Arts Legacy REMIX

What started as a conversation about celebrating the Tampa area’s rich artistic heritage turned into a free concert series drawing unexpectedly large crowds. The Straz Center’s Arts Legacy REMIX was a long time in the making and looks like it’s here to stay.

After a brutal warrior’s stint in Vietnam that gave him an ultimatum to become brutal himself or take a higher calling, Fred Johnson chose love.

A longtime jazz musician who’d played with Aretha Franklin and Lionel Hampton and opened for Miles Davis, Fred immersed himself in studying Sufi wisdom and musical-spiritual cultures around the world. He wove this knowledge into his streetwise philosophy of caring for the neighborhood through the sharing of talents.

Fred Johnson

Fred eventually left The Straz to take this philosophy on the road, traveling around the world working with artists and community organizations to find paths of common ground and opportunities to teach. “I always kept in touch with The Straz and felt connected to the work here. I always felt, on some level, no matter where I was, I was an ambassador for Tampa. My journey out into the world was an extension of the work we did here, looking into how profoundly arts and artists can serve as catalysts for real transcendence and transformation,” he says.

Judy and Fred reconnected in 2016 at a Creative Forces forum, an organization dedicated to exploring ways the arts help veterans with PTSD and effects of traumatic brain injury.

“Our conversations were about the fact that society as a whole sees the therapeutic benefits of the arts from re-attaining wholeness with veterans to the growing need to find common ground among people,” Fred says. “We had started that notion with the Community Arts Ensemble, and we are living in times very receptive to this idea now.”

“We wanted to amplify that commitment and make real ways for the public to have greater access to The Straz. That’s what Arts Legacy was born from.”

Fred returned in 2017 to spearhead the Arts Legacy initiative which built on the philosophical foundations of art’s profoundly transformative role in the human experience.

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

“Arts Legacy is about celebrating our community’s cultural impact,” says Straz Center President and CEO Judy Lisi. “Our community artists belong here, creating and having a place to be seen and appreciated. It’s very important that, as a community arts center, we represent the powerful sectors of culture right here. Fred took that notion and brought it to life; he’s always been great at working withdifferent members of the community to communicate and realize our commitment to all.”

Fred assembled a team of diverse community members to give input on what this Arts Legacy initiative would be. “The Straz has a responsibility to be an active community member, to have a voice at the table when decisions are being made that affect people.”

”Our legacy is redefining the role of art — that understanding art and creativity are the foundations to manifest change, to make the world a better place,” says Fred. Through a network of community members, the Arts Legacy team built a series of performances highlighting certain cultures that themselves are foundations to the Tampa Bay area.

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

In essence, they got to the work of building bridges.

They got to the business of calling out to the heart and soul.

People answered.

The team took suggestions, made contacts, networked, organized and, in the end, produced six free concerts on the Riverwalk, drawing crowds of up to 500 people. They needed a name for the series and the Straz Center marketing team came up with Arts Legacy REMIX. “It’s hip, it’s inclusive,” says Fred, “and the success of Arts Legacy REMIX events was the outgrowth of reaching into the community and saying ‘hey, not only do we have one of the finest institutions in the world to present art, we also have this amazingly culturally and ethnically rich community that we can learn about from each other.’”

Last year, Arts Legacy REMIX hosted song, dance and drum performances around Hispanic heritage, Indian Diwali, Dr. King, Asian culture and global storytelling. Arts Legacy REMIX also hosted the Black Artists Film Series in the TECO Theater.

“It’s been really great just to see how excited people are about these performances and how much they look forward to it,” Fred says. “People are having an expanded relationship with The Straz and realizing how much we want to celebrate the arts and artistic traditions we have around us. It’s exciting to know we’re becoming more a part of people’s everyday lives by creating more opportunities for them to be on our grounds.”

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

“We’re open to suggestions and ideas. We have the line-up for the 2019-2020 season and six more performances, but we are excited to engage as many members of the community as we possibly can,” Fred says. “Now more than ever, the artist is really important in putting a different kind of stamp on the human experience. We welcome community theater companies, community organizations — any folk out there who love what we’re doing and who want to support what we do; they can email communityprograms@strazcenter.org

The next Arts Legacy REMIX performance will be an MLK Commemoration: Power of Storytelling on Jan 17.  performances take place on the Riverwalk Stage, free of charge.

People Get Ready

Club Jaeb artist Kyshona Armstrong talks about the music that made her and her journey from a music therapist into a singer-songwriter in this exclusive interview.

Caught in the Act caught up with folk musician Kyshona Armstrong while she was on the road to Missouri for a gig. She appears next Monday, Dec. 16 as our featured Club Jaeb artist for December.

