Fall 2022–Days are growing shorter and longer

As we move through the fall, work is settling into a variable but somewhat comfortable rhythm. There are no big projects or looming concerns needing to be unpacked.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we are experiencing weeks of what was called “Indian Summer” during my New England boyhood. Bright blue skies and moderate temperatures make it easy to be out and about. In the past few weeks, the air quality has often been poor, and the smell of smoke is ever more present. This serves as a reminder that fortune is fickle and perfection is fleeting.

Work with Parks and Recreation continues in a variety of capacities. Perhaps most satisfying is the retention of participants in my Taiji/Qigong classes, and the prospect of new classes on the horizon. Regular practice will be essential for my mood as winter darkness creeps into the late afternoon hours. The dojo is back in full swing for group training, and there I can be a student confronted with how much I don’t yet know how to do.

Recreation day trip group at Cedar River Watershed, North Bend, WA

The church continues to ask for my (paid) presence and voice as choir membership gradually returns to its pre-pandemic numbers. I say gradually because they may never get everyone back. My only regret is that I now have had some singing opportunities that I had to pass on due to scheduling conflicts. Among other events, a Fauré Requiem with chamber choir will be the highlight of October.

As the days grow shorter, the hours of work grow longer. That is both wished for and disorienting. All good.

September sunset, Beal’s Cove, Harpswell, ME

 

 

New Horizons Summer 2022

We have been waiting for the pandemic to end. Yet it stubbornly continues to sabotage our plans and goals in large and small ways. But continue on we must!

I have now successfully translated my volunteer work as a Qigong instructor into regular, paid community classes. And my teaching experience is now informing new responsibilities as a professional recreation leader. In this capacity, I am supporting a number of outdoor, indoor, and online programs targeting 55-plus adults.

Freelance singing work continues, though it feels constrained by Covid protocols. Yet we persevere, and wait for the day when masks can be set aside. (Indeed, many venues and groups had already done so. But with the BA5 variant, singing groups are again battening down the hatches.)

There are some grant applications and further job opportunities hinging on decisions by others this Fall. My motto–file the applications and then forget them, at least until the decision cycles have reached their end.

With everything happening in the world, one might easily feel discouraged. For now, good health, productive and useful work, and aspirations for future (funded) creative projects are all in balance. Let’s see what comes next.

 

 

World Tai Chi and Qigong Day 2022

Each year, groups around the world observe international Tai Chi and Qigong Day on the first Sunday of April. This is a way of signaling support to others around the globe that individual and group practices resonate beyond local and national boundaries.

It was a rainy morning in Seattle, but folks from the Embrace the Moon Studio gathered in Volunteer Park for group practice. I participated, and also took photographs until raindrops began to land on the camera lens. Here are a few photos of Luohan 18 Hand Qigong, one of the more athletic Qigong styles.

If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, you can check out an earlier post on this topic, A Brief Overview of Tai Chi and Qigong.

 

 

A Brief overview of Tai Chi and Qigong

One of life’s basic lessons is that we cannot halt the natural progression of aging. However, we can gift ourselves with opportunities for regular movement and exercise. Tai Chi and Qigong are two ways of promoting wellness. They are low cost, require no special equipment, and can be as easy (or as challenging) to learn as you might wish. And they can be meaningful social experiences. Which means we might very well stick with them for awhile!

Let’s start with Qigong, the older of the two practices. The Mandarin Chinese characters for Qigong are pronounced “Chee” as in “cheese” and “gong” like a metal disc struck to make a sound. (Alternate spellings include “Qi gong” and “Chi Kung.”) Possible English translations include “Life Energy cultivation” or “working with Life Energy.” Modern teachers of Qigong develop sets of exercises that range from simple to challenging. On one hand, picture an older person with limited mobility, breathing and moving with ease and grace. Or imagine a Shaolin monk demonstrating superb physical and mental control during martial arts training. Those are two ends of a spectrum–Qigong is adaptable to the person and the situation. Most Americans start Qigong later in life, beginning with simple sets of movements that promote muscle tone, balance, and focused attention. There is no winning or losing, just practice.

Generally speaking, a session includes some dynamic exercises to enhance breathing, circulation, and ease of movement in the joints and spine. Self-massage targets acupressure points and easing of muscular tensions. Flowing movements offer gentle exercise of various muscle groups. The meditative and centering quality of Qigong can be especially appealing.

