Saturday May 11, 2019
I had the best time teaching Music 214 this semester. The final concert was Saturday afternoon. Too bad it was a gorgeous day and there were a million other things going on. The audience was light but all the most important people were there and they enjoyed it immensely.
The class was a musical theatre masterclass with eight fantastic student singers. The last time I taught it was 2010. No student pianists wanted to take the class this time, so I had my old friend Tim Brown play, which ended up being better for the student singers and more fun for me.
Each week I assigned a specific composer, or group of composers. We moved chronologically through the 20thcentury and up to the present day. The singers picked a song, found out about the background of the show it was from, the dramatic context of the song in the show, and then presented it in class with Tim playing. He knows the rep so well, and is such a good sight reader that they only needed a few minutes of consultation before singing the song for the class. Then I would coach them on whatever they needed – vocal, musical, dramatic things, and general presentation issues. There were a few days when Tim couldn’t make it for various reasons, snow travel delays, an emergency medical situation. On those days I sight-read as best I could and asked the students to give each other comments. This ended up being a great part of the class that we continued in the weeks when Tim was playing, and the students were both very honest with each other and also very supportive.
Each week was a wealth of riches: Kurt Weil, Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Rogers, Sondheim and on and on. It was so interesting to see what songs the students picked – very well-known things as well as off the beaten path things. Most songs I knew, but some were unfamiliar and a joy to learn. Four of the eight singers were my private students, so I usually got a preview of what they would be singing in their lessons. After each class I spent the rest of the week with all the songs swirling in my head, only to be replaced by the new songs from the next week. Over the course of the semester the students got much better at communicating with their accompanist, connecting to the text and making dramatic choices that were informed by the music, and using their body in the most effective way in this concert format. They really learned a tremendous amount. We laughed a lot and cried as well as we delved into the wide range of human emotions revealed in the songs. And then there was the day Calvin sang the Disney “Out There” as the real Notre Dame was burning down.
For the concert, the students decided they all wanted to be sitting onstage at café tables, listening to each other perform. They each suggested four things from the whole semester that they wanted to sing on the concert and I worked out the program. The flow of the songs actually worked out perfectly in terms of all periods and composers being represented, and singers showing off their best stuff. Each student ended up doing two solo songs and a duet, and I figured out some clever linking shtick to get from one piece to another. Music Theatre professor Stacy Wolf couldn’t come to the performance, but she did sit in on the dress rehearsal and was most impressed with the confident vocalism and the honest story telling from each student. Her praise meant a lot to everyone. Of course I had been telling Michael about the class all semester, how good everyone was, how much fun I was having, but his mouth was still hanging open in amazement after each song. He was thunderstruck by the high level of singing and acting. I was so proud of everyone, and sad to see the class end.