Performing Arts in the Digital Age

Through dynamic multidisciplinary courses, SMTD is helping prepare students for 21st century careers

For hundreds of years, music, theatre, and dance was experienced only by attending a live performance. But the 20th and 21st centuries permanently changed that paradigm, beginning with audio recordings and soon followed by film, television, and the Internet. Today, digital media is the means by which the public most often encounters the performing arts.

In the National Endowment for the Arts 2012 Survey on Public Participation in the Arts, 71 percent of adult participants had consumed art through electronic media while only 33.3 percent attended at least one type of arts performance or visited an art museum or gallery.

Ironically, despite the fact that digital consumption of the performing arts has dramatically escalated, the typical education for performers has included little preparation for our media-centric culture.

But that model is changing, and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance is right in step, with courses that help prepare students for careers in the digital age.

In support of this embrace, the School recently announced a new “Music Technology Suite” to be built on the lower level of the new wing of the E.V. Moore Building. The state-of-the-art space has been made possible by a new gift from William K. and Delores S. Brehm, who previously provided the catalyst gift that made possible the $25 million addition and renovation currently underway on the 50-year-old building.

The Tech Suite will provide space for instruction in electronic music composition and performance, music and sound for film, and independent student project work. It will feature a flexible, immersive multimedia environment for innovative uses of technology in performing arts, thereby fostering technological literacy and high-tech skills.

SMTD is not new to technology, of course. Its adaptation to new media was asserted 30 years ago when it created the Department of Performing Arts Technology (PAT). The department has flourished, and now offers five degree programs, including a masters of media arts. Characterized by the interdisciplinary study of music, dance, theatre, engineering, art, and film and video, PAT students have always been leaders in the digital frontier of the performing arts.

But thanks to several trailblazing undergraduate courses, performing arts majors in other disciplines, as well as students from across the U-M campus, are also enhancing their technological skills as they prepare for 21st century careers. Here are three examples.


Making Music on Film

A required course for SMTD acting students is the Department of Theatre & Drama’s “Acting for the Camera” course, which seeks to develop skills that are essential to realizing a full-spectrum acting career. But what about camera skills for students in other disciplines? How can they acquire the high-level media skills that are becoming more and more critical to successful performing arts careers?

Fade in on “Making Music on Film,” a brand new audio-video production course that provides students in many disciplines with an authentic, hands-on experience of filmmaking. It is the brainchild of Andy Kirshner, professor and chair of Interarts, SMTD’s joint program with the Stamps School of Art & Design for students with interests in both performance and art and design.

The course is supported by U-M’s Third Century Initiative Quick Wins grant for “projects that embrace risk, discovery, and experimentation, empowering faculty members and staff to explore opportunities beyond the traditional.” It is a fully interdisciplinary course, suitable for students studying musical theatre, stage design, voice, dance, instrumental performance, and performing arts technology, as well as Stamps students and SAC film production students. According to Kirshner, it appears to be the only course like it in the country.

“I wanted to give students the opportunity to work alongside professionals in the creation of an original musical film,” said Kirshner. “SMTD’s student actors, musicians, and designers regularly have the opportunity to work under professional conductors and directors and perform in very professional-level live productions. But the only film and video experience that’s been available has generally been in student-directed films. I wanted to bring the standards of musical and dramatic works made for the camera to the same high level as those made for a live audience.”

Kirshner is well suited to the task. An award-winning composer, writer, director, and media artist, he specializes in the art of musical narrative and is skilled in a variety of digital media. For the last four years, he has been developing a feature-length film, Liberty’s Secret: The 100% All American Musical, a romantic musical comedy and political satire for which he wrote the script, music, and lyrics, and is directing. The film will be released in the fall of 2016.

Kirshner says that musical film production involves just about all of the creative arts, as well as the skillful application of some very specialized technology. For the first semester of the course, students are working on Kirshner’s film alongside film crew professionals and faculty advisers Christianne Myers (costume design), Vincent Mountain (scenic design), and Robert Rayher (SAC). The faculty members and professional film crew are guiding them, but the students are doing much of the actual work: they design, perform, record, and work on post-production for the film

“Having professionals work on the production is so valuable,” said Kirshner. “By interacting with students, sharing their specialized knowledge, and modeling skills of collaborative problem-solving, the outside pros contribute to a much deeper learning experience. There are some things that can only be learned in the trenches.”


Video Game Music

Last year, 66 students enrolled in “Video Game Music” (VGM), a brand new course designed to appeal to both music and non-music majors. This year enrollment grew to 97, representing a diverse student population, a third of whom are female.

“I really think this class represents practically every background on campus,” said Matthew Thompson, a lecturer of voice and music education who created and teaches the course. “And I absolutely love that we’re all united by our passion and interest in game audio.”

VGM is Thompson’s passion project. An expert on game music and the author of a popular blog, Video Game Music Nerd, his idea to devote a course to the subject seemed like a natural given his own expertise and the popularity of the genre. In 2013, the video game industry generated $21 billion in revenue, according to The NPD Group, a global market research company, and over the last 10 years the popularity of video game music has skyrocketed. It has become a big seller for orchestras, which frequently perform touring shows such as Video Games Live. The concerts have succeeded in filling symphony halls with young audiences throughout the country.

Only a handful of schools are teaching video game music or game audio, Thompson said, and he may be the only one teaching a course specifically like his. “This is music appreciation through the lens of video game music,” he said.

While a student studying classical music will have to explore some 500 to 600 years in the past, Thompson’s class has a much more manageable history, beginning in the 1970s. He uses a bevy of video and audio editing software to make focused presentations. He also utilizes several examples of audio implementation software, such as Wave Works Interactive Sound Engine (Wwise) by Audiokinetic and FMOD by Firelight Technologies, which is a set of audio content creation tools that play music files of diverse formats on many different operating systems used in games and software. Additionally, he encourages PAT majors in the class to demonstrate the power of Logic, a software application for the Mac OS X platform, as well as basic microphone recording techniques.

The class analyzes the form and structure of several pieces of video game music and discussions range from understanding why certain intervals have been used as well as harmonic progression and instrumentation. “This coursework will help students hear any piece of music and be able to mentally and aurally dissect it more deeply,” said Thompson.

Music, PAT, and composition students utilize the VGM class to further their careers and ambitions, Thompson said. “My greatest hope for them, beyond understanding a technology or music business concepts, is that they feel they have the ability to create music and that their ears have been ‘sharpened’ so they can understand music more deeply.

“One student said to me last semester: ‘It’s really cool to be able to play the composition project MP3 at the end of the course and think: I made this. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling.’ That is what we want as musicians- for people to feel empowered and take control of music, make it, rather than just listen to it passively.”



Before the turn of the current century, the Department of Dance began offering a “videodance” course, taught by dance professor Jessica Fogel and Terri Sarris, a senior lecturer in the Screen Arts & Culture department (SAC) in LSA. It anticipated what would become a major movement in which film and dance join forces to create a truly hybrid art form that offers limitless creative opportunities. In 2000, the course became “Screendance,” and for 14 years has been taught by Sarris and dance professor Peter Sparling, an award-winning screendance artist.

Dance and film have been natural allies since the advent of the motion picture. Some of the earliest experiments with the new medium of celluloid involved dancers, including an 1894 film by Thomas Edison. And Hollywood, of course, has enjoyed a long love affair with dance, from the kaleidoscopic numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley, to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers romances, to the hundreds of other musicals produced over the first century of filmmaking.

But “screendance” is unique. It’s not a matter of simply filming a dancing figure; it’s a true melding of two mediums. For dancers and choreographers, it provides a vast new arena in which to share their art. As a result, screendance or “dance on camera” festivals have proliferated around the world.

“Screendance is a hybrid form born out of the emergence of mobile and relatively cheap technology,” said Sparling. “Choreographers and directors realized that by taking a camera into a studio or backstage, or by taking dancers onto sites anywhere and everywhere, a camera could capture a new relationship of the dancing body in space. The main space then becomes the space of the screen; the frame of the screen replaces the proscenium frame of the stage.”

Half of the Screendance class comprises dance or choreography students; the other half are usually SAC, PAT, or Stamps School of Art & Design students. “It is truly an interdisciplinary course,” said Sparling. “It’s about visual aesthetics, film, video, dance, choreography, poetics, metaphor, and creating imagery that reads on the screen.” Highly collaborative, the course demands a knowledge base that bridges disciplines.

Students learn how performers adjust and reinvent or reinterpret the way they perform for one, two, or three cameras; how to make the camera an active partner in the enterprise; and how to use editing (the students are taught Final Cut Pro, the popular video editing software) as a direct extension of the choreographic process. They learn to rearrange, resequence, create form and composition, and judiciously use a range of film techniques such as cross-dissolves, jump cuts, blackouts, and fadeouts.

“Our dance students not only have an affinity for this, but they are raised with different video or visual imagery information inundating their lives,” said Sparling. “As young dancer-choreographers, oftentimes how they represent themselves on video becomes their calling card to the world. Whether it’s submitting a video to a festival or an application for a job, putting something on YouTube, or creating their own website, screendance becomes an integral part of their participation as visual artists and movement artists in the 21st century.”


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse and Brandon Monzon, communications generalist and assistant editor of Michigan Muse.