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Concentrating On What Is There Not On What You Wish Was There

Maria Popova made a BrainPickings post about Elliott Schwartz’s book, Music: Ways of Listening, about four years ago. The link to it just came to my attention recently.

Popova notes, “you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.”

Reading Schwartz’s thoughts, I think you could probably make a similar substitution for most arts disciplines.

As I mentioned last week, I have been trying to be more active about answering Arts related questions on Quora. Yesterday, I received a request to answer a question about what things should one think about if they wanted to become a better dancer. I started thinking what my answer might be if no one else stepped forward to answer. To my slight surprise, many of the general approaches I was thinking of suggesting are included in Schwartz’s list from 1982.

I wouldn’t necessarily include all these in a Quora answer, but among the things Schwartz wrote that jumped out at me were the following:

Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.

I liked this one especially because it isn’t necessary to do a substitution at all to make it applicable to other arts disciplines. It can be just as valuable to an actor, dancer, writer, visual artist, etc to pay attention to mundane sounds around them and be sensitive to how that might manifest in the work they produce.

The same is true regardless of whatever discipline you might insert. Actors frequently people watch to gain deeper insight into the way they can depict characters and relationships. Dancers, musicians, writers and visual artists can all use people watching to inform their work. And then so on with each discipline.

Try to develop musical concentration, …It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention when confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.

Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening ‘focus’ wanders, you can tell where you are.

The idea that is it okay and normal to lose focus and become bored when participating in an arts experience goes back to the early days of this blog. (obligatory nod to Drew McManus) It is important for people who are relatively inexperienced to be aware that such guideposts exist for them.

Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon ‘what’s there,’ in an objective sense, and don’t be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.

I thought the idea of concentrating on “what’s there” and not what you wish would be there is especially relevant these days when you can get the exact form of gratification you desire upon demand by pulling your smartphone from your pocket. (Though I suppose there were similar issues people were bemoaning in 1982. Can’t think of what since cable and VCRs weren’t ubiquitous presences.)

Popova excerpts seven tips from the book and I have pared down the ideas expressed even further. At the very least it is worthwhile to view the Brainpickings post and ponder what Elliott Schwartz had to say.

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Dances With Seedlings

Via Non-Profit Quarterly is a brief story about the Farm to Ballet Project which is taking agricultural themed ballet to about nine farms throughout Vermont this summer. (Their second season, I should mention.)

When I first started reading about this project, The Wormfarm Institute and their various programs like the Fermentation Fest and Roadside Culture Stands immediately came to mind. There has been a concentrated effort over the last decade or so to call more attention to arts programs in rural settings.

The Farm to Ballet Project partners closely with the farms and reinvest profits either into the farm or other agricultural non-profits.

But he also has a passion for local farming, and the Farm to Ballet Project has allowed him to connect the not-so-obvious dots between dance and agriculture. The project supports the farming community because 75 percent of ticket sales from each performance go to the host farm or to agriculture-related nonprofits. Local farm products are highlighted in other ways, too. For example, at a recent performance, “many in the 300-plus audience of adults and children also enjoyed dinner beforehand made from locally grown ingredients.”

They perform a story ballet that follows farm plants, animals and soil over the course of a year. The dancers in the first video below talk about being lettuce, cucumbers, goats, bees and various other creatures in the performance which occurs outside in the farm fields.

In the second video below, two of the dancers talk about how much they have come to appreciate impact of different grass types (and cow patties) on what sort of movements they can safely execute.

In addition to bringing ballet to communities in a context the audiences have never seen before, they are also providing an opportunity for people to renew an artistic practice that had been interrupted by other life events.

In the interview below, a woman talks about how she never expected to be able to perform classical ballet again after having started a family. This season their youngest company member is 17 and the oldest is 73.

This comment reminded me of a post I made last year about a woman who started two dance companies in different cities for people who had trained in dance to a high level, hadn’t pursued dance as a career, but wanted to continue dancing and choreographing.

This interview is additional evidence that there is an unmet need for an outlet of creative expression in dance and probably other disciplines.

They mention a benefit of performing in a farm field they hadn’t initially anticipated is that kids can follow their impulse to get up and start dancing off to the side without really interrupting the performance.

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Telling The Story Of Your Overhead

Our friends at the Non-Profit Happy Hour Facebook group shared the Furniture Bank’s Charity Overhead Manifesto. In the post, the Furniture Bank talks about how much damage resistance to covering overhead can do to their programs.

We have heard many of these arguments before, but Furniture Bank takes the next necessary step of humanizing and discussing the impact of the work “overhead employees” perform.

The reason this is important is because it takes an abstract concept of overhead and specifically shows how overhead costs are manifested in the organization’s operations. Absent this specificity, it is easy to envision overhead going to senior administrator salaries or unsexy equipment and supplies like filing cabinets and copy paper. While this is inevitably the case to some degree, it isn’t the whole story.

This reminds us how important a compelling story can be. Furniture Bank lists what their overhead helps them accomplish:

  • Maintain, insure and run a fleet of 11 trucks, and a team of movers, picking up furniture from donors and delivering them to clients every day;
  • Employ 25-30 individuals each year who would otherwise face barriers to employment;
  • Pay market rent on a 30,000 Sq Ft client showroom;
  • Sustain an organization with 40 hardworking and big hearted employees who:
    • take orders,
    • track inventory,
    • book client appointments,
    • schedule and complete pickups & deliveries,
    • answer donor inquiries,
    • process donations,
    • ensure we have the right technology to run our operations, and
    • undertake the numerous other tasks that must occur every day to ensure that the community’s unwanted furniture goes directly to a family transitioning out of homelessness or displacement.

