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.
Story by Amy Ambrose, firstname.lastname@example.org