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Friday, March 14, 2014

March Madness #11: I'm totally behind!

It's March 14th and this should be March Madness #14.

But it's not!  Terribly behind. But what isn't new, really?

Part of this crazy opera business seems to be a constant state of feeling that your To Do list just continues to grow, even though you might be getting tons of things done on a daily basis. There's always something...

A scheduling snafu, a problem with communication, a long report to prepare, a program to proof, a poster to design, an aria to transpose, ornaments to write out, music to xerox, a board meeting spreadsheet to look over, letters of recommendation to write, phone calls to return, email, email, email, and then there's those blogs to read.

Plus your private life issues and needs and pressures to take care of and prioritize.

I'm not sure email is helping us; I believe it is hindering me.

Just getting a request to send a photo to someone turned into 9 emails this morning. A phone call would have been easier, quicker and much more efficient. Why aren't people phoning each other anymore?

Are we going to start sending our stage directions via email? (Oh wait, just had to do that a few weeks ago...)

Are we going to start coaching via the internet... (Oh wait, I know people who actually charge to do that and I know people who pay them...)

Are we going to give up being with others?

Are operatic performances going to happen via HD cameras while the audiences sit at home and watch while texting on their smart phones, snacking on apples, petting their dogs, and not listening to their children? (Been there, done that...)

So I can't really go on about this evil, cause I partake in it and I know good, wonderful people who do so to.

But there is no - NO - substitute for person to person contact, preferably in the same room and face to face, when it comes time to solve problems or ask questions. And it's precisely that -- asking questions and solving problems -- that happen in coachings and rehearsals everyday all around the world.

Opera can offer today's world a solution to its tech-isolationist attitude. Opera can keep humans human.

So, a mini-blog on trying to stay human by drowning in operatic activities. Well, drowning's not the best word...

That is all, I must MUST get back to my To Do List or else some emergency of operatic proportions will absolutely do me in!

Here's hoping tomorrow is a better day!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

March Madness #10: One Quote from Shakespeare

From Hamlet:

“We shall, by indirections, find the directions out.” 

It is a great quote. Polonius', actually.

A perfect thought, piece of advice, and strategy for artistic creation. Certainly it is my method of finding the "key" or the "hook" or the "path" for any opera I might be trying to direct. It is absolutely quite useful in coachings and rehearsals.

It's about process; process is vital. It is the essential thing.


One can look at this from a Laban perspective -- moving indirectly is extremely powerful and contains elements of improvisation and experimentation sometimes forgotten onstage.

Indirect emotions can be exceedingly playful, extremely spontaneous, or sometimes frightening and destructive.

Indirect conducting is an actual useful technique that I've used often, particularly in contemporary opera.

So, indirectness is a way into the forest. A path that can't necessarily be followed. It's the way one enters into many conversations, it's the way one enters into understanding difficult subjects. It's how one encounters paintings or other pieces of art, particularly sculpture.

So it is probably true that its opposite - directness - can lead one into the forest as well. Paths are usually safe and well-worn. Directness makes a statement, is usually crystal clear, and hopefully a concise way to understand a solution.

Thinking that a musical score is a direct, objective, concrete set of "directions", however, isn't a good thing, at least in my playbook.

I think back to my masters degree and my amazing piano teacher, Joanne Baker. She didn't teach her students the traditional way - by allowing the music to be looked at. Whatever we'd work on with her HAD to be memorized. Whether it was a bar, a page, a section, a movement, or an entire sonata, you had to walk into your lesson with it memorized. This meant digesting large quantities of notes and musical markings as quickly as possible, committing them to memory while reading the music and practicing the passages, and then spending the rest of the time listening and thinking and experimenting with your sounds. She believed that if you were looking into a score for the answers, all you'd find were "black notes on white pages" that had no meaning. They were just a blueprint for the actual building that existed - a building that each pianist had to create for themselves.

It taught me that scores were a leaping off point. Yes, they needed to be referred to and studied, but certainly not revered or held up as some sort of biblical, definitive, musical word of God.

