The most inspiring moment at the SAG awards

The best part of the SAG Awards last night was when actor Ernest Borgnine, 94, received his lifetime achievement award. He was incredibly moved, and he delivered the most beautifully inspiring speech of the night. Those words should resonate with anyone who work in the arts because it was one of those rare moments where you get to remember why you do what you do, and where you get the strength to keep on doing it. Here is part of his speech.

"There are millions of folks who would like to be in our shoes. We are a privileged few who have been chosen to work in this field. I hope that we will never let our dedication to our craft fail and that we will always give the best we possibly can to our profession so people can enjoy us in later years."

Picture from http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/Entertainment/20110131/ernest-borgnine-sag-110131/


Are tempos to blame for lack of energy?

At the last couple dress rehearsals for a musical, some directors see the lack of energy on stage and decide that the tempos are to blame for it.

Let's look at the journey of the tempos during the process of a musical: the music director sets the tempos for songs during music rehearsals. Then come in dance rehearsals, where tempos are adjusted to work with the dancing. Then come run-throughs where tempos are changed again. Finally come the last few tech rehearsals, where music directors need to make sure that the tempos last decided on are kept by the musicians while they learn the music.

After having gone through so many tempo, it gets hard to remember which one is right, but it's just at that time when everyone needs the most consistency that some directors will  blame the lack of energy on tempos being too slow. The main reason for the lack of energy in the last few runs is usually the lack of an audience. The audience will bring applause, thus filling in the silence between the songs which will tighten up the transitions. It will also bring energy to the performers. But some directors will ask music directors to speed up all of the songs.

Music directors end up having to make everything faster, which is problematic for the following reasons:
  1. It makes music directors doubt their own sense of what the right tempos are.
  2. It confuses the musicians who are trying to learn the music and who end up not having a clear sense of the songs. 
  3. The cast gets lost and starts panicking because tempos are different, and that worry pulls them out of their performance.
This confusion between low energy and slow tempo is a problem. Tempos may impact energy, but changing the tempos of every single song of a show are the cause for the lack of energy is not a realistic solution. 

Photo from http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/08/tom_dixon_to_gi.php


Should you join the musician's union?

Bart Kuebler is a pianist and music director, and he is currently finishing up his twenty years of service as an Army musician.

When I learned that he was also the president of the local musician's union in Norfolk, VA, I could not pass the opportunity to interview him, and have him teach me jazz.

You are president of the local musician’s union. What exactly is the musician’s union and what does it do?
The musician's union ideally is an association for musicians where they find a way to help each other. That’s what it should be, that’s not how it always is.

As an example, we come together as we did here with Virginia Symphony. We just negotiated a collective bargaining agreement. We’ve gotten 60 or so musicians to be able to negotiate their contract all at once, instead of all the musicians doing it individually, so we get a better deal for all of them.

"The union provides a pension benefit"

Also, it's a professional association for musicians. People join and think that they’ll get gigs but the union isn’t about that. There are booking agents for that. But a lot of the booking agents will only hire musicians from the union, because if you’re in there it indicates that you care about the professional issues that face musicians.

For example, it provides a pension benefit. The union lobbies congress for legislation that helps musicians. In the last few years, they’ve been able to get the FAA to loosen their restrictions on carry-on for instruments on airplanes.

They also got royalty for recording musicians which had never existed before (it was for the composers and publishers). So if Michael Jackson hadn’t written his songs he wouldn’t get royalty from the broadcast, just from the recording royalty. “American Pie” is one of the most played songs, but the guitar player made only $60 from the recording. From now on, he can get royalty from the song being played.

"Most musicians belong to two or more 
local chapters of the AFM"

How different is the musician’s union in comparison to other unions?
When it comes to artists unions, they give access to union-only auditions, by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) doesn’t do that. The trade off is that our due is much less. To join, you just go join. For Equity, or SAG, there are very specific work requirements.

We're different in that way but it's also a strength, because our union focuses on local market, while the other unions are more national. Its easier for musicians to make money locally, while an actor needs to go all over to work.

Most musicians belong to two or more local chapters of the AFM. Once you join the national union, you join the local chapter. Even though we provide the same kind of union benefits, we don’t provide the same kind of exclusive contracts that other unions give.

What's your role as the president of the local?
I set up new programs for membership, advise members on the best way to employ themselves as musicians and attend monthly executive board meetings (right now the union owns a building in downtown Norfolk, so we manage that asset for our members).

We work with local arts organization to establish a living wage scale for musicians that is beneficial to all (to ensure that they get the best players and that our players can make a living out of it).

I see myself as a representative and facilitator for our members for ensuring the best possible working conditions for our members. With the symphony, we discussed the length of services, health care and leave policy. We also have smaller agreements. However with a smaller employer we don’t have pension or health care coming from them.

"Gigs that might have previously come in, 
ethically, I need to differ to someone else"

What are the pluses and minuses for you as the president?
Some of the pros are that I get to meet a lot of people, I get to provide input on decisions that will affect a lot of musicians lives, and I get to represent a lot of my friends in matters that are very important to them.

Some of the minuses are that I spend more time doing the job than really getting paid for it (about $3,000 annually). Officers of the union have to take an oath that we won't use our position for personal gain. That means that gigs that might have previously come in, ethically, I need to differ to someone else. Occasionally someone will call the secretary and people would have referred to me, but now they can’t do that.

What changes would you like to see happen within the union?
I want to see our local provide more membership benefits. For example, one of the first things I try to do is have an accountant teach a tax class for our musicians, because musicians face unique tax situations.

