More Teaching Moments Selected Memories of PSU Faculty

Magic Moments in Teaching or It’s a Wonderful Life

October 10th, 2012 by Heather

Kathleen H. Arecchi Music, Theatre, and Dance

Kathleen Arrechi

Kathleen Arrechi

I am so very lucky. As a studio teacher of singing, primarily classical and musical theatre techniques and repertory, I work one-on-one with my students, fourteen to sixteen in most semesters. Together we set semester goals in vocal technique and artistry and then identify the repertory that will enhance the achievement of those goals. In the weekly lessons we focus on basic elements: breathing for singing, pronouncing Italian and German texts correctly, analyzing the poetry in a song, discussing the dramatic situation for an opera aria or a song from a musical. In any given week for the students there will be moments of joy as well as moments of frustration that may verge on tears. They want to succeed so badly and to develop their voices faster.

The magic in lessons comes unexpectedly. It’s the spark of awareness, the glint in the eyes of a singer who has just succeeded in performing an extremely difficult passage in the music. It’s the broad smile of achievement when a singer says, “That was good!” It’s the goose bumps that come when the singer and the pianist are so “in sync” in performance that gorgeous music has been created. All that’s left to say is, “WOW!”

Often after they’ve graduated, alums send emails to share their current singing experiences, sometimes with questions on singing problems they can’t solve with their own students. They may ask for repertory recommendations, or, as one alum did recently, send a brief sound file of an aria cadenza to ask for feedback on some newly discovered vocal technique.

Could I possibly ask for more as a teacher? I have many magic moments in weekly lessons, and these are regularly spiced up by communication with alumni.

Every day “at work” is full of wonderful music and the joy of guiding young singers to the glory of it all. It’s a wonderful life!

Selected Shorts

October 10th, 2012 by Heather

Robert F. Swift Music, Theatre, and Dance

Robert Swift

Robert Swift photo by Daryl Carlson, courtesy of Laconia Citizen

A course in music appreciation is a staple of any reputable institution of higher learning. Plymouth State has offered one for years.

I began teaching Exploring Music (formerly Intro to Music) in 1981 and have done so ever since. The course is a General Education, Past and Present Directions offering. Many of Plymouth State’s finest students from all degree programs have enrolled over the years. What follows are a few selected examples of their work.

After we study Romanticism, students are required to create original works in that style: poem, drawing, sculpture, musical composition. Some remarkable submissions resulted. Here is one.

Ode to My Guitar
(Christopher Soule)

I don’t know how to take advantage of all you have to offer,
  and I do not understand every aspect of your being.

But I do know I enjoy your company like the company of a good book
  in a hammock on a sunny day. No interruptions.

I haven’t picked you up in a week or more,
  and I don’t think you are in tune.

But an eon couldn’t separate the appreciation I have for your shape,
  your sound, and your simple quality of being.

I get frustrated when I touch you.
  And I remember my inadequacies in a subject I bear no faculty for.

But that one second of pure sound, a reverberating vibration of energy,
  striking through the wood like lightning makes all the difference.

I never bought you a new carrying case to protect you.
  Nor did I buy new strings despite your smudgy glean.

But sight is certainly not everything regarding an instrument
  meant to smother a couple other senses.

My thanks are sincere.
For the company.
For the sanity.
For the solitude.
For the sound.
For the silence.

Thank you for being the friend that I know nothing about.

As a teacher my mild-mannered, soft-spoken, avuncular disposition is rarely upset. But the introduction into the classroom of personal, electronic communication devices in the past five years has often led to uncomfortable exchanges with the perpetrator, who is asked to leave the room.

Quiz #9 concluded with a bonus question. “Draw something in a style we have discussed. Title it, and identify the style.” (My evaluation is included.)

student drawing of Prof. Swift

Students are required to attend live musical performances and write critiques within a week of the event. Malapropisms occasionally creep in.

“Irving Berlin played the tenor sax in his own solo. The next was the choir singing, Mrs Swift on the piano [a rare sight!], and Irving playing the oboe.” (L.T.)

“She had an amazing voice, and I got chilly when she hit the high notes …” (J.M.)

“ … Travis Keith on alto and Dan Heffernan on bari sax. Travis played more of a passionate sex solo.” (M.R.)

“This is the only music program in the country able to turn a starling into a lark.” (Kim Starling, vocal Music minor, 1985)

In conclusion, we post weekly quotations on the board. Two will suffice.

“It is only that which cannot be expressed otherwise that is worth expressing in music.” (Frederick Delius)

“If I had the power, I would insist on all oratorios being sung in the costume of the period—with a possible exception in the case of The Creation.” (Ernest Newman)

“I Am the Pirate King”…Well, Maybe Not

October 3rd, 2012 by Heather

Paul Mroczka Music, Theatre, and Dance

Paul Mroczka

As a theatre professor at Plymouth State one of my duties is to direct shows. It’s as much part of my teaching as is the more traditional classroom assignment. In my second year at PSU I directed my first musical at the school. In the Fall Semester 1995 we presented Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Pirates of Penzance.