Treating an operatic score (and especially, an operatic piano/vocal reduction) as critical, particularly when it is actually described or labeled "critical", sets up an illusion. Even the autographs do not encapsulate the real point of the composer's labor. The score is just a set recipe of sorts to the musicians and the singers (and the producers, conductors, directors, etc.), something that isn't in any way, shape, or form representative of actual art. If it was, we'd just hand the audience a score when they entered the theatre and we'd say "Here's the opera!"

No one would think that would be a good idea.

Yet, too many musicians, too many teachers and coaches, too many students, think that if one just does what's on the page, one has fulfilled their duty. Or even worse, they think that perhaps they've done something correct or good or noble.

The wondrous thing about opera is that it is never the same. It's like that old adage "You can never step into the same river twice"; the operatic river moves and flows constantly. Tastes change, ornamental treatises are written, then forgotten, then discovered, trends shift. These things we know. But the scores basically stay the same, on their shelves all around the world. That's why they aren't real, or at least not the real deal.

It's the scores that live in the minds of the performers that are the real scores. They can't be touched or copied or pdf'd; they are as indirect as the billions of mental connections that create our sense of self. Each time one hears a Verdi aria in their head, hums a tune by Mozart, listens to a rehearsal of Bellini, or spends time reciting text, one is making a thousand indirect connections that ultimately leads them to a destination of sorts.

Indirectly finding the Direct.

And that's just one line from one Shakespeare play...

Monday, March 10, 2014

March Madness #9: My Most Popular Post...

So -- My most popular blog, viewed over 1000 times. Who knew?

Talents of Christmas Past ossia Audition advice

I know, odd title for October.
Okay, so maybe not Christmas Past. I'm writing about talent I've come across in the past. Once you get through that, there's a few thoughts on auditioning (for those out there getting ready for the Fall Audition Season!)

Talent - hard to define. For me, it's certainly not "God Given", as my sainted mother used to say. She'd yell from the kitchen, "Pat, are you going to practice today or waste your GOD GIVEN TALENT?"! I've been around enough to have heard that phrase used by way too many.

Frankly, we all have talent. Some find the ability to access it easier than others. Many simply allow their talent to unfold, unfurl, or become present with little to no effort. Others strive, work, seek, follow, build, force, or pray their talent into existence with a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. The majority of those I think of as "talented" singers seemed to have opened their mouths one day and tone was released with very little thought or effort. They might disagree with me.

During my time running the young artist program at Glimmerglass, a very talented singer once asked me (through copious tears) why they were "still a young artist" while a peer of theirs (and a good friend, which made it even harder) was a "guest artist" complete with a leading role, guest housing, a new agent, and invites to the exclusive parties. I sat in silence for a minute because, actually I thought the young artist quite talented (the American use of that word...), perhaps more "talented" than their peer. Obviously I didn't want to give a flippant answer because the emotions were running high, plus I'd never considered the question so specifically.

My answer? I think I said something like "they aren't trying to fix themselves, they release." My meaning? The singer with the leading role "released" their voice, not caring what others thought. More importantly, not trying to FIX their voice while singing. The young artist still thought something was wrong with their voice and kept it close to themselves in order to be able to FIX it somehow - through the right teacher, the right role, the right repertoire, the right coach, etc.  In other words, one was bent on being Effective, the other one on being Correct.

Too many programs, I'm thinking both academic and professional ones, focus on Correctness with an impossibly huge capital C. I tend to focus on Effectiveness because, after my many years working with young singers, it's the most empowering way to go about being successful. We want CPAs to be correct, we want the "best before" labels on our food to be correct, we want our tax forms to be correct. However, I don't want ART to be CORRECT.

All of the great art out there is imperfect on some level, and usually on many levels. All of the great performances I've witnessed were imperfect in some way as well. The great "perfect" building, the Parthenon in Athens, was made to look perfect by building in some major imperfections into its design.  Singing is the same. Being a singing artist requires a great deal of flexibility and creativity - two things that can be suffocated in an attempt to be CORRECT.

