5 Things Alex Lacamoire Has Learned About Being a Music Director on Broadway

By Alex Lacamoire

Alex Lacamoire

Being a successful Broadway Music Director requires some skills that have nothing to do with actually making music. While the basic foundation of strong “chops,” time, feel, and repertoire is essential, the qualities that make an MD great pertain to attitude, planning, and camaraderie. My favorite aspect of working in musical theater is the collaboration. Here are some tips that will help make you a strong team player and a powerful leader.

1. Look at the Big Picture

Even though a show is called a “Musical,” it’s not just about the music. It’s about all the elements working together to put on a show: the actors, the band, the lights, the costumes, etc. If you get too caught up in your own world, you’ll forget that everyone around you is working toward the same goal. Be courteous to those around you and be a respectful representative of your department.

2. Be a Master Scheduler

Much of the gig is about time management. Take note of how long it takes you to teach a song to the cast, how long it takes you to rehearse the band for a tune, or how many days you need to arrange a chart. Plan ahead, know your limits, and factor in meals and sleep! Once you get the feel for the amount of time needed, you’ll be able to manage expectations for yourself and the people above you.

3. Give Positive Reinforcement

As an MD, you’re constantly giving corrective notes while critiquing people. It’s important to also let folks know when they’re doing well. You’d be surprised how infrequently some leaders say “Hey, good job!” It should never be lost on you how hard and vulnerable it is to perform music for a living. Everyone who’s working on the show is there because of a talent they possess that you don’t. Recognize this!

4. There’s Always Another Idea

I once saw a dance arranger bring in a chart that he had worked on for hours on end. The composer of the show didn’t love what the arranger had presented. Instead of making a stink about how much time he’d spent on something that was about to be thrown out, the arranger smiled genuinely and said, “No problem, let’s try something else!” That was the a huge lesson for me. Don’t get too precious about your work. If people aren’t feeling what you’ve contributed, don’t take it personally. It just means that you have to dig deeper for the next idea, the one that will be brilliant and even better than the first one. Your art has to resonate not just with you, but with the people that you’re working for.

5. Serve the Piece

Your biggest duties are to serve the composer and the story that’s being told onstage. Have you done everything in your power to make the composer’s music shine as brightly as it can? Are you avoiding putting “clever” fills in your chart that could distract from the lyric or the dramatic moment? Are you running a tight ship from your podium so that the music is clean and emotional and passionate, so that the show can therefore sound amazing? Aim to answer, “Yes” to all of these questions.

Alex Lacamoire is the music director for the Broadway show Hamilton; he also serves as the production’s orchestrator, co-arranger, conductor, keyboardist, and producer of the cast recording, out now on Atlantic Records. He won a Tony and a Grammy Award for In the Heights, and has worked on other Broadway shows, including Wicked, Bring It On, and 9 to 5. Follow him on Twitter @LacketyLac.

Source: keyboardmag.com

The Lunatic Behind the Dictionary

By Sean Braswell

James Murray

The return address on the letters read simply: “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.” But what they contained was a treasure trove of illustrative quotations for Dr. James Murray, the first editor of what would eventually become The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Compiling a comprehensive dictionary — a project Dr. Murray and his colleagues were engaged in during the late 19th century — requires, rather like Wikipedia today, an army of volunteer contributors, some more competent than others. Rare is the volunteer like Dr. W.C. Minor of Broadmoor who can provide tens of thousands of illustrative quotations for OED entries, and even deliver examples for certain desired words on demand.

Rarer still is the valued contributor who is also a certified lunatic and murderer. But that’s exactly what William Chester Minor was, though it would take Dr. Murray nearly a decade to learn the true identity of his angel wordsmith.

The full address of Minor’s residence was Cell Block Two at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. He may have been a guest of the English authorities, but Minor, born in 1834, was actually an American, descended from a distinguished family of Connecticut aristocrats. A clever young man with all the advantages life has to offer, Minor earned a medical degree from Yale in 1863, and the young surgeon enlisted in the Union Army just four days before the historic battle of Gettysburg. But, as Simon Winchester chronicles in the best-seller The Professor and The Madman, Minor was a sensitive, gentle man, not one cut out for soldiering and the horrific scenes he witnessed on the front lines of the U.S. Civil War, including at the bloody Battle of the Wilderness.

After the war and less than a decade before he would arrive at Broadmoor, Minor continued to rise in the Army ranks, becoming a captain and regarded by some as one of the best surgeons in the country. But his behavior became increasingly erratic and unpredictable; he grew paranoid of plots against his life and spent most evenings frequenting prostitutes in the Tenderloin districts of New York and other cities where he was stationed. Army doctors concluded he had been “incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty” — what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder today. After being released from the Army, Minor left for London in 1871 with his books and watercolor paints in the hopes of starting a new and more peaceful life.

What he found instead were the same old fears and delusions. One night in February 1872, Minor, convinced that someone was trying to break into his room, wandered into the streets of London with a gun and shot and killed an innocent man in cold blood. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Minor was committed as a “certified criminal lunatic” to Broadmoor, where he would spend most of the next 40 years.

The well-heeled former Army surgeon enjoyed some special treatment at Broadmoor, including a two-room suite in which one of the cells was lined floor to ceiling with books, Minor’s passion and solace. And when James Murray, a Scottish lexicographer, sent out a press release in the early 1880s asking for readers to assist with the painstaking work of finding example passages to accompany the great dictionary’s definitions, Minor quickly volunteered, though it would be years before they received his first submission.

With nothing but time on his hands, and buoyed by the chance to contribute once again to society, Minor pursued the enormous task — but from an unusual angle. His was “a working method,” writes Winchester, “that turned out to be different from that of all other volunteer readers, but that soon marked him as uniquely valuable in the making of the great dictionary.”

