Sunday, April 23, 2006

In Memoriam

We were deeply saddened to learn that bass-baritone Robert Samels, one of Wolf Trap Opera's young artists for this summer season, died suddenly and tragically a few days ago. Robert was a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, and the School of Music has developed this website to honor Robert and the four other musicians who also lost their lives.

The depth and breadth of Robert's musicianship were unusual for a young singer. His still-developing bass voice was capable of both lyrical beauty and sparkling comedy. In his audition for us last fall, he delivered a rendition of Basilio's aria from The Barber of Seville that made us laugh out loud, tired and jaded as we were. He was also a composer, conductor, and a well-known radio personality on the Bloomington NPR station.

Robert was to have begun rehearsal with us in just 3 weeks. Over the last few months he corresponded with me about the peculiar challenges of Telemann's Orpheus, in which he was to play Pluto. He participated in our discussion about Baroque pitch, sending emails full of the enthusiasm and attention to detail that he loved to lavish on his musical life.

Robert was a regular reader of this blog, and he was a thoughtful, impassioned, and vibrant participant in the cultural community. He was looking forward to sinking his teeth into Bartolo, and having followed our improvisational Instant Opera! project on the blog last summer, he was particularly excited about "doing improv in the woods."

If you have a chance, please visit his website and the blog that the IU School of Music has set up in his memory. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Modest Proposal

Spring is one of the best reasons I can think of for living in the mid-Atlantic area of the country. The dogwoods are in full bloom. Heading off to the Blue Ridge for the weekend, but first, a long post to compensate for my recent rather cavalier approach to the blog.

Anointed Stars

Lots of links and references ahead, but I've inserted quotes if you're in a hurry. First, a look at last Saturday's New York Times article on aspiring artists. I referenced this over the weekend, but here it is again:

The students who are the commercial stars of their class today will not generally turn out to be the artists remembered tomorrow. These anointed stars are much less likely to mature... they get sidetracked and confused and are not giving themselves time to grow and develop.

Again and again we see it. The golden children of high school and college stages, recital halls and studios, sowing despair and envy among their peers. They get the plum assignments and the prime attention of the adoring faculty. Fast forward ten years. They're not the ones with the staying power.

If you're a golden child, this isn't an indictment. There are some who meet success early on who do have their priorities straight and wisely allow themselves room to grow. But those who are riding high at 18, 20, 22 and who succumb to the temptation of believing that all that's required for future success is replication of their earlier efforts, those who don't continue to grow because growth involves taking risks and risks bring the chance of failure and failure simply isn't allowed...

Education, Not Training

The Theatre Ideas blog closed up shop this Monday. Hate to see it, but I understand the burnout. A couple of months ago, though, he spoke volumes about artist training.

I have serious qualms about undergraduate BFAs and conservatory program. I think the intense focus on... the acquisition of technique, prior to receiving a broader education of the mind and heart is a disservice to the young artist. I think all artists, even "interpretive" artists, need to have a wide knowledge of the world and of themselves before their focus narrows... BFA programs and conservatories, even more than other undergrad theatre programs, are focused too much on the status quo. They tend to "train" student to fit in as smoothly as possible to the way things are done today... The focus is on "training," not education, and they are equally focused on preparing students to fit into the current theatre, not creating the next.

Which leads me to the "Modest Proposal" that Tony Kushner put forth in his 1998 article in American Theatre.

We should abolish all undergraduate art majors... Any college or university worth its salt tell its undergraduate students that henceforth they cannot major in theatre, the visual arts, writing, filmmaking, photography or musical composition....[and instead] must prepare to spend the next four years of their lives in the Purgatory of the Liberal Arts.

Education, as opposed to training... addresses not what you do, or will do, or will be able to do in the world. Education addresses who you are, or will be, or will be able to be.

(If you have time, visit the original "Modest Proposal". Gives you an idea of how drastic Mr. Kushner felt his thesis to be:)

So Many Actors...

Another Times piece from last winter called "So Many Acting B.A.'s, So Few Paying Gigs." The link has long since expired, but here's a clip:

"We're producing too many people," Mr. Steele [executive director of the University/Resident Theater Association] said, "many of them poorly trained or moved into the field without the connections or relationships necessary to make their transition to a career possible. It's as if medical school were graduating people without giving them internships at a hospital."

