Lisa DeSpain


EP 96: Lisa DeSpain (autogenerated)

[00:00:00] Dane Reis: [00:00:00] you booked it, episode 96. 


[00:00:09] Okay. let’s get started. I am excited to introduce my guest today. Lisa Despain. Are you ready for this Lisa?

[00:00:19]Lisa DeSpain: [00:00:19] Absolutely.

[00:00:21] Dane Reis: [00:00:21] Oh, right. Lisa is a jazz pianist and composer, and is the recipient of an opera America discovery grant for female composers, a 2020 national endowment for the arts, America aboard and winner of the 2020 Zepick modern opera commission. Other honors include and Aaron Copeland fellowship, the ASCAP commission honoring the Duke Ellington, Centennial, and a dramatist Guild foundation fellow. In addition to her extensive work as a composer, ms. Despain is the arranger in trusted to translate Broadway’s top hits for the educational coral market, including Hamilton, once green day’s American idiot and in the Heights. She received her BSN from university of North, Texas, and her M M M in jazz piano performance from Manhattan school of music. She studied jazz piano with. Ellis Marsalis and Brazilian pianist Eliani Elias. She also ran away and joined the circus. Twice. Lisa that is a quick intro of who you are and what you’ve done, but why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself, fill in the gaps, who you are, and a little bit more about what you do as a professional in the entertainment industry.


[00:01:41]Lisa DeSpain: [00:01:41] 

[00:01:41] Um, there’s a lot of gaps and there’s a lot of fun. I think let’s just start with, um, I started out as a jazz pianist. And I’ve just been passionate about music my whole life and welcomed the twists and turns of a musical career. And so I’ve worn a lot of hats. Um, I started out wanting to be a jazz pianist and eventually found my calling as a composer. And along that way, I was a vocal coach and an accompanist and a music director and conducted the circus. Um, currently I’m a professor At LaGuardia community college and I’m writing. Lots of opera, which is a surprise. 

[00:02:22] Dane Reis: [00:02:22] perfect. And let’s move on to this next section here. And Lisa, look, I am a sucker for a good quote. What is your favorite quote? You’d like to share with everyone.

[00:02:33]Lisa DeSpain: [00:02:33] so I’ve heard that you’re a sucker for a good quote. So I’m gonna actually give you two. Quotes. 

[00:02:40]So these two quotes have been posted above my writing studio for most of my life. And the first one. When choosing between two evils. I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.

[00:02:54]Dane Reis: [00:02:54] Ooh, I like that.

[00:02:55]Lisa DeSpain: [00:02:55] Yeah, I like that one too. and then the second one,  I don’t know where the quote came from. I think it’s Joseph Campbell, but I haven’t been able to find it. And it is knowledge. You have to look up. Is knowledge you don’t have.

[00:03:09]Dane Reis: [00:03:09] Yeah, that’s so good. So simple and profound. Can you maybe expand on both of those a little bit on how they’ve played into your career and your life?

[00:03:20]Lisa DeSpain: [00:03:20] Yeah. Um, I think the Mae West quote. Just had such a cheekiness to it for me and such a freedom that they became kind of a touchstone for a musical adventure. 

[00:03:32]And it kind of gave me permission to say yes to any adventure that came along my way. And. I like that. I like to be pushed with every commission, with every concert, with every performance, with any musical opportunity. I always love to be a little bit frightened. And a little bit challenged. I love the adventure. And I think , uh, the knowledge quote is also important because. To just fling yourself at a musical adventure without having tools to succeed at it. I think is dangerous. And so for me, it’s a, it’s a good balance between really honor your craft. Honor your study, dig deep and understand and own your knowledge. Don’t let anybody else give that to you. And then fling yourself madly at any adventure that comes your way. 

[00:04:30]And then you don’t use those tools to find your way through the path of creativity.