Meticulously combing over his private library, Minor wrote down every single word of interest as he came to it, making extensive annotated word lists that took years to compile. Minor’s system meant that rather than just sending in quotation slips for rather arbitrary words (as most volunteers did), the committed inmate could find out which words Murray and the OED editors needed examples for and then supply the relevant quotations — tens of thousands of them over the years.

For almost a decade, Murray assumed that his favorite volunteer was a somewhat reclusive doctor at the asylum who had spare time on his hands, even if it was a bit odd that he consistently declined invitations to attend events at Murray’s Oxford headquarters less than 40 miles from Broadmoor. When Murray finally learned the truth about his volunteer, from a passing remark made by a Harvard librarian who knew Minor’s backstory, he set out to visit Broadmoor in 1891. And for the next two decades, Murray continued to visit Minor, and the two men developed a longstanding friendship. “So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years,” Murray said of his lunatic friend’s accomplishments in 1899, “that we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.”

In the end Minor’s illness did not appear to compromise the integrity, or enormous utility, of his lexicographic work for the OED project — demonstrating yet again how in certain human undertakings, there can be a fine line between madness and innovation.

Source: ozy.com

Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.

By Arthur C. Brooks


TWENTY-FOUR years ago this month, my wife and I married in Barcelona, Spain. Two weeks after our wedding, flush with international idealism, I had the bright idea of sharing a bit of American culture with my Spanish in-laws by cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner.

Easier said than done. Turkeys are not common in Barcelona. The local butcher shop had to order the bird from a specialty farm in France, and it came only partially plucked. Our tiny oven was too small for the turkey. No one had ever heard of cranberries.

Over dinner, my new family had many queries. Some were practical, such as, “What does this beast eat to be so filled with bread?” But others were philosophical: “Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?”

I stumbled over this last question. At the time, I believed one should feel grateful in order to give thanks. To do anything else seemed somehow dishonest or fake — a kind of bourgeois, saccharine insincerity that one should reject. It’s best to be emotionally authentic, right? Wrong. Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it. In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.

For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily. This point will elicit a knowing, mirthless chuckle from readers whose Thanksgiving dinners are usually ruined by a drunk uncle who always needs to share his political views. Thanks for nothing.

Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.

But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness.

This is not just self-improvement hokum. For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.

How does all this work? One explanation is that acting happy, regardless of feelings, coaxes one’s brain into processing positive emotions. In one famous 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes called the orbicularis oculi (which create “crow’s feet”). They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions.

If grinning for an uncomfortably long time like a scary lunatic isn’t your cup of tea, try expressing gratitude instead. According to research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our “reward circuitry” that produces the sensation of pleasure).

It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” In the slightly more elegant language of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has.”

In addition to building our own happiness, choosing gratitude can also bring out the best in those around us. Researchers at the University of Southern California showed this in a 2011 study of people with high power but low emotional security (think of the worst boss you’ve ever had). The research demonstrated that when their competence was questioned, the subjects tended to lash out with aggression and personal denigration. When shown gratitude, however, they reduced the bad behavior. That is, the best way to disarm an angry interlocutor is with a warm “thank you.”

I learned this lesson 10 years ago. At the time, I was an academic social scientist toiling in professorial obscurity, writing technical articles and books that would be read by a few dozen people at most. Soon after securing tenure, however, I published a book about charitable giving that, to my utter befuddlement, gained a popular audience. Overnight, I started receiving feedback from total strangers who had seen me on television or heard me on the radio.

One afternoon, I received an unsolicited email. “Dear Professor Brooks,” it began, “You are a fraud.” That seemed pretty unpromising, but I read on anyway. My correspondent made, in brutal detail, a case against every chapter of my book. As I made my way through the long email, however, my dominant thought wasn’t resentment. It was, “He read my book!” And so I wrote him back — rebutting a few of his points, but mostly just expressing gratitude for his time and attention. I felt good writing it, and his near-immediate response came with a warm and friendly tone.

DOES expressing gratitude have any downside? Actually, it might: There is some research suggesting it could make you fat. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds evidence that people begin to crave sweets when they are asked to express gratitude. If this finding holds up, we might call it the Pumpkin Pie Paradox.

The costs to your weight notwithstanding, the prescription for all of us is clear: Make gratitude a routine, independent of how you feel — and not just once each November, but all year long.

There are concrete strategies that each of us can adopt. First, start with “interior gratitude,” the practice of giving thanks privately. Having a job that involves giving frequent speeches — not always to friendly audiences — I have tried to adopt the mantra in my own work of being grateful to the people who come to see me.

Next, move to “exterior gratitude,” which focuses on public expression. The psychologist Martin Seligman, father of the field known as “positive psychology,” gives some practical suggestions on how to do this. In his best seller “Authentic Happiness,” he recommends that readers systematically express gratitude in letters to loved ones and colleagues. A disciplined way to put this into practice is to make it as routine as morning coffee. Write two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do.

Finally, be grateful for useless things. It is relatively easy to be thankful for the most important and obvious parts of life — a happy marriage, healthy kids or living in America. But truly happy people find ways to give thanks for the little, insignificant trifles. Ponder the impractical joy in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

Be honest: When was the last time you were grateful for the spots on a trout? More seriously, think of the small, useless things you experience — the smell of fall in the air, the fragment of a song that reminds you of when you were a kid. Give thanks.

This Thanksgiving, don’t express gratitude only when you feel it. Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. Rebel against the emotional “authenticity” that holds you back from your bliss. As for me, I am taking my own advice and updating my gratitude list. It includes my family, faith, friends and work. But also the dappled complexion of my bread-packed bird. And it includes you, for reading this column.

Source: NYTimes.com