Jen Creed, once a mathematician and former recruiter in the investment management industry, now sits on the Board of Directors of The Voice Foundation, and teaches voice, and serves as the head of theater at Merion Mercy Academy in Merion Station, PA.
Above all, Jen is a popular Philadelphia singer with an unusually wide vocal range—singing as high as a lark and roaring as low as a lion. She is performing an equally diverse range of music: from classical to Broadway, from the sacred to standards, plus her own compositions.
Her numerous performances all over the US and videos of her concerts on YouTube testify to her strength and popularity, even though few people may know about her struggles to overcome a dangerous vocal cord operation. Recently, she gave two sold-out performances at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, PA, and has been commissioned by L’Etage, Philadelphia’s famous cabaret, to perform a monthly solo cabaret that celebrates a different theme each show, starting with A Night at the Oscars filled with famous film songs to be performed at Philadelphia’s L’Etage cabaret this Friday, February 19th at 7:30 PM.
Henrik: Given your experience in the corporate world as a successful recruiter, why did you choose music as a career?
Jen: You only have one life to live! I am a creative person. For me, it’s drudgery to do the same thing every day, waking up at the same time to the dreaded alarm and following the same routine. The corporate world truly almost killed my spirit, despite my career success. I’ve learned that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that you have to do it!
By nature I am hard core in everything I do. So, if you’re going to spend most of your life at work, shouldn’t work be connected to your soul? Then work and play are almost one in the same. Sure, it’s not all roses and drinking martinis all day long, but if you do what you’re passionate about, giving back to the world freely and generously with the gifts with which you’ve been given, the world will give back. To me that’s a life well-lived.
I am blessed to be able to sing what moves me, and hope that if it moves me, maybe it can move someone else. And that’s why I do what I do. We are all capable of great things. Music has the power to inspire us to be our best selves.
How financially stable can a music career be vs. a career in finance?
Finance is probably the highest paying field out there, so it’s not really fair to compare. But I do make a living, and a good one, with a flexible lifestyle—picking and choosing projects I want to work on. You have to be a well-rounded musician to make money, and it takes time. I teach voice out of my home studio, and direct, produce, and music direct children’s and young adult theatrical productions.
I also serve as staff cantor at three Philadelphia churches, sing at over 50 wedding ceremonies each year, and even sing the national anthem at races, charity events, and sporting events. Of course, I also conceptualize and produce my own concerts and cabarets, and write, publish, and record my own music.
In short, I like working on multiple projects and being multi-dimensional. So, you can definitely make money if you work hard, and if you love what you do, you never want for more.
You were trained as a classical singer, and yet you sing everything from sacred music to Broadway, The Beatles, and beyond. Tell us more about your musical and artistic evolution.
It was not specifically a conscious decision, as so many forms of music move me. I’ve been singing all types of music as long as I can remember. I was “discovered” at the age of five by my dance teacher. When she heard me sing, she set me up with my first voice teacher and nurtured my love for music and the stage by giving me opportunities to perform.
My parents were getting calls all the time from agents, theaters, and The Al Alberts Show, but my mom was very protective of me and wouldn’t let me be a “child star.” I remember her saying, “My job is to give you a strong foundation. If you want to go into show business as an adult, that’s okay. But I need to teach you what real life is and give you roots.” I’m [very] grateful she did. [And] so, I sang in church and in musical productions all through elementary school and was fortunate to receive both academic and music scholarships to Gwynedd-Mercy Academy High School.
I never intended to go into music as a career—I thought I would be a doctor or psychiatrist. I was accepted into Ivy League and top-tier colleges to study psychology and math. But one day in April of my senior year of high school changed everything. The LaSalle High School College band came to play an assembly at my school. From the audience I watched, I listened, and in that moment I knew that helping people through music was my life calling. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the band performed that same day at the school at which my mom taught, so she witnessed the same concert. After school, we both admitted that we were simultaneously struck by the same revelation: I was to major in music.
I accepted a full Archdiocesan scholarship to The Catholic University of America where I double majored in math and voice performance. My father, ever the pragmatist, “made me” double major in math so that I would have some job security. He now laughs that I have worked in music all this time. He is my biggest fan.
Tell us about your musical studies.
A degree in voice performance traditionally means the study of classical music. I took several semesters of Italian, German, and French to complement the Spanish and Latin that I had previously studied, and sang everything from art songs to arias to oratorios. While I was at Catholic I also “dabbled” in my other love, musical theater. In my junior year, I was bouncing from show to show, operas to musicals, and back again.
