West Virginia Music Hall of Fame brings ‘career day’ to Greenbrier County

By Matthew Young, RealWV

LEWISBURG, W.Va. – Representatives from the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame (WVMHOF), on Thursday, brought their “Music Career Counseling Program” to Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall. The day provided students from both Greenbrier’s East and West High Schools with the opportunity to hear from local professionals about the possibility of pursuing a career in music and entertainment from their home State of West Virginia.

“Today is basically a ‘career day’ where we’ll talk about jobs in the music industry, and there are a lot of them,” WVMHOF Director Michael Lipton told students to begin the program. “You don’t have to be a performer. That’s the obvious one, but there are lots of other careers that you could do.” 

“If you want to do something creative, maybe start your own business, I really believe you’ll get more help and support in West Virginia than you can in most other states.” Lipton added.

It was that career “help and support, Lipton explained,” which brought him to West Virginia at the age of 19. In addition to his role with the Music Hall of Fame, Lipton has enjoyed a highly successful career as a founding member of the musical group “The Carpenter Ants.” Lipton is also a longtime house-band guitarist with the “Mountain Stage” NPR performance radio program.  

“When you’re at a show, it feels like there’s 100 miles between the audience and the performers,” Lipton said. “But the distance is really not that far. Any of the things that you see on stage during a performance, whether it’s the sound or the lighting, or someone building the sets for a play, all of those jobs are really viable careers. And a lot of them you can do right here in West Virginia. Also, you could travel and still have West Virginia as your home base.”

Joining Lipton on the program’s panel was former Greenbrier Valley Theatre Artistic Director Cathey Sawyer and Artist Hospitality Specialist Everett O’Flaherty, as well as world-renowned pianist and 2023 WVMHOF inductee Barbara Nissman, who treated students to a stirring rendition of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody.”

Barbara Nissman performs Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” for Greenbrier County high schoolers during the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame’s Career Counseling program, May 2. Video by Matthew Young, RealWV.

O’Flaherty, a lifelong resident of Lewisburg, told students, “This is where I grew up, and this is where I still live. I love West Virginia, I love this place. I travel relentlessly though because it brings me a great deal of joy.”

O’Flaherty, the owner and operator of Swift Level Fine Meats, has made his mark on the entertainment industry by creating unique Appalachian cuisine. After getting his start in the catering business with his mother, O’Flaherty now serves as caterer for the annual “Healing Appalachia” festival. 

Much as with Lipton. Cathey Sawyer is an “adopted West Virginian.” Originally from Tennessee, Sawyer said she “came to theatre through the back door.”

Early in her time as an English teacher, Sawyer explained, she became involved with the school’s Drama Club.

“I had no idea [what I was doing], but I had this wonderful group of kids who had been doing community theatre,” Sawyer said. “Some of those kids have since been on Broadway. They taught me so much. They taught me passion with what they were doing.”

After four years, Sawyer earned her MFA, noting, “I went into theater instead of into English.”

“I’ve never regretted it,” Sawyer added. “You know what they say – if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Well, I haven’t worked a day in my life. I have loved every minute of being in theatre.”

The Philadelphia-born Barbara Nissman has been a resident of West Virginia since the early-1990’s. In addition to her WVMHOF induction, Nissman is the recipient of both the Governor’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts and Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts, as well as West Virginia’s “Order of the Arts and Historical Letters.” 

“I’m what you would call a ‘late bloomer,’ or maybe someone would say a ‘slow learner,’” Nissman joked with the students. “The piano teacher who taught every other kid on our block, he started giving me lessons. After a period of a month, he was a very honest man, and he said to my mother, ‘I think you’re wasting your money. I don’t think your little girl is ever going to play the piano.’”

Nissman has gone on to release numerous albums, perform with artists such as Billy Joel and Don Henley, and is professionally regarded as one of the greatest living classical pianists in the world. 

The WVMHOF’s Music Career Counseling Program was funded by a 2015 Challenge America grant to address the out-migration of West Virginia’s young adults, and to counter the perception among students that they must leave the state in order to secure a viable career. The program is presented with financial assistance from The Jeanne G Hamilton and Lawson W Hamilton Jr Family Foundation Inc. 

To learn more about the Music Career Counseling Program, visit wvmusichalloffame.com

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