The Unexpected Path

Sandy Eichel followed the road laid out for her by others, until she found her calling—and her own path—in a new place and a new career.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Pat Benatar. I mean, didn’t everyone? I spent hours standing on the orange mushroom-shaped crushed velvet ottoman singing my guts out into a hairbrush.

Music was an important part of my life even at a young age. My father took me to auditions for community musicals starting when I was seven years old. I loved the shows and the attention. After my parents divorced when I was five, I didn’t see much of my father. He was busy with his new wife and step-kids, and I would have done anything to get his attention and approval.

When I was 13, my dad wanted me to have classical voice lessons, to learn how to sing “real music.” The idea of lessons sounded awesome but classical music wasn’t really my jam. He brought me a copy of Rolling Stone that featured Pat Benatar and pointed out that she had studied classical voice at Julliard. Well, if it’s good enough for Pat, I thought, I guess it’s good enough for me. My real motivation to take lessons, though, was to please my dad. Taking classical lessons would not only afford me an opportunity to see my dad regularly but also do something he approved of. It was one of the many things I did in my life to get affirmation and approval from other people.

After winning a classical voice competition in high school and scoring a top scholarship to a major university to study classical singing, I found myself on the conveyor belt headed squarely toward a career in opera. When I went off to college and even when I was cast in a major operatic role as a freshman in college, though, I still hadn’t actually seen an opera. This wasn’t my dream, it was what others around me wanted me to do, so I did it. I received so much praise, and it was something really challenging, both things I did like.

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Living for me  

Why then, after years of being a full-time musician, singing opera professionally, and teaching voice lessons, did I suddenly switch careers? I made several realizations and admissions to myself as I approached age 40. First, that I wasn’t happy or fulfilled in my life or my career. I had spent my entire life being what others wanted me to be, in the work I did, the way I dressed, everything. I was miserable and I was tired of it. Secondly, I hadn’t been true to myself. I was in the closet, I hadn’t dealt with trauma from my childhood, and I wasn’t living my authentic life.

Finally, I realized that you only get one wild and precious life and that the next 40 years were going to be different. I wanted to play by my own rules, and I wanted to make a bigger impact on the world around me.

I moved to Wisconsin in 2010 and changed careers. I started working in financial services and, when I moved to Madison in 2011, I started getting involved with OPEN (the Out Professional Engagement Network). At the first networking event I went to, I met my now dear friend Jill Muenich. With her support and encouragement, I began my financial practice and became a financial advisor.

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Finding my people and my place  

I had always felt that my tribe was in Madison, I just didn’t know them yet. This community embraced me and supported me, and I wouldn’t have the life I have now if it wasn’t for all the wonderful people that I have met here. My work is fulfilling and satisfying, I feel like I make an impact on a daily basis, and I am now working to help change financial services to be more inclusive to women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. I am a professional speaker and share my story of how I found my authentic self with various groups including the Brava Magazine Thrive Luncheon Series, Wisconsin Public Broadcasting, and at national conventions and chambers of commerce.

Not to mention, I also finally get to be Pat Benatar—but even better, I get to be me. Four years ago, my friend Hillary Barnes and I started our band, One Note and the Rhino, where we raise money for local charities. In 2017, I will be starting an initiative to benefit the scholars of Mendota Elementary School here in Madison called Joyful Futures through Music. Mendota is the poorest school in our system; 80% of the students live below the poverty line, and 30 families that have kids there are homeless. My mom grew up below the poverty line and credits a program similar to this one for saving her life, so I am dedicating this initiative to her. We will be partnering with the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools to provide funding, volunteers, and materials to help the kids not only have what they need to make music, but also provide for their basic needs so that they can focus on being kids.

I could never have imagined in the dark days of my life that I would be living the life I have now. I am so grateful for all that surrounds me—the people, the opportunities, and the amazing community we share. I feel it is my responsibility to pay all that has been given to me forward and do what I can for this awesome place we call home. I took a very circuitous path to find my truth, but I can say that nothing in my life was wasted. Everything I have experienced prepared me to do what I am doing now.