[00:04:35] Dane Reis: [00:04:35] Yes. I love that. And I love how. You’ve taken both of those and meld them together for an entire, I guess, artistic in career experience. It’s amazing. And you’re so right. You can’t just. You need the training. This is a very. Skill based career, whether it’s music, whether it’s. Singing and dancing, whether it’s acting , you have to have the skillset. First of course. And from there, taking that skillset and then just going, alright, let’s be free with it. Let’s see what happens. Love that combination. I love it. And. Let’s move on to this section here and. Of course, Lisa, you are an entertainment professional, I’m an entertainment professional. And I think that you would agree. This industry can be one of the most subjective, brutally, honest, personally, emotional industries in existence. And you know, you know, as well as I, that in order to create and have a successful career in this industry, like you’re having now takes a lot of dedication and hard work. And while yeah, sure. There’s an outrageous amount of fun and excitement doing what we do. There are also our fair share of obstacles, challenges, and failures. We are going to experience and we’re going to have to move forward through. So tell us what is one key challenge, obstacle or failure you’ve experienced in your career and how did you come out the other side better because of it.

[00:06:01]Lisa DeSpain: [00:06:01] First of all, I want to take away the word failure. Because I think failure. Is. More of a learning mistake. I think that we have challenges and obstacles, and we have attempts that. Teach us. 

[00:06:15]And that’s the way I think of this career. As far as obstacles and challenges, challenges are what makes us grow obstacles are what makes us grow. So I don’t look at any of them as negative. First of all. I would say. Then my biggest obstacle in many It has been myself. 

[00:06:34]And I would also say that it’s an. Let me stop and pull back for a second and say, 

[00:06:39]I think. 

[00:06:40]One of the key challenges in my life. Has been. my decision to assign a mythological expectation. About what is a career? And what is success? In this industry. 

[00:06:55]I think when I was younger. I looked outward too. The myths that we’re being told to us about, you will be happy dot, or this. Award or this commission is an earmark of success. 

[00:07:13]And I think I chased a lot of those. Outside. 

[00:07:18]What is the word I’m looking for? 

[00:07:20]I think defining oneself by that outward industry. 

[00:07:26]May have been my biggest challenge. To being an artist. And I think once I looked at the industry and realized. That. 

[00:07:33]you don’t live in your Tony. You don’t live. 

[00:07:37]In your show, you live in the process of creating. You live in the process of your art, which is a daily commitment. And. If you’re looking to the outside. All the time to define your artistry. 

[00:07:54]I think that’s a mistake.

[00:07:56]Dane Reis: [00:07:56] Absolutely. I hundred percent agree and I can. 100% admit to being that person as well. And. Putting away, too much pressure on myself. Two. Have this creditor that creditor work with this person or that person. And while all those things are nice things to have. And they’re cool. Every time I’ve achieved something that. I think is what I had in my head is success, or I made it, uh, in this particular part of my career. As soon as it happens, it’s gone. The moment happens and it was a wonderful moment. I enjoyed the moment.  It only lasted a moment.  The more often that that that started happening in my career as well. The more I started realizing, Hey, It’s not about that end thing. It’s very cool to have that end thing. And I’m super glad that I had that all kind of came full circle, but. The part that I enjoyed was. Getting there and the whole thing leading up to it.

[00:08:49]Lisa DeSpain: [00:08:49] Yeah. And that’s where I’ve made a big switch. I think when I was younger, I didn’t come from a family steeped in the entertainment industry. I’m kind of a self-made girl. So I may have bought into those myths as a way for me to study and try to understand how to make a career. But now I, I look at them and I think, Oh, I was so busy looking for somebody else’s definition of what my happy career is, what my artistic voice should have been. And there’s the successes, but then there’s the things with that you don’t get when you don’t get the award, when you don’t get the opportunity, even though you’ve worked so hard at it. Does that define you as a success or a failure? I don’t think so. now I’m really just looking at how, how do I show up? What’s within my control every day is an artist and what’s within my control. I can make happy. I can make art. I can live a fulfilled life as an artist, and it’s coming from inside me rather than this. Unrealized. Like I say a mythological expectation that I’ve put on myself that isn’t true.

[00:09:53]Dane Reis: [00:09:53] Yeah, absolutely. And I think you say it perfectly by saying a mythological expectation because in our. You know, our brains, that’s exactly what we’re doing to ourselves, which is so unfair to ourselves as well.

