Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why would I choose a 400 year old opera for teenagers?

We did it! A month ago. :)

I am just now catching up with the rest of my life enough to be able to reflect a bit on our spring opera at CAPA. This year, we performed a very convincing and very successful "The Fairy Queen" by Henry Purcell. The piece was based on Shakespeare's A Mid-Summer Nights Dream (1592). Purcell performed his adaptation first in 1692!

I have produced and conducted the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts Opera Workshop for the past 15 years or so. Every year the discussion of repertoire comes up. Students ask for shows they know...everything from Aida to the Magic Flute, Phantom to Grease, Into the Woods and Carmen! It is such a crazy set of conversations. The students just would love some comfort... and comfort has very little to do with my vision for the course or for the act of performance at all.

I am interested in the WORK and in GROWTH and their rich EXPERIENCE. I love the battle. Largely because we seem to win the battle every year. The teenagers come to the project thinking that the great experience is somehow wrapped up in the repertoire, like, the title of the opera will determine whether they will enjoy it or not. 

We learn anew every year that rep itself only accounts for maybe 10% of the experience, while the majority (90%+) of the true experience is based on the in-the-moment act of singing and acting and working in ensemble. We can experience this 90% in almost any show, and yet, if I were to program GREASE, we might run the risk of never realizing that the 90% was to be found in them, not attributed to the repertoire. Great performances only happen when the performers are able to give something of themselves to the performance. It has to be an act of sharing. If this is missed, there is nothing the repertoire can do to save it. I love the unknown (and sometimes distant) repertoire, because it provides a clear hurdle to jump over. In many of these cases, they won't like it until they learn to share. We all know we have won when the piece ceases to be distant and they take ownership of their own performance and then share that with the audience. 

THEN, after all of that, we can step back and think, what lessons do we learn when programming a 400 year old opera for teenagers? We are certainly teaching them about opera and musical drama and stagecraft and big singing. They sing un-miked with an orchestra and a conductor (me) in the pit. They have to deal with a real Staging Director (Bruce Hosteter), and a real Costumer (Lacey Barker), and props, and lighting (Chris Howard), and stage managers, etc.  These are experiences that few teenagers ever get to be a part of.  And after all of that the true lessons, the big lessons are just getting started. 

When talking with the cast, after the production, about what they think they learned, almost all of the statements came down to lessons of professionalism. Instead of talking about music and singing and Purcell, the statements were all about: how to be responsible for you...how to work in an ensemble.....recognizing how many people behind the scenes it takes to pull it off....the difference between following and leading....patience....do your job....how to work hard....actually giving vs. faking it....taking risks....growth of self and growth of peers....

I love these lessons. This is why every high school in the country should be mounting large scale productions of any genre. 

The Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts production of Henry Purcell's the Fairy Queen! A 400 year old opera + 80 teenage singers + 14 teenage instrumentalists + 3 dancers & 1 outstanding harpsichord player Alaine Fink! Special Thanks to the amazing (and most perfect for this collaboration) Director Bruce Hostetler and of course to all of the student performers. You never fail to teach me. I am so thankful for the opportunity to work with you. 

Click here for all the pictures!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The myth of or secret to multi-tasking

What is the difference between these 2.3 multitasking situations?

Situation 1:
I am conducting an opera. There is a 30 piece orchestra, all with different lines to play, different entrances, different cut-offs...there are 15 principal singers singing in solos and duets and trios and quartets, all with different lines to sing, different entrances, different cut-offs...there is a chorus of 60, with all of the distractions of being one of the crowd, who need to be kept in the ensemble with eye contact from the pit, and who all also have different lines to sing, different entrances, different cut-offs... I have, on many occasions, been able to not only keep the machine running, but prove that I can process multiple lines of attention, work many different variables at the same time, some choices about taking turns, some about shaping of time through tempo and rubato, some about prominence through volume, or staging, or eye contact, or articulation, and in other joint moments, bring the full production of nearly 100 players all together, all in the same groove, all in the same momentum, to one common goal, one common cadence. We ALL breathe together, beautiful and complete. 

