Going Up

When you get on an elevator you have a finite amount of time with the people on the elevator with you. Depending on the company, this may be a blessing. Nothing sparks up my claustrophobia like a crowded elevator. But when you get the chance to meet someone you want to meet on the elevator, you want to make that moment count. In many ways this is how networking works: the never-ending task of “casually” meeting people in your line of work who could potentially turn out to be an asset to you and vice versa.

I was given this imagine of the “elevator speech” by a career counselor while I was in school. The premise is simple: the person you want to talk to is getting off in three floors. You have just enough time to tell them 1) who you are, 2) what you’re doing, and 3) what you want to do.

The reason this is an apt analogy to networking is that no one has time to hear your life story. They don’t care enough (yet), nor can they spend the time. What they need to know is who you are, what you are doing, and what you hope to be doing.

Here’s an example: John is an actor. He is working as an intern at a theatre company. He’d like to working as an actor in a production. You can get more specific than that, but that’s the idea.

Too often we get bogged down in details that don’t pertain to the person you’re talking to. If John met a casting director or director, that quick speech would be effective in letting them know in a snapshot who he is. It’s less important that he’s from Wisconsin and his favorite color is plaid, and his dog’s name is sparkles. Not important.

Now, if in this first interaction with someone you’re able to spark more conversation, that’s great. I find that in opportunities to network and connect with people, it’s either at a party, event, or some other loud venue. When everyone is mingling about and wanting to meet as many people as they can, it may be better to stick to the bullet points.

This is also why you should think about what and who you are. Depending on who I talk to I’m a music director, pianist, composer, or writer. It matters a great deal who is listening to your elevator speech. The important thing is to connect on their level, and try to give an honest, concise portrait of who you are.

For The Fun Of It

Do you always enjoy your work?  If you do you’re lucky, and maybe in a rare position.  Getting to make music and perform for a living is a privilege at best.  At worst, it’s a job. Sometimes we lose sight of the joy in making music, or singing in performance.

I had a meeting recently for a performance purely for the fun of it.  It wasn’t a high-profile gig, or a setting in which there was a paying audience.  In fact, this was a gig for the audience to participate, a sing-a-long of sorts.

As I spoke with the producers for this event I was reminded of the very reason to work in the arts: for the fun of it.  I jokingly reminded one of them, as we talked about work and the professional scene, that if I was in it to purely make money, I was in the wrong line of work.

Sometimes, although it can be hard, taking a step back to realize what it is you do can help you appreciate it more.  I’m always concerning myself with my budget and making money to pay bills, rent, etc.  The music starts to resemble a job more than an art.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

On a similar note, this shared performance with an audience was also to give the audience a voice.  It was to invite them in to the experience of singing and expressing.  Some of the music had a sacred tone; there was an underlying purpose of giving people of all faiths (or no faiths) a chance to sing.  To be more specific, it was a safe environment for those who had been left out of other communities, i.e. the conservative, fundamentalist organizations.

It’s no surprise there is a strong, vibrant gay community in New York City, and many of whom are spiritual and religious in their own ways.  This performance reminded me that many of them are not welcomed in their home states, or home church communities, or even in their own homes.  When I say making music ’for the fun of it,’ it is also for the chance to reconnect and to support each other.  It may be just for fun, but it actually was serving a very serious role in these peoples’ lives.

I have never personally felt left out or cut off from my home community.  But the people I met on this performance reminded me that there are still places where intolerance thrives.  I wanted to laugh when I heard that Indiana had passed an anti-gay law; and it seems that soon to follow are Virginia and Alabama.  I wanted to laugh because I couldn’t believe this was still an issue.  I’ve never been good at being sassy, but I’ll try: that’s SO 20th century.

For the people from those states, singing in this event gave an incredible amount of joy and a sense of community.  And it reminded me that music has power.  What better way to bring people together than enjoying music?

All That Glitters Is Not Gold 

Ever witness an event so spectacular, you got swept up in the moment?  There was so much glitz and glam that it could have been about anything at all; all that you took away from the event was the excitement.  Magicians rely on the glitz in their performances to distract.  They use the power of misdirection so you don’t see the real trick.