I want to see if we can get studios available for our members to teach there for free. Part of their dues would pay for private lessons so you don’t have to use your home.

"I want to see our local provide 
more membership benefits"

I’m interested in making the pension benefit more easily available to all our union members. Right now it’s a  little harder for everybody to participate in. I want us to be more active in the Cultural Alliance of Hampton Roads, which is an art advocacy organization.

Who should join?
Any musician who considers themselves a professional or aspires to be a professional musician should join the union. I would really recommend that students who are in the last year of school join because another benefit of the union is the monthly publication “International Musicians” that lists auditions and job openings all over the country and abroad.

Different states have different labor laws. For example, Virginia is a right-to-work state, which means that union membership has no impact on you being hired for the job. All applicants to the job compete equally. Some states, you have to be a member of the union to be considered for a job. In Virginia you don’t have to be a member of the union to work.

"A bigger employer can hire non members, but will 
have to follow the benefits even for them"

When we have a contract with a bigger employer, they can hire non members, but the employer will have to follow the benefits even for those non-members, and it's frustrating. Because we wish those musicians would join the union and acknowledge what we do for them.

What are the requirements to join?
Every local sets its one requirements. For us, it's pay the initiation fee and you’re a member. Some locals I have heard of will have an audition requirement, but I've never encountered that. Fees are usually around $150 annually. And then you pay 2.5% work dues, on the minimum wage pays. So if you get a gig that pays $300 but the minimum wage scale is $100, then you pay 2.5% of $100. Anything above scale, you keep.

When you move, you remain a member of the national union. You resign from your local and you join your new local.


Time for a schools of music takeover?

I received the following email from an undergrad piano major at a big name university. I wish his situation was a rare one, but unfortunately I think that many music schools have major issues like the ones he describes or other ones. Students frustration comes from the fact that the schools seem to ignore those known issues instead of tackling them on.

I've been fascinated lately with the show "Tabatha's salon takeover," where famous hair stylist Tabatha goes into failing hair salons and reshapes everything about them, particularly how people think of their job. After reading the following email, I really wish there was a "Schools of music takeover." Here is his email.

"Mr. Y (the names are changed for anonymity) is the head of the department. He's the biggest piece of *** in the world. I had him for two semesters... it was the biggest waste of time ever. He doesn't care about his undergraduate students at all, and would frequently double-book lesson times. I'd show up and there would be another person there waiting to have their lesson also... he'd always pick the other student, because it was always a grad student (I was his only undergrad). He'd also miss lessons quite frequently, in fact I think he short changed me at least four or five lessons in one of the semesters that I had with him. When he'd miss my lesson he'd usually suggest that I come to his house on the weekend and have my lesson there. He's completely unhelpful, won't use up the entire hour (maybe forty minutes tops) and the only way that he knows how to make any sort of suggestion is to play the entire piece for whoever the student is. He's horribly unreliable by email, he answers his phone/texts in the middle of lessons, he's ALWAYS out of town, and he's rude. Finally, as the head of the department he is virtually useless. He knows next to nothing about degree requirements, teachers, classes- he relies on his assistant to do all of this sort of work for him.

"I felt terrified by him and it was always clear 
he didn't think that I belonged in his studio"

Then there's Mr. W.  Also another one that doesn't like undergraduate students. However he is better than Mr. Y in that he is reliable via email, and gives each student their required amount of lessons. He is extremely old fashioned and one sided when it comes to his teaching/his relationship with music. He always picks his student's literature for them, and won't allow them to move on to the next piece until the others have been mastered completely. He's a stickler when it comes to fingerings... He'll spend an entire lesson fixing your fingerings on one or two pages. He's very opinionated, plus he demands that things be precisely his way. Some people really truly love him, and feel that he's one of the best teachers out there. I personally felt terrified by him and it was always clear that he didn't think that I belonged in his studio... when I told him that I was leaving, he was absolutely relieved and said something snarky like "I really think that's a good decision". I wasn't quite prepared to study with someone as incredibly strict and formal as he is. With him, if you do the work that he demands (and he demands a LOT) and perform exactly the way he wants you to, you'll be fine and he'll love you. But I needed someone more inspiring and less intimidating. Also, the guy is getting really old. I think he's at least eighty.

"My current teacher is fantastic but incoming 
students would never end up studying with her."

Mrs. M is the only teacher at school that I haven't studied with. Like Mr. W, she's getting really old... All of her students love her, but I'm not convinced that she is very demanding. To me she really seems to be way too sweet... and will sometimes spend entire lessons shooting the breeze with her students. I hear that she used to be fiery, and quite inspiring. Perhaps old age has subdued her and made her... well... a happy old lady? She's also a big wineo- I've smelled booze on her on many occasions.

And then there's Mrs. Z. She's my current teacher and QUITE fantastic. She's pragmatic, non judgmental, reliable, open minded, funny, and inspiring. BUT incoming students would most likely NEVER end up studying with her. I had to fight my way with tooth and nail to get into her studio. The thing is, she's a part time teacher, which means that the full time studios have to fill up before students are placed in her studio. The piano teachers here are notorious for picking as few students as possible- their calendars will never fill up to the point where that will happen.

Another thing to take into perspective: there were five piano majors in my class when I was a freshman. I'm currently the only one left of those five. The other four either left the school completely or they changed majors. The ridiculous turn-over rate should speak volumes without my personal opinion."

Picture from http://thebrokennote.com/aboutus.aspx


Should you try to play all the right notes?

