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Creativity: Process, Flow, and Block

Creativity: process, flow, and block

Welcome back to the EXCEL log! I hope you’re enjoying these last couple of weeks of the semester, and not spontaneously combusting. There are only 6 days of classes left- we got this! Last post we talked about burnout, and this week we’ll explore creativity. Read on to find out more about how creativity works in our brains, creative flow, and the creative processes of students on campus! 

When I think of creativity, I think a lot about when I compose – I hear ideas for pieces of music in my head and then I write them down. I get these sparks of inspiration everywhere, whether that be in class or the shower. Sometimes, I get so engrossed in a piece of music I’m working on, or a song that I’m improvising with on the oboe, that I actually live in the present when normally I’m dwelling on the past or worrying about the future ahead. I’m not thinking about the rest of the day, how I’m going to pay rent, or what I’m going to eat for dinner. I’m just living in the music. 

What is creativity

Creativity is defined by California State University Northridge as “the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.” Britannica thinks of it as “the ability to make or otherwise bring into existence something new, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form.”

Scientifically, creativity is somewhat supported by the part of our brain that imagines the future – the hippocampus. Interestingly enough, the hippocampus is also the part of our brain that recalls the past. According to the National Library of Medicine, the hippocampus also plays a role in the generation of creative ideas by working with a group of regions in the brain called the default network. This network tends to activate when our mind starts to wander. When our minds wander, we are often engaging with the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis which states that memory and imagination involve constructing episodic details of people, places, and events we’ve already experienced. We reconstruct past events in our brains, and we construct possible future events based on what has occurred/or what we have seen in the past. This system is beneficial to creative thinking, which requires us to use our prior knowledge to form new ideas. 

When it comes to the arts, philosophically, Aristotle said that music, dance, and drama involve imitation and that this imitation must “transcend the mundane replication of an object or event and startle the audience.” On the other hand, Plato claims artists can create authentic and meaningful works because “the divine speaks through them.”

I think that my whole creative process comes from the divine. Not completely in a religious sense, but definitely in a spiritual sense. When I think of ideas, it feels like they’re coming from a place separate from the world we know. It sort of aligns with what Plato believed, but my brain is also definitely constructing new ideas based on prior events. The creative spirit moves through me, and then my brain works to translate it into a human way of understanding based on details from memories. I particularly feel this creative process in action when I get into a flow state. 


I’m working on a musical right now, and one of the songs, “You’ll be missing me then” randomly came to me in the shower. When I started notating it, the music just poured out of me – the chords and melody just fit together with ease and I didn’t even notice the time that went by. I was definitely in a state that many call flow. 

In an article from the journal Frontiers in Psychology, flow is described as: 

“A subjective state of psychological well-being that is strongly associated with the creative process. Flow is said to be characterized by “a challenge that is perfectly matched to the skill level of the participant, goals are clear with unambiguous feedback, concentration that is fully directed on the task, actions executed and merged with heightened awareness, and a sense of control without self-consciousness.”

Flow often alters a person’s sense of time and for performers, artists, and creatives of all kinds, flow can involve a “sense of valuing an experience for its own sake,” in creative flow, there’s a “desire to continue a creative activity for your own personal merit.”

Flow feels amazing, and fulfilling. I think it also usually means work gets done. So, is there a way to cheat flow? Make it happen on a whim? I’m not sure. Frontiers in Psychology also describes a study that measures flow in dancers, sharing that “people who often experience flow have ‘autotelic personalities’; they desire a challenge, demonstrate superior concentration skills, are intrinsically motivated, and engage in active coping strategies. They possess meta-skills such as general curiosity, persistence, and low self-centeredness. These individuals generally have higher self-esteem and lower trait anxiety” 

I don’t necessarily think you have to have all of these traits to experience flow. I am sometimes very anxious, and at times I have trouble concentrating but find myself in a flow state while composing pretty often. In an article for violinist and keynote speaker, Diane Allen says you can hack flow by first identifying the times you’ve experienced flow, examining the memories you have of that time, and then working to recreate those conditions. Allen also suggests that the next time you find yourself in flow, you should notice the activities you’re doing that activate that state. Are you on stage? Are you writing a paper? Reading a monologue or dancing? More broadly, are you engaged in acts of service? Sharing? Creating a sense of unity or community? Are you problem-solving? Immersed in deep focus or deep listening? What are ways that you can recreate this experience, in order to reap the benefits? 