Recently, a former student I worked with at Ithaca College was nominated for a Tony Award as a Lead Actor in a Musical (Newsies). He was an extremely talented young man when he arrived at IC to start his studies in musical theatre. I remember his first audition; being taken aback by the sheer force of his presence onstage. Other students had the same effect on me, from the very first moment they opened their mouths to sing; some have had some huge recent successes on Broadway and I often wonder if it's because they allowed themselves some kind of freedom where letting their talent "release" was concerned. I know they all worked really hard on their vocal technique, their acting, their dancing, etc., but I, at least, never questioned their ability to be sensational from the get go.

Some of the talent I came into contact with at Glimmerglass around the turn of this century was beyond extraordinary. Often times when I think of those I considered to be the most talented singers, I have to go and google them to find out what's happened. For you see, more often than not, those uber-talents never ended up being the biggest stars - and oftentimes they ended up not singing professionally at all.

Now I am all about finding alternative careers to singing opera! I have been so pleased that many former students and young artists of mine are no longer either pursuing a singing career or are happily and gainfully employed doing something they love and are fulfilled by doing. Don't get me wrong here - this blog is not about why people stop singing.

The Glimmerglass young artists that I worked with who are now out and about singing all over the world - from Strasbourg to Covent Garden to the Met to San Fran to Fort Worth to Virginia Opera to Lyric Opera of Chicago - all do have something in common: they were open to working with others, on all sorts of music, and with little to no judgement - beyond looking for their version of truth.

Truth -- that's an interesting word. It can get caught in the net of correctness for sure. The word "Correct" is often defined as the removal of errors, or punishing so as to improve; certainly something that is correct can be thought of as free from mistakes. Well, the human voice - and especially the talented ones I've known - is certainly full of errors. Those with perfect pitch can attest that most of our great singers from the last 100 years sang out of tune. If you simply listen to the "greats" (Sutherland, Callas, Sills, Domingo, Pavarotti, Freni, Fleming, Ramey, Horne, can I stop now?!) you hear their foibles, their vocal problems and imperfections. Yet, each had/has something special and unique to offer - their artistry and humanity blended and conveyed through those fragile vocal folds.

So -- for those young singers out there entering into the operatic audition season: A word or two of advice:

1) You can't fix your voice in an audition, so don't try. Let it out and who gives a damn?!
2) Those panelists are human beings you have no control over. They're not there to punish your imperfections, they are sitting there because they love opera and opera singers AND they are hoping you are the solution to their problem: i.e. they need to cast singers!
3) Stop judging yourself like you are a problem. Try, TRY to allow yourself to be as wonderful as you possibly can be given your current process.
4) Breathe before, during and after your audition (I know, this one gets said often but really -- BREATHE!
5) Give yourself another goal for the day beyond your audition. Perhaps it'll be nabbing a TKTS discount price on a Broadway show, or meeting up with friends for a dinner or movie. The day can't JUST be about your audition.

That's what I've got for now. Sorry it's been awhile since I last wrote. The past 6 weeks have been from Hell and I'm hoping the rest of the Fall gets a bit better SOON!

March Madness #8: Thirtysomething

March Madness #8: Thirtysomething

Thirtysomething, the television show that aired for 4 seasons and 85 episodes back in the late 80s, brings back such fond memories of my musical education.


Yes. It aired during the last year of my bachelor’s degree and ended the last year of my master’s degree. Basically the four most important years of my musical education studying at Simpson College and the University of Missouri – Kansas City Conservatory of Music getting degrees in piano performance.

I’ve been re-watching it on DVD (not Netflix, but that ol’ fashioned medium) late at night during the last week and it’s been bringing up memories of those late 80s: Where I was, what I was thinking, who I was – or who I thought I was – and who I thought I’d grow up to be.

Yeah, it was about a bunch of literal thirty-something yuppies. Yes, it was a pre-cursor of Friends, that tackled parenthood, marriage, divorce, careers, death, relationships, affairs, by creating a community of friends who sorted through major and minor angst-filled episodes trying to figure out what it meant to be a man or a woman in the new paradigm of the post-Reagan world.

But I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as looking forward into the future I’d never have because I was going to try to become a professional musician. The characters on TV were housewives, advertising executives, a professor, and a photographer who didn’t really know how to create a career. I guess I identified with Melissa (the photographer) because she was “artistic”. I also had a crush on Hope (Michael’s wife). I kinda thought I was like Elliot cause he was also “artistic” and was a mess, literally and emotionally.

I had a love/hate relationship with these characters because I thought how cool it might be to have a “normal” life, but I was so scared I might actually have to become one of them by failing to become a professional musician.  Of course, life throws you curves and I have ended up like one – actually two – of them. I’m a professor (Gary, the man/boy who refused to grow up) and have to admit have actually, clearly turned into Michael, the Jewish angst-filled worrywart par excellence.  Who knew?! (Well, if you could have known my mother, you’d understand why me being a Jewish worrywart is not that much of a stretch…) And I’ve had a few major career changes and personal depressions like Michael went through during the course of the series.

It would have been nice to have been in one place, had friends, had a house, and a solid base while dealing with some of these pains of growing up. Instead, my wife and I traveled all around the country – from New York City to Chicago to Tulsa to Pittsburgh to Memphis to Ithaca to Miami to Montreal plus a bunch of other places in between. We don’t have that community. I regret that, particularly while watching Thirtysomething.

But how does this connect with my musical education?

A few things, first  for me it’s about the culture of social media that didn’t exist twenty-five years ago. Being a student during the late 80s was a time when TV was ancillary to those other mediums of entertainment – bar bands, movies, rented videos, and live concerts and shows. I would spend my early mornings practicing (and in KC, that meant 8am to 10am every morning), then head into classes, then more practicing and/or rehearsing with singers, then studio classes or opera rehearsals, then dinner, then more opera rehearsals or practicing (into the wee hours). Late nights were spent on the phone to NYC with my future wife. I also read the complete works of Shakespeare, assistant edited those opera anthologies, was a research assistant on those musical theatre anthologies, played dozens of vocal recitals, played dozens and dozens of operas, got into Juilliard Opera Center as a coaching fellow, and maintained (barely) a long-distance relationship via nothing but a phone and a voice. We spent thousands of dollars on phone bills…

But every day, I got a lot done. A LOT DONE.

I can’t tell you how different it is now. Everyone having to check email, keeping up with their blog readings, their tweeting friends or FBing statuses, texting continually through classes, rehearsals, lessons, dinners, etc.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating, or overstating the time and energy involved in today’s social online whirlwind.  It has taken a toll on what we now can’t expect from ourselves, our colleagues, and our students. How is there time to get it all done, learn everything you need to learn, have all the experiences you’d wish for, yada, yada, yada?

Thirtysomething was the only TV show I tried to watch regularly. I remember rescheduling coaching’s and once even calling in sick to an opera rehearsal I was supposed to play in order to catch an episode (once you missed an episode, that was it until it’d go into re-runs in the summer).  I loved the issues that it tackled, how passionate the acting was, how funny it was and how moving it could be. Men cried on the show and that was new for me.

Watching the episodes now makes me pine away for the days when I had the time to practice the Barber piano concerto just for fun. When I thought I’d have decades to work through all the Beethoven sonatas and play every operatic score written in the 20th century without dropping any notes.

Ah youth!

So I look back and wonder why I thought I had to separate myself from others in order to focus on my career. Why I lost touch with my friends from those years so long ago. Facebook’s not a substitute for actual contact and with every year that does go by, I wish I was back in Dr. Baker’s studio class listening to the Barber sonata or Scriabin etudes getting nervous for my own renditions in front of my peers.

That was my community, plus the singers I worked with and rehearsed with and played recitals with. I’m glad that still exists in today’s world.

Off to meetings and rehearsals and squeaking in thirty minutes on a Chopin Ballade instead of reading email.  Sounds like a good plan!