Allison Shapira Finds Her Voice

My first memory of Allison Shapira is her singing her introduction to our class at the Harvard Kennedy School in summer 2008.

As is tradition in the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration, each of our 180 or so classmates gave a 15-second speech about ourselves, one after the other, in one swift go. Most of us used that time to say where we were from, what our names meant or what we wanted to do.

When Allison Shapira took the stage, she didn’t speak a word but held up her name card and beautifully sang part of an aria by Handel called “Lascia ch’io pianga”. A former opera singer, Allison worked at the Harvard Kennedy School as Program Manager for the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program and also taught workshops in public speaking at the school.

That was five years ago. Today, Allison doesn’t sing opera. And she doesn’t work at Harvard or live in Boston, either. She owns her own company based in Washington DC called Global Public Speaking and she sings folk music with guitar. At 35, she is in every way living life on her terms. She smiles widely and often, and has a way of making her self-determination odyssey sound easy and even obvious, when little about it was either.

For starters, switching from the formality of classical music to the personal nature of folk songs takes some doing. Allison searched and found a vocal instructor to help her set down the rigidity of her opera training and unlock her folk voice. Then she tried unsuccessfully to find a guitarist to accompany her. Undeterred, she decided to learn to play guitar herself. She began with an acoustic guitar she borrowed through a friend and basic online lessons.

Allison practiced playing guitar for hours and hours every week for months. She set aside other leisure activities like TV and books. “I knew from public speaking that the only way to get better is to practice,” she says. “So I pushed myself to perform.” Soon, she took the stage at open mic nights in the Boston area. And before long she was writing and performing her own songs.

If the music had been the only thing changing in Allison’s life that would have been enough. But she also reinvented her daytime profession and left a city where she had lived for 14 years. There was a moment when she had a job offer in DC that she thought she wanted, at a consulting firm working in international affairs. But something about the new job wasn’t the right fit, so she turned it down after she had already resigned her position at Harvard. Saying no left her empty-handed, but sometimes in order to find the right thing, you have to say no to absolutely anything else. You have to clear the runway to give your passion the space to land.

For a while she stayed with friends and did some soul-searching. She traveled Europe for several weeks with her guitar, performing at cafe’s and restaurants in Vienna, Napoli, Croatia and Paris. When she returned to the US, she promptly recorded her debut album, Coming Home. “It’s about coming home to my music,” she said, at her CD release party this spring at Club Passim.

At about this same time, Allison realized she was done looking for a mythical day job and instead would create one. She launched a business around empowering others, especially women, to find their authentic speaking voice. Very soon, Global Public Speaking was off and running, with assignments around the world, including teaching public speaking and leadership at Georgetown University.

Initially, the music and the public speaking were treated as unrelated ventures, but over time Allison combined lessons from the two in her work. In speaking as well as performing, “You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be authentic, ” she says. “The audience will respond if the speaker is passionate about what she has to say.” This message is at the heart of a recent TEDx talk Allison gave in Alexandria, Virginia called Find Your Voice.

From the very beginning in launching this blog, I had hoped to profile Allison Shapira and I am grateful she let me share her story. I learn a lot from her example. For one thing, whether you consciously know it or not, you create your life brand by what you choose to spend your time on. I realized that despite family obligations and a day-job, I could dedicate some time to writing. The more I do, the more writing becomes a part of who I am. For another thing, you’d be surprised what it means to other people when you say what only you can say, when you speak or write or sing from your authentic voice.

“I write a song about something that is very personal to me and then someone in the audience will speak to me afterwards and tell me how much my song was about them,” Allison says. “Those are my favorite moments.”

Allison recently paid a visit to New York City in the hopes of passing her debut album to Joan Baez, one of her top three musical inspirations. In the midst of a lot of noise backstage at a concert in Central Park, this encounter didn’t go quite as she had hoped. All Allison was able to say was “I’m a recovering opera singer and this is my CD.” To which Ms. Baez replied, “You’re recovering from what?”

Allison shared this story at a dinner party among friends and we agreed it will be funny to tell the next time Allison performs a song by her role model. She is often compared to a young Joan Baez and someone at the table remarked about Allison becoming the next rendition of her. This is high praise.

