Sam Wittchen is a freelance harpist in Philadelphia and teaches harp at the University of Pennsylvania. She attended the Eastman School of Music where she studied with Kathleen Bride. Sam is a graduate of the University of Virginia and co-founded the sustainability firm iSpring. She is also a freelance writer for GRID magazine, as well as a freelance designer, and serves as board chair for Flashpoint Theatre Company.
Tell us how you ended up going from studying harp at Eastman to founding your sustainability firm.
My mom is a harpist and a businesswoman, but she actively tried to convince me not to be a harpist. I was insistent, so she got me a little harp when I was a kid, but it became painfully obvious after 1 or 2 lessons that I did not want to practice. She recommended I switch to piano, which is a common instrument for harpists to start with. I played piano for years and didn’t have any interest in switching back to harp.
For years—I don’t know how I got this in my head—I thought I was going to be a pediatric endocrinologist. And then I did horribly in biology in my 10th grade year. Since I liked playing the piano, I decided I would be a musician instead.
My mom advised me how hard it is to get into music school for the piano, and that’s when I switched back to the harp. It was strictly a pragmatic decision: Which one has less competition? It was probably not the smartest decision I have ever made, because there was a lot of ground I had to make up.
My mom taught me, and neither of us would recommend that a child study with his/her parent. But somehow I got good enough to audition at a couple of different places.
Between my junior and senior years of high school, I attended a week-long harp seminar at Eastman with Professor Kathleen Bride. We had lessons and master classes and gave a performance at the end of the week. I really liked it and her as a teacher. Plus, my mom had attended Eastman, and I had family in Rochester. That’s why I ended up choosing Eastman.
When I was in music school, I discovered that I didn’t want to do most things that people do with music degrees, like play in an orchestra, sitting in the back and never being heard. I also didn’t think I had the patience to teach at that time. So why would I finish this degree if I wasn’t going to do anything that actually requires it?
That’s when I decided to transfer. I had already started taking engineering courses at the University of Rochester, but it was so grey and depressing there, I couldn’t stay. I transferred to the University of Virginia and finished there with a mechanical engineering degree.
I continued to play harp at UVA. I had very different opportunities compared to Eastman. I played in pit orchestras and did more jazz-type stuff, which was way more interesting to me than classical.
When I finished the engineering degree, I wasn’t really thrilled about typical engineering jobs, either. Luckily, I graduated in 2001, and there were a lot of companies looking for engineers to do non-engineering things. They thought that engineers in general are pretty good problem-solvers and analytical thinkers, and they were interested in re-training engineers for their specific jobs.
So I actually went into financial services for a little while, working for SEI Investments in Oaks, PA. Then 9/11 happened. I was working in an arm of the company that was devoted to helping extremely wealthy people. I asked myself: “What am I doing? I’m helping rich people get richer—what’s that doing for the world?” I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I just knew it wasn’t that.
And so I just quit. I had developed a little bit of a nest egg by that point, so I could live for a while if I couldn’t find a new job right away. It allowed me to re-focus myself and start performing and doing other stuff more. And I went to France for a month. I did all those things you do when you’re in your early 20’s and you don’t know what you want to do with your life.
Then I started to run out of money and decided to start working again. I went to work for an engineering consulting company. It was very small, and they didn’t have anybody to do any of their marketing. I had kind of this creative side in me. I took art classes from childhood all through college. It was pretty traditional painting and drawing, but I thought it might be interesting to get into more design-type stuff.
So while I was at that small engineering firm, they offered me the opportunity to start doing their marketing, because they didn’t have anybody there who was capable or interested in it. As I started doing it, I really liked it. It’s good left-brain right-brain all together in one.
After I was at the consulting company for a little while, I got the feeling that I wanted to go back to school, so I applied to get my Ph.D. in renewable energy in 2004. At that time it was wacky because Bush was still in office, and there wasn’t a whole lot of federal money out there for clean technology or renewable energy. There were only a handful of doctoral programs that even existed.
I applied to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst through their mechanical engineering department. (A lot of the work that was being done at that time was through some sort of engineering discipline; you didn’t see any of the programs that you see today that were specifically focused on sustainability or energy.)
