…to rain on my paraaaaaaaade! (sorry, I couldn’t resist!)
For those of you who read last week’s blog post - welcome to Part 2! For those of you who didn’t, check out the first part of the post here: As We Stumble Along…
Last week’s post focused on the more negative aspects of the risk-taking and the learning processes in this business. The journey is often imperfect and difficult and involves a great deal of trial-and-error, and that’s totally okay. But what I skipped over were all of the positive steps and outcomes that can result from this journey.
Every single success or accomplishment that is presently in my life can be traced back to either a risk I took, or a moment where I enhanced my personal education through non-traditional (aka classroom) means. And I am not unique in this regard.
So, the question becomes - how? Well, there are many routes, but I’ll tell you about some of mine.
Don’t Tell Me Not To Live
Last week I discussed how I stumbled upon my skills as a Musical Director and Vocal Coach, but there’s more to the story than that.
As far as finding out that I could personally execute those skills in a setting with real live people, the a cappella groups, the small projects I musical directed, and the Musical Theatre Club were all indeed instrumental. But I left a large gap in how exactly that transformed into teaching voice and musical directing for my entire livelihood.
“So how did that happen?”
Excellent question, dear reader!
There’s really a lot to it, but in short I learned from the best. Over the years I have had myriad amazing vocal teachers and musical directors who have shaped my understanding of the voice, its capabilities, and various teaching styles - many of which I have gone on to use. I had the great luck of studying with 3 different voice teachers in my high school and college careers - something that can be of great benefit - and worked with countless musical directors. Additionally, I did several one-off audition and voice workshops with Broadway professionals through the Rochester Broadway Theater League, which was highly influential in many ways. I could easily go on about how each of these people and experiences impacted me, but that’s not really why we are here.
I will briefly point out, however, that sometimes an incredible teacher can completely change you and the way you think, even if the experience is brief. For me, in preparation to play Marius in Les Miserables back in 2014 - my first onstage musical theatre role in almost 4 years at that point - I saw a vocal coach in Manhattan. His name is Mike Ruckles and he’s a vocal genius. What I learned from him in only 3 sessions completely altered my understanding of my own voice, and much of what I learned from him I have been able to apply to my students over the years. If you want to be impressed, check out his website here!
But the other aspect of my education for teaching voice and musical direction came from my skills as an accompanist.
When I started accompanying my choirs in high school I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was extremely different to play for people in comparison to playing a classical piece as a solo. But eventually I got the hang of it and came to really enjoy it!
In college I was trying to acquire jobs - preferably in the arts departments - and my piano teacher pointed out that I could accompany voice classes and the college would pay me. I think my brain exploded.
“PEOPLE PAY YOU FOR THAT???”
I think I actually thought that this was something that I’d be asked to do as a favor for people for the rest of my life. *Insert facepalm here*
Okay, the pay part is cool, but the best part was this: I got to watch voice teachers and musical directors teach other people. I got to watch and listen as these amazing and knowledgable instructors worked physically and theoretically with students, and I got to see how it helped them grow. There were different strategies, different approaches, commonalities between the teachers, differences in styles…and it was the best accidental education I didn’t know to ask for.
These experiences solidified for me that this was something I could do and wanted to pursue. So, add in a lot of self-research and learning, plus some workshops and mentorship, and a voice teacher I became!
Why is this important?
Well, the first job I got when I moved to NYC in 2011 was as an accompanist/musical director for a few classes at From Stage To Screen. A couple months later - after offering that I had the ability to teach voice - I had a second night at the studio teaching 6 private voice students. And then I got a reputation for being a good voice teacher, and the opportunities grew. Then I played a third day of classes with lessons. Then more. All the while learning and growing my knowledge base for teaching voice. My reputation grew. Then a fourth day. Then I was asked to musical direct a show. I got a similar job at another studio. Then demand grew even more at STS and I added a fifth day. Then another show per year, this time in New Hyde Park. Then another show at STS. And this is now my livelihood.
I’m now in my 8th year at STS teaching 33 private voice lessons per week, playing for 4 classes, and musical directing 2 shows per year (plus my NHP show). I may have originally stumbled into Musical Direction and Vocal Coaching, but education and persistence helped me to create a life around these skills.
I Gotta Fly Once
I talked briefly last week about how I got into Musical Theatre Writing by essentially having the interest and deciding to take the risk. There wasn’t really a way to acquire an education in how to write for the musical theatre in my time at Geneseo, but I did my best to learn through every means I could. The experience of writing PICk Love did, however, have some other unintended successful consequences.
As a reminder, my plan was to write an original musical as my Honors Project in my senior year at Geneseo - book, music, and lyrics. I was additionally tasked with putting the entire show up in my final semester in order to get my Honors designation, and would therefore also be acting as Director, Musical Director, and Producer.
As I said last week, the fact that I was actually able to accomplish all of this between September and May was a huge success that I’m extremely proud of, no matter how I feel about the show now looking back. It was a pretty impressive feat. But there were some other fantastic skills that I hadn’t planned to learn along the way that came as a result of doing this project: composition, conducting, producing, and orchestrating.
I’m not going to go too in depth into how all of this occurred, but I think it is important to point out that this is how my education in these areas came about (or began, really).