All of us pianists try to play all the right notes every time, but comes the week before a performance where it's clear that no matter how much we focus, that one spot always ends up sounding like anything but music.

Here comes the most important question: should we try to hit all the notes of that spot and hope for the best, or plan ahead and take away some of the notes that are in the way?

Pieces of music are sacred, and trying to change them in any way is considered a sacrilege. Trying to play the right notes seems to be the most loyal decision, but if you know that you will play wrong notes in that one spot, isn't that knowingly changing the score?

The main goal of a performance is to bring out the musicality out of a piece. The best way to do that is to keep with the flow of the music, through phrasing, accurate rhythms, melodies and harmonies. We all know that when we try to play a spot that never comes out right, we get tense and whatever we end up playing is not musical (even if we miraculously played the right notes).

Why not take the notes that prevent us from best serving the composer out? Because the most important aspects of a piece are phrasing, rhythms, melodies and harmonies, any adjustment can be done with creativity as long as those are not changed. If the melody is in octaves with many jumps making us always play the wrong pitches, wouldn't it make more musical sense to take away the octaves and play the actual melody the composer intended? If a chord is spelled too wide for your hand, instead of playing each chord with a roll, which makes the tempo slower, increases the chances of wrong notes and changes what the composer wanted in terms of rhythm and articulation, why not reshape the chord to fit your hand?

Trying our best to play all the notes during practice is our duty. But going up on stage for a performance knowing that we will try but won't play the right notes is more of a disservice to a composer's work than if we adjust the piece to fit us in order to maintain its musical integrity.

Picture from http://brassmusician.com/wrong-notes/


Are student recitals a good thing?

I have been reading "The Piano Shop on the Left Bank," where amateur-piano-lover Thad Carhart writes about finding the perfect piano, and his experience learning how to play growing up.

The following passage surprised me because it challenged what I always thought to be a necessity: the student recital.

"Recitals seem to me to be based on an enormous confidence game that sets up every prospective pianist to be the next Horowitz.

Only a handful of soloists will, of course, rise to the top and make careers out of their music, but the conceit is that any talented youngster might have this capacity, this dubious and rare gift.

And so there has developed over many years a system for subjecting thousands upon thousands of young musicians to the ordeal of playing repeatedly in public to see if they have the peculiar sort f talent that flourishes in front of others."

There has got to be an easier way to go about this! One that wouldn't alienate young students, our future audience.

Photo from http://amyromero.wordpress.com/tag/childrens-photography/


The problem of online doctorates

I was a guest at a wedding when I asked a guest at my table what his occupation was. He said that he was doing his DMA at Boston University. How fun, I was as well! How come had I never seen him around?

"I'm doing the online doctorate."

WHAT?!!! The online doctorate? ONLINE? DOCTORATE?

There I was, struggling with an insane schedule every day, having to ask permission to miss a class, and paying millions of dollars in tuition, all so I could get a pretty diploma with a particle in front of my name. While at the same time someone could get the same pretty diploma without all the hassle?

Turns out that my school (out of all the other schools in the US that could have done it), my school had launched in 2005 the first online music doctorate. The only thing I'm grateful for is that at least they offer it only in music education. I can't imagine how much angrier I would have been if they had offered it in performance. How could one possibly get to the highest level of their instrument online?

The difficulty of grad school is beyond the school work. Most students in grad school are professionals in their field. Fitting in work in order to pay for school is incredibly hard when classes are during the day and schedules change frequently. So knowing that some people get a free pass challenges the whole system.

Students have always accepted the hardships of going to grad school because of the understanding that committing to school full time was the best way to learn. But if accredited schools give the exact same diploma to online students, why would anyone ever choose to loose their job, be treated as if they had never worked professionally before, move, and take out student loans?


Picture from http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/323/university-of-panjab-%E2%80%93-anyone-2/


How to make it as a jazz singer

When you're in grad school, everyone is motivated to make a living as a performer, but not everyone will make it. Jazz singer Amy Yassinger is one of the ones who made it, in just a few years after we both graduated with our masters from Western Michigan University.

You moved to Chicago after your masters degree. How did you get from being new in a new city to doing gigs most nights of the week?
I started working side jobs. At one point I had side jobs between demos, singing, teaching, and I worked at Victoria secret. I was going crazy for a while. December of 2009 this teacher was fired at the high school I was teaching at, and I was handed the studio. I quit all my jobs and I started leading my own group in July 2009. I just kind of built it from there. First gig I had, I had responded to an ad and I gave them my website and they hired me on. Other places I would sit in with other bands. Venues liked me and they wanted to hire me with my own group. Full time performing started in January of 2010, with about two to five gigs a week.

"Venues liked me and they wanted to hire me"

Do you feel that the education you received helped you in the real world?
It didn't help me with dealing with the business end of it, but it helped just learning songs and working with people. I started my own company for weddings and restaurants, and places wanted to write one check only, so I had to open up my own business (LLC Yazz Jazz). For tax purposes I pay musicians through the business versus myself. I learned that from other musicians, not in school. I didn't learn how to schmooze with people, constantly emailing and calling and showing up, following up. It's annoying.

"You have to convince people that 
musicians are people too"

What do you know now that you wished you knew while in school?
That I should have had a job at the school and pay towards my education while in school, because student loan debt is pretty obscene. I feel like I got a diverse experience musically between University of Miami and Western Michigan University. I was in big band and rock band in Miami, and Western was more rigid and strict with Gold Company and more complex jazz songs. Miami gave me the real world experience, because I had a teacher who would send me on her gigs to sub.

