Adventures in First-Time Music Directing, part 2

April 19th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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When we last saw our musical heroine (LOL), I was battling against my own problems as well as trying to get the cast members interested and invested in their performance. With the show literally days away, we were still struggling.

Running Out of Time…!

Despite several rehearsals with me attempting to conduct the music and my friend directing, it seemed like Seussical was just not coming together. The cast as a whole had a hard time staying on-task; they were getting just as discouraged (and as tired) as we both were, having rehearsals that felt like they lasted days, without any significant improvement to show for it.

Act 2 of Seussical especially was very difficult, with its more demanding musical numbers and stage wizardry. But the strangest thing? As Act 1 slowly got polished, Act 2 languished, and several times my friend even mentioned just performing Act 1 and leaving out the second part altogether. It was a drastic idea…but with so little time to go, either cutting the show down to the performable parts or scrapping it altogether were looking like our best options.

The Surprise

I fervently did not want this to happen; my friend and I had worked too hard, and a few of the cast members had worked too hard, to let it all go down the drain. So, on the Monday before the first show, I came in ready to “inspire the kids to work hard,” having practiced all my best pep talks.

But when I came in, I learned the news: in the time since our last rehearsal, my friend had had several conversations with many of the cast members, who were actually thinking of quitting the performance because “it was going to be a disaster.” My friend’s amazing (and galvanizing) response was something along these lines: “Go ahead and quit; we will do the show without you.”

Apparently, over the next several minutes, word got around to the rest of the cast that the show would still go on even without some of its leads. They had thought that the threat of them quitting would somehow tank the show completely; they had now found out to the contrary. Much begging and negotiating followed, and somehow by Monday all the cast came back absolutely ready to work and to do their best!

The Last Week of Rehearsals: A Complete 180

The afternoon rehearsals on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday felt like we were working with a completely different cast. Lines were learned, songs were practiced until mastered, and some cast members even put down their phones for the first time since I had begun to work with them. Best of all, the cast began to work as a team, listening to each other, even helping each other with lines, songs, and costumes.

Riding this tidal wave of sudden success, I also learned how to conduct them better, especially when we rigged up a lighted music stand so that the actors could see me conducting from the back of the tiny auditorium. At last, it felt like I could communicate with them and help them stay on-task; at last, I felt like I was doing my job and helping them to do theirs. As a result, I gained their respect and trust, which had been lacking since the beginning because I hadn’t yet proven myself to them.

Performance Weekend

The dress rehearsal performance on Friday, followed by the two shows on Saturday, were whirlwinds of activity (and my shoulders and arms had never been so sore! LOL). I got to enjoy the show as well as help to keep it together; I could have burst with how proud I was of the cast’s hard work.

Despite sound and lighting issues (one of the light panels self-destructed during the dress rehearsal, and a speaker blew during each of the Saturday performances), we managed to keep it rolling and keep it professional. Part of the dress rehearsal performance was done with the house lights up, for instance, and yet the cast kept going. And, when the speaker blew halfway through the second song of the 3:30 Saturday performance, I saw several of the cast members’ eyes widen; I kept conducting, they kept singing, and we finished the song a capella while my friend and the tech crew hooked up the new speaker. The cast carried it off beautifully each time, learning and displaying the true meaning of “the show must go on.”

The show was a good success for the drama department, bringing in not only parents and friends, but much of the community as well. Many people were impressed with how professional and pulled-together the show was, and it created a new awareness of the drama department at our local high school (which has been more sports-focused in recent years). All in all, we were flushed with victory after a long and hard-fought battle, and I felt honored to have even been a part of it.

What I Learned

This experience was quite educational for me, in some negative ways and positive ways. I learned that I’m probably not going to be a concert pianist any time soon, but that I can do some musical things, like conducting, that I’d never tried my hand at before (literally or figuratively). I also learned that doing a perfect job is less important than being consistent and persistent; I became less concerned with how perfectly I was “performing” for the students, and instead concerned myself with being a role model for a good work ethic, continuing to try until I was successful. (Believe me, that was HARD for this OCD perfectionist to abide by!)

I know that I didn’t do much to help the show be its best; my friend really accomplished that by motivating her students in the only way she could reach them. I saw how much they respected her for her no-nonsense honesty, even when the truth was temporarily harsh on them. But I do know that I helped encourage and give help where it was needed, and for that, I can be grateful and proud, too. For once, I wasn’t the star of the show, but it didn’t matter–I got to help.

