From Score to Spotlight: Mastering the Art of Musical Storytelling

From Score to Spotlight: Mastering the Art of Musical Storytelling

Discovering the Magic of Musical Performance

I’ve been performing in musical theater since I was in the third grade. Even as a young kid, I was absolutely enthralled by the power of music and storytelling – the way a perfectly timed note or a soul-stirring lyric could transport an audience to another world. There was just something so magical about it all.

Of course, as a child, I had no formal training whatsoever. I simply sang and learned music by ear, never really understanding the intricacies of sheet music or music theory. Looking back, I’m amazed I was able to perform in over 40 musicals and plays, including operas, without that foundational knowledge. But I guess that’s the beauty of the arts – you don’t always need technical mastery to tap into the raw emotion and creative spirit that brings a performance to life.

It wasn’t until I started college at the University of California, Santa Cruz that I really began to appreciate the depth and complexity of musical storytelling. As a biology major-turned-theater arts student, I had the opportunity to dive headfirst into the world of musical performance, and let me tell you, it’s been a game-changer.

Discovering a Newfound Passion for Music Theory

When I first arrived at UCSC, I was admittedly a bit lost. I knew I loved performing, but I had no idea where to start when it came to actually studying music. That all changed when I met Dr. Emily Sinclair, a voice teacher in the Music Department who completely transformed my perspective.

“I spent my first year online due to the pandemic in 2020 and got a lot of the introductory classes done while we were online- what else was there to do other than take 20 credits worth of classes that interested me,” I recall. “When we finally were able to come to campus, I participated in Musical Theatre Scenes with Barnstorm in Fall of 2021. One of my directors, Mary Harter, was taking voice lessons with Dr. Emily Sinclair, and Emily came to see the show. Voice lessons at UCSC were always on my radar, so I finally auditioned in Fall 2022 and have been hooked ever since.”

Working with Dr. Sinclair has been an absolute game-changer for me. She has this incredible ability to not only refine your technical skills, but to also inspire you to dig deeper into the emotional and psychological nuances of a character. Suddenly, I found myself craving knowledge about music theory, eager to learn how to read sheet music and truly understand the underpinnings of the pieces I was performing.

“Studying with Emily has been absolutely life-changing for me,” I gush. “She has inspired me more than she knows, and I genuinely attribute changing my Biology major for the Western Art Music Minor to her. The people in the music department have been so kind and welcoming, and I’ve never felt more at home than I do surrounded by my opera friends and family.”

Now, don’t get me wrong – the transition hasn’t been easy. Coming from a background of “literally never looking at sheet music before in my life,” as I put it, to diving headfirst into music theory and piano lessons has been a steep learning curve. But the payoff has been more fulfilling than anything else in my life.

“Studying music theory on the other hand has been intensive and hard work,” I admit. “Coming from my background of literally never looking at sheet music before in my life to being motivated to sight read, learn theory, and play piano has been an extreme swap for me. But it has been more fulfilling than anything else in my life.”

Embracing the Challenges of Musical Storytelling

One of the things that has really struck a chord with me (no pun intended) during my musical theater journey is the importance of truly understanding the story you’re trying to tell. It’s not enough to just hit the right notes or nail the choreography – you have to delve into the psychology of the character, the underlying themes of the piece, and the way the music and lyrics work together to create a cohesive, meaningful narrative.

This is something I’ve been particularly passionate about, especially when it comes to issues of disability and LGBTQ+ representation in the performing arts. As someone who specializes in disability and queer research, I’m acutely aware of the way these marginalized groups have often been portrayed in a less-than-flattering light on the stage.

“It’s important to me as a performer to constantly be analyzing scripts and scores in an academic fashion in order to be a true part of the creative process,” I explain. “I’m currently in the process of writing a paper about disability representation in theatre and how to move forward to create more accessible spaces and opportunities for disabled performers.”