Supply and demand, my friends, is not exactly in our favor. The vast majority of actors, artists, dancers and musicians who graduate with conservatory degrees will not be embarking on the kind of careers they imagined. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for many of them will be happier people for it. But does the single-minded focus provided in an arts degree prepare these students? Or are we selling them (and their parents, spouses, and partners) a bill of goods?

OK, I'll take the unexpected side of this argument.

It's fashionable to wring our hands about the state of artist training in this country. And it's far from perfect. But (at its best) it involves discipline, focus, immersion, commitment, and sacrifice. Is that so bad? If, after having participated in the process, the singer becomes a teacher or the actor becomes a social worker, has a disservice been done? I believe not.

Should all aspiring creative artists take a course in accounting? Yes. Should they be able to write clearly and expressively so that their incomes may be augmented through successful grant applications? Of course. Should the BFA and similar degrees be abolished? I'm not so sure.

I'm usually out there in front, leading the charge about not limiting your options and being open to alternate career paths. But if spending four years doing something you love gives you the strength to meet each day with optimism and to greet obstacles with resilience, for godsake, go ahead and do it. Just don't get sucked up and eaten alive by the neurosis that is music school.

There are limits. Should you stop short of going $100,000 in debt to pursue a passion about which you're ambivalent? Should you allow your passion for music to obscure the fact that you may not have the "goods" for an international career? By all means, be realistic and honest, if only to yourself.

I have many colleagues who believe that any sign of weakness is a reason to abandon a career. "If you could imagine yourself doing anything other than music, then you should do it." "If you're not sure you want to sing for a living for the rest of your life, then get out of it right now." I understand where that comes from, but there's so much anger and fear in those ultimatums that it takes my breath away.


Enough of this. There's opera to be done.

The blog is suffering just a little because it generally doesn't get written at the office, and I'm keeping a pre-season pledge to not bring the opera world home for a few weeks.

Transposing some arias from Orpheus and reacquainting myself with my Finale software. Trying to get the supertitles and drafts of the pre-show talks done before we're up and running. Finalizing schedule details for as much of the summer as we can. Union negotiations tomorrow. Wish us all well :)

(Sketch above by costume designer Martin Lopez - for Pluto in Orpheus)

Back next week.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Food for Thought

Found a perfect starting point for a posting, but not enough time to write. In today's New York Times. The subject is not music, but message is no less important for us.

Toward the bottom of the first page:

...the students who are the commercial stars of their class today will not generally turn out to be the artists remembered tomorrow. These anointed stars are much less likely to mature... they get sidetracked and confused and are not giving themselves time to grow and develop.

Family weekend - parents visiting, daughter home from college. Back to the blog in a few days.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Get Out the Slide Rule

Thinking a lot lately about results. Validation. Success. Measurement. I'm on a planning team at work, and one of our tasks is to determine how we will measure what it is we say we do. A perennial problem in the performing arts.

Back Where I Started

If I had to pinpoint the biggest reason I ended up leaving music therapy, I'd have to say that this is it.

I worked in a state psychiatric facility where the behavioral model reigned supreme. Now, I don't dispute the value of this approach, but I was in my 20's, yearning to help change people's lives through music. And we did. People with irreversible brain damage whose eyes lit up when they were able to communicate with others without words. Teens in trouble (usually involving severe substance abuse) who addressed things in songs they composed that they would never speak to the staff psychiatrists. Mentally handicapped kids who just loved those Orff instruments to death. And desperately ill folks in the geriatric unit who could no longer speak but would come alive singing every word to every popular song from the turn of the century. (The 20th century...)

But the hospital needed accredidation, and that meant more hours of paperwork (the dread "SOAP" notes - subjective/objective/assessment/plan) than hours of patient contact. And all of the positive signs and progress that kept us going really didn't count. We were to measure number of minutes of activity per session, number of occasions of eye contact, percentage of on-task behavior, etc. Are all of these things indicators? Yes, of course. But I was in my 20's, I wanted to change the world, and I was impatient.

