2018 in Review!

I promised a year-in-review post, so here’s a quick rundown of this year. Meant to post this last night but I wanted some time to review it before I sent it.

This has been an eventful year and I’m sure I’ve missed some things. It has felt incredibly long. I tried to hit the highlights of things, especially things that have built into where I am now.

I purposefully kept this list brief and dry because it’s so long and I don’t want to drown it in emotion forever and ever.

So without further ado: a brief list of what I did this last year.


Auditions for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at The Players Theatre Company.

Trip to New York to tour a college, including seeing performances of Sleep No More and Come from Away. Thanks to family friends, I was able to get onstage at Come From Away after the performance. Spent the night with my friend Michael Williams, and sadly missed his roommates Ryan Jacobs and Austin Jacobs.

Saw snow in Ithaca, NY!


Pop Show, Solo & Ensemble with choir students.

Piano Solo & Ensemble.

Continued Rehearsal for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.


Performances of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Players Theatre Company

Trip to Phoenix, AZ to visit Arizona State University, where I have applied for my master’s degree. I’m looking forward to auditioning in February of this year. I stayed with friends Dale Sakamoto and his wife Jayna.

Hatched the idea for The Woodlands Chamber Music Project along with John Paddie.


UIL Concert and Sight Reading

Rehearsals with Stageworks Theatre for Bonnie and Clyde (sadly, I was replaced on this show, as I was unable to play the score well enough on short notice.)

Rehearsals with Stageworks Theatre My Shot Cabaret.


Pop Show

Performance of Stageworks Theatre My Shot Cabaret.

First “The Woodlands Chamber Music Project” recital. It was the same night as the above, so I was unable to attend it.

State Solo & Ensemble with a number of band students.


Auditions for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with the Players Theatre Company.

Performance with “The Woodlands Chamber Music Project”


Trip to the Grand Canyon (see Instagram for more detail on this one).

Continued Rehearsals for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Performance with “The Woodlands Chamber Music Project”


Final rehearsals for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Performance with “The Woodlands Chamber Music Project”


Performances of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Short & Sweet Choir Concert


Men’s Choir Performance at MWHS Football Games

SHSU Men’s Choir Showcase

Trip to Shenandoah, VA to tour Shenandoah University where I have applied for my master’s degree. I’m waiting on feedback, as I submitted just before they went on winter break.

Began rehearsals for [Title of Show] at Iconotheatrix.


Performances of [Title of Show] at Iconotheatrix.

Hired as organist at Advent Lutheran Church. This opportunity came about thanks to meeting with Scott McAdow, who judged my students back in the spring.

Submitted application to Arizona State University.


Merry Mustang Show & Auction

Christmas Services at Advent Lutheran Church

Thanks to all of my friends and family for their support during the past year. I’ve tried so many cool things and some have been successful and other haven’t. All of them were opportunities for personal or professional growth, so I’m thrilled to have had them.

I’m also incredibly grateful for the new friends and colleagues I have met in the last year. I have met so many talented actors and musicians through my travels and expanding my network. I have worked with committed, talented amateurs at the theaters and at school and at church. My heart is full of love for those who have given their art into the world during 2018. Let’s do it again in 2019!

Show Thoughts: Der Fliegende Höllander at Houston Grand Opera

It’s been years since I saw an opera live. I’ve listened to many recordings, and watched a few video recordings, but I haven’t seen one live.

A lot of factors coincided for me to finally get back. First, I’ve never listened to or seen this particular work. Second, I committed (with mixed success) to having a new artistic experience every week. Finally, HGO is returning to the Wortham Theatre Center for the first time since hurricane Harvey flooded the area.

So I decided to go out and see if opera holds up after immersing myself in musicals for a few years.

The experience of going to the opera has always been one of particular grandeur. Especially opening night, when the excitement of a high-end social function adds on to one of the most luxurious artistic experiences. Stereotypically, at least.

It’s a little different when you’re up in the back. The back of the balcony has always been the place for those who are more interested in seeing than in being seen. There are lots of stories of the great composers sitting up in the back watching the masterworks of the previous generation.

A quick sidebar, the opening night of an opera (Salome by Richard Strauss) is how Alex Ross chose to start his book “The Rest is Noise” which is an incredible overview of the course of 20th century western art music.

So guess where I was sitting. I was two rows in front of the back wall, all the way in the top. So far up that I joked on Instagram about renting opera glasses. It was a fun experience though. I hope to do try it again soon.

