The Art of Shaping A Phrase In Speech As Well As Song with Maestro Steven White

by | Aug 27, 2020 | Podcasts

FYE 16 | Business Cycle


Writing a speech is very similar to writing a song. You need to be deeply passionate about so shaping the phrases of each line comes second nature to you. In this episode, Maestro Steven White, a Conductor and the Artistic Director of Opera Roanoke, dives deep into maintaining your integrity and values despite your environment. The music industry is a heavily competitive and unforgiving industry, being so, he touches on the proper reasons one might think of pursuing this career. Steven also shares his insights on the critical roles, individual quality, distinctiveness, and preparation plays both in music and writing. Know the impact craft and technique have on your presentations and the things you need to consider if you lack the passion for something you need to do.

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The Art of Shaping A Phrase In Speech As Well As Song with Maestro Steven White

Part of “The Relationship between Business and Art”

My guest is Maestro Steven White, who is a dear friend. He’s a thinker. He’s not only an opera conductor and an orchestra conductor, he’s also the Artistic Director of Opera Roanoke in Virginia. He’s one of the people who have traveled the world and has interesting thoughts about fundraising, speaking, shaping a phrase and how art is important in all our lives. Steven White was praised by Opera News as a conductor who squeezes every drop of excitement and pathos from the score. He’s one of North America’s premier conductors in both the symphonic and the operatic repertoire, including conducting at the Metropolitan Opera, Moscow Philharmonic, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and in Baltimore, Montreal, Spoleto, Nashville, all over America, also for a CHANDOS recording of Arias, featuring his wife, soprano Elizabeth Futral. One of the fun parts is he’s been on TV. In December 2013, Maestro White conducted the tribute to Martina Arroyo as part of the Kennedy Center Honors concert, which was broadcast nationally on CBS. He’s someone who has done the business of arts. He’s an artist. He is a lover of nature and a philosopher, and one of my favorite people to talk to.

Steven White, welcome to the show. I’m happy to have you here.

I’m happy to be here. It’s great to see you.

Thank you. I have to tell you when I first created the show and I’m going to ask some of my opera friends to talk about it. I understand, I see every day how I use what I learned in opera in the business world. I said, “I’m going to ask Steven, and I’ve got some opera singers I want to ask, etc.” It took me three quarters of a year to get around to doing this, but I’m excited to have you here. Steve, before we get into the meat of it, who would be your dream interview? If you could share the stage with somebody who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them and who should be listening?

There are many people, many great women and men who have lived in this world that you’d love to learn something from. For me, I’m a conductor, a musician, someone who works in the opera world and loves great music. There are a great many composers I’d love to talk with and performers, but the one that I would like to have an interview and sit down with would be Gustav Mahler. Gustav Mahler was a composer at the end of the 20th century, lived from 1860 to 1911.

Oftentimes, we have to work for people that do not share our values. How do we walk that line? Share on X

The 19th century into the 20th century.

He was born in 1860 and died in 1911. He is most known for his 9 Symphonies plus another one that he didn’t finish, and Das Lied von der Erde and his songs, but he spent his whole life conducting opera. For me, it’s interesting because this composer whose music I adore, perhaps above all others spent his life, his career, doing what I do. He did it on a high level, but he started in provincial towns in Europe, made it all the way to the Vienna State Opera, and eventually the Metropolitan Opera. All of that the entire time, his preferred activity was composing and didn’t get to do that full-time.

The other thing that’s interesting about Mahler and that it would be interesting for anyone to sit in on this interview, he described himself as three times homeless. That is to say, he was born in Moravia in the Austrian Empire. He was Moravian in Austria, a homeless Moravian in Austria. Furthermore, he was an Austrian in the German-speaking world and that he felt homeless there, and then he was Jewish. He was a Jew throughout the entire world and particularly at a time when anti-Semitism crept into everything. It would be interesting to discuss with him all of those dynamics, how he conquered all of that and was able to stay true to his ideals?

Didn’t he also have to run one of these big companies?

He did. For ten years, he was the Director of the Vienna State Opera from 1897 to 1907. That’s a huge amount of time. His successor has lasted months. When I say the Vienna State Opera, it was not the Vienna State Opera at the time. It was the Vienna Court Opera that has to say it was under the auspices of the Habsburgs themselves. Having to walk that fine line between his artistic identity, integrity and ideals, but also have to kiss the ring from time to time. It’s an incredible dynamic that I learned when I study Mahler. I’m in awe of his personal character and integrity.