The opposite of creative flow would be creative block. The website Masterclass defines it “as an overwhelming feeling of being stuck in the creative process without the ability to move forward and make anything new.” Similar to burnout, it’s a debilitating feeling that prevents creatives from imagining ideas or continuing projects. According to Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, creative block can come as a result of many different factors such as:

  • Stress: Sometimes, stress can cause creative block. You may be so overwhelmed by classes, jobs, the future, relationships, finances, family, etc that your creative ideas are stifled. 
  • Too many ideas: Believe it or not, sometimes having too many ideas can cause creative block. You can be overwhelmed by the number of options and unsure where to start.
  • Fear of imperfection: Sometimes when we create we become too invested in how “good” our projects are. We worry about what people will think of our work, and whether or not there is more we can do to better our projects. This fear of imperfection can also cause creative block, and stop the generation of ideas completely

When it comes to overcoming creative block, there are many different methods: 

  • Take a break: Linkedin suggests simply taking a step back away from creative work can help cure creative block
  • Find a sense of play: Poet, author, and musician Joy Harjo says to invite play into your creative process. She says you can experiment with different mediums, such as doodling, freely dancing to your favorite song, or even making collages out of old magazines to refresh your mind and stimulate new creative ideas. 
  • Immerse yourself in a new environment: Perhaps changing up your work environment can stimulate new ideas. If you typically create in a quiet place, try going to a public place. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a great way to stimulate creative ideas. 
  • Write about what is on your mind: Sometimes writing about your problems can yield creative inspiration. It allows you to process emotions and may clear your head or yield inspiration for other creative projects. 
  • Find inspiration in other creative projects: Sometimes listening to music by other artists, reading work/papers by new authors, exploring new choreography, or exploring plays by playwrights you haven’t seen before, etc can help stimulate creativity. SMTD is a community of artists of a variety of disciplines and hearing about our colleagues’ projects is a great way to overcome creative block and get inspired! 

If I’m feeling blocked, it helps me to embrace a “trash draft.” For example, if I’m feeling blocked while writing, or if I don’t know where to start I’ll set a timer for 15 min or so and just write. If I don’t know what to say,  I’ll just type random letters and then pick it back up again when I come up with a thought. This method comes from an upper-level writing professor at U of M and it really helps. Sometimes, what I wrote is better than I thought and I feel inspired to keep going. Other times, it’s just as bad as I thought it would be, but working to improve it yields new ideas. You can apply this method to anything, but I think dealing with block always involves embracing the difficulty and giving yourself grace because you’ll eventually be inspired again. 


Many artists within both SMTD and the broader UM community express their creativity in different ways. We all have different creative processes and for me, hearing about others’ creative processes benefits my own. I talked to some fellow composers to get their perspectives on creativity and their creative processes, which show that within the same field, creativity can look different from one person to another.

Nelson Walker, a 1st year MM student in composition says his creative process varies depending on what he’s working on. He shares: 

“I often tend towards improvisational processes or chaotic/chance-based processes as a starting point for my art, and then let my choices be guided by my intuition and what I see in that chaotic material. I also find that having the right balance of empty space and community in my life is very important for my creativity: I need that contemplative time to feel grounded and inspired in my creativity but too much empty space away from other art and other artists and I become uninspired. Having healthy deadlines tends to be a good motivator for me, and provides the small amount of external pressure needed to prioritize being creative.” 

5th year BM in composition student Sam Todd says that SMTD composition professor Evan Chambers suggested he sing to facilitate his creativity. Sam says that the physicality of singing brought lots of inspiration to his music, and allowed him to approach composition with a more embodied lens. 

