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Creating and Performing Educational Programs
Kathy Erlandson Soroka
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Voices9/1/1999

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As young singers await their big career opportunities, they may lose sight of the opportunities they have now to practice their craft and share generously with audiences. Young singers often forget the most important part of being an artist — connecting their humanity to the music and to their audiences. In my work with Manhattan School of Music outreach singers, I have noticed that singers seem to blossom artistically during then process of creating and delivering Arts-In-Education programs. Developing outreach programs presents singers with new challenges and opportunities which demand that they develop additional skills which ultimately inform their artistry.

Working in educational opera outreach programs "liberates singers to explore their full potential as a performer, because it frees them from worry about their classical technique," according to Gordon Ostrowski, Director of the Manhattan School of Music Opera Department. "Afterwards, they return to their operatic singing with increased freedom, confidence, and awareness of themselves as performers and human beings."

Experience in creating and performing Arts-In-Education programs can also open the door to career opportunities. There clearly is a market niche for singers with outreach experience. Ostrowski notes that "More young performers have turned their educational outreach experience at Manhattan School of Music into immediate employment after graduation than have secured jobs with companies."

You may choose to create an educational outreach ensemble in your own community and create work directly through the schools. The opportunities are plentiful. In every town there are public and private schools that need the inspiring programs you can provide. Many of them have budgets for this purpose. When they don't, community foundations may be helpful. You might develop solo educational programs for yourself to present in the classroom, or create an educational opera outreach troupe with whom you could develop an opera outreach sequence.

In developing an educational opera outreach program for your community, begin by networking with music educators to determine what programs could enrich their curriculums. In designing your own outreach series, research existing educational outreach resource programs. Start with OPERA America's Music!Words!Opera! and find out about the Metropolitan Opera Guild's Creating Original Opera. Elements of Manhattan School of Music's educational partnership program, Music Teaches, could be readily adapted by a freelance opera outreach troupe. The creative possibilities are unlimited.

The easiest place for an individual singer to start in creating an educational program is with a solo 45-minute "Introduction to Opera." A 45-minute program fits within most public school schedules and could be repeated three to four times in a day. The Introduction is best performed for a group of 25 to 60 students in a classroom environment. Music rooms with a piano are ideal; auditoriums are acceptable as long as the singer can be on the floor and not the stage. Performing outside of the proscenium is what Ostrowski refers to as "Opera In Your Face." Children get to see and hear the singer close up. Just don't be offended if they put their hands over their ears with a bit of a smile on their face. It's generally an indication that they find the vibrations amazing!

The Introduction can empower children to experience lyrical singing as a basis for lifelong enjoyment and participation in music. Children enjoy hearing about the performers' personal journey in becoming artists and learning how musical achievement is built step by step — from singing in school chorus to performing in musicals and opera. Former Houston Oiler football player and opera singer, Larry Harris, says "Creating my opera outreach program gave me a chance to culminate all my life experiences. You have to be sincere and committed, because children's audiences are much tougher than adults. They demand more and they deserve more — sincere, committed performances."

In creating his Opera Introduction, he found that he could reach audiences using the stuff of his own life. At first Larry was reluctant to share personal information — the challenges of training as a professional football player and the fact that he was part Native American — but this is what made his Introduction so compelling. Larry told the students that trained singers can sing many kinds of music, including songs from the musical theater. When he asked how many had seen the Disney movie Pocahontas, the room was a sea of bobbing hands. Larry told the class that the movie had special meaning for him because he deeply understood its message — that "we all must take care of Mother Nature because she takes such good care of us." He concluded his program by singing "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas. One could feel a palpable thrill run through the audience as some of the children mouthed the words and others sang along: A connection had been made to the music they loved through a musical hero they had come to love.

When I work with singers to create their Introductions, I prefer not to give them a pre-established format. Instead, we define and describe the singer's personal values, non-musical resources, musical resources, musical repertoire, and personal story. From there, we establish concepts, participatory exercises, and program segments. This information, together with information about educational objectives of the school, audience, program theme, purpose of program, length of program, materials, and special requirements, is the raw material for the Introduction.

You can draw your repertoire from the music you've performed throughout your life, including children's songs, lullabies, folk songs, television commercial jingles, pop songs, jazz tunes, musical theater songs, art songs, and arias. In creating Introductions for children from multicultural backgrounds, it can be helpful to connect with and honor the music of their heritage. For example, in schools where most students are of Hispanic descent, repertoire might include a popular Spanish song, a folk song in Spanish, a De Falla song from the Seven Popular Songs, Bernstein's "America" from West Side Story, a zarzuela aria, and a Mozart aria.

Start by brainstorming about your life as a performer. Don't forget your early music study. Did you like practicing? If not, why not? Children appreciate hearing honestly that you didn't like practicing when you first started. All the while, think about the music that has influenced you. What was the first song you remember hearing? Was your mother singing to you? When did you first sing in public? Did you sing in church or in a community theater? It's also important to identify when you decided to become a singer. If a music teacher or church choir director was the catalyst, relate his or her name and tell the story.

Next, inventory your non-musical resources, including sports and other disciplines, such as dance or visual arts, to find connections with children who may not have studied an instrument, but have been learning the same lessons with sports. Once they make a connection between what they do and what you do, the world of opera and classical music is demystified for them. Look for connections between your repertoire and your musical and non-musical resources, and for your personal connections to the children's learning and heritage.

Finally, think about how you will demonstrate some basic elements of vocal technique. Remember to keep it simple. Identify which scales you will sing in demonstration and choose warm up exercises and a children's song to teach the children.

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