Category Archives: Teaching

Music, Theatre and Education

When I left to study German in Bamberg, Germany for a month in 2005, I couldn’t even count to 10 in German.  I had studied German diction in grad school and had sung in German, but I didn’t actually know how to say anything beyond memorized text.  As a result, the teachers in the language program I attended were a little taken aback when, with my extraordinarily elementary communication skills, I would pull out the German word for “sorrow” or “weeping” or “trout” or “brook.”  To a singer, there’s nothing surprising in knowing those words.  You learn them the first time you sing a Bach aria or Schubert art song.  To a language instructor who is accustomed to working with the average business man or tourist, well, it’s unexpected.

1016781_578267962212092_1087657779_n
The St. Louis Children’s Choirs

I remember learning words in elementary and high school in a similar, indirect way.  I had already been exposed to terms like “dynamics” in children’s choir before learning about “static vs dynamic” in science class.  When I learned “tiempo” and “fuerte” in Spanish 1, they sounded like and shared similar definitions to “tempo” and “forte,” common music terms I had been hearing for years.  Concepts reappeared as well.  Turns out, time signatures are little math equations.  The labels used for musical forms are similar to those used in analyzing poetry.  Organizing and understanding musical sections of a piece is just like outlining a research paper.

Community theatre productions taught me a great deal, too.  My director explained what “polysyllabic” meant when I was part of the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland when I was 10.  The Caterpillar sings about using “a polysyllabic word, or two.”  I remember when that word showed up on a standardized test.  The stage taught me about Hans Christian Anderson, the French Revolution and Cervantes, about reading dialogue, developing characters, thinking empathetically and understanding conflict and resolution. In the meantime, technical theatre nerds like my fiancé were spending hours learning and applying geometry and physics by hanging lights, considering color temperatures, and designing and building sets.  They were managing people, props and scene changes.  They were developing leadership skills.

I started thinking about this while spacing out in bed this morning.  I am recovering from pneumonia, so my job is currently to do just that, space out in bed.  Really, I was thinking about pneumonia, about the pains in my back and side, most likely some form of pleurisy, and then it occurred to me why I already knew that word when it was first mentioned as a possible cause of my pain.  I said a version of that word night after night when playing Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” a couple of years ago.  Laura is a girl who suffered from pleurosis in high school, which was mistakenly heard as “blue roses” at the time by her present day gentleman caller.  “Blue Roses,” he nicknamed her, melting her heart and solidifying her lifelong crush on him.  I looked up the word when prepping the role, and still it sits, like so many other learned concepts, somewhere in the back of my mind, ready to be pulled up at a moment’s notice.  You see, the learning never stops, and it never gets old.

I arrive at my point.

Dear Principals who doubt the value of artistic study, you are wrong. I, like so many choir and theatre kids, began my education with music and theatre.  I, like so many professional and socially conscious adults, continue my daily education through music and theatre.  I cannot think of a single reason why your kids should not do the same.

Blow your candles out.
Laura and her mother in “The Glass Menagerie.”

 

 

Practice makes truth

My brother Tim and I have been talking about running lately, partially because my book club just read “Born to Run.”  Tim’s a fan of the book.  I am now, too.   The conversations also are happening because Tim has taken to snapping pictures on his runs in the Pacific Northwest.  He is a photographer, so these are not your average look-at-this-cool-leaf photos.  I like that each of his running stories has a different angle.  That’s the thing about running–so many angles to offer.  Of course, it helps to have a top notch visual artist interpreting those angles.

My voice students have been hearing me quote my singing interpretation of “Born to Run” the last few weeks:  Practice being confident.  Practice telling stories.  Practice believing that singing is easy.  Practice those for long enough, and you’ll forget you’re practicing.

“Lesson two,” Caballo called.  “Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast.  You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad.  Then work on light.  Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go.  When you’ve practiced that  so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smoooooooth.  You won’t have to worry about the last one–you get those, and you’ll be fast.” (Born to Run, Christopher McDougall, page 111)

Variation on a theme

I think it’s funny when a thought or an idea keeps appearing once it’s first recognized.  Take my recent post on “Carmen and the Bull” as an example.  The show synopsis that I ended up using reads thusly:

Join in the fun as a singing, dancing, traveling gypsy befriends a little bull, his mom and most unlikely of all—a bullfighter! Using the music from the opera Carmen, and loosely based on the beloved story Ferdinand the Bull,Union Avenue Opera’s education team delights young and old audiences alike with a new depiction of a timeless theme: Be True To Yourself. As it turns out, when Ferdinand is the best version of himself, good things happen to everyone involved!