I saw a show recently where this misdirection was in play.  I’m not sure it was an intentional use of misdirection, but it was evident.

I’ve found one of the worst things you can say when asked what you thought about a live performance you just saw is, “I loved the set.” Not that there is anything wrong with loving the set (love to all the set designers out there, I really did love the set).  But when you’re watching all the performances on stage: the singing, the dancing, the acting, the story, etc. and the best part is the set, what does that say about the rest of the production?

Sometimes shows have so much pizzazz and window dressing, we lose sight of the story.  When the strobe lights, or flying set pieces become the focus of the show, it pulls our attention away from the plot and characters.  We’re not paying attention to the content of the lyrics or the melodic arc (or lack thereof) if we’re noticing how fabulous the backdrop is.

I reiterate that I love great set designs and lighting designs.  They are there, just like all the other departments in a musical production: to enhance the show.  But when they become the sole focus I worry that they are overcompensating for the (lack of) content.

This is how I felt about this show.  I sat watching the thousands of lights, moving set pieces, and elaborate costumes, thinking I don’t have a clue what I’m really seeing.  I could tell you it was exciting, and I could say, “wow, they really did something.”

But what?  There are times I would love to strip away all the window-dressing in a show, and just have the cast read the script and sing the songs on an empty stage.  Too often we are caught up in the sugary sweetness of the icing, that we can’t taste the cake.

And I’m sure this show had had the bare stage reading as most shows do.  But at what point did they decide to dress it with so much other stuff, that the narrative of the story seemed to rely on it?  Perhaps the script and songs needed to be sugar-coated so that the audience could swallow them?

I’m sure I’m not alone in getting a case of the “something-shines.”  We see something new, novel, and glitzy and we are awe-struck.  But what is it we’re really seeing?

Your Strongest Suit

When we perform we must have a list of skills or body of work at our fingertips. We never know when we’ll ever called up to perform, or what we’ll be asked to perform. Often times it is our resume that defines what we are capable of in the eyes of others. Sometimes it is what is in our audition book that tells others what kind of performer we are.

I was playing a vocal competition recently. There was a wide variety of repertoire. Some of it was appropriate, and some of it was not.
There is an old saying: “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” So often when repertoire is concerned I feel it’s what you sing and how you sing it. So often repertoire is chosen because it is flashy and exciting. No matter how great a song is, if it beyond the student’s capability, it will fall flat.

Too often I’ve seen teachers choose material that will make their students appear more advanced than other students. But for whose benefit: the teacher’s, or the student’s? We need to trust our teachers to guide us toward the right repertoire, and hope that that trust is not misplaced.

I remember my teacher taking a step back with my repertoire. I was playing rep that was too advanced for me, and rather than pushing me to play it, we took a step back and she gave me repertoire I could play. This in turn allowed me to learn greater lessons in making music.

Each of us is on a journey. Some students are capable at big, heavy arias, while others are better suited for smaller, light pieces of music. There is no “better or worse,” but simply the more appropriate repertoire. We should never feel intimidated by what someone else is performing. Always play to your own strongest suit.

Why Support The Arts?

There has been a long-standing argument for the arts to remain in the public school systems.  More often than not we read of the funding for the arts in communities around the country getting cut.  When funds diminish the first programs to go are in the arts.

I recently saw a musical production at a high school.  It was fun to watch students performing on stage.  In the director’s note there was a message regarding what the arts have done for their school.  It has helped many of the students there, who don’t fit in other groups in the school, find a place to belong.  It’s allowed students to find an outlet they wouldn’t otherwise have.

When we are developing as individuals and young adults, finding our emotional language is so important.  Being able to express ourselves, and to communicate effectively is a crucial part of growing up.  Even if most people do not pursue a career in the arts (and most don’t), the lessons of self-expression, aesthetic taste, and communication are not lost.