In Tai Chi, we learn a prescribed series of movements over a period of months, and through repetition, the experience of movement and attention deepens. Typically, Tai Chi involves movement in a larger space than needed for Qigong, and more footwork. A longer study of Tai Chi may lead to martial arts training. Yet as with Qigong, simpler Tai Chi forms are easy to learn and enjoy. Some modern teachers are developing new styles that attempt a fusion of Tai Chi and Qigong principles. (A popular style in this category is the Shibashi 18 set, which actually is six different sets of movements fusing Tai Chi and Qigon principles.)

Within a larger framework of Integrative Medicine and wellness care, current research points to a range of benefits from both Tai Chi and Qigong.  Peer-reviewed studies (e.g., National Institutes of Health, the New England Journal of Medicine) suggest that regular practice can offer improvements in joint and bone health, muscular strength and balance, blood pressure, and relief from symptoms of stress and chronic pain.  If you are challenged by physical or mobility issues, Qigong might be especially helpful, as exercises can be adapted or modified for particular needs.

Several published books and online resources for Qigong and Tai Chi are available. These can be recommended as an introduction. However, the best way to learn about Qigong and Tai Chi is with a qualified instructor, in the company of others who can support you in your exploration and practice. GenPride currently offers online sessions, while Seattle Parks and Recreation offers in-person opportunities. Instructors may also offer small group or individual lessons upon request.

To read more about the wellness benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong, visit:

Mayo Clinic–Healthy Lifestyle and Stress Management

Long White Cloud Qigong home page–what are the benefits?

Gerald is a certified Level 2 instructor of Long White Cloud Qigong. He currently teaches Tai Chi and Qigong for Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Lifelong Programs division. This is one assignment in a portfolio of responsibilities as a staff Recreation Leader.

 

Gerald is also enrolled as a continuing student in Chen style Tai Chi at Seattle’s Embrace the Moon studio, where he studies with Sifu Kimberly Ivy.

Getting back in the game

January 2022, singing with the professional Evensong choir at Epiphany Parish in Seattle. (Perhaps the best group I have ever worked with in a church setting.) I am on the right with the orange-ish mask.

Reflections on personal concerns, and a wider view of our social predicament. (Ca. 1200 words, est. 4 min. read time)

The pandemic has been, well, stressful. Performing artists in all disciplines are gradually emerging from a period of unease, frustration, and disappointment. For singers especially, we needed first to understand–and then to accept–that SARS COV-2 was a respiratory virus transmitted through the air by aerosols. Among others, we can thank the National Association of Teachers of Singing for research that informed general guidelines for singers and singing teachers. It was this research that convinced me that public singing (indoors, at least) would need to be set aside, at least for a time. This began a hiatus that lasted more than a year and a half. (During this period, I worked on the Dog Days Poetry Gallery, which will be the topic of a future post.)

I regretfully gave up working with different two ensembles. It was not that these groups ceased to meet. Rather, it was that the groups’ leaders downplayed risks. It is difficult to say whether this was a misunderstanding of the situation, benign negligence, or sheer denial. Perhaps some combination of all of these was in play. And to be fair, continuing business as usual may not have been their call. In churches, music directors answer to Bishops, Rectors, and governing boards. Of course, deflection around risk happened across the economy. Though generalizations are slippery, the more invested an organization was in maintaining business “as usual,” the squishier it was in protecting worker safety. Moreover, guidance from municipal authorities was often confusing or contradictory. And certainly, there was a perfect storm of libertarian impulses and misinformation in the echo chambers of social media, podcasts, and talk radio. Living in “red” Georgia during 2020 and 2021, I experienced resistance and cognitive dissonance to masking, distancing, and vaccines in every public space I found myself in.

As the pandemic dragged on, some singers and ensembles pivoted into online spaces to continue producing work. I know a few of these folks, and I followed their endeavors with interest. View counters on YouTube and Vimeo pages certainly don’t tell the whole story. But the trade-offs between time invested and audience interest often seemed discouraging. For a few of these intrepid producers of digital content, paying viewers and listeners followed. For many others, they did not. Singers and players who depended on teaching income had some luck so long as they were able to equip themselves for teaching in online spaces. Others (including me) had neither the space nor the resources to do so. Many of us encountered the same economic disruptions of the pandemic that challenged restauranteurs, salons, or any other business directly serving customers at close quarters.

