Sometimes the best lessons are ones that don’t appear on the syllabus.

Ask just about any professional performer what the most stressful part of their career is, and they’ll answer in one word: “Auditions.”  We never get over it, somehow—no matter how long we’ve been doing theatre, no matter how well we know the material, no matter how “right” we know we are for the part, auditioning always seems to generate a special kind of stomach-knot.

That’s why I’m thrilled to announce a new opportunity for Musical Theatre performers of all ages in Central Pennsylvania: The “Second-Saturday” Audition Workshop series!

From 10 AM to noon on Saturday, September 8, and continuing on the second Saturday of each month following, I and a plucky group of MT performers will gather in the upstairs common room of The Perfect 5th Musical Arts Center in Mechanicsburg to practice audition material and “workshop” it—identifying strengths and opportunities for improving each performance, so every performer can bring their “A Game” to their next audition, whether it’s for a community theatre production, a college admissions audition, or a professional gig!

You don’t have to have an audition in your immediate future to participate—remember, your goal is to get so solid on your audition material that you can do it even with a roomful of disinterested strangers judging you. So even if you’re looking ahead to an audition that’s a few months away, it’s a great idea to start preparing early, and then to bring your material back for multiple sessions so you can celebrate your progress and increase your confidence as the date draws closer!

For more details and to register for one or more sessions, see the “Projects” section of my website or contact The Perfect 5th.  I’ll look forward to working with you!

 

I wrote the following as an “open-ish” letter to the cast of a high-school show I music-directed back in 2014, and originally shared it with them as a post to the cast Facebook group, on the day of the “Apollo Awards,” a local fundraiser event that mimics the Tony Awards, but for high-school musicals.  Seems like every year at this time (and sometimes at other times) I feel an urge to revisit these words.  So, to anyone who’s found a calling in “show biz”:

Well, folks, today’s the day.  By the time you call it a night tonight you’ll know whether our work together is officially “Apollo-Award-winning,” or… or not.

It would be an overstatement of my noble indifference for me to say I don’t care about tonight’s results.  I do care, though not by much, and not because I hope we “win.”  The “not by much” part is a symptom of the wisdom that experience brings: I’ve “won” awards and competitions with work I was dissatisfied with, and some of my best work has “lost” recognition I felt sure it deserved.  (And I have a feeling I’m not alone in that.)  The “I do care” part is because I know how tempting it is—not “especially,” but certainly at your age—to base your sense of self-worth on the opinions others express.  And I’ve known people whose artistic souls have been crushed by others’ failure to appreciate their gifts.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with looking to others for affirmation.  A big part of growing up is deciding whose opinion should matter to you, and whose shouldn’t.  (And the most important part of that process, IMHO, is realizing how much smaller that first group is than the second.)  We define those groups—and re-define them—slowly and carefully and often painfully, as we realize that seeking “this” person’s approval has tended to bring us exhaustion or frustration or even pain, and that “that” person has continued to offer us affirmation and encouragement and loving challenge even when their opinions felt irrelevant or outdated or unwanted.  Defining those groups is something you never ever finish with, and it’s a task only you can do for yourself.  So it might seem like only an arrogant jerk would offer someone else advice on that process.

But I, as you know, am just exactly that kind of arrogant jerk, so here’s my take on it:

The “Apollos” judges don’t belong in that first group.

If we take home “best in” every category tonight, it doesn’t mean our show was better than we thought it was.  It doesn’t mean we told the story better than we thought we had.  And it doesn’t mean we didn’t make the mistakes we thought we made, or that we couldn’t have done better.

And if our show isn’t named for a single award, it won’t mean that our pride in our work was misplaced.  It won’t mean that we didn’t overcome the challenges of cancelled rehearsals and condensed timelines.  And it won’t mean that there weren’t moments—I saw them on your faces—when you couldn’t believe art that powerful could come out of your bodies and voices and souls.

So here’s my challenge to you: decide NOW whether our production was worth the time and heart you put into it.  Decide NOW whether you’re proud of the work you and your teammates did.  Decide NOW whether we did good work together.  And then, before the judges even open their mouths, decide who else on the planet has a right to try to change your mind about any of that.

When you get the hang of that, you’ll be an artist.

Which is really just another word for a whole human being.

Let it fly, my friends.

