Melissa Tong is a musician, yoga/AcroYoga teacher, and co-creator of “B Neutral” based in NYC. After moving to the city, she pushed through temp jobs until an old friend connected her with her first NYC opportunity. She’s played for Broadway (Ain’t Too Proud), String Quartet (Five for Fighting), the Met Gala (with Rhianna!), and for artists like Sara Bareilles, Riley Etheridge Jr., and performed with an artist who opened for Leon Russell! In addition to her artistry, Tong serves as a Broadway Ambassador with Broadway for Arts Education, which is currently working with children from India and Haiti, as well as a Teaching Artist with Buffalo String Works (a program that works with refugee communities). She’s also involved in the Youth Pride Chorus and Urban Assembly Programs in New York City, and supports Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (where her sister is the Associate Artistic Director), which is currently producing a project entitled "Unboxed," which was included in a piece called “Final Bow for Yellow Face” to acknowledge Asian stereotypes within the dance industry. She advises young artists to “stick with it… be someone with whom you want to work… [and] do [art] for the love!” Read on to learn more about Melissa Tong and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Melissa Tong
Hometown: Binghamton, N.Y. and Salt Lake City, Utah
Current City: New York Effing City!
During pre-covid times, I was a musician on the Broadway showAin’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.During Covid, in addition to maintaining my teaching studio and working on recording projects, I’ve done 3 teacher trainings for yoga, AcroYoga, and anatomy, my other passions, and I’m currently starting a project calledB Neutral with my partner to help musicians with strategies to mitigate the physical effects of playing an instrument. He’s been a personal trainer, body worker, and ergonomics consultant for over 20 years so this is the perfect collaboration for us! You can learn more at bneutralbodies.com
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
Ain’t Too Proud on Broadway,Five for Fighting with String Quartet, playing with Sara Bareilles, playing the Met Gala with Rhianna, opening for the legendary Leon Russell, and playing with beautiful singer/songwriter Riley Etheridge, Jr.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
I’ve been fortunate to receive such great advice through the years, and what really has stuck with me are a few things: 1) Stick with it. You never know when the stars will align if you really love it. 2) Be someone with whom you want to work. Maybe this should’ve been number one. No amount of talent or ability will make up for being a jerk. 3) Do it for the love! This pandemic has taught me that above all else. I play because I have to, not because someone is paying me! (Although be your own strongest advocate when it comes to getting paid fairly for your work…)
How did you get your start?
I had burned through my savings after moving to NYC, and couldn’t find work for several months. I mean nothing…I had resumes with several temp agencies, I had called everyone I knew in the city hoping someone would hire me, and it was total crickets. I finally worked my way through a couple temp jobs with a law firm and a couple financial companies, and an old friend from L.A. (where I went to school) ended up recommending me for a project here through an old friend of his from Juilliard. I got my first gig in NYC after living here for 7 months.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
Oh man, there are so many. Most of my favorite memories honestly have to do with just sharing music, space, laughs, and meals with colleagues. It’s really the best thing about what we do. But one special memory is of standing in the wings and watching Leon Russell sing “Song for You” for sold out venues full of his devoted fans. He was an absolute legend, and I will always treasure the time we had touring with him. His whole band was incredible, and we’re still in touch.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
I’ve spent many many years battling performance anxiety and self-doubt. My yoga practice and AcroYoga, along with breath work, Alexander Technique, and therapy have helped a ton, but it will never go away. Now I just address my anxiety like an annoying sibling from whom I will never be able to fully separate, but have learned to live with. Some days I thank it for getting me this far -- I think a very palpable fear of ending up homeless if I didn’t take every single bit of work that came my way helps motivate me to this day.
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I broke my arm twice on St. Paddy’s Day (before I was old enough to start drinking…), and I have a plate in my head.
Do you have any organizations or non profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is my favorite dance company. Full disclosure, my sister spent the bulk of her performance career with them and is now their Associate Artistic Director, but they’re a truly incredible company and that’s not why I’m such a huge fan. They’re currently working on a project called “Final Bow for Yellow Face'' that addresses some of the Asian stereotyping that has been prevalent in the dance world for some time. This project started before the latest atrocities against Asian Americans, but it is certainly timely and I’m looking forward to this work and to the dialogue going forward. More at https://www.yellowface.org and https://www.hubbardstreetdance.com.
