Sound Stories #027 – The Importance of Art

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    Tom Lee, former director of the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program at Harvard University, talks about how this program has enriched the lives of thousands. He also discusses how art has the power to enhance anyone’s life.

    TRANSCRIPTION SOUND STORIES #027

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Hi there. And welcome to another episode of Sound Stories, an inspirational podcast for creative professionals and storytellers who want to improve their lives at home and at work. I’m Stephanie Ciccarelli, your host and co-founder of voices.com. For modern day creatives, the value of the arts can feel so naturally obvious that it can be hard to imagine having to fight for its place at the table. But it’s worthwhile to remember that artists haven’t always had the support and opportunities that they have today. And even now, it still takes passionate people to continuously demonstrate how creative disciplines can raise the bar for all of us.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Tom Lee, is one of those strong supporters. Since 1994, Tom held the position of director of the Office for the Arts Learning from Performers program at Harvard. There he spent his career helping to facilitate connections between established and often influential artists like Yo-Yo Ma to students engaged in diverse areas of study. Now recently retired, but still a full time advocate for the arts, he joins us to discuss the life changing power of artistic study including the irreplaceable influence of that special relationship between mentor and student. Welcome to the show, Tom.

    Tom Lee:

    Thank you so much for inviting me. Very much looking forward to it.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    It’s a great pleasure to have you on. So I was just wondering, Tom, now can you tell us a story of how the Office for the Arts at Harvard came to be and maybe paint a picture of what the art scene was like before it existed.

    Tom Lee:

    The Office for the Arts was established at Harvard in the mid 1970. At that time, there was a lot of art making going on, on campus. But it was all extracurricular or mostly extracurricular. There was a program in studio arts, but there was no major in theater. In music you could major in theory and composition and musicology, but not in performance. It was definitely not what you would call a conservatory environment, but there was a lot of art going on. Most of it, if not all of it, driven by students. And the office was established to help support that art making by offering students grants, to support projects that they might be working on.

    Tom Lee:

    The office established a big arts festival that happens every year and another program called Learning from Performers as you mentioned, which brings artists to Harvard to connect with students, to interact with them in workshops and masterclasses seminars, sometimes just informal conversations, sometimes resulting in a project like a performance or an exhibition. The idea is very simple just to try to infuse the student’s educational experience with the experience of creativity. And since that time, hundreds and hundreds of artists from all disciplines have participated in that program. And it’s really been I think a life changer for a lot of Harvard students.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    This whole program is just like it must be a gift to those students. I can only imagine what it’d be like to have someone like Yo-Yo Ma as we mentioned, and I’m sure there are a lot of other wonderful people who you could tell us about too, who have been there. But in the course of the time the program has been available, we’re seeing and you experienced firsthand just how very effective it was. So what makes a program that connects budding artists to mentors so powerful?

    Tom Lee:

    Well, I think it’s powerful for a number of reasons. And I guess I’ll start with Harvard and the typical Harvard student. I think these are young people who are going to be making major contributions when they leave the university. These are the young people who are going to be running corporations, running for office. You never quite know in the freshman class who might even be the next president of the United States. And that’s not to say that we’re trying to turn students who might want to be doctors or lawyers or whatever into artists, but to give them a sense of the creative process to learn from all aspects of being an artist, that they can then apply to their other studies and to their career paths I think is is very important.

    Tom Lee:

    And I think these are also going to be the cultural stewards of tomorrow. These are the students who will be supporting yards with so little fundings for the arts. From the government in the United States now I think it’s going to be very important for us to be giving these students experiences in the arts that will make them contributors, whether they’re contributing directly as an artist or just as an arts advocate or an art supporter.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Absolutely. I come from the arts myself and my background is music. So I relate to everything you’re saying. Because if we didn’t have people who knew how to tell stories or understood the cultural landscape in which they are living and can help to clarify it through their art, then we’d have a very boring society in place to live in that wouldn’t be rich with beauty as it is. So since this program has been around for decades, as you said in the ’70s, tell me about some of the collaborative moments that you were part of over that time.

