Practice Makes Perfect, Performing Makes Professionals

The importance of recitals in arts education

Summer at the Straz Center means a windfall of students leaping, singing, tapping, tuning, rehearsing, running lines and taking selfies with beloved teachers in our many, many (many, many) summer camps and classes. We enjoy the nonstop energy all year long at The Straz, but the exuberance of everyone here for our summer arts education programs makes life sizzle with excitement on every floor of our performing arts school, the Patel Conservatory.

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Summer campers from Musical Theater Camp: Dancing with Props pose for a quick photo during rehearsal for their end of the week showcase, 2017.

A big part of our arts education curriculum involves a performance component—after all, we must put the “perform” in performing arts. We thought we’d take a closer look at an aspect of performing arts training that often goes unexamined: the recital.

Why do it? Are recitals really necessary?

“A recital gives us a place to share with an audience,” says Patel Conservatory Music Department Chair Lauren Murray. “In music, we have a ‘triangle’ of artistic collaboration: the composer, the performer who interprets the composer’s work and the audience. The recital allows for all those collaborators to come together in one place.”

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Private voice student performing in the Honors Recital, spring 2017. (Photo: Soho Images)

Recitals also provide a legitimate training ground for professional artistic development, and, ideally, the performance executed in a recital marks a new stage in the artist’s study of her craft. “When you study privately,” says Kavanaugh Gillespie, a voice specialist at the Patel Conservatory, “you are only performing for your instructor. The recital puts you out there in front of strangers, under the lights and in a new space. It is a different and exciting atmosphere. You cannot simulate that environment. Performing as a young musician helped me become more comfortable in front of others—I can credit my comfort in the classroom to performing as a child.”

The dreaded notion of stage fright enters the equation somewhere, as it’s a top fear akin to glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. Similar in nature, stage fright and glossophobia stem from a sense of feeling threatened (perceived ridicule, failure, or ostracism) and trigger the flight-fight-freeze response in the brain. Recitals, especially in a conscientious environment, are a great way for people of all ages to learn to overcome fear and gain invaluable self-confidence in presentations.

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Beginning Dance students performing in their first recital, spring 2017. (Photos: Soho Images)

“Many people, especially when they first start performing publicly, are nervous or worry about what people will think about them personally and their playing, that the audience will judge them harshly in some way,” says Murray. “Recitals can be stressful if the performer isn’t prepared or ready for public performance. As an instructor, it’s my job to make sure I’m sending my students into an environment that’s healthy and positive, and that they are prepared. Once they’ve performed live, it’s a bit addictive, and they’re ready to do it again! As time progresses, the fear of personal ‘failure’ becomes less, transforming into a hope that the audience will like or understand or enjoy the music you’re performing. I try to get my students to transfer the concern from themselves (“what if they don’t like me”) to the audience (“I love this piece, and I want them to love it, too”).”

“Overcoming and managing stage fright can be a challenge,” says theater instructor Audrey Seigler. “Building confidence through practice is a great way to work through feelings of stress and ‘butterflies.’ Committing to a goal and working hard to achieve that goal is the core behind all recitals and performances. It’s life lessons: teamwork, pursuing goals, self-discipline, humility. Learning to manage nerves is necessary to reach one’s true potential, and practice with performing is a great way to figure out how to handle your nerves.”

“The more you perform,” Murray adds, “the positive experiences begin to replace the negative scenarios your brain invents.”

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Students from Showstoppers, Jr – Thunder Mountain Revue performing at the end of their two-week summer camp, 2017.

Even if students do not pursue professional artistic careers, recitals and public performances build a critical professional skill set.

“The long- and medium-term preparation students put into performance all the way from the beginning stages of play and early technique to the weeks or months that might go into a particular performance help develop the sense of pride and a higher level of attention to detail that translates well to nearly any aspect of life—in any discipline,” says Dr. Catherine Michelsen, string specialist with the Patel Conservatory.

“We study and take lessons to get better,” says Murray. “Our performances are places where we experience the joy of our hard work. And, if we, as teachers, are doing our jobs well, the students want to perform in a recital or live in some way, to share that joy.”

Did you know that Patel Conservatory recitals are usually open to the public? Often free of charge, our recitals are a great opportunity for community members to play their part as the collaborators of the artistic triangle. Come be in the audience! Our performances are listed on the Patel Conservatory web page.

What Is Up With Not Sitting Down

A humorous look at the rise of the standing ovation … guess this is just what we do now.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet directed by Matthew Warchus, Plácido Domingo in a solo concert of arias, the premiere of Neil Simon’s Rumors, the launch of Broadway’s Footloose, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Firebird with *the* Virginia Johnson as Firebird – this recognizable, mostly legendary list (sorry, Footloose, you weren’t legendary, but we still liked you) shares an interesting feature: not a single one ended with a standing ovation. We know because we were there.