So here I am 25 years later, still impatient. I want to believe that a few hours engaged with terrific music will make a difference in someone's life. I still don't know how to measure it, but I'm not naïve. It's crucial that we try.

Footprints and the Giant

I bookmarked a speech from the Artful Manager's archive in which Andrew Taylor speaks eloquently about the “Footprints & the Giant”.

There are economic benefits (of the arts), social benefits, educational or personal benefits and broader civic benefits. They are important. They are compelling. And they are convincing when we ask individuals and groups to support the arts with time and money. But…they are effects and not causes. They are the footprints a giant leaves behind, but they are not the giant. The arts are not a separate thing from us. They are us….. all ways we see each other and ourselves. They are all ways of learning…. Ways of reaching across perspectives and backgrounds….. often what define us long after we are gone.

TAFTO 2006

April is "Take a Friend to the Orchestra" month. Try to find some time to browse this year's "TAFTO" contributions over at Adaptistration. One of my favorite observations from TAFTO's 2005 installments came from harpist Helen Radice: "The best teachers are the ones who make you believe a) that something is wonderful, and b) you too are good enough to know it."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Kindness of Strangers

Our opera company has always depended on the kindness of a small band of northern Virginia residents who open up their homes to our singers every summer. They're called our "housing hosts." I blog about them today not just to thank them (which I am determined to do, profusely, every time I get a chance), but to throw a plea into cyberspace to increase their ranks.

If you live anywhere near Wolf Trap (and casual comments and blog stats show that quite a few of you do), I hope you'll be a set of eyes and ears for us. Our first singers arrive in five (!) weeks, and we still need summer homes for several of them! A private bedroom and bathroom in a pet-free environment (allergies...) is all that's required. Interested? Send us an email. We'll answer any and all questions, and we can put interested parties directly in touch with folks who currently host our artists.

This Weekend's Reading

....included William Westney's The Perfect Wrong Note. It's only in hardback, but Amazon has it for $16. A holistic approach to playing and practicing, laid out in a calm, no-nonsense approach. So much of this takes me back (in a good way) to my first and brief career as a music therapist.

Westney seamlessly juxtaposes chaos theory with Buddhist mindfulness. He scolds those of us who are determined to be "good students" at any cost. He extolls the wisdom of "reculer pour mieux sauter" (having to back up in order to jump farther). He delineates the significant difference between honest mistakes and careless mistakes.

There's a step-by-step guide for healthy practicing that almost makes me want to run to the piano and try those Chopin etudes just one more time. And there's a a great list of the non-musical "fruits of the harvest" of music participation.

If you teach (especially if you're feeling frustrated and maxed out), and/or if you consider yourself a life-long learner, sit down with this book for a few hours. Westney quotes a passage from adventurous musical amateur John Holt ("Never Too Late") that should be posted on the wall of every vocal studio:

The teacher I need must acccept that he or she is my partner and helper and not my boss, that in this journey of musical exploration and adventure, I am the captain. Expert guides and pilots I can use, no doubt about it. But it is my expedition: I gain the most if it succeeds and lose the most if it fails, and I must remain in charge.

Ciao, Mandisa

I was chagrined but not surprised that "Idol" audiences booted off the larger-than-life-lady with the great pipes. But it gives us even more reason to take issue with Simon Cowell's recent pronouncement: "We have now trained the American audience to be good music critics." Critics of a sort, I guess, for Mandisa hardly fits the Idol prototype. But music critics?

Death and...

I live in a household of procrastinators, but I rarely join their ranks. Taxes are the exception. They're not nearly as difficult as they were back when I was self-employed, but I still drag my feet. Getting mired down in the finer points of Qualified Tuition Program disbursements and Form 5329...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

My Two Cents

Going to get down to business, but first had to share this photo of the Cherry Blossom Festival that's taking place in my front yard. It's spring!

Wading In

Many of the bloggers I try to read regularly write about the future of classical music and its audience. I invariably have strong reactions to many of their posts - a combination of violent disagreement, "aha" moments, renewed optimism and sudden despair.

I've been deterred from entering into the fray because 1) I don't know where to start, 2) theirs are better minds than mine, 3) from what I can tell, my readers are more interested in the opera-specific tidbits that I post.