Up until this point the only reference I had for how to write music came from my Music Theory background, which was essentially for classical music purposes. I had also learned how composers later on broke these rules, but I didn’t learn how to write anything beyond basic theoretical classical music.
As a part of my Honors Project I was to take a Composition class at Geneseo, which was rarely offered. I thought I would be walking into an environment of classical music once again, but boy was I wrong. Our professor wasn’t interested in teaching any specific style of composition, but in having us find ways to learn how to compose in the styles we were interested in. Jackpot!
Working with him all semester, he was able to help me research information on how to write theatre music (to the best of our resources’ abilities) and then experiment with the style. Even better, I could spend the semester bringing in songs from the show that I was writing to be workshopped and get feedback. And thus the roots of my formal musical theatre writing education were born.
My composition professor was also my conducting professor for the second semester of this project. Another happy accident!
Although we mostly spent our time conducting classical pieces, he worked specifically with me on the differences in conducting a musical theatre pit, especially from the piano. I couldn’t have asked for this, for I didn’t even know this educational route existed! I was even tasked to conduct the pit for PICk Love because of this class (yes, another hat to wear in that process).
There was no Composition 2 class at Geneseo, but I still had this monster show to put up and I was enthralled with the idea of writing musical theatre music. What to do?
Another music professor at the school happened to love musical theatre and was very interested in helping me with the score for my show, but not in tweaking the writing…in orchestrating it. Um, I mean, okay! I had no idea what this was or how to do this, so a one-on-one class on the topic sounded great!
And it was.
I learned incredible amounts from this almost accidental direct study, and it launched a whole new set of skills that I’ll even be using on stage this summer! BVT’s production of The King’s Legacy will feature my 3-piece orchestration - another skill that was gained because I happened to say yes.
This one was a doozy.
I guess you could really call it more of a mix of producing and general managing, but either way it was a ton of work that I had no idea existed in the background of putting up a show. The administrative side of theatre was not something I had been taught, so I relied heavily on my mentors to tell me what sort of t’s needed to be crossed and i’s needed dotting.
Basically this was a lot of drumming up support from the faculty and administration, marketing, booking of spaces, casting, monetary logistics, getting a pit together, gathering the technical side and support, and bringing everyone together into one giant production experience.
And just as I learned from the PICk Love experience that I didn’t want to direct professionally, even though I had the skill set, I learned that producing is something I would only do again out of necessity. And I certainly have!
I’ll March My Band Out
Now, last but definitely not least. I can trace almost every professional job that I have done as a theatre artist back to one moment. One skill. One yes.
In the fall of 2010 I got an email from a local Artistic Director of a theatre looking for an accompanist for one of their singers for a theatre gala in Rochester. I had been recommended as someone who lives in the area and could do the job well. That Artistic Director was Karin Bowersock of the Bristol Valley Theater. Kismet.
I wasn’t feeling great about this offer and didn’t know if I should say yes - there wouldn’t be really any rehearsal time until right before the gala began which made me nervous - but I was encouraged to say yes and I decided to take the risk.
The gig went well. The people were lovely. I met a few new contacts. Great!
2012. Rochester is about to put on its first ever Fringe Festival. There’s not a lot of information on it yet, but they’re looking for projects to submit and are trying to partner with colleges and professional theaters in the area. I see an opportunity to revise and remount PICk Love to see if I could make it better. It would be a lot of work though, and where to start? I need a director.
I had reached back out to BVT to see if they would be interested in partnering with me to put on this new musical as their show in the Festival, but they were very unsure of their plans at that time. When I needed a director, however, I reached back out to see if Karin knew of anyone she could recommend, and she did indeed!
The Fringe Festival process was a huge learning experience from a self-producing end (with the aid of my family - big time!), but I met an incredible group of people in the director and cast of my show that would later become part of my artistic family. I also learned how to work with a collaborator for the first time, as well as how to revise a piece structurally to make it work. The show was a hit and I walked away with a ton of new skills!
Now that I knew many people who worked or had worked at BVT, in the spring of 2012 I made a point of going in to audition for them. It was lovely to see the familiar faces and be greeted warmly, but I didn’t get anything that season. 2013. Tried again. Still nothing. 2014. I mean, looks like a good season for me, so why not? Booked! Persistence paid off again.
I have since worked as a performer at BVT every summer (and sometimes other times of the year as well). And since they came to enjoy me as a performer, they took a risk on me and hired me as a Musical Director as well, which I will be doing again for them this summer.
And for the biggest risk of all, both for them and for myself, they have taken a chance on me as a Musical Theatre Writer. This past fall we did an open staged reading of the musical adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that Sean Havrilla and I have been working on, which went fantastically! And now they are producing the premier production of The King’s Legacy this summer - the highlight of my career as a writer thus far.
And it all began because I said yes to something that was not a certainty.
Get Ready For Me, Love, ‘Cause I’m A Comer
You don’t need to have all of the answers. You don’t need to have all of the skills - yet. You are allowed to say yes to things that will require extra care and attention and education and work. That’s how you get to success.
Risk is hard. Education is hard. Theatre is hard. Failure is hard. Even success can be hard. But if this is what you love, say yes. Do it. Go for it.
I can’t wait to see what successes come from all of your “yes”s. :-D