Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Pivot Points

Pivot Points

By Elizabeth Nonemaker 

Sometimes setbacks can open up a whole new world of creative opportunity. 

Just ask these five Peabody artists.

Wendel Patrick and the students of the Hip Hop class sit around a room filled with keyboards and electronic music equipment
Wendel Patrick (far right) teaches Hip-Hop and music production at Peabody.

It might be what every musician fears most: an injury that halts playing.

Worst of all are the injuries that defy tidy explanation and quick recovery. That’s what pianist Kevin Gift faced when, in the mid-2000s, his left index finger grew sore, and then started curling inwards. It made playing difficult, then impossible. 

When he received a diagnosis of focal dystonia — the same neurological disorder that afflicted renowned Peabody pianist Leon Fleisher — he feared it spelled the end of his career. 

The diagnosis was “terrifying,” Gift says, “because I didn’t have any answers.” There wasn’t anything physically wrong with him, but if he so much as thought about playing piano, the finger started curling. 

He and his doctors experimented with a slew of treatments, including identifying and removing an extra muscle near his left elbow. But nothing worked. 

“So, I just kind of gave up,” Gift said. He stopped playing for two years. 

At the time, Gift was teaching piano at Loyola University Maryland, but he had a hobby of music production and beat making; along with classical music, he’d grown up listening to and playing along with rap and hip-hop. He started to do more music production “for cathartic purposes.” 

“It was the only way I felt like I could make music that wasn’t overly frustrating,” Gift says. “As I got better at it, it didn’t feel frustrating at all, as long as I didn’t try to play the piano.” 

He grew so skilled at it that he realized he needed to distinguish between the musical careers of pianist Kevin Gift and this new composer-producer-beat maker personality. He started going by the name of his twin brother who had died at birth: Wendel Patrick. 

Today, Patrick leads a career that combines composing, producing, teaching at Peabody — and playing piano. 

Patrick noticed a difference in his condition once he started approaching it with curiosity. Fine motor skills that didn’t fall under the umbrella of classical playing, like scratching on a turntable or improvising to jazz, gave the finger “a new set of instructions,” he says. By 2012, he was able to play again. 

But by then, his career as Wendel Patrick had its own momentum. Gone was his identity as “just” a pianist. 

“I’m not the kind of person who thinks everything happens for a reason. I would never say I’m so grateful that I had this injury,” Patrick says. “But my artistic and musical life is so much richer than it was before. There are all kinds of musical skills that I developed and improved from not being able to play.” 

In many ways, Patrick’s story is extraordinary. In others, it serves as a testament to the more ordinary powers of curiosity and flexibility. And it makes the argument that it is these skills, along with technical prowess, that allow musicians to grow fruitful careers — to treat setbacks as pivot points rather than roadblocks. 

Headshot of Frances Pollock
Frances Pollock

I’ve never thought, ‘I’m just a composer. I’m just a singer.' I have always wanted to be someone that thinks of their career as much more than staying in one lane.

— Frances Pollock (MM ’15, Voice)
Two performers on stage, one on the left wears a cat mask and a metal had and the one on the right is wearing a blue robot suit and holding a large ball of tin foil
Frances Pollock's opera Earth to Kenzie was performed this academic year by Peabody's Opera in Action.

Against ‘Staying In One Lane’ 

For some musicians, like Patrick, those pivot points are momentous occasions. For others, they’re woven into the fabric of their careers. 

Frances Pollock (MM ’15, Voice) is best known as a composer of opera and vocal works. Her opera Stinney, about the 1944 execution of a 14-year-old Black child, catapulted her to national attention when it premiered in 2015, roughly a month after the death of Freddie Gray. 

Since then, she’s gone on to write works for opera companies all over the country. Reading her biography, you might think she’s always had a master plan: pursuing an undergraduate degree in music theory and composition, then a master’s degree at Peabody in vocal performance, before launching into opera composing and a concurrent doctorate at Yale. 