Let’s get to the opera now!

A quick summary of the plot of Der Fliegende Höllander:

Act 1 occurs on a ship in the sea. Daland, the Norwegian captain and crew despair of surviving the storm, but it finally clears up and they rest. They leave the helmsman to watch, and as he dozes off he sees a ghostly ship with red sails. The captain of this ship, the Dutchman, comes aboard and in a soliloquy to the audience explains that he is only allowed on shore for one day every seven years due to a curse.

When Daland greets him, the ghostly Dutchman asks for hospitality and offers uncounted riches in exchange for marrying his daughter. Blinded by greed, Daland heartily agrees and excitedly takes the treasure away.

In Act 2, we find the wives and female relatives of the sailors working away in a factory. To pass the time, they sing songs to themselves. The Daland’s daughter, Senta, sings about the plight of the legendary Flying Dutchman and how much she adores him from afar. When news that the ship has returned, the women run to see their men.

Senta’s lover, Erik, confronts her, begging her to be careful. He had a dream that her father came home with a mysterious stranger and she left with him. Senta listens with great interest, and when her father shows up with the Dutchman, she is even more excited as he is the man of her dreams. She eagerly agrees to marry him.

In the third act, the sailors and women are celebrating their return. They invite the Dutchman’s crew to join them, but the crew replies with a terrifying, ghostly moan that sends everyone fleeing in fear.

Erik confronts Senta, and when she pushes him away, he pulls her in and kisses her, just as the Dutchman comes to find her. He accuses her of unfaithfulness and bitterly makes to leave. To prove her faithfulness even unto death, Senta throws herself from the top of the wall and frees the Dutchman from his curse. The final moments show them reunited in paradise.

The story is pretty compelling, really. Just reading there, it sounds like a solid, interesting plot. But it also sounds like about 45 minutes worth of dialogue. The show ran about 2.5 hours, with constant music and three long scenes.

This means that things are a little slow at times. For example, the Dutchman’s first aria runs nearly ten minutes of exposition. It consisted almost entirely of the Dutchman wandering around the stage. The portion of Act 3 where the sailors invite the dutchman’s crew takes somewhat longer than expected too, though it has some amazing musical moments.

I have two other quibbles with this work. Then I’ll talk about the fantastic moments.

One is an issue with the text of the work. It does an excellent job of setting up all the elements of the story, but it doesn’t quite solve its own problems. My biggest frustration was that Senta never addressed her fascination with the Dutchman, and he never questions how eager she is to marry him. There would be some interesting conversational material, if the work took the time. Perhaps an idea for someone else to revisit?

My other complaint was the proportions of the stage. It’s an odd one, but it has annoyed me for awhile. In large theatres, the proportions of the stage usually reflect the size of the hall. That is, they are usually large and deep. It’s architecturally satisfying, but leads to odd proportions onstage. Living rooms become cavernous halls, walls are extended up into infinity, or (in this case) ship decks become a massive open space. It just seems incongruous to me.

I should point out that that last point is not just a problem with opera stagings. It happens with musicals and plays too. I started on a tangent, but that will be a different article later.

Let’s finish this thing off with a few superlatives. Melody Moore, who played Senta, was phenomenal, performing high her high notes with ease and great character. She had a few low notes that were warm and rich enough that I initially though the role was for a mezzo-soprano. Her performance of Senta’s ballad about the Dutchman was fantastic.

Andrzej Dobber, who played the Dutchman, was fine. He had a rather thankless entrance, with great presence undermined by a rather plodding aria. It felt longer than it probably was, but the staging didn’t help much. In the later acts he was much more engaging, and his presence was absolutely intimidating and arresting.

But of course, with my choral background, I was drawn to the choral writing. Performed by the Houston Grand Opera Chorus, every moment of ensemble singing was incredible. All three acts feature the chorus at times, and the balance and color throughout was awe-inspiring. It almost matched the orchestra color (every time the horns came in with the Dutchman theme, I got a shudder).

Overall, an excellent experience and I highly recommend it. From the very back of the balcony, you can’t quite see the last moments, but the rest works quite well. Hope to see a show from down front some day, but for now I’ll enjoy the music from somewhere.

Picking Music for High School Choir

For the last three days, I have been back at work. After brief meetings on Monday and Tuesday mornings, I've been pretty free to work in the classroom and prepare for when students return.

Today, I spent several hours working on selecting what music my group will be studying. This is a massive and very individual task, as everyone I've talked to goes about it differently.

