Charting a life in the arts
One of the most important issues for current citizens to deal with is education.
Pittsburgh’s Public Television station, WQED has recently released a beautifully filmed documentary film dealing with some of the education programs at Chautauqua Institution. It’s title is ”Chautauqua: Charting a Life in the Arts.”
A few years ago, Buffalo’s PBS outlet created a similar documentary titled ”Chautauqua: An American Narrative.” Both programs are beautifully recorded and both attempt to come to grips with the fact that Chautauqua means different things to nearly everyone. This week’s column will attempt to deal with the newer film. If you’d like to see it, and decide for yourself whether I’ve gotten it right at the time of this writing, you can do it by going to Chautauqua’s website at www.ciweb.org. There is a large icon in the center of the page, and by clicking on it, you can watch the entirety of the 55-minute program.
I received a news release which said the program could also be watched by going to WQED’s web page. I’m not a computer genius, but I went there and couldn’t find it. Someone has told me you can see it by going to the YouTube website and typing the title of the program into the search engine. My own experience was that I went to YouTube, typed ”Chautauqua” into the search function, and got a number of possible videos, including the Buffalo documentary, but not the Pittsburgh one.
However, when I typed ”Chautauqua, WQED” into the search function, I got a link which showed me the program.
I hope you’ll take an hour and enjoy the program. If you have the time, you can watch the WNED version as well, and see how they compare in your estimation. Each year, Chautauqua holds a day which is especially devoted to public radio and television. If you want to discuss the programs with them, that day is July 14 in the 2014 season’s calendar.
One of the major complaints which we received about the Buffalo feature was that it devoted quite a large percentage of its length to its coverage to Chautauqua’s excellent theater program, barely mentioning opera, dance, visual arts and other elements of the program.
WQED’s film chooses four students in the Chautauqua education program, and interviews them and their parents and their instructors, tries to capture the experience they had as students there. This time, I can remember only one single mention of the theater program and there were a few moments showing people painting on the shore of Lake Chautauqua but that was pretty much it for the visual arts as well.
Opera is the only program at Chautauqua which has two programs operating almost completely uniquely: The Chautauqua Opera Company stages two professional productions per season – which is down from four, which was down from seven. There are two levels of study in that company – the music studio, which provides young singers with performing experience, usually in chorus parts, and in performances on the Amphitheater stage with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and also in recitals. Then there is the apprentice company in which more experienced young singers do some chorus work but also get to play roles – usually smaller roles, though not always – in the professional production.
The Voice Department of the School of Music offers education, training and coaching to gifted singers, and gives them the opportunity to perform in one or more productions in smaller venues and one evening in the Amphitheater, as well.
Buffalo’s feature barely mentioned the opera company and Pittsburgh’s doesn’t mention it at all.
The Pittsburgh show was produced and photographed by Pierina Morelli, with narration and interviews conducted by Michael Bartley. The four students who were extensively interviewed and followed in the film were violinist Ade Williams of Chicago; tenor Jean Michel Richer of Montreal; and brother and sister dancers Colby and Christina Clark of New York City. I should mention that Ms. Williams’ first name is spelled with an accent above the ”e,” which I cannot reproduce here. It’s pronounced ”a-DAY.”
It soon becomes obvious that students in the various education programs at Chautauqua spend most of every day, rehearsing, performing or practicing. Since Chautauqua is fairly isolated from stores and other businesses which are available in big cities, in recent years a program has developed called ”Chautauqua Connections,” in which young students, living in dorms and spending nearly all their time in study, are paired with families who have homes on the grounds. Many of those host families encourage their assigned students to drop in. Most allow students to help themselves to food and sometimes have full meals to which they are encouraged to invite their friends.
The host families allow the students to use laundry facilities and other equipment which homes are likely to have, while dorms are not. Many of them also pay for scholarships which defray or at least help to defray the cost of living at Chautauqua, plus the cost of training with some of the most gifted teachers in the world.
In return, host families receive a personal connection to the various performances at Chautauqua, they have the enjoyment of intelligent and well-experienced young artists to discuss things with, and sometimes the students give impromptu performances for their hosts in their own homes.
Students plagued by homesickness and/or loneliness have relatively automatic friends as well.
Dancer Christine Clark tells the interviewer, ”Of all the places I’ve studied, Chautauqua makes me feel most at home.” Since 2013 was Christine’s fifth summer at Chautauqua and she has studied at a number of other programs, it makes it hard to realize the young woman is only 15. Her brother, who was in his third year of study at Chautauqua, was 12. There are photos in the program of him, dancing with the New York City Ballet in their Lincoln Center performances of ”Nutcracker” and ”Swan Lake.”
There are segments of Richer, singing the major role of Don Ottavio in Mozart’s opera ”Don Giovanni.” There are images of Williams performing with the Chicago Symphony.
There are parent interviews for the Clarks and for Williams. Ade’s mother reports that her daughter started studying the violin at age 3. ”We tried to start her at 2, but the teacher advised waiting until her hands had grown a bit,” she says.
