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: Warmer Temps, Warmer Mood

March 25th, 2014 by , in Tuesday on the Soapbox
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Just in time for spring to roll around again, here’s a simple, beautifully restyled/reworded spring post from 2011! Enjoy the new pictures and more poetic descriptions… :)

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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 a song
Sing out loud, sing out strong!
Sing of good things, not bad;
Sing of happy, not sad…
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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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: 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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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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8 Strange Sculptures You Won’t Believe

January 18th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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When most of us think of sculpture, we think of cool, well-lit enclosed galleries, polished floors and glass cases where either a well-realized human form or some crazy angular abstract thing is on display. To the average human (aka me), sculpture is a weird, rather unapproachable art form for these reasons.

Thankfully, there are sculpture artists who think differently–who have literally thought outside the glass box and created amazingly weird (and funny) pieces of art that we can study, laugh at, and even interact with. In this way, they exemplify what it means to be creative: making stuff that no one else has attempted, just because no one else has done it and it sounds cool or funny. Here are some examples:

Looks like a pretty normal statue…except it’s hanging by one hand! How’d they do that?! (image source)

This sculpture just speaks to me–it says “STARBUCKS.” (Also, you might be addicted to coffee if your whole face is made out of it…image source)

Awesome way to both celebrate music and a musical instrument, with this neon-blue outdoor guitar sculpture. (image source

Aww, this is cute–sculpture can be small and sweet (and edible), yet still bring happiness! (image source)

These slender metal sculptures out in the middle of nature are what I like to call “Earth decorations.” (image source)

Stretch it, play with it (or prank somebody with it) and yet it retains its shape–nope, it’s not some sort of goop, it’s PAPER! (image source)

Not only is this a really neat-looking tree made out of pipes, it also makes sounds when the wind blows! (Video/audio of this “Singing Ringing Tree” available by the following link–it sounds SO creepy and cool. image source)

And sometimes, sculpture doesn’t need to make people think deeply–it just needs to give them a “What the–LOL!!” reaction. (image source)

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Spiritual Metal: Gamelan Music

January 11th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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My studies of music have been windows into various cultures, and the style of music I’m writing about today is no different. I first learned about this in my “Music Cultures of the World” class in college, and it was easily some of my favorite music to learn about.

A Gamelan Crash Course (Figuratively Speaking)

Gamelan (pronounced “GAH-meh-lahn”) music comes from the islands of Java and Bali in Indonesia, and is based on defined musical scales, such as Pelog and Slendro, that differ significantly from Western scales. The word “gamelan” can reference both the type of musical ensemble that plays this music, and the style of music that said ensemble performs. A variety of different instruments, ranging from flutes and vocals to drums and all sizes of metallic gongs, make up the ensemble.

To Westernized ears, this music can sound more like people dropping pans in a busy kitchen at first. But, in reality, each gamelan song is a complex orchestral work, with each instrument built and tuned specifically to fit within its particular gamelan ensemble and no other. It has also influenced world music–even composers like Claude Debussy and John Cage brought in some of its concepts in their music!

The history of gamelan music is intertwined strongly with the spiritual traditions of the various cultures living in Indonesia, to the point that you pretty much can’t talk about gamelan without involving faith, and vice versa. Gamelan music is used in so many ceremonies and rituals, but it’s also broadcast on radio–it’s an integral part of
Indonesian life. It is, quite simply, a form of worship music, used to speak to the gods and invite them into human presence.

Gamelan Styles with Examples (Videos)

There are two broad categories for gamelan music. Javanese gamelan, featured in the first video below, is generally smoother, calmer, reverberant, rhythmical/flowing…it’s almost like being inside a giant, harmonic clock. Balinese gamelan sounds more “exciting,” with a harder, ringing metallic sound and faster, more complicated rhythms that don’t necessarily adhere to the clock-like, echoing steadiness of Javanese styles.

