In BRAVO!, Music

Jason Robert Brown and Kelli O’Hara spent time working with students while at BYU

The BRAVO! Professional Performing Arts series does more than just bring world-renowned artists to perform at BYU. When possible, the series also provides opportunities for students to work one-on-one with the guest artists.

Broadway star Kelli O’Hara and composer Jason Robert Brown visited BYU this last December to perform to a sold-out audience. The two Tony Award winners held separate workshops to interact with students in addition to their performance.

Brown held a forum for music composition and theatre majors where he discussed the power music has in telling a story. He emphasized the importance of knowing who the characters are, what’s happening in the story and understanding what styles exist and when to use them. Brown also talked about two important elements of musical theatre composition: containment and repetition.

“The composer of a musical has to constantly negotiate between the sheer musical pleasure the audience and the composer desires, and the basic storytelling that the audience is following,” Brown said. “Containment and repetition. Those are the guideposts the composer uses to help thread that needle.”

To composers, Brown addressed the challenge of finding a balance between producing music the world wants to hear and music that the composer wants to produce. Or as Brown put it, “How I can speak my language but still reach people and feel authentic.” Brown also instructed students to pick good material for auditions. He demonstrated one of his compositions as an example of how music can help in storytelling.

Music Dance Theatre (MDT) student Caleb Jenson and Theatre student Madison Dennis both enjoyed Brown’s instruction on what makes good material. “He validated this idea that the material we pick is very important,” Jenson said.

“It’s stepping outside and finding what music resonates with you as an actor,” Dennis said. “Learning how Jason Robert Brown thinks about creating music for a show can inform an actor’s choices and make our performance more full and honest.

O’Hara held a separate workshop where she worked one-on-one with MDT students. At the beginning of the workshop, O’Hara expressed “we’re all here to be better and work harder and to learn things.”

Kelli O'Hara works with student Tierney Bent at BYU

Kelli O’Hara works with student Tierney Bent

Several students performed solos and duets for O’Hara. She focused on helping students find truth in the character they portrayed. O’Hara praised MDT student Tierney Bent’s stage presence but worked with her to find the emotion behind her song.

When Bent made an emotional connection while working with O’Hara, O’Hara noted, “That’s beautiful because that’s truth. Now your job is to have all that truth and then have complete control of your mechanism, or your instrument. You can sing this however you want to sing this, you don’t have to scream it. You can have control of your technical voice while you’re letting your heart run wild. It will happen.”

Jenson was appreciative for the experience to hear from industry experts. “They can help you know where to focus and where to put your effort and energy,” Jenson said. “Often times we work really hard but sometimes it’s for the wrong reasons or we’re filing our energy into things that aren’t going to help us to grow. Having someone from the industry come to BYU helps you focus or look at something this way and it can aid you.”

“Having a completely new set of eyes and ears outside of our own bubble in a field we’re going into by someone who’s working there right now — the benefits are endless,” Dennis said.

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