Each year it gets harder to say goodbye to my senior musical theatre students graduating from Marymount Manhattan College. While I realize it’s not necessarily goodbye, it’s always a very emotional time for me. This year, my students Ben, Brandon and Leanne are graduating, along with my private student Alex. I thought I’d post this letter I recently wrote to them as part of their graduation present. I hope you find it meaningful, whether you’re a teacher or student (or both).
My Dear Students,
It’s hard to believe our time has come to an end. Teaching you has been such a rich experience. I have enjoyed watching you grow, both as singing actors and as adults.
Some of you have made mention that you look to me as your father away from home. While I doubt I could ever live up to that role, allow me to give you some advice as you prepare to step into your professional careers.
These are thoughts I have tried to share with you over our years together, but so often they can get lost amidst talk of breath support, developing a healthy mix, etc… I want you to receive these axioms with the eyes of someone about to embark on a challenging and exciting journey with only their skills, hope and faith as a compass.
Start somewhere. Anywhere. The rest will become clear.
“White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities…” – George
We are rarely given access to opportunities via the front door. So often, we have to come at them from the side, above or below. You already know what you want to do with your life which, believe me, is a huge gift at any age. Don’t be afraid to dive in and see where you land.
Anne Lammott is one of my favorite writers. In her book on writing, “bird by bird,” she talks about the importance of shitty first drafts. You will almost always need to go back and fine tune your work. So, why be afraid to start? Envision the yellow brick road of possibilities before you and boldly walk it.
Acknowledge Your Fears and Work Past Them.“I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice might have been mistaken. The choosing was not.” – Dot
When fear enters into our decision-making or performances, it’s the pits.
I have come to realize that fear is an unenlightened, illogical, ego-based emotion. As you have discovered in your singing, so often the brain sends horrible messages to our body to control the sounds we’re producing, for fear of what will come out if we let go. You also know that when you do let go, the sound is free, vibrant. The issues you might have previously faced disappear and it feels as if you’re in the gold of your voice.
The same is true with life. The only way to find out what will happen is to let go of those fears and step out on faith. This is why you’ve trained for the last four years. You’re prepared to make these leaps. And even when you fall – and we all do – you will discover something more about yourself and your purpose as an artist.
I acknowledge but do not dwell on the voices in my head that tell me I’m a hack. I know if I keep moving forward, holding my lantern close to the road before me, the way will find me.
Move past your fears and you will never be lost.
Don’t Let Yourself Get Away with Anything.
“George. Chromolume #7? I was hoping it would be a series of three – four at the most” – Blair
No longer will you regularly have my thumb in your back, making sure you’re supporting your tone, asking you why you’re speaking on vocal fry, or if you actually took a song apart before putting the notes, rhythms and words together. While I’ll certainly be available to you whenever I can be, I can’t go on the journey you’re taking. In many respects, you have to go it alone.
So, use the skills you’ve developed during your degree and demand of yourself the discipline all your teachers have demanded of you. You have to care how you’re fostering your talent every day.
It all comes down to discipline. No one is going to make you get up at 5 AM to sign up for an EPA audition. No one is going to say, “Hey, you should really brush up on your jazz dance. Why don’t you take a class at Steps?” It’s a lonely experience at first. But, if you have the drive, what springs out of that is a more organic realization of what you love. Follow that. The discipline you need will be right behind.
Practice.“Finishing the hat, How you have to finish the hat. How you watch the rest of the world From a window While you finish the hat .” – George
“I’ll have more time to practice when I’m done with school.” To me, this is one of the best punch lines of all time. Oh, how I long for my college days, when I had time to practice a couple hours a day. Today, my days are gobbled up with scheduling and teaching lessons, keeping up with my e-mail and trying to further my career as a writer, performer and teacher. Practice? There’s blessed little time for that unless I make time for it. It has to be an active choice.
I can’t tell you how many new students take only one lesson with me. Usually, they come to me at the very last minute because they’ve received an audition for a role they really want. Their audition book is in shambles and they come not having researched the show or sung in months. They expect I’ll be able to help them find the perfect audition song and get them vocally prepared in an hour. It’s an impossible task, and inevitably the students leave either frustrated or crest-fallen.
In order to develop and maintain a healthy technique you must continue to practice regularly. When that dream role comes up and you’re prepared for the audition, you’ll be so glad you did.