Williams adds, ”I didn’t decide I wanted to study music professionally until I was 6 and was playing with an organization connected to the Chicago Symphony.”
Timothy Muffitt, who is the director of the Music School Festival Orchestra, tells the interviewer that students in Chautauqua’s summer programs practice their instruments or their voice from 5-8 hours per day. This is in addition to their individual and group music lessons, their rehearsals for various performances and those performances themselves.
Williams describes the frustration of not being able to find the time to practice more, despite a schedule which would cripple a weaker person.
Dance instructor Kathryn Moriarty describes pre-teen boys who spend all day running hard, lifting and other requirements of dance, who when released, run to their bicycles and pedal off to play ball with their friends or to swim in the lake.
Muffitt, who is the artistic director of two professional symphony orchestras when he is not at Chautauqua, reports that his orchestra performs usually once per week in the Amphitheater for audiences which reach up into several thousands.
Education must exist on many levels. A ladder which has only one step doesn’t get anyone far from the ground. Originally, arts education at Chautauqua was geared to the family members who came to stay at Chautauqua. Father might want to appreciate music more, while mother might want to develop her painting of watercolors, and little Luella and Parsifal might have fun in an acting or a dance class. Teachers in school districts near the grounds might suggest to talented students who were considering a career in the arts that they might take a class or a program at Chautauqua, and it would give them the opportunity to meet people who had devoted their lives to that art form and who might help them move forward toward the career they wanted.
While there still are programs at Chautauqua which are open to anyone who wants to take them, most of those who study at th e Institution are rare talents.
Throughout my more than 40 years at Chautauqua, the skill level of the instruction and of the students themselves has rocketed upwards. Oliver Dow, the managing director of the Music Festival, tells the interviewer that when he started to work there, it was not uncommon that the school needed to do some scrambling to fill the 24 chairs in the violin section of the student orchestra. In 2013 by comparison, the School of Dance watched more than 1,000 auditions for the 75 places available in the school.
When you see or hear these students perform, the difference between their performance and that of full professionals is increasingly difficult to detect.
Dow attributes this to the fact that in the past 5-10 years, the experience and skill of the teaching faculty has vastly improved, while donations from wealthy Chautauquans have improved the public performance buildings, the living conditions for students, the infrastructure of parking and similar needs. Also important, the students who are most talented are not necessarily those who have the most money and the growing number of scholarships, endowed by individuals or by organizations such as the Chautauqua Women’s Club, make it far easier than it once was for some very talented young artists to study at Chautauqua.
In addition to the Amphitheater and Norton Hall, which are where most of us who drive out, park and walk into Chautauqua are familiar with seeing performances, those who have the time and the money can also attend performances in McKnight Hall which formerly was only a rehearsal hall for orchestras, in Elizabeth Lenna Hall, in the Bratton Theater which was once a shop for painting scenery not long ago, in Fletcher Music Hall, and in any number of the Institution’s other public buildings, such as the lobby of the Hotel Athenaeum, outdoor sites such as Bestor Plaza or along the lake shore, and many more. It’s difficult to even learn when and where those performances will take place from outside the gates.
Education in our country has long been a victim to one of the greatest programs of hypocrisy in history. We read endless editorials and op-ed pieces about the horrible quality of American education. But truthfully, we don’t want better education – at least not for our own children.
I watch Colby Clark’s class of pre-teen boys dancing in beautiful ensemble, clearly happy and achieving difficult goals for dancers. I promise you that with the same teacher and the same facilities and the same students, I could name three young men of the same age, who if they were placed in the class, could bring learning to a crashing stop. They could make many of their classmates lose their passion for growth as well. It wouldn’t even be hard for them.
I’ve taught in four other countries, and not one of them forced teachers and students to endure the fierce hard work of those who wanted to destroy their learning. We do that.
The miracle of those classes is that those young people want the learning they’re being given. Those many hours of practice which students and teachers discussed in the paragraphs above are completely voluntary. If you ordered students who didn’t want to be there into those ensembles, they are not going to voluntarily practice 5-8 hours per day, in addition to their assigned classes and lessons. In fact, they’re going to feel threatened by their classmates’ willingness to work that hard and they’re going to set about destroying that willingness.
You can’t pour learning, whether it’s dance moves or organic chemistry, into someone’s head whether they want to learn it or not. You can offer it, and you can reward those who absorb it successfully. You can provide the kind of affirmation that the members of the Chautauqua Connections group provide to encourage students, but unless the students open the doors of their minds and sincerely try to take it in, all that learning is going to rot by the wayside. You can lead a horse to water, but if you have the wrong half of the horse, it will not drink.
Marlena Malas, the head of the voice department at Chautauqua, tells the interviewer that talent is very important in her art but that the singers needs to grow as a person and bring that growth into their singing. She praises the fact that in studying at Chautauqua, her singers live surrounded by musicians, actors, painters and dancers, and they see their own art and those of others praised, admired and encouraged.
It’s a model worthy to be examined.