I flipped open the most recent Runner’s World a day after writing about the children’s opera.  Literally the first thing I saw was an ad for the new book, “To Be a Runner.”  I almost laughed when I read the book description:

Dave Davies interviewed journalist and author Pete Hamill on Fresh Air yesterday, and I think I actually DID laugh out loud when Hamill replied to Davies’ question about the author’s changed drinking habits (and not, incidentally, because drinking habits are funny):

But from the professional and personal standpoint, a lot of it was about trying to find out what was there as a writer because my ambition was not to be better than Faulkner or Hemingway or anything like that. It was to be the best version of myself that I could conceivably be in the time I had on the planet.

I guess we’re all trying to figure out how to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be.  A timeless theme?  Yes, indeed.  It’s showing up everywhere.

Unique

There’s a quote of Martha Graham’s in “The Art of Possibility” that I wrote down a while ago.  It sits in my stage make-up box.  I read it before every performance.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

I sat down earlier today to write a brief synopsis of “Carmen and the Bull,” a little children’s opera that I created for Union Avenue Opera’s educational programs with Springboard St. Louis.  In the middle of writing the summary, it occurred to me that the heart of that quote was all over my silly made-up opera lyrics.  Little Ferdinand and his new friends spend a lot of time understanding and fully appreciating what it is to be unique…and, though they use other words, they are definitely “keeping the channel open.”

Maybe not so silly after all.  Thanks, Martha.

Carmen and the Bull
Okay, maybe a little silly

“Focus on the up”

My Alexander Technique teacher said those words to me yesterday, mid-lesson.  The first thing I thought was of the sweet kindergarten boy who volunteered to be the bunny in Union Avenue Opera’s educational performance of Little Red Riding Hood last Friday.  He added a bounce to the role that I’ve never seen before, replete with upward commitment–a nearly tangible determination to be the best bunny he could be.  While continuing through the forest in my red cape, I inwardly marveled at that youthful, joyous expression of springiness.  Focus on the up.

My high school voice students were more nervous than bouncy last Thursday night when they gathered at my house with friend and colleague Elizabeth Schleicher’s students.  It was a non-recital.  A chance to sing in front of peers with an accompanist and no parents.  A chance to see how other people are doing with their voice and body exploration.  A chance to see how it feels to share music simply for the sake of sharing.  A chance express.  Their “up” challenge involved a little more focus, more poise, and more confidence.  Who couldn’t use an extra serving of that?

I witnessed yet another kind of “up” at the Girls on the Run 5K a few days ago.  I have been involved with the organization on and off during the last several years, and was invited to the microphone this year.

National Anthem

Photos by Tyson Kanoya

As I sang the National Anthem, I stared out at the crowd from a perfectly elevated perch.  Take the committed bounce of my little bunny, stir in the nerves of my high schoolers, add 10 weeks of preparation, some rain, and a Sunday morning, multiply by 4,400 runners, and you get a rocket of enthusiasm.  Neither gravity nor precipitation was going to bring that crowd down.

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan said a few words.

Pre-race

A six-time marathoner herself, she related to the focus, determination and commitment necessary to run any distance.   It’s the the same kind of focus, determination and commitment that the runners will take with them as they venture through life, she suggested.  It will lead them and the world around them to exceptional places.  They are on their way up.  Way to focus.

Lori Chalupny, member of the 2008 gold medal winning US soccer team took Mrs. Carnahan’s message and hit it home.  Work hard, and sometimes your sky-high dreams come true.  They did, after all, for her.

Up.

Starting Line

Aunt Elise on vacation

After eating breakfast in Portland, Oregon last week, I accompanied my nephew, his little brother, and his mom to pre-school.  “Does anyone know anything about opera?” I asked the smallish circle of 3, 4, and 5-year-olds.  Only a couple of hands went up.  During the next 15 minutes, they all tried a little bit of opera singing and acting, they watched me do the same, and they even processed a bit of what they heard and saw.   I’m a big fan of catching ‘em while their young.  I think they might be too.

That night, I went to my brother’s neighbor’s house, the wife of whom incidentally grew  up next door to us in St. Louis.  Small world.  Guitarist, singer, composer, rockstar Walter Parks married one of those beloved next-door neighbors (there was always a smooth path between their house and ours), and he gave his first house concert in his wife’s sister’s living room.

Walter Parks plays a house concert

photo by Tim LaBarge

He invited me to sing along.  “Just improvise some operatic oohs above the melody.”  Huh?  I wondered what these Portlanders would think.  They’re accustomed to hearing folk/songwriter/blues singing (they live in Portland, after all), but operatic oohs, not so much.  Turns out, they liked it.  I guess it’s good to catch ‘em while they’re older, too.