"There's always someone 
willing to do the gig for free"

What aspects of your job surprised you?
How often you have to convince people who are hiring you that musicians are people too. For example they don't realize they need to feed musicians and pay them a decent wage so that they can live. I just flat out tell them: "listen it's typical to feed and pay the musicians at least this amount. If that's not gonna work out in your budget let me know what will and we will figure something out." You don't want to anger them because you want them to hire you, and there's always someone out there who is willing to do it for free or cheaper. You have to convince the musicians that they should be happy that they're working at all. It's better to work and make $80 than not work at all. 9 times out of 10, that $80 gig will lead to a private party that will pay $150.

"You can't be complacent"

What do you think is the main challenge of people of your generation who want to be or are performers?
Getting a chance, getting an opportunity. I think a lot of people want other people to do the work for them. A lot of it is being at the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, Ultimately being flexible, being willing to sing or play songs that they don't like or that they deem stupid. Great example, we had a woman on Friday night screaming at us to play dance music, and we're playing jazz standards and love songs that couples were dancing too, and she wanted rowdy music. We ended up playing Chain of Fools, because you have to please every one you can.

Any other thought?
You can't sleep. You have to constantly email people and make phone calls. You can't be complacent.



What should happen when you get nervous

Students go into their last lesson before a performance, get very nervous and play poorly because of that. And what do teachers do about it? NOTHING.

Because being nervous is so common, a lot of teachers don't realize their role in decreasing or increasing the level of fear their students have for their upcoming performance.

The goal of a student performer is to perform. But because so much of the daily life of a student performer is to be in the practice room and to take lessons, that means there isn't much practicing performing going on.

Because students being nervous is inevitable, many teachers assume that it's due to lack of experience, and that only more experience will help. While it is indeed due to lack of experience, it is the teacher's job to show the students what the normal level of nervousness is, and what is beyond normal nervousness.

It is the teacher's responsibility to help the students figure out what is going on, and how they can deal with their nerves during a  performance. Endlessly practicing perfect fingerings or phrasings until the last minute before a performance won't make a difference on the day of the recital if the student has no concept of how their nerves will change their performance, and how they can deal with it.

When a student comes into their last few lessons before a performance, they become more and more nervous in front of their teacher. The way the student reacts then is an indication as to what will actually happen on the day of the performance. Some students will take everything faster, or slower, or they will get tense, or they'll forget everything.

It's crucial at that time to address nervousness. By not addressing it, it's like ignoring the big elephant in the room. And telling the student that her playing is unacceptable, or telling her that she'll be fine not only won't help, it is actually a lie. If the student is nervous at the lesson, she will be nervous when she performs. But the good news is, her nervousness will come back in the same way!

So it's the perfect time to have a conversation with the student about what is happening. A great question to ask is: what are you thinking of when you're playing right now that is different from when you play in the practice room? The answer to that question will help shape a plan of action in preparation to the performance.

Once the problem is acknowledged, the student's fear will actually go down. That's because students know that their playing will suffer, but until a teacher helps them they won't have realized how so. That means they had two fears: the actual fear of nervousness, and the fear of that fear because they didn't know how to handle it.

Once they know what their own personal tendency when they're nervous is, they can take that information into the remaining of their practice sessions. They are now in control, therefore not afraid of being afraid anymore.

When students come to a lesson and get really nervous, as much as they know their poor performance comes from their nervousness, they become ashamed. If the teacher starts telling them all they did wrong in the performance without addressing why it went wrong in the first place, the student will have even higher expectations for themselves.

That will lead to even more nervousness on the big day, and because it was not dealt with correctly, the student's performance will suffer even more from the nerves. Students need to know that they won't play at 100% of their capacity on the day of. They also need to know that not only is it ok, but also normal.

Once they expect to be nervous, when things start crumbling down in performance they will know what's going on and stay focused. Otherwise, they wouldn't comprehend what's happening and a vicious circle would start, making them more and more powerless as the performance went on.

It is a teacher's job to get educated and to educate their students on the topic. There are countless great books on overcoming performance anxiety out there, so there's no excuse.

Being nervous is normal. Playing less well because of it is too. For a teacher not to address the problem is not.


Picture from http://www.canadianfamily.ca/articles/article/performance-anxiety/4/


5 steps to plan music rehearsals

The process of putting on a musical is much smoother when the music director makes a schedule of music rehearsals ahead of time.

Not all theaters ask for it but if you don't take the matter into your own hands, you'll end up either struggling to teach everything in twice less the amount of time the music needs, or time will be wasted because music rehearsals will be longer than they need to be.

Here are the steps to create a schedule that works.
  1. Rate every song in order of difficulty: I have a ranking system of three points, 1 for easy and 3 for hard. If the first half of a song is solo, followed by a chorus section, I rank each section separately.
  2. Estimate how long each song will take to be learned: Chorus songs average 1 to 2 hours to be learned, with a review of 20 to 45 min at a later date. Solo and duos may take as little as 20 min to be learned, particularly for songs that people already know, or as long as 1 hour or more for challenging songs.
  3. Put the songs that have the same musical material together: if the first song has a reprise in the second act, put them next to each other in your schedule, add up the hours you originally planned for them, and readjust. So if you the total time came to be 2.5 hours, 2h will probably be enough since it's the same music material, and since you're teaching it all at once.
  4. Organize your schedule by ensemble numbers, solo and duos: if you care about the order in which you teach the ensemble songs in, organize them by order of preference. Put the songs of each character together, to see if working on them in one rehearsal is a possibility or not.
  5. Send the schedule to the manager and the creative team: now starts the conversation of what days will rehearsal needs to happen on. If the show calls for difficult choreography, you might have to teach those songs in a different order than the order you put them in your preference list, so that choreo rehearsals can start sooner on those songs. You know what your needs are, and then you adjust them accordingly so they work with other people's needs as well.
Here are some examples of schedules I created, one for "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," and one for "Songs for a New World".