My typical process is more or less like this:

  1. Determine what constraints there are on the piece. These might be things like "must be in a foreign language" or "must be three-part harmony"
  2. Consult resources. At my desk, I have on hand three primary resources for pieces: The UIL Prescribed Music List, the library of music my choir program owns, and the textbooks and anthologies we sometimes refer to.
  3. Select a handful of pieces to examine closely. I apply the constraints from step one to the music in step two. I usually end up finding at least 3-4 out of a dozen pieces that seem like possibilities.
  4. Listen to the work. This is one of the steps that is somewhat controversial. Some directors refuse to listen to the work. Others find as many different recordings as possible. My typical tactic is to take it to the piano first, or sometimes to go to YouTube or the JW Pepper music company website for a performance.
  5. Final selection if possible. In recent months, the steps up to this point would result in maybe one piece that fits my needs. In the event that more than one fits, it's a matter of determining which one I'd prefer to work on, or would appeal more to my students.
  6. Repeat as needed. If I don't find any results, I pick a different resource from step 2 and go again. I may have to reach out to other teachers or other trusted musicians for further ideas.

Today, was a lucky day. My constraints were that I wanted pieces that were of moderate difficulty, but no more than three-part harmony. Ideally, the voicing would be TBB (Tenor, Baritone, Bass, meaning the middle voice is written in bass clef) because my guys will be sight-reading in that layout in the spring.

I wanted pieces that sound harder than they are, but that have tricky moments for us to work on. And above all, I want to be able to work particularly on tone. To be successful, we need a mature, masculine sound. And the sooner the better. Last year, we got the sound but it wasn't consistent enough and we lost it in performance.

My group sits in an odd spot in the choral world. Most serious, demanding men's choir music is in four parts (TTBB). My group is too small to do that consistently, so I prefer to keep them in three. But a lot of three-part music is written for junior high men. These tend to be too high for high school guys to be comfortable. They also tend to be cheesy and boyish.

Today, I found three pieces that fit my needs! On top of an arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, that will give us almost all of our fall music taken care of. It only leaves me with about 6 pieces left to pick for the rest of the year. Those can wait, though.

When I luck out like that, I get really excited. Quality music that fits my guys is rare. I don't want to spoil the surprise in writing, but feel free to send me a message and ask me what I found and I'm happy to share!

Post-show Thoughts: 9 to 5 at Island ETC, Galveston, TX

On Friday night, I had the chance to see 9 to 5 at Island ETC, an amateur(?) theatre in Galveston, TX.

I really enjoyed the performance. I want to comment a little more at length, but first, here are the guidelines I've set out for this post and future posts.

  • I'm not going to comment on individual performances. I'm not sure I have the standing to criticize acting choices, strengths, or weaknesses. I'm not a professional critic, and I'd rather stay away from that territory at this point in my career. For the spots where I talk about the production, I'll keep it general.
  • Most of my comments will be a review of the material itself. The book and the music, and what I feel like their strengths and weaknesses are. I'll share what seem to me to be challenges of the show, as well as things I'd be excited to work on.

In full disclosure, I helped very briefly with auditions for this show, in the role of pianist for one night of the auditions. It was my interest in seeing how it came out that led me to decide to see it this weekend.

There are, of course, spoilers ahead.

The Performance Material

Script and Story

The musical "9 to 5" is adapted from the movie of the same title. The movie is of course intimately tied to Dolly Parton's song, which she wrote for the movie. Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick worked together on the original film (along with Colin Higgins, according to Wikipedia) and they reunited for the stage adaptation.

For the musical, Parton wrote new original songs, as well as finding a place for at least one existing song of hers (Backwoods Barbie, sung by Doralee, the character Parton played in the movie). She later recorded several songs from the show on her 2011 album Better Day. The script was presumably reshaped, though I haven't seen the original movie, so I'm not entirely sure what changes were made.

One thing that I suspect is a holdover from the film is the structure of the show. Much of the show is made up of short scenes which may be punctuated by songs. Some scenes are simply a bit of dialogue followed by a transition to the next. There are also a number of one-off sets, such as the bathroom, the copy machine, or the hospital, both of which are used for short scenes and never seen again. This lack of thriftiness with sets strikes me as something that was probably held over from the movie, where it would be a trivial thing to include a 2 minute scene in a new location if you already had the whole office building.

