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How to make it in the music industry; life as an opera singing janitor – to quit music was not an option

Keanon Kyles rise up eight
Photo from ABC7, Chicago.

Habits of a successful musician

Meet a janitor who never gave up on his dream to become an opera singer. After years of 90-hour work weeks sandwiched between grueling rehearsals and little sleep, the 28-year-old singer has finally landed the role of a lifetime: a lead role in Puccini’s signature work, La Bohème. We wanted to go a little deeper into Keanon Kyles’ story to find out what obstacles Keanon had to conquer, and what challenges he still faces. Here is his interview with us…

Keanon, Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to become an opera singer.

I’ve always been fascinated by composers like Beethoven, Purcell, Handel, and others. As a child, classical music has always been intriguing to me ever since I was introduced to it at the early age of 8. I knew I wanted to make opera and classical music a part of my life for the rest off my life.

And speaking of your childhood, what was it like growing up on Chicago’s South Side, a place with a tough reputation? Did you ever get teased for your ambition to become an opera singer?

My neighbors and I were very friendly to each other and still are, for that matter. In school, my musical talents were appreciated by a lot of my peers, but of course, there were the few troublemakers who wanted to pick on the students that were actually passionate about something outside of the norm. I had a huge support system ranging from family to friends at school, and they were always there to have my back when and if I was ever to be picked on.

And you have a degree in classical voice performance from Columbia College. How did you make ends meet during college?

You know, my parents never forced my siblings and I to get jobs as youth and teenagers, but we were always the type of kids that enjoyed working. So even though I didn’t really have to work in college, I still worked quite a few jobs during my college years. I was working in the café of Borders’ flagship store downtown, I worked at the Chicago Theatre as an usher (which I LOVED), I worked for Banana Republic for a short period of time, and I worked at the Sears Tower Skydeck, which was ALSO a lot of fun. My last year of college, I decided to be one of the resident assistants for the dormitories, which paid a small stipend and gave us free room and board!

How did you juggle the demands of practice and academic study?

It honestly was a struggle sometimes, since some of the jobs I worked were basically full-time hours, but I pushed through the fatigue. I would say there were a lot of sleepless nights and PLENTY of coffee mixed with naps in between classes!

As you know, our website is based on the Japanese proverb, “fall down seven times stand up eight.” With that in mind, can you please share some of the challenges that you have overcome to reach where you are now?

Honestly, I always had a fear in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t [go] far in the opera world because I am African-American and I do have dreadlocks. It was something that made me timid about auditions and ultimately probably made me miss out on a few opportunities. If I would have just stayed positive! It wasn’t until I took that voice out of my head and just went after what I wanted. I went out for gigs, and of course, some of them, I’m sure. I wasn’t cast because of the color of my skin. But at the same time, I have booked quite a few amazing shows.

For me, these last six years have been a mind over matter lesson.

I would of never imagined me being a janitor post-college, I could have sworn I would go right into performing all over Chicago! I had intended to go to Ryan Opera Center to participate in their Young Artist Program right after I graduated, and I auditioned and didn’t make it. I didn’t get the Ryan Opera Center gig. I wasn’t performing in any shows, and a janitorial job was brought to my attention and paid pretty good, so I took advantage of it in order to support myself and other singing adventures I would want to take in the coming years.

Did you doubt yourself during that period in your life?

Most of those thoughts I try to forget, since I’ve grown so much from them and am in a better place in my life right now. I do, however, remember me questioning my talents and wondering if I was good enough to be a professional singer. I remember asking myself if I should go back to school to study another field. Some nights while cleaning, I would burst into tears from thinking of my current situation and where I wanted to be. I was sad; I was frustrated. I felt like I let myself down and even sometimes felt like I let my parents down, since they financed my school. I felt like everyone (peers, friends) was passing me by, and I was stuck in this bubble.

I was so mad at myself, so discouraged, that after spending all this time and money in school, I ended up being a janitor. So as you can imagine, I was so frustrated and constantly questioning God.

I know the feeling well. And how were you able to get past that?

It wasn’t until I stopped all of the questioning and beating myself up and just sat in silence and centered myself that I realize I’m here for a bigger purpose. Not just to clean bathrooms, sweep floors, mop, etc., but to take advantage of my surroundings. After all, I am a janitor for a news station. These people know so much about the TV industry, and I realized I could learn everything about it. SO, I formed friendships and asked so many questions, and in the 6 years of being a janitor, I’ve grown so much spiritually and mentally, and I truly thank God [for] the janitorial phase of my life. It allowed me to grow without even knowing it.

Luckily my belief in God and faith helped me through those hard times. It’s interesting, a majority of my conversations at work were with God, and one day I would be mad at Him, and the next I would be thanking Him for what He has done for me. Just as sure as I was that it might not be the career for me, He was even more sure to constantly show me and tell me that IT ABSOLUTELY IS the career for me and that He just needed my patience so He could carve the way!

So what was the catalyst  that made you see things differently, that made you realize you were there for a bigger purpose?

One day I woke up and I told myself, “You will not complain today; you will figure out how to make each day better than the last.” So I went to work, and I focused on positive vibes only. I silenced negativity and started my routine. In my silence, I then realized what was going on around me: news anchors prepping, producers chatting, sometimes arguing about what or what not to push through the media. I overheard employees talking about what’s fit for TV and what needs to change. I heard the gossip, the confrontations, the shade, the laughs, the rumble of the newsroom. It was then I realized that this is what a TV station looks likes, sounds like, feels like, and eventually I would want to be on TV, so I need to get over myself and start having casual conversation. Then within that convo, share some of my goals and gather the reactions, thoughts, and advice from these professionals and apply it to my life! Careful not to follow or trust everything people advised me to do but to at least considered it and see if it works with what I’m trying to do.

I’m curious, because sometimes people have a hesitation of approaching what they perceive to be “important” people. How did you go about making that first contact?

Of course, there was that moment of me being timid, mainly because I’m considered to be the most unimportant person in the building as a janitor. I figure these guys don’t have time to talk to me, but I realized I allowed that thought to cover who I really am. I was so wrapped up in being called a janitor or considered unimportant that I began to take on that role and feel unimportant. I had to remember who I really am outside of the uniform and job duties and allow that person to shine so that I can make working at the news station a positive learning experience. I’m outgoing, I’m talkative, I’m courageous, I’m a people’s person; that side of me, I knew, needed to show. So the next day, one of the news anchors was getting on the elevator with me, and  I didn’t think twice about speaking, I just spoke and fast forward to today, six years later, me and that same anchor are GREAT friends!

That is a powerful lesson: that it doesn’t hurt  to smile and share your positive vibes with someone else.  And that networking is so important in developing a career. So were your newfound friends able to help? Did you learn anything from those interactions?

Yes. I would ask questions like, “How did you start off? ” “What did you do before you landed a gig at a new station?” “What type of steps should I take?” “Should I stay at the job or just take a leap of faith?” Those are a just few out of the plethora of questions I’ve asked. ABC 7 Chicago has some of the most down-to-earth, real and personable anchors, managers, writers, and producers ever; their responses were so helpful! Of course, they’ve all come from different backgrounds, but I will say out of all the responses I’ve gotten, they all had one thing in common, which I’m not even sure if they know this about each other.

They all started off at a very, very small place and worked their way up to where they are at. I mean, some were waiters, some worked in retail, some worked for lousy pay, some worked for big companies but only held small positions. I mean jobs you would never imagine some of them having. Knowing that, it made me feel good, It made me feel like I was in the “pay your dues” phase, and with that newfound feeling, I was able to come to work with a smile because it was then that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was then I knew that my current state (a janitor) wasn’t the end; it was merely the beginning. I could even go as far to say my years as a janitor were my preface to my career as a performer.

So having gone through that experience, how do you feel today as opposed to how you felt back then, when you were going through those times of doubt and uncertainty?

I’m wiser today. I’m mentally stronger and focused. I’ve learned my purpose, and I’ve learned what it takes to build a career, build a brand. Before working as a janitor, I felt as if things should just be given to me and that I shouldn’t have to work any type of 9-to-5 job since I’m talented. I never thought about having to pay the dues and invest in my dreams.

Conversations with some of the people at my job helped me to realize the steps I am taking are essential to making it. They helped me to realize that God didn’t make a mistake by giving a talented young artist a janitorial job in a successful TV station. Day by day, I realized more and more how much God loved me and how the things he is/was taking me through are just to condition me and draw me closer to Him. That I did. I speak to Him every day, throughout the day, multiple times. My mind has wrapped itself around God’s plan for my life and is in love with the things, visions, and pictures God has shown it.

That’s why after six years of cleaning, sweeping, mopping, picking up trash, feet sore, body aching, breakdowns, working nights, bending, kneeling, and everything else you can think of; I can still look up to the sky, smile and say, “God, thank you so much for the janitorial phase of my life. Thank you for the test, the lessons, and for loving me so much you placed people in my life to help show me your plan so that I could have ease of heart and understanding!”

So you have gone through the realization that these trials and tribulations were all for a reason, that your path has led you here. Let’s move on to today. You have three jobs: one as a janitor. How do you find time for practice and lessons? Tell us about what a typical day is like.

For me, I love the challenge that opera gives me. It requires me to be always be technically and musically correct, as well as [to] be familiar, understand and know how to sing in multiple languages. It forces a singer to know their musical history and to appreciate multiple cultures. It’s so technical and leaves little room for one to embellish, unless given that opportunity by the composer. That type of standard is what I love. Not only are you singing operas true to what the composer intended musically, [but] you are also bringing characters to life on stage from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It’s is simply INCREDIBLE!

Surprisingly, I rehearse a lot at work, lol, when I’m cleaning, vacuuming, and such. I’m humming to myself, going through text and characterization. Outside of that, I study about two hours a day, mainly when I get home from work. My days flip all over the place; it can get pretty crazy, but on certain days, I will wake up about 7:00 a.m., warm up my voice, and head to the department store job in the suburbs, then drive back to the city (downtown) to go to my WLS job, and I’m there Monday through Friday until 1:00 a.m. Then there are some days when I wake up at 8:00 a.m., practice my music, go on a run, give voice lessons until 4:00, then go to my night job. And then there are days when I wake up at 8:00 a.m., go on a run, give voice lessons, and [then] get a voice lesson, then try to squeeze one more lesson to give in there, and then I head to my night job.

My weekends: Saturdays, I’m either at the store all day, or I’m giving voice lessons [the] majority of the day. Sundays are usually my only day I can try to rest up, but even then I may have to work at the store or do a make-up lesson. I try my best to go to church on Sundays as well when my schedule permits!

La Bohème, for those of our audience who don’t know much about opera, focuses on the lives of poor artists living in Paris back in the mid-1800s. You just landed the role of Colline in La Boheme in an upcoming production of the opera in Glasgow, Scotland. Tell us a little bit about the character you play. Do you identify with him in any way? If so, how?

Colline is the philosopher; he is highly intelligent and definitely one that thinks outside of the box. Some may see him as cold-hearted or [that he] takes life too seriously, but deep down inside, he has a heart, and the audience sees that as he becomes vulnerable and pawns his coat in order to buy medicine for Mimi who is dying. Colline is that one friend that has a lot to say, because they feel they know more than everyone else in the group. In some ways, I can relate to Colline; I’ve always been the hard-working friend, really focused on studies and goals and always looking at the bigger picture. However, I’m very free-spirited and open-minded, which Colline is not at times–so that poses as a challenge when bringing his character to life.

And your job as a vocal coach allows you to mentor young people. What do you say to inspire them?

I feel as if I am a vocal coach to a lot of young people. There is also a portion of our lessons where I am encouraging, mentoring, and showing them the proper steps to become successful as a singer. Each one of my students know that hard work is essential and that you can’t win if you don’t work. I always express to them that there will be sacrifices, whether it’s not being able to hang out with friends or family all the time, or not being able to get a full night’s rest. You will have to sacrifice something, so be prepared and motivate yourself; your sacrifices will pay off sooner than you think.

A few other things I tell my students are: to never be afraid to pave your way, don’t wait for someone to give you anything, go out and make yourself known! Lean on FAITH, BELIEF in itself, and NEVER give up, no matter how hard the journey gets or how bumpy the road is. Believe that you will make it, and you will!

What advice would you give young people who want a career in music?

It’s a rough field to get into, and you have to be grounded in yourself, and know who you are and what it is you want to be. Know your purpose in society and never deviate from who you are. Make it in the business being the real you because staying true to yourself will help you stand out, because there is ONLY ONE YOU! Get with a mentor or voice teacher that believes in you just as much as you do. Surround yourself by positive musicians who believe in building each other up. INVEST in your talents, pay for the voice lessons, acting classes, dance classes. They will only make you better. Rest. Exercise. Hydrate. Take care of your body; it has to last through a FULL career.

Audition for everything. You never know when and what your big break will be, so go out there and audition for everything. Even if you don’t make it, you are still conditioning your body and mind to sing in front of any and everyone and to WIN! Be wise: every opportunity is not a good opportunity, and all money is not good money, Do your research before going to an audition or meeting with a agent or manager. Know who they are in and out until you feel comfortable. It wouldn’t hurt to seek a second opinion in this case, either. You have your future at risk, and you don’t want to waste time on an agent or manager who you don’t meet eye to eye with.

Lastly, you will fall. We all have. Get up, take a few minutes to pout, get over it, and keep moving. Every second you spend being mad about a bad audition or being rejected, you lose a minute of happiness. After all, some rejection could be a blessing in disguise.

How do they overcome adversity to achieve success in this highly-competitive world?

I wake up every morning and say, “Keanon, you are great, you are a positive light to society. You will shine. You will overcome. You will make it.” You have to constantly reaffirm things in your life in order to be courageous and unstoppable. You can’t focus on the “what ifs.” You have to focus on just doing. JUST DO. Silence negativity and silence doubt, and crank up the volume in “I CAN” and “I WILL.”

If there is something about you that’s different than the norm, than take it and use it. Make it your strength, not your weakness. Remember, being true to yourself in any situation is the most rewarding, because you haven’t changed anything about you in order to make others feel comfortable. At the same time, you want to be open to change, but only if it’s positive, allows you to grow, and aligns with who you are and what you represent!

Keanon Kyles

Lastly, how can people reach you?

I can be reached through my website www.kkyles.com under the “Contact Us” tab or by my Facebook page “Keanon Kyles” or “Voice with Keanon.”



Does this inspire you? After this interview, we can clearly see how Keanon is making himself successful through sheer will. They say Bruce Springsteen is the hardest working man in music. We think Keanon gives him a run for his money, and frankly can’t see any way that he won’t succeed.

We always doubt those people who say, “I never doubted myself.” Keanon was kind enough to share with us what was going through his mind at the time, warts and all, so that we could learn from his experience. For that, we sincerely thank him for sharing what was in his heart. That no matter what you’re going through, it’s all leading to where you are going next, and the pain is only a pit stop on your road.  Eventually, you will continue on your road past this temporary pain to the good stuff down the road. Sometimes it just takes us a bit longer to get there. : )


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