I still remember the first time I saw Les Miserables. I was a senior in high school in Levittown, PA and was already a certified theatre/chorus geek. My friends and I took the train from Trenton, NJ to New York City one lazy Saturday to hit up TKTS and finally see our favorite show! We'd been listening to and singing along with tracks like, "Red and Black," "Stars," and "One Day More" for months. The feelings of watching the city skyline approach were equal parts sickly anxiety and unyielding anticipation.
To be honest with you, I don't remember much of the show! The best thing I can tell you is that my friends and I wept through most of it, Javert's Suicice was a solid dose of Broadway magic, and that it was an absolutely a transformative experience for me. I went from a kid who loved music and theatre to a young man who had to do this thing, like...for life. Somehow. Somewhere. Teaching OR performing (both?) There were no other options left for me.
Many (many) years later, it is the privilege of my life to be sitting here at our sitzprobe, watching you all preparing to perform the show that basically set me on the path to where I am today. I've been both exhilarated and inspired by all of your performances throughout our rehearsal process and I can't wait to see you tell your story to an audience later this week. If I could leave you with one thought this week, let it be this:
We all have that thing we have to do, no matter what. It doesn't just make us happy, it's more than that, and when someone asks us to explain it, we can't. You ever hear of Abraham Maslow? He has this pyramid-thing that basically shows us what basic human needs we have. At the bottom of the pyramid is stuff like food, water, shelter, safety. As you go higher up the pyramid, the things we need become more complex and abstract until you finally get to the top: self actualization. When I think of teaching music and directing theatre, self actualization is the closest I can get to explaining it. Either way, whatever that thing is that you have to do, no matter what, do it.
No. Matter. What.
Who knows, one day you might be directing your dream show, or coaching a great athletic organization, or writing a major novel, or discovering the cure for some disease, or caring for an amazing family.
Thank you all for an amazing production and for helping me fulfill my greatest dream.
Have a great production week and enjoy every moment!
Your grateful director,
Because I'm both a music teacher and a music lover, one of my favorite things to do every year is post about my top five albums from that year. 2016 was a strange and interesting year as much for music as it was for politics, pop culture, and culture. In an age where the album was thought to be dead, top-shelf artists defied our short-term memory, instant gratification society and released fully-formed and through-composed works. Some even took it a step further. Solange released a companion book with her album A Seat at the Table, Frank Ocean released a video "preview" prior to his album, Blonde, and Beyoncé dropped her video album, Lemonade, un-announced on Tidal, a new music-streaming platform intended to rival Spotify and iTunes. It seems, amazingly enough, that the full-length album is stronger than ever.
Today we'll be embarking on our journey together to mount one of the greatest musicals ever produced, based on one of the greatest books ever written. What we're about to do is one of the most ambitious and exciting projects I've worked on in my 15+ years of directing and producing educational theatre.
One of the first tasks we have ahead of us is getting to know each other as both individuals within a production and as an ensemble. Because of this, I asked our producer, Mr. Grossman, back in the early planning stages of this show if I could have one-to-two full rehearsals to work with you all on movement, physical presence, and a sense of ensemble. Tomorrow is the first of two rehearsals where we'll be taking the time to explore some of the most fundamental elements of acting & performance, so I wanted to take some time to prepare you all for what lies ahead for both rehearsals.
A note before we proceed:
None of what I'm about to say is "secret info" or some elaborate method I concocted through theatrical alchemy. The method is called "Viewpoints" and was developed by a woman named Anne Bogart. There is a fantastic book you can research called, "The Viewpoints Book," as well as YouTube videos, blogs, vlogs, and countless online resources dedicated to what we'll be working with. I encourage all of you to, "read ahead" and familiarize yourselves with Viewpoints as much as you'd like.
None of what we'll be doing is the method to use when acting, and those of you who act know this. There are countless methods actors use to prepare for a role, study, and perform. Some are obviously better than others, but none are 100% guranteed to work with every actor. What we do as actors and directors is try the methods we feel are best suited to situations, stories, or people. When one method doesn't work, we try another one! Since this is educational theatre, the objective is for you to learn as much as you can about the process and craft of acting!
What is Viewpoints?
Taking the definition straight from the book:
"Viewpoints is a philosophy translated into a technique for training performers, building ensembles, and creating movement for the stage." We work with nine Physical Viewpoints. They are:
Within Viewpoints, there is also Composition. We use Composition to create new work, selecting & arranging components of theatrical language into a cohesive work of art for the stage. We also use Composition to engage with other art forms, such as dance, visual art, sculpture, or music as well as engage each other as collaborators and essential participants in the creative process.
