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A Conversation with Multi-Hyphenate Maestra Angela Ortiz

By Vanessa Porras

I met Angela Ortiz last year when I had the pleasure of singing one of her pieces for a concert with a group called The Modern Collective. I got to know her during this project and was struck by the beautiful piece she wrote and by how wide her talents stretched. She isn’t only a composer, vocalist, pianist, music director, arranger, orchestrator, and lyricist, but she also qualified for the Olympic trials for long-distance running. She is a multi-hyphenate Maestra, and I was deeply inspired seeing a fellow Latina musician crushing it as an artist in New York City. Luckily, we were brought back together through the Maestra community, so I decided to sit down and chat with her about what inspires her, how she juggles everything with grace, navigating being a Latina woman in the industry, and where she thinks the industry is headed regarding Latine representation.

Vanessa Porras: What is your musical origin story? How and when did music become a part of your life?

Angela Oritz: I always wanted to be a musician. That’s all I ever thought I was going to do. I never thought I was going to do anything else. I don’t know where that came from because my parents aren’t musicians or musical at all. But I used to listen to a lot of music at home. My dad used to listen to a lot of salsa and Motown, and the radio was always on, and I just kind of took to it. I don’t know if it’s a DNA thing or fated, but whatever. And yeah, I participated in every ensemble in school, every lesson I could possibly take, I took, and then I studied in college.

VP: Where did you grow up?

Angela Ortiz: I’m from a really small town in New York near the Pennsylvania border called Cuba; ironically, it has nothing to do with the island of Cuba, but it is a really, really small town, about 2,000 people. 

VP: I love that it’s called Cuba. And when did you make the move to New York City?

Angela Ortiz: I moved here when I was 18 to go to school — to go to NYU.

VP: Oh, nice! What did you major in?

Angela Ortiz: I majored in vocal performance.

VP: So you’re a vocalist, a pianist, an orchestrator, arranger, composer, etc. — the definition of a multi-hyphenate. Were you always this way? Or was there an evolution into exploring so many different facets of the art? 

Angela Ortiz: I always played piano; when I was a kid, I always played. I was always really, really interested in how songs were made. I would take apart a pop song, and when I was a kid, we didn’t have computers, so there was this thing where you would take a tape deck and record one part onto the tape. Then you would take another tape deck, and you would play that, and you’d record over it with another part, and I would deconstruct songs that way and build a song. It was just always really interesting to me. And I would play guitar and piano. When it came time to decide what I wanted to do in college, I felt like I wasn’t good enough to get in for piano or guitar, so I majored in voice because that was what I felt I was best at. But I still continued to play, and I continued to write and play in ensembles. And then, after college, it just kind of happened that people were hiring me more to play piano, teach piano, and do things that weren’t singing. It wasn’t really a thing that I thought, ‘Oh, I need to do this now.’ It’s how most things have happened for me. 

VP: What was the transition out of college like for you? How did you find and forge a musical community afterward?

Angela Ortiz: NYU is so huge, and I majored in Vocal Performance with a concentration in Musical Theatre. That program was not very old at the time, so the community was kind of like, ‘Are you a musician or are you an actor? Are you a singer?’ So the community wasn’t super developed, and everyone just disappeared into the ether when I graduated. The program was also not that big, so there weren’t many of us. I don’t know if going to school in the city gave me a huge network to work from, at least not initially. I think most of the contacts I made were from going out, playing gigs, and meeting people. 

VP: How have you learned to juggle your passions and jobs while maintaining a work-life balance?

Angela Oritz: Caffeine. A lot of caffeine. I find it useful to make sure that I have time to work on the things that I want to work on. Because there are always things that you’re working on that – not that you don’t want to be working on it – but that just aren’t as important right now, but that you feel the pressure that you have to get to. As a multi-hyphenate, I’m arranging something, I’m writing something, I have this gig that I have to practice for, I’m MDing this thing that I have to make sure I know the music for. Still, if I can find time during the day to focus on one thing that I want to work on, even if it’s not related to any of that, or if I find thirty minutes to practice a song that I really want to learn, then it makes everything else a little bit easier. And I can find the balance a little bit better.

VP: I love that. And I wanted to talk briefly about your running. You qualified for the Olympic trials for long-distance running. How did that come about? How did you professionally do that and music? 