Photo from http://www.examiner.com/movie-in-los-angeles/scheduling-news-warner-bros-walt-disney-and-20th-century-fox-announces-release-dates


Wanna get better at sight-reading?

I believe that our ability to sight-read is directly related to our ability to read out loud.

Growing up, my mother had me read books out loud. She would stop me if my tone of voice did not match the message, if I did not breathe in a place that made sense for the phrase structure, or if I didn't change my voice when a new character was speaking.

The focus was never on reading new words, but on interpretation.

I hadn't had the occasion to read out loud for years until last night, when my husband told me he had read out loud for his Navy shipmates a very difficult section of a book. So of course, I had to try reading it out loud myself to see if I was still able to read without tripping on words.

That's when I realized that it felt the same reading out loud as it did sight reading a piece. In both cases I look for the structural points of the music, and interpretation takes center stage over the actual pitches.

I've always been a strong sight-reader, and now I wonder if that's thanks to all the "words-sight-reading" my mother made me do (thanks mum).

Picture from http://www.fortcollinsreadaloud.org/


Do you need a break?

Union rules concerning breaks are put in place to promote a creative environment for the rehearsal process. In today's rehearsals, these rules are strictly followed, while the reason they were created is often overlooked. Instead of actors and creative teams working together towards the same goals, actors start working towards the breaks, and creative teams feel they get in the way.

But breaks are not the opposite to rehearsal. They function hand in hand, like breathing in and out. Time off provides a chance for actors and the creative team to go from a fully focused rehearsal into a more relaxed state of mind in order to allow for the next session to be as focused.

Strictly following union guidelines won't allow for people to fully commit to rehearsal. They end up constantly checking their watch and planning what they'll do on their next break. Also, poorly timed breaks will not allow for the cast to rest properly. When a cast is far into a rehearsal process the actors are so involved emotionally and physically, that 10 min is not enough time to regain enough energy to continue.

Strict breaks also can interrupt the flow of rehearsal. It's important for a cast to see how far they've come during rehearsal and to run through the material they've just learned before the break. But when the break interrupts this work, the cast doesn't get to see the big picture of the material they've just worked on. When they get back from break ready for a fresh start, they must revisit the material they had hoped to put a check mark next to.

Common sense, empathy and tuning into the cast's needs should be as important in the decision to take a break as the union rules are. The real question we must ask is: what is best for the actor? The reason union rules are in place is to help answer that question and to avoid abuse in rehearsal, but they must be used in such a way to allow for good rehearsals.

Too strict breaks make people either not committed or overworked, neither of which allows for a fulfilling rehearsal (not for the actors, not for the creative team).

Breaks given at the right time for the right length of time are the key to successful rehearsals.


Picture from http://www.fastweb.com/college-scholarships/articles/2039-scholarship-spotlight-you-deserve-a-financial-break-5000


How to have a career like Tommy Tedesco

The Navy School of Music had a special screening of award-winning  documentary "The Wrecking Crew" by Denny Tedesco, on fame studio musicians of the 50s and 60s in LA, including Tommy Tedesco, Carole Kay, Dan Randi, Hal Blaine, etc.

Here are the pearls of wisdom from the movie.
  • How to Know if a Musician is Good- one of the studio musicians said that because all the musicians were always playing gigs, nobody could tell if someone was good or not from how much they played, but from how many gigs they turned down.The person who had to say no to the most gigs was the best player in town.
  • 4 Reasons to Accept a Gig: according to guitar player Tommy Tedesco the four reasons to accept a gig are:
    1. for money
    2. for fun
    3. for experience
    4. for connections
  • How to be Professional: Drummer Earl Palmer talked about how he didn't want to be associated with the pop songs he was recording because he thought he was better than what he was playing. But then he learned that to be professional he had to play the music like he loved it. He wisely said: 
"It's not beneath you if it supports you."


Why there aren't more women jazz piano players

After years of wanting to learn how to play jazz piano, I finally scheduled a piano jazz lesson.

I asked my friend Bart Kuebler to teach me because he's been working as a military pianist for close to twenty years, he's a great teacher and he's a wonderfully nice guy.

We got to the piano, and he asked: "Can you reach the interval of a 10th with your left hand?"

Can I reach a 10th? Me? My little 5.1 ft me? Uh...
I tried to play a 10th (miracles happen I hear).

Miracles didn't happen. Bart said "That's too bad. So much of that jazz sound comes from the 10th in the left hand. Because then when you play it sounds like you have three hands with that tenor voice in the middle."

"I always thought that that was the reason why there weren't more women jazz piano players out there. Because they can't play a 10th in their left hand."


Is it time for new audition songs?

I've come across books and websites with monologues written just for auditions, NOT taken from a show.

Because I'm on the music side of music theatre, I'm not sure how often those free standing monologues are used, but I certainly wonder why there isn't such a resource for songs (or why I haven't come across them if they do exist).

Imagine, if songs were written with audition as their sole purpose, a 16 bar or a 32 bar wouldn't be a cut. Each song would have an emotional arch and would show off the singer's voice by having a climax right where it needs to be.