Some composers listen to music to gain inspiration for future pieces. Willie Cornish, a 1st year MM student in composition says his creative process involves listening to lots of music and being kind to himself as he works:

“Listening to music is equivalent to researching before writing a 20-page paper. Depending on what I am writing/who it’s for, I will focus on listening to that particular idea. When listening/studying, I try my best to listen to things outside of just the standard Western-European classical music. By broadening your music intake, you will garner a larger appreciation for all types of music while simultaneously increasing your creative music palette! One key thing I often remind myself is to be patient with myself. If you are not being kind to yourself, it can make the process much harder than it should be. There will be obstacles during the creative process. However, you can minimize them by treating yourself with the respect and love that you deserve!”

Overall, creativity can look different for everyone. The way individuals create, both within the arts and beyond, is unique and powerful. I hope by reading this post you’ve found inspiration for your creative practice, and that you’ve learned a thing or two to help with future projects. 

Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL Log!

Enjoy the end of your semester, and have a great summer. Check out the rest of the EXCEL Log for more articles on navigating the performing arts, the happenings in the SMTD community, and beyond! 

Additional Resources: 

Creative Trance

Where in the brain does creativity come from? Evidence from Jazz musicians

Image Source:  Alpha Stock Images –


Welcome back to the EXCEL Log! I hope your semester is going well. I know mine is crazy right now, with rehearsals, performing at concert after concert, working for EXCEL and the DEI office, and applying for grants for future projects. This means that I’m TIRED, so, it’s the perfect time to talk about burnout. Read on to learn more about burnout, potentially relate to my story, and consider ways to overcome it.

I initially wrote this article over the summer (in July 2022) when I was recovering from an intense wave of burnout from November 2021-June 2022. I then put it away for a while and came back to it in November 2022. I then put it away again, and after having some conversations with Paola Savvidou, program manager for the SMTD Wellness Initiative, decided to finish this piece. I write things to process. Most of the time I don’t write about topics I know everything about or problems I solved. I typically end up writing about something I’m still trying to figure out, and I try to find solutions in the process of creating. That is exactly what this article does, and the topic of burnout fits into the processing category perfectly. When I was fresh from burnout myself, I didn’t think there was any clear way to overcome or prevent it from happening. After having the opportunity to talk to Paola and read more about it my thoughts on burnout started to change. 

My therapist asked me once, “When did I start feeling (what I called) ‘The Big Sad’ or ‘Burnout’?” I had a hard time pinpointing the exact moment I felt this way because there were happy moments mixed in. But somewhere in between the COVID-19 pandemic, working 40+ hours a week, and the nagging of the future calling, I started to feel it – burnout. 

Burnout is defined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources”  Freudenberger says burnout has 3 components:

  1. Emotional exhaustion- the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long.
  2. Depersonalization- the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion.
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment- the unconquerable sense of futility, feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

If you’re not sure if you’re burnt out, you can pay for the Maslach Burnout Inventory which is “recognized as the leading measure of Burnout” or you can take this free Burnout self-test. The Maslach Burnout inventory has tests for a variety of career disciplines including educators and students. It measures levels of cynicism, exhaustion, professional efficacy, and depersonalization to identify burnout. The burnout self-test offers questions for people to assess how they feel about their profession to assess their risk of burnout. 

Whether you take a test or define it for yourself, burnout can be debilitating, especially for performing artists. You may sit there practicing your instrument agonizing over each minute. Maybe, the thought of singing a song, or reading a monologue, brings immediate fatigue. It’s possible you’d rather sit in your apartment and watch tv than go to the studio to dance. 

I wasn’t sure where my burnout came from. Maybe I was burnt out because I also had (and still have) other non-creative jobs on top of my creative work, which pays my rent. Being lower or middle class, as I am, can mean that pursuing a career in the arts is especially difficult. You often must keep working at a job that pays while also working at a job that is not (not yet hopefully) paying you at all. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. Are there people out there who enjoy this? Working tirelessly so you can have a roof over your head and then only coming home to do more work that isn’t currently providing for you?