Some commentators are now proclaiming that the worst is over, even as Omicron infections are still cresting in many parts of the country. Many places in the USA are still resisting or dropping masking, to say nothing of continued resistance to vaccination. Only today, I received an email notice from a (former) director stating that planned choir services were canceled–too many members were out sick (presumably with Omicron). Currently, I am in Seattle, where compliance with public health guidelines is generally high. Yet the volunteer Cathedral choir is–again–on hiatus as members test positive.

Certainly, the continuation of the pandemic is in part a consequence of failed leadership and mistaken ideas about freedom. Both in the political sphere and many “essential” workplaces, expediency has often overruled prudence and safety. But politics and economics are not the only factors at work. We should not discount our natural, human impulses to steer a course back to some sort of “normal.” And sometimes, even our best intentions and practices don’t shield us from bad luck. Human beings who love to sing want to be together and make music. It is difficult to balance risk and reward not only in group singing, but in life.

As we move into 2022, many in-person singing ensembles are again meeting and presenting work. Though still a questionable call for some, most of us deriving part of our income from this work are back in the game. But enjoyment is elusive. For myself, I have internalized a sense of vigilance and unease that needs to be acknowledged and worked with as we all move forward. I find myself wondering about decisions around spacing, room ventilation, and the (understandable) tendency to drop social distancing if everyone is masked. And try singing for an hour while standing in front of an open window with a strong draft, wearing a cap and gloves, and a KN95. Perhaps we are channeling our ancestors who sang in winter in unheated churches!

On a practical level, many singers need to get back not only their mojo, but also their technical chops. Like any athlete who has been out of the game for a long period, gradual re-training on a sensible technical foundation is necessary. As we rehabilitate our vocal techniques, we are also working with the constraints of masking–and those constraints are not insignificant for breathing, resonance, and a sense of ease. They are, however, required if we are to balance risk and reward. And with masking, ensemble directors are needing to sharpen their ears even more, as the visual cues they seek from the faces of singers and players are absent with masking.

In my own practice, I did not fully understand what needed attention until I was back to singing in rehearsals and services. Though I didn’t necessarily embarrass myself, it certainly was not my “A” game. My voice teacher brain can guide me through this rehabilitation process, but it may be a while before high-level singing feels free and easy.

I started the pandemic with training in contact tracing, and have continued to serve as a volunteer on a community committee looking at data around Covid safety. Mask efficacy, airflow studies, cases numbers, and trends all occupy a lot of real estate in my brain. As the Omicron variant subsides, we will find ourselves in an endemic scenario, rather than a pandemic. However, the probability of future variants down the road is high. Those of us who weathered the storm may be breathing a sigh of relief, but heavy rains will continue.

By the time Omicron is behind us, and assuming another variant does not extend the game of virus whack a mole, the USA will have lost upwards of a million or more people to Covid. Many more lives will continue to collide with challenges in the aftermath. This has been a wrenching, generational calamity that has exposed both our weaknesses and our resilience. In the big picture, Americans and other Western countries have been fortunate to have access to medical care, vaccines, and the Web for remote work and distance learning. But we should forget that these affordances are lacking for many in other countries. That so many Americans would forego vaccines and simple masking, even as people fell ill and died in the thousands and then hundreds of thousands, remains baffling and points to disturbing truths about our society and culture. Textbooks and case studies in psychology, sociology, and public health will be grappling with this disconnect for years to come.

In the realm of the professional performing arts, perhaps we have learned to be more empathetic and forgiving to ourselves and of our colleagues. The professional musician game is familiar, and high standards are (usually) the norm. But those standards can at times be needlessly stringent and unforgiving. If we are now able to sing or play music together, perhaps we can do so with gratitude and hearts that have grown.

 

 

Favorite Photos from 2021

Early in 2021, I finally replaced my older Canon camera that was stolen in 2020. My pandemic era budget was limited, and it took some thinking! Eventually, I chose a Lumix DMC-ZS60, which ended up being a very good value for the money.  I have taken hundreds of photos over the year in a dizzying array of places and situations. Here are (some) of the best ones posted on my Facebook feed. (Click on any photo to switch to a Gallery view.)

 

 

Lo Zampognaro (Gianni Rodari)

LO ZAMPOGNARO (The Bagpipers)
(Free English translation by G. Seminatore)

Gianni Francesco Rodari (Italia 1920-80)

An Italian writer and journalist who wrote popular works of children’s literature. He received the biennial international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1970.

 
 

Gerald reads Lo Zampognaro in Italian.
(The link will open in a new table so you can follow along with the translation.)