Picture from http://www.taltopia.com/s/audition-songs


What your brain has to do with your creativity

This guy has got to be the coolest scientist in the world!
What do jazz players and rappers have in common?  Can creativity be taught? A few answers and lots of questions!



Why classical music is dying

Classical music is dying. Everybody knows it and most people seem to agree that more education on the topic to children is the answer. The thing is, there is and there has been tons of education  for kids with in-school visiting artists, field trips to the opera, and more. But do those kids later join in the ranks of classical music lovers? Nope.

In my opinion, here are the two reasons classical music is dying.
I'm not saying that I personally find it boring, but if you put yourself in the position of people who do not live for music, the regular folks looking for a fun night out, these days having instruments play on stage doesn't hold people's attention for very long. We can have a discussion as long as we want about how technology is changing us for the worst, and how people are looking for entertainment instead of art, but at the end of the day, this is what's going on and we can't ignore it or wish it were different.

It might be time for us to go back to the old tradition of having different music formations play in a single concert, and time to consistently include visual effects (beyond a projection of a different art piece for each piece).  Keeping people wondering what's gonna happen next is key. It might be as simple as having a conductor tell anecdotes about the composer, the piece, or even better, the rehearsal process (NOT for education purposes but for entertainment purposes).

Again, we can argue all day long that we would be killing the true spirit of classical music as an art form, but not acknowledging the needs of the audience of today is ultimately what will kill the art form. If you don't believe me, look at the success of the Three Pianists, which did exactly what I'm talking about in terms of making classical music fun and not boring.
Classical music has been for several decades a sign of social class, and many people think that going to classical music concerts is reserved to a certain elite, to intellectuals. Part of what carries that idea on is all the unspoken rules of classical music events: do not go to the bathroom during the concert, do not wear sneackers, do not whisper to your neighbor, do not show your excitement until the end of the last movement, etc.

Even if people are educated and know those rules, in today's world, they just don't work. It's time to go back to what classical concerts were for so many centuries, and allow people to talk, wear what they want, move around and clap whenever they like.

Sure, artists are gonna have to adjust, but it makes more sense to ask the professionals to be flexible rather than an entire audience.

The issue of classical music right now is that it is caught in a problem that it has created for itself in the name of philosophical ideology: how to gain audience members while maintaining our own rules and refusing to give the audience what they want.


Picture from http://corporatetalker.wordpress.com/2008/07/


Are you paying attention to all the details?

Professionalism comes from attention to details. That's why in theatre, people rehearse for three weeks, spending many hours focusing on details: dynamics, diction, spacing, steps, etc.

And then comes in the band. And they get only two rehearsals, maybe three if they're lucky. Many theatres struggle money wise, and a quick (and bad) answer is to cut the hours of rehearsal for the musicians.

But after all that time making sure to get every detail perfectly right, why risk it all by not giving the musicians the time they need to pay as much attention to details?

The same way the rest of the world isn't able to see the details, to realize that all dancers' arms are at the same level or not, most theatre people can't tell if the musicians are phrasing that line exactly the same, or if the balance between instruments is exact, etc. And because many theatre people are in charge of theatres, the answer to financial tightness is to reduce the amount of rehearsals for the band because they'll always sound alright no matter what.

When I've mentioned in anticipation the need for extra rehearsals, I've had producers or directors tell me: "oh, those musicians are real pros, they learn really fast, you'll see."

Does it mean that the three-week rehearsal period for the actors is only there because the actors are NOT "real pros?" That they learn slowly? That's insulting.

Actors could get a show up and running in one week. They could fake their way through it, just like musicians are forced to do. But actors and musicians alike wouldn't get to the level they know they could be at if they had a proper amount of rehearsal.

How tight the musicians are impacts the entire show, and influences all the details that have been worked on by the actors. Musicians can be the  best at their instrument, they still can't guess what the right tempo is for each song without rehearsal. And if tempi aren't right, all those carefully crafted dance steps won't go very far.

The same people who say that the musicians are great and don't need much rehearsal time are the first people to complain and blame the music director when the tempo isn't perfect or when the balance isn't quite right.

Well, guess what people? Details don't happen on their own. Not for actors, not for musicians. No matter how pro they all are. If you don't give the band enough time to rehearse and you're wondering why they're not tight, the only person you can blame is yourself.


Picture from http://www.hodgepodgegarage.com/


What Theatre can learn from the Military- Part 2

In the first part of his interview, Michael Kieloch told us about the importance of a clear chain of command for people to understand and respect each others roles better. In this part of the interview, Michael answers questions about the special challenge a music director faces, on group dynamic, and on how to maintain authority.

Out of the three leaders of a musical, the music director is different in that he actually plays the show. In the end of the rehearsal process, the choreographer and the director watch the show and give their comments. 

It's at that time that the music director ends up being given comments, while not being able to give much of them because of being a part of the show and not getting to have that outside perspective. 
How may he retain his leadership position at that time?

It would be beneficial for the music director if the choreographer and the director would give him time to prepare their input and put their thoughts down on paper, while as music director you haven't had that opportunity. It's also important to leave a bit of a time for people to collect emotions after a run.

"It's tough to retain your leadership when you don't have the opportunity to have a perspective"

That's a tough situation to retain your leadership when you don't have the opportunity to have a perspective. Is there a possibility that you could record the performance and reviewing it afterward? You can't necessarily sit back and watch it while the others can, but if you record it then you can collect your thoughts.