Maybe the burnout I felt came from my creative profession itself and not just the hours of working. According to “An Investigation of Burnout Assessment and Potential Job-Related Variables Among Public School Music Educators,” burnout is often associated with people in “helping professions” such as teaching, consulting, or nursing. I would argue that the performing arts can also be considered a “helping profession” given that in most cases we are expected to put on a performance that elicits some kind of emotion from others. I feel that as artists we perform for ourselves as well, we have a passion for performance that fulfills us. However, I think performing for others and the expectation to please them is a big part of it. Perhaps it’s the emotional toll of people’s expectations and opinions that can cause burnout. Maybe, the pressure to perform – and perform well – is why we get exhausted to the point where we don’t want to perform at all. After all, a study by Benjamin Hyun Stocking from the University of Kentucky found that “performance anxiety was a strong predictor of burnout” (nice to know that something as hard to control as that can cause burnout too!) 

Regardless of where the burnout came from, I deeply felt the different components of it. From November 2021- June 2022, I experienced extreme emotional exhaustion from caring so much about music and performing well for over 12 years. I felt a decreased sense of accomplishment because I could not be financially stable with music alone, and I then felt a deep sense of depersonalization due to the frustration caused by pouring so much energy into my artistic craft, only to yield what felt like little rewards. 

I didn’t feel ok in this state. It’s not that I wanted to quit playing my instrument or composing, I just wished it came easier. I saw others joyfully documenting their progress on social media and wondered why I didn’t feel the same. I decided to start looking for solutions.

After Google searching for answers on how to cure burnout among artists, I found some suggestions. For actors, blogger “upward failing actor” says to try theatre if you’re more of a film actor or join an acting class that is more interesting to you, make your own stuff, and most importantly rest. For musicians, Kate Glassman’s fiddle school suggests being gentle with yourself, playing things you enjoy, listening to music you love, and remembering that you won’t always want to practice, and guess what? Rest! Dancers: focus on the quality of training and not quantity, try other methods of movement like yoga, and most importantly Rest! All of this seemed like a good idea, but at the time it felt like no matter what I tried, the burnout wouldn’t go away.  I played the music I loved but then didn’t want to go back to practicing orchestral excerpts. I tried to compose music but wanted to just sit and watch tv instead. I rested, but then didn’t want to get out of bed. I kept judging the little work I did, despite trying to remind myself to be kind.

As I stated above, one of the things that helped me finish this article was a meeting with Paola Savvidou, where she shared information about a book on burnout that really changed my outlook on the topic. 

Amelia and Emily Nagoski, authors of “Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle” offer tips that can be used to both overcome burnout and potentially prevent it from happening. In a podcast interview with Brené Brown, Anna, and Emily describe emotions as a tunnel. Burnout happens when we get stuck in that tunnel, instead of doing what we need to do to get to the light on the other side. One reason why we get stuck in this emotional tunnel is that we do not complete the stress cycle. The stress cycle includes all the emotions we are feeling in a stressful situation. Emotions have a beginning, middle, and end, and just because we remove stressors from our lives, that does not mean the stress cycle is complete. That does not mean we processed those emotions. When you remove stressors, you still must “deal with the stress itself separately,” stress that may still reside in your body even after the stressors are gone. For example, if you have a big project due, and this work has the potential to cause burnout, there are different methods you can use to complete the stress cycle to process the tension that remains once you finish that project, and you have to find the one that works for you.

Anna and Emily say that one of the most efficient ways to complete the stress cycle is physical activity, whether that be running, yoga, or just taking a walk. Another method is breathing. Anna Nagoski says: 

“Breathing…regulates your nervous system, especially when you can take a slow breath in and a slow, long breath out, all the way to the ends of your abdominal muscles. That’s how you know you’re engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate the central nervous system. It is the gentlest way to complete the stress cycle.” 

She also points out that it’s ok if your thoughts are racing while you do this, saying the point of this is that you notice your mind racing, and you “return your attention to the breath coming into your body and the breath leaving your body. When you don’t have time to do anything else, it can also just siphon off the very worst of it, so that you’re well enough to continue through the situation.” Other methods to complete the stress cycle include positive social interaction, which could be as small as a quick compliment from someone, deep true laughter, a long hug with a loved one, or a good cry. All of these are ways to deal with stress so that it does not get stuck in your body, allowing you to overcome, or even prevent burnout. When I was dealing with burnout, I did a lot of deep breathing anytime I felt stressed. I also did a lot of yoga, it helped me relax and was a way to move my body without over-exerting myself.

