This week I had the pleasure of being part of the first NYC externship for my Alma Mater’s brand new, and now fully developed, Musical Theater Program. I had the chance to work with some lovely SUNY Geneseo Juniors and Seniors in a new musical theatre workshop - an entirely new experience for all of them - and attended the first ever Senior Showcase. The talent was wonderful, the interactions were lovely, and the entire experience got me thinking…a dangerous pastime, I know.
As a part of the workshop I had to essentially explain to the students who I am, what I do, how that’s relevant to Geneseo, and how I got to where I am. And you know what? That was much more difficult than I expected.
At this moment in my career, these are the titles that I can, and generally do, give myself:
Composer-Lyricist/Librettist (technically 3 titles?)
Performer (Musical and non-Musical Theatre)
Accompanist (I do this less often)
Arranger/Orchestrator (though mostly my own material these days)
One of the Geneseo students said “You do so much!” and I guess that’s true. But I think the better question is, how the heck did I learn to do all of these things?
The one area from the above list where multiple straightforward and comprehensive paths of education exist is performance.
The theatre as a whole has always recognized that performers are necessary to train in large numbers since shows and theaters exist all over the place with roles that need filling. And performing is the most visible aspect of theatre, which makes it a great entry point for those interest in the business. So plenty of paths exist for people to become performers, and I won’t bore you with the details of mine. Everyone has their own stories on this one.
The other item on the list that is fairly straightforward, though certainly less common than performance, would be accompaniment.
***Quick PSA***: Someone who accompanies is called an ac-com-pa-nist. Not an ac-com-pa-NEE-ist, or any other version. Not a crucial thing to know, but I figured I’d throw it out there :-)
Usually the story I hear from pianists is that they were, at one time in their early life, cornered by some teacher or choral director or other and told they should play piano for a choir, jazz group, or school musical. And thus was born another accompanist.
For me, it was basically the same. My piano teacher told me I should, my choral teacher lost their previous student accompanist, and thus I was tagged for the job!
Where I diverge a little is that I found out I really enjoyed playing musical theatre songs for my friends, and started wanting to be better at it. So I made a point of finding all of the musical theatre music that I could in books and scores, sitting down, and attempting to play it. This is a pastime I continue today, and it has made my skills as an accompanist must stronger - so I would recommend this to anyone looking to hone this particular skill.
Barely Knowing Left From Right
My time at SUNY Geneseo ended up being quite crucial to the accidental development of two other items on that list: musical direction and vocal coaching.
Because I was already a pianist and accompanist, something that was well known by the beginning of my Junior year, I was tapped to be the Musical Director of one of our a cappella groups (and eventually the other as well). I knew from watching previous MDs that the basics of this job was to simply teach notes, but that the good ones could do oh-so-much more. And I wanted to be a good one.
(Anyone surprised? You may have gathered from my blogs thus far that I’m a little competitive about being good at what I do… :-D )
So I went to it. I learned by watching what others did, listening to my favorite arrangements and performances, and started trying things out. It was a lot of trial by fire. But soon I figured out what worked and made the music better, and what to avoid. I had already been arranging for the two groups for over a year at this point (something that I was allowed to just try and found I could do fairly well), so I had some sense of what I was doing. So I took the knowledge I had, added it to the skills I already possessed, and created a new skill set.
Was it perfect right away? Ohhhhhh no. It took me plenty of time to figure it out. But by my Senior year I was comfortable calling myself a Musical Director of both a cappella and musical theare.
As for the vocal coaching, this came from my accompaniment skills as well.
We had a club at Geneseo called MTC (Musical Theatre Club - nailing that name, right?) for which everyone would always stress about auditions each semester. So, being one of the 3-4 pianists in the club, I was often asked by people to help them prepare for their auditions by choosing songs and creating cuts. I found that I was naturally inclined toward this work - something I’d probably not have known if I hadn’t just tried it.
Then, in my later college years, I started gaining the confidence to give some vocal notes to people. I had zero reason to think I had any authority in this matter, but from what I was seeing and hearing I thought I might be able to help.
As it turns out, I was right.
With not an ounce of training (not something I’d really recommend) other than my own vocal training (which was excellent), I found that I had a natural ability to help people adjust their voices. And then of course I wanted to know more, so I began doing my own research and self-education. By the time I left college, I was well on my way to being able to do this sort of work professionally. And now, since it’s how I make the majority of my living and because it’s also an ever-changing field of study, I continue to educate myself on new techniques and styles.