    Tom Lee:

    Well, so many. One of the great things about the program is that it brings so many different kinds of artists and in all different disciplines. And I think in particular, the masterclasses are the most wonderful opportunities for students to engage with these artists and learn from these artists. I’m thinking in particular of the opera singer, Renee Fleming’s, she did three masterclasses for us, and each of them was really an extraordinary experience for the students who participated. She is so generous with her talent, with her expertise, with her experience and the way she worked with the students was really quite remarkable. I think as much for them as it was for her, I think that she just has a real knack for teaching and the way she sort of passed it on, if you will, to these students was really, really gratifying.

    Tom Lee:

    And several of these students I think might be pursuing careers as singers, but not all of them. And again, I think that the skills that they learned in this class in terms of presentation, interpretation, projecting, and all of that are key lessons that can be applied to just about any experience in my life. I also had the pleasure of working with Placido Domingo. He was also extremely generous and the students just were thrilled by him. And the other aspect of it is that we invite the public to come in and observe the classes. And I think always that’s as much of a learning experience as it is for the students who are actually participating. So those are just two examples.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow. And the very impressive examples to boot. I remember listening to Renee Fleming as a student of song in voice and performance and just her artistry unparalleled. And Placido Domingo, I actually saw him at the Met in a performance of Arnani a handful of years ago, which was brilliant. And his ability to just captivate was beyond anything that you can really compare it to. So to think that the students and also the public as you’ve just pointed out, have access to watching these masters at work, it’s just like, where else could you get that? That’s fantastic. Have you had anyone from the acting sphere, maybe like a film actor or a high profile musician that perhaps isn’t in the opera circle?

    Tom Lee:

    Sure. One musician composer I really enjoyed working with is Laurie Anderson. You probably know that Laurie’s work is rather cutting edge, I guess, avant garde. And her mind, well, I couldn’t even begin to tell you but it was really a very extraordinary conversation that she had with students. Very informal, but the way her mind worked, her creative process, I think really came to the fore in that conversation talking about all of the different influences on her work, all of the different media that she has used in her work. I think the surprise success of some of her work, I don’t think she was expecting that. And then the students also had a chance to see her perform because after this conversation that she did with students, she actually did a performance that we produced in a theater at Harvard. And that was also a wonderful experience. And some of the students actually were able to help her prepare for that, setting up equipment and all of that. And I think that too was a real learning experience.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    My goodness, so many fantastic artists. Can you give us maybe some of the highlights of people that you’ve worked with in this capacity that we haven’t mentioned yet?

    Tom Lee:

    Sure. Well, my goodness. Again, so many. I was very impressed with Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I’m sure you know as the creator of the smash Broadway musical Hamilton. He was just a real life force and a genuinely nice guy. I mean, somebody that whose success I think is deserved tenfold. Stephen Sondheim, one of our elder artists, also a musical theater composer like Lin- Manuel Miranda, just an amazing person. And again, so giving, so smart, a little intimidating, but he was just a gem. The author of Margaret Atwood. We don’t do a lot of literary artists. That’s more the domain of the English department at Harvard. She was the recipient of an award called The Harvard Arts Medal that’s administered by the Office for the Arts. It’s given to a graduate of Harvard or Radcliffe. And Margaret went to Radcliffe college, which was then the women’s college affiliated with Harvard, it no longer is. But she came and got this award and she did a wonderful talk with students and they performed one of her short stories.

    Tom Lee:

    They read it out loud for her. That was a terrific experience. And she’s a great person. Wonderful jazz singer named Cassandra Wilson. I love working with jazz artists. Their sense of improvisation is so important for so many students to learn, especially students who are doing music that’s more kind of prescribed or sort of classical music. Tony Kushner, the playwright of Angels in America. Wonderful person, wonderful spirit, very open to conversation with students, really terrific. Herbie Hancock, he was another jazz artist who was kind of unforgettable. I’m a big jazz fan. So I really, really love the jazz artists. And there was, excuse me, a conductor of who you may know, Marin Alsop. She is the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And it was really interesting hearing her story about being a woman in that field. Unfortunately, there are not enough women who are conducting symphony orchestras, and she was really terrific talking about that aspect of her career and how she dealt with frankly sexism in that field. And I think a lot of the students could identify with that.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, Tom, that is a really impressive list and certainly a very familiar with Hamilton and how popular that show is. Now of all of these astonishing artists that you’ve mentioned, are there any common traits that they share that have brought them success?