FYE 16 | Business Cycle

Business Cycle: You don’t go into music because you’ve got a career in your heart. You go into music because you’ve got a song in your heart.


In our terms, he had to do what anybody running a nonprofit does, which is cozy up to the donors. Anybody who’s starting a company or any founders, have to cozy up to the investors. He was answerable to the money people. He must have had to do a lot of fundraising pitches.

He did. The other thing you had to do, which is a lesson for all of us, is we sometimes often have to work for people that do not share our values. How do we walk that line? I think of government employees sometimes who might have completely different political philosophies than their employers, but how do you walk that line between being true to yourself and also being true to your employer? It takes tremendous imagination. How do you get on without selling your soul, but maintaining your own integrity and feeling good about yourself while at the same time, serving the needs of your employers in a way that is appropriate? It’s a challenge.

Serving your employers in a way that takes care of your people and also promotes the work. That’s the thing. There are a lot of people who swallow things they’re not happy with in order to promote the work. When it gets to the point that you can’t stand it anymore, then you give up the work you love and leave sometimes by your choice and sometimes not. 

The interesting thing about the music world and the art world, in theory, I’m talking about theoretically here, we’re all on the same team. We all believe and assume in the value of art and great music to improve people’s lives, but yet the music and art world is as competitive, if not more so than any other profession. Recognizing that we’re all on the same team, but yet competing on that same team, that’s a challenge. This is why I tell people, “You don’t go into music because you’ve got a career in your heart. You go into music because you’ve got a song in your heart. Don’t forget the song because the career sometimes gets in the way of the joy for the reason you went into music in the first place.”

I’ve been thinking over for this series, I’ve realized that the reason why I moved into training, using my opera experience to train business presenters full-time and let opera go was because it had stopped being fun. It was about checking off the boxes. Every once in a while, there would be a moment where I’d be thrilled by the music, but I couldn’t be transported anymore. I knew too much about how it was built. It’s the thing you should never see made, never watch made as you never watch laws made, and you should never watch sausage. It was like I’d been working in a sausage factory and I couldn’t enjoy the taste of the sausage anymore. I’m grateful that it took me a year to let go, but I’m grateful that I did that. Now, I’m learning new things. Every client I have teaches me something new and it’s not checking off the same boxes anymore.

When it comes to art, the thinking aspect is just as important as the heart aspect. Share on X

I envy you being able to do symphonic work. The other thing with opera as a stage director, the ones that are staged in the same top twenty, most of the time. You and I met doing a Rossini piece that nobody ever does. That was fun because we were all exploring it together. That was a joy. That’s a digression. I want to talk to you a little bit about as someone who comes to life because you have a song in your heart. You are musically gifted and analytical, can you talk a little bit about shaping a phrase? I tell people about the melody of the message all the time. I would love to know how you have to speak to raise money for your company, but you also teach people to sing? How does that mesh together in your mind?

It’s interesting because we talk about music as being the universal language. You’ve heard that phrase before, “Music is a universal language.” It begs the question, “What does it mean?” My process, I suppose, in terms of interpreting music and then once I’ve interpreted how I communicate that to others is personal. For example, the way I would make let’s say fundraising talk to some people in the same way I approach learning a piece of music. I want to know specifically what the values if I’m trying to persuade somebody to give money to a cause. I have to be persuaded of that cause myself before I even began. If I’m not persuaded of that cause, then I might be able to use all the best words.

I might be able to do all things that make sense. The passion and the truth of what I’m trying to do to get the people, to whom I’m speaking to see and respond to it’s going to be false. That’s the way I approach music. I feel that every phrase has to have direction. We’re speaking in time. One note follows another note, not every note is exactly the same in terms of importance. They all have their context, but like the way I do it is, it has to do with preparation. I spent hours upon hours, weeks upon weeks, sometimes years upon years studying a piece of music to try to make the determination of what it means to me, “How do I feel it should progress?”

Once I am persuaded, it is easier for me to persuade my orchestra, the singers with whom I’m working, the group of board members or wealthy donors that have the potential to realize my vision. I believe you’ve got to have that vision. In terms of interpretation, someone asked me. I got a note, “What do you do on performance days to get ready for a performance?” The fact is I do a lot of visualizing. I’m told that basketball players can improve their free throw shooting by visualizing themselves, standing at the line, making free throws. I believe in that, I’m not a good free throw shooter, but I do believe particularly when I’m conducting an opera, I visualize the entirety of the thing. I visualize my players seated around me. I go through it. It has to do with anticipating the joy and the potential of what it is I’m going to try to do in that performance. It calms me because by the time I get to that performance, I walk out there, I’ve already been there in my mind all day and there are fewer surprises. I can adapt and react with more flexibility.