But that’s not the case. “All I do after I get these degrees is pivot,” Pollock says in an interview. While her desire to be involved in music for the stage was a constant, it wasn’t always clear to her what form that would take. It’s allowed her to follow opportunities when they’ve presented themselves. 

“I’ve never thought, ‘I’m just a composer. I’m just a singer,’” Pollock says. “I have always wanted to be someone that thinks of their career as much more than staying in one lane.” 

Pollock’s latest pivot is into the realm of arts funding and development. In 2020, she co-founded the Midnight Oil Collective, a group devoted to reimagining who art is made for and how artists get paid. Drawing from her own experiences of financial insecurity even when her career looked good on paper, Pollock dreams of using venture capitalism as a model for arts funding. In essence, the financial success of one project would enable newer ones to get their footing. 

For Pollock, the biggest shortcoming of arts education is that, more often than not, “artists are not taught to be entrepreneurs,” even though “they do everything that entrepreneurs do.” (To learn about how Peabody is addressing the importance of entrepreneurial thinking through its pioneering Breakthrough Curriculum, visit peabody.jhu.edu/breakthroughcurriculum). 

Now in the last year of her doctorate, Pollock isn’t sure what exactly will come next — just that she wants to work toward the expansion of the arts ecosystem so that more people can pursue viable careers within it. 

“We’re creating the world that we want to be a part of, rather than the one that is laid out for us,” she says. 

Against ‘Staying In One Lane’ 

For some musicians, like Patrick, those pivot points are momentous occasions. For others, they’re woven into the fabric of their careers. 

Frances Pollock (MM ’15, Voice) is best known as a composer of opera and vocal works. Her opera Stinney, about the 1944 execution of a 14-year-old Black child, catapulted her to national attention when it premiered in 2015, roughly a month after the death of Freddie Gray. 

Since then, she’s gone on to write works for opera companies all over the country. Reading her biography, you might think she’s always had a master plan: pursuing an undergraduate degree in music theory and composition, then a master’s degree at Peabody in vocal performance, before launching into opera composing and a concurrent doctorate at Yale. 

But that’s not the case. “All I do after I get these degrees is pivot,” Pollock says in an interview. While her desire to be involved in music for the stage was a constant, it wasn’t always clear to her what form that would take. It’s allowed her to follow opportunities when they’ve presented themselves. 

“I’ve never thought, ‘I’m just a composer. I’m just a singer,’” Pollock says. “I have always wanted to be someone that thinks of their career as much more than staying in one lane.” 

Pollock’s latest pivot is into the realm of arts funding and development. In 2020, she co-founded the Midnight Oil Collective, a group devoted to reimagining who art is made for and how artists get paid. Drawing from her own experiences of financial insecurity even when her career looked good on paper, Pollock dreams of using venture capitalism as a model for arts funding. In essence, the financial success of one project would enable newer ones to get their footing. 

For Pollock, the biggest shortcoming of arts education is that, more often than not, “artists are not taught to be entrepreneurs,” even though “they do everything that entrepreneurs do.” (To learn about how Peabody is addressing the importance of entrepreneurial thinking through its pioneering Breakthrough Curriculum, visit peabody.jhu.edu/breakthroughcurriculum). 

Now in the last year of her doctorate, Pollock isn’t sure what exactly will come next — just that she wants to work toward the expansion of the arts ecosystem so that more people can pursue viable careers within it. 

“We’re creating the world that we want to be a part of, rather than the one that is laid out for us,” she says. 

Headshot of Frances Pollock
Frances Pollock
Two performers on stage, one on the left wears a cat mask and a metal had and the one on the right is wearing a blue robot suit and holding a large ball of tin foil
Frances Pollock's opera Earth to Kenzie was performed this academic year by Peabody's Opera in Action.

Hop Onto the Escalator 

Pollock’s trajectory into the behind-the-scenes work of arts production recalls that of another musician, Thomas Dolby, the synth-pop star behind the 1982 hit song “She Blinded Me with Science.” 

