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New York City performers share advice and inspiration with Blugolds

| Judy Berthiaume

Meeting artists who are making it in New York City’s music and theater scene is a big deal for anyone visiting the city often described as the cultural capital of the world.

If you’re a theater or music major thinking about your future, interacting with musicians and other performers who are finding success there is beyond a big deal — it’s life changing.

“Every student earning a degree like ours has doubts,” says Michael Schermann, a UW-Eau Claire senior theatre arts major. “Constantly. All the time. But most of us are willing to take these risks for the love of our craft. After talking to professionals in New York City, I’m much more confident in my future.”

Michael and 11 other Blugolds with plans to pursue careers in the arts were part of UW-Eau Claire’s New York City Aspiring Artists immersion program during spring break.

The program takes Blugolds studying composition, voice performance, applied instruments, music education and theater to New York City, where they attend performances, perform, study and interact with people from who are at different stages in their careers in the arts.

The Blugolds also collaborate with students from the Brooklyn High school for the Arts and York College during their weeklong stay.

The experience was an opportunity to make connections in New York City’s arts community, and to help him figure out what he wants to do with his music  in the future, says Austin Williams, a junior music composition major from Stillwater, Minnesota.

“Up to this point, I’ve been doing a balancing act between my primary instrument and my compositional studies,” Austin says. “Also, within my bass studies, I was trying to decide whether I want to focus on jazz or study more classical/contemporary styles of music.

“One of the questions I asked myself before this trip was: Can I focus on both, and if not, which one do I want to focus on?”

Austin is closer to having an answer to that question — and a few others — after being immersed in the New York City arts community.

“We set up interviews with professionals in our field to get some insight into how we might fair in these fields in the future,” Austin says. “For me, this meant meeting a lot of different people, including musicians playing bass of classical and jazz styles and professors of composition.”

Among the most meaningful visits was with a jazz musician who is freelancer in New York City, who told Austin he wishes he’d have been more open-minded about opportunities offered to him when he first arrived in the city.

“He said that when he first arrived he was offered a lot of Broadway gigs,” Austin says. “Being a jazz musician, he often would reject them so he could pursue the art that he most wanted to excel at. He said it may have been smarter to do something more financially secure before trying to solely make it with jazz gigs. He told me to not fight where the world is pushing me. Hearing that made me realize that I need to go in a direction that will give me more opportunities.”

That thought was reinforced during a visit to Queens College, home of the Aaron Copland School of Music. While visiting the school, Austin had an unexpected meeting with the head of the music composition department.

“Luckily, I had some of my scores on me to show him my work,” Austin says. “We had a good conversation about music and my approach to writing. It made me realize that I truly love writing music, and sharing it with other people and having them critique it. I walked out feeling good that I’d made the impression that I wanted to, and feeling confident that this is the career that seems most appealing to me.”

At the Brooklyn School of the Arts, the Blugolds performed a program they created that included music and theater acts, including a cabaret-style song Austin wrote using a poem written by a student at the school.

“I was nervous when he was hearing how I used his poem,” Austin says. “I watched his reaction as the piece unfolded and seeing his smile from ear-to-ear was one of the most satisfying experiences of the trip and maybe in my career as a composer.”

Gina Cruciani, a senior vocal music major from Eau Claire, sang one of the composed songs that was set to the poetry written by the Brooklyn students. It was, she says, an unforgettable experience.

“I got to meet the poet, and watching him as we performed the piece was an experience I’ll never forget,” Gina says. “It was so cool to collaborate with someone who was halfway across the country, and then to perform the piece for him was very, very neat.”

The New York City experience came at the perfect time, says Michael, who will graduate in May.

"For several years, we’ve been studying the craft, practicing the craft and observing the craft,” Michael says. “We finally had the opportunity to talk with real people in the industry to see if it is really doable. We learned that if you play your cards right, it is. It was nice to see there is a payoff and a success story for more people than you’d think.”

Whether enjoying a planned performance at a world-renowned venue or a surprise performance along a New York street, he was impressed by the quality of arts he found in the city, says Michael, a native of Blaine, Minnesota.

“Some of the moments that had the biggest impact came from walking through the subway and seeing people sing, dance or play an instrument for spare change,” Michael says. “I was taken aback at how well some of them were performing. A few could have blown us theatre and music majors out of the water."

But it was attending a rehearsal of a Broadway show that was the highlight of his week, Michael says.

