You Have To Be Carefully Taught

This blog pertains to all things art related. While I try not to get on a soapbox, or push issues beyond the reach of this blog, it’s hard not to admit the affects of the arts on issues that Do not directly relate.  In other words, there are few topics that have not been influenced by the arts in some way.

I discovered recently that someone I know was (or is) of the mindset that while he can accept homosexuals, he wouldn’t want them teaching his children. Take a breath; I’ve needed some time to process this myself. I have so many questions, like: what do you think we would teach them, a better sense of fashion? How to dance, sing, act?  How to have a better palette for drinking wine?

All stereotypes and joking aside, my fury turned to humor, turned to curiosity. Let’s take all the homosexuals out of the curriculum and out of the classroom, for argument’s sake. Let’s take away Socrates, Plato, Alexander the Great and Virgil. In fact, let’s rule out any Greek of the ancient world, as they didn’t have strict labels on sexual preference. Let’s get rid of Michelangelo, DaVinci, and Rafael. We need to erase the works of Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Benjamin Britten, and Gian Carlo Menotti. If any of these artists are foreign to you, run to your Google page and look them up.

If you are proud to be an American and love American music, too bad. We have to get rid of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Lorenz Hart, Ned Rorem, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to name a few. The list goes on and on; many of these profoundly talented, hard-working artists were closeted, and fearful of revealing who they truly were.

If you’re reading this, chances are you already know all this, or see this rant as hyperbolic. I was dumbfounded when I heard that someone could accept homosexuals so long as they don’t teach their children.

There is no longer “gay” culture and “straight” culture, just as much as there is no longer “gay” marriage and “straight” marriage. It’s just culture and marriage.

As two (straight) writers, Rodgers and Hammerstein said in South Pacific:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

If you or someone you know is struggling with acceptance, be patient. Somehow people have been taught the wrong lessons; hopefully they can be carefully re-taught by example.

Play To Win

Ever compete?  I think deep down we are all competitive whether we are willing to admit it our not; it’s most prevalent when there is only one winner and the stakes are high.  Our competitive side will come out, perhaps, when there are 200 actors auditioning, and only one role.  Well, you do the math.

I was watching a reality TV show recently.  Yes, I’m admitting it: that crap is good.  It’s all about the competition and who goes home that week, etc.  The premise for so many of these “reality” shows are the same, yet somehow they suck us in to care (or not) about the people involved.

The episode I watched had a contestant who could not believe he was there.  He admitted to the judges that he was in disbelief of the fact that he was a bonafide contestant.  The response from the judges was: well, you’re here, get over it.  Play to win.

Perfect, I thought.  We all have those moments of doubt: I don’t belong here, everyone is better than me, someone must have made a mistake.  When I was actually accepted in music school, and into my teacher’s studio, I thought that someone had switched my papers.  Surely someone else was accepted; someone worthy of being at this music school studying with this teacher.

The fear of success is sometimes greater than the fear of failure.  If I actually get what I’ve worked for, then what?  I might actually have to continue, and stay focused.  I might actually win.  Keep in mind, despite the audition analogy, if we obsess on how everyone else is doing we’ll lose ourselves in the process.  While I got in at one school, I was rejected at another.  I don’t think about it now, because I went to where I was accepted and continued on from there.  I can’t count the number of jobs, gigs, positions I didn’t get.  Surely any actor has lost more auditions than they’ve won.

Even when the odds are stacked against you, and lets face it, they are, doesn’t mean you don’t play to win.

Submissions, Please

Job interviews and auditions are nerve-wracking.  Just trying to get the interview or audition can be difficult, and that’s often harder than the interview itself.  There are days, as a musician, where I wish I could audition for work.  Nearly all the work I do, like most musicians in New York, is by word of mouth.

A friend recently asked me about work.  She wondered why I didn’t just apply to music direct new shows, or simply audition for gigs.  If only it were that easy; the next time you dread the audition, remind yourself: you get to audition.  Many freelancers work on word of mouth advertisement, and nine times out of ten the phone rings and the client or employer got my numb from someone else.

