits in it may not know who I am, but for me to leave my mark at MSM brings everything full circle in my life.  

What is your favorite MSM memory?
Easily, hands down, every single vocal literature/diction class and all of my music history classes. I loved each and every one of them! Bob Cowart, Kathryn LaBouff, Ken Merrill, Tom Muraco, Gait Sirguey to name a few…every single music history class taught by the brilliant David Noon…all of the incredible coaches, like Scott Rednour and Warren Helms. Francis Patrelle’s Movement for Singers class (a bit cruel to have those classes at 8:30 a.m., but I still love Uncle Frankie!). Ken Cooper taught me everything I know about Baroque music. My first opera scenes stage experience with Gordon Ostrowski…the Educational Outreach programs that really got my feet wet for the world of education in both public and private schools…The lessons I learned from all of these great teachers have stayed with me: how to phrase, how to listen, how to respect the music, how to be an intelligent musician…to love and to respect the rehearsal process and each person you work with. Ah, I could go on!  

What have been your greatest challenges after graduating?
My greatest challenge was having to go back to school because after I graduated and did the audition circuit for a while, I realized that a music career was not for me, so I had to go back to school to earn my education credits in order for me to be certified and begin my teaching career in public schools. That was a really hard time in my life: to work full-time, learn the pedagogy of being a good teacher and take night classes. But again, had it not been for the discipline I learned at MSM, I wouldn’t be here today talking about it. I am so glad that they recently added Music Education to MSM’s programming! So smart and valuable for recent graduates who will most likely get a teaching gig before a performance gig.

Do you continue to keep music in your life?
Absolutely! Actually, now that I don’t have the pressures of an “opera career” and auditions, I find that I’m actually a better musician now than I was before. I’ve learned to truly love every second of music making. I sing with the New York City Master Chorale, and I find incredible joy in the rehearsal process, learning repertoire that I would not have learned as an opera singer. Additionally, I am still very involved with their Board, and I fell in love with the administrative side of not-for-profit arts management and fundraising. I may not be a soloist anymore, but if I can give a solo opportunity to a young singer or orchestral player through my work, then YES-it is worth EVERY email, meeting, call, networking event…because I’m not thinking of me…I’m thinking of the young musicians that would love to have that kind of opportunity on stage.

What career and life advice would you give to new grads entering the “real world”?
I myself am always learning too, so the only advice I can give is based on my experiences so far. I think this advice is valuable not only to recent grads, but also to their parents: I truly believe the most important thing to remember is that you HAVE to be flexible. In your thinking, in your career choices and life choices…don’t stay trapped into one option. Be open and realize that perhaps what you originally thought to be “the plan” may not go according to your initial estimations. Embrace change and listen not only to people you trust, but to yourself. What do YOU want? What’s “Plan B” if “Plan A” doesn’t work out? Also, nothing turns people off more than if you spend all day just talking about you. I know that as performers we tend to like the spotlight, but I find that in job interviews or in casual meetings, young musicians spend a lot of time focusing the conversation onto themselves. There is a real art to saying what you need to say and to giving someone else the platform to speak. Find the grace to ask people how THEY are doing and truly be interested in learning about them and this world. Be intelligent and generous. It’s not always about you.  

What is one surprising thing people don’t know about you?
I wear false eyelashes every single day. Every day! How’s THAT for discipline!?!


Taylor Hooper Photography