This structure poses a challenge for the director, as it's difficult to make a bunch of set changes not look jittery and rushed, or make the audience wait in the dark for a few moments every couple of minutes. When working with limited space (this production was, see below), it takes careful planning.

The show feels a little unbalanced. The natural breaking point for the story is when the girls kidnap Hart, because it not only gives a dramatic end to the act, it's the most dramatic moment in the story. But so much setup happens in Act 1 that in Act 2 you realize the authors have kind of run out of ideas. Ultimately Act 2 consists of only a few scenes:

  • an extended musical number in which the ladies take over the office, instituting reforms that they feel will improve the workplace
  • A blooming romance between Violet and accountant Joe, who is also recruited to help prove Hart's embezzlement while he's tied up
  • A scene where Judy goes ballistic on her ex-husband ("Get out and Stay Out") and inadvertently allows Hart to break free from his bindings
  • A final confrontation in the office.

There's just not a lot going on here. The whole act runs between 30 and 40 minutes, while Act 1 is easily an hour and 40 minutes. The script also doesn't address any side plots developed in the first act, such as Violet's son or how exactly the women are taking care of their boss while he's tied up.

Plot developments in Act 2 are often elided into a song, or just referred to after happening offstage. The stakes of getting this solved before (1) Hart's wife returns from a cruise to find him tied up at home, or (2) Roz returns from a language immersion program to pester them for Hart's whereabouts, don't quite seem compelling.

Even the ending is a little forced. The boss's boss shows up to find out why the company has been performing so well, and Hart's attempt to throw Violet under the bus backfired and ends with him "promoted" to an office in Bolivia and Violet set up as CEO.

The ending is a total deus ex machina (see definition 2). But it provides an opportunity for Violet to sum up the message of the show in a short rant. Strangely, the rant seems to be more about the downtrodden middle class workers than about the plight of sexually harassed, underappreciated women, but it applies too.


I felt like the songs were solid overall, though a couple of them are a little rough around the edges. Some lines in "Shine Like the Sun" are a little too direct and not quite poetic enough to match the melodies they are sung to. The tunes are invariably hummable, though. Parton has always had a gift with a melody. Listen to Jolene (from 1973) and try not to be singing it for the next few hours.

Each of the three female leads gets at least one song to herself.

  • Doralee gets "Backwoods Barbie"
  • Judy gets "Get Out and Stay Out"
  • Violet gets "One of the Boys"

There are also featured solos for Roz, the boss's secretary (Heart to Hart) and the boss himself, Mr. Hart (Here for You). Most everything else is ensemble singing, plus the chorus sings backup in most of the solo numbers.

I wanted to comment for a second on the two songs sung by Roz and Mr. Hart. They are both unapologetically lustful, and aggressively sexual. It's a tough line for the actors to stride between raunchy and funny, and in the case of Mr. Hart (who is singing to the unaware Doralee onstage with him), it's a little awkward in the context of recent workplace sexual-harassment and the #metoo social movement. More on that below.

The other main character songs are easy to treat as park-and-bark numbers. Especially since in all three cases, the actress is left alone onstage. Violet's number is probably the easiest to avoid, since her backup singers are the guys, and in both productions I've seen, the guys act as backup dancers for her number.

But Doralee is alone onstage with the background vocals performed offstage. And Judy's song is a total solo, just her alone onstage with the orchestra.

On the subject of Judy's song, "Get Out and Stay Out", it doesn't work quite as well as I feel like it's meant to. The title line is meant to be a real cry of anger, and it's set high in the singer's voice. In both productions I've seen, the song sits right on the actress's break, which makes those cries particularly desperate. This is especially true after the last-verse key change, which takes the whole song a step higher.

The issue arises from the fact that the singer repeatedly hits those high notes in less extreme emotional stakes. So for a singer who's already pushed to her limits on those notes, to make them dramatically effective, it's hard to make that one phrase pop out, when she is again pushed up in every line of the chorus. (The highlighted words are all on the same note, approached by a big leap up in the melody)

So get out and stay out, I've finally had enough
Don't kiss me on your way out, it wouldn't move me much
You used me, abused me, you cheated and you lied
So get out and stay out, I'm taking back my life

She also sings in that same range throughout some of the verses. In an ideal world, there would be a way for the singer to lighten up in the verses so that the chorus really leaps out. As it is, the orchestra has to compensate to help the moment build.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, though, I feel like the show is a lot of frothy fun with a serious core. Nearly 40 years on from the original movie, there have been definite changes in the outward appearance of workplaces, with HR policies to prevent sexual harassment plus a general social trend toward disapproving of casual sexism, but with the #metoo movement gathering steam in the last year, it's clear that the mindsets dramatized in this show still exists in some corners of the world.

