Reading Party

How do you incorporate creativity into your social life?

Tonight, I’m heading to a friend’s house for a “Reading Party.”

Beverages and snacks are included of course.

For the first 30-40 minutes we are to engage in silent reading with a book of our choice, then move on to an open mic session where people are invited to play instruments, read something, sing, act, etc.. In a way it’s kind of like the anti-house-party. It’s still a social gathering, but it gives people to focus on themselves and engage in sharing art.

It’s still a “party” though, so it’s necessary to end the night with some karaoke.

A few blocks away, my girlfriend’s co-op is hosting a “progressive” party, meaning that the house collectively agrees to a party theme and each person decorates their room to fit their own interpretation of the theme. Everyone in the house starts in the same room and progresses to the next room at the same time. Tonight the progressive theme is “Powerpoint Presentations.” The prompt exists on its own with no rules or limitations, so everyone in the house is able to get creative with their decorations and in-room activities.

I think the key to a really great party is a solid theme. I would argue that dedication to a theme allows both the party planners and guests to express themselves in creative ways that they would not otherwise have. My roommate turned 21 this week, so tomorrow we’re hosting a disco party for her in our basement. As hosts we have the responsibility of turning our dingy basement into a boogie haven, and guests will only be allowed to enter if they are dressed for the disco.

In this current pre-Spring Break slump, it’s important that students find ways to relax on the weekends. Even though many of us are still busy, we have a little bit more time in the day to practice self-care. I think socializing is a really important aspect of self-care, and attending/hosting parties/hangs with friends is an easy way to accomplish that. Adding a creative twist or theme can make the whole experience all the more memorable.

There are also plenty of ways to practice creativity that have nothing to do with socializing or partying. What are you doing this weekend?

Free Improvisation

The concept of free improvisation has been on my mind a lot this year.

Free improvisation is basically music without rules. No rhythmic rules, no tonal rules. It can be anything you want, freely composed in the moment. Hence the “improvisation.”

The University of Michigan has an ensemble dedicated to this musical practice called the Creative Arts Orchestra. There are no restrictions on instrument type or degree level– the only requirement is a willingness to open your mind to a new way of creating music.

This semester we have a mix of all instrument families: strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. 21 people in total come together to create an improvisational ensemble to express creative ideas until the music naturally comes to an end. Every improvisation yields special moments of both togetherness and separateness. Because we are responding to eachother, everyone has the space to take a solo or simply accompany. We learn how to use our instruments to express our emotions. We learn to compose in the moment. We learn how to listen. We learn how not to play.

 

Free improvisation has greatly improved my skills as a musician. It’s given me more confidence in my abilities. Getting the chance to play with people I don’t often play with is a reminder that my world doesn’t have to be so small. I’ve started beginning my practice sessions with short improvisations so I can warm up my fingers, find the core of my sound, and wake my viola up a little bit before I start looking at repertoire. Sometimes I’ll pick different keys to challenge my brain and change up finger patterns. I’ll make up my own fiddle tune. I think there is so much value in being able to make music away from looking at a piece of paper. Improvising allows me to use my creative and artistic side, when so often in classical music I feel like I’m a robot reading notes off of a page. If you play an instrument, see what happens if you try to make up a song in the moment. Once you start doing it enough you’ll find yourself in a sort of meditative state, and if you feel ready to start playing with others, come join us in CAO.

I’ll just send in an application…

I know I’m not the only University of Michigan student stressing out about their summer plans right now.

The summer is an important time for a musician because it provides free hours in the day for one thing: PRACTICING– well, for some people. I do my best to try to avoid practicing for long periods of time. That’s a story for another day. I’m looking at a few different options for my summer but I keep going back and forth on one idea, so I thought I would write about it this week.

I have never been a camp counselor. I understand it’s like some sort of rite-of-passage thing for college students but I feel late to the game. I’m going to be starting my senior year in the fall. I feel like by now, being a camp counselor should be a “been there, done that” situation for me. The truth is that college has actually gone by very quickly and I didn’t fully realize how much I was supposed to accomplish by now… again, a story for another day.