In his memoir, The Speed of Sound, Dolby describes how he left the music business in 1992 in part out of frustration with record companies’ corrupt practices and their poor advocacy of his music. Instead, he pursued a career in technology: founding a music tech company during the dot-com boom, creating the polyphonic version of the infamous Nokia ringtone, and, in 2014, joining Johns Hopkins, where he went on to help launch Peabody’s Music for New Media program. 

For Dolby, any involvement with technology — and the rate at which it develops — is a lesson in resilience. “It’s a moving escalator. You either hop on, or you don’t,” he says in an interview. “If you try to put the brakes on it because you prefer things the way they are, it’s going to backfire.” 

While many, over the past several decades, have lamented the seismic shifts in the way we produce, consume, and distribute music, Dolby was quick to point out that technological advances have helped make music “a lot less elitist.” 

That’s something even pop stars who made it through industry taste filters can celebrate. In 2006, Dolby started writing music again, relishing the ability to connect with his fans online. Without the involvement of major labels, there was “no need to compromise artistically,” he says. 

By keeping the self-production of his music and merchandise modest, it also allowed him to make a small profit every time he went on tour. But by that point in his career, he considered the artistic freedom “much more valuable.” 

Thomas Dolby sits facing the camera while teaching a class. A computer with audio editing programs is behind him
Thomas Dolby joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2014 and now heads Peabody's Music for New Media program.
A black and white photos of Thomas Dolby performing on a stage behind a piano keyboard
Dolby performing in the 1980s

Hop Onto the Escalator 

Pollock’s trajectory into the behind-the-scenes work of arts production recalls that of another musician, Thomas Dolby, the synth-pop star behind the 1982 hit song “She Blinded Me with Science.” 

In his memoir, The Speed of Sound, Dolby describes how he left the music business in 1992 in part out of frustration with record companies’ corrupt practices and their poor advocacy of his music. Instead, he pursued a career in technology: founding a music tech company during the dot-com boom, creating the polyphonic version of the infamous Nokia ringtone, and, in 2014, joining Johns Hopkins, where he went on to help launch Peabody’s Music for New Media program. 

For Dolby, any involvement with technology — and the rate at which it develops — is a lesson in resilience. “It’s a moving escalator. You either hop on, or you don’t,” he says in an interview. “If you try to put the brakes on it because you prefer things the way they are, it’s going to backfire.” 

While many, over the past several decades, have lamented the seismic shifts in the way we produce, consume, and distribute music, Dolby was quick to point out that technological advances have helped make music “a lot less elitist.” 

That’s something even pop stars who made it through industry taste filters can celebrate. In 2006, Dolby started writing music again, relishing the ability to connect with his fans online. Without the involvement of major labels, there was “no need to compromise artistically,” he says. 

By keeping the self-production of his music and merchandise modest, it also allowed him to make a small profit every time he went on tour. But by that point in his career, he considered the artistic freedom “much more valuable.” 

Thomas Dolby sits facing the camera while teaching a class. A computer with audio editing programs is behind him
Thomas Dolby joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2014 and now heads Peabody's Music for New Media program.
A black and white photos of Thomas Dolby performing on a stage behind a piano keyboard
Dolby performing in the 1980s
Denyce Graves
Denyce Graves is the Rosa Ponselle Distinguished Faculty Artist at the Peabody Conservatory.
Denyce Graves stands to the right offstage instructing a student standing on stage by a piano
Graves hosting a voice master class at Peabody

‘What A Gift It Is’ 

Sometimes, pivot points usher artists onto new paths. But diversions, ironically, can also help secure them to the paths they’re on. 

Denyce Graves launched one of the most illustrious careers in opera with her 1991 debut of the title character in Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Throughout the 1990s, she performed more than 150 times a year, all over the world. But while her fame skyrocketed, her health deteriorated. Toward the end of the decade, she was suffering from cluster headaches, excruciatingly painful episodes that attacked in rapid cycles, and the only thing that seemed to help was Advil. 

