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Lives in the Performing Arts

Thursday, June 30, 2011
Lives in the Performing Arts

by Gillian Ellis

Suggestions For Summer Reading

Time to head for the beach and we know you’ll be packing a book (or maybe your Kindle). Traditionally people downgrade their material when they head for the shore. They want “easy reading,” but both the seaside and pool can be challenging environments for reading. The sun makes you drowsy. The gentle roar of the sea likewise. The lounger is just so comfortable. It’s oh so easy to drift off and doze.

If you really want to read on vacation, perhaps the content of the book needs to be engrossing, not simple. And if the point of your vacation is to recharge your personal batteries, maybe your book also needs to be inspiring.

So, in order to create a specialized beach reading list for MTD community members, we asked colleagues to tell us who inspired them and where others could read about their heroes.

The first person to respond to our request was departmental chair Jackie Wiggins with a reminder not to forget the inspirational power of the educator. She wrote eloquently about Eunice Boardman, her doctoral mentor. “She was an extraordinary, eminent, and highly influential person in music education. I took my first course with her in the summer of 1973, at the end of my first year of teaching when I was incredibly hungry for ideas, as all first year teachers are at that point. What I learned from her . . . influenced my thinking about teaching so significantly that when I chose to pursue a doctorate almost 20 years later, I chose to travel to Illinois to study with her.”

Jackie believes that Professor Boardman was also highly influential in the career and thinking of Joe Shively, Greg Cunningham, and Debra Blair, all MTD faculty. Jackie writes, “It is her ideas that undergird our program.” Eunice Boardman’s papers are archived at the University of Illinois library. See the catalogue information. 

Terry Herald, MTD Sound Technician and Technology Coordinator, stopped by the publicity office to talk about Johann Sebastian Bach. “I think he is the epitome of what a good musician should be – humble, hardworking, brilliant.” Terry is inspired by the fact that Bach gave up a glittering career at court to be the cantor of Leipzig cathedral, where he wrote music for services and taught the young students, because it was the work he really loved. There are lots of biographies of Bach. But Terry recommends The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, because it uses Bach’s own words to tell the story.

Mike Mitchell, associate professor and director of the music program and the choral ensembles, enthused about Leonard Bernstein. “As a conductor and teacher I am inspired by the great Leonard Bernstein. He approached everything in his life with great passion and honesty. Whether he was conducting a world class symphony orchestra, composing great music, or teaching young people, he was always passionate, and communicated beautifully. He was the first great conductor trained exclusively in America and he should be an inspiration to all musicians.” An interesting read that focuses on Bernstein’s impact on American music is, Leonard Bernstein: American Original by Barbara B. Haws and the great man’s brother, Burton Bernstein.

Special Instructor Mark Stone wrote, “I am inspired by the work of the man who founded our World Music and Jazz programs at Oakland University, Marvin 'Doc' Holladay. He founded one of the first collegiate African Drum Ensembles in America at OU, long before it was in vogue for colleges to have world music ensembles. I am most grateful to be able to walk in the footsteps of such an incredible musician and human being.” Doc's autobigraphy is entitled Life, On the Fence and is available from Amazon here.

Associate professor and coordinator of the clarinet program, George Stoffan, also found his inspiration close to home. He cites John Mohler, clarinetist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan as his major influence. “He was a legendary artist and pedagogue. I had the honor of studying clarinet with him for four years at the University of Michigan. His focus on fundamentals, combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of repertoire and elegant approach to phrasing, inspire me to this day. He taught with high standards and expectations, often left unsaid, yet had a kind and gentle spirit to him. I knew early on I wanted to do what he did, and be like him. When teaching today, I often ask myself, "What would John Mohler do?" We were unable to find a published biography of Professor Mohler, who lives in Chelsea, MI, but he is listed as an important teacher in the development of many artists who have bios online, which in itself, is testament to his power to inspire.

Professor and voice program coordinator John-Paul White wrote to tell us of the influence the great Placido Domingo has had in his life. “I made my professional debut with him in Carmen with the New Orleans Opera (he was Don Jose and I was Zuniga). He was very nice and incredibly helpful to a young professional like myself. The thing that inspires me about him though is his longevity and incredible work ethic. At 70 years old he is going strong with no signs of slowing down, so if I (a mere kid by comparison) ever start thinking about taking it easy, all I have to do is think of Placido and I'm inspired all over again.” John-Paul also promised to share the “the story about how he helped cover for me when I split my pants in the dress rehearsal” but we’re still waiting! There are many books about Placido Domingo, but he has published an autobiography called My First Forty Years – Autobiography.

Associate professor and dance program director Greg Patterson writes that Mark Morris has been a lifelong influence on his work. “Still today, and as I was growing as a young artist, I was deeply influenced by the work of Mark Morris, artistic director of the Mark Morris Dance Group. His choreography is so elegantly crafted to the music. This is actually known as "music visualization" and I am touched by his work and use of rhythm.” There is information about Mark online at his company’s website and on many other sites devoted to dance. And you can read Mark Morris’s recent commencement speech at Cornish College of the Arts here. It’s both illuminating and fun.

Theatre professor Karen Sheridan wrote at length about Ellen McLaughlin, the actress (the original "Angel" in Angels in America) and playwright. “When I was looking for an adaptation of The Trojan Women to direct for Fall 08, I already had McLaughlin's The Greek Plays in my collection, just for its stunning cover, but hadn't [yet] had the occasion to look for a classical Greek play. I read her Introduction [and] she was candid about her processes and motivations. Each play then has its own introduction and her approaches are diverse. Her language in every play is rich, and each play so different from the last. For example, The Trojan Women is fairly traditional, but she decided not to include the characters of Athena and Menelaus. However, in Helen, Helen of Troy is waiting out the Trojan War in a hotel room. She is trying to get the news on the television, but all she can get is the weather channel!”

Karen continues, “I am currently inspired by what she says about adaptation, as I work on finishing an adaptation of Medea for production this summer in Greece. Our capstone theatre course Classical Theatre Study in Greece (THA 482) will be working on Medea to open on the island of Hydra on July 6, in [the town of] Vlychos, before it moves to Hydra Town. I will be directing and Kerro [Knox] designing.” There is no available printed biography of McLaughlin but Karen highly recommends her work, especially The Greek Plays, as inspirational. She says, “It is a good read.”

When we read the details of Karen's preparatory research for her summer production in Greece, the conversation we’d previously had with associate professor and theatre program director Kerro Knox was illuminated. As a designer Kerro says his greatest source of inspiration is the director he is working with. He wanted to give all credit to Professor Sheridan and recently retired OU theatre professor Michael Gillespie, who had both, Kerro said, over the last fourteen years of collaboration, provided him “with some of the most inspirational work of my life and career. I have been energized by their commitment and vision, which says a lot the nature of the collaborative art of the theatre.”

And this may be the paradox of the arts. The greatest artists, Bach, Bernstein, Domingo, have left us individual legacies we treasure, but even they must, in their time, have been inspired by their teachers and colleagues. Performing artists are all part of a collaborative community which stretches back through the centuries and forward into the future.

Photo: Leonard Bernstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress.