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Friday, April 4, 2014

Rating Music Schools

Note of Warning: The following post contains opinions. Crazy, I know, but true. Opinions. Hopefully, someone will not agree with these opinions, or agree. I don't care. That's how things work, or used to work.

Also, please note: The following post is supposed to be humorous. I warn you in advance, as much of it is not funny, it is just trying to be so...

There's been flurry of postings on Facebook about a recent blog - that some mistook for an article - rating Music Schools. This wasn't done via a newspaper or some magazine, it was so far as I can tell, one man's research into music schools in the United States (I don't know if he knew there were music schools outside of the U.S. - say Guildhall in England, for instance, or if it was decidedly just a U.S. list.) His top ten list generated few surprises, and I can't say I disagree with most of those choices. Many people were thrilled to see that their alma mater was rated above Juilliard (sorry, THE Juilliard) and posted excited exclamations about it all.

But I think there are some flaws in the logic behind these ratings.

For one, rating music schools based on the number of operas that get produced seems like an odd way of determining whether it's a good school or not for studying music. If a small school produces one opera and maybe a scenes program, that does not mean it is less of a school than, say, Indiana University, that produces upwards of 6 productions a year. Why? Well, there are hundreds and hundreds of singers at I.U. and even with 6 productions (even double cast) there are still only a certain number of roles available for students. Plus, most undergraduate students don't get cast onto the stage in roles at the bigger schools with huge graduate populations. At a smaller school, say Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, there is a very small population of students (all undergraduate) and usually two opera productions plus scenes. In their four years, students have a much higher chance of getting cast in a role than, say, at a big graduate school like I.U.

Full disclosure -- I went to Simpson College for my undergraduate piano performance degree...

These ratings weren't just about opera, though. Rating a music school is quite a difficult task. One needs to look at the overall population of students, the ratio of full-time professors and instructors to students attending, the facilities (some of the great schools are located in facilities where there isn't running water in certain parts of the building... Not speaking about anywhere in particular, it's just that it'd be nice if one didn't have to climb a flight of stairs and walk down a long hallway to use the restroom), the resources (human and financial), the cost of tuition and room/board, the diversity of subject matter taught (improv? jazz? business? stagecraft?), etc. The list is huge. I have to wonder what went into the decision to rate MSM above or below another school, like Eastman for instance.

Now, many of these schools rated as "Top Ten" are lovely schools and have churned out some wonderful musicians, but many parents of high school students, and the students themselves, are way too worried about getting into a "top" school. That's why these sorts of lists need to be taken lightly. As Malcolm's recent book "Goliath" aptly demonstrates, sometimes going to a smaller school or - god forbid - heading to a non-Ivy league school, or take-my-hand-I-might-faint, enrolling in an off the map school can actually lead to a higher success rate. In the opera world, there are tons of singers making it professionally who did not attend a CCM, a MSM, or a Juilliard (sorry THE Juilliard) but came from terrific schools in the midwest or in the south. (Are there music schools in California? Oh, that's right, there's USC and some conservatory in San Fran.)

I believe that what Malcolm (we are on a first name basis obviously) has to say about the Ivy Leagues is also true with music schools.  Not all schools are for all students, and sometimes it can make a great deal of sense to study music at a school that makes the student feel like they are a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Why? Read the book.

So, in light of the recent Music School Ratings list that made the FB rounds, I'd like to provide my own. Please do so knowing I'm making no endorsements for any school, nor am I criticizing any school. It's MY list.

Here It Goes:

#1 McGill's Schulich School of Music. Why? Cause the guy that runs the opera program there grows the best facial hair of anyone running any opera program in North America. Plus they do at least three operas a year, with orchestra and usually a few more with piano. And the fromage in Quebec is the best substance known to man!

#2 Simpson College in Indianola Iowa. Why? Cause RLL's a genius and created the most unique music department filled with singers singing all the time, all the repertoire (from madrigals to Floyd operas) and I went there, along with a few other rather talented folk, back in the 80s.

#3 UMKC. Why? Cause that's where I got my masters degree (do you see the trend yet?) And KC BBQ is almost as good as one finds in Memphis. But don't study in Memphis, too many distractions on Beale Street, you'd never practice and then you'd start singing the blues, and then your parents would get upset.

#4 Juilliard (sorry - THE Juilliard School.) Why? Cause it's fricken Juilliard, (sorry THE Juilliard School) and I was a fellow there at the JOC way back in the 90s. Best coaches anywhere, have to say.

#5 FSU. Why? Because Read Gainsford, Valerie Trujillo, and Timothy Hoekman work there and they are brilliant.

#6 USC. Why? Cause Buffy the Vampire shot some episodes on that campus and Ken Cazan is there and he's a terrific director. It's also sunny all the time, never rains, and everyone is beautiful.

#7 Ithaca College. Why? Cause they can belt musical theatre tunes and perform Gluck equally well. Their secret weapon? Boy Wonder runs the opera program and he's REALLY a genius. Truly.

#8 Northwestern University. Why? No idea why, just popped into my head. Everybody loves Northwestern. 

#9 Oberlin College. Why? Sydney Mancasola went there and she's as good as it gets. Plus David Gately went there back in 1935 or something like that.

#10 Anyplace that costs under $25,000 a year. Good luck finding one. That's a whole other topic.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April is National Poetry Month!

Last time I checked, opera was filled with poetry.

Text? Poetic most of the time
Composition? Poetry to the ear
Singers? Poetry made human
Staging? Poetry in motion

Well, the last might not be true in many Koncept productions...

The composer begins with poetry. Begins with a text. Opera composers, at least the good ones I imagine, would have sat, thought, and spoke the texts they were going to set. Many rewrote the texts provided to them, or often times would write the librettists asking for changes. Then there are the great ones who wrote their own poetry and set it to music: Wagner, Sondheim, Cole Porter. George had Ira, Giuseppe had Arrigo. Music and Text.

Much of the text gets lost, either because of the composer's setting of it (difficult tessitura, over orchestrated moments, ensembles where everyone is singing different text) or because a singer might not quite say all the parts of all the words all the time (it's called either being lazy, or making choices.) So a lot of the text, the poetry, of an opera is absolutely lost on the ear of the listeners. It's up to the many operatic collaborators to try to make sure as much of it gets past the orchestra pit (i.e. is heard) and to the minds of the audience (i.e. it is understood).

The most important collaborator in this adventure? For me, it is the stage director. So much text gets lost because a stage director blocks a singer to turn upstage, or face sideways, while delivering text. It's like they are staging a musical on Broadway with body microphones or something. What part of their craft didn't they learn?  Is the physicality that important? Is showing attention to a partner (actor speak, sorry) more important than allowing text to travel out to the audience? Do they not understand the acoustic nature of the art form they are collaborating with on a daily basis?

No, for the most part.

So singers - particularly savvy ones with stage experience - have to decide if they'll adjust their positions slightly to get their text (via their voice) out to the audiences. It used to be called "cheating out". Now it's called rebelling against what the director wants.

Or does the director actually want that? Do they actually say "I want you to sing sideways into the wings at all times?"  No, they don't say these things. It's how their direction gets misinterpreted (believe me, I've stopped being surprised by singers saying things to me like "OH! You want me to pick up the glass with my UPSTAGE hand? OKAY, sorry, you just needed to tell me!" after I've showed them a dozen times how to pick up the glass with the upstage hand.) In their defence, they are thinking about a dozen things, particularly if it's a new role, and sometimes don't have the wherewithal to focus on details of staging.

Yet, in their coachings there's a great deal of lip-service to the text. Lots of thought and struggle about its meaning, its correct pronunciation, its subtext, etc., go into a coaching. How the text sounds in the voice is an important part of any voice lesson or coaching. Then, it seems, it all goes out the window once a director says "cross stage right and sing that line to Emily".

And the line gets sung directly to Emily, who is a young singer too and is upstage of the other singer and doesn't know enough to come a bit downstage so as not to "upstage" her colleague. That's just one simple example of how text can get lost. It happens on a daily basis all over the world.

So during April, I'll be posting some blogs about text. Hopefully a few will be poetic. Heck, maybe I'll write some poetry and subject y'all to it. Let's go wild.

In the meantime, if you are headed into a staging, or into a performance (either as a listener or a performer) let's give our operatic texts a helping hand -- connect to them, think about them, enjoy them, judge them, love them. Our composers did!