These were fantastic shows—amazing, jaw-dropping, soul-igniting performances, all hitting the boards in the late 90’s and all worthy of sitting ovations. Standing ovations happened during rare, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. They signified an honoring of the highest possible achievement. An artist or performance had to surpass perfection.

Twenty years ago we didn’t stand for Sir Ian McKellen (a.k.a. Gandalf, Magneto) in a one-man Beckett play, but today we jump to our feet as soon as the third place winner from American Idol finishes a set of radio cover songs. Nowadays, attend any performance from the meh to the miraculous and it matters not: the audience stands, ovating, some even walking and clapping to get to the parking lot before everybody else.

What’s changed over the years? Is it the end-of-show equivalent of an A for effort? Is it, as some psychologists have argued, our attempt to justify paying for a live experience now that we’re spoiled by so much free online entertainment? Or maybe that same online entertainment is such rubbish we leap in gratitude by seeing decent art? Perhaps we are just more enthusiastic supporters of performing arts than our possibly more stiff-shirted predecessors.

We attempted researching this change, starting with the history of the standing ovation, yet we found no clear answers. The most interesting factoid, though, traced back to Roman times. After war, any leader who racked up the most impressive battle victories returned to Rome for his “triumph,” a parade celebrating his clear victories and spoils. The guy who came in second-place for battle greatness earned an “ovation,” a parade acknowledging he did alright out there and deserved props for whatever destruction, pillaging and land usurpation he wrested by force. A sheep (“ovis” in Latin) died in bloody sacrifice to his win, thus the origin of “ovation.”

What we did, find, however, were some very clear, hilariously vicious opinions penned by theater critics here and abroad scorching the now common practice of standing to clap at the end of a show.

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Ben Brantley, the well-known theater critic at The New York Times, wrote an urgent call for the return of the sitting ovation after he witnessed the audience staying seated *gasp* for a perfectly good Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 2012. “Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions whose zookeeper has arrived with a bucket of fish,” he wrote in his column “Theater Talkback: Against Ovation Inflation.” His argument, snarky as it is, ends with noting that “staying seated has become the exceptional tribute.”

London, England’s theater critics mince no pies about who is to blame for this moral deterioration (Broadway—a notable scapegoat for moral deterioration). They make Brantley look p.c. in their direct seat-shaming over the normalizing of the “s.o.”—a “curse,” as critic Michael Henderson noted in The Telegraph, and “an unwanted tradition spreading from America,” as if the s.o. is an STD (socially transmitted disease). Michael Billington, a British critic from The Guardian, likewise points his blame finger across the pond: “I am all for spontaneous enthusiasm but the standing ovation is a filthy American habit that I think should be discouraged.”

Henderson explains that Britons, proud of their ability to curb the need to overly-reward actors, reputedly did not stand for Laurence Olivier, except upon the notification of his death in 1989, which Dustin Hoffman delivered to an audience in attendance of The Merchant of Venice. At this point, Hoffman muttered that the only way to get a standing ovation in England was “to f—ing die.” Henderson, whose article “The Curse of the Standing Ovation,” claims “it is … a gesture of self-reward … this canker in our theatre-going is also rooted in a narcissism that has spread through all parts of life. …Me, me, me. It’s all about me.” Sitting still, sitting quietly, he concludes, reflect the “old virtues,” a time before all this “blubbing and cheering, like stroppy teenagers.”

For Billington, the infection of the American need to present the s.o. to everything evokes probing issues of identity. “What’s come over us?” he asks in his 2008 theater blog “The Standing Ovation is a Filthy American Habit.” “Is it a result of rising ticket prices, the touchy-feely society in which emotions have to be displayed, or simply a product of a show-off culture in which you have to prove you can ovate more noisily than your neighbour? The argument against the standing ovation is simple. If you do it for virtually everything, it soon becomes valueless.”

The Brits are great at a cutting remark, but former St. Paul critic Dominic Papatola once quipped that “Minnesotans would give a standing ovation to a Schwan’s truck.” Ouch. We hope the beloved audiences in MN aren’t bleeders. Later, though, Papatola came clean about his feelings as he aged and had a little perspective. In the Duluth News Tribune, he said “now it’s not one of those things I can really let myself get worked up about . . . Mainly I am grateful that there are people in the audience at all.”

Mostly likely, we’re in an evolution of response. We don’t snap like the old Greco-Roman or Beat days. Maybe the standing ovation is returning to its Roman origins and is acknowledgement of a job well done, a hearty thank-you for participating in something not many others do.

If so, sitting for the performers at the curtain becomes what? A triumph?