I believe burnout is different for everyone. There is no “one size fits all” fix, and frankly, it’s probably not going to go away that easily. For me, burnout is like the pandemic at this moment, we must figure out how to cope, and how to live with it as it comes up. Living with COVID looks like getting vaccinated or wearing a mask and attending to your comfort levels. Hopefully, COVID will completely go away at some point, and I now know burnout eventually subsides. However, both situations require you to find what works for you. Living with burnout can look like figuring out what you want to accomplish and the deadlines you need, the rewards you need to provide yourself, and carving out the rest you specifically need to achieve your goals. 

For me, to live with burnout, I just had to accept it was happening. I spent the summer sleeping a lot, I spent too much money on a trip to New York. I carved out 3 hours a day for work (for my part-time job that paid rent – Thank God for flexible hours), one hour for practicing the oboe, one hour a day to compose, 30 min a day for physical activity, and nothing more – because that was all I could manage. This forced some sense of progress, while also giving me space to stare blankly at a wall, sleep, and feel and process the burnout.  When the semester started, I didn’t realize it, but I wasn’t burnt out anymore. I’m still not sure what exactly caused it to subside. Maybe it was the time I gave myself to rest or the fact that I stopped fighting it and just lived with it. It also could have subsided because I gave myself time to breathe, exercise a little, spend time with family, and address the stress I was feeling for so long. Perhaps through this, I was able to complete the stress cycle.

If you are dealing with burnout now, and you feel hopeless, hold on to any glimmer of hope you can find. Check out the Nagoski’s burnout book mentioned above, take advantage of some of the many resources offered by the Wellness Initiative, talk to friends and family, and rest. Don’t be afraid to take small steps and celebrate the small victories, and know that even though burnout sucks, you’re not alone and will eventually get through it.

Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL Log! I hope you find time to rest and check out the EXCEL Log for more resources and blog posts on navigating life in the performing arts! 

Resources on Burnout from Wellness Initiative Program Manager Paola Savvidou: 

Campus Mind Works “coping with stress and burnout” asynchronous presentation (you can also access it from this website if the link is not working:

Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle (book by Emily & Amelia Nagoski)

Brené Brown podcast episode with Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski 

Burnout self-test 

Burning Brightly Without Burning Out by Brenda Wristen


Additional resources on mental health and the Black Experience: 

You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience

Image source: from

4 Black Arts Concepts for Decolonization

Happy Black History Month and welcome back to the EXCEL Log!  This month we’ve been celebrating Black history by featuring student artists and talking about the contributions of Black artists to music, theatre, and dance. In this vein, it’s also important that we take a moment to focus on anti-racism, which is why today’s post focuses on how Black art forms can be used to decolonize the arts. Ideas for these concepts came from conversations with School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) students and faculty, and I enjoyed spending time broadening my knowledge on these topics. Read on to learn more! 

In addition to celebrating Black lives, and emphasizing Black joy, I believe that Black history month can also be used as a catalyst for change, especially in the arts world. Before we can even begin to think about what decolonizing the arts looks like, we must first discuss colonization. As defined by Decolonizing the Music Room, “Colonization, in the term’s most simplified use, is a system in which a central power dominates and controls another land, its people, and its resources – with land taken over being established as a colony.” When you map this term onto the arts world, this looks like hyper-focusing on western classical music, European ballet, or white-dominated theatre and deeming it superior to other forms. It looks like suppressing performance forms originating in Black, indigenous, Asian, latine, and other marginalized cultures and assigning them superficial functions within performing arts education. It can involve limiting Black artists to certain genres (e.g) hip hop or rap and then exhibiting resistance when those artists try to break free of molds assigned to them. To decolonize performing arts education, we must push back against these norms. We must amplify performing arts methods of marginalized identities that are often overlooked and understudied in our society.

