A Cultural Treasure

Chautauqua County is preparing for the loss of one of its great cultural treasures. Michael Kelley, Professor of Music and Coordinator of Music at Jamestown Community College is preparing to retire after nearly 40 years of helping local students to advance and progress in music and the seemingly infinite number of areas which associate with music and intersect with it in many ways.

I first interviewed the musician and professor in November of 1984, in a feature which announces that at that time, he was the only full-time faculty member in music at JCC, although he was assisted by three adjunct teachers, who essentially taught music lessons.

Today there are no fewer than 45 courses in music, listed in the JCC college catalog, and music has grown from being considered an enriching elective for students who can spare the time, to being a degree-bearing program, which prepares students for careers as diverse as performing professionally, teaching music, working with music therapy, building and repairing instruments, recording and reproduction of music technology, and a whole host of careers, many of which didn’t exist when that first interview was printed.

Despite being swamped with duties relating to finishing up a semester of teaching, presenting and performing in spring recitals of the many different ensembles under his supervision, preparing music to be performed at graduation ceremonies, arranging for recording of those ceremonies, and much more, Kelly recently sat down with me to look back over his career in our community.

MUSIC AT JCC

”There are many different ways of teaching music, and many different reasons for teaching it,” Kelly said. ”We have a wide range of musical abilities, among our students, and a vast range of what they plan to do with their training. Many music programs are open by audition only, and their students arrive already trained in the basics and have a clear focus upon what they plan to be trained to do.

”JCC has an open admissions policy, and anyone may attend. Some of our students may become surgeons or business executives or factory workers, but they may want to join community choruses or play the drums with a rock group, or join the cast of community theater organizations. We’re here to help them do that, as well as to help other students to eventually perform with great symphony orchestras or to become recording artists or faculty members at major conservatories,” he continued.

In recent years, JCC has added many courses and a great deal of modern and technically demanding equipment so that students can learn how to record sound, especially music, and how to reproduce recorded sounds. I got a quick tour through the state-of-the-art studios in which students in Kelly’s program can learn how to record a performance or other sounds, can make changes to what they’ve recorded, such as taking the hum of a heating system out of the recording or enabling a singer to perform a duet with himself, and can play the sound back under nearly perfect control.

I was reminded of the recent performance by the Buffalo Philharmonic which I reviewed, in which the singing of a child soprano was part of a full orchestral tone poem. I remember noting that the voice entered the mix of sound at exactly the right second, when even a two-second delay would have been awkward and spoiled the effect of the music. Obviously someone in addition to the singer had been well trained.

The community college is a two-year school, and if its students want to earn higher than a two-year associate degree, they must transfer to other institutions, upon finishing their studies here. Kelly has made it his business, since he first started teaching in Jamestown, to visit the schools to whose programs his students aspire, to see what they want our students to have already learned and done before they come there. He has also monitored carefully how his graduates have done, when they have transferred, hoping to strengthen any element of the program which proved a challenge to them.

Kelly said that many people think of education in terms of training.

”If someone is going to study sound recording, he needs to know what machine and what microphone work best, and which button to push or which knob to turn in order to make it happen. But, when I visit programs at four-year schools, they have always told me that if a student transfers in who doesn’t know which button to push, he can be taught in a very short time. What they’re eager to have is students who can read a printed score, and who have experience with making decisions and are comfortable with dealing with changing realities.

”JCC now has a one-year certificate in digital audio production which can be taken by itself or fitted into a two-year associate in science degree in fine arts/music. Steve Gustafson is in charge of the technical aspects of the stage of the Robert L. Scharmann Theatre, and he has a world of professional experience in making and recording sound. When students have completed our program, including work with him on recording from the stage, they have had an astonishing amount of success in going on to work in various elements of professional sound recording and design.”

Students have transferred from JCC into various musical arts programs at Edinboro State University in Pennsylvania, the D’Angelo School of Music at Mercyhurst University, the State University of New York at Fredonia and many other programs. ”Fredonia State is a tough house to get into, with a great deal of competition and a very demanding program, but students who have top grades here have integrated into their program with great success,” he said, ”Our A students typically get the full two years’ credit when they transfer to four-year programs.”

Kelly said the JCC’s program emphasizes encouraging students.

”Some programs believe that they exist to be a barrier. If students can succeed at their demands, they will be prepared to take on the very difficult challenges of the music business. Instead, we have found that often students who feel defeated and are ready to quit can be encouraged to find out where their weaknesses have been and to move on from there to great success,” he said.

JCC has two campuses, including the original campus on East Falconer Street in Jamestown, plus one in Olean, and two extension centers, in Dunkirk and in Warren. Some courses can be completed online, and some area high schools teach courses for which academic credit can be earned through JCC. Interviews are now going to, to choose the person who will take Michael Kelly’s place as the coordinator of music.