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Redo: Coming Up with “Novel” Ideas

April 12th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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My first post about my novel now makes about 200% more sense, with better organization/title lines and less silly off-target rambling. (Also, I fixed the long-dead link in the post as well! WOO!)

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Adventures in First-Time Music Directing, part 1

April 5th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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Today, I’ll share with you the first part of the story behind why I had to stop posting here for almost a month. I had to devote quite a bit of time to helping with the production of Seussical at my local high school–but instead of being a performer or being directly involved with the making of the music, I was working as a support to the cast, directing the music from the back of the small theater. For the first time in my life, I was working from behind the conductor’s stand.

I Didn’t Start Out as Music Director, Though!

I have no formal training in conducting/directing; in fact, when the high school drama teacher (also a friend of mine from our school days together) contacted me in the fall of 2013 about helping with Seussical, she wanted me to help perform the music, playing the piano alongside several student musicians. I accepted the task gladly, willing to help out where I could.

Bit Off More than I Could Chew!

I have more experience with playing the piano than I do with directing, but as I found out, the Seussical music was far harder than anything I had ever attempted to play. I struggled with even just learning the right-hand or left-hand parts, let alone trying to put them together. Reading piano sheet music has always been hard for me, since I naturally learn music quickest by listening to it, but even as hard as I applied myself, the music did not become easier with practice. In fact, it seemed to get tougher the harder I practiced. There were literally nights I openly sobbed at the keyboard after an hour of fruitless practice, feeling utterly unable to play anything on the page.

Lost in this fog of failure and disappointment, I actually did not attend several rehearsals which I should have. I was deeply ashamed, thinking thoughts like “I’m good at music, so why am I having trouble with this? Those kids need someone more dependable; I’m awful, I suck at this.” I feared showing up and having my out-of-tune blunderings audible to everyone–I wasn’t supposed to be this awful at playing the piano, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow the horrible “plink-plunk” junk I was doing to be heard. (Yes, I was a coward, but a perfectionistic coward.) Eventually, the stress of trying to learn and play this music even threatened my health temporarily.

Issues, Problems, and Setbacks, Oh My!

Little did I know the number of setbacks we were about to experience; my music and health difficulties were about to be the least of our troubles. For instance, there were several different versions of Seussical music out there; I had one version on sheet music and CD, the school had another sheet music version, and yet another soundtrack was available through YouTube, and all of them were different in various places. Very frustrating trying to sync up 3 different versions of music! Plus, we lost several days of rehearsal to snow days, and half of the original cast members ended up dropping out entirely, leaving my friend scrambling to cast new actors and teach them their parts.

When I finally did attend a rehearsal, I learned that the new cast was having just as much trouble singing the music as I was having trying to play it. In the end, we reevaluated our stance on the music, and we decided to use pre-recorded music instead, since that’s what the students could rehearse with best (and since all the other musicians had dropped out due to the difficulty of the music). My new task, then, was to direct the music, helping the cast members stay on the beat and keep their vocals synced up with the recorded music.

Learning on the Fly

Like I said, I’ve never had any formal training in conducting or directing. I have, however, had almost 20 years’ experience singing in choirs and being directed–I have watched many conductors work, and so I thought I could potentially do much better by the music directing than I had done by the sheet music.

But I knew I couldn’t struggle on alone, not with so little experience. Thus, I consulted as many music directors as I knew, as well as remembering the impromptu conducting lessons my high school choir director had given during my time there. Instead of holing up and trying to do it mostly on my own, as I had done earlier, I reached out and asked others for help, and I got lots of really helpful advice in return.

The first couple of rehearsals with me directing the music were a little bit rusty (OK, a lotta bit rusty), as we tried different ways of lighting my hands so that the students could see my movements, and as we worked with them to help them learn their parts. Often we both struggled with keeping the students’ attention focused on their work, with gossip, disinterest, and cell phone distractions running rampant. Sometimes I messed them up because I didn’t know their version of the sheet music; sometimes my attention faltered and I ended up behind. But I had to swallow the shame I felt at not performing perfectly and keep trying; after all, the show was scheduled to go on in mid-March!

What Happened Next?