That format can be a little boring though. They also participate in the Charity Defense Council’s “I’m Overhead” campaign that has created images with Furniture Bank employees discussing what they do which end with a line about the impact they make, (you can see examples of the full ads on the Furniture Bank site.)

“My name is Miro Janes-Richardson. I make sure families have a place they can finally call home, and I’m overhead.”

My name is Yuri Hernandez. I make sure clients have the dignity of choice and don’t have to sleep on the floor, and I’m overhead.”

Miro is a truck crew leader and Yuri is a client services coordinator.

It may be difficult for arts organizations that don’t have a strong human services aspect to their operations to tell as compelling a story as these, but there are still opportunities to illustrate that staff help the organization be good stewards of donations.

For example:

“Do you recognize this flat? It has been in some of your favorite performances over the last five years including Dangerous Liaisons, Amadeus, A Raisin in the Sun and Christmas Carol. Here at the theater, we are great recyclers, repainting and repairing set piece dozens of times, extending their useful lives for years. This reduces our need to purchase lumber, which is good for the environment. But to make it happen, we need to store flats like this one and be clever about changing its appearance so you don’t recognize it when it appears again.

I am Steve and I work magic to make fake trees look real so that real trees can live, and I am overhead.

That five minutes of typing may not have resulted in the most compelling argument for theater operations, but you get the idea.

It isn’t just enough to tell people that they shouldn’t use overhead ratio as a measure of effectiveness, it is also necessary to communicate specific examples that illustrate that what they may envision the raw numbers represent isn’t necessarily the reality.

I don’t doubt that there will still be people who want 95-100% of their donation to be devoted exclusively to program beneficiaries, but linking overhead activities with impact outcomes can help combat decision making strictly by the numbers.

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The Classic Or Contemporary?

When it comes to Shakespeare, I feel like it is worth taking the time to sit and allow yourself to adjust to the language and rhythms rather than dismissing it outright as too impenetrable. There is a lot in there that can’t be accurately replicated by updating the language.

I would say the same thing about classical music and visual art. Allowing yourself time to transition your perspective from 21 century life to whatever period a piece of music was written in is worth the time.

If you are wandering a museum, you definitely need to be prepared shift between digital graphics of daily existence to Vermeer to Mark Rothko.

So I was interested to read back in April that Shakespeare enjoys a greater degree of appreciation in non-English speaking countries.

A survey of 18,000 people in 15 countries reveals, for example, that 88% of surveyed Mexicans like Shakespeare, compared with only 59% of British people; 84% of Brazilians said they found him relevant to today’s world, compared with 57% in the UK; and 83% of Indians said they understood him, far more than the 58% of Britons.

Overall, Shakespeare’s popularity abroad stands at 65%, compared with 59% in the UK.


The research suggests it is experience of Shakespeare at school which plays the biggest part – studying the original text can put people off for life.

Hilhorst said most Britons were taught Shakespeare in his original English while abroad there were often translations which used a more contemporary, accessible language.

That conclusion would explain why the “do you like Shakespeare” figures are roughly the same among English-speaking countries – USA (63%), Australia (60%) and the UK (59%). In the top five are India (89%), Mexico (88%), Brazil (87%), Turkey (79%) and South Africa (73%)

Only French and Germans like Shakespeare less than English speakers.

There is an implication in the article that Shakespeare is better enjoyed in general when the language is updated to be accessible to contemporary audiences.

I am of two minds about this. First, it is irking no one is really advocating for classical music to be updated to make it more accessible. Certainly, you can put it in different contexts to make it more familiar and accessible like Bugs Bunny cartoons or playing it in bars, but will it increase appreciation and understanding of Bach to hear is played on electric bass, guitar, keyboard and a drum kit?

What about electric violins and turn table?

Does it help people understand The Last Supper if it is digitized or parodied?


If I am being honest, maybe Black Violin’s version of Bach’s Brandenburg Concert will help people become more comfortable with the original. But I imagine it is also easy to claim that while it may make you more comfortable, it doesn’t really help you understand Bach’s original composition.

I would also argue this is more akin to a shift in context than an actual adaptation into a contemporary “language.” I would place the common practice of  setting Shakespeare in different time periods while retaining the language in this category.

Which brings me to my second mind. The one advantage Shakespeare has is that the works can be adapted to contemporary times and the adaptations can help you understand the original works. I would say West Side Story may do this better for Romeo and Juliet and Throne of Blood for MacBeth than Forbidden Planet does it for The Tempest (granted, Forbidden Planet wasn’t intended as an adaptation of Tempest).

Whether adaptations like these help inspire people to explore the originals, I don’t know. My sense is that the theatrical format by its very nature lends itself to adaptation in ways that allow people to connect with the original works in ways other arts disciplines don’t.

To a certain degree, there is an argument for making Shakespeare’s language more contemporary because you can do effectively.

But it is still absolutely worth experiencing Shakespeare in the original language.

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