Tyler Alessi to pursue Artist Diploma at CCM

Tyler AlessiAlumnus Tyler Alessi (BM, Vocal Performance) has completed the coursework for his DMA at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. He’s singing with Wichita Opera this summer and will be returning to Cincinnati to pursue an Artist Diploma in Opera.


Photo courtesy of Dallas Padoven

Wearing a suit of knowledge while diving into a pool of instinct

It has become a tradition for me to post a beginning-of-semester advice piece. I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about how to manage your time and stay sane. This year, I am switching gears to a topic I feel strongly needs to be recognized and nurtured in academia: connecting the heart and the mind. A phrase I came up with recently is that the elite, educated artist is one who “wears a suit of knowledge while diving into a pool of instinct.”

I find great solace and rejuvenation in silence. As a composer, being in complete silence with no talking, few voices around me, everyone taking care to be kind in their movements, ears attuned to the natural sounds of the Earth — I’d like to write “rejuvenates,” but it is more than that — it rejiggers my relationship with sound.

In 2014 I sat my tenth residential silent retreat in the peaceful foothills north of San Francisco. I sat two sessions back-to-back, the first on “concentration” and the second on “insight.” For the first nine days, I silently recited a series of phrases for all of my waking hours. For the next nine days, I switched to a profound focus on the breath, letting thoughts arise and pass away.

The retreats are taught by a team of four, each taking a turn to present a talk in the evenings. One of the teachers, Joseph Goldstein, spoke about noticing our experiences through an intuitive awareness, that breathing is a process and that feeling is a process, and all of these have a tone: in his parlance, a “feeling tone.”

My deepest truths rumble up from knowing myself as an artist. Understanding beauty and suffering are intricately woven into the fabric of my work, growth, and practice as a composer and educator. My personal understanding of life is as a path, and I advocate viewing ones artistic life as a path to be fully explored.

The feeling tones I find at my inner core when I am open and silent for many days are those I want to bring with me into my daily life: eager curiosity, kindness, joy sympathetically received from others’ joy and success, and compassion. In my notes about that retreat I wrote, “com-passion means with passion. That is my path.”

All of that reminded me that life and art aren’t about the end of the path, they’re about where we are in the moment on the path, taking deliberate care that we make thoughtful, honest choices about which path we’re on and about staying on that path when it gets tough to do so.

Being a composer isn’t about having a catalog of works that gets you into history books, it is about how you’re living your life as a composer. Being a performer isn’t about the euphoric moment the concerto or aria is over, it is about the care you take every day of your life in rehearsal and the practice room. And being an elite, educated artist means having a holistic, all-encompassing relationship with your art form from how to create and how to teach, to the historical precedents that brought your art to where it is, and a deeply understood vocabulary which allows you to express how and why it works.

Every single thing you do contributes to that from an English class to a biology lab to an evening spent talking with friends. My point here is that one does not become an expert on an instrument or in voice by playing or singing alone. A whole artist needs depth, maturity, understanding, forgiveness, more forgiveness – especially for yourself – and a reminder that we have chosen a challenging path because we love it: not every aspect of every footfall, but we love entirety of the path.

Walk the whole path, and the crux here is that if you see the path ahead as the future and behind you as the past, be sure to walk its entire width right where you are, noticing every footstep worn into it by those who have traveled before you. You’ll see spots less worn where you can make your mark, places some have skipped and by doing so have missed something you now see, and places where others have remained stuck, unable or unwilling to move on. You might get stuck there, too, but it needn’t be for long and you can ask for help. Everyone around you has been stuck many times.

You may not see how the pieces fit together yet, but if you believe something is unimportant, chances are it is difficult for you and therefore it could be unimaginably helpful. If you can learn to meet boredom, anger, or frustration in a way which instills understanding rather than recursively stewing on it and unintentionally worsening it, then you have just made yourself a better musician. Think about that when you’re sitting in a science lab you believe has no relevance to your life. (Science is cool, BTW.)

All of us in the arts meet failure frequently, maybe daily, maybe hourly, maybe more often than that. (“Failure” is a poor word because of the negative connotations that come with it.) We also learn when we succeed, but the difference is that failure might be uncomfortable and send you up into your head to kvetch about it to yourself. Connect your heart and mind. Your heart understands without judgment that you are just experiencing the process. Give your heart a chance to forgive yourself for not playing a scale in tune so that you can play it again without any other motive than to practice well and explore it with kindness and joy.

I want to step back and note that you define your own path, and how it the begins and ends are of less, or perhaps no importance. I make the assumption that college is an important part of your path because you’re here. Graduation represents what will be for most of you, the end of working regularly with teachers. After that, you’re on your own. Be present and aware for everything you can while you’re here. How did someone explain something the first time when you didn’t quite comprehend it and how did they explain it again so that it made sense? Were you completely focused the first time, or not until the second time? Did you understand it better when it was explained in multiple ways? You’re learning about yourself. All of this has a fundamental relationship to creating, teaching, and interpreting art.

What does it mean “to understand” something. My favorite answer is that you know it so well it becomes instinctive. I’ve told many a composition student over the years that there is a part of the composition process which comes from instinct and a part you think about. With practice, what you once thought about becomes so well known, it comes out in the instinctive portion and your cognitive mind moves on to something more sophisticated. Repeat this with diligence and continuity and you will become more of the composer you wanted to be, expect that you won’t, because your mind is so much more expansive, it includes that which you hadn’t even dreamed of when you started.

Instinct and Intellect. Heart and Mind. They’re in tandem. There is much more, though. How you talk to yourself and others about what you do and about your art form will change how you think about it. Your motivations play a part. I suggest kindness and gentle understanding in everything. It works wonders.