When she first began as a folk-singer, Allison mostly sang other people’s music, but now, when she performs a two-hour show, over half of the songs are originals she wrote. This is what I am thinking when I say, “But you’re not the newest edition of Joan Baez. You’re the newest edition of Allison Shapira.” With that my friend flashes one of her signature smiles, because she knows that’s true. And, it’s even better.

Allison Shapira will perform on Tuesday, June 25 at 7 p.m. at the New Deal Cafe in Greenbelt, Maryland. She performs regularly in the DC area.

Her web-site links include:
Allison Shapira Music at
Global Public Speaking:
Her Tedx talk: Find Your Voice

Story by Amy Ambrose,



Teaching DNA — Having a Time with the Time You Have

Aunt Edy, are you there. Still hanging on? I’m sorry you have to die this way. It’s really not fair and you did make a difference…

I had delayed writing a blog entry for this week because I was feeling out of sorts for no particular reason. Then, while filling out some school paperwork for one of my kids, I happened to come across this letter in a file box. It’s a letter my daughter wrote on the night my sister Edy died after a protracted battle with cancer in 2007. At first, finding the letter made me feel worse. But when I read it to the end, I felt better. So that’s why I’m sharing it (with Carolyn’s permission). Maybe someone else will feel better, too.

My sister Edy was a high school biology teacher. She loved teaching and she was good at it. She came to this profession sort of late in life, getting her teaching degree at around age 40. This took some doing over several years. She juggled single-parenthood, other full-time jobs and her studies. At the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had only been working in a classroom for a few years. She fought hard through chemo therapy and radiation. And after about a year of struggle and progress, the cancer came back in new places. So, Edy fought harder for a few more months. But in the end, cancer won. She was 45 years old when she died.

During that year of treatment, my 12-year-old daughter and Edy spent a lot of time together. Carolyn was in the 6th grade and also especially interested in biology. When she needed a project for a school science fair, Edy guided her through a demonstration on how to extract DNA from common vegetables. I didn’t know a person could do that. Using household supplies like rubbing alcohol and meat tenderizer, they actually extracted the DNA from green peas in my kitchen. In the final step, this white stuff floats to the top of a beaker of watery greenness. They also built a model of DNA out of pipe cleaners and wooden beads. Along the way, Edy taught Carolyn the basic structure of DNA, a subject that fascinated her.

On the night Edy died, my daughter was too young to be allowed into the intensive care unit at the hospital, so she wrote her aunt a note in the waiting room where our whole big family had gathered. A close friend of Edy’s read Carolyn’s letter aloud at her bedside while the machines around her clicked and whirred. Edy was heavily sedated, but seemed to be aware of people in her room. Less than an hour later, she was gone.

Carolyn wrote what her aunt had taught her as if she were giving a recitation:

Ahem, DNA is a chain of deoxyribos and phosphate groups formed in helix and attached to the deoxyribos are A,T, C and G. As bound with Ts and Cs bound with Gs, thus creating over a billion different structures defining thousands of different organisms…

As a chronic meaning-finder and a believer in positive thinking, I found Edy’s passing not only gut-wrenchingly sad but also spiritually confusing. I never knew anyone who wanted so badly to live and so deeply believed in her own survival. If positive thinking had any power, she would be here now. Also, it felt like a rip-off. How could it be that she was meant to go so soon, when she still had so many places to go, dances to dance and, especially, lessons to teach?

On a rational level, I knew that my sister’s suffering was over, and also that she died peacefully with her family around. These were blessings. At the same time, her closet was full of new clothes she had bought that summer in preparation for the new school year that fall. She fully expected to return to work. It seemed to me that if life made any sense at all, she would have. She had only just found what she loved to do!

But sometimes life doesn’t make sense. At least not in a way that satisfies. Sometimes we lose people. And that’s just a drag.

I kept reading my daughter’s goodbye note to my sister. In closing, she told her,

See, even at an early death you taught many valuable things. (I bet you can’t find too many 6th graders who know that much about DNA.) You did your best with life and no one can expect more than that.