Caught in the Act: Let’s talk about the South. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your life there.

Kyshona Armstrong: I grew up in a town called Irmo, South Carolina, and it’s right outside of Columbia. We used to run around in the woods. We spent a lot of time in the house or playing out in the yard or whatnot. My grandpa played guitar and sang in a gospel quartet, and my dad is the same. In the house, my dad was always practicing, so we would hear him playing old gospel songs on his electric or playing “People Get Ready.” [sings] People get ready, for the train’s coming. [laughs] He was always playing that or the solo from Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Those were his go-to songs. Anytime I hear them, my brother and I are like, we think of Daddy.

When I was young, Mama put me in piano, and that was my escape. I loved telling stories through the music alone. I loved creating a soundtrack to whatever was going on in my mind. Whatever Beethoven or Mozart song, I always had a movie in my head when I was practicing and playing. That’s how I always wanted to emote.

I feel like singing wasn’t something that I grew up doing, though. I preferred getting an emotion across just through my hands. Even when I was playing the oboe, I wanted to tell a story through the music alone. I wasn’t wanting to use my voice. When I went off to college and studied music therapy, music became this ‘oh, we can create in the moment. I don’t have these notes right in front of me that are telling me what to play and what dynamic to play it and what speed to play it, but I’m able to create in the moment with my patients and with my other therapists or with my classmates.’

It got back to what I experienced with my grandfather, with my dad, of creating in the moment with others and creating an environment with the music.

CITA: Was there any particular reason why you didn’t think about singing as a part of who you were as a musician? Did you not want to speak? Did you feel like you didn’t really have anything to say?

KA: I definitely was a very shy kid, very much an introvert. I did not want to be the center of attention. I never want anybody looking at me. I didn’t want focus on me at all. Please ignore the fact that I’m in the room. [laughs].

But I didn’t really have anything to say, either. What I’ve always prided myself on, though, even when I was shy and the ultimate introvert, was the ability to convey an emotion through song. I wanted to give people the experience of going on a musical journey. I wanted to play Fur Elise by Beethoven completely different than anybody else did because I wanted the listener to have a different experience. I’ve always connected to wanting to give people a different emotional response.

But as far as me using my actual voice to do that, though … I didn’t find my voice until I was having to use it for my patients, and it was just my patients saying, ‘your voice is very soothing, your voice is very calming.’

When someone is telling you that, and they’re a person in a hospital bed, then that’s how I’m going to use my voice from then on. If someone has said ‘your voice comforts me,’ I’ll use it again in a comforting way. Slowly, I started to own the voice that was coming out.

My voice has changed for sure over the years from a quiet, comforting voice to one that is gritty. I growl a lot more. I yell a lot more, but I think that’s also because I’ve walked through the world a little bit more and I’ve seen so much more.

CITA:  Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into musical therapy as a job?

KY: I went to the University of Georgia. It was one of the oldest music therapy programs. Because I had so many years under my belt as a pianist and as an oboe player, I knew that if I was going to go to college and needed scholarships, music had to be the way to do it. I was also very fascinated with psychology. My junior year in high school, I met this guy at the cotillion for my church, and I was just talking about, yeah, I need to do music and I’m in the marching band so I know I’m going to have to major in music somehow.

He was like, well you know, there is this profession called music therapy. I leaped on it and started doing research, and I found the American Music Therapy Association organization’s website. There was a music therapist in Columbia who worked at Baptist Medical, and I shadowed her. I followed her around for my junior year class project, and at that point I was like, ‘I think I know what I want to do.’ It sounded awesome—to combine music with psychology and the ability to help people through music.

CITA:  Then you ended up working in some really hardcore situations, in prisons and with people who had mental illnesses. You went straight into what you’ve referenced before as “really heavy circumstances.” Did you feel called to be there? At any point were you aware that you were gathering materials as an artist, or did the work feel more like spiritual healing?

KA:  I definitely was not aware of gathering any kind of materials. I think it was more self-centered than that.

For me, if somebody says, ‘this is a population that is hard and it might be difficult for you, we don’t know if you can handle it,’ then I’m always like, ‘cool.’ That’s what I want to do.

My senior year, we ended up doing some clinical work in the jail that was a couple counties away. I loved the challenge, and the patients challenged me all the time. They kept me engaged. It started off like ‘I dare you to tell me I can’t work with this population because you think I’m too quiet and I’m too sweet and I’m too nice. That’s not who I am.’ After a while, I found out that I actually had the tools and the patience and the desire to go where a lot of people don’t want to go. I enjoy going into places that are difficult for me. I enjoy going into dark spaces with others. I like being stumped. I like sometimes not having the answer.