So why don’t I just submit myself for work?  That sounds great – I envision myself in the style of Maeby Funke, from Arrested Development, running through the streets of New York, shouting, “Hire me!”  If you don’t know Arrested Development, you don’t know what you’re missing.  I love it (I don’t really) when friends, family and strangers on the street tell me I should just get hired for a Broadway show; I bet I’m not alone in this.  Better yet, I was advised to just call the theatres and tell them they need to hire me.

We can’t talk about ourselves without seeming egotistical.  I’ve watched people do it to some success; Donald Trump has no problem telling us how great he is.  Such the role model.  We need referrals, and recommendations.  There is nothing wrong with that; and as an older musician friend said to me, work comes in waves.  At the time, I told him my frustration being caught between gigs.  He shrugged; it happens, he reminded me.  In the span of any career, there are bound to be peaks and valleys.  My older friend encouraged me that things always pick up when you least expect it.

I will add that if you are a musician in NYC, and are looking for auditions (and who isn’t), The Radio City Orchestra is holding submissions for auditions for this upcoming season.  It is one of the rare chances broadway musicians get to audition.  Check it out.

Sooner Than Later

You’ve got a great idea; it could be a new invention, a book, or lyric to a song. It doesn’t matter what the great idea is- it’s no good unless you share it.

Share soon and share often. This works when we’re in collaboration with one another; this applies to companies and businesses of the artistic and non-artistic variety alike. The production team for a show is like the head of a company; the director being the boss or CEO, and the other members of the team being experts in their areas.

As a director or boss, you want feedback and ideas to flow freely. Too often in theatre, I see creative team members afraid to speak up, lest they be wrong about their idea or accused of speaking out of turn.  I heard in an interview that during the creation of Into The Woods, the team was struggling with how to fix a moment. One of the musicians suggested a solution, and it worked. Sondheim asked why he hadn’t suggested it sooner? the musician didn’t feel he was allowed to.

I sometimes feel the need to hold ideas in. When I’m working with others, I think I should wait until what I’ve written is just right. Or I think it’s not ready yet. And then there is the ubiquitous fear of being judged.

When is anything perfect the first time out? And when there’s a problem or a situation that is troubling, sharing the problem increases your chances of finding a solution.

I keep learning this lesson every time I share my work in a collaboration, and as a member of a production team. If it’s a good team, they’ll only want to work to make what you share better; and you can do the same for them. Share soon, share often.

Keep It Gay, Keep It Gay, Keep It Gay!

Today is historic.  Gay marriage, or marriage as it is commonly referred to, is now legal in all 50 states of this united country.  Imagine: gay couples are now afforded all the rights, privileges and heartaches of their straight peers.  I am thrilled for all my friends I see on Facebook and twitter, announcing their marriage plans and excitement.

I also saw a post about how the theatre community has influenced the move toward gay rights. Perhaps we take it for granted, but a generation ago we wouldn’t see a gay couple as the part of a narrative on a TV show like “Modern Family.”  Come to think of it, we probably wouldn’t see a show like “Modern Family” on TV twenty or thirty years ago.

In the 1960’s, movies like “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” depicted the then social issue of interracial marriage; it was still outlawed in 12 states until June, 12, 1967, when it was struck down by the Supreme Court.  June must be the month for love and civil rights.

Interracial marriage is old news now.  And hopefully gay marriage will be as normal as gluten free bread.  It’s important to note how theatre, arts, TV shows bring issues to light and make us discuss them.  Seeing gay characters as real people and not simply stereotypes humanizes them.  It’s easy to build an image in your mind of how people should appear.  I am grateful for shows like “Modern Family,” and more recently, “Grace and Frankie” (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, I could just die), showing people who are gay, and people who are in relationships, who also happen to be gay (or coming out), as just that: people.

When it’s just a TV show, or just a musical, and it’s seemingly light and fun, there’s probably more to it than that.  I’m not suggesting there is an agenda in everything we watch and experience artistically (or maybe there is), but showing people in their various shapes and forms and preferences keeps us, as a society talking  It keeps us aware that it takes all kinds of people in the world.  And now they can all marry each other.  Keep it gay, people.

***I’m glad this is no longer an issue, but now that it is, can we focus our energies on something like, oh I don’t know, gun control?***

Me, Myself, and I, Inc. 

Being a freelancer is difficult.  I try not to wax on about the hardships of freelancing or being self-employed essentially; it’s the path some of us have chosen.  No one said you had to be an artist, yet you felt you had to.  In fact, you were probably cautioned not to go into a life as a freelance artist.  Yet, here you are, the sole owner and operator of the company business that is you.

Talking with another performer recently put some perspective of this.  We don’t work for a company that gives us quarterly reviews.  We don’t have peers around the water cooler, or a boss to give us the next assignment.  A good deal of our time is spent just trying to find the work.

We also don’t have a brain-trust of employees, working hard to improve our quotas.  As individuals, we are our own boss, manager, employee, and cheerleader.  That’s not to suggest we can’t get an agent, hire a manager, see a therapist, or pay an assistant.  But for many of us, it’s just us, alone.

When I talked about this with another performer, it made me realize something.  We are alone in what we do, and if we’re not careful we can easily isolate those around us.  I feel that my social interactions can consist of greeting actors as they come in for their audition.  Talking with others about the good, bad and ugly, helps to alleviate the stress and air out the frustrations.  You may be self-employed, but you’re not alone.

Scheduling Is Not A Choice, It’s Who I Am

As performing and teaching artists, we must face the nasty reality of scheduling conflicts.  At times it feels more like a game of Tetris than your weekly or monthly calendar.  When freelancers go days or weeks without work, getting five different gigs at once can be a blessing.  And a curse.  You need to take all the work, but also need to find the time to do all the work.

I recall working on four different shows at once.  This isn’t a competition; I’m sure you’ve been busier.  Sometimes we make ourselves out to be martyrs by how tight we can make our schedules; be thankful for the work.  On top of that I was teaching a summer camp to students.  It felt great to have so much work, except for the fact that I couldn’t possibly do it all.  I bet you’ve been there too.

Then the call comes.  You get offered that gig that seems to trump all the others; but you’ve already committed to the other gigs.  Here are a couple of thoughts regarding conflicting schedules and how to deal with them.

Take care of the gigs.  Whether you end up doing the gig or not, if you need to get out of a gig to take one that is more promising, or you simply cannot pass up (and there’s nothing wrong with that), make sure you offer recommendations of other qualified individuals.  It’ll make you look better in the long run.

Be upfront about your conflicts.  I know I hate having to break the news that I’ve got a scheduling conflict in a rehearsal process or gig.  Figure out how you can make it work, if you can make it work.  Hiding that information from your creative team or powers that be, can worsen the blow once it’s finally made evident you’ve got a conflict.

Unfortunately I’ve had people (over)react negatively to my news of conflicts.  When a gig came up that I couldn’t pass up, I was able to get my assistant to cover some rehearsals at the first show, while I worked at the second one, and vice versa.  It all worked out in the end, and no blood was spilt.  I’m amazed by some people’s reactions to scheduling conflicts; it’s as if there is nothing else going on in the world, and this is the only show that is happening.

Everyone has conflicts.  There’s no way around them.  If you’re good, you’ll be in demand.  Own the conflicts and resolve them.

If I Had A Rich Plan

Everyone thinks about money.  For richer or poorer, people want more of it.  Their reasons vary but the motivations deliver us to the same conclusion: we need money to make our way in the world.  Until we reach that Utopian Era of bettering ourselves for the sake of humankind, and money is no longer the currency we exchange for goods, we have to face the facts. 

Artists get a bad reputation for not having money.  The “starving artist” is a familiar label, one that is altogether wrong; I can’t create on an empty stomach.  Generally speaking the order of the day is: [hitting the snooze button a dozen times] coffee, food, create.  Sometimes it’s just coffee, then start creating.  But there will be food involved.  

That said, making a living as an artist is tough enough day-to-day, let alone trying to make a financial plan that suits your future plans.  I’ve spoken with fellow artists about this; few, it seems, have given serious thought to a savings account, investing in stocks or bonds, or a IRA retirement plan.  All of this sounds intimidating on the surface; many artists get by from day-to-day without being able to set money aside in a savings account, even if they’ve thought about it. 

I have friends on big gig shows such as broadway shows, tours, and concerts.  When you get the ‘big gig’ and start making more money, that doesn’t mean you need to spend more money.  If you can maintain a frugal living expense and put some of that money in a savings account, you’ll thank yourself in the future.  Having been in that situation, I can appreciate my younger self for not blowing all my cash from certain well-paying gigs. 

Whether or not you have the extra dough, you can seek advice from the pros.  There are banks that offer free financial advice; they can set up a monthly payment of a small amount of money from your checking account that can be put toward an IRA or a savings account.  It’s tough at times, and the idea of looking honestly at your net worth can be daunting.  

And while you might think that all this adds up to your love of money, or stress and  anxiety about not having as much as you’d like, you need to have a financial plan as much as the next person (or hopefully more than the next person).  If you start today, in six months you’ll have more than you did six months ago.  The fact is that we don’t make art for the money.  We save the money so we can continue to make the art. 

Hnn, Hnn Good

I have many thoughts on the many quirks of singers. And I’m sure they have thoughts on my quirks as well; I sit and play for a variety of singers who have habits, good and bad. Some are more common than others.

The preemptive hum is a big habit. When getting ready to sing, I hear a slight hum or “Hnnn” and then the word. An example: “And I am telling you,” turns into “Hnnn-And I am telling you.” Which, to my ear sounds like, “hand, I am telling you.” What you’re telling your hand sounds very important.

Why do singers do this? Sometimes they are unsure of the pitch, so they slide into it, first humming through their nose. This also achieves the forward placement that is so much a part of theatre singing.

There is also a fear, or slight hesitation, in just singing the word on the pitch. If the singer saw the pitch in their mind, or heard the pitch, their body would adjust and they would find the pitch. Getting out of your own way and allowing your body to sing is one of the greatest challenges singers face.

The preemptive hum seems like a good idea to singers. It seems safe and an easy way to find the pitch. But what it does is make the performer sound unsure of the pitch. Even if this is true, never show you’re unsure– act like you’re confident; it might rub off on you.

*AHEM*

You can clear the table.  You can clear your mind.  You can clear your throat; but please don’t.  There is a thought permeating throughout our culture,  social circles, and around some of our performing colleagues, that clearing your throat will give you a more clear sound to your voice. It’s not necessarily true.

To protect the (not so) innocent, I’ll say that I was in a group recently with some friends who had to constantly clear their throats.  It became so noticeable that it brought me here to mention it.  Vocalists should take note; anyone who uses their voice in public speaking, or in life, should be aware of the damage it does to your vocal chords.

Repeatedly clearing your throat is like rubbing sandpaper over your chords.  Coughing and making a rasping sound on your vocal chords dries them out and makes you want to repeat the process.  It’s a vicious cycle.

As singers we think we always need to have an absolutely clear voice.  I recall my first voice lesson constantly clearing my voice between every exercise.  I remember a voice teacher performing in a school setting; in the middle of an aria she had phlegm on her vocal chords and had difficulty singing.  She sang through it, not pausing to re-attack her chords.  The next day in her voice studio she had a poster that read: “Phlegm Happens.” It does.  Live with it.

To each [singer] their own, on the ways to approach dealing with clearing and caring for their voices.  Some use hot water with lemon, or honey.  Some sip plain water.  Others have recommended blowing air through your voice but without rubbing the chords together.  Something as easy as swallowing will help release whatever is hanging on your chords.  I’ve even heard of vocalists sipping Coca-Cola; that liquid can eat through a nail so it certainly could help take a little phlegm off the chords.  Though I’m not entirely sure how good Coke is for you.

The bottom line: take care of your voice, and try not to cough or clear your throat too much.

In light of Father’s Day I should mention my first voice lesson was with my father, and he was the first to tell me to stop clearing my throat.  Thanks, Dad, always looking out for me.