Did all these setbacks and struggles spell doom for the production? Did the show even go on? Find out in the next installment on April 19th!

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Redo: Studying the Songcraft of Others

March 29th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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For today’s revamped creativity post, I went back and thoroughly reworked this 2011 music post about songwriting. It makes about 400% more sense with much less rambling! YAY!!

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The 5-Minute Off Switch

March 22nd, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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My brain seems to have forgotten its “off switch” on occasion. Has yours?

I’m not only describing the next-to-impossible fight to go to sleep every night, when all my electronic devices are beckoning me to DO MORE THINGS on the Internet, etc. I’ve actually found myself disconnecting from my artistic side more and more as I have become involved with things on the Internet. There just seems to be less time for me to be creative when there’s one more article or video I haven’t seen yet. (This very blog post is late because I started out trying to write it and ended up wrapped up on Pinterest for an hour!) Because I get so thoroughly involved in what I’m doing on a screen, I end up locking out the outside world–and thus, my creativity sense is dulled. How can I write or sing about a world I’m no longer in direct contact with?

The “Off Switch:” An Abrupt but Necessary Change for Creativity

What if we all turned off our devices, our news feeds, our constant stream of data from the outside world, for 5 minutes? I don’t mean just locking the screens and putting the devices aside, but literally turning every device of distraction off and going to another room. What could we start to be aware of? Our own bodies? The tick-tick-tick of time passing? Our family members in the house? The feel of the seat we’re sitting in? The weather outside the window?

As connected to my devices as I am now (and I’d guess that most of us are like that), I think such a disconnect would be VERY difficult–almost impossible at first. We’re all Internet junkies these days, relying on constant connectivity to avoid being bored in line, to avoid difficult conversation, etc. A 5-minute “off switch” would force all of us to confront what’s truly in our minds, and perhaps an idea or two can begin to synthesize at last. Even if you don’t think of yourself as creative, simply not being bombarded with everyone else’s thoughts and worldly data can be incredibly freeing!

Give It a Try!

When you turn off all your devices and go to another room to sit quietly, allow your own thoughts to bubble to the surface. This is what makes the “off switch” different from meditation (I can never clear my head of ALL thoughts, so this is the next best thing). If you find yourself at a loss for what to think about (or are itching to get back to being connected), think about this: what are you missing in the world? What do you wish existed?

Take these 5 minutes and generate something from within your own head, instead of what you think about the daily headlines and that annoying person’s status message. Who knows, you may come up with something brilliant that would have never seen the light of day without the “off switch!”

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Just Sing a Song! (Or Write a Poem, Or Draw a Picture…)

February 22nd, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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This little song, “Sing,” first written for Sesame Street in the early ’70s, spawned many covers and gained lots of popularity–and for good reason! It’s one of my favorite “kid-friendly” songs because it has a great message, not only for kids, but for artists of all sorts. Check out the lyrics, below:

“Sing
Sing a song
Sing out loud, sing out strong!
Sing of good things, not bad;
Sing of happy, not sad…
Sing
Sing a song
Make it simple to last your whole life long!
Don´t worry that it´s not good enough for anyone else to hear;
Just sing…

Sing a song!”

The bolded section above is the most important part of the song, for me. “Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear; just sing.” We singers–and for that matter, all of us artists/creative people–can get so wrapped up in worrying whether our gifts are “good enough” for the world that we strangle the creativity within us. It’s hard to put aside criticism and the fear of other people’s judgments, but it’s far worse to never even be creative for your own sake. “Sing” is a simple reminder to just enjoy our creative gifts, whatever they might be, and not to worry about what other people will think of our efforts.

Do you have a favorite song, quote, etc. to inspire you when you get discouraged about your creativity? Share it with me in the comments!

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Redo: A Fickle Playmate: My Muse

February 15th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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This post about my creative Muse just got about 90% better with all my revising. Read on to find out how my muse frustrates and helps me (often in the same moment!).

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The Journal: A Writer’s Sandbox

February 8th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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I used to think of “journals” as strictly diaries or classroom assignments; I was never very good at doing either of them for long because they both involved handwriting, which I hate doing because it’s horrifically slow and makes my hand cramp within seconds.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized there’s something actually quite magical about a journal, whether it’s an empty book of pages or a blank Word document–it’s YOUR space as a writer, YOUR space to create, transform, innovate, and revise as you see fit. No one else ever has to see it, but it’s as big as your brain needs it to be. It is your writing sandbox, and you are the kid with the shovels and the sand bucket.