I can hear a, “Yeah but,” in there because you were saying every phrase needs to have a rhythm and a meaning. If we’ve got to do a speech, we can’t polish every single sentence and word. If you’ve got a big opera with a whole lot, how many players do you have in the orchestra, say for a Verdi piece?

FYE 16 | Business Cycle

Business Cycle: If you’re trying to persuade somebody to give money to a cause, you have to be persuaded of that cause yourself before you even begin.


I have 55.

You’ve got 55 people in the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists and all of that, how do you balance shaping each piece with the arc of the whole?

That’s important and it’s a great question. We use the word, organically, or we talk about things being organic. It’s almost always a positive thing to say. We want things to be organic. What does that mean? My wife has planted some tomato plants outside being home all summer. We’re rarely home all summer, but this time we are, like all of us have been. Elizabeth decided to plant some tomatoes. Tomato plants will do whatever they want, but unless you have a stake for them to climb on, then they’re going to go all over the place and they won’t thrive. To me, in trying to have an organic result in performance, particularly as you say a long opera with lots of big parts, I’ve got to find where the stakes are in that piece of music. The high points, if you will, that’s why the form is great, the form of a piece, the framework, the way it’s designed.

When it comes to speeches and when I have to give a speech, or sometimes when I have to even write a program notes or something, I always try to find, “What are the 3, 5 or 2 things that I most need to communicate?” I focus on those things and then allow an organic flow from one thing to the next. In other words, they take on the details, whether or not I use this or that particular adjective isn’t nearly as important as the concrete specifics. The rest is style as I see it. It’s interpretive and you can have a sense of ‘in the moment’ about it. The way you can have successful ‘in the moment’ results that don’t sound studied is that you have studied and you have made a determination on several points.

That’s why I always say, “Speak for results.” Here I am talking about strategic speaking, Speaker Who Get Results, what’s the result that you want and then work backwards so that you’re always trying to get it to talk that everything leads towards that? As I think about it, the way I would approach an opera is the arc of the whole and how you know it’s going to end. You have to build it up so that you’re set up for the end so that when the end gets there, you want it. If there are great moments, I would listen to it. I would often do my best work in the car because I would be playing it in the car. I drive somewhere. I would go and an image would pop up and I said, “If I want this moment to look like that, how can I set it up so that when we get there, that is the next and only possible step?” It’s the same with the speech. You’ve got flexibility along the way. You’re not by the route.

One element that is important in terms of achieving individual quality is to work as hard as you possibly can. Share on X

I find that the amount of brain involved that is to say the thinking aspect is as important as the heart aspect when it comes to art in this sense. Life is art. I don’t care, whether you go out and go to a particular parking lot and you see that this is poorly designed and go to another parking lot that is well-designed, that’s art. It’s form and function. Most great art is defined in a certain respect by a frame or by the form. Sometimes that form can be deliberately withheld and that’s a conscious choice. The intention has to be paramount in what we do. If we do not have the intention, that is to say, we’re moving in a direction because we believe in this.

That’s the same as we are playing a Mozart Piano Sonata, whether you’re giving a speech to fundraisers or to trying to convince somebody that they should be doing the right thing, like wear masks. You can’t insult people, but you have to have intention and logic. You have to build in such a way that the conclusion is inevitable and not everyone will respond to everything you do. Not everyone loves classical music. Sometimes I’m amazed. I’ll do a performance of a symphony, an opera or something and it was one of the great moments in my life. I thought it clicked. It was the most thrilling thing and then I’ll ask somebody who’s close to me, “What do you think?” “It’s okay.” We cannot guarantee results. What we will guarantee is if we do not prepare, we’re guaranteed to get fewer results.

The other part that I would say is you have to take the audience into account because of who’s listening and what do you want them to do? You want them to applaud, cry or laugh, which is much harder. The amount of preparation it takes to do comedy, humor in the speech and getting the rhythm right, will it be something that appeals to everybody? When I do presentations in Austria or Germany, I’m not going to use the same jokes that would work in America because there are different cultural references. 

Knowing audiences is terribly important. It’s funny to me, and I’m sure you’ve had this same experience. When you’re watching a television program, let’s say it’s a series about doctors or law. Every now and then, you’ll see a reference to classical music and it’s always done wrong. In other words, it will have someone playing the violin and the wrong hand, that thing. I think to myself, as often as they make those mistakes in classical music, they’re probably making those same mistakes in law and in medicine, and whatever else is. It’s, “I don’t know anything about it.” From an audience standpoint, they’re not worried about trying to speak to a classical music expert. They’re trying to get somebody who’s interested in these other things.