A third style, Sundanese gamelan, is from West Java, yet sounds slightly different from the Javanese style–to my ears, it tends toward the ringing metallic tones from Balinese gamelan. Check out the videos below to hear these styles:

Javanese gamelan

Javanese gamelan with dance performance

Balinese gamelan

Balinese gamelan (with some Javanese influences around 2 minutes in)

Sunda Javanese gamelan

Sundanese gamelan

To Learn More

Gamelan music @ Wikipedia
Javanese Gamelan Music Notation
Balinese Gamelan Rhythms
History of the Word “Gamelan”
American Gamelan Institute

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Don’t Let Anyone Kill Your Art

January 4th, 2014 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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This post arose out of a conversation I had with my little cousin (who is now 19 and in her second semester of college, so I guess she’s not so “little” anymore, lol). Around Christmas I asked her how her art classes had gone, knowing that she had planned to major in Art and had likely faced a rocky transition into college art classes. Boy, I didn’t know the half of it.

“Oh, I changed my major,” she replied when I asked her. “I took an art class and the teacher basically killed my desire to do any more art.” She went on to describe how the art teacher had insisted on each student doing dozens of drawings each week, ostensibly to “practice their skills,” but then apparently had used the opportunity to harshly critique rather than build their skills up.

She seemed pretty buoyant about the whole thing, and about her future in her new major, but I was sad about it. While we spoke, I encouraged her to keep at her art, even if it was only a hobby, and not to let it go just because of one teacher, whose opinions were not fact (and whose art teaching methods seemed a bit suspect).

Now, my advice, while perfectly fine, is easier said than followed. How often has my enjoyment of my own art been tainted because I didn’t get the reaction I expected from my audience? How often have I doubted myself and my abilities because of an offhand judgmental comment from someone else? When I make art, I am literally displaying part of my soul…and when someone else finds it unworthy or is indifferent to it, I am wounded as a result, even if I gamely try to continue on.

This is a dangerous path for us artists to travel; once we start prioritizing others’ opinions of our works (especially the ones that seem meant to destroy our desire rather than perfect our skill), then we can easily lose the passion for our art that we began with. And yet, many of us fall victim to this specifically because our art is so close to our selves. We have to actively combat this problem, otherwise the creative fountain within us will be stilled–not by lack of ability, but by the anxiety that comes from wondering whether anyone else will like what we make.

I leave you with this point: art, in whatever form it takes, is a subjective thing–the beauty of a piece can’t be quantified completely. Thus, no one else’s opinion is more unbiased than your own opinion when it comes to your artworks. If you like your work, and other people like it, that’s great. If you like your work, and you’re the only person in the world who likes it, so what? Art is meant to soothe, to inspire, and to be enjoyed rather than to be cut apart and analyzed to death like a dissected frog in a lab. If it only soothes, inspires, and brings enjoyment to its creator, then it has done what it was designed to do already; other people’s positive opinions are just icing on the cake (and the critical people don’t deserve a slice of the cake).

(now I just have to follow these words of wisdom when it comes to this blog! LOL)

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Creativity Boost: Be Around Creative Folks Like Yourself

December 21st, 2013 by , in Saturday with the Spark
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On November 18th, I had the unique pleasure of singing with a massive choral and orchestra group at Gardner-Webb University–we presented an evening of classical music the likes of which I hadn’t done since my college choir days. And boy, was it an evening of creativity and art! I was nearly bowled over with it!

I really didn’t expect to be so moved or touched by performing with this amalgam of musicians, and yet I was; I was up there singing my heart away, feeling for all the world as if I was in my element at last. I had come in dressed for performance like always, and some part of me viewed the event as “business as usual,” but it certainly wasn’t! With almost 400 people packing the stage for the choir/orchestra numbers, I felt myself part of a large, well-oiled musical machine, and it was ELECTRIC.

I got home, kinda dazed, after the performance, and wondered over my reaction for a little while. The thought that kept coming back was: “I was around people like ME!” All of the performers were classically trained musicians like me, and this was a collegiate performance, much like the ones I enjoyed being in during my own college years. I had gotten in touch with a part of my musical soul which had lain dormant, likely, since that time. It felt so good to know that other people were as passionate about music as I was, and were experiencing music in the same way. This group musical experience sparked a mini-tidal wave of creative musical ideas, which I’m still happily riding.

Want this kind of experience for yourself? Here are some ways you can find other artsy people like you, no matter what art you make and enjoy:

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