Angela Ortiz: It is actually really hard to do both. Because one is late nights and long days, and one is getting up at six am and going to Central Park and running with people. They just don’t go together very naturally, so for the last few years, I have been focusing less on running. But what I find fun about running that’s not like music is that it’s really objective. You’re either going to beat this time, or you’re not, and the clock is the clock. Nobody tells you whether or not you did well that day; you’ll know you did well because the clock will tell you. I mean, you can do well for yourself, which is different than, you know, an Olympian doing well, but at the same time, it’s satisfying because it’s so objective and not as subjective as what I normally do. So, I think that’s why I gravitated towards that.

VP: Well it’s incredibly impressive. And how has it been navigating the industry as a woman and a Latina musician? There are still so many biases and issues plaguing the industry today; how have you learned to overcome some of that? 

Angela Oritz: It’s interesting, like I was thinking about this yesterday. I did this rehearsal with this all-female salsa group that I’m just subbing for; they have a regular pianist who’s really great. It was funny because it was all women in the room, and I was thinking to myself when was the last time I was in a room and it was only women making music? And I couldn’t remember when that was, you know? So I asked my husband, “When was the last time you were in a room of all guys making music?” and he was like, “Oh, yesterday”. It’s so rare to see women in charge. And I don’t have good takeaways from that story other than it makes you wonder why. Why is it so rare to be in a room of all women making music, especially salsa, which is really dude-heavy? It’s just interesting, so kudos to Maestra for bringing awareness to the issues that women face. I’m often the only female in the room, and I have stories from gigs that I don’t need to go into, but it’s something that you’re made aware of in a way that is not always fun. It can be a challenge. Navigating it is just a matter of recognizing which battles to pick and which to leave alone.

VP: What’s the all-women salsa group you were talking about? I’d love to give them a shoutout. 

Angela Ortiz: Oh, you should check them out; like I said, I’m just a sub, but it’s called Lulada Club.

VP: I know you also play for the Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra. Are you their pianist regularly, or are you also subbing for them?

Angela Ortiz: I’ve been playing with them for like twelve years, so a long time.

VP: You grew up hearing salsa, you mentioned earlier, so when you started playing with them, did it feel familiar to you? How did playing with this group come about?

Angela Ortiz: I do feel like salsa is making a bit of a resurgence. You know how everything comes in waves, and now it’s like retro to be into salsa and to be into salsa dancing – someone’s going to hang me for saying that, someone’s going to say, ‘It’s always been cool!’. But yeah, I’d played in other Latin ensembles before, and I played boleros in restaurants; it makes good brunch music because it’s kind of chill, but I had to learn a lot when I first started playing with them for sure. When we talk about Latinos, we talk about them as a big group, but obviously, there are so many different cultures and styles of music. If you know about music from Peru, it doesn’t necessarily mean you know anything about Afro-Latin music from Cuba, so it’s been really interesting to me to study all the different kinds of music in Latin America. I’ve only scratched the surface of it. And to see how they can be translated into the piano, how they can be translated into theatre and sound authentic but still work with theatre – that’s what I really love to do.

VP: Do you feel that Latine stories are being told more now in the theatre? Is the music and the culture in general reaching a more mainstream theatre audience? 

Angela Ortiz: I think so, for sure. And I think more people are being encouraged to tell their stories more through theatre, and that means first-generation Latine people like myself, and in an authentic way, too. I can’t say that they’re not being encouraged to make their music more palatable for a particular audience, but there’s less of a worry that people won’t understand it if it’s a new kind of music to people’s ears. It’s more widely accepted. And then there are groups like Ryan Morales’s Latine Musical Theatre Lab that exist specifically to help nurture these stories and didn’t exist before. So I think there’s more of an acceptance and a presence of Latine people and their stories and their music in musical theatre, especially in New York, but in many other places too; I can’t speak to other places because I don’t live there. And it’s encouraging! 

VP: There’s a lot of nuance to the story of being a first-generation Latine person, and it’s a story that doesn’t get told very often. What are your thoughts on that identity? There’s a saying in Spanish for first-generation Latine people where they say you’re “ni de aqui, ni de alla” which translates to, “you’re not from here or from there”. Does that resonate?

Angela Ortiz: You as an artist, and this is how I think of it, you have to do whatever makes you feel more secure in your identity. Anyone who wants to tell you what they think you should be or who you are is really just projecting their own insecurities on you, so you have to go with the flow and do whatever makes you feel comfortable. And I think being both things, “ni de aqui, ni de alla”, is the culture, though. I am not from Puerto Rico; I know a few people from Puerto Rico, my dad is from Puerto Rico, but I am not. I grew up here which is a different kind of thing entirely, and I recognize that in terms of privilege, but also in terms of culture. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not Puerto Rican, it doesn’t mean that I don’t share some aspects of the culture, and again I think it is really just like wherever you feel comfortable sitting. We all just have to decide that for ourselves as first-generation Latine people. And that’s the difficult thing too, because you really want to belong to one thing or to the other, and you don’t, but where you do belong is in the middle. I heard Lin-Manuel Miranda say that that’s actually your superpower. You have both of those things. So you can speak Spanish if you can also speak Spanish; if not, that’s also fine. Or you can understand it. But you also grew up here so you understand all the cultural references. All of this is actually to your advantage rather than a weakness. It just means settling in with who you are.