Decolonization is important because it makes space for people who do not see themselves reflected in the performing arts industry as it stands now. I cannot speak enough about how isolating it is to be preached to about “the greats” in classical music making and rarely, almost never, see people who look like me on that list. My colleagues in the dance department have expressed frustration with the lack of classes focusing on dances of the African diaspora. Students in the theatre department and musical theatre departments have called for the performance of more works created by Black artists. Nationwide, there is a call among Black artists to be given the space in performing arts that they deserve. Decolonization is a path toward that aim.

To try and break down decolonization within the arts would take several blog posts, but to celebrate Black artists doing the work, here are four Black performance concepts that work to decolonize the arts by nature, and, if they are studied in arts education and more widely, can be used as a catalyst to decolonize the performing arts industry:

Yusef Lateef and Autophysiopsychic music 

I first heard of Yusef Lateef, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, when I was searching for jazz pieces for oboe. There aren’t that many out there, as the oboe is not traditionally used in jazz. However, I finally came across a piece titled Oboe Blues that Yusef Lateef performed and composed. I quickly became very interested in Lateef and his music, particularly autophysiopsychic music. He described autophysiopsychic music as  “music from the “physical, mental and spiritual self.” Incorporating autophysiopsychic music into music education allows students to learn the fundamentals of music and the spiritual aspects essential to expression and style. 

Lateef published a book titled “Method on How to Perform Autophysiopsychic Music” which entails ways for musicians to practice the art form. The book includes 12 lesson plans that articulate his musical and compositional style and give students ways to develop their memory and creativity. For example, there is a chapter on using different scales for innovative musical phrasing techniques. He also includes methods on Blues and song forms, along with various iterations of introducing different creative concepts, and providing exercises to learn those concepts.  In general, some may say that autophysiopsychic music is similar to improvisation because it involves creating music on the spot without notation. However, Lateef maintains that “the word ‘improvisation’ as it relates to music means: to present music resulting from prior practice and study; and ‘autophysiopsychic’ means: music from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self.”

Incorporating Lateef’s music into music education works toward decolonization because it not only exposes students to teachings by non-white musicians, thus welcoming those of marginalized identities more thoroughly into the music-making process, but it also goes beyond western notions of classical music teaching. It asks musicians to think of music in a spiritual way, opening the door for musicians to expand their musicianship beyond the technical. There are many instances where musicians, who may not have access to private teachers, arts intensives, or professional training learn music by ear. I’ve seen this done at the church I grew up in and some of my favorite artists learned music this way – by learning to feel music in their bodies without strictly adhering to notes or words on a page. Autophysiopsychic music is similar to this practice. Though musicians learning the genre are still encouraged to study scales, it goes beyond the methodical and brings about a language that suggests the intangible aspects of music, the ones having to do with emotions and our relationship with sound. 

Many non-western music forms, such as drumming in Congolese dance, ask musicians to feel the music, not the page, to learn the form. I experienced this in a Congolese dance class at UM, where we were asked to learn the sounds of different cues that the drums made. Drum rhythms were taught by one person mimicking another, changing rhythm without following sheet music. Incorporating autophysiopsychic music into music education emphasizes the validity of learning music in non-traditional ways, thus pushing back against the notion of a homogenous and colonial way of learning. 

Katherine Dunham and Dunham Technique

I asked some of my colleagues in the dance department about ways to work toward decolonization in dance. In that conversation, we talked about the work of Katherine Dunham. She was an anthropologist, dancer, choreographer, and founder of the first Black dance company. She developed the Dunham technique, which is a fusion of African and Caribbean dance styles with European Style Ballet. Dunham’s approach to dance is polyrhythmic in that it is often done to the beat of multiple drummers. In Dunham, you work with turnout, and barre as you would in European Ballet, but you also work with counter rhythms in your body – one body part doing a different rhythm than another. Dunham also utilizes a strong and articulate torso, unlike other dance forms. 

Check out this video of some dancers doing the Dunham technique, and see what elements you can identify:

Katherine Dunham decolonizes the arts through technique, positioning non-western European forms as equal to European dance forms. Dunham’s extensive research in “Haiti, Martinique, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Mexico, and Brazil to better understand the cultural significance of movement” allowed her to center these cultures and apply their frameworks in her teaching. Though I haven’t taken a Dunham dance class, I’ve seen the style in performance. It’s a beautiful art form, and I felt the energy and collaborative spirit among the dancers. Dr. Albirda Rose, Director of the Dunham Technique Certification Board says, the three most important things to bring to a Dunham class are an open mind, body and spirit,” and you can feel this openness in the audience as well. 

