The View from the Pit

Last week, I played in the orchestra pit of the University of Michigan’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s (UMGASS) production of The Grand Duke. W.S. Gilbert was a writer and Arthur Sullivan was a composer, and together they were a famous musical-writing duo during the Victorian era. UMGASS is a university-affiliated program that has put on Gilbert & Sullivan musicals every fall and winter semester since 1947. The Grand Duke is my second production with UMGASS, following Iolanthe last spring.

You sit in front of the stage, facing the audience and the conductor. There are special lights on the music stands that you switch on to see your music when the house goes dark. You never play anything the same way twice. Some singers speed up the tempo, some of them slow it down, but you always have to follow what they’re doing. If someone forgets a line or misses an entrance, you do your best to improvise and find your way back to the rest of the orchestra. In the Mendelssohn Theater you can’t hear anything but the person onstage and the person you’re sitting next to, so you just use your best judgment and hope for the best.

Gilbert & Sullivan musicals run for a solid two hours and forty-five minutes including intermission, and the pit musicians are playing for a majority of that time. Between Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, we played five shows. I once acted onstage in a musical that ran multiple times a week for several weeks, and that experience was not nearly as challenging as playing viola for just five performances and two dress rehearsals in one week.  

As a musician, I often think of playing my instrument as an entirely mental process. I depend on my brain to make sure the right fingers are going down at the right time, and I never realize that it’s actually my body that is doing all the work of actually producing the music. Even now I’m feeling a little stunned thinking about how when I was playing in the “Finale” of the first act in the musical, my arms were continuously moving for twenty minutes straight. It has been 48 hours since our final performance, and my muscles are still sore. The experience has made me think a little more critically about my future plans to be a freelance musician. I would need to practice a couple of hours a day and go to the gym every day to maintain my endurance for daily performances. I feel a bit silly saying this, but I really think music is a sport!

I am grateful for the experience and I had fun! But now I’m nursing my arms back to health while simultaneously preparing for my performance jury next week and my orchestra concert tonight. This is the life of a musician. I should really hit the gym.

The Value in Reviving Old Musicals

Over Thanksgiving break I was in Chicago with my girlfriend and her family. One night we went to the Cadillac Theatre to see the national tour of the musical Miss Saigon, a story about a Vietnamese bargirl and US soldier during the Vietnam War. It is based off of the 1904 opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini, written in Italian about a Japanese girl and a US naval officer. The music of Miss Saigon would sound familiar to fans of Les Miserables because the music was written by the same team of composers: Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Bobil.

The performance we saw was incredible. The cast was huge and well-balanced with white and Asian actors playing the appropriate roles. From the research I’ve done, it hasn’t always been that way. Over the years many controversies have erupted over the casting of white actors as male Asian characters, but the role of “Kim”, the Vietnamese bargirl, has always been played by an Asian woman. The musical score also includes non-Western instruments, but I couldn’t find information on exactly what they were. The story is that Kim and Chris (the American soldier) meet and fall in love in a Vietnamese brothel. Chris promises to bring her back to the US, but he is forced to go home in an emergency evacuation, leaving Kim behind. The story cuts to three years later, where Chris is living with his American wife, Ellen, in Atlanta, and Kim is still waiting for him to return to her. It is revealed that Kim has a three-year old son and Chris is the father.

By the end of the first act, you can tell that things probably aren’t going to get much better for Kim. It’s true, (warning: spoiler ahead) because when Chris returns to see Kim and take his son back to America, Kim kills herself. 

The plotline aside, I was absolutely stunned by both the talent onstage and the technical effects. At one point there was a literal helicopter flying above the actors, rotors and all. There was always so much going on onstage with the ensemble and everyone was completely committed to who their character was in Saigon. The details in every scene made watching it seem like a movie.

It’s interesting to see older shows like Miss Saigon make a comeback in 2018. As great as the show was, the racist and sexist undertones didn’t just roll off of my back. I had a similar experience watching My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center in May. The story is about a wealthy man teaching a poor woman how to speak proper English so she will be respected. While these male savior plotlines may have been popular in the 20th century, today they’re just kind of tiring. New musicals don’t base their plotlines on discrimination and they’re darn good!

I still think it’s okay to put on revivals of old musicals, even if they’re problematic sometimes. The music in Miss Saigon is fantastic and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Kim’s story does not deserve to be forgotten. An important part of protecting the art of today is protecting the art of the past because it serves a purpose. We should trust audiences to acknowledge these issues and to know better, but to also just enjoy the show.

When the West is on Fire

The fires in California have me thinking about my own dry, woody state and a wildfire that happened in my valley in July. The mountains and wildlife in my hometown are a piece of art in their own right, and the reality that they could burn away during my lifetime is terrifying.