But, I also found that what I liked about going into those into the hard places was just the fact that not everybody had a positive voice for my patients. Not everybody was seeing them in a positive light.

I found I was able to truly be an advocate for those people who the medical team might have given up on. My work as a musical therapist helped me realize I have the heart and the tools to show up and speak for these people.

CITA: We’re super intrigued by what you just said about being an advocate. We’ve been thinking about your evolution as an artist. In your other interviews and in your Ted Talk, you speak about finding your voice as something that must be an advocate for all people. Is that an evolution that you felt consciously, that your voice needed to be an advocate for healing in these troubled times?

KA:  It was an evolution for sure. What made me pull back from music therapy was the fact that I realized I was getting walls thrown up in front of me when all I was trying to do was good.

The more I spoke up for the kids, the more heat I got from the team. What I realized was, the moment I stepped away from the institution of it all, from the rules and the hierarchy, I could do more work by coming in from the outside. It’s almost like I have more credibility, too. I feel like I can reach people on a deeper level because I’m not confined by any kind of position. I’m not worried about my job at this point. Now, my job is to come in and be a voice. That’s it.

CITA: Who are your big musical influences?

KA:  I’m all over the place. As far as what they stood for and their mission with their music … Definitely a major fan of Nina Simone. Also Sam Cook. I’m listening to Hozier right now because he’s doing the same thing. His music has a meaning and there’s a purpose behind it. He’s trying to create change through it, but sonically it feels so good.

I love that Nina [Simone], her whole thing was that it is the point of the artist to be a reflection of what is happening in this country. That is a responsibility on the songwriter, on the artist to tell the story, of what is really happening in the world. I feel like she’s been definitely an influence of how I walk through the world with this new hat that I wear.

CITA: When we were watching your “Same Blood” video, we wondered if you had any inspiration from Nina Simone. It seems like what she was doing at the time she was visible is very similar to the times that we’re in right now and what you are doing. We’re in a social moment we’re we can no longer assume people are going to have a rational response. Because of that, we’re seeing the kinds of public social violence Nina confronted. Do you feel that too?

KA: Absolutely. Also, from the videos that I’ve seen and interviews that I’ve have heard of hers, her audience was also very similar to mine. It was mainly a white audience, and so she was a reflection of what else was happening, the other side. That’s something that I have to think about every time. Oftentimes, I show up to performing rooms, and I’m the only one who looks like me. Therefore, I try to make sure that I get it right, or as right as possible, and I speak truth.

I don’t have the comfort to just pull up in a gas station, especially if I’m in middle Georgia or South Carolina. I can’t just pull up anywhere. Oftentimes, I’ll pull up to a gas station and be like, ‘oh no, this isn’t a safe spot.’

But people think, oh, you’re a songwriter, you’re out on the road, that must be magical. Yeah, and a little dangerous at times.

I have to really think about where I am and where I’m going to rest my head. That’s not a reality people think about when it comes to what it must be like being a songwriter and storyteller. Some people see it as this awesome experience, but I’m also seeing real America, and not only am I experiencing those moments of ‘is this a safe place for me and a safe space? Can I say what is on my heart and what I’ve experienced?’

We’re currently right now driving from Nebraska. We were in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, and that experience … I got to see a different part of America that not many get to see. These are the people who are feeding America. You know what I mean? Their wants and needs are different, their desire is different, and I’m playing in rooms where there was no one there that looks like me. These are towns of 200 and 300 people. I’m a representation of a people, another way of living in a region that they don’t know. But the thing that I’d like to get across to them, too, my storytelling, I always start off by talking about my family and where I come from, because that’s something that many of us have in common—we have roots. We have people who fed into us. We have someone who inspired us, either from traditional or nontraditional families.

That’s something in common. I might look different than you, but somebody raised me and instilled me with qualities and with a purpose and with morals. That’s where I start, and by the time I get to the end of the show, we’re talking about how we’re walking through the world and how are we seeing one another. Are we being truthful with one another and kind with one another? I’m telling the stories of everyone that I’ve met that is incarcerated, that is dealing with mental illness, that is walking around quote unquote free in this world, but in their own prisons because of the wounds they’re carrying and the trauma they’re walking around with.

Yeah. In that way I find I have to always look back at the work that people like Nina Simone and Mavis Staples have done in just telling the stories and singing the songs and keeping the thread going. That’s the only way to bridge the gap between all the regions and all the different ways that we live, not only in this country, but in the world.

CITA:  It’s a hard walk to be true, so we’re glad you’re doing it. How do you let off steam? How do you care for Kyshona?

KA: [laughs] That’s a very good question. I just got a membership at Massage Envy.

