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!

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Going Home

On Tuesday, December 6, I made the three hour plus journey from Upper Darby, PA to Selinsgrove, PA to take part in the 50th Annual Christmas Candlelight Service at my primary undergrad institution, Susquehanna University. In the almost 25 years since I graduated in 1993, I have only been back to campus to the best of my knowledge three times, the last of those being more than ten years ago (I think). I did have a brief connection back to SU in 2007 when the University Choir performed in Carnegie Hall and alumni of the choir were offered the opportunity to participate. But we rehearsed (I think) in New York briefly, not on campus. Whatever the case, Susquehanna feels more now like a distant remembrance than anything else, and going back there for a day felt more like a road trip into my happy past, a past that’s more vague impressions than concrete memories.

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The program cover juxtaposed with our listing at the bottom.

That said, when the invitation came to be a part of the alumni choir singing in the candlelight service, once more (perhaps for the last time) under the baton of Maestro Cyril M. Stretansky, I was determined that my RSVP would be a firm nonnegotiable “yes.” For so many of us, Cy was and is more than a conductor.  He is variously a music mentor, friend, mercurial uncle, somewhat distant paternalistic judgmental father figure, and above all a seeker and maintainer of the highest musical standards. To sing under him meant to have no higher commitment than to the choral art. To offer less meant that you didn’t remain in the University Choir.  And believe me, you wanted to be in U. Choir, and working under his baton. To do so allowed you a badge of pride that you could take out and shine when you weren’t too fatigued by sitting straight, silent, and focused for long, long periods of time. I guess I do remember some things, fondly too.

I had driven up to my in-laws on Monday to break up the trip to Central PA, but VA to Upper Darby, PA is 3 ½ hours, and then setting out the following morning for another 3 ½ hour trip through PA’s coal regions in rain and sleet is wearying no matter how you break it up. I drove up the PA turnpike, got off at exit 298 and headed up I-176 to 422 to 61 N, my primary route up to the region. My GPS hated me for taking 61 as there were faster routes, but 61 N had been my route to SU for my entire time there and I wanted the day to be as nostalgic as possible. For much of the next two hours, I drove and gaped at the poverty. Towns like Ashland, St. Clair, and Mt. Carmel, that had been hanging on in the late 80s/early 90s, looked somewhat like post-apocalyptic wastelands. One town (that I won’t name) I came through was almost completely abandoned except for the Wal-Mart and Burger King at the north end, where any and all life seemed to sustain itself. The whole region had an atmosphere of decay and despair, and I couldn’t help feeling saddened by it. Many of these people were the same ones that had desperately opted for a new kind of politics in this most recent presidential election, as was evidenced by numerous lawn signs. This is not a political post and, regardless of one’s point of view, I hope some relief someday comes to this region; it is desperately and obviously needed.

At the northern end of bleakest America is Sunbury, PA, and just around the bridge is dear old SU. Between Sunbury and Selinsgrove is “the strip,” a stretch of highway that serves as the commercial hub outside of small town USA. Many familiar businesses were still hanging on: the skating rink and the motel students went to for “privacy.” Many new businesses and a new mall had become the new normal, and SU and environs no longer felt like the sleepy rural expanse with a Perkins and a tiny mall to while away one’s  weekends, but it was still familiar enough nonetheless. I ventured off the bypass and into the heart of Selinsgrove which (to my eyes) looked relatively calm and the same as it had between 1989 and 1993.

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The massed alumni choir onstage at Weber Chapel. If you can see the person up front looking the wrong way, that’s me! (Photo credit: Emily Scaturo)

I pulled up at the Kind Café, a trendy coffee shop on Market St., and spent the next 90 minutes catching up with one of my dearest friends from the area: Margaret W. Margaret and I had probably not seen one another in twenty years, and she just hasn’t changed. We had sung together in the Susquehanna Valley Chorale and become fast friends. We chatted puppies and politics, music and Colonial Williamsburg, and had a grand re-acquaintance. When it was time to depart the café around 4:30 PM, I was heading to the candlelight service, and she was heading to the SVC tech for their weekend holiday concert. Some things wonderfully truly do not change.

I arrived on SU’s campus just before 5 PM and parked behind Weber Chapel (a place now reserved for faculty and staff, but it was dark and I didn’t see the signs) and headed into Degenstein Center. I had helped to dedicate the theatre in 1993 and it still smelled the same: a combination of claustrophobia and cantankerousness. The first face I saw welcoming me was Meg “Boofer” F. P. The second I saw was Cy’s. I really had come home. Over the next several hours I reacquainted with old friends (Jen, Eric, Meg, Stacy, Rob, Cori) and made some new ones (Arissa, Jack, Judy). I dined on bacon-wrapped figs and roast beef, and sat up front to rehearse O God Beyond All Praising, arr. by alumni Wayne Dietterick, who got caught in New Jersey and couldn’t make it in. When we were ushered into Weber Chapel for our 3 minutes of fame, I stood onstage and gaped and smiled at all the happy memories I had had on that stage. Most of the time, from 7 PM till almost 10 PM, we were seated in the audience for the service. Since it was being taped for local PBS, Susquehanna had pulled out all its finest musical groups, and they all took time to assemble, which made the service run long. But when all was said and done, it was beautiful, moving, and very professional, and I can be very proud of the few intimate moments that I and my fellow alums were allowed to partake in from the stage with our beloved Cyril.

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SU friends reunited (Photo credit: Robb Whitmoyer)

When I got back to the car, gassed up, and headed back to Upper Darby, I was awash in conflicting emotions. I was sad it was over. I was so proud to have participated. I was so grateful to have seen so many old friends. I was fearful that at 81 this was Cy’s musical swansong. Driving back through the desolation of 61, I was awestruck by how beautiful each of the broken coal towns had decorated for the Christmas season. Street lights, full size nativities, seemingly abandoned houses were all aglow in holiday cheer. The grey despair of day had given way to the most beautiful light displays by night. It made me realize how much these people, though feeling abandoned by their country, were still alive in their hope and faith for something better to come. I smiled, I teared up, and I wished them all a Merry Christmas. My time at Susquehanna University had come and gone (again), and while I was saddened by its end, what was most important from my whirlwind experience were the good memories, the rekindled friendships, and the ever-present holding on to hope that somehow SU and its vicinity always seemed to embody and remind me of.  I had gone home; home to SU, home to my past, home to hope.

I wish you all such a place to visit when you need it as well.

Namaste,

Jason

P.S. If you didn’t read my last post, 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

Happy Holidays!