VP: That’s a great way to think about it. It’s definitely an empowering way to get to know that part of yourself. How does your own Latin dad inspire your work?

Angela Ortiz: On one hand it keeps me always curious and asking questions. I know there’s a lot that I don’t know about my dad’s culture and also about my mom’s culture and where she grew up. So I’m always asking questions, and I’m always curious and wanting to know more. And that’s just on the storytelling side. On the musical side, I feel like I tend to be drawn to and write more toward music that has a lot more rhythm and more percussion. The vast majority of music from Latin America is very percussion-heavy because of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought over all sorts of awesome rhythms from Africa, and so everything is drum percussion-heavy. I find that when I’m writing and when I’m interested in music it’s because there’s a specific rhythm that’s speaking to me.

VP: Has there been an artist that’s always inspired you?

Angela Ortiz: I love Tori Amos; she’s super weird. She’s like your aunt who lives in Sedona and really loves magnets. She’s always been kind of fearless, and she plays the piano, and I love those kinds of female instrumentalists who are really knowledgeable on their instrument and go out there for being female. They’re not trying to be a dude playing the piano; they’re actually a woman playing the piano. 

VP: I think it’s important to celebrate accomplishments, especially accomplishments from marginalized groups, so I just want to give space for you to state what you’re really proud of or any work that you’ve accomplished that really stands out for you. 

Angela Ortiz: I just got accepted into the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop which is really hard to get into. This is my second time auditioning, and I got in on the second try, so that was cool. Hopefully, fingers crossed, later next year, we’ll be going into workshops for a musical I’ve been working on that I’ll be orchestrating in Mexico City. It’s a Spanish language musical called, Y Procura Verte Feliz and it’s written by Christopher Bullé-Goyri and his wife Paloma Mantilla Bretón. Hopefully next year there will be workshops for that, and then it will be in a theatre somewhere in Mexico City. We’re in very preliminary stages, but I think that’s going to happen. 

VP: I love hearing that there’s a Spanish-language musical. That’s wonderful.

Angela Ortiz: Maybe it’ll make its way to New York; who knows?

VP: Yeah, why not? And on that note, Maestra just launched their Regional Group in Mexico, so if you are in Mexico City in the future for that– that group now exists!

Angela Ortiz: I’ll let Paloma know! She’s the book artist and book writer. 

VP: Awesome! Now, what are future goals of yours? What are spaces that you’d like to be in as you continue to grow and thrive? 

Angela Ortiz: I started composing my own musical. And that sort of fell to the wayside as other projects took precedence, but eventually, I would like to finish that. It’s been a challenge because I’m not a book writer; I’m more of a musician, so I think eventually in the next year or two, I’d like to fully finish composing something that is my own like a full musical. I’m also open to — which I know isn’t like the focused, super dedicated thing we should all be doing — but I’m also open to doing whatever comes my way. And I’ve been lucky that in the last few years, opportunities have come my way where I’m like, “Oh, that’s interesting. I should do that even though I don’t know a lot about it; let me find out about it.” You know, just going where the current takes you, which is a little more of a zen way to think about your making a living, but I kind of like the idea of doing that, too. I don’t want to rule out whatever comes my way.

VP: Of course, and I think that’s a very intentional way of doing things. It takes bravery to be that open, but I also think it’s very rewarding when you trust the process. And what advice do you give to people just starting out in their career as a musician or a multi-hyphenate? What’s something that you’ve learned along the way? 

Angela Ortiz: The advice that I would give, and maybe this is a bit cliché and oversaid, but your gut kind of tells you when something is right and when something is wrong, and there are always going to be people telling you what you should do, but 99.9% of the time, your gut is correct. So just trust your instincts in terms of where you should go and what decisions you should make. I think that’s probably more invaluable. I think just being a little more certain of your own instincts is going to make you happier that you made those decisions based on what you felt was right. 

VP: That’s lovely. Thank you for giving us your time and for being a Maestra! 

Interested in learning more about Angela? Check out her Maestra profile or her website

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