My voice teacher was upset. She knew my potential to become a premier opera singer and sensed my distraction from that goal. When I received the lead role in the musical Chess, she sat in the front row on opening night with her arms crossed across her chest the entire time. I could read her body language and was so nervous about what she would say afterward. When the show concluded, she entered the backstage area. I didn’t know what I was in for. She walked right up to me, looked me in the eyes, and slowly said, “If you can perform that way all weekend and then walk into my studio on Monday morning and sing high C’s like you do, then this is OK by me. You, my dear, are spectacular.” I have never forgotten her acceptance of my desire to be versatile, and will always be grateful for her incredible classical training.
After you graduated from college, what did you do next?
When I graduated from college, it was natural for me to segue into musical theater. I lived in my hometown of Philadelphia for a time and then moved up to New York where I was given work in national tours. But that life wasn’t what I thought it would be. You do a show, it runs for a few months, you’re constantly looking for the next thing. You’re off on Monday when the rest of the world works, but you don’t know which city you’ll be in next. For me, it wasn’t a life conducive to “normalcy.”
You were realistic, but you also had your creative yearnings.
I’m a gypsy and always doing ten things at once, but I am also a family person and crave stability underlining a life—probably because of those roots my mother gave me. People matter to me: seeing them, having relationships, sharing life. Sure, everyone makes sacrifices for work, but I didn’t think this particular life was the kind of life I wanted to sign up for.
You returned home to Philadelphia and the vocal problems began.
I decided to return to Philadelphia and began my quest to create my own kind of musical career here at home. But life had other plans for me. In 2003, I was given a role in a world premiere musical. However, I was getting chronic laryngitis and was diagnosed with bilateral polyps on my vocal cords. All to say, I took a break from singing, and after my surgeries, it took some years before I knew I could rebuild a music career.
One of the worst things that could happen to the career of a singer is having vocal surgeries. Tell us more about your surgery, your recovery, and its impact on your career.
Obviously, vocal surgery is an occupational hazard for a professional singer. After months of rehabilitation, it became clear that surgical intervention was needed. I was scared, but confident in my care and my body’s natural ability to heal. After both polyps were removed, I was ordered not to speak for a full week to give the surgical site proper time to heal. It was difficult, but I was assured that it would be well worth it. If I didn’t obey, I may never be able to sing again. So I obeyed. But unfortunately my vocal folds didn’t.
As weeks progressed, there was scarring found underneath one of the polyps that impeded one of my vocal folds to move freely. Subsequent rehabilitation and three additional surgeries were needed. I was unable to speak at great length, sing at the level I had, or really do anything that brought me happiness—except for crossword puzzles, which grew old quickly. My instrument and a huge chunk of my self-worth were gone. I felt very helpless and alone. I was determined, though, to not have this be the end of the real me—an energetic, passionate, vocal person.
How did you cope during these traumatic days?
I began reading about otolaryngology—the study of the ears, nose, and throat. Through these readings, I knew I wanted to learn more. I knew that through my vocal trauma, I could help others experiencing similar setbacks. I just didn’t know how yet. In a few months’ time, I was offered the opportunity to study under one of the world’s premier voice surgeons, Dr. Robert Sataloff. It was fascinating, and I knew I was on the right track. After deepening my learnings through this fellowship, I was then appointed Executive Director of The Voice Foundation, an international nonprofit dedicated to voice care.
You turned a vocal lemon into a high octane lemonade—healing and simultaneously creating a powerful position helping others.
I still couldn’t sing like I used to. I couldn’t even speak without a rasp. So I chose to support others who were trying to get me and others like me back on track. As a result, my life slowly began to change. I bought a home in the city near my new job. I made friends that I will carry with me through my entire life. After a few years, my voice eventually returned with luster. It was a new chapter, and the life I know now is wholly a result of the tragedy from which I thought I would never recover.
I still check in yearly with my surgeon, Dr. Yolanda Heman-Ackah, who has been like a miracle worker to me. Now, twelve years after those polyps and surgeries, my voice is stronger and more resilient than ever. Sometimes it’s through the suffering that we learn and grow.
I began singing only what moved me—whether it was pop, jazz, sacred, Broadway, or light classical. It was the right fit for me. Today, my voice is the strongest it’s ever been, and I am lucky that I don’t have to make sacrifices. I like to sing it all.
You sang “Ol’ Man River” at Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday celebration. Sinatra’s “I did it my way” comes to mind when looking at your life, your career.
Creed: Yes, I sang that one, too. You’re right. I created my own life—my career is by my design. I didn’t follow a prescription for getting on Broadway, and my road had several detours and seemingly at times no end goal.
Many people give up when something goes wrong, but you didn’t. What inspired you to keep going?