I'd be curious if anyone knows of a production of this show that tries to address any of that, or if the material is just treated as froth, to be acknowledged and laughed at at by audiences. I think the latter is a valid approach and true to the period that produced it. But perhaps there are other, more engaging approaches in this day and age.

In a world where operas are regularly being reimagined to take on the sexist assumptions that are at their hearts, and where all forms of theatre are coping with the modern sexual and racial dynamics of the world [citation needed, but I've been hearing about this anecdotally for sure], this show seems ripe for that kind of production.

A Few Comments on This Production

I went on for far too long about the show itself, but here are a few things I thought were notable about this particular production.

Staging and Dance

The theatre space is in an old warehouse, which means the stage doesn't have any side entrances. For this show, they built a sold back wall with three entrances and made the whole set look like the office. The rare scenes that occurred outside the office were effectively staged in front of this. Though they were mostly confined to the central area that didn't have any desks, it worked out visually.

As I noted earlier, the transitions felt a little jarring, mostly because they generally involved sitting in the darkness for a few seconds while the actors and sets moved around. This is an interesting change from the trend I've seen of choreographing set changes under the lights. But for this show, where some set changes take as long as the shorter scenes, it felt a little rough.

I was impressed with the choreography, which was active and expressive without relying too much on dance skills. This show is hard enough to cast without requiring extensive dance experience on top of the appropriate look and voice, so it was nice to see effective choreography that made the actors look good doing it.

And finally, the music.

One thing that I was interested to see was how effective the live band was. There's an ongoing discussion of the merits of hiring live musicians vs. prerecorded tracks in community theatre, and this show gave some good credit on the side of live musicians. There's an immediacy, especially to the drums and bass, that I haven't yet found a sound system to replicate. The drums are visceral in a unique way, and the "sexy" bass lines and growling saxophone felt right.

The orchestra was behind the actors, and I didn't get a chance to ask the Music Director how they heard the performers, or if there was any monitor situation going from front to back or back to front. It seemed to me the actors were mostly listening, but I'm not entirely sure.

The actors were not amplified, which I found really fascinating. In a space this size and shape, they were more than able to project to the back without sounding like they were pushing. In addition, in what was maybe my favorite quality, the show didn't feel over-amplified. This is one of my biggest pet peeves, and it's a situation that many amateur and professional theatres fall into.

I was in the back row, under the balcony, and the balance was quite good, with one exception: several times, a soloist would drop down into her low range, and the background singers would be singing as well, and you'd totally lose the singer for a moment. But that's a peril of an acoustic show. 

I'm glad I got to see this show. It was a fun experience and gave me plenty to think about. I'm looking forward to seeing more shows this fall and to thinking deeply about them. Please let me know what you think of this post!

Show Progress

As of tonight, we are a month away from the opening of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Tonight we had our first stumble-through of Act 2. Overall, I was really impressed with where things were. About 75% of the act has been set in stone, with a few scenes never staged, and a few dance numbers that haven't been choreographed yet.

The singing was really solid. A couple of songs were rough (there's one choral section that is really tough and wasn't quite right tonight), but for the most part I think the singing is pretty much done other than finesse.

One of the challenges for the actors is to match the pace of their dialogue to some of the underscoring. Certain sections have to be sped up or slowed down in order to line up with expected moments in the music. Since we're performing with tracks, there's really nothing I can do in the moment, so it's up to the actors to become familiar with those moments.

The run took about an hour and a half, which is longer than the act, but only by about 50%. When all is said and done, the act should run a little less than an hour.

At the end of this week, we will finally get access to the stage. At that point, things will really move along. It's tough to visualize how set pieces will move and where actors will enter when our rehearsal space is smaller than the stage!

Since we won't have set for a little while longer, I'm a little concerned with the scene changes. The choreographer plans to have them pretty carefully plotted (her husband has designed the set), but they'll take practice to get them in the music. Many of the scene changes flow directly out of the end of the scene, or into the next scene with no breaks, so they have to be precise.

All that to say, the actors are doing a great job, and the show is really coming along. We're not totally done yet, though. In the next few weeks, this show is going to completely transform as the final pieces fall into place and I'm excited to see it!