Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review of Alien: Covenant (2017)


(Please stop reading if you haven’t seen Alien: Covenant yet!)

Most of you are well aware of how much I love the Alien canon—that’s Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), and Prometheus (2012), recently evidenced by my 2012 review/dissertation of the same name.
You might also know that I’ve been tracking Covenant from the time it was announced as Paradise years ago.  So you might be surprised to hear that I was pretty annoyed at the end of my first Covenant viewing, and here’s why. 

Ridley Scott must think that I am stupid. 

Synopsis: Weyland crew in cryosleep, awakened by Mother, receives and follows unknown signal from unknown planet, takes lander to surface, interacts with alien egg or spores, breaks quarantine by bringing infected crew member back on board, things burst out, alien begins a killing spree of crew, turns out that synthetic is duplicitous and is trying to save the alien species, finally one (or two) crew member blows monster out the airlock. 

Sound familiar?  It should, since it’s the exact plot of the original Alien.  And Covenant.  Evidently there really is nothing new under the sun. 

Characters: When Eva and I saw it (on our wedding anniversary), her overarching comment was that she didn’t care about any of the characters, and only recognized Daniels, Tennessee, and David/Walter throughout.  I agreed, but then on my second viewing was able to concentrate more on the roles of Lope (Demian Bichir, who I first saw in The Bridge), Faris, Karine, etc.  I wouldn’t say I found them more developed, but it did make me feel a little better about the secondary cast. 

But then...we had flute lessons with David and Walter. “I’ll do the fingering” earned a collective groan from our audience, “No one will love you like I love you,” and my favorite, which was also a Night Ranger song from the 80s, “When you close your eyes, do you dream about me?”  I’m not even discussing the kiss (or the one with Daniels).  I thought Ridley Scott was too smart for this.

Other incredibly stupid lines from David: “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”  Someone down the row from me actually said “Jesus Christ, really?” out loud.  Hear, hear.

Perhaps my expectations were too high; Scott did direct The Counselor.

Fassbender as the Mindbender: Everyone talks about how amazing Fassbender is—I agree that he is a great actor, but he was hamstringed in this role in similar fashion to the entire cast of the Star Wars Prequels.  Even the greatest actors can’t make poor dialogue and plot points fly.   And coming up with the pseudo-Texas drawl accent (which sounds like he has marbles in his mouth) isn’t going to garner any award consideration.

I knew in advance about the two roles, and figured out the “major plot twist” within about five seconds of the landing party being rescued temporarily by David.  If not, there were 500 clues dropped before David reveals himself to Daniels after the log cabin spiel in the final act.  I mean, come on. 

Beliefs: Oram and being a “man of faith?”  That’s fine to explore, but have it mean something—similar to Shaw in Prometheus.  Faith had no bearing on anything he did, and his fate led you to believe that Scott was making fun of it, rather than using it as a departure for a discussion about creation and purpose.  As such Billy Crudup was completely underutilized, as his character was useless.

Effects: One of the scariest elements of the original Alien was the practical effects.  The beast was a guy in an alien suit, and it was scary because it looked real.  And speaking of real, the gestation period of the aliens has gone from days to hours to minutes. 

In stark contrast, Covenant's CGI is laughable.  Granted, I will give you the backburster scene—no one does that kind of thing like Scott.  But the neomorph, protomorph and xenomorph all reminded me of what destroyed Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend.  CGI isn’t scary.  Not at all—even when thrown at you during “gotcha” moments (really fast-moving CGI monsters attacking people with epileptic seizure-inducing lighting and lots of super-loud sound effects).   Seeing something practical is always more scary than the alternative.  Take the Evil Dead remake for example.

Score:  Jed Kurzell is no Marc Streitenfeld.  And quoting the iconic 1979 Goldsmith score doesn’t make you a genius.  In fact, the highest point was the orchestral quote of Prometheus in David’s chambers (not the flute version, come on—I’m pretty sure David did not know Streitenfeld).  In fact, the opening sequence of Prometheus alone was better than all of Covenant in the score department.  Not even Wagner could save it.