CITA: Good idea because Massage Envy is everywhere.

KA: But this is something I’m trying to work on because I’m in a season where I’m working really hard. I’m gone a lot. I’m fortunate for it, I’m grateful for it, but the same thing that happened to me when I was a music therapist has happened. I stopped taking care of myself. I’m feeling again a little run down and a little heavy. I’m trying to just take little moments of joy. When I go home, I shut down. I might turn on some trash television. My new thing has been Schitt’s Creek, catching up on what I’ve missed over the years and just trying to find a way to zone out and maybe not think about anything. A couple of weeks ago I tried to really stand in the privileges that I have, and I went on a because-we-can trip to Barcelona for four days.

CITA: Did you love it?

KA: I did. We had no plans, other than to walk around and eat food and drink wine.

CITA: Well, what other plans do you need in Barcelona?

KA: [laughs] Right? That’s the other thing that music has done for me is pulled me into different countries, which I never thought I would be able to do as a child, or even as a young adult. I never thought I would get to travel the way I have because I have a guitar and stories and songs to share. It was great to travel to Barcelona and experience a whole other culture and a whole other way that people live, to have no job other than receive, right?

CITA: We’re pumped that you’re bringing your music to Tampa. Is this your first time to this part of Florida?

KA: No. I’m actually down there often. The first thing that brought me to the Tampa area was a songwriters’ festival that I did in Safety Harbor, Florida.

CITA:  Oh wow! Yeah, that’s right up the road.

KA: Yeah, I’m always in 30A for this 30A Songwriters’ Festival. and I’ll just keep on coming south. I was just in the area a few months ago to play at Fogertyville.

I’m playing house concerts, which are nice, intimate songwriting series that are in these communities people just built up, and they’ve created a really cool network in Florida, especially around the Tampa, Clearwater, Safety Harbor Area. Florida has surprised me by their love of the singer-songwriter and their love of storytelling

CITA: Well, we’ll be glad to see you here soon.

KA: See you soon!

Learn more about Kyshona Armstrong when she appears live and in person at Club Jaeb next Monday night, Dec. 16.

Past, Present & Future

The 2019 D’Angelo Young Artist Vocal Competition honors Opera Tampa’s dedication to nurturing new artists. On a more personal note, the competition represents Opera Tampa League Board Chair Gina d’Angelo’s commitment to continuing her parents’ love of music through philanthropic support.

Dr. George and Mary D’Angelo

When Straz Center donor and Opera Tampa League chairperson Gina d’Angelo was in college, a fortunate series of events led to her parents hosting a dinner party for Luciano Pavarotti at their home in the hamlet of Erie, Penn. Tasked with pressing the wrinkles from the famed tenor’s tux, Gina and her sister Joanne set to their chore with giddy delight. Joanne, an actress, knew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a costume when she saw it.

She pulled on Pavarotti’s tux, brandished its white handkerchief, then launched into her best impression, small white flag a-wave, as though she stood on the stage at La Scala.

Pavarotti and Gina at a D’Angelo dinner in Erie, Penn.

As charismatic and larger-than-life as Pavarotti was, it wasn’t the two D’Angelo daughters who were most enamored with the Italian singer — that was George D’Angelo, the girls’ father, who happened to be Erie’s homespun impresario and a devoted fan of fine music and inspired artists. Dr. D’Angelo, a heart surgeon, also presided over the Erie Philharmonic and had befriended Pavarotti’s manager in the hopes of convincing him to get Erie on Pavarotti’s performance calendar. A few years passed until, one day, Dr. D’Angelo received a call.

“Pavarotti’s going to be singing in Cleveland on Friday,” the manager tells him. “If you want him on Sunday, he’s yours.”

That’s how Joanne D’Angelo ended up in Pavarotti’s tux while the rest of the house was in a tizzy getting ready for the post-concert reception for the world’s greatest tenor.

“It’s funny,” Gina remembers, “because when you host an event like that, everybody comes through the front door. My parents were very social, and because they were such lovers of great music and subscribers to The Met, we had quite a few singers at our house in those days. But Pavarotti — he came through the back door, through the kitchen. He started talking to the cooks, tasting the food. He was just a normal guy. A pretty large normal guy.”

George D’Angelo came to his appreciation of the arts through Gina’s mother, Mary. “It all started with my mother,” Gina says. “She was classically trained. She had a beautiful voice. She first got involved with the Erie Philharmonic, eventually convincing my dad to get involved as well. Those initial investments of time grew into so much more.”