And remember: practicing is not running through your songs a couple times. It’s a systematic taking apart and putting back together again, using the tools we’ve discussed to make sure every note, every phrase is in your command. It’s about consistency. It’s about listening back to your recorded practice sessions and making notes. It’s about listening to other artists for inspiration (after you’ve learned the piece on your own).
There’s just no substitute for practice. And there’s no getting around it if you want to be a working performer.
Use All Your Gifts to Sustain a Successful Career.
“Putting it together.” – George
We no longer work in an industry where doing one thing well is good enough. Being a triple-threat doesn’t even seem to matter anymore. Today’s successful artists are finding ways to connect all of their passions to make a solid career for themselves. Look at Lin Manuel Miranda, Brian D’arcy James, Audra McDonald and Meryl Streep. These artists are acting, producing, writing and working in many different mediums. They’ve created for themselves a situation where they always have something to work on. And their projects – disparate though they may seem – make them smarter, more marketable performers.
Spend some time (re)connecting to your passions and gifts. Is it film? Dance? Documentaries? Graphic design? Directing? Social justice? These subjects may seem very far apart from each other, but you’re the person that could bring them together in a new way.
Learn How to Collaborate.
“And then when you have to collaborate.” – Naomi
None of us corners the market on great ideas. I used to be frustrated by that fact, but now I find it liberating. I don’t have to be brilliant 24/7. Great collaborations have brought me the happiest and most successful moments of my personal and professional life.
Surround yourselves with interesting people – especially those who are outside your area of expertise. Talk about collaborating on a project. What would it look like if you, your film major friend, a visual artist and cellist got together and did a performance piece? It may just work. And then again, it may not. But you won’t know until you do it, and at the end of the day, you will have learned something incredibly valuable about creating a piece of your own.
Collaborating is one of the most challenging things to do because it requires good communication skills. Nothing solidifies what you believe more than having to articulate it. Collaboration gives you an opportunity to do that, and learn how to really listen to others. If you have many gifts and ideas to share, it stands to reason so do your collaborators. Make room for them. See what they can teach you. You will be richly rewarded as a result.
Get Quiet and Listen.
“Get the ball back, Marie.” – Dot
You will have to make some very difficult decisions in this business. There will be times when there actually won’t be a right answer. The only way to know what’s right for you will be you’re ability to turn off the noise of the world and listen to your inner voice.
This internal sage can not be treated like an on-demand service. It has to be fostered through meditation, prayer, yoga – whatever gets you centered. Practice listening for that still, small voice inside yourself every day. Honor that voice. Then when you have a hard decision to make, you will know where to look.
At times, you will be faced with an actor or director you don’t trust. You will be hired to work with them, and there’s no getting around it. Ask yourself what you can take from the experience. Ask how you can be part of the solution. Is your ego in check? Are you making decisions solely based on your emotions?
Remember: this is a very small community of people you’ll be working with. Don’t burn any bridges by making ill-informed, knee-jerk decisions. Get quiet. Listen.
Connect to your Joy.“Mama said, ‘Honey, Mustn’t be blue. It’s not so much do what you like As it is that you like what you do.’” – Marie
You know you’re entering into a very difficult business. You have very little control over so many things. The same is true of life.
Seek joy where you can find it. Go to shows that will inspire you. Listen to music. Dream big dreams. Connect with why you’ve chosen to pursue this crazy career in the first place. Hopefully it will be because you couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
There will be times when you’ll go on audition after audition and feel as if you’re getting no where. Find small, inexpensive ways to reward yourself. One summer, when I was completely broke, I went to the bodega on my corner and bought M&Ms after completing a new song. It was just enough to say, “Hey, good work!” without having to sacrifice paying a bill.
Focus on gratitude for your talent and the people around you – especially in adversity – and you will be in great shape.
I wish I had more to say. I could go on, but I’d be selfishly standing in the way of your stepping into something new and exciting.
As I said at the beginning, I’m not a parent. But one of the greatest gifts you have given me is a hint of what that might be like. Because of you, I have learned to care so deeply about someone else’s welfare and success that I have discovered a deeper meaning in my own life. You have given me new eyes, and I will try to use this vision to continue guiding all those who enter my studio.
Thank you for being who you are. Now bless the world by showing us who you will become.
(All quotes are taken from Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine.)
Please visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 150 contemporary musical theatre writers and 360+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.