An (Annual) Open Letter to My Graduating Seniors

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

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It’s hard to believe yet another year has passed and it’s time for me to send my senior musical theatre students graduating from Marymount Manhattan College and Wagner College out into the world.  This is always a very emotional time for me.  As I did last year, I have written my graduates an open letter, filled with advice I wish I had when I was graduating.  I hope you find it useful and meaningful, whether a student or teacher.

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Dear Bobby, Chris, Devon, Julia & Meg,

As you enter a new and exciting phase of your personal and professional life, I want to take a moment to tell you how deeply proud I am of you. I sometimes wonder how I could have been blessed with such a great life, teaching students I truly care about. And while our time together has come to a close within the context of your college career, I hope you’ll take a couple pieces of advice with you to guide you along your way and keep our bond strong.

These are things it took me years to realize. I believe it’s the next generation’s job to climb faster up the food chain. I have no doubt you will.

 ——

Embrace Your Differences

“We’re opening doors, singing, “Here we are!”  ~ Charley, Frank & Mary

Growing up in rural Central New York, I desperately wanted to fit in (as much as an awkward 6’4″, arts-obsessed teen can fit in amidst folks who take John Deere tractors and hunting season very, very seriously). Because I was often picked on in middle and high school, I blamed others for pointing out my differences. As I grew older, however, I realized my biggest fear was embracing those differences myself. How could I be fully present as an artist until I learned to do that?

You are each uniquely gifted. Do not hide your differences for fear they will not be received. It’s your differences that make you make you interesting and exciting performers. Embrace them and you will be rewarded in your life and career.

Take Time for Yourself

“And I play at home
With my wife and kids
And I wait to hear the movie bids,
And I’ve got a little sailboat.
And I’m into meditation.
Right.”  ~ Charley
 

An artist’s life is incredibly intense. We’re often pulled in several different directions at once: audition, keep a solid day job to pay the rent, memorize these sides for a call back, etc… There’s never a lack of work to do. And then there are the people vying for our time. “Won’t you do this reading for my new theatre company?” “We’re producing a benefit concert and want you to sing.” “I haven’t seen you in ages – let’s get together for drinks.”

The only way I have found of maintaining some semblance of sanity is by setting aside time for myself each day. That special time can come in many forms: exercise, meditation, walking, etc… I find simply sitting still is a major gift. What ever it is, it will help you get out of your head and get into your body. It will help you make informed decisions about your career and the relationships you choose to foster. It will help you to daily clean the slate so stresses and mild irritations of life don’t build up and push you over the edge.

One of worst things in the world, I think, is feeling like you’re a prisoner in your own life. Taking time out for yourself each day will insure contentment in your personal and professional life.

Learn How to Define Success

“Skies are beaming,
Future bright and prospects gleaming.
Best of all, I don’t stop dreaming
Just because I’m rich
And famous
And therefore
Happy, too!”  ~ Frank
 

When I moved to New York at the age of twenty-five, I was determined to win a Tony by the time I was thirty. At the time, that seemed like a totally reasonable goal and time frame. I assumed a great deal of money would follow and then I’d be able to call myself successful.

You might have noticed I haven’t won a Tony. I won’t disclose my age, but suffice it to say I long missed the deadline. I haven’t even been nominated for a Drama Desk. I haven’t lost the dream of that happening someday, but instead I’ve changed my definition of success.

Winning a Tony award for a show I wrote would be amazing, but if I look at the underlying wish of that, it’s to be a successful artist. Receiving a Tony award and making a lot of money is a darn good way of having that dream come true, but it’s not the only way.

I have a fantastic writing partner and we’re doing great work together. That’s success. I find deep joy in writing art song and my music is starting to sell online. That’s success. I get to share my passion for healthy singing with fantastic students like you. That’s success. I make my living solely on my work as an artist. That’s success.

There’s nothing wrong with shooting for the stars – I encourage you to do that – but measure your success by the daily victories and little things that bring you joy. If a Tony comes, well then, great. But either way, you will be in the flow of your purpose as an artist. And nothing spells success more than that.

Surround Yourself with Good People

Most friends fade
Or they don’t make the grade.
new ones are quicky made, 
And in a pinch, sure, they’ll do.
But us, old friend,
What’s to discuss old friend?
Here’s to us – who’s like us?
Damn few!”  ~ Frank 
 

The profession into which you’re entering is wonderfully challenging. To be successful in the ways I know you each want to be, you must foster relationships with people who have your back. It can be hard to find friends who will truly be there for you before, during and after everything. In my life, I’ve been fortunate to meet more than a handful, which is rare. The more common situation is collecting friends who have a lack of ambition, don’t have your best interests in mind or won’t be happy for you in your moments of success.

We must be careful with whom we spend our time. Just as we are what we eat, we are who we hang out with. It can be very difficult to sever ties with unhealthy folks, but doing so will help you gain clarity and bring more light into your life.

Don’t Be Afraid to Choose the Interesting Projects Over the Well-Paying Ones

Jeffrey: “Well, when you do work together, which come first generally — the words or the music.”
Charley: “Generally, the contract.”
 

I can promise you this: money will come and go (OK, mostly it will go). That’s the way life works. If we can set aside our worries about paying our rent, it will help us to make wise decisions about the projects we take on.

I’ve taken a handful of jobs as a freelance artist that paid very well but definitely were not worth the aggravation! I’ve taken many more that could have paid better, but made me a better artist. I’m happy to report the latter was the way to go.

And the great thing is that, while I might not have made as much money on those particular jobs, I made great contacts that helped me get other, better paying projects. It’s funny how that works.

Pay your rent, yes, but make sure it’s not the only consideration in taking on a new role or job.

Listen to Your Voice

“After all of that baloney
They’ve made you go through,
All that muttering that you’re a phony,
‘Cause what do you do?
Will their face be stony
When they see on their Sony
Someone handing the phony
The Tony
Award!”  ~ Mary 
 

We’ve spent a fair amount of time in your lessons talking about the types of things you might do in your career. We’ve talked a lot about why one song might not be a good choice for you and another would. You are now in the driver’s seat. I’ll always be happy to give you my input, but at the end of the day, you have to decide what fits your voice.

Choose wisely. Ask yourself, “Could I sing this song eight shows a week?” If you can’t, there’s your answer. If you can but think you’d be bored to tears, again, there’s your answer.

Listen to your voice – both the figurative and literal – it will help you with those decisions.   There will be people who will tell you you’re making a mistake.  Stick to your guns.  If your voice says, “This is not right for me.” then believe it.  Our intuition is a very wonderful and powerful thing.  If we listen to it and trust our instrument, chances are the nay-sayers will be proven wrong in time.

And if you ever get stuck, call me!

 ——

You know me – I could go on (and on, and on…). I’ve never exactly been short on words. If you remember nothing of the above, remember these two words before you open your mouth to sing: “I’m worthy.”

You are worthy. Show them your worth. Show them how beautiful you are. No one can ever touch that and that’s why people go to the theatre, whether they know it or not – to be reminded they’re worthy too. You will be stunning ambassadors of that message and the world will be a much better place as a result.

Happy graduation, my dear students. You have my love and support.

Sincerely,
David

***

All quotes were taken from Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim & George Furth.

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