When I was in high school, I went to lots of different string camps and orchestra festivals during the summer. All of these summer camps had such rigorous schedules of rehearsals and supervised practice time that progress was inevitable, and succeeding with my instrument provided more motivation for me to work harder. In true summer camp form, there were also cabins, counselors, and camp traditions. I wore a uniform of navy pants and a light blue polos when I went to Interlochen for two years. On Sundays I had to wear white polos or a counselor would send me back to my cabin to change. We all had a love/hate relationship with the counselors. Most of them were college girls and their personalities ranged from cool to power hungry. I felt like too many took pride over being able to control us, but I had one or two that were kind of like second mothers to me and my cabin mates during our six week stay away from home.

Maybe I would be a good counselor. I feel like I do well with high schoolers and kids. Since I went to the camp myself, I would be able to help them enjoy camp in all the ways that I did, as well as encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities I didn’t pay attention to. I would be able to revisit a place that changed my life: where I discovered that I loved music and wanted to pursue it for a career.

But maybe going back to Interlochen to be a counselor would ruin the magic for me. The nostalgia might be too painful being in a place I loved without my friends. Maybe I would be jealous watching the campers go to orchestra rehearsal. It could replace my old memories of a place where I thought I was the best version of myself. But also, I need money, and it wouldn’t hurt to have the experience. I’ll send in an application and think about the hard stuff later.

Dark Days in the Music School

*Content Warning: Sexual assault, abuse by an authority figure*

On December 10th, 2018, the Michigan Daily published an article about a violin professor at U-M who had been accused of sexual abuse and misconduct by many of his former violin students. Stephen Shipps had been employed by the University of Michigan since 1989, served as the dean for academic affairs from 2002-2007, and was the chair of the string department at until December 7th, 2018. I won’t go into the details of the abuse allegations– you can read everything in the Daily article here. What I want to talk about today is the effect of this situation on current students at SMTD, as well as the state of sexual abuse in the world of classical music.

As soon as I woke up on that Monday morning, I opened my phone up to Facebook and the first thing on my newsfeed was the article titled “Former students bring 40 years of misconduct allegations by SMTD professor.” I opened the article immediately, unsure of what to expect. As far as I knew, there were no rumors going around school about Shipps. I had no personal contact with him because I am a viola student, and he was a private violin teacher. I went to a summer camp two years ago and he was teaching there, so occasionally I would see him teach a master class or a quartet coaching, but we never spoke to eachother. After reading the article, I shared it on my own Facebook, and more people shared it from my post. Soon, it was all over my newsfeed, along with words of anger, sadness, and confusion from my fellow classmates at SMTD.

All day, thoughts of helplessness and anger swirled around in my head. In the past year, many famous male musicians have been fired from their jobs over sexual abuse allegations. If a person is talented, while their artistic achievements are celebrated, their personal actions are swept under the rug. There’s this idea that what they do in their personal life does not matter because what actually matters to the institutions which employ them is their musical ability. It’s their own artistic talent that allows abusers to disguise their actions with some higher artistic purpose. To some young music students or professionals, the extra “attention” they might be receiving from their private teacher makes them feel special or chosen. They might believe that by doing something inappropriate for their teacher, they could get ahead in the industry. Succeeding in music is devastatingly challenging. As a young person, you look to your private teacher for guidance on everything, from how to play the instrument to where to pursue a job. At the very least, you spend an hour alone with them once a week in a private lesson. It’s a vulnerable space where students must feel the freedom to both fail and succeed. For abusers, it is an ideal situation: alone time with an impressionable person behind a closed door.

The night after the article was published, I walked into my orchestra rehearsal and saw one of Shipps’ students sobbing into my conductor’s arms. I don’t know her story, but immediately I started to think about all of his students, my colleagues, seeing that article about their teacher on their Facebook feeds. This week at school, they will be walking into a new studio with a new violin teacher. I can’t even begin to understand the complexity of the situation for them. In the past year I have seen so many #MeToo stories online, as we all have, and my first instinct is always to support the survivor and condemn the abuser. It is still my first instinct. But when this happened in my own community, I could also see all the complicated dimensions to the story. While he deserves to be punished for his crimes, the public nature of the article and widespread sharing on social media hurts the people who cared for him. It hurts his students, my colleagues. But on the other hand, publicizing these tragic stories is necessary if we want to create a real change in the music industry. It doesn’t matter how talented someone is if they’re a creep. Abuse should not be tolerated under any circumstances. It seems that the only way to bust these men who benefit from the patriarchal, oppressive chaos of classical music is through good journalism and social media. Thank you, Michigan Daily, for telling us the truth. 

Click here if you want to read more about the #MeToo movement in classical music. 

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.