For me, it’s not just about putting on a show – it’s about using the power of musical storytelling to challenge perceptions, spark meaningful conversations, and create a more inclusive, accessible world for all. And that’s a challenge I’m more than willing to embrace.

Embracing the Unexpected Paths of Life

Of course, my journey to this point hasn’t been a straight and narrow one. In fact, it’s been full of twists and turns that have ultimately shaped who I am today.

Take La Tasha Butler’s story, for example. Like me, La Tasha had a deep passion for music from a young age, starting with the violin in 4th grade and later picking up the cello and joining her school choir. But when her family moved to a small town with no orchestra, she was forced to put her musical dreams on hold.

“Halfway through high school my family moved to a small town that had a choir but no orchestra, so I unfortunately stopped playing violin and cello altogether,” La Tasha shares. “I always imagined myself going off to college and joining a symphony after graduating, but unbeknownst to me at the time, I had several altered trails that I needed to trek in order to discover – well, myself.”

It wasn’t until later in life, after facing challenges like poverty, early parenthood, and a life-altering health diagnosis, that La Tasha rediscovered her passion for music and healthcare. Through a chance encounter with music therapy, she realized she could blend her two loves – and now she’s preparing to begin her senior year at Arizona State University, dedicated to using music to help others heal and grow.

La Tasha’s story is a powerful reminder that the path to fulfillment is rarely a straight line. Sometimes, the most unexpected turns in life can end up leading us to our true calling. And that’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart in my own musical theater journey.

Embracing the Power of Musical Collaboration

Of course, no great musical performance is the work of a single person. It takes an entire team of dedicated, talented individuals to bring a story to life on stage. From the composers and lyricists who craft the score, to the directors and choreographers who shape the vision, to the actors, musicians, and technicians who bring it all to fruition – it’s a collaborative effort through and through.

And that collaborative spirit is something I’ve come to cherish in my time at UCSC. Whether it’s performing in the Celtic Ensemble, competing in the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) competitions, or simply jamming with fellow music lovers, I’ve discovered the true joy of creating music together.

“Sometime last Fall I attended the Barn Dance with music from the Celtic Ensemble, and I was obsessed with it,” I recount. “I’ve always listened to Irish music and Sea Shanties – I love going to the Renfaire, can you tell? – but I guess I never thought that creating that music was accessible to me. I reached out to Bill Coulter saying that I’m a singer and I would love to learn how to play the pennywhistle and the bodhran, and I was accepted into the ensemble. Creating traditional Celtic music with everyone at the end of the day is so relaxing and freeing for me, and I take my pennywhistle everywhere with me.”

It’s that sense of community, of coming together to weave an intricate tapestry of sound and emotion, that truly fuels my passion for musical theater. And it’s something I hope to continue cultivating long after I leave the halls of UCSC.

Embracing the Boundless Possibilities of the Future

As I look ahead to life after graduation, I can’t help but feel a sense of excitement and wonder. Performance in musical theater will always be my main goal, but I’m also deeply committed to continuing my research in disability and queer studies as it relates to the performing arts.

“I want to move around the country and through Europe to be able to perform and create stories that inspire people to be more creative and take more time for themselves and the people that are important to them,” I say with a gleam in my eye. “Essentially, I hope to be able to do everything – music direct, perform, sing in choirs, participate in behind-the-scenes stage work, continue to jam to Celtic music, and seize any opportunity that comes my way.”

It’s a lofty ambition, to be sure, but one that I’m more than ready to tackle. After all, my journey has already been full of unexpected twists and turns, and I’ve learned to embrace the magic that can come from the most unlikely of paths.

So whether it’s diving deeper into the world of musical theory, collaborating with talented artists and musicians, or using the power of storytelling to challenge societal norms, I’m ready to take on whatever the future holds. Because at the end of the day, the true art of musical theater isn’t just about hitting the right notes or nailing the choreography – it’s about connecting with an audience, tapping into the universal human experience, and leaving a lasting impact on the world around you.

And that, my friends, is the kind of spotlight I’m honored to step into.

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