But I’d never have known I could even do this if it hadn’t fallen into my lap and, more importantly, if I hadn’t decided to take the risk and try.
We Pull Our Bootstraps Up
And then we come to the remainder of the list: Composer-Lyricist, Librettist, Orchestrator.
It has been said that “failure is the best teacher,” and in my personal case of these above skills, I must agree.
If I had no business being a Musical Director or Vocal Coach way back then, I surely had even less business writing music or words for the theatre. Right? I mean, what experience did I have?
None. Not a bit.
I love creating. I’ve always loved creating. I had dabbled in some music writing when I was in grade school and did some light composition as part of my Music Theory class in high school - absolutely loving it - but that was the extent of my composition experience. And never had I written a play! I wrote a 5-minute piece once at the NYSSSA Theater Program, but it was pretty bad and I never tried again.
Until Geneseo, that is.
Playwriting was being offered as a class in my Junior year, so I decided to take it. I had loved my Creative Writing classes in the English Department, but I really longed to write for the stage. So I took it. And I was terrible.
Oh boy, I couldn’t write a play to save my life. And I certainly did try.
I understood the mechanics and the theory and the basics of what to do, but the best thing I could come up with was a murder-thriller spoof called Clue-less, which was actually an out-of-class pet project. It was fairly funny and had some nice dramatic moments, but it still wasn’t good. After getting a solid B- on my final assignment for the class I said that was it for me and playwriting. No more. But then I thought…
What about Musical Theatre? I’m certainly more inclined to writing music than a script…
So, to try out this idea, I decided to take Oscar Hammerstein II’s advice to Stephen Sondheim and attempt the exercise of adapting a play that I admire into a musical. Not for the world to see, necessarily, but for myself and to learn.
The play I chose? A Streetcar Named Desire. I love me some Tennessee Williams, and the high theatricality of the style seemed ripe for some music additions. And best of all, I didn’t have to write the book, just adapt.
I spent 4 weeks over the summer trying my hand at finding song moments, writing in character voices, adapting dialogue into lyrics (though without much structure), and composing a world that sounded like these characters. I tried to tell their stories, moved the action forward, and give a hint of New Orleans. And you know what? It was pretty damn good for a first attempt.
I was encouraged - musical theatre certainly came more naturally than the playwriting had. I decided to be bolder for the second go-round and write an original musical as my Honors Project at Geneseo. Due to some college politics, the project could only be approved if I wrote the book, music, and lyrics, as well as stage the entire thing in my second semester acting as musical director, director, and producer. Certainly a tremendous undertaking - and the point of this was to scare me off - but again I said yes. Bring it on.
Thus a musical - and a mediocre one upon reflection - called PICk Love was born. I did all that was asked of me, and an audience of ~300 people ended up seeing it over two performances at the end of my Senior year. I had even gone through the process of learning how to orchestrate in a direct study (since I wasn’t wearing enough hats already) and continued to work on the show after graduation.
Loooooong story short, I was hooked. I wanted to learn more, and correctly now. So I auditioned for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Writing Workshop. Didn’t get in fully, but only as an auditor. Said yes. Met some amazing people and some of my best friends. Re-auditioned the next year. Got in. Said yes again. Met more amazing people, including one of my current collaborators and best friends. Learned so much. Got a ton better. Wrote and re-wrote The King’s Legacy. Met more incredible people. Kept saying yes.
We Live And We Learn
Most of the things on my list are skills I received no formal education for. In fact, there aren’t a lot of ways to receive a formal education in some of them. And this thing I had no idea how to do, let alone whether or not I could actually do it, is now one of the main parts of my career. But how did I get here?
Everyone has skills, whether from natural ability or because they’ve been honed. Everyone has interests and passions, even if they’re mostly unexplored. And, if you want, these things can come come together to create new skills and pathways that you previously may not have known existed. All you need to do is try.
Try and fail. Try again. Dislike you work. Research. Watch and listen and learn. Try and fail again. Like a little of what you’ve created. Reignite your passion when necessary. Continuously hone your skills. Try again. Fail. Succeed. And most of all, just say yes.
Tune in next week for how all of these experiences translated directly into my current successes!