Do you live a life consistent with your values? If you’re aiming to be a pro, it takes a prodigious commitment. Lead a life which is open and full of curiosity. You need to take care of yourself and your family, use practice time efficiently, listen to tons of music, listen to others and learn from them… it is a long list. If you have a spiritual practice, try not to leave it behind during the semester.

Mental energy is the force behind effort. Mental energy needs a rested, healthy body. Stoke the fuels for self-discipline, honesty, and kindness. Effort does not begin when you think about having written or performed a great piece. It begins when you’re rested and then sit down to compose, practice, or study and stabilize your mind for concentration.

Attention is the heart of artistic practice. Awareness is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. We naturally interpret everything around us and put it in context with our past thoughts and experiences. This happens half-consciously or even subconsciously. Bringing it into awareness takes practice. What a musician strives for is clear perception of what they hear, feel, create, and interpret. Not being aware can carry us away on dreams, painful desires, and comparisons. It is not that dreaming is bad, but it can steal a lot of your time and energy before you notice it. Time is a precious commodity. Use it wisely.

All of this is a tall order, one which requires shifting some prevalent modes of thought about yourself: “Judgment” becomes “curiosity,” “why?” becomes “what is here?,” “outcome” shifts to the “moment” and “trajectory,” and significantly, “like/don’t like” is set aside in favor of “works/doesn’t work.”

One of my teachers, Gil Fronsdal, said, “the means of practice should reflect the goal….  If you want kindness, be kind.  If you want compassion, be compassionate.  If you want joy, be joyful…. The practice should reflect that.” For the artist these statements might be rewritten as: If you want support, be supportive. If you want to be a musician, be musical (in the practice room and in rehearsals, and especially while listening). If you want to bring everything about yourself to bare in your music, be aware of all that you are.

Gil also said, “One of the ways we can relate to practice is that we can be content with the small steps of what we can do.” The path of the musician is frequently marked in steps so small they are difficult to discern.  Gil again: “The really important part of any practice that you do is self-reflection in which you become aware of the attitude that you have about how you are practicing.” He’s talking about checking in with the heart as you work with the mind.

Be gentle with yourself. Take care of yourself. Pace yourself so you have time to rest and do your work. Slipping back into time management advice: when you get your syllabi, write all of your concerts, homework, tests, and papers in your calendar. Then immediately block off time in the preceding [several] days for studying and writing so you don’t resort to inefficient and soul-sucking all-nighters. Next, block off one or two days each month that are OFF. You will not study, practice, work, or feel guilty about taking time for yourself. They can be pajama days, or road trips, or long hikes alone or with friends. Sit down on the path and rest. You will have clear sight when you take a break. We know audiences need intermissions; so do you.

Beth Peregrine to Solo with LA Master Chorale

Alumnus Beth Peregrine has signed on for her third season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Beth will make her Walt Disney Concert Hall solo debut performing Handel’s Messiah with Chamber Orchestra, and as a soloist in Alexander’s Feast a staged production, performed by 32 singers of the chorale.

Johannes Müeller-Stosch conducts in Holland, Michigan

Dr. Johannes Müeller-Stosch will be conducting the Michigan premiere of Dreamtime Ancestors for Orchestra by Christopher Theofanidis with the Holland Symphony. The Holland Symphony’s season was featured in an article in the Holland Sentinel.

Bob Cole alumnus Solomon Liang will perform Korngold’s Violin Concerto with the orchestra in September. Since being named Music Director and Conductor of the Holland Symphony, Johannes Müller-Stosch has brought unprecedented growth in size and quality of performances as well as record numbers of season subscriptions.

Nick Mancini to play at Secret City Event

Nick Mancini is the featured artist on The Secret City, an organization in NYC dedicated to their “on-going performance gathering for people who believe in the arts. Part ceremony, part salon, part tent revival, each gathering has a different theme and features an ever-changing roster of artists and performers sharing work relating to the theme.”

They wrote of him, “Nick is really a master… He’s been creating a name for himself there and leads and hosts a bunch of great jazz events in LA. I’ve had him in my sights as someone who would be great to present at The Secret City. So, this Sunday, June 14th at Bootleg Theater – the theme is FETISHES– Nick is our guy!”



Marina Harris “Steals” the Show in Ariadne of Naxos

Alumna Marina Harris started as Ariadne in Pacific Opera Project’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Lauri D. Goldenhersh of Singerpreneur reviewed the production and wrote of Marina, “As good as the cast was overall, however, it was Marina Harris that stole the show, with a vocal and dramatic performance that was superb throughout. Ariadne is a difficult role, requiring stamina, depth and strong comic timing in addition to an exceptional, powerful voice, and Harris’ lyricism was as haunting as her deadpan humor was funny.  Her voice has grown even more sure and lovely than when we saw her in POP’s “Turn of the Screw” last year, with the same tragic urgency. She takes the stage as if she were born to it, and perhaps she was.”

Shannon Gravelle Named Interim DCA

Alumnus Shannon Gravelle (MM Choral Conducting 2013) has been named Interim Director of Choral Activities at the University of Omaha-Nebraska. Shannon completed her coursework for the DMA at the University of Iowa in just two years, and will be spending time in Russia this summer researching her dissertation before taking up her new post in Omaha.

Jeff deSeriere to Participate in “Pershing’s Own” Conducting Workshop

MM Candidate in Wind Conducting Jeff deSeriere is one of only six participants in The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” Conducting Workshop with Col. Timothy Holtan and Dr. Jack Stamp. Jeff will study with both conductors and have the opportunity to conduct the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” “Pershing’s Own” is the Army’s premier musical organization and provides musical support for the leadership of the United States. It is stationed in Washington D.C.