I love writing about the “stuff you don’t think about” when it comes to life as a musician, but in this ongoing series, I wanted to investigate something a little different: those who aren’t classical musicians, but studied it enough to reap the benefits in other aspects of lives. One reason I chose this topic is very basic: “studying classical music is good for you” and while that’s a given, I wanted to personalize why. The other reason was to sort out my own personal experience with studying music to a certain level, which sometimes conflicted with my knowledge I didn’t want to be a performer. I didn’t realize the advantages until much later.
In this ongoing series, posted every week or so, I’ll be speaking with doctors, lawyers, marketing professionals, accountants, actors, arts administrators, and people in all kinds of fields who studied classical music and are thankful they did. I’ll keep this going until I run out of participants. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did. Today we’re chatting with Mary Bella, Web Designer for Maestra Web Design, who specializes in website creation and maintenance for musicians and arts organizations. She is also a sometime singer and choral conductor. I came across Mary many years ago when I was looking to launch my website and I was really happy to find a designer with a classical music background. What I also like about Mary is how directly she communicates – she tells me what will work, what will not, and politely shoots me down if my so-called great idea for my site is not so great (she reminds me of myself actually, when it comes to styling clients for their photo shoots).
Please summarize your current career, and your duties.
I run my own web design company creating and maintaining websites, primarily for performers and arts organizations.
What instrument(s) did you study, and at what stage in your life?
I went into music right out of high school. I did a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance at Memorial in Newfoundland, and went on to get a graduate Opera Diploma and Master of Music at the University of Toronto.
Were music lessons intended as a hobby or did you have a performing career in mind?
I definitely had a performing career in mind, although I had no idea at the time what that entailed in terms of lifestyle! I just love to be on stage, and interacting with other performers. The travel and anti-family schedule of performing seemed unimportant when I was young – now they make pursuing a performing career very inconvenient. I was not prepared to sacrifice so much for such an unstable and financially unrewarding career.
Was quitting your music lessons a welcome relief or a complete heart-wrenching moment of reckoning?
I find most important decisions are heart-wrenching while you are making up your mind, but after you’ve made the decision your mind is more at ease. You can focus on the way forward. For me it was definitely a relief to let go of the notion that I had to make a living singing to be a success.
It’s a very different world, going from the stage to designing websites. A lot of performers are scared of anything technological. How did you get into web design?
I’ve always enjoyed math and problem solving, and I had top marks in high school physics and algebra. If I hadn’t gone into music, computer engineering would have been an obvious choice based on my academic strengths. When I graduated high school though, engineering or IT wasn’t something often suggested to women as career options – at least I don’t remember anyone suggesting it. Of course singing was my “passion”, but I remember people suggesting teaching as a back up, which didn’t really interest me. When my husband and I were in opera school, we thought it would be good to get something up on the web for each of us as we launched our professional careers. A friend of his came over and showed me the basics, a free program included with Windows that I could use to create webpages and how to get hosting and publish to the web. From there I read some manuals and learned skills needed as I went along, designing simple sites for our performer friends and eventually building larger websites using Dreamweaver, Photoshop and WordPress. I discovered web design was a great blend of artistic/aesthetic, with problem-solving math skills, and offered a lot of flexibility in my schedule.
How did your classical music studies (and music theory, if you studied that too) impact your ability to do your job today?
It helped me be independent, creative, self-motivated and to establish a career in work that I enjoy and that is fulfilling. Of course, musical knowledge is also a bonus for the clientele that I serve – I catch spelling and writing errors related to music, and also have more sense of the context of the music world to help people with their bios and other content on their site. I met many musicians and other arts professionals while studying music – most people gravitate toward someone they know to work on their site, so it helps to have those connections.
Is classical or music in general (playing, listening, attending concerts, getting your kids to practise) a part of your life now? If not, do you think you’ll return to it?
It’s getting a bigger part of my life again now that my kids are getting more independent. I sang professionally with the Canadian Opera Company chorus for 15 years and but stopped about 4 years ago as the evenings and weekends schedule completely conflicted with family life. In the last couple years I’ve started conducting pop up choirs in my community, and am loving the way music brings people together. It’s a complete contrast to my computer-focused work with websites.
Want to share your experience how studying classical music shaped your life and career?