An examination of the catalog of JCC and that of a large university in Western New York find that JCC tuition and related costs are listed at $5,660 per year, which does not include room and board. The university lists charges of $57,450, including $14,054 for housing and meals. As programs such as Kelly’s have gotten better and better, and the difference in costs between a two-year school and a four-year one have widened, it is little wonder that more and more students are looking to learn right here at home.

I asked Kelly if he has specific plans for when he finally leaves his position, and he said he does not, preferring to take what comes, as it comes. He plans to teach a few classes at the community college, saying that the part of his job he enjoys most is teaching and working with students, and if he continues to teach he can follow his favorite activities while giving up the oceans of paperwork which go with being a department coordinator.

Kelly holds degrees from Ithaca College and from the State University of New York at Potsdam. He has taught at JCC since the autumn of 1973.

The growth of music at JCC, from one professor and three adjunct teachers to its current spread to teaching sites around the county and into Pennsylvania is worthy of the community’s respect. The Critical Eye proudly joins with many voices in the community, thanking him for his service and his innovation, and wishing him happiness in retirement.

AND ALSO

While I am writing about JCC, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to share with you an example of what I’ve learned recently about the past achievements of the college’s arts programs.

A number of weeks ago, a reader sent me an email, saying that she had recently watched an interview on television with Gregory Doran, who is currently the artistic director of what is arguably the most respected theatrical company in the world: the Royal Shakespeare Company of England.

Appointed to that position in March of 2012, Doran’s American television interview was being done because he was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York City, in March of 2013, with a production of Shakespeare’s ”Julius Caesar,” which had translated to Brooklyn from the RSC.

My correspondent told me that she had performed in a production at JCC of Shakespeare’s ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in 1982, which had been directed by Doran. She said Doran had won many friends at JCC, and suggested that I pursue a column about his days in town and his growing success in the great world of professional theater.

So, I have done so. I went through my own archives, and found an interview I did during his time in town. I learned from myself that he was 24 in 1982, and had been invited to Jamestown by Dr. Robert Hagstrom, who was then filling a number of roles in the arts programs at the community college. Doran was affiliated with an organization called The Poor Players. They were an organization connected to England’s respected Bristol Old Vic Company, designed to give young actors and other theatrical professionals additional early experience and opportunities to exercise their craft.

Doran brought a small number of young British actors with him, who performed the three major roles in the play, and a small number of technical specialists. He filled the rest of his Jamestown company from local actors and technical enthusiasts.

At the time, he told me, ”Americans find it foreign to pronounce the poetry in Shakespeare. When we perform in England, it is quite common to see numerous members of the audience, mouthing the lines, right along with the actors. In fact, British audiences tend to take any cutting of lines or scenes as a personal insult, to them and to Shakespeare. When you’re working with a small company, as we are, it’s sometimes much easier to give one character’s lines to a different character, or to drop a speech or two. We’re much freer to do such things here.”

Local people tend to describe JCC’s Scharmann Theatre as a fairly small house, although Doran told me at the time that it was much larger than his company’s theater in England. He said he needed to think differently in terms of timing his production, as the time it took an actor to walk from the edge of the stage to where his first action would take place required considerably longer, for example.

After his interview, which took place before a rehearsal, I stayed to watch Doran interact with his actors. That evening, he was working with local actors playing the roles of the ”rude mechanicals,” or the common people who Shakespeare portrays trying to win a prize by putting on the best play at the wedding of Duke Theseus. The men’s well-meaning innocence is the source of much comic relief within the production.

While the director was encouraging his actors to pronounce the word ”duke” as ”dyook,” and not ”dook,” I was reminded how he had told me during the interview that one of the surprises for him, about Americans in general, was the lack of class consciousness among them, which would be present among an English audience.

”Americans don’t understand why people rush to do what the duke tells them, so they try to picture him as the sheriff, or someone with power over them. English people would consider such behavior as his due, because of his social station,” he told me.

Doran told his actors that while they shouldn’t interfere with the words of the playwright, they should give normal reactions to the things which happen, and not just stand there and wait for their own lines. He reminded them that if something happened to someone near them in real life, they might comment quietly to someone near them, or get a surprised expression on their faces, or whatever.

The line from the play which came next was the character who was supposed to be directing the play within the play, assigning roles for his unsophisticated actors. The line was ”You, Nick Bottom, are set down to play Pyramus … a lover that kills himself, most gallant for love.”

It was fun to watch Doran’s face when the actors on stage took his advice to heart and said some version of ”Bottom gets Pyramus? Wow! That lucky bum.”

I contacted the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to request a few words with Doran, to be told he had already returned to England. I emailed the Royal Shakespeare Company, and got one of those replies which says that your request has been passed along to an important person, but which sounds very much as though a supporting employee will be sheltering the boss from a potential annoyance.

I phoned or emailed a number of people in town who had been part of the notorious 1982 production of ”The Dream,” and got responses from absolutely nobody but the original reader.

So, I made up my mind, when I found myself writing about the arts at JCC, to share with you memories of one of our many brushes with greatness. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.