Mary D’Angelo with Granddaughters Olivia and Alexa

The D’Angelos ultimately funded the D’Angelo School of Music at Mercyhurst University and the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center. Eventually, they saw the need to take an active role in developing new talent, so the couple conceived of and created the annual D’Angelo Young Artists Competition in Erie, awarding the winners substantial prize money and a performance opportunity.

When George D’Angelo passed away in 2014, Gina felt a profound sense of responsibility to live up to and honor the example her parents had set as contributors to their community. “I thought, if my dad could be a surgeon working 18- hour days and be president of the philharmonic as well as giving to so many other charities, then I can do that, too,” says Gina. She became the chair of the Opera Tampa League in addition to her full-time job and various other obligations, deciding, last year, to revive the D’Angelo Young Artists Competition for Opera Tampa. “I think Dad would be proud of me. I contacted the winners from when we hosted the event in Erie. I asked them, ‘what did winning the competition do for your career? How did it impact your life?’ The responses I got convinced me we needed to bring it back.”

Dr. George D’Angelo with Pavarotti

This season, Opera Tampa celebrates its 25th anniversary — an auspicious milestone for enacting the inaugural D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition. Purely a competition for upcoming singers, this event demonstrates Opera Tampa’s unwavering commitment to finding operatic talent and developing their careers. The winners receive prize money to further their studies and careers and also earn the opportunity to perform in an Opera Tampa production. “For me, bringing back the competition is an extension of what my parents did. Mom and Dad instilled in me that giving back is just what you do. I am trying to live by their example,” says Gina.

The D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition finale takes place on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 4 p.m. in the TECO Theater. Winners will be announced, and prizes awarded. To see these upcoming opera stars, rsvp@strazcenter.org.

 

Find Your Perfect Match with The Florida Orchestra

TFO public relations manager Kelly Smith takes over our blog this week with some pro tips for finding your perfect concerts in the new orchestra season. The Straz is a proud partner with The Florida Orchestra, who holds many of its concerts here.

Guest blog by Kelly Smith, public relations manager, The Florida Orchestra

Deciding on an orchestra concert is a lot like dating. You’re looking for similar interests, that special something that makes your skin tingle and your heart race. On the morning after, no one wants to wake up disappointed. Since the Straz Center has more than 20 Florida Orchestra concerts to choose from when the season opens in September, here are five insider tips to help you find concerts you’ll love.

Michael Francis conductor, The Florida Orchestra, Mahaffey Theater, March 23, 2019

If you love, love, love Beethoven
This is your happy place, supersized. Not only is Music Director Michael Francis celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, but he’s doing it with rare performances of the Mahler versions of both Beethoven’s Fifth (May 1) and Eroica Symphony (Oct. 11). What does that mean? Often called “Beethoven on steroids,” the Mahler versions are the original symphonies, with a few tweaks, powered by an orchestra much larger than Beethoven could have ever imagined in his day. It’s the Beethoven you know, just bigger, bolder. What’s not to love? Plus TFO will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (Feb. 21), Piano Concerto No. 3 (Jan. 17), and lots more. All part of the Tampa Bay Times Masterworks series.

Maximilian Hornung Photo: Marco Borggreve

If looks matter
This is a visually stunning concert you can see only one weekend in October, only with The Florida Orchestra. That’s when TFO debuts an exclusive art film to tell the story of Strauss’ Don Quixote (Oct. 11), combined with live orchestra and German cello soloist Maximilian Hornung. The film features paintings by local artist Geff Strik, who also illustrated Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night with TFO last season. Michael Francis conducts. Another concert to consider is National Geographic Symphony for Our World (Nov. 2), a full film of breathtaking wildlife scenes with live orchestra.

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If you’re into rock more than classical
Try REVOLUTION: Music of the Beatles – A Symphonic Experience (Oct. 4). If you’re looking for another Beatles tribute show, this isn’t it. This one uses hundreds of rare photos and video, along with top vocalists, to take you through the history of The Beatles as told through their hits, such as “Penny Lane,” “Get Back,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “Hey Jude.” Big bonus: Grammy winner and TFO Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik did all the orchestra arrangements using the original Abbey Road recordings. Part of the Raymond James Pops series.

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If you’re looking for great sax
Go ahead, name one classical orchestra piece that features saxophone. Yeah, not easy. Philip Glass’ lyrical Concerto for Saxophone Quartet is full of surprises, played by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, who has performed in all the major concert halls throughout Europe. A little secret to watch for: Members of the Rascher ensemble will join the orchestra ranks for Gershwin’s An American in Paris – another rare orchestra piece that includes sax. All part of TFO’s American Masters concert (Feb. 14), which also features Bernstein’s Candide Overture. Stuart Malina conducts.