How do I prepare for each workshop?
Let's start practically here and address our attire for each workshop and rehearsal:
Be sure to bring a full bottle of water as well as a snack with some protein or a simple sugar, in case you need an energy boost. (Fruit or granola is lighter & will last a bit longer over energy drinks, coffee, or chocolate.)
In a more mental or emotional sense, I encourage all of you to arrive as open-minded as you possibly can. Each workshop is going to ask you to take risks both physically and mentally as well as place an enormous amount of trust in one another. Do what you need to do prior to rehearsal to be able to enter the space ready to explore, create, and collaborate!
I'm looking forward to seeing you all today and working with you tomorrow!
Disclaimer: This post is by no means the way to audition for musical theatre, it's merely a way. There are plenty of folks out there who probably disagree with some, or all, of this, or who have methods of their own that they prefer.
It's an exciting week this week as many of you are likely rounding out your vowels, focusing on that belt, or that high A-flat, while others of you may be playing a game of "Rock-Paper-Scissors" with yourself to see which ballad to choose for your audition. Preparing for an audition is nerve-wracking enough, but later this week you're actually going to have to do this thing, so I thought - as your director - that I would offer some tips and thoughts about the actual audition itself from your arrival to your exit, stage left. :-)
A quick note about my audition philosophy:
I consider what I do to be an absolute privilege. I get to sit and experience 60-80 students taking one of the biggest risks of their lives, bearing their souls, making mistakes, and sharing their voices. Because of that, I also take what I do very seriously. I do not view what you all are doing lightly, primarily because I was there once, in my junior year of high school, auditioning for West Side Story, having no idea I could even sing, or act.
It was petrifying, and exciting, and revelatory, and would eventually lead me down the path that I'm on now, miraculously enough. So setting my sappy nostalgia aside, here are some of my thoughts about how best to handle your audition:
1. Arrive to your audition early.
There is no worse feeling than being late, this is true, but a close second is arriving with about 2-minutes to prepare yourself. Waiting is hard, this is true, but rushing into the building barely having had a chance to steady your nerves and prepare mentally is even harder.
Pro-tip: Arrival time is also an early indicator of your timeliness to your stage manager.
2. Enter your audition calmly & confidently.
It's amazing to me how many people spend hours and hours practicing the songs they'll be singing for their audition and yet they don't spend a minute practicing or even thinking about how they're going to enter and exit the audition space. Do yourself a favor: take 5-minutes to practice your entrance, introduction, and exit without singing your songs. It will do wonders, trust me!
3. Don't ever...EVER...tell us you're sick.
It's a miracle of science how auditioners suddenly get the same cold the week of auditions.
In all seriousness, it's not that we don't care, and it's not that we don't want to know if there's something seriously wrong that is going to inhibit you from giving your best audition. It just plays into another thing you should never do in your audition...
4. Never apologize!
For being sick.
For your appearance.
For your song choice.
For making a mistake.
For who you are.
5. Manners count.
"Please", "Thank you," "Excuse me." Learn these words and learn them well. If you need a starting pitch, "Could I have a G, please?" If you make a mistake, "Oh, excuse me (chuckle, chuckle)." And when you've finished your audition, "Thank you!" Manners count in life and in your audition!
6. Finish Strong.
The first instinct when you finish an audition is to react emotionally, be it exuberance that you actually hit that A-flat, or deflation that you didn't, or disgust, or exasperation, etcetera, etcetera. How you leave an audition says just as much about you as how you entered, so finish strong. Exit the stage with dignity and compassion for yourself and for what you just did, which is a pretty amazing thing!
7. Be yourself.
Be yourself! We want to see your personality because we want to know with whom it is we might be working! "Professionalism" doesn't have to mean walking on stage like a mannequin-come-to-life.
I can't wait to see and hear all of you this week! Keep practicing, be kind to yourselves, and have a great audition week!
These past few weeks have been a whirlwind for all of us, I'm sure. The start of school, a new year, new classes, some new teachers, a fairly large unfinished structure hulking over all of us just waiting to be finished and utilized next year, oh, and auditions for a new a cappella program. All in all, it's been quite a September!