Se comandasse lo zampognaro che scende per il viale,
Sai che cosa direbbe il giorno di Natale?

If the bagpipers piping down the avenue ruled,
What would they say on Christmas Day?

Voglio che in ogni casa spunti dal pavimento
un albero fiorito di stelle d’oro e d’argento.

I want, in every house, growing from the floor,
A
flowering tree of gold and silver stars.

Se comandasse il passero che sulla neve zampetta,
Sai che cosa direbbe con la voce che cinguetta?

If the sparrow pawing on the snow commanded it,
What it would say with its chirping voice?

Voglio che i bimbi trovino, quando il lume sarà acceso,
Tutti i doni sognati, più uno, per buon peso.

I want the children to find, when daylight appears,
All the gifts they dreamed of, plus one more for good measure.

Se comandasse il pastore dal presepe di cartone,
Sai che legge farebbe firmandola col lungo bastone?

If the shepherd in the cardboard nativity scene were a king,
What law he would make and sign with his staff?

Voglio che oggi non pianga nel mondo un solo bambino,
Che abbiano lo stesso sorriso il bianco, il moro, il giallino.

I command that not a single child in all the world will cry,
For they all have the same smile —white, dark brown, yellow.

Sapete che cosa vi dico io che non comando niente?
Tutte queste belle cose accadranno facilmente;

You know what I tell you?
All these beautiful things will happen easily, though I do not command anything.

Se ci diamo la mano i miracoli si fanno
E il giorno di Natale durerà tutto l’anno.

If we only shake hands, miracles are performed,
And Christmas day lasts all year.

West Side Story (2021)–exhilarating, provocative, and worth seeing more than once

AT THE MOVIES: Many films just come and go for me, but this one stirred up some strong feelings. My enthusiasm led to an argument with a friend who chastised me for alleged nostalgia. A recommendation elicited yawns from a colleague. After reading other reviews, I felt restless and dissatisfied, so I wrote my own.

The new film version of “West Side Story” is a masterpiece, albeit with occasional plot jumps and tonal inconsistencies. But every musical has those. The 1957 original’s creative team was Arthur Laurents (book and screenplay), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Jerome Robbins (choreography). Often, “West Side Story” is simply presented as a re-telling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in contemporary terms. And the source material certainly shaped the story. But focusing solely on teenage desire and angst would be missing the point. There are deeper, fundamental questions that don’t lead to easy or comfortable answers. What does it mean to be an “American?” How does it feel to aspire to the “American Dream,” and how does it feel when it has passed you by?

First, to acknowledge an elephant in the room. Some recent commentators have asserted that “West Side Story” should disappear as a relic of a colonialist and white supremacist mindset. And the conversation also revolves around appropriation and who can “authentically” speak about the lived experiences of people different than ourselves. Granted, representation in the Broadway show’s and 1961 film’s casting was a problem. And certainly, the work trafficked in stereotypes of Puerto Ricans. Of course, Puerto Rico is unusual in its status as a US territory (since 1898). While remaining largely self-governing, the island often has an uneasy relationship with the mainland. (See the Trump administration as a recent example.) Movements for island statehood have ebbed and flowed without ever really cresting. Is Puerto Rico truly part of the USA, or not? In the 1950s world of the film, the answer is either a defiant no or an optimistic yes. The no is from the white citizens (themselves often from immigrant backgrounds), while the yes is from those hoping to have a better life in their new country. Ostensibly, the conflict between the rival gangs of the Jets and the Sharks is over territory, but it’s really about this question of who is an “American,” who is an outsider, and who is where in the social hierarchy. It may seem that American society has advanced beyond the crude binaries presented by the Jets and Sharks in the 1950s. But if we are honest, “West Side Story” remains a parable for America in the 21st century.

As for representation, this new production actively recruited and cast Puerto Rican actors in many of the roles, embraced some (untranslated) Spanish dialogue, and called upon cultural historians to help shape the film’s depictions of time, place, and daily life. Many of the characters seem to aspire to assimilation into society on the mainland, but there are also explicit nods to a dream of the islands’ independence. For some commentators and critics, these attempts at representation, authenticity, and nuance are not sufficient. For a few, they are futile gestures. Yet for (many) others, the new film rehabilitates an iconic work of American theater for modern audiences. And finally, viewers with no experience of the original show or film will see and hear the work through fresh eyes and ears.

