Crossover Corner: Crossing Over without Joy—Don’t Risk It

The 2022 YES Academy Kazakhstan Broadway Program cast.

Getting “unstuck” from repertoire and activities that feel rote and boring can bring greater joy as a student, performer, and teacher. Read on to discover ways to spark joy and creativity in your repertoire and programming selections.

 

Earlier this summer, I arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan, preparing to music direct a Broadway academy for 25 students. I’d just finished two weeks as music director and vocal coach for two back-to-back student intensives with Broadway Star Project in NYC and travelled to Almaty immediately after our closing showcase in New York. Before heading to the rehearsal hall—a cavernous rock-climbing studio in a private health club—I sat on the edge of my hotel bed and meditated. I needed more to get started than the instant coffee I’d packed for the morning of the first day of rehearsals.

My go-to guided meditation is the Chopra 21-Day Meditation Experience, co-hosted by Oprah and Deepak Chopra. On this day, I was on day 9 of a cycle called Getting Unstuck: Creating a Limitless Life. It struck me funny that I was focusing on getting unstuck at a time when I thought that I was anything but stuck. I was doing a job that I love in the profession I trained for and had just travelled halfway across the world to get to do it some more. And although I was excited and grateful for the opportunity, I was seriously tired and had 10 action-packed days of a musical theater academy ahead of me, complete with a final performance with a diplomatic delegation in the audience. 

 “Pay attention to your life. Deepen your awareness of what brings you joy, grace, love, creativity. These things—they don’t have a ceiling or a border… Allow yourself to have only the greatest expectations of the joy and creativity you deserve in life.” Oprah’s opening words grabbed my attention right away. Deepak Chopra continued, “When you convince yourself that you deserve only a very limited amount of love, joy, appreciation, grace, and wishes that come true, you are cutting off your creativity.”

The 2022 YES Academy Kazakhstan Broadway Program cast.

Their words rang in my ears—especially these words: creativity, awareness, and joy. Meeting our YES Academy Broadway Program students that morning would include welcoming them with encouragement and giving a charge to meet the choreographer’s and my great expectations with grace, energy, and joy. This meditation urged me to do the same of myself. And I knew this was necessary, because when I’m fatigued from repeated activity, my capacity for creativity and joy are at high risk for depletion. 

  Fatigue and repetition can shallow my pool of creativity, making me more vulnerable to my insecurities and fears. For me, the most obvious sign of this is making a knee-jerk reaction to take the road I’ve traveled most frequently and most recently. Navigating on autopilot this way may feel like I’m being efficient, but it usually manifests itself in recycled repertoire and in rigidity in rehearsal. And rigidity and creativity don’t fuel one another. 

So what did I do, and what does all of this “woo-woo” have to do with “Crossover Corner” and classical artists performing musical theater? I got quiet—and made time to get quiet—long enough to check in with myself and examine the day’s tasks at hand under the lens of creativity, joy, and motivation. And I did this more than once—at the start of rehearsal, from the piano bench, and after the lunch break. By stating my goals, checking in with others, and reassessing as needed, I remained centered, flexible, and far more open to my creative experience and the creativity of those around me. 

A lot of classical singers can find themselves stuck by feeling obligated to engage in crossover repertoire and activities simply because they’ve been told they should: “You’ll work more.” And whether you’re a student, a seasoned professional, or an opera workshop instructor charged with adding musical theater repertoire into your class, your creativity is at risk when you feel like you simply have to do something. 

Examining the purpose behind our practice helps us better approach crossover in ways that don’t squash joy and limit our creative potential. Here are a few specific tips: 

 

  • Personal repertoire selection: take some time to identify the classical repertoire that has consistently brought you joy over a period of years. Make a short list and start with three pieces. Next to each piece, write one descriptive word or a short phrase describing how it brings you joy (physically, emotionally, musically, you name it). Now jump to the present and do this same exercise with what’s been bringing you joy most recently. Hint: check out the recently or frequently played tab in your streaming music account. Now do a quick analysis. What’s similar? What’s different? Have the descriptive words and phrases changed at all? On the same page, take a moment to journal a line or two about your findings. This could be the germ of a future program note, or it could lead you to a related Google search: “MT songs about autumn” or “Energizing MT rep.” 

In the recording studio with Broadway Star Project.

  • Workshop programming: If you’re the opera workshop instructor in the scenario above, you may feel overloaded or burdened by this new MT assignment and, in turn, just hastily pick a scene from an old musical (or a very new one) and program it out of obligation. Instead, consider removing the feeling or circumstance of obligation and consider this task under the lens of creativity and curiosity. Try sending your enrolled students a link to a Google form inviting them to name their favorite musicals and dream roles (including opera and Broadway) and list out their personal hopes for the outcome of the class. See what surprises you and, as a result, might be missing from your syllabus. If there’s overlap in the “hopes” section, consider addressing whatever they may be in a new unit of the class. In this way, key elements of shared creativity, student buy-in, and class enjoyment are at the heart of programming decisions.  

The 2022 YES Academy Kazakhstan Broadway Program cast, getting centered before show time.

  • Voice teachers: This same exercise can be used by a voice teacher who feels they have to start assigning some MT rep or require an MT set on a degree recital. In this case, the Google form could be sent out to the studio at the start of the semester (again including a prompt for dream roles and favorite musicals—and operas). Get creative about the context too. Consider including a note to your students that you’re enlisting their help in programming a mid-semester crossover studio concert. Again, student buy-in will increase—as will your knowledge of your students’ repertoire interests and desires, both classical and crossover. After a few semesters, your list of go-to MT rep will grow and diversify as a result.  

 

A major takeaway here is that programming, assigning, and performing crossover repertoire largely out of obligation and pressure does not provide a reliable bridge to crossover work. Making a practice of taking time to examine your motivation behind singing what you sing will better enable you to, as Oprah says, “have only the greatest expectations of the joy and creativity you deserve in life.”

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com, @peter.thoresen (Insta), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).