Many of you have spent the past few weeks agonizing over numerous questions revolving around the a cappella program: Will there be cuts? How many groups will there be? What will the group's name be? Will there be cuts? What kind of music will we sing? When will we rehearse? Will there be cuts? I'm hoping that most, if not all, of these questions have been answered over the past week. But I also hope that you now have new questions, possibly the most important one of all being: "Ok, I'm in an a cappella group...now what?"
Allow me to offer a few suggestions as you enter this week's schedule of first-rehearsals, first-meetings, first-discussions, first-warmups, first-arrangements, and other "firsts":
Commit & Show Up
Contrary to what you might think, the easy part's over. Now the real work begins. You know that old saying about how 50% of life is showing up? Or maybe it's 75%...percentages vary depending and you get my point, I'm sure. The bottom line is that the groups' successes depend on YOU showing up to every rehearsal. Sure, things come up, people get sick, family emergencies spring up suddenly much to our despair, but YOU know the difference between an emergency and an inconvenience. Your presence at rehearsals is essential, not just from a musical standpoint, but a personal standpoint as well. Part of being in an a cappella ensemble is the collaborative aspect of putting 12-16 different voices together in a room and making them harmonize, not just musically, but personally and logistically as well. If one voice is missing from that work on a regular basis it's almost impossible to find any kind of rhythm or groove with each other because we're constantly trying to catch people up, or fill people in, or re-teach things that have already been taught.
In short, one of the first things you need to do is commit to the group you're in and show up.
Not all of us are public speakers, natural leaders, or feel comfortable being the contrarian in the room. However all of us have an opinion that is valid, important, and needs to be heard. Being the silent person in a group is sometimes safer, or may seem easier, but your opinion may be the one thing people need to hear to take a musical moment to the next level, or prevent the group's choreo from near disaster. People may not always agree with you, and you may not always feel your opinions are adopted after they are attempted, but without being an active participant and contributing you're not a member of the group, you're just a passive observer.
All of us come at this experience from different places, different skill levels, different perspectives, and different motivations. Not everyone is singing for the same reasons and not everyone intuits creativity as well as others. For that reason staying open-minded, flexible, and kind is essential for our success. It's easy to watch a reality-TV show and assume that to get a certain product you have to demand and expect results, but remember that reality TV is the product of hours of production, editing, and careful selection of moments to show the public. In a lot of ways it isn't really reality at all...it's sort of a manufactured reality. At the end of the day the best ensembles have people who have mutual respect for what they do and see things from multiple peoples' perspectives.
This goes without saying, but one of the reasons we all sing is because it evokes feelings within us that we want to communicate to other people (usually our audience). Without the ability to communicate this way, many of us feel as if there would be a void left within us impossible to fill with anything else. Therefore it is essential that you go into every rehearsal passionate about singing and completely unwilling to accept anything from anyone that doesn't evoke or express some kind of emotion! Remember that, above all else, music is about communication and expression. Talent, skill, theory, history...these are all important elements to a solid musical foundation, but if you're not saying anything when you sing, well...then you're not saying anything.
Audition season is officially upon us. Whether you have a sibling at college, or a friend at Plymouth North, thousands of young singers are belting and power-ballad-ing their way through September, hoping to be the four or five chosen new members of their favorite
a cappella group. It's one of my favorite times of year because I get the privilege of hearing dozens of young people share their gift and love of music in an incredibly risky but brave setting! I mean, do you know anyone who doesn't find auditions a little frightening?
What I'd like to do is take a little bit of the edge off your audition prep by (hopefully) give you some tips or pointers to help you choose, prepare, and slay your audition. I'll also be talking a bit about what exactly I'll be looking for from each singer and how you'll be evaluated.
Choosing A Song
Aside from the audition itself, this might be the most intimidating part of anyone's audition. I mean, there are literally thousands of songs out there to choose from! How to even start? Here are some suggestions based both on my experience singing a cappella and directing a cappella groups, as well as some tips I found from some reliable websites:
1. Know Thyself
It's not just important to know what you like to sing, but it's even better to know what feels good to sing. If you're auditioning with a song that's in an R&B style but you're more of a pop or rock singer, move on to a different song. If you don't know your voice all that well yet, stick with what you know and what you've been singing for a while, even if it's not an ideal song choice. The whole point is that you can sing comfortably and own your audition.
2. Know Your Song
Inside-out, outside-in, backward, forward, spoken, and sung. And don't just know the words! Know what the song's about, know what it means to you. Why are you even singing it? Just because you think it'll land you points? If you're singing a song that you don't know, it'll show. You'll also be more nervous because you're trying to remember lyrics, or you're trying to convey a message you may not be sure of.
