The Aim of the Art

My very first paying Vocal Director job was for Governor Mifflin High School’s production of Babes in Arms in 1994. Ironically, the male lead made state swimming and left the production a week before it opened, so it was also the first time I, as a high school graduate, stepped into a role in a rival high school show out of desperation. And, yes, there was a second time too. As a Music Director, over 21 years, I have worked largely in three distinct environments: professional theatrical, scholastic education, and worship. Each has its challenges, its strengths and weaknesses, its headaches and heartbreaks. I was asked recently by a member of our congregation (at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg) who has seen me work in a different setting ‘how I tailor my style to the environment,’ since their experience of me there was different from at UU. The answer is really a question of the aim of the art being collaborated upon. And while those aims are always the same, their positions of prominence shift.

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The UUFF Adult Choir from this past February

When one music directs in a professional theatre setting, there is usually a very limited window at the beginning of the process where the Music Director gets to be ‘in charge’ and teach the music. The director and the choreographer are anxiously awaiting their turn to take over and teach their material, sometimes patiently, frequently not so much. Music direction is treated (by many, not all) as a necessary nuisance, something to get through quickly so we can get the actors up on their feet and start teaching them the show. Once that period ends touch ups are rare, at the discretion of the director, and often done on the fly. The need is real because most musical theatre performers can barely read music, but the music and its upkeep are often subject to the constraints of time, money, and ego. There is barely enough time to teach the music, let alone terminology, support, context, or what have you. And your investment in people (at least initially) is minimal. Management wants a short rehearsal period and the best product so that ticket sales and reviews are good. The health, well being, and education of the singers are very low priorities. Do they know their music? Do they sound good? Moving on.

Educational music, both choral and theatrical, is mostly about the repetitive learning process, and the gradual team and spirit building that is required to inspire young people to pursue the arts either as a vocation or avocation. In school choral music, one is often working on the same pieces for months, MONTHS!, leading up to the big holiday or spring concert. The music must be challenging, but not too challenging; it must hold their interest and give the student a sense of musical accomplishment. It must also build a pride in belonging to the organization. Marching and jazz bands are still best at this. Product is important, but what really matters is nurturing a lifelong love for music, learning, and belonging. Students will join the choir to find their place, but they’ll only stay if you inspire them to be their best selves. And at most, you have them for four years, so you teach them to believe in themselves, to love music and the arts, and hope that they’ll remember you fondly.

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Someone’s never far from the action!

Worship music directing, especially at UU, (given that it is a non-textual faith, and stresses principles over dogma or creed) involves a synthesis of both the aforementioned environments, but it’s also much more than that.  In a worship setting like ours, the lyrics, the context in which the song is being sung, and the degree to which a choir member can invest in the song’s message becomes pivotal to success. Singers are neither students nor employees; they are peers of both the congregation and the Music Director. Their love of singing either has a long history, or is something that they are exploring after a long absence, a career change, retirement, or a courageous moment to join the choir. These singers are sharing their gifts out of love of singing, love of their community, and love of their faith tradition. As a music director, these are often the people you get to know the best, sing with you the longest, and share many of the deepest experiences. A show singer comes and goes in weeks (unless you can rehire multiple times), a student a few years; a church singer has an open-ended relationship with the Music Director to stay as long as the singing is fun and fulfilling.  For many of these singers, it is the sharing and the community building that creates the best choir experiences. The product is important, but what really matters is the sense of joy and family shared. This same approach applies to our hand bell and youth choir programs.

To sum it all up, in professional theatre the product comes first, no question. In education, the process and the sense of belonging to something special comes first. In our worship setting, our relationships – to text, to community, to our faith traditions – take precedence. While always striving for the best musical experience, the foci change and, as Music Director, it’s my job to adapt my demeanor, expectations, and repertoire to give each choir (or other musical organization) the best experience possible.  The environment really does determine the aim of the art.

Peace and Almond Milk,

Jason

Note: This post is reprinted from an article I wrote recently for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg March Newsletter. Additions to this post have been added in parentheses for clarity.

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Members of the UUFF Hand chime ensemble, before we expanded and added bells!

Mom and the Satan Worshiper

Someone this week – I honestly don’t remember who or when (I think I blocked it out) – walked up to me and started to extol the virtues of Satan worshiping. Yes, you read that right. They started very politely to tell me that most modern perceptions of Satanists are wrong, that some Satanists don’t even really worship Satan…and by that point I had pretty much rudely tuned them out. With all the problems of the world – right is wrong, in is out, and the hotly contested debate of whether or not one can punch an American Nazi in the face – I just wasn’t in the mood to have my opinion of Satanism challenged. Maybe someday. Not that day. It did, however, get my thinking about the good old days at my birth home in West Lawn, PA when once a week a Satanist swung by our home on his badass Harley for guitar lessons.