So why should we support the arts?  It feels like a cliché to say ‘support the arts.’   Why is it we never hear ‘support math’ or ‘support science’ as if they are any less or more important than the arts?  Up until recent history music and art were intrinsic components to any educational standard.  God forbid math or science should also be in danger of getting cut out of the curriculum.  I’m amazed we have to fight so hard for something that should be readily available to any student.  What has made the liberal arts out to appear so expendable in society at large?

If we as a society do not value the arts in the development of our students, we rob them of participating in that aspect of the human experience.  If we do not have art in our lives we don’t have a culture.  If we don’t have a culture our society can very quickly resemble a mob.

Greater Than The Sum

When we perform hopefully we are showing the best part of ourselves. We play to our strengths and try not to put the spotlight on our weaknesses.

I was coaching a singer recently and was reminded of this. As we warmed up she asked to warm up her lower register as well. It is something I normally encourage for singers; it was nice that she wanted to warm up her lower range.

Just because she performs her higher register on a regular basis doesn’t mean she should keep the lower part of her voice in shape; if she only warmed up the part of her voice she is using to perform, she’s only partially exercising her voice. It’s like going to the gym and only working out your biceps. Your voice is a muscle that needs to be warmed up fully.

I also realized it’s the same reason we continue to practice and study technique. I may not perform Bach or Mozart as often as Sondheim or Kander and Ebb, but I try to keep practicing that repertoire because it’s good for my hands and my brain.

We show the best parts of our abilities on stage, but we continue to work on the weaker parts in the practice room.

I Got Rhthym

It’s amazing what time can do for music. We measure out the distance with values placed on the moving notes. When we can’t agree on the rhythm of music the piece becomes garbled and unclear.

I was working with a singer recently where this became apparent. When singing the song her pitches were not quite clear. Then I realized: her rhythm was not secure.

A great deal of musical theatre repertoire is in the pop/rock style. And nearly all pop and rock music has rhythm in the forefront. Whether it’s a driving pulse it a jagged syncopated melody, the rhythm of the genre has to groove. And for singers who are not hitting a drum or playing on a keyboard, trying to feel the rhythm that is impalpable can be tricky at times. They are not physically striking anything in time to the music.

As we worked on the song and she told hold of the rhythm her pitches were better. It also was a technical issue: when she knew where she was going rhythmically, her voice was more relaxed and sounded clearer.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

It’s so tempting to allow our emotions to dictate our interactions with other people.  And when we run into conflict with one another, it’s hard to not raise our voices as well as our blood pressure.  When we are in a disagreement we need to focus on the facts more than ever; they are usually the first thing thrown out the emotional window.

Whether it’s in the professional or personal world, we need to communicate effectively with one another.  And although shouting can literally make yourself heard, shouting at one another only increases volume, but not always content.  And it allows the emotions to take the forefront, rather than focusing on the issues.

I recall a situation that, looking back, makes me smile.  A choreographer and I were going over a dance number.  I started playing and he started shouting in front of the cast “It’s too fast!  Too fast!  It’s Too damn fast!”  the tension in the room went from zero to sixty in a split second.  I played it again slightly slower, to which he responded, “well now it’s too slow.”  I asked him to sing it at the tempo he wanted and I swear it was the initial tempo.  Had I died and arrived at a scene out of Waiting for Guffman?  Rather than calmly saying the tempo wasn’t right, he had to make a scene in front of the cast.  Did this strengthen his position by chastising me for the tempo?

We could do better to communicate.  And we could do better not to take adjustments at work (or home) as a personal attack.  If I don’t play the right tempo, it’s not an attack on me my worth as a person; I need to adjust the tempo slightly.  If someone is hurt by something you said or did, there shouldn’t be a fear of addressing it in an open manner.  Just the facts.

Communication is in the ears and eyes of the beholder.  If they feel attacked, then there must be another way to communicate with them.  However, if the beholder cries wolf and always feels abused, they might be labeled a victim in their interactions, lessening their validity to feeling attacked.  No one wants to be a victim all the time.  Don’t cry ‘attacked!’ unless it really counts.  And that is left up to interpretation in the situation.  Whenever I need to have a confrontation with a colleague, I always bring a third-party to level the conversation, and bear witness, if one of us indeed feels attacked or abused.