[00:10:05]Lisa DeSpain: [00:10:05] Yeah, we. We’re giving ourselves scripts. That say, this is what success is. This is what the career should look like. And I think that in a way stops us from making up. The real creative fun of the journey.

[00:10:19] Dane Reis: [00:10:19] Yeah, 100%.

[00:10:20] Lisa DeSpain: [00:10:20] we have to have goals. I don’t want to be so. So internal that we don’t have goals, we don’t have desires and we actively move towards them, but we have to make sure that we’re doing the art from inward and what’s within our control and bringing the joy from that. Rather than trying to meet everybody. Else’s ideas of what you are as an artist.

[00:10:39] Dane Reis: [00:10:39] Yes, absolutely. Well Well said, well said. And I want to move on to this next section to a time that I like to call your spotlight moment. That one moment in time you realized, yes, I am going to be in this entertainment industry for Oh living or maybe it was, yes, this is what I need to be doing in this industry. Tell us about that.

[00:11:08]Lisa DeSpain: [00:11:08] Well, when I saw this question and I had to. Think about what I, what was that moment? Um, boys, so many moments came up and then eventually they narrowed down to a moment that was kind of. I asked the universe a question about why I was an artist and it was so quickly answered. And then I think all those other spotlight moments have reaffirmed it. So I was graduating, um, in 1997. From Manhattan school of music. And I had gotten my degree in jazz piano performance. And I’m standing ready to walk on for the commencement ceremony. And all of a sudden I had this moment. Or I said, what have I done? I just got a master’s degree in jazz piano performance. What. The world does not need. Another jazz pianist. Why didn’t I go into medicine? Why didn’t I do? And all of a sudden, the wider, the. The shoulda coulda wouldas of like the doubt, the questioning, what is my purpose in life? Oh, my gosh, I’m a jazz musician. What do I have to offer? And mr. Slava Rostropovich was given an honorary doctorate that year. And. Mr Slav Probe, which was this amazing cellist. Do you know who he is? 

[00:12:28]Please listen to his recordings of the Bach cello suites. He was a great cellist. He was a great humanitarian and he spoke at our commencement exercise. And he said. 

[00:12:40]Just as the physician is called to heal the body. 

[00:12:46]The musician is called to heal the soul. And that was my spotlight moment. It was so quick. The question was answered so quick. It kind of shocked me. 

[00:12:59]And that has been my artistic. Lifeline. My point of reference for pretty much everything I do.

[00:13:06] I do too.

[00:13:09]Dane Reis: [00:13:09] And let’s, let’s piggyback on that real quick. And let’s talk about your number one, booked it moment will walk us through that day. What was going on in your life and. What about that moment? Makes it your favorite book? Did moment.

[00:13:28]Lisa DeSpain: [00:13:28] I loved were booked it. I feel like maybe I’m, I might be a, um, a square peg fit in a round hole because I am coming from the composer aspect here instead of a performer. So booked it for us is I think something different and the way we get our big moments in our career, um, you know, being a composer is. A day of routine and you have to put successful routines in. So a book that moment will be a bright spot in the middle of the day where you have. Done everything else. That’s seems very routine. You know, you’ve written the music, you’ve drank your coffee, you’ve gone for a walk. You’ve done all that kind of stuff. And then all of a sudden, the seeds that you have laid out, come back to you. I remember being on stage conducting. A big band chart. Uh, it’s called dreaming in the land of blue Oz and there’s this very cheeky moment. Where in the middle of a blues groove. An acid, Jimi Hendrix guitar say a solo comes sailing through, and it’s a, it’s a kind of a gasping moment. It’s so shocking because it’s, it’s funny. It’s supposed to be funny. And I remember conducting that. And I knew it was coming. And as soon as the guitar late into these acid chords, you could feel the whole audience gasp for breath. And the energy just floated out of that audience through me, the body, it felt like it was through, through me, the body conducting an into. The band that was playing at that moment. And it felt like this collective. 

[00:15:04]Wrath of shock and joy and connection and wonder, and it felt for the entire piece that everybody in the room was sitting on their edge of their seats. Kind of one with each other. 

[00:15:19]That’s a moment for an artist where I feel like. Oh, I’m fulfilling my mission. Of bringing joy to people of connecting joy. And then on the opposite, I remember. At a, at a big band reading one time. It was just a rehearsal. It was a rough reading of things. Afterwards, somebody walked up to me, a young girl. And she said. My day is so much. Happier having heard your music today and she walked off. 

[00:15:48]That has stuck with me my entire, I don’t know, it must’ve been 30 years ago. That’s my book. That moment. That’s what I think as a composer, I live for those moments. I do the routine knowing and hoping that the music will make a difference at some point. And. And when it does. 

[00:16:08]It just, it, it means something I can’t even find words to.

[00:16:12]Dane Reis: [00:16:12] . That is amazing. And you’re right. It’s a very, in a lot of ways, it’s a very, uh, traditionally different experience from the performer. You know, You know, you get your call from your agent and things like this. But. I think we all is as performers and entertainers. We. We all experience levels of what you were exactly what you’re talking about and that tire time. He is. All of a sudden it’s it’s that daily work. And then for whatever reason, in a moment, it all will flood at you. And you’re like, wow, this is it. Everything gets, you know, you know, Bright and clear and vivid. And it’s amazing.

[00:16:47]Lisa DeSpain: [00:16:47] That’s the magic of live performance. That’s the magic.

[00:16:52] And I think as a composer, we don’t oftentimes get to be in the room when that happens. I think I’ve been lucky because I have been in the room for, uh, having wearing the other hats as a conductor or as a pianist. I’ve been able to feel that. But, you know, I also get a joy when I do those arrangements  like a junior high will post a video of one of my choral arrangements on YouTube. And I get to see that I’m not in the room with them, but it helps remind me. And it means so much to me, because again, as a composer, I’m often not there when the music is being performed that I’ve created. So those little moments actually means so much to me.

[00:17:34] Dane Reis: [00:17:34] absolutely. Absolutely. . 

[00:17:36] Lisa DeSpain: [00:17:36] I want to bring them back to what you said about the performers, because I adore my performers. When they’re up there performing my work, my music, and they’re connecting that audience. That’s how my voice becomes heard. So I love my performance. I respect my performance. I always try to write something that they’re going to have joy performing too.  so I, I write with my performers in my brain, trying to imagine the experience of performing this music. And I would just, I have to give them snaps and respect. When I teach singers. I say, you are the bravest people in the world. Cause you’re about to become so vulnerable. In front of people, you don’t know, that’s the bravest act. I’m a composer. I put the notes on the page and I walk away. They’re the ones that are up there singing their hearts out, you know, taking my words and giving life to it. And they’re the ones that are exposing themselves vulnerably on a stage. So snaps to all the performers.

[00:18:47] Dane Reis: [00:18:47] Oh, I love that. Thank you. Thank you. And let’s take a moment to talk about the present. What projects are you working on now? What are you looking forward to? And you know, it’s a crazy time. We’re a bit to this global pandemic. How do you see the entertainment industry moving forward in the next couple of years?

[00:19:06]Lisa DeSpain: [00:19:06] I am not going to guess the entertainment industry. Except to look back at history. And say. The arts always come back because the arts are, so they are part of our human condition. There has been pandemics in the past. There has been traumatic things that have happened throughout the course of humanity. And the arts are still here. Why? Because we need them. 

[00:19:30]I am not the person to solve. The next adventure of technology and how the entertainment industry is going to evolve. And I know that, so what I’ve done in this pandemic is focused on what I can control, which is number one, taking care of my students as a professor. Teaching them grit. And surviving and then focusing on what it is that I believe my mission to be, which is to create art that will eventually put us back together again. 

[00:20:00]I made a choice to be live performance, not recording. Not film and television. I love the live stage because I love that human to human connection. And I think. Through this pandemic. Because we’ve been denied human to human connection. 

[00:20:18]I believe we are going to come out of here and we know we need it. And so I’ve really focused on continuing, creating the works that I enjoy creating that I feel will bring us back together again. So I am working on ’em. A big opera. Uh, deal with the devil opera. And, um, We’re lucky we still have the funding in place. It’s been sponsored by the national endowment for the arts. And that will receive a workshop in April. If things get turned around. And I look forward to presenting it live in front of an audience and hoping that we get together and laugh. And we have that healing moment again.