Situation 2.1:
I am at church. I am to help run the sound board this week. At the same time I am running the sound board, I am also to find 3 minutes in the service to just take a head count of how many people are in attendance today. Can I do it? NO! NEVER. I ALWAYS forget. 

and Situation 2.2:
I am at school. I am about to run a rehearsal with the 80 singers of my opera chorus. They are milling about finding music and their seats and finishing the conversations with their peers. Just as I am about to go to the podium, my peer teacher asks if I will please announce that there will be a bake sale today directly after my class and that everyone should go buy a cookie. I say OK. Do I do it? NO! NEVER. Not even once in 20 years of teaching. I ALWAYS forget. 

and Situation 2.3:
When out to eat with friends, I can't continue the conversation while trying to figure out the correct amount to tip the waiter. 

My wife believes that it is all about what you care about. If I just cared more, I would remember. I think the problem is I care too much, too much about the ONE task. 

I think it has to do with what is the ONE task. If the different parts come together to make a whole, I can multi-task. If the parts are separate, then there is not multi- just TASK+TASK. The key to the "ARTFUL" experience is figuring out how to bring the different variables together to make a completed whole. To recognize the counterpoint, the ensemble, the role of the different variables or players. To figure out the balance that creates momentum, momentum that allows us to reach the goal, with all variables having contributed. 

Now THAT is ART. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

PhD in Interaction Design?

They always say, be careful what you wish for....

I have been looking for a PhD program that I can get excited about for a long time. After almost 10 years of searching and talking and meeting with many different schools and players, I think I have found a home in the Carnegie Mellon School of Design! I have been courting the School of Design for the last year with the hopes of convincing them that I might be a great candidate for their new PhD in [Interaction] Design. 

I am interested in applying ideals of live performance to the practice of design. In music circles we say that the performer is never called upon to be awkward; it is our job to demonstrate accuracy with ease. This ease in performance is an ideal that needs to be designed. We work with the elements such as tension and release, lightness and heaviness, inhibition and excitation, tempo and accent to create a conversation between the players. Obviously these elements are not reserved only for the musical arena. The stage musician builds the experience in the moment for his audience. The choreographer carefully builds the presentation so as to bring the audience into the dance. I am interested in harnessing this artful build up found in the fine arts to serve the broader daily, human experience. How can we inform or guide the average consumer toward richer, deeper, more organic interaction? Can we imagine a range of interaction where the goal is more natural, simple, meaningful, or truthful interplay? 

I am amazed and flattered, excited and terrified....they said yes. I start in the Fall. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

DRAW2014: follow-up

What a cool day. Thanks to Associate Head and Professor of Art Clayton Merrell for the invitation. I am sure I learned more than anyone today. 

We started each of the sessions by looking at some of the featured drawings from the symposium. I instructed the attendees to "look at the drawings like you normally look at drawings." We took about 4 minutes to look through the 12 pictures. 

Then I sang a little song for everyone and instructed them to "listen to the song like you normally listen to music." 

Then we spent about 35 minutes working on the 'experience' of music....the feeling of shifts of weight, the feelings of light and heavy, the feelings of authentic forward motion. 

I sang my song again and instructed them to look for the matching experience of shifts of weight in my singing, and then we did the same thing with the original slides. It was an extremely simple class. 

In true Dalcroze fashion...this was one of those classes where you really had to be there to understand how profound of an interaction it amounted to. We all 'saw' the slides so differently by the end of the class. I think we were able to make a very strong case for the "experience of viewing a drawing" as being potentially equal to the "experience of hearing a song".

There was one more moment I will share with you...
At one point in the class we all pressed hands together with our partners and pushed and pulled in a kind-of rowing gesture. The Eurhythmics teacher and student is oft to take this kind of collaboration or contact with a partner for granted. We do it all the time. That little gesture, that tiny bit of intimacy between chamber music partners was HUGE for some of the participants today. These were visual art professionals...painters, drawers, sculptors, etc. They have dedicated their lives to making art largely in isolation. The act of collaboration, in a true duet-chamber-music-in-time model was nearly overwhelming for some. It was a big deal that revealed layers to the performance that this crowd rarely gets to experience. 