“We got to go backstage of ‘Finding Neverland’ for a tour of the theater, to watch the automation crew run the show from the trap room, and then observe part of the rehearsal from the house,” Michael says. “It was so exciting. It was like getting to go to the private rooms of the White House or something.”

While Gina had visited New York City with her family, she was excited to see the city again through the eyes of a student vocal artist.

Not surprisingly, her first visit to the Metropolitan Opera was her favorite New York City experience.

“The first night we saw Puccini's ‘Madame Butterfly,’ and then a small group of us went a second night and saw Mozart's ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ which was extra special because that was the opera we were all involved in when we did it on campus last March,” Gina says.

Austin says he also enjoyed “Madame Butterfly” at the Met, as well as a New Music concert at Lincoln Center and “Shuffle Along” on Broadway.

But like Michael, Austin also was moved by the performers he discovered in unexpected places.

“I saw a circle of freestyle rappers gathered around a speaker playing back tracks while they improvised over it,” Austin says. “The juxtaposition was great because I was on my way to the concert at the Lincoln Center when I came across the group in Washington Square.

“They were in a circle free versing back and forth, having a conversation. The topics were real: Divorce, being poor, being a minority, being gay and parents rejecting them as people. Even with the heavy topics, there was this feeling of release when it was someone’s turn.”

The experience made him think about the arts and the music that is being created and supported, he says.

Interacting with artists — including a number of Blugolds — who are at different points in their career was eye-opening and inspiring, the students say.

Gina met with three UW-Eau Claire alumni, including Heidi Hayes, who, coincidently, attended college with Gina’s father when he was studying choral education. Heidi shared stories about performing all over the country in opera and, more recently, musical theater.

Gina also spent time with two recent UW-Eau Claire graduates, Abby Hase and Marie Gustafson, who are trying to make it in musical theater.

“It was so fun — and intimidating — to hear about their busy lives working jobs and auditioning all over the city,” Gina says. “It made me realize how much passion one has to have to pursue a performance career. I also didn’t realize how incredibly ‘pieced together’ a career in this industry is. You have to combine many different opportunities to make a career that you can live off of.”

The best advice Gina got from them was to always be prepared.

“Always being at the top of your game is important,” Gina says. “Always work to improve your craft. But I also learned a big part of success is due to luck. Being in the right place at the right time. Knowing the right person. They told me to be prepared because that’s all you can control, and then let the right doors open and enjoy the journey.”

Michael appreciated the advice young UW-Eau Claire alumni — Koryna Flores, Sam Sirianni and Shane O'Neil — shared about finding work in the industry. Michael knew them as students so it was interesting to hear about their journey since leaving Eau Claire.

“These three had the largest impact on me, which was unexpected,” Michael says. “Seeing the positive differences between their past selves and their present selves really gave me a sense of confidence about the big city. After talking with them, I’m much more confident in my future.”

All the students say the immersion program has them thinking a little differently about their futures.

“The program was fantastic,” Gina says. “The things I experienced in New York were things I’d never experience in Eau Claire. It challenged the way I think personally and professionally. I grew as a person and a performer.”

The immersion program convinced Michael that he’d like to work in New York City, though he doesn’t see himself there long term. The pace of the city would exhaust him eventually, he says.

“I just have a huge appreciation for the Midwest; this is where I'd like to end up,” Michael says.

For Austin, the diversity he found in New York City has him thinking differently about the world around him.

For example, a chance meeting with a pregnant, homeless woman who wanted to share her story with him was a powerful experience that he keeps thinking about.

“I didn’t know how to react,” Austin says. “I’ve never been in this situation before. I think the shock itself is what made me think about it so hard.”

Those kinds of experiences, along with the planned events connected to his immersion program, created a learning environment like no other, Austin says.

“Words can’t do it justice, and I’m sure there are things I learned that I haven’t even realized yet,” Austin says. “I’m more confident about my future and what it might hold for me in terms of a career. I’m also more socially aware of what it means for me as a white male trying to write music that is to reflect society as a whole. I feel more comfortable in what I want to do, and what actions I need to take to do them.”

Photo caption: Blugolds Alex Munger, Gina Cruciani, Sebastian Armendariz and Nathan Cicero met with UW-Eau Claire graduate Heidi Hayes, a New York City-based artist who has performed throughout the U.S. in opera and musical theater. (submitted photo)