I remember after several years working in investment management, I was at the beach on a warm Labor Day. Most people were packed up for the season, summer fun left behind in the sand. I was still in my bathing suit in the dinnertime hour and told my friend that I didn’t want to go to work the next day. She looked at me, knowing that she had an opening: “You’re wasting your life in the corner office of a corporate center.” I was baffled, explaining that I did the music thing already, although I didn’t like the haphazardness and instability. She fought back, “You can make a living doing what you’re born to do. You just need to be more creative about it. You need to do it your way.”
Returning home from the beach, I thought about it, and made some calls—one of which was to Helen Leicht of WXPN [nationally recognized leader in Triple A radio for new and significant artists, run by the University of Pennsylvania], a lifelong friend to me and my family. Helen truly is the driving force behind the resurgence in my music career. She “coerced” me to write songs, record, and get performing again. Working with Helen inspired me to take risks and be true to myself.
It is no coincidence that exactly one year after that Labor Day at the beach, I finished recording my debut album.
What advice do you have for young singers and other artists?
If I could give advice, it would be: “Shine in your own light, find mentors, ask for help from those you trust, and listen. Those who know you the best will shine a mirror into your very soul. The answers are all inside of you. Do it your way.”
If you were to look at your life like a film, what would you say were the turning points that affected your music and, with it, your perception of life?
As a singer, so much of your personal life affects your craft. Emotions run deep and they affect your voice, energy, song selections, interpretations—really everything. Certainly my mother’s death was a turning point in my life and in my musical life. Also romantic relationships—whether “big” breakups or small—caused me to see the world and sing my songs differently. And then on a positive note, my voice truly became my own when I met and married my husband. My voice is the richest, most resilient, and strongest today. Even my doctor thinks it’s because of true love. Great medical advice: Fall in love and stay in love.
What are you doing now to challenge yourself further and go beyond where you are right now as a singer and performer?
Something that has become very important to me is listening more—whether it’s live music or a YouTube video or buying—yes, buying—new or old music. If one of my favorite artists is coming into town, it doesn’t matter how much a ticket costs or how inconvenient the timing is, I go, and I sit as close as possible and soak it in. I have learned from every single one of these shows and artists—I have gotten ideas for new material, new approaches to old material, reminders of vocal technique, style, and inspiration in general.
In this New Year, I plan to write more. Whenever I sing a song that’s one of my own, that’s what people seem to comment on the most. I love songwriting and need to make room in my life for more of it. I’m glad I am saying this out loud, because now I am committing to it.
Also, I would love, love, love to go back to school for an advanced degree in music. But there just aren’t enough hours in the day, but it’s on the wish list.
This spring I will turn 40 and am proud to sing that to the world. Two months before my mom’s 40th birthday she was diagnosed with breast cancer, a diagnosis that ultimately became her death sentence. I feel like I am merely beginning—happy, healthy, and very much alive, with so much to look forward to. Life is a gift. Every day. I am grateful and okay with all that comes with the gift of aging. When I can’t run the miles like I used to or have that extra drink without the consequences of a hangover, even then, I am grateful, because some people don’t get to grow old, surrounded by love and a happy life. I’m blessed.
What concerts are coming up for you during the next few weeks at Philadelphia’s popular L’Etage cabaret?
My next show is This Friday, February 19th at 7:30 PM, and is a tribute to the Oscars with me singing the greatest movie themes of all time. My March show is called Pop Legends. The April show is a Streisand birthday celebration, and the May show is a Broadway extravaganza. Can’t wait to see you at L’Etage!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Just gratitude. I heard Barbara Cook in concert about two years ago, and I’ll never forget something she said that night: “You never know if the world will let you sing.” Luckily, the world has let me sing. I sing what moves me—whether it’s crossover, jazz, sacred, musical theater, or pop—and hope that if it moves me, maybe it can move someone else. And that’s why I do what I do. We are all capable of great things. Music has the power to inspire us to be our best selves.
FUTURE PERFORMANCES BY JEN CREED:
This Friday, February 19, 2016 at 7:30 pm:
624 South 6th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Purchase tickets here.
Doors open at 6:30 pm. The show begins at 7:30 pm. Seating is general admission.
Full bar menu and small plates will be available during the show. To receive VIP seating, dine pre-show downstairs at the renowned Parisian Crêperie, Beau Monde.
After purchasing your show tickets call (215) 592-0656 to make a dinner reservation.
Make sure to mention that you will be seeing Jen’s performance upstairs so that you receive preferred reserved seating at the show.
Those under 21 years old must be supervised by an adult.
Wednesday, March 16, 7:30 pm: On The Radio! Jen Creed Sings Pop Legends
Jen Sings Pop Greats by Adele, Sting, Billy Joel, David Bowie, and more.
Purchase tickets here.
April (date TBA): Happy Birthday, Babs! Jen Sings Streisand.
Tickets are not available yet.
May (date TBA): Broadway Night.
Tickets are not available yet.