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If you need your space
With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this year, TFO is focused on the galaxies like everybody else. A stellar concert that might not be on your radar is Deep Field: A Cosmic Experience (Nov. 8) with Grammy winner and superstar composer/conductor Eric Whitacre. It goes deep into the stars with Whitacre’s symphonic Deep Field, featuring a film of Hubble Telescope images. There’s also Out of this World (Feb. 28), a Raymond James Pops concert with music from Star Trek, E.T., Holst’s The Planets and more. And if date night needs to turn into family time, try TFO’s new full-orchestra, interactive Family Concerts (Oct. 27), which kick off with One Giant Leap, featuring NASA video of the lunar surface and space-themed music, along with the Instrument Petting Zoo for kids to try out instruments.

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Make a date with us
Tickets to all Florida Orchestra concerts are on sale now at FloridaOrchestra.org. Some deals to keep in mind: Compose Your Own tickets are only $25 each when you mix and match three or more Masterworks and Pops concerts. Student and military tickets are $10, available 1 hour before the concert. Kids and teens get in free to all Masterworks concerts with a paying adult with Classical Kids & Teen tickets, available in advance through the TFO Ticket Office.

Let’s ROCK

Meet classically-trained Philly pop punk rocker Kevin Sitaras, director of the Patel Conservatory’s super popular Rock School.

Rock School at the Patel Conservatory puts together people who want to be in a rock band. The drummer may be a 65-year-old retiree, the guitarist a seventh-grader, the lead singer a recent transplant working her first professional job at a bank in downtown Tampa. The point is, Rock School is for anyone and everyone who wants to rock.

Caught in the Act is thrilled to introduce you to the director, Kevin Sitaras. You can come see Kevin and his Rock School crew shred at the End-of-Summer Music Blowout this Wed., Aug. 7.

Raised by his classically-trained opera singer mother and classic rock drummer dad, Kevin absorbed the best of both worlds, learning Strauss and Slayer, Giacomo Puccini and Getty Lee. He took to music like a duck to water, playing in metal and rock bands, then having dreams fall through like they do on the artist’s road. He walked away from music, but the move didn’t suit him well. Under the strong encouragement of his girlfriend who was tired of living with a musician not playing music, he looked for another band, hitting up the Philadelphia Craigslist until he found a pop-punk band who needed a drummer. Kevin traded a few emails with one of the members, then heard nothing for a year.

“So, a year later, I got another email from him out of nowhere,” Kevin says. “Their drummer wasn’t going to do a tour they were about to go on, so he asked if I’d tour with them. I said, ‘yeah, absolutely.’ I walk into the audition just as their drummer’s walking out. So, it went from ‘you’re going to be the touring drummer to well, it looks like you’re it.’”

Kevin playing guitar with his students during a Rock School Blowout performance at Skipper’s Smokehouse. (Photo: Soho Images)

The band, Rivers Monroe, had picked up some notice on the Philly circuit, landing a manager of some prominence – in the country music scene (he helped break Taylor Swift). Thus, the hard-drumming, happy anarchists found themselves sponsored by NASCAR, gigging at NASCAR tracks throughout the country. “It was so cool to do because I got to meet race car drivers and be on the track while the race was going on, but that’s a lot of fans to play to who don’t like your kind of music,” Kevin laughs. “In a weird way, we fell in love with it, and we did end up getting some fans from the NASCAR tour and our music on a NASCAR video game.”

Rivers Monroe graduated from NASCAR to what Kevin hails as the best diet in the world – the Warped Tour. In 2015, Rivers Monroe joined the two-week hell-on-earth that is dragging your hundreds of pounds of equipment across miles of parking lots to set up during the summer heat, sit out in the summer heat, then play in the summer heat, then break down your equipment and lug it back to the bus for the next town – in the summer heat.

Photo: Soho Images

“It’s physically demanding,” Kevin says about working the Warped Tour. “You’re outside for 16 hours a day in 100-degree heat. You do that for 10 days straight. You have gear, a merch table. You’re pulling your stuff up and down hills. I lost 15 pounds in two and a half weeks. It makes me think back to when I was a kid and would see guys on the Warped Tour. I’d stick around to talk to them and some of them weren’t that nice, but I get it. I’m not saying that’s okay because when fans came up to me I was always like ‘Thanks so much: I slept three hours last night, have a horrible sunburn, I’ve changed my clothes three times and it’s only four o’clock but thank you so much for coming!’ I’m just saying I got why Warped Tour musicians just wanted to get on the air-conditioned bus after their show.”

After a successful run on the Warped Tour with Rivers Monroe, Kevin returned to his passion for songwriting, going solo and meeting some friends along the way. A good pal moved to St. Petersburg, and Kevin, like any sane person, hates winter. The lure of a singer-songwriter life in the land of sunshine led him to this neck of the woods, and a rather unlikely perfect circumstance brought him to the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center.