This is a subject worth more discussion as it affects our home life and our work life.  Our communication is responsible for getting hired, getting work done and getting asked out (or ask out someone) on a date.  Some further reading I have found very interesting:  Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott, and Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace.

Price Check

It’s hard to put a price on talent.  Generally speaking if you go to the deli for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread, you know how much you’re going to spend.  If you need to change a tire on your car, or fix the plumbing in your bathroom, you might be able to get an estimate on what it will cost you.  Determining the cost of art is quite different.

I was talking to a colleague about this recently.  We are greater than the sum of our parts.  We are also worth more than the hours we are paid to work.  If you’re a performer chances are you spend countless hours rehearsing and practicing, regardless of what the payment may be.

How do you quantify a performance?  And if you’re negotiating a salary for a position like an artist for a church or school, how do you explain all your skills and value them in layman terms for the uninitiated?

I recall being hired to play a wedding a long time ago.  I think the fee was $100 to play a couple of songs.  For a teenage musician, this was a great deal.  Slowly the family added more and more to the gig; they wanted more music, and more arranging.  The amount of work I would do for the gig became a lot more than $100.  But the fee stayed the same.

I shared this with a teacher of mine at the time, who laid out the value of musicians in very practical terms.  He said something like this: consider the years and money spent on piano lessons.  Consider the hours spent practicing, and all the time investing in your abilities as a musician.  At some point you have to figure out what you are worth to someone who wants all that training and experience at an event such as a wedding.

What most people don’t realize is they are not just paying for the music.  They are paying for the experience and professionalism those performing artists bring.  We can measure the level of expertise by their degrees: bachelors, masters, doctorate, etc.  We can also measure the level of expertise by professional accomplishments and years of experience.  Hopefully the artist is compensated appropriately for his/her degrees and experience.

If only we could punch a time clock at 9 am and leave at 5 pm.  When are we done learning a piece of music, or a new dance step?  Where is the ceiling for the hours it takes to get it ‘right’?  If you’re disciplined in your craft and desire to improve, it takes a lot more than 9 to 5.  And how do you put a price tag on that?

See What I Wanna See

You get back what you put in the world.  Attitude is everything; we’ve heard this since we were students.  I remember seeing a poster about attitude in more than one classrooms growing up.  It really is something I’ve seen in the professional world again and again: you see what you look for.

I recently met with some friends who were discussing a bad situation.  They were having troubles with their apartment and landlord; typical New York woes, I thought.  I said to another friend how terrible it was for the couple with the apartment issues; my other friend reminded me that they’ve done nothing but talk about their issues for months (if not longer).

I realized she was right.  What drew me to write this, is that this couple of friends with their apartment troubles are artists.  They haven’t once spoken about what excites them or brings them joy.  They don’t talk about the exciting new work they are doing, or what they would like to be doing.  They are constantly putting out energy regarding their problems into the world.

Artists deal with unemployment and financial problems all the time.  When you sign up for this vocation, this calling to become an artist, you’re also taking on the stress of not always having money.  It’s like grits in the south: it just comes with.  Speaking from personal experience, I have felt the peaks and valleys of work and the money that comes (or doesn’t come) with it.

But it doesn’t occur to me to complain about that, or the other things that are wrong in my life.  I’m not suggesting I’m Mary Sunshine all the time.  I could find something to complain about easily; just ask my mother.

Do you know someone who appears to always have a dark cloud above their head?  It’s as if no matter what you say or do, they just love to moan about how awful everything is.  I’ve been in that place, and perhaps over time realized that no one wants to be around that negative energy, except maybe other negative people.  And if you’re auditioning, interviewing, or trying to get hired (as we all are), ain’t nobody got time for that sh*! as the kids say…

People want to work with people who are positive and joyful.  People who are genuinely positive people are not fake, or cheesy, or pretending to be happy all the time; those people make me physically ill.

If you choose to see all the bad things in your life, you will invariably see them.  If you choose to see the things that are exciting and possible, you will get past the rut, and the unemployment, and all the crap.  See what you wanna see and move on.