References: If you know the original Alien well, you remember the teeter-totter bird in the crew mess of the Nostromo.  Of course, we have one here as well, but it’s not even obscured for fans like me to find.  It’s part of a slow dolly shot that makes the obvious even more obvious.  You might also remember the little flared readouts from Mother (the opening credits do this as well), and also the countdown screens for the Nostromo detonation—those show up in Covenant if you watch the computer screens during the neutrino emission. The shower scene belongs in a summer camp slasher film.  Perhaps you were uncomfortable for a second when the tail made an appearance?  You should review Alien again and see how you feel right before Lambert gets it the same way, just not in a shower.

Stupid: I realize not every person who sees this film has seen the original alien over 30 times (and takes photos of the TV screen with captions and sends to his friends whenever it’s showing on regular cable), or saw Prometheus 10 times in the theater (twice the first day it was out). But I don’t like Ridley Scott dumbing things down for the lowest common denominator moviegoer, and that’s what I feel happened here. I imagined a scenario when they shot the last scene with Daniels and David, and Fassbender looks up and asks, “What would David say here?”  To which Scott asks the crew, “What’s the most ridiculous thing he could say right now that will get slow people on board with this plot twist?”  Some grip in the back says “How about ‘Don’t let the bed bugs bite?’”  Scott says “SPLENDID!  And ACTION!”

There was so much potential for this film—so many unanswered questions.  What was the black goo?  Where did the engineers come from?  Why did they want to destroy the human race?  And even within the film—why did David go completely insane and destroy the entire population of engineers on their planet?  Are there engineers on other planets (there have to be)? Why did David kill Shaw?  Will Origae-6 become LV426 (it can’t, really)? How will we connect between Covenant, Awakening and the original Alien?  Is Daniels Ripley’s mother?

Conclusion: So did I like it?  I enjoyed moments of it—I love how Scott frames the space shots and the sheer amount of detail involved with every set piece, but it all felt like “Prometheus Light” to me, both in space and on the planet surface.  The backburster was awesome up until the point that the neomorph went from fetus to fully-aware-and-functional predator in about five seconds.  I was surprised by Danny McBride—I expected him to be comedy relief after Eastbound and Down, but he was enjoyable, as was Katherine Waterston as Daniels (and how much did James Franco get for that cameo?).   

But the bad clearly outweighs the good for me on this outing, so I’ll call this a 2.5/5 and wait for It Comes At Night, the IT remake, Blade Runner 2049 and The Last Jedi to round out my year at the cinema. 

2.5/5 stars

Friday, March 17, 2017

Auditioning Students: Play What You Can Play

I realized yesterday that I have been listening to University admissions auditions for over 20 years (both graduate and undergraduate), not to mention judging hundreds of other auditions for music festivals, regional and national scholarships, competitions—you name it. 

That’s a lot.  And I still find it one of the most exciting parts of my job.

Several years ago I started having my graduate students sit in on auditions with me, something I learned from my friend Jim Campbell, and recently we started a conversation concerning a trend in undergraduate auditions. 

Basically, I see two levels of prospective undergraduate student at FSU.

One, really well-prepared students playing appropriate literature for their ability level.  They come in playing solid solos on all instruments, and are typically very well-mannered, pleasant and hungry, and have often had a fabulous teacher for a long period of time.

Usually these students come from very strong HS band programs like Lassiter, Broken Arrow, etc.  And they’ve played appropriate literature for where they are developmentally.  These special students tend to make incredible progress while at FSU, and I can count most of our graduates in this category.

Many are between FSU and conservatories/peer conservatory-level university music schools.  Because of the State of Florida Bright Futures initiative (a lottery-funded trust for Florida students with high GPAs), we end up with a good number of them, which is really exciting.  A great experience all around, for us and for them. 

And then, the subject of this article. 

Two, students who come in playing music that is far beyond them technically, musically—almost everything-y.  We will concentrate on this for the rest of the article.