Tony Kushner give us a nuanced portray of the rival gangs– the rival Jets and Sharks. The screenplay adds dimension and complexity to the original’s source material. Their female companions are also drawn with a finer brush. Kushner’s expansion and reimagining of the story also point to the artificiality of singing — the same problem faced by any musical aspiring to be compelling drama. There must be an agreement between authors and audience to accept both spoken dialogue and singing as part of the same storytelling experience. Once agreed to, (many) narrative contradictions largely resolve themselves in a willing suspension of disbelief. As with “1776,” “Hamilton,” “La La Land,” or indeed any work in the American musical genre, the stories are told partially, largely, or completely in song. It is ultimately on the viewer to either engage with the work, or not.

Rachel Zegler’s portrayal of Maria is Juliet in another time and place, and her singing satisfies. Ansel Elgort’s Tony has come in for occasional critical knocks, but he does justice to the material, and then some. And he sings well, with a flexible timbre and vulnerability. Mike Faist’s layered Riff startles in the seeming contradiction of his love for Tony and the Jets, and the free rein he gives to his darker impulses. (His last moments with Tony are arresting in their finality.) David Alvarez’s suave and pugilistic Bernardo is so much more than the caricature of the 1961 film. As Chino says, Bernardo is a fool, but a fool with the charisma needed to balance the magnetism and strength of Ariana DeBose’s Anita. Debose has big shoes to fill, for the original Anita (Rita Moreno) is also here, cast in the newly imagined role of Doc’s widow Valentina. And Moreno is the pole star of the entire enterprise. Tony delivering “Something’s Coming” not to himself as an inner monologue, but rather to Valentina as a statement of joyful possibility, is a masterstroke by Kushner. The number builds a bridge of respect and affection between two generations of performers. And “Somewhere,” which Moreno delivers as a weary and vulnerable monologue about love and loss, may bring tears to your eyes.

Beyond the performances of the principals, the ensembles shine. The singing and dancing of “Jet Song” and “America” are spellbinding examples. Taking the company onto the streets created a huge canvas to choreograph upon, and drew the people (extras) all around into the story. The “minor” players all have individual moments to shine in their ensembles. The satirical “Officer Krupke” illustrates the timing and characterization chops of the Jet players, and adds depth and intelligence to their characters. “I Feel Pretty” becomes a joyful fantasy in the halls of Gimbels department store, where Maria, Anita, and their co-workers have nighttime jobs as cleaners. In this setting, the appealing naivté of the number makes sense, musically and dramatically. Anyone who has spent hours at a tedious or repetitive job and daydreamed of something different will relate.

The cinematography captures broad swatches of time, place, and color in breathtaking detail. As with many American cities in the mid 20th century, Manhattan’s west side is slowly disappearing in a wave of demolitions to make way for “progress,” which would come to be embodied in such iconic locations as the Lincoln Center theater complex. The overall ambiance is gritty, the lighting and art direction often dark. The Jets and the Sharks are disillusioned young people searching for a sense of belonging in a concrete jungle. Their world is literally decaying around them. As with their Shakespearean ancestors, we know they are destined for tragedy, and those outcomes are painful to witness.

Sixty-plus years on, Leonard Bernstein’s music remains fresh and captivating, focusing the aspirations, joys, frustrations, and sorrows of the characters like a laser beam. Steven Spielberg (now 76) could have stopped making movies years ago. That he chose this work as his career capstone(?) demonstrates that big-budget musicals on screen are not only still possible, but necessary. With a Rotten Tomatoes critics score of 92 and an audience score of 94 (!), one can only look to Covid reluctance and yet another Spiderman franchise installment as contributing factors to the lagging box office of “West Side Story.” And with this film, we bid farewell to Stephen Sondheim, the last of the original’s creative team, who passed just as the movie was entering theaters. This only adds to the poignancy and timeliness of this reimagined and refreshed American classic.

If you are curious or still unsure if this movie is for you, here is the “official” trailer.

Welcoming 2022

The Covid-19 pandemic was over, except when it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Many independent performing artists and teachers are attempting to resume “normal” activities under abnormal conditions and circumstances. As I re-start singing in public, I am also feeling constrained and concerned about the future. Yet it is time to imagine new projects and content under new conditions. There is a lot of work in the pipeline. We’ll see how this all develops.

This website was the former home of the Spacious Vision Song Project, and content from that five-year period remains archived here. If you are looking for my digital E-Portfolio with professional work history, reviews, and teaching philosophy, please visit www.geraldseminatore.com.

(The cover photo is an accidental abstract of the Seattle Space Needle.)