And there it was. So what if Edy only had four years to teach? That’s four more years than she would have had if she hadn’t gone back to school. At her funeral, we met a number of students whose lives Edy touched in the space of those few years. Her time in and out of the classroom was well-spent, no matter how short.

It turns out none of us knows how much time we have to work with and no one gets out of life alive. That’s not to be maudlin. These are just the facts.

The best you can do is to do your best with life. Even on a day when you are feeling out of sorts for no particular reason. Do your best with life, and no one can expect more than that.

I asked my daughter this morning if she could still recite the structure of DNA. She can. And the foundational knowledge Edy taught her has been built upon with six years of science classes since. So now, when Carolyn rattles off what she knows about deoxyribos and phosphate groups, it’s a much longer speech.



A Wooden Gift and a Start

She doesn’t want dinner with the whole family at the usual place. She’d prefer not to hear about that long, rainy spring and how the sun came out the day she was born. On her 17th birthday, my daughter wants to discuss world history with just me over a platter of Ethiopian food.

Her high school graduation and potential move to college are still a year away, but we can see that moment from here. And neither of us is quite sure how to handle it. She has a lot to figure out about where to pursue her love of art and her love of global affairs. She is ruminating about what she wants to do, and worried about all she has to sort out. It’s exciting and unnerving.

A few weeks ago, as I was thinking ahead to her birthday and gift ideas, our neighbor, Nelson, shared news that he had taken up wood-working and was hoping to start a business. He gets very animated as he talks about turning wood that would otherwise be on a scrap heap into something beautiful. His face lit up as he showed me his first finished item, a cutting board made from a tree that had been struck by lightning.

I wanted a memorable gift for my daughter. And I am all about encouraging people to do what they love to do. So, in that spirit, I commissioned Nelson to make a cheeseboard, a small wooden serving tray, as a gift for her. My daughter routinely sets out an array of cheeses and crackers for herself in the afternoons after school, with kalamata olives and pesto or hummus, if we have them. Her favorites are a reflection of both her Wisconsin origins and her more worldly tastes. A cheeseboard seemed just unusual enough to be fitting, and I thought Carolyn would appreciate the craftsmanship.

As the weeks rolled by, my neighbor gave me nearly daily updates about this project. He was excited to tell me about how he glued walnut, cedar, cherry and purple heartwood in tight rows, then finished and sanded repeatedly with increasingly fine grit sandpaper. He protected the wood with a food-safe blend of beeswax and walnut oil. The result was a simple, elegant piece and a point of pride for him.

After Carolyn’s special birthday dinner, she opened her gifts, including the cheeseboard. I explained who made it and what it was. She slowly turned the board over in her hand, studied the colors of the wood, ran her fingers over its smooth surface. Without looking up, she said, heartfelt, “It’s a work of art. Thank you.”

Her father commented that the cheeseboard will probably travel with Carolyn wherever she lives next and will probably be with her another 17 years from now. He wondered aloud how well it would hold up and where Carolyn might be living then. We joked that the cheeseboard will go with her from address to address, weather-worn and scarred but still in tact, reminding her of us.

“What do you think you’ll be doing in another 17 years?” he asks. The question irritates her. First off, it’s unimaginable to think of herself at age 34 and secondly she is not in the mood to talk about the future and its unknowns. She has a hard enough time picturing where she’ll be headed a year from now. “Can we just drop this subject?” she says, all rising-senior angst. “I was having a perfectly nice birthday until you said that.”

But I was glad for the thought. This is the first household item we’ve ever given her, and it seemed to signal acceptance of things to come and a vote of confidence in her future. Yes, we know you’ll be on your own in a few years, and maybe living abroad somewhere. And, wherever you wind up living, you’ll be doing just fine. We expect you’ll be dining on good cheese and crackers and olives.

I called our neighbor to let him know that Carolyn liked her gift, and that she was a little afraid to use it because she didn’t want to mar the surface. He gave us instructions on how to care for it so that the wood would last a lifetime. He also said this project led to his second sale for his new woodworking business. When another neighbor saw the cheeseboard under development, she commissioned him to build a wooden box for several hundred dollars.