These poor students show up playing music they have no business considering, much less trying to play.  Imagine you’re a senior, but truth is you play at an 8th grade level (you’re not aware of this).  One of these scenarios probably morphs into focus during the Fall semester before your auditions. 

One, you ask your percussion/FB friends what they are playing for their auditions, or note what your friends from all-state or all-county post on their Twitter feed or Instagram pages.  They tell you Tompkins, Pratt, whatever, so you think you need to play that stuff to compete.  Even though you don’t have the hands for it.   I recently heard an auditioning undergrad student play Pine Cone Forest.  I know this only because I read it on his rep list—from listening alone I could not tell what it was. 

Two, your teacher (if you have one, band director if not) remembers what s/he played as an undergraduate and gives you that repertoire.   Had an auditioning student years ago who tried to play the second movement of Variations on Lost Love.  I couldn’t recognize it.  What's worse in this category?  Your teacher doesn't know what "play" means either.

Three, you Google “Marimba Solos” and see people playing Viñao (or something similar), and think “Wow, that’s pretty cool, and it doesn’t look that hard,” only to realize later the absolute depths of your error.

This is where potentially talented “fixable” students obscure their abilities by attempting to play the wrong repertoire, and it’s a deadly mistake.  Here’s why. 

Fixable students are often good players; they just have technical or musical issues to overcome, and I can tell what those are in a very short time—even if the playing isn’t the best they can do.

Programs that prescreen undergraduates can ferret these out, making sure none of these students are invited to play live—but we are not one of those programs.  I’ll hear anyone play, even these students, although I’d like to propose a way to fix this particular issue.

My standard reply to “What should I play for my audition?” is:  Whatever you feel you can play the best.

Do I care what you play?  Not nearly as much as HOW you play it.  How do I compare a student playing less-than-capable Delécluse vs. well-prepared and rendered Intermediate Peters?  Easy.  I take who plays the best. 

These are also the students whose parents tend to be the most involved in the process.  Sometimes that’s OK, but often these parents are the angriest after their son or daughter has not been accepted.  I’ve received a lot of these emails and phone calls over the years, and it seems to be getting worse.  Some colleagues I know don’t even answer them.  One auditioning student who didn't get in even came to a recital and told me to go you-know-what myself in front of the other students.  That was nice.

I usually do, but often trying to explain that your son or daughter was the victim of bad advice doesn’t go over well, no matter how true. 

So for the upcoming season(s), here are a few items for thought.

If possible, try and locate a professional teacher at least a year before your auditions.  If you can’t find one, email me—I probably know someone close to you. 

Be sure to visit studio or admissions pages for suggested repertoire.  Most only suggest, so you and your teacher can find what will be best for you.  If your repertoire is going to be radically different from what’s suggested, be sure to clear it with the professor before the audition. 

Do not be intimidated by what your friends might be playing.  Play what fits you best. 

I’ll be posting a video late summer/early fall about graduate prescreening strategies, including the technical elements and repertoire selection, so until then happy practicing!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Music Education is no Fallback

An auditioning student shows up this past weekend and plays great.  I ask him afterwards what he wants to do with his life, and his answer: “My band director says I should major in Music Education. Performance is too hard and I'll need something to fall back on.”

This is what I told him. 

Know what else is hard?  Being a brain surgeon.  Being an architect.  Being a police officer, utility engineer, mental health professional, lawyer, newspaper editor, banker, line operator, landscape artist or airline pilot. 

It’s hard to be a professional fisherman, audio engineer, movie director, graphic artist or member of the armed forces.

Guess what.  It’s all hard.  And if you want to be great—really great—at anything, it takes an incredible amount of hard work.  And then, to paraphrase one of my mentors, it takes more hard work.  And then it takes more hard work and a little more hard work.  And then after all of that, it takes more hard work. 

That goes for anything worth doing in this life.  And that hard work never stops.

For those unfamiliar with the argument, older people often tell young aspiring musicians to major in Music Education because it’s easier to get a job as a band director/choral director/orchestra director at the primary and secondary levels—that being middle school and high school—than as a performer.   