Kevin with Rock School students during a performance in the Jaeb Courtyard earlier this year. (Photo: Soho Images)

Kevin, who also drives for Uber, picked up a ride one day in 2018 – a certain outgoing raven-haired theater teacher – shortly after he moved to the Tampa Bay area. They struck up a conversation. She mentioned she taught theater for a performing arts school in Tampa; he mentioned he was a musician and had taught at a rock school in Philadelphia. The woman turned out to be the Patel Conservatory’s Sarah Berland. “I told Sarah about working at the rock school in Philly and she was like, ‘oh, yeah, I think we’re looking for a Rock School instructor at The Straz.’ I gave her my email address and said ‘shoot me an email and we’ll talk.’ We went back and forth, she put me in touch with Dr. [Lauren] Murray [head of the music department], and I was hired. I was so happy. The Rock School program here is incredible, so this is a dream opportunity for me.”

Dr. Murray, who gave Kevin full license to shape the program from his scope and expertise, is more than happy to welcome her newest staff member aboard. “Kevin is pleasure to work with and has made a huge impact on our program,” she says. “He’s a terrific teacher, he genuinely cares about making a difference and his rock school students made amazing progress in such a short time. I can’t wait to see what the next year brings.”

To study with Kevin Sitaras and experience the face-melting joy of living to rock, go to patelconservatory.org and search under music classes.

Oh, Say Can You Sing

Dear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” why are you so hard to sing? WHY.

This time last year, we brought you the exciting story behind our national anthem but we didn’t go into the technical aspects of performing the song. Which, as a performing arts center, we should.

So, as we all celebrate America’s independence this Thursday, let’s start the week by discussing why this precious symbol of the American spirit is so unforgivingly difficult to sing.

We’re certain you remember from our blog last year that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” originally titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” was penned by Francis Scott Key at the precise moment that American independence from Britain seemed won. Washington, DC, had fallen, but if the Americans could defeat the redcoats at Fort McHenry, we would tip the balance of the struggle for freedom in our favor. Mr. Key had a well-known British drinking song, popular at the gentlemen’s clubs, in mind as he wrote the lyrics. We did win; in the morning, our flag was still there. Key took up the pen and memorialized the unlikely victory.

The tune, rousing and particularly suited for boisterous belting there in the middle, lended itself to the feeling of the moment. We’ll mention again that Key’s song was never intended to be our national anthem; it was merely written to capture the history-making, nail-biting drama of an independence that almost wasn’t. “The Star-Spangled Banner” (so coined in November 1814) officially became the national anthem in 1931 mostly because the song paired so well with major sporting events to unify the crowd in glorious feeling. Ergo, now we have the anthem performed prior to most sporting events.

There are some questionable renditions, like Fergie’s lambasted jazz-riff-skeedley-dee version before the NBA All-Star game:

And there are some well-executed, hair-raising deliveries, like Jack Black’s no-frills interpretation before the WNBA L.A. Sparks game:

So, let’s talk about what makes “The Star-Spangled Banner” such a tough song to nail—or, not even nail but just get through.

First, this ditty spans an octave and a fifth, so, thirteen notes. Already, the SSB has wiped out anyone with normal vocal abilities from being able to sing it and not sound like a minivan backing over a set of bagpipes.

Second, the tune makes “leaps” up and down, meaning that your voice has to jump from one note to a step and a half above or below—or more. That’s not natural or intuitive. Or easy. Music writer Scott McCormick explained it clearly in his 2018 article on how to sing the anthem: “Leaps are harder to sing than steps. The first seven notes of the national anthem are all leaps … The passage ‘dawn’s early light’ is especially challenging for it features a downward leap of a sixth – from Bb (‘dawn’s’) to D (‘ear-‘) and the ‘-ly’ part of ‘early’ is sung on an E natural.” So, that’s a huge leap. People, including the writers of this article, often fail to stick the landing, wobbling on the tone of “dawn’s” and hoping for the best as they launch to “early light.”

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This 1814 copy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the first printed edition to combine the words and sheet music. Currently this is one of only ten copies known to exist, and is housed in the Library of Congress.

Third, the lyrics are a vine-like construction of 19th century locution that, let’s face it, we’re all friends here, most of us memorized by sound and never thought about too deeply. It’s pretty easy to fumble along lines like “what so proudly we hailed … at the mumble mumble last gleaming” in a gigantic group but seriously try singing the whole thing by yourself at full volume in the shower with complete confidence. It’s tricky, people. For example, did you know that the last two lines don’t state the flag is there—they ask the question ‘did the flag survive the night? Is it still waving?’—and, in our national anthem, we don’t provide the answer. We just end there. Oh say—does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The song answers the question in the next stanza, which we don’t sing, and most performers phrase the closing couplet as though it is a statement (it does yet wave!) and not a question, since we know it’s rhetorical anyway—the flag was gallantly streaming, as history notes.