But taking lots of an anticoagulant like Advil — as Graves had to — had its side effects. Backstage at a Delaware Symphony concert in the year 2000, Graves sneezed — and lost the ability to speak. The painkillers had contributed to the bleeding now coming from a polyp that ruptured on her vocal cords. 

Like Wendel Patrick, Graves saw a series of doctors to treat her condition, but recovery was slow and uncertain. Eventually, she regained her voice, and her fame only continued to grow in the following years as she gave increasingly high-profile performances and took on new kinds of operatic roles. Now, decades later, Graves says that as “devastating” as the injury was, she “thank[s] God for it.” 

“I learned so much more about the voice and about myself,” she says. “What a gift it is, to be able to sing. It has to be done with awareness and respect, and with real knowledge.” 

Afterward, her approach toward her career was shaped by gratitude and extreme care. “I was already in the middle of having this career,” she says. “That’s a tremendous honor and privilege. You’re born with the voice, and you have to do your part in terms of training and understanding how it works.” 

Gratitude is something Graves still carries with her, including into her next pivot. In May 2022, Graves will make another Carmen debut with the Minnesota Opera — this time as the director. 

‘What A Gift It Is’ 

Sometimes, pivot points usher artists onto new paths. But diversions, ironically, can also help secure them to the paths they’re on. 

Denyce Graves launched one of the most illustrious careers in opera with her 1991 debut of the title character in Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Throughout the 1990s, she performed more than 150 times a year, all over the world. But while her fame skyrocketed, her health deteriorated. Toward the end of the decade, she was suffering from cluster headaches, excruciatingly painful episodes that attacked in rapid cycles, and the only thing that seemed to help was Advil. 

But taking lots of an anticoagulant like Advil — as Graves had to — had its side effects. Backstage at a Delaware Symphony concert in the year 2000, Graves sneezed — and lost the ability to speak. The painkillers had contributed to the bleeding now coming from a polyp that ruptured on her vocal cords. 

Like Wendel Patrick, Graves saw a series of doctors to treat her condition, but recovery was slow and uncertain. Eventually, she regained her voice, and her fame only continued to grow in the following years as she gave increasingly high-profile performances and took on new kinds of operatic roles. Now, decades later, Graves says that as “devastating” as the injury was, she “thank[s] God for it.” 

“I learned so much more about the voice and about myself,” she says. “What a gift it is, to be able to sing. It has to be done with awareness and respect, and with real knowledge.” 

Afterward, her approach toward her career was shaped by gratitude and extreme care. “I was already in the middle of having this career,” she says. “That’s a tremendous honor and privilege. You’re born with the voice, and you have to do your part in terms of training and understanding how it works.” 

Gratitude is something Graves still carries with her, including into her next pivot. In May 2022, Graves will make another Carmen debut with the Minnesota Opera — this time as the director. 

Denyce Graves
Denyce Graves is the Rosa Ponselle Distinguished Faculty Artist at the Peabody Conservatory.
Denyce Graves stands to the right offstage instructing a student standing on stage by a piano
Graves hosting a voice master class at Peabody

The Destination In Mind 

There’s an obvious parallel to be drawn between personal injuries, developments in technology, and the latest mass disruption to business-as-usual, the COVID-19 pandemic. In each scenario, musicians have had to dramatically rethink their approaches to creativity, audience engagement, and fundraising. 

The pandemic in particular is one long, ongoing disruption — but it’s also an opportunity. In 2021, Peabody Richard and Elizabeth Case Chair in Jazz Sean Jones wrote an essay to this effect for Downbeat Magazine. In it, he argued that the pandemic has offered an unprecedented opportunity to be still — and that musicians should take advantage by reflecting on “what has worked, what doesn’t work … and how to move ahead in a new reality that is constantly evolving.” 