[00:20:58]Dane Reis: [00:20:58] Yeah, I love that. And I, and I think you’re so right. That. . Let’s look at the history. The arts have always prevailed. We need the arts and we’re going to need them more than ever. After all of this. 

[00:21:11]Lisa DeSpain: [00:21:11] And I think the arts has really actually helped us bear through this. I mean, look at all the streaming and live in the television and the content that’s been creating in the film and the television and through our computers. Great. We have needed that. We have needed that. And I think we will also need live performance. So I just keep. Staying the path that I believe is my mission writing the works that I have in front of me. And I’m looking forward to the time when we are post COVID. That I can. Get back and use my music to kind of heal and bring us back together without fear. And to just laugh. I mean, I was talking with one of my writing partners, David simpatico. He’s my librettist for hell bound train. And we’re looking at a second project because we love writing together. We giggle all the time. And. You know, we talked, do we want to do something serious? That deals with a lot of the movements that were happening, you know, not just the pandemic, but, um, the black lives matter and the social justice changes and. We talked about these things and we realized our strength is comedy and that people will need. Comedy in addition to, to gain strikes, to be able to continue forward.

[00:22:27] Yeah. So , , you know, you know, I just keep writing. 

[00:22:31]And, um, I’m lucky I’ve had a hell bound train is going forward. My Zepick commission is also going forward. That’s going to happen in April. Um, at the Kansas aviation museum with opera, Kansas. And I am working on a middle school musical with this is where technology is kind of cool. This is, this is me going on my musical adventure with Mae West. Okay. Yes, I am the girl who loves live performance in this pandemic. I’ve been developing. A musical  over zoom with a bunch of middle schoolers. In Plainfield, Illinois, we’ve gotten together every Friday. And table read through this musical and we’re going to continue to work on it. Um, Throughout this next academic year. And it’s at the IRA Jones middle school, and it’s been such a joy to connect with them. So here’s the positive of the zoom is connecting with people. Tearing down some of the boundaries that distance, puts in a way. So, you know, I’m wearing a different hat. I’m out of my comfort zone, but I’m having a blast.

[00:23:37]Dane Reis: [00:23:37] Ah, that’s amazing. I love that. That’s so cool. And let’s move on to one of my favorite sections in the interview. I call it the grease lightning round. I am going to ask you a handful of questions. I want you to answer them as quickly and concisely as possible one after another. Are you ready? 

[00:23:58]All right. First question. What was the one thing holding you back from a career in the arts?

[00:24:05]Lisa DeSpain: [00:24:05] Nothing.

[00:24:06]Dane Reis: [00:24:06] Second question. What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

[00:24:11]Lisa DeSpain: [00:24:11] The community rises together. 

[00:24:14]Be friends to everybody. Because the community cheer everybody on. Cause the community rises together.

[00:24:21] Dane Reis: [00:24:21] Yes. I love that. And the third question. What is something that is working for you right now? Or if you’d like to go pre COVID, what was working for you before our industry went on? Pause.

[00:24:34]Lisa DeSpain: [00:24:34] During this crisis, I’ve been able to really think a lot. That’s what composers do. That’s what creatives do think a lot. Um, the phrase. Done is better than perfect. I am a perfectionist and somehow in the midst of this COVID because I couldn’t teach perfectly because I couldn’t connect perfectly. All of a sudden I recognized done is better than perfect, and I’ve actually written more music more quickly than I’ve ever in my lifetime. And I’m embracing it with such a new joy.

[00:25:05]Dane Reis: [00:25:05] Oh, I love that. And the fourth question, what is your best resource? Whether that is a book, a movie, a YouTube video podcast, maybe a piece of technology. That you found is helping your career right now.

[00:25:19]Lisa DeSpain: [00:25:19] Completely out of left field.

[00:25:21] Ben bears. Ron chasing excellence podcast. Ben is one of the top CrossFit coaches. , he coaches, Catherine David’s daughter. And he is a brilliant. Inspirational coach. On mindset. I’ve discovered how closely the mindset of an athlete is to an mindset of an artist. And that podcast has helped me gain so much. Strength as a composer and an artist.

