I had the wonderful good fortune to be invited to spend a week at The Hotchkiss School as their guest Artist in Residence this semester, and -- let me tell you -- it was an experience I will not soon forget.
My time there was profoundly meaningful, primarily because of how immersive it was. I was engaged on so many different levels of interaction, in mind, body and spirit.
On an intellectual level, I got to share my passion for the plays of Eugene O'Neill, as I worked with students looking at both his lesser-known early experimental work, and his late, last plays.
In an American Literature class, we read through the Prologue of the great god brown, that fascinating, unhinged yowl of an angry young man from O'Neill's early prime. We talked about the use of masks on stage, about hyper realism and expressionism, and about the power of the imagination -- how some plays can, perhaps, really only be performed on a stage (as opposed to being adapted to film, for example, which we would look at in a subsequent Film Studies class in which we read a scene from Long Day's Journey Into Night, followed by a screening from the classic film adaptation by Sidney Lumet).
In a double session with two combined Humanities classes, students and I used Greil Marcus's text The Old, Weird America as a launching pad for a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the subjects of violence in American music and culture (using recordings of songs by the banjo player/singer Dock Boggs and Bob Dylan as two examples); the changing role that music has played in our society in modern times; the merits (or otherwise) of contemporary recording techniques like Auto-tune; the value of authenticity; and the similarities and discrepancies between old American murder ballads and contemporary Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap.
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A hands-on workshop with students who are writing original music and/or honing their instrumental skills in the music department found us working on a full-band arrangement for one student's original song (utilizing piano, electric and acoustic guitars, upright bass, drums, saxophone and backup vocals), and then backing up another student singer as she led us through a soulful, jazzy arrangement of "Georgia on My Mind," complete with improvised solos from members of the student band.
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In several theater classes, and in another Humanities class that was engaged in making "Monument Projects," I talked with students about my Donner Party project "we are destroyed," discussing and showing examples of ways to interpret history, atypical ways to incorporate music and poetry into theater, and getting into the philosophy and idealism/hubris behind Westward Expansion in America. Some of the kids read portions of my oratorio out loud in class (a thrill for me), and I played them some of the songs I wrote for the piece, like "Do What I Want" and "In Another Life."
I also had the opportunity to visit an acting class, where I talked about some of the craft and understanding of performance I've been able to glean as a working artist over the last decade and a half.
In two Musical Theater classes, students and I had lively discussions debating the merits of the contemporary musical theater form itself. We had fun playing around with some of the songs that they knew or were working on as singers, as I accompanied them on guitar while they sang standards like "Fever" and "Crazy" -- some of them experimenting with vocal improvisation and tempo for the first time.
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In a Documentary Film class, I shared my experience of what has gone into creating a documentary theater project about Connie Converse. Here we talked about what elements are important in telling a nonfiction story, delved into what makes for a powerful narrative, and looked at similarities between Connie's mysterious story and Rodriguez from Searching For Sugar Man.
The poet and teacher Susan Kinsolving brought me in to her Creative Writing class to talk about the creative process, and what it means to be a working creative artist. One of the students wanted to know whether my song Mary Ann was based on a real person, which led to a discussion about the power of imagination and how we can transmute specific real-life experiences into (hopefully) more universal art.
And I was fortunate enough to be able to be a fly on the wall for Mike Musillami's "Right Brain Logic" rehearsal, a massive ensemble of student instrumentalists working on one of Mike's original composition that employed changing meters and keys, and elements of conduction (conducted improvisation) that was really something to behold. These are some advanced kids (and teachers)!
Finally, to cap it all off, my band came up from the city at the end of the week, and we gave a concert in Hotchkiss's beautiful Elfers Hall, for students, faculty and the general public.
Photo by David Thompson
The show was a benefit for a local no-kill animal shelter, The Little Guild of St. Francis. Hearing my friend and sousaphone player Kenny Bentley in that hall hold forth on a song like "Pretty Polly" was quite an experience.
Photo by Carole Cohen
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And if all this weren't enough, in between classes I got to play tennis matches with several of the varsity and junior varsity team members (in an ongoing game called "Crush The Artist in Residence"), took a hike out to the Hotchkiss Farm with faculty and students (where I was given an opportunity to swing an axe on the wood chopping block), and took my meals daily in the Hotchkiss Dining Hall, where much of the food is locally-sourced and organic, where there are vegetarian options a-plenty, and where compost is collected from finished plates and trays. This is a very hip institution, as far as sustainability and eco-awareness goes.
In fact, this is a very hip institution, period. The community I felt there, and the warm embrace I was given by students, faculty and their families, made it difficult to leave. The academics and creativity invigorated my mind. The beautiful grounds, athletic facilities and sports engaged my body. The sense of connection and mindfulness on display everywhere lifted my spirit.
Thank you, Hotchkiss. I'm deeply grateful for the experience.