I grew up in Colorado where we had 300 days of sunshine a year, but when the snow fell, it would stick all winter. Every couple of weeks another blizzard would come through to replenish the supply and we would celebrate another few inches on the mountain with our skis. Winter always went late into the year, and we even experienced occasional May snowstorms. This was no problem for our little town: it was the off-season so local ski-bums could skin up to the top of the most precipitated-on mountain (by this time the ski lifts would not be in service) and make their way down the mountain through an amalgamation of sticky snow, rocks, grass, and dirt. “Spring skiing” is what they called it. Eventually the temperature heats up and the only snow which remains is on the mountains’ peaks, and the flora turns green and vibrant: the grass is silky and from it sprouts smooth, velvet flowers, the forests are thick with the woody smell of pine. During the summer I am always stunned by the presence of life in these plants– I almost overwhelmed by a feeling that they are truly sentient, basking in the energy of the forest and intensity of the Colorado sun just I am. In the fall, our mountains were a gradient of hot colored Aspen trees, so bright that the leaves practically reflected off of our cheeks. Within a month or two comes the first snow fall, light at first, like the tiniest sprinkle of powdered sugar over red and yellow trees.

When I was a child learning about global warming, I did not expect to see the effects of it in my hometown. The snow had been there my entire life, in abundance. The mountains outside my door were my only sense of home, of landscape, Earth, etc. and the snow always came when the trees were still red and it always reluctantly left at the end of May to reveal a lush, wet summer brimming with life. But last year when I came home for winter break, there I was in the middle of December, staring out of my windows at bleak, brown, snow-less mountains. Longtime locals said that there had not been a winter so brown since the 1970s. I worried for my town. While a large percentage of the Aspen population has nothing to lose due to a dry ski season, there is another group of ski company employees and business owners that suffer from the lack of tourism. Beyond economic loss, less snow leads to dry summers. My whole county was placed under a fire-ban this summer: no campfires, no fireworks on the 4th of July, and no cigarette butt left unattended. One month into our third hottest summer in recorded history, two people decided they would fire outlawed tracer bullets at the local shooting range, about 20 miles from my home. A spark from the bullets led to a full on forest fire, incinerating 12,588 acres of land, burning three houses down, and displacing thousands of wildlife animals from their habitat. Next to Highway 82, a road I drove on for my whole life, I saw an entire mountain twinkling with embers and flames. The environment that was my Home and my first understanding of the Earth has disappeared into char and dust because of the carelessness of two people.

I know I don’t have control over what happens to my home. I try to stay present when I’m outside and  feel the vitality of my environment because I know it’s not going to be there one day. If I have seen things change this much in just 20 years of my life, I’m afraid to see what happens next. But the earth is resilient. The earth will fight defend herself how she sees fit and give right back to us what she receives. Maybe we’ll be compelled to take action, or maybe we’ll sit back in fear.

 

 

Podcast Starter Pack

I can’t leave the house without my earbuds. Or my headphones, depending on my mood. Although I will say that since my headphone cord broke last week and I switched to $5 earbuds, I am seriously missing the noise cancelling technology. (Thanks but no thanks, Bose.)

I would say that most of the time I listen to podcasts as I walk to and from class. I’m never in the mood to listen to music for some reason, maybe because I studying music at school all day, or maybe I’m just a really curious person. It’s a combination of both, I imagine.

There’s something about stories for radio that makes them so meaningful. I understand that if you were to read the transcript of a radio show from a screen or piece of paper, it wouldn’t have the same effect on you as if you had heard it. I’m sure there’s an art to writing for radio and I could probably take a class on it.

(Before I get into my recommendations, I want to preface this by saying that I listen to my podcasts on The Podcast App. The built-in iPhone Apple Podcasts app is a poor excuse for a podcast app!)

The starter pack:

This American Life was on in my mom’s car all the time while I was growing up. Every week the stories are based on different themes, and each story offers a totally different perspective on that theme. They just released their 661st episode on Sunday, so there’s a lot to check out. I would recommend this podcast to everyone on earth.

Serial and S-Town are break-off pods from TAL. Serial is hosted by Sarah Koenig, and in each season she picks one story to tell episode-by-episode. The first season was a national sensation, and now she’s in her 3rd season, reporting on the criminal justice system in Cleveland. Easy to binge-listen. Same with S-Town, a six episode story about a man who lives in Alabama. Trust me, it’s more interesting than it sounds.

Ear Hustle is based out of the San Quentin State Prison and it explores topics in prison life by interviewing real prisoners.

Queery with Cameron Esposito is a good one if you’re interested in queer topics and hearing from queer people in the entertainment industry.

2 Dope Queens is a comedy podcast that supports women and people of color! The hosts are hilarious and they spotlight around 3 comedians per episode. They only invite 1 white guy on per year, and last year it was Tom Hanks. My kind of show!

The Daily is my preferred news podcast from the NY Times. It comes out every morning and each episode is different. It can surprise you.

Let me know what else I’m missing!

Taking Advantage of Ann Arbor’s Music Scene

Like many other students on the U of M campus, I sometimes struggle with boredom. To be bored is a privilege of course, but the feeling is there, and it is palpable nonetheless. By the time the weekend comes and I’m ready to let myself forget about the stress of the past week, I’m always itching to do something fun, go somewhere cool, and eat something good. Usually I can’t do all three of those things, but I compromise with at least one. A lot of times I just go out to parties with my friends, but it’s honestly never actually fun. I have no idea why I still go out every weekend when I’m truly quite introverted and an early sleeper. For some reason I always think, “This time will be different!” even though it never is. I know I’m not the only person who holds this sentiment. 