In a follow-up interview, Jones recalled times when stillness — and the deliberate goalsetting that can come from it — had helped shape his own career. 

As a 16-year-old, he had an English assignment to write a letter to his mother and tell her what he’d be doing in 10 years. “I said I would be a college professor, I would have my own albums out, and I would be Wynton Marsalis’s friend,” Jones says. 

“When I wrote those things down, they became real to me. And with much trial and error, much failure along the way, I just stuck to my guns until all those things happened by the time I was 26. There’s a reason you have goals. If you don’t have a destination in mind, there’s no point in doing the traveling.” 

The value of pursuing a specific goal — even if you wind up pivoting from it — was one shared by every artist interviewed for this piece. But, as Wendel Patrick pointed out, it’s important not to let those dreams become too restrictive. 

“I had this vision of being a concert pianist,” he says. “But often we think of dreams as a negative response to anything that is not that dream — so anything else is not going to cut it.” 

The alternative? “I don’t think it’s unusual to have a dream that’s made up of a lot of different things.” He pointed out that everything he does electronically — which now makes up the majority of his musical work — was not possible when he was in school. 

“The world is going to be totally different in five, 10, 15 years,” Patrick says. “So how can you limit your dreams, when you don’t even know what to dream?” 

Sean Jones sits leaning forward to talk to a student saxophone player
Sean Jones is the Richard and Elizabeth Case Chair in Jazz and coaches the Sean Jones Jazz Combo at Peabody.
Sean Jones leaning against a graffitied wall and playing the trumpet
Sean Jones

The Destination In Mind 

There’s an obvious parallel to be drawn between personal injuries, developments in technology, and the latest mass disruption to business-as-usual, the COVID-19 pandemic. In each scenario, musicians have had to dramatically rethink their approaches to creativity, audience engagement, and fundraising. 

The pandemic in particular is one long, ongoing disruption — but it’s also an opportunity. In 2021, Peabody Richard and Elizabeth Case Chair in Jazz Sean Jones wrote an essay to this effect for Downbeat Magazine. In it, he argued that the pandemic has offered an unprecedented opportunity to be still — and that musicians should take advantage by reflecting on “what has worked, what doesn’t work … and how to move ahead in a new reality that is constantly evolving.” 

In a follow-up interview, Jones recalled times when stillness — and the deliberate goalsetting that can come from it — had helped shape his own career. 

As a 16-year-old, he had an English assignment to write a letter to his mother and tell her what he’d be doing in 10 years. “I said I would be a college professor, I would have my own albums out, and I would be Wynton Marsalis’s friend,” Jones says. 

“When I wrote those things down, they became real to me. And with much trial and error, much failure along the way, I just stuck to my guns until all those things happened by the time I was 26. There’s a reason you have goals. If you don’t have a destination in mind, there’s no point in doing the traveling.” 

The value of pursuing a specific goal — even if you wind up pivoting from it — was one shared by every artist interviewed for this piece. But, as Wendel Patrick pointed out, it’s important not to let those dreams become too restrictive. 

“I had this vision of being a concert pianist,” he says. “But often we think of dreams as a negative response to anything that is not that dream — so anything else is not going to cut it.” 

The alternative? “I don’t think it’s unusual to have a dream that’s made up of a lot of different things.” He pointed out that everything he does electronically — which now makes up the majority of his musical work — was not possible when he was in school. 

“The world is going to be totally different in five, 10, 15 years,” Patrick says. “So how can you limit your dreams, when you don’t even know what to dream?” 

Sean Jones leaning against a graffitied wall and playing the trumpet
Sean Jones
Sean Jones sits leaning forward to talk to a student saxophone player
Sean Jones is the Richard and Elizabeth Case Chair in Jazz and coaches the Sean Jones Jazz Combo at Peabody.

The world is going to be totally different in five, 10, 15 years. So how can you limit your dreams, when you don’t even know what to dream?

— Wendel Patrick assistant professor in Music Engineering and Technology