Many people tend to test  their leaders at first, which ends up happening often in an industry where you work with new people every six weeks or so, or where you get to work with your musicians for just a couple of rehearsals before the shows. What is the best way to lead to gain trust and respect from your cast and musicians in the quickest way possible?

Unfortunately that's a real tough challenge because typically building that group dynamic, it takes time. A group goes through four stages to build: the forming, storming, norming and performing. Every group, whether it's a group of scouts on a camping trip, a military unit, or an orchestra, every group goes through it.

 "Building a group dynamic takes time"

At first, the people just get used to each other so people build their first impression of people, they decide how they want to sit in the group dynamic, get a feel for how things work, the group is not cohesive at first, they're not gonna rally around something immediately. At that first stage, that's when it's important to establish roles. After the first impression, that's when they're gonna get their behavior from for the rest of the experience.

"Testing is part of a natural group progression"

Second stage is when now everyone is part of the group, everyone knows each other, any sort of issues the group starts tackling them: personal issues, issues about performance, dealing with conflicts, etc.That's when testing happens. It's part of a natural group progression. People figure out what your leadership style is gonna be. The norming phase is when people work together, when the group is accomplishing its goals, the team is working together, cohesion and team spirits. Unfortunately, going through this process takes some time.

In military unit, the best leaders build the unit and build respect for themselves, etc. It's a long term effort. Sometimes though they do need to accomplish something quickly. Ultimately in the military, whether or not an individual has a chance to learn or become the new leader, they all respect their rank structure in the military, so regardless if you're in charge of a new group of people, if I have to go do something with them that day, everyone would fall back on our rank and position of authority. So unfortunately in your case, you don't have the rank and the authority behind the rank structure. In military if people don't follow the chain of command they get reprimanded, they may loose money.

"Establishing authority in a 
short amount of time is tough"

Establishing authority in a short amount of time without the benefit of a chain of command is tough, because people are going through the stages without the long term. Address each instance as they come along. You want to make a point, if you try to figure out an issue and people figure it out among themselves, you can say "I appreciate it, but I need to be involved in the process. Look we can sit here all day until you tell me, or you can fill me in and figure it out." Don't let it go.

Make them understand that you value their knowledge and their skills but they still need to run those things through you. Something as simple as some tools a commander has in the military, like he could formally reprimand someone in the unit and reduce their pay, or other unpleasant thing that people don't want to do , they have to do what is asked. If someone gives you a hard time, maybe you can say "fine, we'll sit here until you guys will tell me. We'll treat you like children until we can act like children."

"You don't have control over the individual
that you would have over time"

It's tough because you don't have control over the individual that you would have over time. It's harder if there is a contractor, unless you can resolve it with the contractor directly, it's difficult because it takes away another tool to motivate musicians "if you perform well, I'll re-hire you", you can't hang that over their head, so you have to find other things to motivate them. That's tough.

Any last thoughts?
Like I said, look at everything, it's important if you're gonna apply a military leadership model, handle it more formally, establish some formal lines of authority and work out things ahead of time, and agreements with people ahead of them, that they understand that there is a formal structure.

"Challenges in theater are difficult, 
but leadership usually is"

I think that will definitely help the group in the long run because it gives you tools  as a leader to properly lead a group and follow the structure, recognize who they need to respond to and who they don't. It's made for a  healthier group dynamic. Obviously a lot of challenges and unique scenarios in music and theatre, you have to find creative solutions for the benefit of the whole group. Difficult, but leadership usually is.



What Theatre can learn from the Military, Part 1

I met Michael Kieloch in his apartment where I was renting the guest bedroom through airbnb.com. It was in his kitchen late at night that we got into an awesome conversation on leadership, business and theatre.

He is currently in the process of creating a company that will offer leadership seminars in the military style, inspired from his years in the Air Force Reserve. His ideas on how to apply military techniques to the civilian world make for a much needed fresh perspective on theatre.

What is the military style of leadership?
There is not one style, but there are a lot of particular leadership traits and programs that the military uses universally: emphasis on the interpersonal relationships between people, taking care of people who lead and taking care of your unit, accomplishing the mission successfully. The big difference between the focus for the military and civilian is that the priority for military is to accomplish the mission first, and then take care of people, which is the reverse in the civilian world.

"Most leaders don't always have all the knowledge that the collective people on the group have"

Let's talk about specific problems of the performing arts. I wrote an article about rehearsal backseat drivers. How should a leader handle one?
If a person tries to take charge, it's likely that they must feel like something is going wrong and they want to help, or they feel they know better, so what you can do is try to channel their energy in a positive way and re-channel that. Make it a point to talk to that person and find out what their ideas are, try to find out the ideas that the people in that group have. Most leaders don't always have all the knowledge that the collective people on the group are gonna have. Some people in the group might have more experience, have done something longer.

"The group member has to understand that once 
the ideas are shared, the leader decides"

The goal is to be engaging the individual by saying "I recognize you have a lot of experience and I really appreciate that you want to share your ideas, because you want the group to be successful, and I want the group to be successful. Now is the time to share with me your ideas," and listening to them, and then afterward making a firm decision as a leader, then saying "I can appreciate your experience and your ideas, now we will do things in this way" (whether it's following their ideas or not). The group member has to understand that once the ideas are shared the leader decides. Once you have their ideas, make it clear that the decision is final, and that they'll have to follow it. It's not an open call to interject. Otherwise it breaks the group dynamic.