It’s also recommended most notably for young musicians who either aren’t particularly good or downright poor at playing their instrument, or perhaps (more troublesome) haven’t had the right experiences to become great at playing their instrument.  

That’s right. Let’s encourage mediocre musicians to take on one of the most challenging jobs on the planet—that of a high school band director.  Let’s put them in front of hundreds of our kids (AKA the next generation of musicians and patrons) where they can take out their frustrations and shortcomings, and dissuade not only following music in college but perhaps not supporting the arts at all when they get older.

There are lots of people like that—things didn’t pan out for them, so they shouldn’t pan out for you.
At 17 years old I was a piano-memorizing whiz (I was an abysmal reader).  No percussion lessons.  I bought my first drum set in 11th grade from a Sears catalog using money I earned working at Belk’s and took to learning Rush tunes.  I went to college as a piano major only to realize that I didn’t want to play the piano professionally.  Then I became a Music Education major because people told me Performance was too hard.  And I loved being an Ed major—most of my music friends were, and I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences.

But then I had my student teaching practicum.  I realized very quickly that I did not have the skill set for teaching high school, middle school, or elementary children.  I graduated, and after lots of graduate training (where I attended master classes subtitled “why you’ll never get a job”) and an incredible amount of hard work, I got my first job.  Then I got another one.  Then this one. 

But this is not about me, I’m just noting for the record that every person who told me I’d never make it was wrong. 

Students do not choose to be Music Educators, they are chosen. They are selected from birth, just like performance prodigies and every bit as special.  They can think of nothing they’d rather do than work with kids through thousands of rehearsals, parent meetings, arranging, drill writing, teaching AP courses, traffic duty, acting as counselors, advisors and a thousand other things these people have to do. 

When you take people who want something more than anything, and are prepared to do anything to get it, you set up a model for success that starts from the top.  I want my children working with teachers who are doing their life’s work—they can think of nothing they’d rather do than read to my child, or take extra time to show them a neat chemistry reaction or play a Tower of Power video.  Music Educators go to bed every night completely exhausted, yet they can’t wait to get back to their band rooms. 

I did not have a teacher like this in high school band.  But I had lots of them afterwards, and it truly takes a village.  My mentors never gave up when people told them that their chosen profession was too hard, and neither have I.  And neither have my students. 

You want to design life-changing drugs to help people?  No, you should be a pharmacist because there are more jobs.  You want to design a telescope that allows us to see nearby planets?  You should teach middle school science because there are more jobs.  You want to be a NASCAR driver?  You should work at the DMV because there are more jobs.  You want to be a Senator from Illinois and later the President of the United States? 

Imagine what our world would be like if people settled at the very beginning and never attempted anything because it was hard. 

Here’s what I ask students.

Do you want to be a professional musician?  YES. Do you want to be a high school/middle school band director?  YES.  Do you want to work with kids and stay out all night at contests and myriad things that will make your program great?  YES. I say bring it on, Music Education Major (or for us at FSU, Music Therapy too). 

Do you want to play with a professional performing organization, chamber music organization, military band, or teach at the University level?  YES.  If the talent and desire are there, then I say bring it on, Performance Major. 

And if you’re not cutting it, the programs will weed you out.  And I firmly believe that a dose of reality is warranted—if a student can’t play well/teach well, then maybe finding something else to do would be a good idea, since playing is really at the heart of what we do anyway.  Remember you can enjoy music at almost every attainable level for the rest of your life—as an amateur.

There are jobs in music.  They’re tough to get and increasingly competitive, but they are there, and someone has to get them.  And while there are more band director jobs than say, professor of percussion jobs, they are still hard to get—and that’s just when the hard work truly begins. 

And sometimes students who show all the promise decide to do something else.  And that’s totally cool, because virtually every field outside of music LOVES music majors coming into their field.  Why?

Music students are disciplined, can work on their own or with groups, are highly intuitive problem solvers, organized, obsessed with detail, can be taught, can be trusted, celebrate diversity, can process incredible amounts of information, are creative, show up early and prepared, emulate “team work” and know something about performing under pressure.   