[00:25:53] Dane Reis: [00:25:53] Amazing. I have not subscribed to his podcast. I will absolutely have to do that.

[00:25:59] Lisa DeSpain: [00:25:59] Oh, he is amazing. 

[00:26:02] Dane Reis: [00:26:02] Very cool. Love it. And the fifth question, if you had to start your career from scratch, but you still had all the knowledge and experience you’ve collected from your career in this industry. What would you do or not do, would you do anything differently or would you keep it the same?

[00:26:21]Lisa DeSpain: [00:26:21] I kind of would keep it the same. I think the one thing I would make sure I do. I would surround myself with amazing collaborators. And I would keep a mentor. At some point I stopped studying with a master teacher. And I look back and I think that’s a misstep. I wish I was continuing. I wish I continued my career with one eye as a student.

[00:26:46]I studied with this woman. Eliani Elias. Every time I left her studio, I felt like I can do this. I can do this. I would walk in with a lot of doubt. And she would change that. One time I was playing and I got very frustrated and I said, I don’t sound like McCoy, Tyner. Everybody sounds like McCoy, Tyner. I don’t have these McCoy Tyner chops. And she said, Lisa, If I had the choice between buying an album by McCoy, Tyner, and somebody who sounded like McCoy, Tyner, who do you think I’m going to buy? Sound like yourself. . So there was my master teacher. Not only teaching me the skills, but helping be a, a guidance when pay those mythological expectations, come in and might possibly throw you off somebody who cares about your artistry. And can continue honoring you, helping you honor your instincts.

[00:27:41]Dane Reis: [00:27:41] Yeah, I think that’s so important.  And it also helps you bring back perspective into your career. You need that sometimes.

[00:27:49]Lisa DeSpain: [00:27:49] Which is why I love my collaborators. They are the yang in my yang. You know, I, when I have a question I can call up David or Rachel. She’s the, uh, my collaborator for stagger wing. And there are brilliant strengths that they have that I don’t have and vice versa. And we make each other stronger through this. It’s not a mentorship, but through the collaboration, but to have somebody who has your best interest at heart. Helping you through the, the emotions of being an artist and the practicalities of being artists, having somebody on your team. I think that’s what I’m saying overall. Making sure you have a team of people who believe in you around you, make sure you do it.

[00:28:29] Dane Reis: [00:28:29] Yeah, . Could not agree more. And the last question. What is the golden nugget knowledge drop you’ve learned from your successful career in this industry? You’d like to leave with our listeners.

[00:28:42]Lisa DeSpain: [00:28:42] I’m going to be completely unoriginal and it is to be kind. I’ve heard several of your guests say it and. It is correct. Be kind. Be good. Bring joy this world, this career, this art life is hard enough. 

[00:29:00]Be generous, be kind cheer, everybody else. And. And it just makes everything better.

[00:29:07]Dane Reis: [00:29:07] Absolutely. And to wrap up this interview, Lisa, it is time to give yourself a plug. Where can we find you? How do our listeners connect with you? Is there anything you want to promote?

[00:29:21]Lisa DeSpain: [00:29:21] I’m easy to find you go to my website and you send me a message through my contact. You think you’re going to my lawyer, but you’re not you’re coming right to me. And I love those emails. I love connecting with people. I’m much easier there than social media. I pull back a lot from social media, especially when I’m writing. Um, so connect, you know, if people want to talk to me and connect and be interested in my music, just write me through my, um,  Web page. 

[00:29:48] Dane Reis: [00:29:48] Wonderful. And what’s the URL. And what’s the URL. 

[00:29:50] Lisa DeSpain: [00:29:50] It’s my name, Lisa

[00:29:52] Dane Reis: [00:29:52] Perfect. And for everyone listening out there, I have put the link to her website in the description of this episode. Lisa, thank you so much for joining me today. Your insight on this entire industry has been so great today. Thank you so much.

[00:30:08]Lisa DeSpain: [00:30:08] Dan, I am so grateful for the call and to talk to you and thank you for the opportunity. Let’s go create some art.