With gratitude and respect,

David

(My good friend, the amazingly and multi-facetedly impressive Sarah Jebian, recently asked some of her colleagues if they’d be willing to write blog posts that Sarah could share with her voice and acting students in her monthly newsletter.  Here’s mine:)

I saw it coming.  I knew a solid 8 bars before the high G# that it wasn’t going to come out.  We had learned the notes and marked the breaths and identified the vowels and done all of those other Things You’re Supposed to Do Before You Sing a Song.  He’d even taken a good, low breath before starting the piece.  But as the key changed into the last refrain and the momentum started to build, I saw the self-consciousness chiseling itself into his forehead: was his soft palate high enough? his tongue low enough? his ribcage maintaining noble posture? his base of support sturdy enough?

The irony, of course, is that all of these things are important to consider as you’re building the muscle memory to get your body through the “money note” moment of the song. But focusing on them in that moment is lethal to the art.  And telling yourself not to think about them is as effective as telling yourself not to think about pink elephants.  So what do you put into your mind when you don’t want to think about how hard it is to be an excellent singer?

Great songs are great songs because they tell great stories.  They’re great because they say something to us, or help us to say something we didn’t know how to say ourselves.  Because great music has power—because the world is a different place after a great song has been sung well.  And that power, I believe, comes from a singer’s immersion in the story—in the world of the song.

I stopped my student during the last phrase before the high G#.  “Wait a minute,” I said.

Then I asked him the six questions I ask just about all of my students at some point about every song, every monologue, and every scene:

1. Who are you?

What is your character’s origin story? What archetypes do they echo? What assumptions, values, “baggage” do they carry? What is their super-objective in the play?

2. Whom are you talking to?

What is their power dynamic with your character? What power do they hold over others that you don’t?

3. What do you want from your partner?

There will usually be a text-specific answer and a more essential, archetypical answer. (At the Alsedek Theatre School we call this latter category your “Essential Action,” an idea our founder gleaned from conversations with William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, and other students of the Atlantic Theatre Company.)

4. How important is your goal?

What are the stakes if you fail? What is the reward if you succeed?

5. What’s in the way?

What (or who) is making it difficult to achieve your goal? What tactics might you employ to overcome those obstacles?

6. How will you know when you’ve succeeded?

What behavior from your scene partner will let you know you’ve accomplished your goal?

We talked through the answers to these questions for several minutes, and as we talked I saw the furrows in his forehead loosen, his shoulders drop, and his breathing slow.  The desperate attention to technique relaxed away, and in its place I saw a heartfelt need to tell this character’s story.

“Now,” I said.  “Sing.”

There must be something in the air.

Several times this week I’ve paused in the middle of teaching to interrupt a student’s spiral of self-deprecation and frustration.  The spiral is easy to recognize, either by the words that accompany it— “This doesn’t sound right.” … “That note is so high!” … “Why can’t I get this?” —or, once you know what to look for, by the slow-blinking, eyes-downcast head shake and shoulder slump.  It’s unmistakeable body language: “I’m not good enough.”

There’s a running joke in my field that music lessons tend to be 10% technique and 90% therapy.  And while it is a joke—I’m a vocal supporter of the mental health industry and believe everyone can benefit from working periodically with an excellent professional talk therapist—I know that among the lessons I’ve learned from my own therapist are several that I share often with my students:

  • that every artist healthy human being struggles with self-doubt,
  • that finding (and trusting) voices that recognize and appreciate our inherent worth is one of the most important (and most difficult) things we can do as artists humans, and
  • that I, in my role as an authority figure in their artistic lives, am (I hope!) one of those supportive voices.

So pianist Herbie Hancock’s anecdote about a botched chord in a gig with trumpeter Miles Davis has been on my mind a lot this week.  If you’ve hit a wrong note or two in your own life recently, maybe you’ll find this story moving too.  Click “play” on the video below to hear Hancock tell it for himself.  It’s worth the 90 seconds.

In the meantime, namasté, my friends.  The Divine in me acknowledges the Divine in you.  Can you see it too?

12829043_10154764219683747_1422757073247409189_oMy good friend Jeremy Patterson has a new YouTube interview show called the Capital Area Theatre Show.  Guess who he invited to be his second-ever interviewee?

Tune in below or on the show’s YouTube channel to hear our milkshake-fueled conversation about art and life and idols and dreams and fears and insecurities, and why we do all that we do.  (And he eventually was able to steer me back around to Pippin, which was supposed to be the point of the show to begin with….)