Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

MPulse performing arts program quickens students’ heartbeats


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MPulse Ann Arbor
Listen to the compositions of Performing Arts Technology students.

In the mirrored Walgreen Drama Center Towsley studio, a group of young dancers stands poised. The music begins — it’s “I Hope I Get It,” the opening number from “A Chorus Line” — and the room erupts into exuberant motion. Although this is not an audition, the session likely will be an important part of what shapes these high school performers’ future careers.

Here to attend MPulse Ann Arbor, a summer residency designed to encourage exceptional talent in the performing arts, some 200 students from across the globe took classes on instruments, voice, dance, acting, performing arts technologies, and musical theatre and drama, taught by faculty members and select graduates of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD).

With its early roots in the Interlochen All-State program at Interlochen, MPulse Ann Arbor has enjoyed steady growth. A good example is the Musical Theatre Workshop, which was lengthened from two to three weeks, and has seen a three-fold increase in applications. Only one in five applicants to the musical theatre workshop was granted admission, and 42 of 43 admitted students enrolled in the program — a 96 percent return rate, says Brent Wagner, chair of the Department of Musical Theatre.

“We help our students learn to commit to the process wholeheartedly, doing the best job possible,” Wagner says. “In addition to working on core performing skills, we discuss important elements of our business: professional etiquette, audition techniques, musical theatre history, even tactics and philosophies that can prevent distraction by comparison and competition.”

Lawson Young, foreground left, a senior at Saratoga Springs High School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., dances to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” as choregraphed by MPulse instructor and U-M graduate Sean McKnight, right. (Photo by Scott Soderberg, U-M Photo Services)  

Successful U-M graduates come to MPulse to share their experience. Danny Gurwin followed his stint teaching audition and acting techniques to take on a leading role in “Show Boat” at the St. Louis Muny Opera. Another graduate, Rachel Hoffman, is a casting director at Telsey and Co. in New York City. She brought audition materials from current and upcoming Broadway shows for the students to explore.

“It’s incredibly inspiring to work with teachers and industry professionals who have so much experience and so much passion,” says Ellie Fishman, a senior at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington, N.J. “People like Mr. Wagner, Rachel Hoffman, Danny Gurwin and Sean McKnight help us learn what it takes to succeed, because they’re amazingly successful themselves.”

Although the students are all highly competitive — only the best get into MPulse — they manage to put that spirit aside during the residency. Jeremy Seiner, a senior at Penn Trafford High School in Pittsburgh, says, “The first week was challenging, just being in classes with so many really talented students. But then we learned just how supportive everyone was.”

“It’s like we all want the same thing, and we all want to share in it,” he says. “And that’s a great feeling.”

  Incoming freshman Evan Klee-Peregon records a guitar passage during a Performing Arts Technology session. The Kalamazoo native has been recording music since the age of 13, and plays in two bands. (Photo by Alex Hug, School of Music, Theatre & Dance)

The sessions provide students a space to discover whether they would like to pursue advanced education in the performing arts, says Mary Simoni, MPulse director and associate dean for research and community engagement at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

“We provide a retreat-like setting that allows these students to focus on performing at a level that is their personal best. We cut out the distractions, including easy communication with family and friends, so they have a chance to concentrate to a degree they may never have achieved before,” Simoni says.

“For most of the students, there’s a period of adjustment as they learn to give their art this higher level of attention and energy.”

MPulse instructors provide positive, incisive feedback for their students. “They get a healthy dose of criticism at MPulse,” Simoni says. “We help them learn to work with a notion of musicianship without compromise.”

Another popular segment of MPulse Ann Arbor’s summer offerings deals with the creation of music through digital technology. Using a suite of computer-based tools comprising Apple’s Logic Studio software, a Korg Triton keyboard controller, an array of plug-ins and, in some cases, guitars and other instruments, nascent composers are guided through music creation that builds directly on earlier versions. These levels of musical architecture start with a simple repeating phrase, move into themes and variations, and finally incorporate the remixing of additional musical events.

Jason Corey, associate professor at SMTD and chair of the Department of Performing Arts Technology, says the richness of the available technology can present unique challenges. “The students are realizing that the tools are so powerful that they can be overwhelming. We work through the technology to define guidelines for successful composition and recording.”

In a two-week session, Corey and his teaching associates guided 11 young musicians through composition, recording techniques, sound design, scoring for film and a popular collaboration with MPulse dance students.

That interdisciplinary approach is a part of the immersive goal of all the summer sessions. Wagner says the relationships and tactics that are built in a few weeks on the U-M North Campus can be a powerful guide to a future career.

“Who’s to say where these experiences will lead? I do know that these experiences will last,” he says. “This isn’t just about singing the best song, or dancing the best dance. It’s about the complete commitment it takes to master a subject.

“It’s a process, not a product.”