In musical theatre, how can the choreographer and music director function as leaders when the director always has the final word in the end?
In military you have individuals who might be in charge of a specific unit in a larger unit. Some people in maintenance, someone for logistics, someone for supplies, all these different sections. You might have a commander for all the sections who may not have any experience in the specifics, or knows a little bit of everything. There is a challenge because you might make a decision and the commander above you might reverse that. If the leaders disagree, it's best not to do it in front of the entire group as much as possible.

"If two leaders disagree, it's best no to do it 
in front of the entire group"

If for example, the director disagrees with what the choreographer is doing, the best possible way to do it is to take the choreographer aside and speak about it privately, so it doesn't undermine the choreographer. It doesn't bring the emotions of feeling that you were embarrassed in front of the group. If someone reprimands you in front of your peers, someone is more likely to make a snark remark or handle it poorly because they don't like being embarrassed.

If you have a director who is in the habit of counter-managing or doing things in front of the whole group, creating arguments, it would be important to talk to them and say " I appreciate that you're in charge, that you see the bigger picture, but when you have issues, please step aside and talk about it in private."

Producers usually stay away from a show's rehearsal process until the last few rehearsals, and then make a few comments to the director. However, sometimes, producers will start acting as another director in rehearsals, or will be adamant of certain things having to happen their way for the show. 
How may a director remain in charge when the person who hired them to be in charge is the person frightening their leadership?

It's an issue that the military would call chain of command. In the military there is a clear chain, a clear line of who is in charge.  There is a clear organization, who reports to whom, etc. It's important in the same regard that everyone acknowledges that. Make the delineation between people's responsibilities clear.

"In the military there is a chain of command, 
a clear line of who is in charge."

This is another matter of handling that privately, it's one of those scenarios that if the producer has agreed that it's not within their scope, that it's not their job to be directly in charge of the cast, and they come in and say "I want this", it's ok for the musicians and actors to say "I know who you are, you are the producer, but in our chain of command, I'm only responsible to do what my direct boss tells me."

In the first day when everyone gets together, they should agree on the chain of command, who is in charge, from the top all the way down. This is how the organization goes. The producer and director need to come together before the rehearsal process starts to agree. 



How to make it in the States as a foreign artist

Being a performer can be tough. So is being a foreigner. So if, like me, you are a foreign performer, you know what walls you're up against.

 Not only do you have to find the gigs, but then you have to make sure you're legal to work the gig. Like your fellow artists, you want to apply for grants and scholarships, but many of them allow only Americans to apply. So, let's face it, you've got a double challenge on your hands.

That's one of those things that when people don't experience directly, they just don't understand. Which is why I was pretty happy when I found an entire section of the New York Foundation for the Arts dedicated to immigrant artists.  

Their resource page includes not only jobs, mentoring programs, fellowships, residency awards, but also legal and financial assistance and immigrants rights and advocacy.

They also host community events, which you can see videos of here. Topics include visa application and legal issues for immigrant artists and finding funds and resources specifics for immigrant artists.

Maybe life as an immigrant artist can get easier with their help.



How to audition for amusement parks

Amusement parks are always in need of musicians, actors and dancers. Each park tends to have an average of four different shows going on at the same time, with between six to twenty people working on any given show.

Many auditions are happening in the upcoming weeks for the following parks:
  • Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA and in Tampa, FL. They need people year round, as they have Christmastown in December. Pay is about $450 per week.
  • Disney. You can do a search per location. Auditions are this month and in February in Florida, California and New York. They do not accept video submissions.
  • Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH: their website indicates pay rates to be around $500 a week.
  • Sesame Place in Langhorne, PA. Pay rate start at $7.80/hour
  • Six Flags covers a lot of the US, with locations in Chicago, Georgia, LA, San Francisco, DC, Kentucky, Missouri, etc. They accept video auditions. 
  • Elitch Gardens in Colorado. Auditions are in February, and they accept video submissions until the end of March.
  • Dollywood in Tennessee, the amusement park of country singer Dolly Parton. Auditions are this month in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Nashville and at the park. They also accept video auditions. The average pay is $400 a week, but you only work five days a week, which is better than other parks.
  • Hershey Park in Hershey, PA. They haven't posted their audition dates up yet, but they have a list of producer's contacts from last year's shows. They pay approximately $500 a week for performers, but they do not provide housing. They do have housing, but you have to share a room, and pay $340 a week for it. 
Working as a performer in amusement parks is best for summer work if you are in college or right out of college and are looking for professional experience.

The show's schedule is usually intense, playing four to six times a day, six to seven days a week. Pay varies from park to park, from hourly wage to weekly wage, and what truly makes the difference is whether the park provides housing and food or not.


    New Year's Cheer

    Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all had a great night yesterday, prepping the new year to a great start!

    As I'm sure you did, I relaxed all day today. That's when I stumbled upon this article, titled: "are you valuable?"

    The article asked four main questions:
    1. Do your actions create a positive buzz about you and your work?
    2. Do you make others want you as a part of their team?
    3. Do they make your employer cringe at the thought of losing you to a competitor?
    4. Do they make your customers excited about referring you to their colleagues?
    That's when I realized that the most important quality one can ever have is good cheer. When you go to work with good cheer, everything else falls into place:
    • you become more fun, which creates a positive buzz around you.
    • you end up being more respectful, which makes other artists want to work with you.
    • you are less fearful and more confident, which makes your director or conductor want to keep you working for them.
    • you become more caring and excited, which makes your students and fellow musicians want to refer you to their friends.

     As you entered this New Year in good cheer, make sure to maintain that good cheer throughout the year!

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