USC Professor of Jazz, Dr. Ron McCurdy talks about how finding and telling your story can lead to projects that transcend the student experience and lead to a career in the arts.
As professor of music and as an active artist for more than 30 years, I have seen the music professional landscape evolve. Unfortunately, many college curricula have done little to keep up with evolving trends in the music business. Even at our best colleges, many students emerge lacking the grit to stick with it, and the knowledge of how and where they can begin careers as professional musicians.
With so many quality schools of music worldwide, there has never been such a high number of graduating students trying to find professional positions in music performance. How will these students carve out a place in the artistic landscape among the tens of thousands of talented musicians? Is the mastery of an instrument or voice enough to thrive in the 21st century?
Some students see the writing on the wall and start planning and working toward mounting a career in the arts early on. But others drift through college gaining little experience outside of their school ensembles, sitting passively through classes with little regard to, or understanding of what awaits them upon graduation.
We must explain to our students that to survive or even thrive as a musician in today’s market requires a great deal of planning. Having spent many years mounting my own projects, I would like to share a few strategies that can help students and other mid-career artists better prepare for a career in the arts. I want to share concepts that will help young artists find the creative space that will allow the opportunity for Big Idea Projects to emerge.
Big Idea Projects (BIPs) entail a high degree of imagination and compelling storytelling.
However, there is no magic bullet or formula that will define what or how a BIP will be constructed. Each BIP should be unique to the individuals who are engaged in the creative process. There is no one-size-fits-all concept or structure with the creation of the BIP. Students may find that their own heritage can serve as a source of creative inspiration. If so, the stories are likely to be personal, thus giving more incentive to delve deeper into storytelling.
Finding Stories To Tell
As artists, we are first and foremost storytellers.
When I use the term artist, I am referring to the visual arts, all genres of instrumental and vocal music, cinematography, dance, photography, etc. All aspects of the arts are designed to inform us about some aspect of life and all of its tragedies and triumphs. To present art with clarity and with substance, the artist needs to have a true vision of themselves, their passions, their interests, and their background. They need to understand that this vision affects their creative or performance process. If students spend all their time in the practice room, they will be somewhat limited in the depth and breadth of their ability to tell compelling stories.
First, students need to have a real understanding of what they care about. One way of getting there is to ask students to describe their instrument or art form, and then ask them to describe what they are passionate about beyond that. Many describe issues like social justice, LGBT rights, immigration, global warming, green technology, poverty, or AIDS. Indeed, young artists need to be curious about many topics; to read books and journals, to attend plays, and to visit museums and libraries on a regular basis. They should know about current events and have a keen sense of history. All of these ingredients will help young artists to become great storytellers.
But even further, they need to understand their background and values. When working with students, I’ve often felt puzzled to learn that most students know very little about their parents’ lives, let alone their grandparents. This seems preposterous, given that America is a country of immigrants, and that there are so many unique stories to be shared. I ask my students to speak to their parents and grandparents, to talk about their lives, and their childhoods. Many learn of compelling challenges that older generations faced.
After the students complete this assignment, their sense of their art changes. They begin thinking about stories and how those stories should be told.
A Few Examples of Stories
Each venture into storytelling should involve something that is larger than the storyteller. One of my students, who was of Jewish heritage, crafted a suite that addressed several prison camps in Europe during WWII. The essence of his artistic endeavor was to chronicle the life of a particular family from each camp. Some of the stories had happy endings and some did not.
Another student lost his mother to breast cancer a few years ago. His mother chronicled her journey and ultimate demise. This student plans to use the text from his mother’s diary to serve as the libretto for his suite of compositions. He plans to include a string quartet, dancers and a projectionist to reveal the journey and transition of his mother’s life.
Finally, I had another student of Greek heritage who decided to form an ensemble that he named after his grandmother Rozalia. This ensemble is a unique combination of strings, voice and jazz rhythm section. The ensemble has collaborated with dancers, spoken word artists and other instrumental configurations.
Very few (if any) stories come gift-wrapped. To begin working on a story, sit in silence and trying to imagine its dimensions – including it’s beginning and end. This process does not lock you into concrete ideas, but it gives you a place to start. As you develop your ideas, the story, configuration and ideas may shift.
Finally, discuss your story ideas with friends and family. Bounce your ideas off of anyone who will listen. By talking out loud, you will further clarify your own ideas. The next step is to start creating your storyboard. The storyboard concept is very similar to techniques applied by screenwriters, novelist and playwrights. This concept allows the artists to see how the story will unfold in a seamless fashion.
The Importance of Collaboration
Thoughtful collaborations can help to strengthen a story. Also, at the end, collaborations tend to draw a cross-section of audience attendees. If a presentation is multimedia (e.g., dance, music, and spoken word) then it is more likely to attract people who have an interest in each of those disciplines, rather than just one. I subscribe to the African Proverb, “If you wish to go fast, go alone; if you wish to go far, go together.”
As you are mounting Big Idea Projects, decisions are made based on a variety of variables. The two biggest drivers will be availability and budget. Maybe your vision of having a full orchestra, twenty-five dancers and fifteen bagpipes is not realistic for a variety of reasons. In that case, you’d need to re-think your configuration to find something that will be just as effective but more manageable.
The trick will be to separate the good ideas from the great ideas. Once you have developed what you think is a great idea, the next step is to actually bring your idea to fruition. Many people have wonderful ideas, but lack the know-how to mount and implement Big Idea Projects. In my next blog, I will address strategies for addressing some of the logistics of mounting and implementing Big Idea Projects. Remember, your Big Idea Projects need to be yours and need to be fresh! If you have any thoughts or ideas, I’d love to hear from you.