What person doesn’t want those qualities in anyone who is close to them, from your plumber to your mayor?

True, some people, well lots of them, may not make it in performance.  There is only one Chris Thile after all.  But there is also only one you. 

I guess you have to decide what “make it” means.  To me it means filling your career pie-chart with all of your musical activities, and if most or all of it is actually music and you’re making a living wage, you’re a “professional musician.”  It’s that simple. 

I have friends who are principals of the best orchestras in the world.  Friends who play in every level of our military bands.  People at every level of virtually every facet of the music industry—and they are all professional musicians.

Band directors, college, high school, middle school, elementary teachers—all professional musicians.  Freelancers, chamber musicians, people who play at retirement homes and teach privately—all professional musicians. 

That’s to say nothing of the theorists, composers, DCI instructors, film scorers, session players, conductors, engineers, producers, music therapists—all professional musicians.

My advice for that band director:  Ask some more questions, and don’t be afraid to consult with an expert.  You never know what talent and hard work, coupled with a pinch of “I’ll show you” can do for a kid.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Music, Sports and Venn Diagrams

I‘d like to share highlights of my recent meeting with Adrian Crawford, author of “Get To Know Coaches Before Criticizing” (Dec. 8), written in response to my article “Coaches Should Be Held To The Same Standard as Teachers” (Nov. 30). 

Once we had a chance to discuss our vantage points—Adrian from a coaching household, an All-American who played basketball at Tulsa, Florida State, and later as a professional in Spain, now a local minister and coach—and mine, a professionally-trained musician with an international teaching, performing, recording, and service career, working in one of the largest and most respected music programs in the country—we found a great deal of overlap in our Venn diagrams.  Here are some examples.

Professional musicians and athletes share a great number of experiences, including having more candidates than there are professional positions, extremely high levels of competition, performance anxiety and stress, dealing with criticism, teamwork, and exceptionally high levels of specialized training reserved only for those talented and driven enough to “make it.”  Most musicians who grew up playing sports (like I did) already know about this, but I think it safe to say that many athletes are unaware.  Adrian was genuinely surprised when I told him how professional orchestra auditions work, and yes, there are obvious factors outside the overlap—I’m not attempting to perform with a 300-pound lineman trying to level me with millions of people watching, just as a basketball player doesn’t have only one chance to sink a shot from mid-court or be sent home.  But the majority of the basic experiences are shared.

Many place a premium on the academic reputation and operation of the Academy, quoting the alarming inequity of salaries and lack of behavioral standards as a symptom of large-scale identity problems (see The Athletic Trap: How College Sports Corrupted the Academy, Howard L. Nixon II, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).  However some may not be aware of the comprehensive mission to train student-athletes to be successful outside of sports. As Adrian noted, no one sees the support the coaches give their student-athletes off the field—just as no one sees the support of our young musicians off the stage.  As spectators we might only get those few seconds of outburst to make a generalization.  And that brings up an important point about how coaches are trained.

According to B. David Ridpath’s “College Coaches Behaving Badly: Time to Enforce Some Common-Sense Standards” in Forbes, one major factor separating the Academy from athletics is that coaches receive no formal certification.  Where academics typically have increasingly streamlined paths through degrees, certifications, and professional experience, coaches follow more of an apprenticeship trajectory—they play for a coach as a student-athlete, teach as graduate assistant/trainer, become assistant coaches under a head coach, and finally a head coach.  In most cases, they simply coach the only way they know how—as their forbears did it, and for some that can include use of obscenities.  Adrian and I agree that you can have intensity without cursing, and I suggest once you start down the obscenity path it’s a slippery slope to other unacceptable coaching behaviors.  While admitting no one is perfect, I believe some certification or system to monitor coaching behavior should probably be in place if Athletic Departments continue to function within the Academy.

Here’s an interesting fact concerning those obscenity-laced rants as culture.  I learned recently from an Air Force veteran and master musician that Military Training Instructors (MTI, aka Drill Instructors) have been moving away from obscenity-fueled training over the last seven years. In 2009 the Air Force started a new program called “Military Training Instructor Deliberate Development,” where mentorship and valuing trainees as individuals with intrinsic worth became the instruction standard.  Instructors became capable of intensity without profanity, without threats of physical abuse, and without personal verbal maltreatment. 

If an entire wing of the military can implement a new way to train soldiers more efficiently, free of obscenities, physical abuse, and other trademark “Bad Coaching Behaviors,” then perhaps there’s hope for everything else.

I know that over my 20+ years as a Professor, now spanning three successful programs, I have not been perfect for every single minute.  There are fortunately many more moments where I know a huge difference has been made in the life of young people than not.  However, if I were under the insane amount of scrutiny some coaches deal with—and had a bad day—and had it captured on national TV and social media in front of millions of people—I would not want people to extrapolate and somehow come to the conclusion that those seconds of camera time defined me as a musician, teacher, or person.  I believe this was the main point of Adrian’s article, and I agree with him.  

One thing I have learned above all others in my career is that you must give respect in order to get it.  Respect your students, your staff, your workers, and most importantly those who may not see things as you do—and let them know that you love them and appreciate them—and anything is possible.  It’s not about manipulation, it’s about modeling best practices for your students. 

Therefore I remain convinced that obscenity-laced rants are disrespectful, unsuitable and unsustainable as teaching tools.  If they weren’t we would have tons of pedagogical research lauding this approach as a viable way to motivate and instruct across all levels.  One of my esteemed colleagues called this behavior a kind of willful laziness, substituting obscenities and personal insults for real information, and it happens systematically at every level—college, high school, even junior high.  One argument regards colorful language as the only way to get the attention of a student-athlete who knows no other method of communication, which likely is not the fault of the current coach. However the chance to elevate the discourse and prepare student-athletes for life after University—from that point onward—rests squarely with that coach.

If it were up to me, there would be fines for every instance of these tirades—on TV, heard by children behind the bench, or caught by media.  I imagine that coaches would act a lot better after paying $10,000 for every obscenity caught by the press.  By the way, that 10k is 0.2% of a 5-million dollar salary, and just for the sake of comparison that percentage would come to a $160 fine for me.  And my opinion has nothing to do with anyone’s ability to take intense criticism or instruction, weakness, or being called a “liberal snowflake”—it’s about class.  Words like tradition, pride, and excellence are rooted in class.

Will some coaches stop throwing their headsets, clipboards, screaming obscenities, shoving student-athletes, and acting like children as a result of this ongoing discussion?  Probably not.  However, will the continuing collaboration between Adrian and I make a difference? Could it provide a model for people to celebrate evolved discourse between two seemingly disparate people or points of view? That is our hope.

My program within the College of Music, as well as our Athletic Department, Adrian’s basketball academy, and every other cognate of Florida State University has a common mission.  We are to cultivate, train and support our students to be successful after graduation, period.  Does every gifted student-athlete have the chops to excel academically?  No.  Do people think student-athletes enjoy a status that protects them from the full rigor of academics shared by the rest of the student body?  Yes, many of them do.  And do people largely misunderstand what student-athletes do? Yes—and it goes both ways.  But here’s the thing—the coaches are doing the same thing I am—they’re trying to prepare their students for life after FSU.  And while I still cringe when I see coaches around the country using pedagogical approaches that are morally and ethically questionable—and I’m not alone there—I think I’d rather start the discussion with what we have in common, just as Adrian and I are doing.  And after becoming more familiar with what we do on our side of campus, coaches might have some suggestions for me, just as I have for them.

I’m looking forward to learning more about how our athletes are coached, and as I hoped, Adrian is excited about coming to watch our percussion ensemble (which has won our version of a National Championship, twice).   That will be fun for sure, as Adrian is a first-class guy, and I feel lucky to know him. 

The good news:  There are more people out there like us who are interested in continuing this conversation and making a difference, and I hope that what we’re doing will inspire people with divergent beliefs or practices to sit down and discuss their positions with respect and understanding.  

You might be surprised just how much you have in common.