"The only reason for the major instrument is to act as a vehicle to share the feelings inside of you with your audience." 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Louisville, Kentucky, February 8, 2014

I arrived at my 1st of two sessions to find a group of 70 Kentucky Music Educators ready to get moving. I asked them, "How many of you were able to attend one of my sessions at KMEA last year?" and about 40 of the hands went up!

I was flattered, and so pleased to get to work with such nice folk. 

KMEA scheduled me for two sessions back to back allowing us to work progressively. It was so nice to be able to build on the the work of the 1st session. 

Thanks KMEA!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Dalcroze Society of America, Pelham Summit of 2014

This past weekend, I met with 10 of the most wonderful (and most prestigious) Dalcroze educators in the United States. 

The membership of the Dalcroze Society of America asked me and this group of master teachers to form a committee that would compare the history and requirements for attaining the "Dalcroze Certificate" and "Dalcroze License" and investigate the possibility of establishing national standards. 

The committee has been meeting over conference calls once a month for the past year and this week we were able to meet in person for a full weekend in Pelham, NY. 15 hrs of intense debate, comparisons, biases, sharing, and compromise over three days of meetings. Many smiles and funny stories, much listening, and all in the strongest of good will. I have been in the Dalcroze community long enough to appreciate how special these days really were. 

Thanks to my most impressive colleagues. Your experience and skills and dedication to this work leaves me speechless, humbled, and thankful for the time spent together. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

DRAW 2014: An International Drawing Symposium

Eurhythmics for Visual Artists?

I have been invited to present two sessions at an International Drawing Symposium at Carnegie Mellon School of Art this coming March and I think it is a pretty exciting prospect. 

It seems that the more years I spend in the Eurhythmics classroom, the more I have decided that the truest lessons being taught are not specifically or, rather, exclusively musical in nature. They are touching on themes more global than music-specific. These are lessons in artistry. 

Please don't mis-quote me....The undergraduate Eurhythmics curriculum at Carnegie Mellon School of Music is absolutely first and foremost about musicianship. This term speaks to the inner performer as much as the audible performer. We are interested in making the abstract concepts of music and musicianship concrete. We use the body in motion as a model and pull many truths out of the experience. 

The exciting thing over these years has been to discover more and more truths and to see just how far reaching they are. Thus began my interest in all things trans- and inter-disciplinary.  

The lessons we work through to be better musicians, have, in most all cases, parallels in the other fine arts. Not only are there parallels with the fine arts, but there are parallels all around us. 

We work in the Eurhythmics classroom to make the musical notes on the page transition into artful experience. These same lessons or lines of thought can also be applied to our understanding of the stage drama, or the choreography, the hall of architecture, the painting, or the conversations with friends, and even the way we make our morning eggs.

As the musical performer, there are levels of performance experience that, as mastered, can lead one to the artful. The first question to start asking when trying to apply the same lessons to the rest of lived experience is: "What is performing?"

March 1st I will get two shots to convince a room full of visual artists that they are involved in the act of performance as a drawer and as a viewer of drawings. I am planning on 
a hands on, pencils down, look at the aesthetics of drawing. 

How many ways can you judge a drawing? In the end, it only matters if it performs for you. In these sessions, we will look for ways to reveal/notice/understand the inherent gesture in drawings. Or, stated more simply, through subtle shifts of attention, we will search for the ways that a drawing might “perform” for the artist or observer.  


I do not have it all worked out just yet, but I am thinking about contrasts, or heavy and light. 

Why do some paintings draw us in while others leave us feeling flat? why do some experiences feel like music and other experiences of music leave us feeling unchanged?

There must be some interaction with the art for it to make an impact. 
Where does the interaction occur? [either in the content, or in the culture, or in the met or broken expectations, or in the relationship with the artist, or in the colors, etc….] 

How many layers, or levels of interaction might there be? counterpoint? While we can see a background and a foreground in the picture, can one feel a  background and a foreground?