Ian Axness, Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre and Resident Music Director University of Cincinnati College

Describe what you are doing now and a little bit about your career journey.

After college, I spent 11 years in New York City as a freelance music director and pianist. All kinds of productions and gigs — long and short, regular and sporadic, a few prestigious and many … humbling. I played auditions for Hamilton, ballet classes for four-year-olds, and new musicals that are still in development today. Early on I also worked frequently as a music assistant or copyist, creating and editing sheet music for other conductors and composers.  It was exciting but also exhausting, and my decision to go back to graduate school coincided with the start of the pandemic. (Actually, I applied to another program in 2017 and was rejected… Everything happens for a reason!) So now I am based in Cincinnati, where I teach and conduct shows in the Musical Theatre department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Right now I’m also doing a program of film music with the Seven Hills Symphony and preparing for a summer at Opera in the Ozarks, where I’ll be coaching, accompanying and conducting.

What are your ultimate goals for the future?

Honestly, my new position at CCM — Assistant Professor and Resident Music Director — is a major goal achieved, so I am focused primarily on helping to shape the next chapter of our fantastic Musical Theatre BFA program. I’d also like to continue programming and conducting concerts with orchestra, while exploring new directions in lyric theatre through workshop productions and collaborations with writers, musicians, composers, and performers. And, of course, I would still like to conduct a show on Broadway.

What was your favorite class at Highland Hall?

I always loved main lesson blocks that were “History Through _________” — like architecture, poetry and, obviously, music. English classes on dramatic literature and Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf were also highlights.

What skills or abilities did Highland Hall help foster and grow?

Highland Hall is where I got my first conducting lessons! In high school, Erick Bluske taught me the most important aspects of cueing and beat patterns, which have always been fundamental to my work as a music director. On a larger level, I think the central Waldorf template of main lesson books gave me the ability to face the blank page with confidence and a sense of potential — to create a document/workbook/plan where there wasn’t one before.

Anything else you’d like to share? Advice for our younger Alumni?

Recently I’ve been working with a non-professional community orchestra, and it’s been so great to see people maintain their love for the arts as true recreation and enjoyment, rather than as a job. Although I work in a creative field, much of my day-to-day is not actually rehearsing or playing piano — it’s setting up schedules, coordinating administrative documents, and sometimes literally printing and taping sheet music. There is a cost-benefit equation involved in professionalizing one’s art, while there are many ways to be creatively active — community performance ensembles, co-operative roleplaying games, passion projects, writing, DJing, composing and podcasting. If something is creatively fulfilling, it doesn’t necessarily need to make money.

Also, as someone who relies on sustained attention and solo practice, and yet sometimes can’t even focus on a book for 10 minutes, I really appreciate Highland Hall’s recommendations for limiting screen time! The world has become so flooded with digital messaging, marketing images, and thoughtless bits of heavy content. Especially when the guidelines about TV/phone screens become more relaxed in high school, it takes courage and dedication to set boundaries and protect one’s own inner flame… but it is worth it! (Steiner’s poem “To Wonder At Beauty” is the real deal.) Ultimately, this inner engagement — what Wallace Stevens called “the intensest rendezvous” — can become a source of confidence, inspiration, and success in the wider world.