3. Know Your Audience
Most contemporary a cappella groups sing contemporary pop songs. That means you should try to shy away from classical, standard musical theatre, barbershop, or other unrelated styles. If you're really stuck, the internet is an amazing place and YouTube has thousands of videos from contemporary a cappella groups. Just get some ideas from them!
Owning Your Audition
So you've chosen your song, you've learned it inside-out, you've thought about its meaning and what you want to say in your audition. Now it's time to execute.
1. Ask For A Starting Pitch
I've been in an alarming number of auditions in which the singer didn't ask for a starting pitch! There's nothing wrong with asking the person or people auditioning you for a starting pitch so you can start your song on the right note, in the right key, and own it from the first pitch.
2. Don't Try to Be Someone You're Not
One of the most important elements you bring to your audition...is YOU! We're all looking for good singers and talented students, but we're also looking for people that will make up an ensemble who will spend the next year together learning and sharing music with their audience. It's essential that you bring yourself into your audition and own who you are. Do that, and you'll instantly make an impression on your judge/s.
3. Dress Like This Audition Is Important To You
No one's asking for a suit and tie, or a dress. Be yourself, but be the best version of yourself you can be. Standing out from the crowd is difficult at an audition, and you want to be memorable not just for your song, but for your personality and style. As much as we may not like it, appearance matters!
Ok, I'm Done, How'd I Do?
Different judges look for different things when evaluating singers, but we all try to go by three basic elements:
1. Pitch Accuracy
This element almost speaks for itself. In short: Did you hit all the notes? How accurate were they? Did you stay on key throughout your audition? Were there a few notes that were a bit wonky? A few missed notes won't make or break your audition, but it does give the judges a good idea of who can hold down a part on their own and who may need a little help, which is fine!
2. Rhythmic Accuracy
Again, this one's pretty simple. Were rhythms consistent with the song? Did you take some liberties and, if so, did they work? Was the tempo consistent throughout?
3. Stylistic Choice
This one's a bit trickier, but basically: Did you sing a style that worked for your voice? Were the style choices you made effective? Again, if you decide to sing a gospel song, was it a good choice for your vocal style and range?
For more advice on auditioning for a cappella ensembles, or for other performance opportunities, feel free to follow the links below!
Best of luck and I'm looking forward to seeing as many of you as possible this Wednesday!
CASA: Choosing An Audition Song
CASA: What I Wish You Knew Auditioning
The Voice Club: Killer Singing Audition Cheat Sheet
A first blog post is tough. Lots of pressure to make an impression, send a message, "say something". So let me start with a somewhat incendiary question. One that might seem strange coming from someone who's been hired to teach vocal music:
I mean, the concept of singing is kind of strange, isn't it? If you tried to explain singing to an alien who's never heard of singing, how would you do it? "Speaking on pitch"? "Communicating melodically"? "Combining sounds that sound cool with other sounds that sound cool so hopefully you have a bunch of sounds that sound cool sounding cool together"?
There's also the fact that our instrument isn't something we carry in a case, or insert a reed into, or tune with a peg. Our instrument is literally a part of us, like...anatomically. So we can't just "tune" our voices. We have to very abstractly try and focus our attention to the pitch we hear and then, just...sing it. This also makes the process of singing incredibly personal. We're not just producing sound through a vessel, but rather we're producing sound from within us. So every time we sing to someone, we're sharing a part of ourselves with them.
And, finally - especially if you're in chorus - we sometimes sing together. Again, imagine an alien, completely unfamiliar with choral music, or singing, visiting Earth and trying to understand what it is that we're doing. We sometimes get together in groups, learn a song, then sing it together. All the while trying to get better as a group so the song can sound as clear and harmonious and beautiful as possible so we communicate the message and feeling of the song as clearly and effectively as possible.
I'd like to imagine, if the alien were able to observe and communicate, that it might say,
"Why doesn't everyone sing? You all use your voices to produce beautiful sounds that transcend language and communicate to masses of people. And you do it together, with other people of different backgrounds, races, religions, and skill levels!"
The simple fact is that everyone should sing. If not in chorus, then to a friend, or a sibling, or family. Whether you sing carols for the holidays, or a folk song at an open mic, or a pop song on a road trip, everyone should sing, as regularly as possible.
Rather than conclude, I'll turn it over to a wonderful man and musician, Deke Sharon, who essentially helped invent contemporary a cappella music and who has been a vital advocate for vocal music. Thanks for reading and just keep singing!