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In our series “Jump-start Your Job Search,” BU Today brings you short interviews with BU alums who are leaders in their field, such as banking, advertising, tech start-ups, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.

They talk about how they got to be where they are, mistakes they’ve made, and what they’ve taken away from those mistakes. They tell us what they look for when hiring and offer advice for those just embarking on a career.

This week, our featured alum is Rita Shapiro (CFA’76,’78), executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based National Symphony Orchestra, currently celebrating its 85th anniversary. Shapiro is responsible for providing strategic direction for the orchestra and has oversight of all its aspects, such as artistic, operational, educational, and community programming, financial management, and fundraising. She works in close collaboration with the NSO board of directors and its music director as well as the many volunteer organizations supporting the orchestra.

Shapiro has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in vocal performance from BU, and did additional graduate studies in opera at Indiana University.

  1. BU Today: How did your career path lead you to your current position?

    Shapiro: When I decided that I didn’t want to continue pursuing a career as a professional singer, I took a job in fundraising at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which led to a job at the Cleveland Orchestra. I started at the National Symphony as general manager in 2001, and my title became executive director in 2002. My second day on the job at the NSO was September 11, 2001.

  2. What qualities do you look for in job applicants?

    I think jobs at NSO certainly require a passion for working for an orchestra. The hours are long and the salary is not great. Many of our staff are current performing musicians or have musical training in their backgrounds. While not a deal breaker, a music background is an important quality I look for, because I want applicants to understand the level of complexity and excellence in the artistry of our musicians, and also understand that my staff is there to help the musicians be their best. I also look for attention to detail, flexibility, creativity, and the ability to be a team player.

  3. How can musicians prepare for a career in arts administration?

    First, if they were trained as performers, they have to follow their passion, and see if they have that fire in their belly to have a performance career at the expense of everything else in their lives. I don’t look at working in administration as a second choice, but for those wanting to make that transition, it helps to have an openness and willingness to look around and see how things run. I also think young musicians coming out of conservatory training need to be more entrepreneurial in promoting their own careers, through social media and persistence beyond the practice room.

  4. What advice do you have for someone trying to land a job interview with NSO?

    It’s essential to have a pristine résumé and a passionate cover letter. Those are two basics to get right. As you can imagine, we get tons of applications, and someone has to stand out on paper. For the interview, I would suggest that they do a lot of research and come in super-prepared. Learn about our organization so you can ask specific, intelligent questions. I also urge job seekers to cast a wide net. If they’re looking for a job in orchestral management, it’s okay to take a job in fundraising or operations, and then make the leap to artistic administration. Don’t stress about it. It’s just important to get your foot in the door. I always look for someone who expresses a willingness to go beyond the scope of his or her job.

  5. What types of questions do you ask while interviewing applicants?

    I try for a conversational interview style. I want to get into the head of an applicant. I really want to know what they’re passionate about. Passion for the work is a great element of getting hired here. After that I want to know if an applicant is a detail-oriented person. We need some level of precision. And it’s great when applicants come to the interview with ideas. I like people with ideas no matter what jobs they’re applying for, and those with a curiosity and a real love of working in the performing arts.

  6. What are the most common mistakes that job applicants make?

    I only see the candidates who’ve been screened, but I think the most common mistakes are not meeting deadlines, not being very clear in materials submitted, and being too generic in the application.

  7. What advice do you have for people in the first few months on the job?

    Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know; please teach me.’ We work on the mentorship system here. We never hang people out to dry. We also like people to go beyond what’s in the job description and be open to saying, ‘I can do this,’ and ‘I’ll learn something new.’ We obviously want people to be trained in their specified jobs, but also to be willing to observe another part of this business.

  8. Who were your most important mentors?

    My first mentor was a wonderful person named Joyce Serwitz, who was head of major gift funding at the BSO. She taught me to move every project forward a little bit every day, and I still do that. It’s not everyone’s work style, I get that, but it keeps you aware of what’s on your plate, and every day you accomplish something. I also learned so much from Tom Morris, former executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra. He taught me how to motivate staff and how to have fun while working really hard. I learned from Tom that fun is a key element of the office environment, a way of building esprit de corps.

Are you an alum who would like to be interviewed for BU Today’s “Jump-start Your Job Search” series? Email John O’Rourke at orourkej@bu.edu.

Read other stories in our “Jump-start Your Job Search” series here.

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