As part of our 75th Anniversary celebrations this season, we are catching up with some of CYSO’s amazing alumni who are making an impact both on and off the stage. Today’s alumni spotlight is Sonja Thoms. Sonja was a member of CYSO from 1995-1997 and went on to study oboe performance at the Eastman School of Music and at Rice University. Today she serves as Vice President of Operations for the Nashville Symphony. Sonja also founded Orchestra Careers, a career coaching service that helps students discover the world of orchestra operations.
Sonja sat down on Zoom to talk with Alyssa Shih, a member of CYSO’s Social Media Team and a Symphony Orchestra violinist. The following an excerpt from their conversation.
How would you describe your job as Vice President of Operations at the Nashville Symphony?
The work of an orchestra takes lots of people! What I didn’t know when I was a young musician is that there are as many people off the stage helping make the concert happen as there are on the stage. I’m one of those people off the stage. As Vice President of Operations, I oversee the concert production team and directly support the musicians of our orchestra. We have about 75 to 80 full-time musicians at the Nashville Symphony, so we have two personnel managers who directly support those musicians. I have to understand their contracts and make sure that they have everything they need. The way I like to think about it is that Operations handles all the logistics of what happens on stage at a concert.
What does a typical day look like for you?
We do over 100 concerts with our orchestra, so I’m in a lot of meetings, a lot of long term planning meetings, getting all the preparations in place. When the orchestra is in the building and rehearsing, there’s a 10 am rehearsal so I’ll go backstage and check in with the musicians. Once I hear that tuning A, I go back to my office to do more emails or meetings. When rehearsal is done, we’ll break and then start over again in the afternoon.
I really love the idea that my office has always been a concert hall. I have to remind myself that that’s not the case for everybody. I really like that variety that comes from being able to be upstairs in my office planning, but then I also get to go hear music downstairs almost every day.
It sounds like a lot of fun to experience those two different areas. To our CYSO students, you’re kind of like the people that check us in at the beginning of your rehearsals. That’s similar to what you do, right?
Yes, absolutely! When it’s all said and done, it’s all about the music right? Early on in my career, I was trained with the philosophy that the work of Operations is to take care of all the small details so that the musicians can focus on just playing their instruments. I still believe in that philosophy and use it every day!
How did you decide to go into Operations instead of performance?
I have to start by saying that I didn’t know that this job existed until after college. I was an oboist! After high school, I went to the Eastman School of Music for my undergraduate degree in oboe performance and then I went right on to get my masters at Rice University. I wanted to be in an orchestra, but as I got further into college, I got more opportunities to teach and produce concerts. If no one was planning the concerts or repertoire I wanted to play, I would get my friends together to perform, for example, Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart. I booked the main lobby as our performance space and made it happen.
As I got further into college, I still really wanted to be in an orchestra, but by the time I got to graduate school, I was into a lot of things. It’s also very competitive to get into a professional orchestra. I felt conflicted because that’s all I ever thought I was going to do, but I also liked teaching, I liked chamber music, and I liked putting things together. I liked the parts of my life I was experiencing that didn’t involve my oboe as well.
So, long story short, I graduated from college and didn’t have a job, and that’s okay! I ended up living with my parents in Maryland and took some time to figure things out. My parents encouraged me to apply to internships at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and I ended up getting an internship in Operations with the National Symphony. I still think back to that time and how I had no idea what I was doing, no idea what Operations was. However, I think all that experience I had as a performer and as a producer of concerts made me a good fit. That was 15 years ago and I haven’t looked back since!
It seems like you had it in you from the start, you just didn’t know! You mentioned that you jumped right into your masters for oboe performance, but then you eventually started doing more arts administration along the way. How does creativity still play a role in what you do? I know that most people would think of arts administration and think, “Oh, it’s a lot of scheduling and meetings.”
I’ve thought a lot about this, especially in the last year. I would say the number one way I have to be creative is through problem solving. We’re given any number of resources and I have to make it work. I find problem solving very energetic and it comes in many forms. I spend a lot of my life with checklists, timelines, and calendars. If you like those things, you might like Operations, but I really am driven by the creativity required of me to problem solve.
When I look back at my young musician self, I realize that I could never do anything musical without my friends. I’m a very collaborative person and I spend a lot of time collaborating with a team of other department heads and other vice presidents to do that problem solving. I think of it almost like playing in a woodwind quintet; I’ll say something and another person will say something, but eventually we have to come to some sort of compromise so that we’re in tune with each other and playing towards the same end goal.
I’ve been thinking a lot about musicianship lately and there’s a lot we can learn from our musician selves and apply it off stage. As a musician, I was learning about creativity and collaboration, but also about time management. The skills I learned from mapping out six months of work to learn a piece are the same skills I use everyday as Vice President of Operations. The instrument I get to play now is a computer and my stage is a conference table, but the skills that are required to succeed in Operations and music are absolutely the same.
You touched on this a little bit, but if you could go back in time, what would the enthusiastic 9-year-old oboe player think of what you’re doing now?
When I got my first oboe, I thought it was just so fun and I dove right in. I had this boldness and drive about me. I also thought that music was just great. I was used to hearing music around me all the time. So I think that 9-year-old oboist would think that it’s pretty cool that my office is at a concert hall, that I’m always around the orchestra, and that I get to talk to the musicians. I think the one thing I haven’t talked about, which is one of my favorite parts of my job, is seeing it all come together and seeing the audience and ensemble share an experience that we’ve missed for the last year and a half.
Is there a non-performance position in the back end of the orchestra that does really interesting work that most people don’t know about? Are there any positions you want to shout out?
Yes, there are a lot! I get to work the closest to the musicians, but our artistic department gets to really work with the conductors and decide the program. They decide all the repertoire, and there’s a lot of research and planning that goes into that. We also have so many professionals that work in our marketing and communications departments. Their whole job is to tell the story of the orchestra. That might be the story of a particular piece that’s on an upcoming concert, or a story about a musician, or a story about 75 years of the Nashville Symphony. I’m really fascinated in how they can draw out and engage the audience with storytelling before they even get to the concert hall. Of course, now with social media there’s so many more ways you can tell a story and you can get very creative with it.
Finally, what is something you remember from your time in CYSO that still plays into your current role with the Nashville Symphony?
That wonder and excitement of what it’s like to be in a symphony orchestra and to play on stage. During my second year, my sophomore year, we went on tour to Europe so that was very exciting as a CYSO musician. We went to so many cities, it was such an exciting time. Fast forward to when I was Director of Operations and Touring at Pittsburgh Symphony and we took the orchestra to Europe. I managed, planned, and went on that international tour and part of my job was going to the concert hall before anyone else to make sure that all the preparations were in good order. I arrived at our venue in Hamburg. I’m walking through hallways, looking at my notes, and I step on stage. I look up and I gasped because I had not realized that I was standing on the same stage that I had played Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony with the Chicago Youth Symphony and here I was, in a career I didn’t know existed, our tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It was such an incredible moment for me. You never know where your music will take you. I share this story because I think about that a lot because it connects that 15 year old Sonja with the professional Sonja. It was a very magical moment.
Stay tuned for more alumni spotlights throughout our 75th anniversary season!