From Dancer to Flutist to Genre-Bending Hybrid Aritst
Hilary Abigana shares how releasing herself from "success" allowed her to leap with abandon!
Photo Credit: Brian Harris Toy Soldier 2
When I was 5 years old, I told my parents that I wanted to be a ballerina. I’m not entirely certain why I wanted to be a ballerina, but I said what I said. Being the incredibly supportive people they were (and still are!), they put me into ballet lessons.
I was… ok at ballet. I loved it, but I didn’t practice at home or even stretch. I loved to move and leap, but all the small details were lost on me. I remember doing a duet when I was 9 with an adult student to Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1" and still remember much of that choreography to this day. It was beautiful and lovely. I probably didn’t perform it all that well, but that experience affected me so much that the music has been near and dear to my heart ever since.
When I was 7, I started playing the flute in my school band and started private lessons shortly after. I excelled at flute and even practiced at home!
When I was 10 years old, I was given the opportunity to join the local youth orchestra, but it was on Tuesday nights - the same night as ballet class. So, I had to choose which one to do. As you can assume, I chose to join the youth orchestra. After all, I was better at the flute than ballet and my ballet teacher wouldn’t let me advance to the pointe class (which makes sense in retrospect because 10-year-olds really shouldn’t be in those shoes!).
Even though that decision became the choice that shaped my future, it was also the greatest regret of my life. I loved dancing. I loved showing my love for pieces of music by jumping around and moving in my room with the music blaring away! And with that one decision, I thought I left that life behind me forever.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I learned other forms of dance after I left ballet. Middle school was the height of the swing dancing revival, so I learned east coast swing and the lindy hop. In college, I learned salsa dancing at local clubs and god… did I love that. Embodying music was so vital to me, but could only be a hobby - something I did if I had time.
I had chosen the flute. I even settled on it for a career - no if's, and's, or but's. I was gonna DO this thing. My parents bought me a fancy flute. Sent me to extremely expensive summer programs. Helped me get into music school.
So, I had to not just be a professional flutist, but a successful one. I had to make it! This was what I had to do!
How does a flute player become successful? By being in an orchestra, of course! And because I had drunk the full glass of Kool-Aid, I not only had to be in an orchestra, but I had to be the PRINCIPAL flutist in a MAJOR symphony orchestra. I knew the chances were slim that I could make that happen, but goddammit I could do it! I had to! I had to be SUCCESSFUL and this was the way! Second flute would be pretty good, too. But being the principal flutist was what had to happen. Not just successful - but the MOST successful.
Anyone else see how toxic that thinking is? No? That’s ok… neither did I then.
When I was in undergrad at Eastman, I needed an elective my senior year and nothing at Eastman really blew my skirt up. However, my best friend found out that there was a middle eastern dance (i.e. belly dancing) class at the University of Rochester that we could take. Ride the bus once a week, dance for a couple hours, come back.
I missed dancing. Learning rib and hip circles helped loosen tension that my flute teacher had been attempting to help me release for years! The music was dope, the people were new, I felt empowered, and it was just. so. wonderful.
Many of my colleagues and teachers judged me for choosing to take that class. Why am I wasting my time with such a thing? I should be practicing! Taking auditions! Do more! Do more! Be better! You can only achieve success with the UTMOST FOCUS.
And a large part of me agreed with them! Isn’t that awful? Here was this thing that I was really enjoying and I felt BAD about doing it.
I did my masters at Rice - the “ORCHESTRA COLLEGE”. Everyone gets an orchestral job out of Rice if they want it bad enough! It was known, proven, seen. So, I did auditions. I even advanced at a major audition. This was my ULTIMATE GOAL.
But in my first year, I put together a recital of all music from the 20th and 21st centuries including Oliver Knussen’s Masks. This piece called for the flutist to begin offstage, enter the space, move about, make faces. And… something about this… resonated with me.
BUT I’M GONNA BE IN AN ORCHESTRAAAAAAAA!
Towards the end of my second year, I auditioned for an ensemble that combined music, theatre, and dance to tell stories to young audiences. I had to create a solo musical piece in which I danced for that audition. It resonated with my soul. That entire audition resonated. I left that experience with more joy than I had felt in years.
And it was after that, that my teacher Leone Buyse said that yes, I could continue auditioning for orchestras if I really wanted to. But perhaps… perhaps this moving while playing thing… Perhaps this is what I was meant to do…?
In that moment, she saw what was truly resonating with me and in many ways gave me permission to give up the goal. To change my focus. To redefine myself, who I wanted to be, and what success was.
Photo Credit: Yvette Waters Mariner's Revenge
Shortly after I left that first company, Greg Jukes, C Neil Parsons, and I formed The Fourth Wall. We decided to not focus solely on young audiences (though they are still an important part of our work) and to not be bound to storytelling. Our choreography became more acrobatic and I learned I had muscles that I could use for more than standing and sitting.
I found Circus! Did you know adults can learn the circus arts?? And they can start later in their lives?? What little kid didn’t want to run away and join the circus? That’s what I’m doing! My “cross training” is learning aerial fabric, lyra, and partner acrobatics! I am upside down in performances with The Fourth Wall more than in a chair behind a music stand! We created a circus prop that I climb around and on top of while singing a song of Revenge! I ride hoverboards, scoot around the stage on a wheeled stool, play with balloons, attach lights to my instrument for acts in the dark, and yes… I. Dance. On. Pointe.
I still get to be a ballerina.
Years ago, I thought I made a decision that would forever keep me from becoming a ballerina. From dancing regularly with the joy and abandon of a child. Next month, The Fourth Wall travels to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where we will be doing two shows every day from August 3-28 (50 shows in total) and I will get to play flute, act like a clown, do circus tricks, and do the thing that will always be my first love. Dancing.
So, here is your permission.
Permission to leave your toxic thinking behind with whatever goal and career aspirations you’re “supposed to have”.
Here is your permission to say HELL YES to whatever potential career, crazy idea, or untrod path presents itself to you that sings in your soul.
Here is your permission to ignore all the naysayers who say you shouldn’t spend time doing the other things that you love with all your being.
Here is your permission to be you in whatever space, mode, or method brings you the most satisfaction and joy.
For some reason, I needed permission to do all that. So here’s yours:
Do what makes your inner child leap with joyful abandon.
Photo Credit: Gontran Durocher Paganini Finale
Hilary Abigana, Hybrid Arts Flutist
Hilary Abigana is a founding member and flutist for the hybrid arts ensemble, The Fourth Wall. Praised by The Wall Street Journal for their “deft choreography,” The Fourth Wall explores a new hybrid of the performing arts in which musicians are also dancers and actors. Stretching the boundaries of instrumental performance, The Fourth Wall commissions new interdisciplinary works and reinterprets established repertoire to make music that leaps off the stage. To read more, click HERE.
Find Hilary online at:
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Katie is a certified life coach dedicated to helping musicians overcome stage fright and believe in their own unique artistic voice. She believes live classical music is a powerful antidote for the division, pain, and loneliness pervasive in the culture and strives to support all artists to confidently share their work with the world. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, three kiddos, a dog, a snake, and a goldfish named Orca.