So there's no telling exactly why I'm wading in today. Maybe it's because we're in a 5-year planning process here at the Foundation... maybe it's because our box office opened last weekend and I'm already obsessed with how many tickets we're selling for opera and symphony.... maybe I just have to get it out of my system.

Who Needs Classical Music?

I've been re-reading Julian Johnson's exhaustive treatment of this subject - go here for the book. Be forwarned - it's not a simple read, but well worth it. Is it intensely academic? Yes. Are some of the assumptions born and bred in an ivory tower sensibility? Yes again. But it's unflinching and thought-provoking.

I find this somewhat prickly book reassuring and comforting. I have no idea why, for it offers absolutely no practical ways for reconciling the intrinsic value of music with the realities of our 21st century culture.

The Game Is Over

The blogger who's spending the lion's share of his effort on this subject is, of course, Greg Sandow over at Arts Journal, whose postings I've been reading for over two years. He's "performing" a book about the "Classical Music Crisis". The introduction to his book gives you an idea of the basic approach:

"I think the game is mostly over, by which I don’t mean that classical music will disappear, but that the classical music world will change, maybe drastically, and that classical music institutions — even big, brand-name orchestras and opera companies — that don’t change fast enough might collapse. "

I can't begin to fairly represent his many and considered thoughts on this subject (if this interests you, it's well worth setting aside an hour and browsing his book and his blog), but I will say that while his approach feels a bit combattative and argumentative, it does bring a welcome breath of fresh air and a much-needed wake-up call.

Sandow takes great issue with Julian Johnson's book, which isn't a surprise given their wildly different approaches. He, like Johnson, lives in a very different world from the rest of us. But that gives him a perspective that enlivens and enrichens this debate.

A Tradition in Flux

For a rebuttal, consinder Wellsung, whose essential approach is that classical music is a tradition in flux. He maintains that "there are doors closing, [but] there are also a lot of windows opening."

"Sandow's exercise is this: take the viewpoint of someone with no serious interest in, predisposition towards, or even attraction to the classical music tradition...Then mine the classical music experience for things which would maybe surprise the person who isn't interested and thinks its boring in the first place -musicians should dress down; play in a bar; bop around more while playing; the program notes should be less detailed; louds should be louder; softs should be softer; and the list goes on. And that's just the entertainment side... He suggests musicians and those who love classical music must: stop wallowing in its elitist trappings; stop going on about aspects too difficult for everyone to understand; and, especially, stop pretending its a more complicated or demanding tradition than pop or jazz."

I love the "lot of windows that are opening" part - more about that below.

Gray Hairs

No, not the ones I'm sprouting while grappling with this... rather, the ones in our aging audience. But is this news? Is the sky really falling?

Kyle Gann over at PostClassic blogged last December about a speech by Leon Botstein. Here's a portion of that post:

"Classical music is not in competition with any form of mass entertainment, and never has been. The world of mass entertainment has grown astronomically, but classical music has never shrunk. The size of the classical music audience, he went on, is as large as it has ever been, and it has always, since the 19th century, consisted primarily of the old, with a secondary contingent of very young listeners. He attributed this to the complexity of the classical music experience, which does not take on full meaning until one's own life has grown complicated enough to match it. Where the crisis is... is not in the size or commitment of the audience, or the expenses of production, or the education of the audience, or the quality of musical expertise, but in the location of patronage."

Although the cultural life in a few large cities may be able to support the kind of programming that will create a huge young adult audience for classical music concerts, this older demographic is and will be a fact of life for the rest of us. There's a small (secondary contingent, Botstein says) of young listeners, but they'll always be a fringe element, and they're dedicated to music for their own highly specific and personal reasons. In an environment where an entire series or group of concerts can be targeted specifically to a younger demographic (both in content and marketing), they could become the majority. But do I expect 20- and 30-somethings to come out in force for a concert series where the average age is a couple decades higher? I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I think not.

The "Younger Audience"

Is this any reason to ignore these folks? Of course not. But I believe the classical music experience manifests itself differently for them. This is where the the new opportunities - the opening "windows" - come into play. Downloads of classical music from the internet (according to Naxos last fall) account for a full 12% of all downloaded music - a much higher percentage than classical music accounts for in CD purchases, or for that matter, in live concert attendance.