They’re making a show. It’s an artistic license.

SWGR 536 | Phrase Shaping

Phrase Shaping: We cannot guarantee results, but what we will guarantee is, if we do not prepare, we’re guaranteed to get fewer results.


It’s interesting to me how you can’t take anything for granted. I remember one of the first times I conducted here in Virginia, at Opera Roanoke, my grandparents who had never seen an opera in their entire life said, “What opera are you going to be conducting?” I said, “It’s Carmen.” I waited and then I realized they’d never heard of Carmen, which doesn’t make them ignorant people. They’re some of the most precious, wonderful, intelligent people that ever existed and have influenced my life tremendously, but they’d never heard of Carmen.

Did they recognize when that came in?

I don’t think so. These are wonderful Appalachian born and reared authentic Hillbillies. When they did recognize things, they taught me much, but I had to realize that my experiences are completely different. Even if everyone in my life around me knew what Carmen was, or at least knew that it was an opera or at least had heard of it, my grandparents never had. It’s valuable to recognize the fact that we’re talking all times to people who may not understand or may not have experiences with the things that we take a second nature. I know for a fact that there are many things that I don’t know anything about. When people start doing shop talk around me, I’m thinking, “I’m an idiot and they have lost me.”

I have to tell you that this is my life now. I work with a high-level of women in tech who aren’t being heard. They’ve got a seat at the table, they’re a senior director or something else. They’re usually the problem solvers and they fix things. Because their department works well, nobody pays attention to them. They’re taken for granted. A lot of what I do is help them do speeches or talk about the way they speak to their position as somebody important. What that means for me is that I have to help somebody talk about cloud services or when I’m working with some of the medical professionals that I work with.

I sit through a technical webinar and they’re asking me to make comments. I know that if I’m going to do that if it’s a super tech, I’ll get someone who’s a technical expert to say, “Did you get the science?” Someone else says, “Did you get the science right?” I’m the one that says as you do this, “You might think about X or Y or something like that.” It’s fascinating. I’m learning a lot. It’s learning a whole new language. I never got around to Russian. Maybe learning my way around tech as my next language. I want to ask you in terms of presenting, you’ve already answered most of my questions. This is fun. This is good. It’s perfect.

You have to have logic and you have to build it in such a way that the conclusion is inevitable. Share on X

You push the button and there it goes. This is why I wanted to interview you. There were people I wanted to interview who said, “I don’t know, the phone rings and I do the job or I don’t.” I say, “Love you. You’re not going to be a fit for this show.” One of the things that people worry about a lot when they’re speaking is, “How do I talk about something I care that everybody else is talking about? How do I make myself interesting and different? What can I say that no one else is saying?” If you’re in an opera and doing Carmen for the umpteenth time, I saw the people in the audience have seen or the singers have sung Carmen, 1,500 times. How do you make it interesting, new and personal?

When we think about great singers, and I don’t want to make the presumption that everyone here in this audience know the names of great singers, but they will understand whether they’re pop singers or whether they’re classical music singers, that the ones that we remember are the ones that are distinctive. Michael Jackson sounds like Michael Jackson. HER doesn’t sound like anybody else. Leontyne Price sounds exactly like Leontyne Price and nobody else. What we’re trying to achieve with art and expression is a distinctive individuality.

How do we get that distinctive individuality? Our voice is our voice. We all sound like ourselves. We all have our turns of phrases, but there are common technical problems that will often reduce our individuality. For example, if I’m a singer and I’ve got a tremendous problem singing flat, that’s what people are going to notice. They’re not going to notice, “Steven White, that great baritone. He’s got a great voice, or so and so with that great soprano. Look at that person who plays the piano brilliantly, I wish that they wouldn’t play many wrong notes.”

The two elements that I believe are important here in terms of achieving individuality, is to work as hard as you possibly can on the technical aspect of what we’re talking about. I know that you spend a lot of time giving tips on how technically to prepare? Whether it’s standing in front of the mirror, it’s doing this, maybe even mechanical things that in and of themselves are not the end game. They’re the things that will allow you to get that fluidity, where all of a sudden, the actual identity of you is coming across because you have eliminated technical distractions.