Perhaps the most coveted male role in The Pirates is that of the Pirate King. Many young actors, majors and non-majors, auditioned. The role went to a relatively unknown non-major. One day after a meeting of all cast members, I noticed one of our majors (very talented and accustomed to getting the lead, but who had not done so this time) standing against a wall, moping.

He was obviously disappointed in being cast as the pirate Samuel, the second in command. I decided to talk with him.

“Hi, Kevin, how’s it going?” I asked.

“Oh, you know,” he replied.

“You’re cast!” I noted with some enthusiasm.

His reply was anything but enthusiastic as he said, “Yeah, I guess.”

As a theatre specialist, I’d decided to ask him what was wrong (play dumb). I wanted him to tell me. So I did..

He replied, “I really wanted the Pirate King. You know?”

I nodded and said, “Yeah, a lot of people wanted that part.”

“I’m really bumming,” he said.

So I asked him, “Kevin, what do you want to do with your life?”

“Act,” he answered immediately.

“What are you doing in this show?”

“I’m acting,” he answered.

“And your job as an actor,” I told him, “is to do as much and learn as much as you can with whatever the role. You want to act; you’re getting the chance to act. You can get more out of Samuel than you ever could from the Pirate King.”

He nodded but I could tell my advice had fallen on deaf ears. The next six weeks were spent rehearsing the operetta. Kevin proved to be dedicated in every way, and he was a delight as Samuel.

A week after the show closed, I saw Kevin. He shyly said, “You were right.”

Playing dumb again (an encore), I asked, “What are you talking about?”

“You know.”

I said, “No, I have no idea.”

“I had a great time playing Samuel and I learned more about acting and the theatre than I ever thought I could.”

“I guess you do want to be an actor,” I said.

He smiled and nodded.

He would play many more roles at PSU before going on to graduate school and earning a M.F.A. in acting. By the way, the first play he auditioned for in his M.F.A. program was of all things The Pirates of Penzance. And can you imagine this time what role Kevin played? Yes, Samuel again!

Kevin is a professional actor much in demand. He teaches on the university level and has played many leads, including Hamlet.

But never the Pirate King.

The Ghost is a Pianist! (Through the Years of Silver Hall)

October 1st, 2012 by Heather

Carleen Graff Music, Theatre, and Dance

piano onstage at The Silver Center

Upon my arrival at Plymouth State College in the fall of 1973 I was excited to be teaching in a tenure-track position.  Little else mattered, including the facilities.  The old Silver Hall built in 1956 served three functions: a physical education/athletic center, a music and theatre teaching/performance facility, and an all-purpose school assembly hall, the Gymnatorium.  There were countless small rooms in the building.  Faculty offices even had showers!  Light switches were on “the other side of the room,” and when one was alone at night, strange noises could be heard while trying to find the right switch.

The Nathaniel Rogers mansion, built in 1825, was razed in 1953 to make room for this original Silver Hall.  By that time the mansion was dilapidated and desolate.  It looked like a haunted house!  Were these noises the ghost of Silver, or did they originate from the tunnel system throughout the campus?

By 1973 the building housed the music and philosophy departments.  The piano lab was a very small room facing Main Street.  One of the philosophy offices (and shower) was off the piano lab, accessible only by passing through piano classes.

Six practice rooms were located along the upstairs hallway.  The original intent of these rooms is shrouded in mystery.  They were all connected by open vents.  These “studios” were so small one couldn’t even open a desk drawer all the way because it would hit the piano.  And if alone at night, she (or he) could sense another presence, perhaps in the vent.

Margot Swift’s office was off the choir room.  Either she or the custodian—I don’t recall which—one early morning saw the ghost, a shape in the corner wrapped up in the padded piano cover!  (It turned out to be a homeless man trying to get some sleep.)

The “auditorium” resembled an elementary school gymnasium.  Heavy curtains framed the stage.  There was also a backstage shop area for theatre productions.  A metal garage door separated the two.  Saw dust often filled the grand piano on stage.

Several fine students played their senior piano recitals on this “concert stage”: Christine Wilson Kissack, Don Williams, Stuart Shelton, Jim McLaughlin, Amy Puglisi Bisson.  During dress rehearsals they had to compete with scene shop drills, hammers, paint fumes, even crickets.  When practicing on stage late at night, and all was quiet, one might hear strange noises behind those heavy curtains or that metal door.

In 1992-93 the present Silver Center was under construction.  The Mary Lyon basement, dating back to the Plymouth Normal School, housed many of our classes.  The ghost was there.  Wherever there were pianos, it could be heard playing, generally in a minor key, molto misterioso.

What of today?  The ghost can still be heard playing the piano in the new Silver Center, most often in the practice rooms near the student lounge.  Late at night is best, Chopinesque music, played quite well.  But the music stops abruptly if anyone gets too close.

Peter Templeton, now on the faculty, swears the ghost also is present in the Smith Recital Hall.  It sits and listens from the back row, near the upper entrance.  He’s a friendly soul and a true music lover … after all these years.