I got accepted, but they couldn’t tell me whether I was funded until August, and the program started in September. I decided that I didn’t like that tentative answer, and I wasn’t going to do the program if I wasn’t funded.
Since I really liked the design stuff, I decided to go in that direction for a little while. I got a job as a designer for a marketing company for a couple years. I also started teaching harp at Penn during that time. I liked the work, but not so much the company, so I decided to try freelancing as a designer, so I could continue to play my harp and take on some more students for extra income. I did that for about a year.
Then my mom was leaving the third company that she helped found. I was kind of bumping along doing my design thing and I said, “We should just try and do something together.” She had the real business experience—she’s got an MBA—where she could be the adult in the room when we went to go look for clients. Although I felt like I had a lot of technical knowledge, it was going to be difficult to get people to listen to me because I was 28 at the time.
At first we thought we were going to be an innovation firm, helping companies enter new markets and grow their products. We tried doing that, and we found it was really hard to sell innovation and to explain what our value proposition was and why they needed to hire us.
In the meantime, Obama had gotten elected, and it looked like he was going to devote significant amounts of money toward sustainability and energy efficiency.
When my mom and I started working together, we decided we wanted to work in areas where we could really make a difference—environment, health care, education—where we saw big, meaty problems to be tackled. So we decided to take the innovation concept and apply it to sustainability.
Tell us about your company.
So we founded iSpring, our sustainability consulting firm, in 2008. We work primarily with commercial and industrial clients, helping them become more sustainable and use less energy and water; manage their carbon footprint; and produce less waste.
It’s been more on the operational side of sustainability—helping companies in the trenches change their processes and make them better. In the last year or so, we’ve started shifting more toward metrics, measurement, and reporting around sustainability.
One of the things that we have found is that on the operational side, the technology’s advancing and people are starting to understand that efficiency’s important—especially the people doing the work, like the plant engineers and the building managers. They’re all about efficiency. It’s not a hard sell for them because they get sustainability is going to make them more efficient, save them money, and make their operation run better.
Where they’ve had difficulty, I think, is in translating the work that they do—which is good work—to people who are at the executive and management levels of companies controlling the purse strings. Engineers are typically not terribly great communicators, and they don’t really have a lot of time to sit down and make the business case for the management.
So, we’ve shifted into helping companies determine the right metrics, measure progress, and report in ways that are easy to understand in order to make the business case. It is a great confluence of my technical training and my artsy, designy side. My goal is to mash everything together. If I could find a way to bring music into it, it would be the Holy Grail of work.
I also have a job as a freelance writer for GRID magazine, which is devoted to sustainability in our local area and therefore directly related to my work at iSpring.
So what’s, if there is one, a typical day for you—the balance between music and the business?
The bulk of my work falls into these different categories: teaching, performance, sustainability, writing, or design. I pretty much have no typical schedule. It depends on the week and whether or not I have performances.
In general, I’m not a morning person; I get up around 9 AM. Then depending on the day, sometimes I’ll go to teach right away, or sometimes I’ll work for iSpring. I’ll usually work until 6 or 7 PM, unless I have a rehearsal or a meeting. So I’ll get up later but I’ll keep working a lot later.
I guess one of the downsides of working for yourself is you can always be working. I definitely fall into that trap probably more often than I should. It’s gotten a little better since I got married; when I was living by myself, I would just end up going back to work after dinner or going out and doing something else.
I think this is maybe more of an issue for wind players, as far as staying in shape and keeping a regular practice schedule. Is that an issue for you? Do you take long periods of time off?
I don’t practice very much, but I will of course put in the time when I’ve got something coming up or if I’ve got a new piece to learn. But I don’t just sit down and practice for the hell of it. I’ve never been that way, and it doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted me, so I’m not inclined to do it.
I and a bunch of friends do an annual “Johnny Cash Night” at a local bar, playing all Johnny Cash tunes with a crazy instrumentation, which was last week. I had not been playing or practicing and I destroyed my fingers at the show because I had no calluses. You’re playing in a bar, and you’re playing really loud, and when we got done I had blisters that are still healing.