Recently I realized that I really underappreciate Ann Arbor’s music scene. This town is a top tour destination for a lot of famous artists. Also, the local musicians here are incredible. Have you ever visited the Detroit Street Filling Station when they have live music? I highly recommend it. We are so lucky to have such a rich culture of music on our campus, and the fact that it’s so easily accessible for students makes it even better.

 

You can never go wrong with a University Musical Society concert, especially when student tickets start at just $12. (Seriously, UMS is an invaluable resource on this campus. Never again in your life will you be able to see world-class performances for such an incredible price!) Another opportunity for entertainment on campus is seeing theatre by various student production companies, like MUSKET, whose production of Cabaret will be opening soon. But recently I discovered a new venue on campus that is super cool and very underrated: The Ark.

 

The Ark is located on Main Street near Conor O’Neill’s and Pretzel Bell. It’s currently under construction, but you can find it by the line of people going out the door every night. The acts are usually Americana/roots music artists, but the genres are loosely defined so there’s a lot of variation in what you can hear. Last Friday I heard former U-M music student Jeremy Kittel perform with his band Kittel & Co., and I was pleasantly surprised by the casual yet intimate atmosphere. Tickets can be anywhere from $11-$50, but I did some extra research online and it seems rare that any acts exceed the price of $20. That’s what I like to see, very student friendly!

 

Inside The Ark, there’s a cafe/bar where you can buy popcorn, candies, and drinks to accompany the concert. There is ample seating on three sides of the stage, but the middle of the seating area is reserved for members. You can also sit in tables closer to the stage if you’re into that dinner-theatre vibe. I just think it’s a great place to go that’s low-stakes and unintimidating if you want to enjoy some music. This week they’re actually starting Pre-Sale student tickets for their 42nd Annual Folk Festival on January 25th and 26th, 2019. You can grab those tickets in person at the Michigan Union Ticket Office until November 10th.

Photo courtesy of CBS Detroit.

Navigating Burnout

 Photo by Julia Rose Lawson. 

I started playing violin when I was eight years old, and the Suzuki method of teaching guided my studies for about four years until I started playing the viola. I never saw myself becoming a musician; I was more interested in becoming a famous actress or singer, and viola was just a hobby. But the more I practiced, the better playing viola felt. Eventually I went to a summer camp and experienced playing in an orchestra for the first time, and I realized what passion felt like. I became a music nerd by the time I was a sophomore in high school, but more specifically, a classical music nerd. Classical music felt so special to me. I started listening to it all the time and dedicated hours upon hours of my week to practicing and various musical commitments. It became everything to me. And my experience at a classical music camp gave me a glimpse of what my life could be like if I pursued music full time. I loved it: the feeling of success from becoming a better player, the adrenaline that flooded my limbs during performances, and the friends that I made who inspired me artistically and showed me what real love in a friendship felt like. When I left camp, I wanted to commit to being a classical musician because it showed me how perfect my life could be. For the next three years, I put everything I had into becoming a good enough viola player to get into my top choice college: the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. (Surprise, surprise, I got in… hence my writing a blog post for Arts at Michigan.)

I am a junior now, still pursuing viola performance. Sometimes, I feel so immersed in music, that it doesn’t feel like music to me anymore. It’s analyzed, fragmented, repetitive, robotic. It’s causing me anxiety when I work on anything else. I have spent almost eight years with this viola on my shoulder– my longest relationship. I love it because it has taken me everywhere that I have needed to go in my life. Without it I would not have met my closest friends and because of that, I would not be myself. I wouldn’t be here, in Michigan. And maybe it’s cheesy to say, but I feel connected to it. In my heart. How could I not? Eight years and thousands of hours. It is my part of my body and it is my voice. But I have done so much. It is so integral to my identity that I don’t know who I am without it, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Lately, practicing has become more mundane and I constantly question myself about what I really want.

I know classical music isn’t my path anymore. I have to stick with this degree because the training is good and I care about being a good violist, but I also have to start challenging myself again. It’s dangerous to pursue an art if you don’t love it. And I know that deep down I love it, but it’s been a really long time since I’ve felt genuinely passionate about something.

The truth is that my ideas about what music is are changing. Since I’ve gotten to college, I have been more exposed to jazz, world music, roots music, and improvisation. Musical improvisation has been this big concept looming over my head as I question what it really means to be a musician. Improvisation requires you to make music in the moment, like a real-time composer. To be a good improviser is to have a musical mind, but what if I can’t improvise? If I can only play what’s printed on a piece of sheet music, do I have a musical mind? No, but I know I want to. Every musician wants to know music like that. If you know music like that, and you have the technical abilities to play whatever you want, your creative expression will be endless. And that’s what I really want: to be able to fully, freely, creatively express myself in a musical way.