    Tom Lee:

    Well, certainly talent. There’s no denying that. I think their sense of empathy, their sense of their place in the world. And their wanting to share to pass on what they have experienced, what they have learned. I think it really speaks that of a real sense of generosity. And yeah, I think that’s something that they’ve all pretty much shared really to a person. I mean, I’ve never had anybody who came in and seemed sort of disdainful of the students and their work or whatever. I mean, obviously they’re going to be on their best behavior, but still I think that really you understand how they have become successful because they are in some cases, so nice, so willing to give, so willing to share. So I think that’s something that is common among them.

    Tom Lee:

    And I’ve never gotten any kind of sense of entitlement for many of them. I mean they all in their own way have been sort of very down to earth and I think sometimes maybe even a little surprised at their success, but there they are. And again, they’re so willing to speak to it and to share it.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    It sounds like humility plays a great role in all of these artists’ lives and that’s something that doesn’t come naturally to everyone. You have to cultivate humility to a degree. But I really appreciate that because just being a person in business or an artist who collaborates with others you’ve got to leave the ego at the door and it really does sound like that’s the mentality that these masters are bringing into the masterclass.

    Tom Lee:

    Definitely. Well put.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow. So for the listeners who may not have access to mega stars in their own disciplines, can you share a few of the key lessons that you’ve seen come out over and over again that are consistent from all of these greats that we can go back and teach to others in the academic setting?

    Tom Lee:

    Well, I think in terms of the artists who engage in what I, for lack of a better term, would call them more sort of formal kinds of performance, musical performance, especially. And I’m talking about classical pianists or singers like Domingo and Reene Fleming. I think that when the students go into a situation like that, doing a workshop or a masterclass with an artists like that, they already have the technique down. And we obviously are very careful to choose the best students for the most talented students to perform for artists like a Fleming or Domingo. In the case of piano Long Long was one who also did a masterclass. And what’s important at that point, if they really got the technique down is what does this performance, what is this choice of repertoire? How they perform it, what does it say about the student performer?

    Tom Lee:

    What does it say about their emotional state? What does it say about the way they think about the world about the way that they think about themselves? So it’s not just getting the scales right. It’s not just perfecting that bowing technique or whatever. It’s really more a statement about who they are. And this definitely comes across very much in some of the masterclasses and some of the acting workshops that I’ve done, where the artists will just really, really force the student to really think more about what it’s about. There was a wonderful singer who passed away this past year named Barbara Cook, who’s a real legend on Broadway when she was younger and she ended her career as a cabaret singer. And I just remember her mantra, why did you pick the song? What does this song say to you? What are the meaning of the words and how do you best put that across?

    Tom Lee:

    So I think that’s a very important lesson. And then I think also in terms of many art forms, especially theater, I think a sense of being a collaborator, working collaboratively whether it’s with a teacher or with fellow actors or singers, I think that that’s really very key. You’re not in this alone necessarily. Now, obviously if you’re a writer or a painter, you are pretty much working on your own. But I think in most art forms, especially in the performing arts, it’s important to have that feedback and to feed off of each other.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I know that some advice that’s given to students entering into an academic setting to study the arts or acting in particular is, if you can do anything other than acting, then go do it. Because this is so challenging. You’re going to come up against all kinds of people who if they don’t like how you’re acting, then they don’t like you. And that can be really hurtful, right? For people who are in the performing arts. And I’m just wondering has anybody who’s come to speak to your students, have they addressed this topic? And how through just maturing as an artist and being able to see things objectively that they can distance themselves from that or that they can learn how to take feedback in a course corrections in a way that doesn’t damage their spirit.

    Tom Lee:

    Yes, definitely. In fact, my first year at this job I had the extreme pleasure of hosting an actor who I greatly admired. He’s passed away now, it’s Jack Lemmon. Mr. Lemmon was really adamant about getting across to the students. If there’s anything, anything else that you can do. And he said, and I know that there are some very smart, young people in this audience. This was not a masterclass or workshop. He just did an informal talk with students. He said, please go into that field because you will find that rejection is practically a staple. In terms of this business, he said, if I was pounding the pavement for years, I just thought at certain points I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not. My parents never sent me to Harvard to go into acting. And they knew full well the rigors, the pitfalls of the profession.