For those who don’t know, I grew up in a home filled with music. Our basement had been converted into six fully functional music studios, a waiting room, counter for supplies, and bathroom. My parents’ business, Michael’s Music, operated in our basement from before my birth until the late ‘90s when they simultaneously operated a storefront as well as a second set of studios across town. By the time my mother sold the business in 2001, at least several dozen teachers with thousands of students had gone through our doors.  Time spent in our basement with the teachers and students had an enormous impact on my upbringing. I remember the elderly German woman who was a passive aggressive Nazi sympathizer, the quiet Mormon man, the bow-tie clad gentleman, the child named Sherlock Holmes by his parents. Ah, memories. But I digress. This is about the Satan worshiper, specifically, the high priest of the local Satanic cult, who called our place home once a week.

Every week Rev. ­­_________ would swing by our home on his giant hog, park out front of our house, and descend the outside steps to enter the studio. He would take guitar lessons (usually from the Mormon who was an excellent traditional guitarist), pay his bill, say his ‘thank yous,’ and leave. He was always polite and courteous, had salt and pepper hair with a beard and mustache, often wore a leather jacket, and was by all accounts a good student. He did not have a lot of money (I guess Satanic church jobs don’t pay well), so he had worked out a deal with my mother to pay his lessons…in candles that the Satanists had made for worship. I remember the little pinkish figurines for years, vaguely strewn about our home upstairs, little cats and horses—no goats I’m afraid. We would light them in the evenings or in a rain storm and just laugh about their origins. It was not every child that had his home lit by the Prince of Darkness. Thanks for the memory, Mom.

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Mom and I at the Fredericksbuirg Fair in 2012

That really is the entirety of the story. He visited for many years, took his lessons, and lit our world. My Mom, ever the businesswoman first and moralist third, remembers none of this amusing little anecdote from my childhood, but I happily do. Her signature slogan for doing business was, “If you’ve got money, we’re open!” and this story illustrates her fiscal pragmatism and led to a warmly lit home of many melted down, dusty and pinkish, half-headed sculptures in all their romanticized, grotesque glory. And having said that…

I’m still not really interested in Satanism, thanks anyway…

So go back to debating Nazi-punching…

But they were some nice candles.

Namaste,

Jason

But I Repeat Myself aka “I Love Repetition!”

I have errands to run, places to go, things to do. I usher my son John Adams out of the house into “Daddy’s Car.” He has Best Friend Blankie in one hand and his cherished blue juice cup in the other. I open the door for him and hold his stash while he climbs in. I strap him in, hand him juice cup and BFB and go around to my side to get in and drive. I start the car and a voice from the back seat commands, “I want my Nabi!” A cold chill runs down my spine. “How do we ask?” I say simply, wearily. “I want my Nabi please,” comes the response, a touch contrite, but no less an edict from the authorities. I reach next to me on the passenger’s seat and reluctantly hand back the red and white children’s iPad that contains all of John Adams’s videos and learning games. “No innernet in the car,” he says as a reminder mantra to us both. “That’s right. No internet in the car,” I say. With that, conversation ceases, and as I’m backing the car out of our driveway I get my last moment of silence before I’m slammed with the raucous sound of “coustic” guitars, bagpipes, and seemingly angry Celtic vocals. No longer a jaunty adventure mobile shared between Bup and Daddy, the car has been transformed into a Groundhog Day-esque hellscape where only two songs by my son’s currently favorite band, Enter the Haggis, are played over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again!!! My son is three and we like repetition. Loudly!

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Playing the “violin” is serious business guys!

In fact, we took the train ride to Repetition Station over a year and a half ago when he discovered Thomas the Tank Engine. There were other cartoons before that – Tillie Knock Knock, Color Crew, Sesame Street – but when Thomas pulled into his life it was love at first chuff, and we have yet to let the boiler grow cold. And so, since that time I have been deluged in Thomas lore, repeating episode collections like Curious Cargo and Thomas and the Runaway Kite over ad nauseum until both Nancy and I can do the dialogue in our sleep. And it’s an interesting and curious thing how the mind works. I find that, one, since I have had to watch it to make him happy, over the long haul I’ve started to appreciate and even like it despite having no initial interest in the cartoon. And, two, again because of the repetition, I’ve found myself curiously drawn to the nuances of the show, often speculating on the timeline of episodes, and of certain island practices that occur with either regularity or normalcy. I confess I have looked up “Thomas the Tank Engine” and related articles on Wikipedia to deepen my experience of the show. (blush) I have – in the comfort of my own home – asked questions like:

  1. Why does Sir Topham Hatt always have two cronies flanking him that never speak, but always seem to be on the lookout for trouble?
  2. What really is the geography of the Island of Sodor?
  3. Why do the train engineers have no authority over their engines? Are they even necessary? They never speak either? Are they enslaved?
  4. Why are diesels generally considered “bad” except for a couple of token “good ones?” What’s that about?
  5. Who really owns the train line? Variously Sir Topham Hatt, Sir Percival, and the Earl of Sodor have all claimed vague ownership in episodes? Do they have a monopoly on transportation that prevents competition?