How Do You Start a Writer’s Journal?

Very simple:

  1. Choose your format–paper or digital document.
  2. Write or type in anything you want to. Random character lines you thought up while out and about, blurbs and dribbles of stories you may or may not finish, brief character descriptions, feelings about topics, blasts of ARGGGGGHHHH I CAN’T WRITE ANYMORE, things that make you laugh, mocking a writing style you hate…this is your sandbox, so feel free to throw some words around and make it messy!

(Note: if you have a digital journal, it can definitely span more than one document if you want/need it to. No need to keep it all in one file, especially if you end up turning one or more blurbs into full-blown stories. My digital journal, for instance, takes up hundreds of files and multiple sorted folders!)

But I Don’t Have Anything to Write About!

If you’re absolutely stuck on what to write about, there are a few really good websites out there that give you journaling and writing prompts. Here are some to start with:

DavidRM.com: Journaling Prompts
WritingExercises: Random Subject Generator
Creative-Writing-Now: Journal Writing Prompts

Approach these prompts as fun challenges rather than drudgery. Can you write about the experience of skydiving by just imagining it? How much do you remember from that childhood memory–can you remember the scene, the smells, the sounds? Dig into each idea, sense it, and describe it.

Whatever you choose to write, try out all sorts of writing styles, plots, topics, opinions, and characters in your journal; shape your words like wet sand. You might be surprised what you end up sculpting with your words!

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Redo: Phases of Songcraft

February 1st, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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My first creative post on Crooked Glasses got a significant revamp for Redo Week–check out the spiffed-up Phases of Songcraft post and see what you think! (I think it makes a lot more sense and has a lot more substance to it now :D)

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Scraping the Bottom of the Ideas Pot? Try This!

January 25th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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Sometimes the flow of creativity just STOPS, for whatever reason. It feels suspiciously like scraping the bottom of the pot for the last bits of dinner (thus the title of this post)–you hope and hope you’ve got enough in there to feed you, but you fear you’ve run out.

For instance, I’m running into a lot of problems coming up with new topics for this blog, especially for my Monday and Saturday posts. For almost every idea I have, it feels like I’ve already done it (or I can look back through my posts and prove I’ve already done it).

So what’s a creative blogger girl to do, when it’s time to come up with a new week of posts but there’s no more ideas? Simple–revisit and revamp! And that’s what I suggest to you, if you’re stuck in a similar creativity rut:

#1: Look Back through Old Ideas

Whatever creative project you’re stuck on, look back through your completed projects, especially the ones you’re most proud of. This alone may be inspiration enough to start a new project or to get you going again on your “stuck” project, but if you’re still stuck, pick out 2 or 3 completed projects you’re not quite as proud of, and move on to step 2.

(Example: I’ve looked back through my old blog posts and found a few that, well, aren’t my best work.)

#2: Think: “How could I do this better?”

Study those completed projects. Even though they’re complete, is there anything you would like to go back and do differently? Are there any choices you regret making during the creative process last time? Review your creative project with a critical eye, and really try to see what could be done differently. You don’t have to tear up the completed project–just make notes about what you see that could be done better.

(Example: While reading through my not-so-awesome blogs, I started thinking, “Hmm, I could make that paragraph shorter and more expressive…ooh, I could add in a bit more research to make this point stronger.”)

#3: Make An Old Project New Again

Using your completed projects as guidelines, start reworking and reshaping those ideas. Like I said, don’t get rid of the completed work–use it as mental scaffolding to build your new creative project. Try new things with old ideas; the old dogs might just have a few new tricks you didn’t see before. Bring in some research or some other people’s opinions as well…whatever helps!

(Example: After discovering I could write these blog posts better, I drafted new versions of them and read them aloud to myself, seeing if the words flowed better this time, or if the posts were stronger this time.)

Result: Better Quality Work, Happier You!

Once you start grappling with actual ideas instead of having anxiety about not being creative, your mental creativity factory can begin to work again–or at least, mine has! You may not finish your revising/revamping work right away, especially if you get energized to work on your new project again, and that’s perfectly okay. Let the creativity flow as it will, and I promise you that you’ll be happier with it!

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