The point is, the wording is akin to fancy footwork on top of all the vocal leaping and stepping around a 13-note range. That, friends, is why the SSB is so difficult to pull off gracefully.

Here, let Christina Aguilera show you:

In defense of popular singers everywhere whose SSB fails go viral, please remember that they’re often singing with no monitor, no musicians and with a 1.5 second delay—which is an outrageously disorienting echo-effect.

To this end, we have a few tips about how to hone your own execution of our beloved national anthem, the main one being start really low so you can get to the big, high notes without blowing a gasket. We’ve taken the liberty (pun intended) to print the lyrics below in case you’d like to test your own close reading of the text. For us, we always sing in a group—safety in numbers, as they say.

Happy Independence Day, America!

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The Star-Spangled Banner
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Gimme a Beat

Ultra fan fave Tap Dogs returns with new blokes, new moves and new drummers—the jaw-dropping duo of Warped Tour veteran Caitlin Kalafus and Final Fantasy percussionist Noriko Terada.

Tap Dogs drummers Noriko Terada and Caitlin Kalafus. (Photo from Instagram: noriko_terada_drumsume)

For those of us who were around in the 90s when Tap Dogs made its first tours in the United States, the sight of barrel-chested, be-jean-shorted Aussie beefcakes slapping their Blundstone work boots around a minimalist construction zone was a revelation of the form. Tap Dogs drilled down into the idea of percussion as a prosaic, pedestrian fact of life. The show deconstructed (if you will) tap dance and rebuilt the notion of how beat-making could look and sound. Industrial. Rough. There could be flannel involved—and water and working-class sight gags.

Naturally, the show skyrocketed in popularity. By 1997, four separate tours of the show traveled the world to meet the demand of folks wanting to see the blue-collar dance phenomenon from Down Under.

Photo from Instagram: @tapdogsofficial

Dein Perry, the show’s creator and choreographer (himself a former steelworker from Newcastle, Australia), tweaked the show as times changed, leveling up the moves, upgrading sets and stunts, continually modifying the show to keep it as exciting as those first tours. Today, Tap Dogs is seeing a revival of sorts; it seems as if the next generation of live performance audiences finally got a gander at the show.

No doubt the new incarnation of Tap Dogs is greatly enhanced by the percussive talents of the show’s drummers, who now perform onstage with the Dogs. One they hired fresh off her Warped Tour and stint as Cyndi Lauper’s drummer and the other is best known for her unforgettable work as the percussionist for all the Final Fantasy video games.

The two—Caitlin Kalafus and Noriko Terada—symbolize why Tap Dogs maintains its popularity: they are really cool. And, like the Dogs, neither is reserved in the least when it comes to full-on hammering away with their tools. Their maniacal glee matches the intensity of the rough-and-ready dancing to a T, often pushing the guys to their limits as the women drive a relentless, fun, and mind-blowing force of sound for the show.

Caitlin Kalafus started gigging as a drummer at 12 years old, playing in bars and eventually winning Disney’s Next Big Thing competition with her band Kicking Daisies.

Here’s some grainy footage of an unknown Caitlin crushing the drums at The Orange Ale House on Cinco de Mayo 2007. She’s 13 years old:

And here’s Caitlin twelve years later warming up before the curtain rises on Tap Dogs in Durham, NC, just a few stops from the show’s run in Morsani Hall March 29-31:

Caitlin landed a spot with Mother Feather on the Vans Warped Tour 2017, then gigged with Cyndi Lauper’s band while the 80s icon toured last year. Kalafus has appeared as a guest drummer on Late Night with Seth Myers and as a spokesperson for Zildjian cymbals. She rocks.

Kalafus’s counterpart, the Japanese wunderkind Noriko Terada, joined Tap Dogs in 2012 after a super successful career as the percussionist for Video Game Orchestra, featured in the Final Fantasy series. Terada’s training began at 3 years old with piano, but at 11 she discovered the drums and that was that. Terada—as you will see and hear in the show—can play anything that makes noise. She’s fun to watch, which you’ll discover at the show, too. She also rocks, gigs everywhere and represents Japan for Hits Like a Girl, the international, girls-only drum competition.

Check out the Tap Dogs official Insta account for some killer videos of Caitlin and Noriko rehearsing for the current tour, like this one: