Mark Oleszko Reflects on Writing and Performing with the Lincoln Center College Cabaret

by Sandra Forlemu for Music & Music Education

When and how did you start playing the piano?

I started playing piano really young – when I was 4! My parents enrolled me in a group music class for toddlers, but at that point I wasn’t ready to take it seriously. I started taking actual private lessons when I was 6. My mother in particular has always said she wanted music in her home, so she enrolled both my brother and me in private piano lessons. For the longest time, I trained privately – strictly in classical music. That’s where my first love of music came from, particularly for Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Beethoven, and Chopin. 

Do you play any other instruments?

I play clarinet and flute, both of which I picked up in middle school band throughout my high school years. I also recently started learning how to play the ukulele and guitar within the last year. I also pride myself on being a daily shower singer (hello, neighbors!). 

What led you to attend Teachers College?

I wanted to get my Masters in music education right after I finished my undergraduate degree, and of course Teachers College has a reputation in the education world that goes without saying. On a more personal level, I had wanted to attend Columbia for my undergraduate studies so badly, but I was too scared to apply and counted myself out even before trying. So, being affiliated now in my Masters program with this degree at Teachers College was also my way of bouncing back from being so self-conscious. 

Any plans for what you want to do after your receive your M.A. degree?

After I receive my M.A., I would optimally love to be a part-time teacher and continue performing and writing music. I will realistically follow whichever path affords me a steady income and schedule sooner, but I really want to be able to both teach and perform, because I have such a big passion for both. There are times when I think to myself that I could just try to stick to one thing 100% and audition for theatrical tours or long-term productions or apply to teach full-time, but I don’t think I’m ready to settle for only one path just yet. 

You have a band, tell us about it!

Yes, I had a band with me at the Lincoln Center performance! They’re not really “my” band per se, but I kind of had to put on a music contractor hat for a second (think the musical equivalent of a casting director), and assemble a league of extraordinary musicians. My main goal was to perform the music as I heard it in my head, which was definitely more than with just a piano! It was a bit stressful – I didn’t have every player lined up until two days beforehand – but it worked out. My songs were scored for 7 musicians: 2 violins, 1 guitar, 1 bass, 1 synthesizer, 1 piano, and 1 drum kit – but believe it or not, this was a downsize from the original arrangement I had for 12 players! Regardless, all of those guys (and gals) I had with me are great and accomplished musicians in their own right, too! So, big thanks to Liz Zook, Adam Benefield, Timothy Perry, Michelle Park, Liz Hogg, and my own brother Frank Oleszko on being a part of this fun project! 

How did you hear about the Lincoln Center College Cabaret and what inspired you to go for it?

I heard about Lincoln Center’s College Cabaret in such an ordinary way: it was on a suggested ad from Facebook. I was scrolling down my newsfeed and saw a sponsored post from Lincoln Center calling all performers to submit to this project.

What inspired me to go for it was really just this feeling of reaching a point where waiting around and sitting on top of dozens of songs I’ve written had become old. I’ve been yearning to get my music out and heard in the world, but for a few reasons, that just wasn’t happening as fast as I had planned or wanted, so this moment was perfect for that! I only had a few days to get together my submission after seeing the promotion. Worse, I didn’t even have a good recording down yet of the song I wanted to submit, only a rehearsal clip that I was iffy about using to represent what I wanted to send out to strangers for the first time ever (strangers at Lincoln Center, no less). I eventually said “good enough” and ended up sending that clip to them. They liked it, and now I get to look back at an amazing opportunity I was afforded! 

The big performance was last February. Tell us about your favorite moments?

On the night of the performance, my favorite part was actually seeing everyone else who performed before me! I was the last out of 6 or 7 acts in the evening, and every act was either a student or students performing a work together. The types of performances ranged from music to dance to theater, and what really made the night compelling was that every single act was a completely original work that all these great young artists put out into the world. The fact that everyone was showcasing his or her artistic creations made the night so organically diverse and uniquely unpredictable.

What advice would you give to others who are considering the Lincoln Center College Cabaret?

I’d say my biggest advice to future prospective Lincoln Center College Cabaret performers is to have confidence in whatever it is you do and create, and to let that confidence and love for creating be the guiding force behind performing, especially at such a prestigious venue. I was interviewed about my performance by the media team for the College Cabaret, and I said that I consider every time I play music to be a performance. I think that, regardless of venue, writing and performing is always very personal but at the same time we do what we do because of the symbiosis that exists with an audience. So, be present and passionate, but also seek to share yourself through what you create or do. I know it sounds cliché, but just loving what you do and having fun is the best way to keep on booking performances and getting great opportunities like this!