It’s the craft that allows you to be a channel for art or for whatever you are passionate or talking about. Singers learn early on that you have to work with the muscles of the throat, the breath, lips and tongue. That’s what they do in order to produce the sound. Speakers take that for granted. We take it for granted that we talk the way we talk and yet, speaking is a physical act. When we get to some of my clients that are talking about the technical things, how do you pronounce something? You have to train your lips and tongue, to be able to say, “International opera director and presentation skills trainer.” That one took me a while.

SWGR 536 | Phrase Shaping

Phrase Shaping: It’s valuable to recognize the fact that we’re talking at all times to people who may not understand or may not have experiences with the things that we take as second nature.


The point of all of this work is eventually, it takes on a feeling of effortlessness and that’s where your personality and passion starts to come through. We talk all the time about such and such a singer, “This effortless production.”

The vocal production, you mean. 

I’m talking about vocal production, yes. Thank you. The way in which they sing doesn’t sound like it’s work at all, it comes out naturally. What you don’t realize is that person practiced and practiced and spent all time in honing her craft to the point where the art, expression, passion and the love got a completely free highway, unobstructed with technical issues and with barriers, because they have spent the time to hone that craft.

It’s the craft that makes the art, but also for all that you’re talking about when you’re doing a presentation, whether it’s over a video or live, you are what people are reacting to. People are reacting to all those cues in the background that we don’t pay attention to that are signaling whether you’re serious, authentic or you mean what you say and all of that. It’s who you are. We talk about speak from the heart of who you are. There are ways that you can shape it so that it comes through more easily.

What’s interesting, part of the reason that craft and technique is important is that if we don’t feel passionately about something and yet we’re required to go out and speak about it or deliberate, let’s say I’m supposed to conduct a piece of music, but I don’t believe in. I don’t even like it, but it’s my job to go out there, “I have a great degree of fear and trepidation that I’m not going to be able to accomplish this.” Think about the exact opposite. Let’s pretend you’re speaking about something that is the most important thing in the world.

Intention has to be paramount and in what we do. Share on X

Let’s pretend that you’re advocating for some cure of some terrible disease and that you have the ability to raise money for that because it’s important for you, you can have a similar fear, “What if I fail in something that’s important?” That’s why craft and technique is important. It allows you to rely on a scientific approach to everything that you do for that expressive aspect to come forward. The more you believe in something, the more important it is to have a reliable technique. I’ve always said that you could love humanity more than Schiller or more than the world’s greatest poet.

You can love humanity more than anyone in the world, but if you don’t have a synonym for the word, nice, you’re not going to be able to put in a good poem. It’s the same way with playing Mozart Piano Concerto, plumbing and building a building. The more you love it, the more you have to pay attention to the nuts and bolts, which is why my favorite motto of my life goes back to Gustav Mahler. We were talking about Mahler in his Second Symphony, the Resurrection Symphony, there’s this phrase, “Bereite dich zu leben.” You know what it means. It means, “Prepare yourself to live.” I love every aspect of that. Those two verbs, “prepare,” prepare for what? To live. That’s the reason we prepare. That’s the reason we prepare a speech, a symphony, we make our bed in the morning, whatever, but it takes preparation. The preparation is not a dead end. The preparation is so that we can live our life through music, words, expression and results. That’s why I love, “Bereite dich zu leben.”

Steven White, that is the perfect thing to end this conversation on. Thank you. This has been wonderful. I love talking to you.

I love talking to you. We should do it more.

I love that I get to share you with my readers. This has been Speakers Who Get Results with Maestro Steven White. If you’re interested in your presentation skills and how you’re doing, I invite you to take our free assessment. It only takes four minutes at There you can see where you are strong with your presentation skills and where maybe you might need a little bit of support. I’ll see you at the next one. 


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About Steven White

FYE 16 | Business CyclePraised by Opera News as a conductor who “squeezes every drop of excitement and pathos from the score,” Steven White is one of North America’s premiere conductors of both symphonic and operatic repertoire. Among the many orchestras Maestro White has conducted are the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Moscow Philharmonic, and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. He has also conducted in Baltimore, Montreal, the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the New World Symphony Orchestra, the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Syracuse Symphony, the Charleston Symphony, the Florida Philharmonic, the Fort Worth Symphony, the North Carolina Symphony, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and for a CHANDOS recording of arias featuring his wife, soprano Elizabeth Futral.

In December 2013 Maestro White conducted the tribute to Martina Arroyo as part of the Kennedy Center Honors concert, broadcast nationally on CBS.
As former Artistic Director of Opera Roanoke, Maestro White conducted nearly all of that company’s productions from 1999 through 2010