You get the point.

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John Adams posing with his dear friend, Percy.

Well, actually, my larger point is that, like it or not and often in spite of our selves, repetition is a powerful learning tool that can create both interest and an awareness of the depth of the subject that is not perceived by cursory experience. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, considering the lambasting and de-emphasis that repetition is taking in current educational theory. When I was in school we repeated patterns all the time: word lists, clock faces, multiplication tables, state capitals and the like. True, these were often boring exercises, but I can’t argue with the results. Drilling something actually works. I know it’s not fun, but I’m not sure how the children of tomorrow are supposed to deeply and critically think about a subject for which they have no previous knowledge committed to memory. Unless, of course, we assume that every conversation is connected to the Internet at all times, and we all know how reliable that is for providing only accurate information! Many young people I meet  – not all – can’t spell (“Spell check will do it for me.”), can’t do simple math (“We use calculators in class.”), don’t know the history or geography of their own country (“Well, if I need to know that stuff, I just look it up on my phone!”), and the list goes on.

I’m reminded of the story of naturalist John Muir, how he had the entire New Testament committed to memory, chapter and verse, and large portions of the Old Testament as well. It’s true his father forced him to do so, often with the threat of physical violence, but that aside, the stories of the way he could juxtapose the beauty of nature with his knowledge of the Bible are legendary; that wellspring of memorized verse gave him a unique, unrivaled, educated perspective that served him for his entire life and made him an intellectual force to be reckoned with. I don’t advocate the beatings, but I do see the merit to the memorization, and I worry that without even basic memorized knowledge, a person can’t really think deeply and critically about a subject, even if they think they can.  For myself, I maintain five poems that I have committed to memory and I’m very proud of that fact. And, yes, it was hard work, and was not fun to do. But the pride I feel at being able to rattle off a Frost or a Dickinson offsets the time spent in the rote learning. And that takes me back to my son playing “Turn it Up” and “King’s Daughters” over and over again in the car.

He sits in the car seat and watches the instrumentalists and sings along, and plays his “air guitar” and his “air violin” and he wants a “white ‘lectric guitar” for Christmas because “they do loud, right?” His interest, his repetition of the same, is driving me insane, but it’s stirring and cultivating something deep inside him. His three-year-old mind knows what’s best for its learning process. Now isn’t that a curious notion? I wonder at what age we lose that insight; puberty maybe? But for now he’s learning, he’s deepening his appreciation for the subject, be it Thomas or Haggis or what have you, and who knows where that will lead next. And my job as Daddy is to support and nurture his interest in all things, even if that means repetitively. (sigh) So my car drives on, and I’m slowly losing my mind to a Celtic beat, but at least I’ll go insane with a smile on my face.

The road goes ever on and on…and on…and on…

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Caught in the act of playing his “violin.” The Nabi sits on the sofa streaming Enter the Haggis videos!

Namaste,

Jason

P.S. If you don’t read my posts regularly, our new book, Mommy Made a Beastie (But I Love Her Anyway) is now available on Amazon! Here’s the link information: https://www.amazon.com/Mommy-Made-Beastie-Love-Anyway/dp/153932723X/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 

I’m so glad we Met: Celebrating 10 Years (Almost) Together

Yesterday, April 30th, enjoying the briefest of breaks from our son, John Adams, who is visiting with his lovably zany grandparents in PA, my wife and I went to the opera. Specifically, Nancy and I went to the high definition live performance broadcast of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’s one-act opera Elektra. For the better part of two hours (this was a comparably short offering with no intermission) we were swept up in the grandeur and glamour of the NYC opera scene from the comfort of our local Regal Cinema. Introduced by soprano Renée Fleming and prefaced by a short interview with Elektra herself – soprano Nina Stemme – by General Manager Peter Gelb, this performance was the last one in their 10th Anniversary season; that is to say, for ten years the Met has been piping live performances into movie theatres around the world to critical acclaim and financial success. Nancy and I have been fortunate enough to have been partaking in the experience for the last nine years.