From where I sit (at 49, for the record), I can see both sides.

If I hadn't been working in classical music all these years, would I have been a regular opera/symphony/dance/theatre/chamber music attendee? Hate to say it, but no. Not enough discretionary income, way too few hours in the day, too many complicated childcare logistics. In spite of missing out on the very real and enjoyable aspects of a live performance, would I have been very happy to get my fix via mp3s and satellite radio after the kids went to bed? You bet.

I now have one child in college and one in high school - am I already seeing glimpses of the day when my husband and I will buy theatre subscriptions? No doubt. I'm becoming one of those late-middle-aged (gulp) folks whose aging butts fill our seats. (Sorry for the image.... at least my hair isn't gray yet, but that's a fluke of genetics...)

The True Youngsters

I can't remember where I read this recently (yes, I am getting old), but there's a camp who believes that the reduction in arts education for children is inconsequential. (Maybe it's in Sandow's book, come to think of it...)

This is where it gets ugly. The arts absolutely have to be part of our children's lives if they're going to grow up to be empathetic, engaged, and fully human adults. This doesn't mean that they need to learn about sonata form and chiaroscuro in music and art history classes. It means that they must have repeated personal exposure and active involvement with that aspect of the arts that imprints itself on our souls and minds.

I took piano lessons from the age of 7, but one of the experiences that most influenced my continued involvement in music came at the business end of a bass clarinet. As often happens with students who read music well, I was deployed randomly throughout my high school band. I somehow ended up playing bass clarinet in a regional band, and during the beginning of a transcription of the finale to the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony, I realized that being in the middle of that huge swirl of sound was one of the most thrilling things that ever happened to me.

If these kids have first-hand contact with musicians who are vivid, committed, and generous people, they'll remember it. If they get carried away by the experience of singing in a big choir, or thumping away at some very accommodating Orff instruments, or playing a small role onstage during a heart-stopping theatrical moment, they will remember it. And 20, 30, 40 years later, they will be our audience.

Maryland 78, Duke 75

Now, you knew I'd get back to basketball, didn't you?

What a great game those Lady Terps played. I taught briefly at Maryland, so I feel as if I can take vicarious pride. But would I enjoy basketball as much if my daughter hadn't played in high school? If I hadn't spent all those hours at scrimmages, games, and practices? No. Got the parallel? It's not the only reason that sports audiences are far larger than music audiences, but if our kids don't get close to the music, there's less of a chance they'll find a reason to make room in their lives and hearts when they grow up.

If you're still with me, I both apologize and thank you. And if you're too through with all of this philosophizing (?), I promise to return to my senses next time I write.

Monday, April 03, 2006

It's the Girls' Turn

I got hooked on the game when my daughter played in high school. Sorry to see George Mason out of the tournament, but they were magnificent. And the DC area is still alive... Maryland has a chance for the women's national championship tomorrow night!

Wish I would've had/made more time in my own life for sports. Even though athletics and performing arts too often find themselves in opposition, they are so much alike. Think on your feet. No looking back. Live only in the moment. The basketball court, the school band and the auditorium stage - some of the best preparation for life you'll find anywhere.

Go Terps!


Got 4 minutes? Be sure your speakers are on and go here.

Eloise Ristad, she of marvelous Soprano on Her Head fame, used to recommend juggling as one of the best ways to integrate mind and body.

Wolf Trappers Take Washington

It was a great weekend for singers who trod the Wolf Trap boards as young artists. All of this in the last two days:

  • L’elisir d’amore at Washington National Opera – Elizabeth Futral, Paul Groves, Steve Condy
  • Tancredi at Washington Concert Opera – Stephanie Blythe, Larry Brownlee, Sarah Coburn
  • Das Rheingold at Washington National Opera – Gordon Hawkins, John Marcus Bindel
  • Live from the Met – Saturday’s broadcast of Fidelio – Alan Held, Jennifer Welch-Babidge, Gregory Turay

Back by midweek - am nursing a spring cold that has rendered me stupid, so I'll stop here.