The (Necessary) Struggle of Academia

Laura Josepher and I attended our first Musical Theatre Educators’ Alliance (MTEA) conference this past weekend, held at New York University’s Steinhardt School. The organization, which was founded nearly 20 years ago, seems to be enjoying a noticeable period of growth, hosting a slew of educators who were also attending the conference for the first time. It was a jam-packed, invigorating three days, filled with informative sessions, masterclasses and networking.

Being a teacher at a college or university can provide some wonderful opportunities: a wide variety of students, dynamic facilities, outside-the-box synergies, administrative and financial support, etc… But for teachers in the arts, this necessary beast can also feel as if it stands in the way of them and students’ best interests.

What came through during the highly collegial and collaborative weekend was a desire to better prepare students for today’s industry standards, which has radically changed in the last five years alone. There was much talk about what young professionals needed to know to be effective in the industry and how important it is for educators to be at the forefront of this knowledge. It’s a growing challenge for educators to keep up with these changes, which include everything from audition technique to social media presence. As young performing artists diversity their training for active careers, so too must teachers become renaissance artists, knowing a little about everything (or at least knowing when and where to point a student in the right direction).

This brings up the discussion of scholarship versus practicum. Sadly, many see these as two separate worlds: you’re either doing scholarly research or you’re out in the field directing, musical directing… interacting with the industry. At the MTEA conference, these dividing lines were thankfully blurred. One can not sit in an ivory tower writing a dissertation, looking down on those who are “boots on the ground,” just as those with practical experience can not dismiss their colleagues focused on research. If we seek to create a body of intelligent, grounded musical theatre performers, both are required. Teachers must have a foot firmly planted in both.

The conference acknowledged this duality in their programming. Sheri Sanders presented her now-legendary “Rock the Audition” session, working both with students and their teachers (who sang and coached students with helpful feedback from Sheri). Sheri’s knowledge of pop/rock idioms is only matched by her infectious ability to teach the artists while simultaneously lifting them up.

I had the joy of presenting an updated version of my session, “Vocal Health on Broadway & Beyond,” which highlights how vocal issues are both prevented and treated on Broadway, London’s West End and Australia’s theatre capitol of Melbourne (watch here). Much of the difficulties facing young performers in this medium seemed to shock musical theatre educators. It gave them a new call to action to understand how technique and deciphering stylistic demands of a now various musical theatre cannon are vital to protecting the young artist.

David presenting at the 2017 MTEA Conference, New York City

Lone Baltzer from the Den Danske Scenekunstskole in Denmark shared her revelatory discovery of “Complete Vocal Technique,” which seeks to give young performers more vocal freedom and stylistic flexibility. This technique combines voice science with practical experience, all allowing the student to explore their voice with (healthy) control. Fascinating!

It seemed many of the presenters at the session were preaching to the converted – teachers who were genuinely engaged in learning new tools to help themselves and their students. The challenge can be to take information from a wonderful conference and apply it in the studio or classroom. I mean this both in the way it challenges us as to move beyond the comfort of what we know to incorporate new ideas and the bigger movement of changing the culture of an institution if this growth mindset does not currently exist.

The other major component of the conference – one that was discussed head-on in a panel discussion and echoed throughout the weekend – was the desire for more diversity, both in the student body and faculty. Many of the predominantly white gathering expressed frustration over their administrations’ glacial move to support diversity (in all the ways we are made diverse).

Broadway director and former Public Theater Artistic Director George C. Wolfe, who was a surprise speaker at the beginning of the conference, had one thing to say regarding the issue of diversity: “Just do it.” Easier said than done in some situations. Many teachers saw their institutions as a kind of Titanic, unable to nimbly maneuver to make the kinds of changes that would best serve their students and program. Some were completely on board with the diversity conversation and simply couldn’t find the students or teachers needed to make the change a reality. It highlighted how deeply embedded these issues are in our society and the importance of changing the tide by being sensitive to students’ and colleagues’ needs (i.e. – where gender fluidity is concerned, asking the student how they wish to be addressed).

While the weight of this discussion hung a bit heavy over the conference, I commend all engaged in the conversation for avoiding the desire to put a bandaid on the issue. There wasn’t an effort to “be right.” Rather, teachers discussed how to be the most effective in creating change. This is a great departure from other academic organizations (and, indeed, institutions), which sometimes seem locked into a particular prescriptive way of doing things.

Going hand and hand with this was a palpable desire to learn and share. There is a danger in academia to cling so tightly to one’s beliefs that they become blinded to other fruitful knowledge. Those we spoke to at the conference did not full into this category. Our institutions need more educators like this.

All this is to say we have great hope for the future of our young musical theatre performers based on the work we saw their teachers do this past weekend. Even working within the confines of institutions, there was a positive attitude about creating effective solutions that moved these important conversations forward.

Laura and I look forward to attending future MTEA conferences. To find out more on the organization, click here.


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