That perhaps indicates I should practice a little bit more than I do so I can at least keep my calluses up, but I don’t generally spend a huge amount of time practicing for the sake of practicing.
What are your hobbies?
I’ve been learning to play the ukulele. I like it a lot. It’s the first time I’ve ever played an instrument that I can easily take places with me.
This year I decided I really want to become a better seamstress. The only way I’m going to get better is by practice. So this year’s goal is to just do a sewing project a month. I did the same thing last year, doing an illustration a month. By the end of the year, you have this body of work, which is really neat.
It gives you something to drive toward and it makes you find the time to do something each month if you have this goal. I like using recycled, reclaimed materials whenever possible, often from The Resource Exchange. I made some business card holders that are for sale on Etsy and I also made a wallet last month.
I play Ultimate Frisbee, which is going to start again soon with spring league coming up. My husband and I also do renovation on houses that we own.
Is there correlation between the music training and the engineering training, or between the two careers now in your professional life?
I think there’s this single-minded, patient attitude that you need for both. It requires a lot of focus to get through engineering school, and it requires a lot of focus to be a musician in general—in music school, specifically. To sit for hours at a time and really focus on one specific thing carries over between the two fields.
An electrical engineering professor at Penn told me that when he’s looking for student lab employees, he will always take somebody who’s also a musician over anyone else, because he knows that they have the discipline and focus to do well. I do think it’s true—the discipline really carries over.
But I think I would have a very difficult time making it through engineering school or music school now. As I’ve gotten older, there are so many things that I find interesting and would like to spend my time doing, that I would have a hard time focusing on just one thing. I don’t know that I could just keep the blinders on for four years.
Do these other fields—engineering, writing, design—inform your music in any ways?
One thing that’s different for me now than it was when I was in school—especially when I was taking piano and harp lessons—is that I feel like I had been so focused on classical.
Now I’m a lot more open to random musical experiences. I don’t know if that’s specifically because of engineering or writing or anything, but I think it has to do with being well-rounded in a lot of different areas. I do let that seep into my music stuff, instead of just writing something off as not “serious” music or something like that, and I think I did that for a while. And I don’t think that’s uncommon for people who go through a conservatory.
The same thing’s true for art. For a long time—especially when I was taking very traditional drawing and painting—design, to me, was what you did if you couldn’t make it as a “real” artist. Which is just a stupid attitude, but that was the attitude I had for years until I discovered that design is really its own legitimate discipline. I was not able to see that when I was younger and now I can.
In general, what would you say to young people who are considering music careers?
I don’t believe that I was the most technically proficient harpist the year I applied to Eastman, but Professor Bride saw at the harp camp how I worked in a lesson situation. I think she knew that I was going to listen to her and was teachable.
I don’t think that I appreciated it at the time, but now as a teacher, I totally understand the value of having a student that really listens to what you say, internalizes it, and then makes improvement as a result of it. Those are the kinds of students I want, so I can only imagine that those are the kinds of students that she wanted, as well.
I haven’t had any students who want to be professional musicians. Since I teach at an Ivy League school, they want to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, or politicians.
But I would tell them, absolutely go and do it, if you think that is really the important thing for you to do. But do it with your eyes wide open and realize that it’s not going to be an easy road, and that there’s only a very small fraction of people that become concert performers.
So start thinking early about how you can be more of an entrepreneurial kind of a musician, where you find different avenues for your music, and it may not be playing your harp all the time. It may be teaching, it may be songwriting—who knows?
For harpists, orchestral jobs are few and far between. You pretty much have to wait until somebody dies or retires for something to open. Whenever it does, there’s a whole bunch of movement in all of the orchestras: All of the people who are in the lower-tier orchestras move up to the next one, and then nothing happens for another dozen years.
So especially for harpists, go for it, but you need to know what you’re getting into. I do still fundamentally believe it’s doable, but you can’t assume it’s going to be like it was a generation or two ago. That’s not the reality of a musician these days.
At Penn, because my students are not music majors, I think it’s helpful that I don’t have just the music thing going on. I understand they’ve got other stuff that they need to spend their time on. Practicing is probably not their top priority. I ask that they give it their best, and that they make as much time as they can for it, and that they make progress over the semester.