I’m currently a Broadway Ambassador with Broadway for Arts Education. They are doing phenomenal work with children from the lowest caste in India, some of the poorest people, many of whom are living with disabilities in Haiti, where such people are ostracized, and The Galapagos Islands, and the Youth Pride Chorus and Urban Assembly programs in NYC. They’re amazing.
I’m also a Teaching Artist with Buffalo String Works working with the refugee communities, many of whom are from Myanmar. Some of my young students have families that have been directly affected by the recent coup, and it’s just heartbreaking to hear what their families are going through. I’m so grateful that music and the BSW community can help provide these young people with a place to turn during this most difficult time on top of what was already a challenging period for everybody.
Who do you admire?
My parents. They sacrificed so so much for their children. It’s every immigrant’s story. Their own hopes, their dreams, their own lives, all of it was compromised so that my brother, sister, and I could live the lives we’re living. I couldn’t ever thank them properly, but I’m trying. I’ve also had such important teachers in my life in so many areas… I’m forever grateful to all of them.
Do you have any mentors?
Oh! Yes! See previous answer.
Did you always want to be in the arts or did you have another path before you got here?
There was a wonderful interview with Michael Tilson Thomas years ago where he said something to the effect of “I tried everything else and kept coming back to music.” And that always felt like my story too. It sounds strange; music was never really the smart move for me. I could’ve done any number of things, but I just couldn’t imagine life any other way.
When did you know you wanted to have a career in the arts?
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills? The financial company I mentioned previously made it necessary for me to be very knowledgeable with Excel. I do my own taxes, keep meticulous financial records, and can design a mean pivot table. I also worked at Starbucks for about 3 months when I first moved here. I think everyone in the 1% category should have to work in some sort of public service for a month out of every year so they learn how to treat people properly.
Do you have any other “special skills?”
I’ll be sending along a fun picture or two. ;)
Do you have any side projects you’d like to highlight?
I’m really excited to launchB Neutral - A Musician’s Approach to a Healthier Body, and you can learn more about us at www.bneutralbodies.com
If you come from parents who aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the business?
Integrity, work ethic, willpower and determination!
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
It’s okay to relax just a liiiiiiiiiiitle bit! But not too much…get back to work! 😆
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?
I’m a connector -- it gives me such a great job to introduce wonderful people to each other, and this industry is all about networking! So that was helpful.
Where did you study at?
The University of Southern California.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Hmmm… tough one. I just hope to leave a positive impact always. Or at least not to do too much damage.
What are some goals you hope to achieve?
I do have a list, but I’m superstitious about sharing them with people… let’s just say that I completed one during the pandemic, another is well on the way, and it’s a constant journey of evolution.
What do you love most about what you do?
I covered this above, but it’s connecting with people while playing great music in places I would otherwise never visit. It’s the best!
What helped you most to rebound from what you considered your biggest failure or mistake in your career?
Ugh that’s always a struggle. I questioneverything. Always. But eventually I realize that people are still hiring me and the world hasn’t collapsed, so at a certain point, you just have to go with that.
Do you have any self care practices you do to stay focused and sane?
Yoga, AcroYoga, Pranayama, meditation, and gratitude. Also, cat time and hiking.
If you could name one point in time when everything changed for you, what was it?
I will answer this with a story: I was on a meditation retreat in Nepal, and after a particularly beautiful meditation practice (outside in the Himalayas, I mean, come ON…) the teacher asked us “what time is it?” and one of the other students answered “it’s now!” so every moment is a new opportunity (I’m sorry if that sounds too hippie-dippy!). I got my first dose of the vaccine today, so maybe I’m just feeling euphoric.
Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?
I hope everyone will help support the arts and live performances when it’s safe to do so. We’ve all been through a lot. We will need an avenue for escape, for stories, for joy and celebration. And the artists need the work and need to know that they’re still valued. And of course, please come visit us atAin’t Too Proud! I think it will be the perfect show to help us all heal -- it addresses issues of equity, race, professional and personal struggle, is just a beautiful story featuring an unbelievable cast, band, and creative team, and of course you can’t beat the music!
To find out more about Melissa, please visit her at:
Websites: melissatong.com and bneutralbodies.com
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