    Tom Lee:

    So I would say if there’s anything else that you can do, do it. But if you’ve got that fire in the belly, if you really really think that this is the only thing that you can do, then you just pursue it as much as you can. And he said, it’s a lot of luck. It’s also of course, a lot of talent, sometimes the two. It’s who to avoid and who not to avoid et cetera. But he said, it will reward you many fold if you do get a foothold into the business.

    Tom Lee:

    The other actors who have talked about this a lot are Laura Linney. She also, I remember, talked quite a bit about some of the rejection that she faced in the business. And then a Harvard graduate, John Lisko, he was class of 67. John has been very supportive of the Learning from Performance program and of the Office for the Arts over the years. He comes back every year and talks to students who are interested in acting. And that’s always a big part of the conversation, the challenges of the of the business. And one thing that John will remind them of, he’ll say, “Most casting agents, directors, et cetera, they don’t really care that you went to Harvard. That’s not going to be your ticket. Your ticket is going to be your talent, your energy and your drive.”

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    All right. So just going back to the whole idea of the masterclass, and as you had said earlier, and I know we pointed this out, that not only are these masterclasses attended by the students, but there are also people who come from outside. So the general public. That’s in front of a lot of people and potentially people they have no context for. Why are you here? And you’re seeing me in my most vulnerable state being instructed by some of the greatest minds and performers in the world. How do you then create a safe place for that collaboration to happen?

    Tom Lee:

    Great question. Well, I think that some of the best masterclass teachers, certainly most of the artists that I have brought in, they pretty much at the outset set what might be called ground rules. They ask the audience to be good listeners. They tell the audience, now this is not a performance. This is not a recital. This is not a concert. This is a learning experience. And we have invited you to come in to participate as observers. And we also, in most cases at the end of the masterclass, we will have a question and answer period of 20 minutes or half an hour or so, so that the audience can ask questions about what they’ve seen, what they’ve observed. So I think in that way, they do set up a safe space for the artist, for the students, the participating students.

    Tom Lee:

    And then I think that the students do appreciate the feedback that they get from the audience. I’ve been to some masterclasses where the artists will turn to the audience and say, what did you think of this way that he or she did it? You think it would be better if she did it this way or that way, what do you think? So, it really depends on the style of the master, if you will, in that kind of a setting. But I think that, in general, they’re not there to put the students on the spot. They’re not there to embarrass them or make them feel nervous or whatever, because of those ground rules that they set up.

    Tom Lee:

    That’s brilliant. Having the ground rules is important because you are entering a world, a vulnerability of learning, but also of appreciation. So I can only imagine there are some very interested and intrigued people sitting there and likely if you were to sell seasons tickets holdings, they probably get a lot of repeat visitors coming in and watching all of these wonderful things. Which leads me to a question, Tom, are there any video recordings that our listeners can watch on YouTube of these masterclasses?

    Tom Lee:

    Well, this is one aspect of the program that I have always felt is perhaps somewhat lacking. We do routinely record them with the permission of the visiting artists and 99% of the time, the artist is perfectly okay with it. We have a really terrific archive of years and years of these recordings. They currently are not available online. They are available in an archive at Harvard, which really can only be accessed at in person at this time. However, I have been in talks over the years with many people at Harvard who are interested in making these recordings available more broadly. And I am hoping I really am hoping that my successor will take up this challenge. It’s a huge job. And those recordings are something that I do hope will be made more available.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    We talked a little bit earlier about technical mastery and how, when students are set before these great artists that they’ve got that down, they know about their technique. And it’s more about exploring themselves as individuals and artists. So, we’ve had another guest on the show, Professor Jonathan D’Souza being who I’m thinking of right now. And he did speak to the technical mastery as being a kind of achievement that artist strive for. But, even though you’re skilled and maybe you’re so skilled that you think you’re flawless, well not that any of us are, of course, right? It doesn’t guarantee that someone will have a satisfying and creative career just because they can do something very, very well. Now, I’ve just curious, what are your thoughts on that and what are the extra things that an artist needs in their life?