MetOpera Live in HD made its debut broadcast on Dec. 30, 2006,with celebrated Broadway director Julie Taymor’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Season 1 consisted of six operas, none of which Nancy or I saw. By season 2, the Met had expanded its offerings by two, making that eight separate broadcasts, and we, in a fit of what must have been newfound glee, took in three operas – Macbeth, Manon Lescaut, and Peter Grimes – back to back in the spring of 2008. While we have never rivaled that consecutive track record since then, our selective opera going has been consistent and mostly memorable.

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Nina Stemme in Turandot

Over the last nine years we have been fortunate to take in Anna Netrebko in Lucia di Lammermoor, the late director Anthony Minghella’s visually stunning Madama Butterfly, the newly imagined entire Ring Cycle of Wagner, Puccini’s Turandot, Verdi’s Aida and Rigoletto, and many more.

Opera is not for everyone and not all operas are for everybody. But since the beginning each broadcast has included the opera itself, interviews with cast and/or artistic staff, intermission backstage camera work where one gets to watch the mind-boggling scenery shifting between acts as orchestrated by the army of Met stage hands, previews of other operas, and of course the creature comforts of popcorn, soda, and not having to go to NYC or pay in-person prices. This last outing cost us $27/ticket plus popcorn and soda, but the experience of seeing these professionals at the top of their game is worth far more than that.

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The Rainbow Bridge in Wagner’s Das Rheingold

As I said, opera might not be for everyone, but the Met and Peter Gelb have been trying to bring it to a whole new generation of enthusiasts for a decade now and their results have been impressive to say the least. The new season for 2016-2017 has been recently announced. Here’s the link to check it out, see clips of past performances, and plan your opera going year:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/?

Here’s hoping we see you in the aisle seat next season.

Bravo! Bravissimo!

Namaste,

Jason

P.S. What did I think of Elektra? Honestly, not my favorite opera. But Stemme’s performance was thrilling, electric, emotionally exhausting. There’s always something worth your time.


 

A New Year

Happy New Year, Everyone! January is here, our driveway is covered with snow, and I haven’t written anything since around Thanksgiving. Sheesh! Lots of things have been happening, and it’s just been crazy busy all around. Just to recap a few highlights – in December I wrote my 4,500th haiku. This has been a slow and steady process for a number of years now. This year, December 2016, I’m scheduled to write my 5,000th! When that happens I’m planning to take the next year or so off from regularly scheduled haiku writing. I want to grow more and I don’t want to go stale. Perhaps a few more sonnets, or a limerick or two, but no set schedule for haiku. Also, December of 2015 was a great year for me for music composition. One choral arrangement I wrote, “What Cool Child Is This?” was premiered by both my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg Adult Choir, and the Fredericksburg Area Young Musicians Concert Choir. It also received airplay on local holiday radio station 95.9 FM, along with another piece I arranged for hand chimes, “Christmas Don’t Be Late i.e The Chipmunk Song.”

Probably the biggest news of all artistically was the release of my second book of haiku, titled A Haiku a Day, on Amazon at midnight on New Year’s Eve. As I’ve stated before this book was drawn from my earliest mature poems, written while I was still a school teacher in North Philly between 2001 and 2004, and has been over ten years in development. It features thirty images created by artist and lifelong friend, Miss Carolyn Leshock, who took original photos, blended each one with a related haiku, embedded each photo with a corresponding Kanji character, and ultimately created beautiful little works of art that pepper the book. A Haiku a Day is available now on Amazon and has been selling. Check out Carolyn’s other work at http://www.leshockarts.com.

And just behind that, Nancy and I were both accepted to present papers at the 40th annual Comparative Drama Conference in Baltimore, MD in March. Nancy will be comparing two plays – The Pillowman and Everyman – and I will be comparing the character of “Laurey Williams” as she is written in both Green Grow the Lilacs and Oklahoma! It should be both scholarly exciting and nerdy.

Also, I am once again teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University, and happy to do so. At VCU I’m teaching just one section of Effective Speech this spring; at VUU I’m teaching two sections of Effective Speech plus Theatre History. We’re just through the Greeks as of this post, but I find I really do enjoy talking with students about the structure and themes of older genres of Theatre. More on that as the semester unfolds.

Beyond the above I’m happy to say that the Michael Family is healthy, happy, and “hanging in there” for another year. We’ve got lots of upcoming plans for my Unitarian Universalist Adult Choir, Hand Chimes, personal composition, and personal development, so we’ll just have to wait and see how the year makes each endeavor come to pass. In the meantime, I wish everyone caught in the snow a safe journey home, and you can be sure I’ll be talking at you in the New Year.

Namaste,

Jason