    Tom Lee:

    Very good question. Well, I only think that a certain sense of empathy really needs to be a part of your personality. I think this very much applies to acting in particular. I think any good actor who is going to face the challenge of putting their themselves into someone else’s shoes, almost literally, really does have to have a sense of empathy. I think just a kind of a broad knowledge of the world itself and of subjects outside of the arts. And that’s why I ultimately think that a liberal arts education, as opposed to a conservatory education can sometimes be more beneficial. I mean, when you’ve gotten yourself admitted to a conservatory again, you know you’ve got the goods, you’ve got the talent, you’ve got the technique.

    Tom Lee:

    But I think a liberal arts education really does expose you to a lot more than just knowing a Shakespeare sonnet knowing how to sing an art song or whatever. It just gives you a broader picture of the world. And I think can inform your work a lot better. And then I think also that something I mentioned already, I mean, having a collaborative spirit I think is a sense of generosity about that. I think is very, very key. So I would definitely put that there as something to think about other than just knowing the notes.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    There’s one thing to be technically perfect in that sense, but if you have no heart behind what you’re doing or there’s no kind of deeper reason for why you’re doing it. I just love what you had said about how, why did you pick this song? How does this represent you? Where does this fit within your own image and identity as an artist? These are all questions that we need to ask ourselves, where do you think our personal narrative about our own value and abilities, how can our own view of ourselves help or hinder us as artists?

    Tom Lee:

    Well, I think that those of us who are really trying to figure ourselves out and figure out our place in the world and our relationships with other people are just constantly asking questions. And I think that’s really the real launching point for having an artistic career. If you think you’ve got all the answers, I don’t think you’re going to get very far as an artist. And I think it’s that constant questioning that constant not really knowing or explaining everything, but somehow relating to some of those big questions through whatever artistic endeavor you do is just so important and so key to the creative process.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Curiosity is important and we need to constantly be discovering new things about our art or craft about ourselves and being open to possibilities. So I just wonder, Tom, what would our lives be like if there were no arts?

    Tom Lee:

    Like a desert, I think, really empty. I just, again, can’t emphasize enough how important this is for so many of us. I don’t want to get political, but there are certain forces in Washington now that believe we should be shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts all together. I think that’s a terrible idea. I worked at an organization called the New England Foundation for the Arts prior to Harvard, one of the six so-called Regional Arts Organizations based in the United States and really, really that’s where I sort of my interest in the arts as a community building and bringing the community together, connecting artists with audiences just was so, so important. And it was a constant struggle to get the support that we needed to convince politicians, legislators, people running corporations, and whatnot, that it was important to contribute to the arts.

    Tom Lee:

    And to also answer some of the naysayers who thought it was a waste of money. It has been kind of a constant battle, I think in that regard. And it’s so important to me. It’s about our heritage. It’s about our national identity. It’s about who we are as whether we’re black, we’re white, we’re native American, Asian, whatever, it speaks to our cultures. It speaks to a way to share our culture and cultures with each other. Yeah. I mean, I just can’t imagine life without it. To me it’s as important as having food on the table.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    You couldn’t have said it any better, Tom. And I know you’ve recently retired my hats off to you. Congratulations on all your success and helping to shape these young minds and performers as they go out into the world. But I think equally the artists that you’ve engaged and brought into that sphere of student learning. Second to none, that’s amazing and I’m just really excited to be speaking with you about it and long may it continue at Harvard.

    Tom Lee:

    Well, thank you. It’s been an extraordinary gig. I’ve gotten such wonderful support over the years from the university, from the artists who come in and from the students. And I have to say quite honestly, I think it’s the students who have impressed me the most. Their passion, their drive, their energy, their willingness to put themselves on the line, their creativity, especially when they’re not majoring in art making most of them. It has just been extraordinary and just a really wonderful experience for me. Really wonderful.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you for joining us for this episode of Sound Stories. If you like what you’ve heard, you can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We hope to have you back for our next episode of Sound Stories.

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    Stephanie Ciccarelli is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Voices.com. Classically trained in voice, piano, violin and musical theatre, as well as a respected mentor and industry speaker, Stephanie graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts from the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. Possessing a great love for imparting knowledge and empowering others, her podcast Sound Stories serves an audience that wants to achieve excellence in storytelling. Stephanie is found on the PROFIT Magazine W100 list three times (2013, 2015 and 2016), a ranking of Canada's top female entrepreneurs, and is the author of Voice Acting for Dummies®.

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