Dunham’s work decolonizes by promoting intercultural communication, not cultural destruction, as seen in many colonized histories. By incorporating Dunham and other dance forms that exist both within and outside of the African diaspora we can give space to multiple cultures, and push back against a colonial framework.

Black Theatre; Black Performance

I reached out to Andrew Otchere, a fellow EXCEL program assistant, looking for ways decolonization can manifest in theatre. He mentioned taking a class on Black theatre and its history and sent me the syllabus. I began exploring. At a basic level, Black theatre involves “the presence of black artists on the scene; a dramaturgy that addresses issues related to blackness and the social issues experienced by the black population; a black production; or the presence of a Black director” However, these characteristics alone do not make Black theatre. Black theatre is a broad concept that cannot be limited to a single definition. 

In a poem titled “New Black Math” by Suzan Lori Parks, she writes  “A Black play is angry, double-voiced but rarely confused, intellectual and deep. A Black play got a mission. A black play dreams the impossible dream.”  I think this could be said about a lot of Black artists in various disciplines. Whether we are specifically creating things based on our experience as Black people, or not, our existence in the performing arts is as Audre Lorde says, “political warfare” because we are choosing to carve space for ourselves in a tradition that did not originally welcome us. 

Though there are likely many instances of Black Theatre that were not recorded in history, the first known Black theatre group in the US was the African Company – founded in 1820 by William Alexander Brown, a free Black man from the West Indies. The company performed in a lower Manhattan theater called The African Grove. Though they performed Shakespearean dramas, what is more notable is their production of King Shotaway, written by Brown himself, which was probably the first play written and performed by Black people. The African Company closed in 1823 and the reason for its ending is unclear. This NY Times article shares more of the African theatre’s history including potential reasons for disbanding. The article says that one reason could be due to an attack on the theatre because Brown dared to present a Shakespearean drama on the same night as a white theatre presenting a rival Shakespearean production. There was also a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1822 which wiped out Brown’s audience, and the last playbill for the African Theatre is dated June 1823. 

When the company closed, most of the opportunities left for Black actors were those involving Blackface minstrelsy, a practice that perpetuated white supremacy and thus colonization by diminishing Black existence to racial caricatures. However, by the 1900s Black people began to make space for themselves within the theatre.  Angelina W. Grimké’s Rachel became a success by 1916, and many Black Theatre companies emerged during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s-1930s in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C the tradition continued to grow from there, with works by Garland Anderson (creator of Appearances, the first play by a Black author to hit broadway), and Langston Hughes. After world war II, Black theatre grew more progressive.  Councils were also created to try to abolish racial stereotypes in theatre, and further integrate Black artists into the American theatre industry and works began to portray the difficulties of being Black in America. Parts of Black theatre grew revolutionary, with the emergence of the Black Arts movement. It is said to be established by Amiri Baraka but artists such as Sonia Sanchez, Askia Touré, and Ntozake Shange also contributed significantly to its growth. Artists of the Black Arts movement are often seen as working in tandem with the Black Power movement. They wanted to create works that exposed the struggles of Black people in America, emphasizing Black economic and cultural autonomy. 

Black theatre continued to thrive with widely acclaimed playwrights August Wilson and Suzan Lori Parks. August Wilson is the creator of the widely acclaimed plays “Fences” and “Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom” – both award-winning productions that eventually obtained movie adaptations. Suzan Lori Parks was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama, and like Wilson illustrates the complexities of the Black American experience in her work. 

Black theatre continues to flourish with more recent creatives like Tarell Alvin McClaney, whose unpublished play was adapted into the acclaimed film Moonlight Also, with Michael R. Jackson, creator of the Tony award-winning “A Strange Loop,” a musical illustrating the unique experience of Black queerness, and Jeremy O. Harris, who confronts the complexity that the legacy of racism in America can have on interracial relationships in “Slave play.” Black theatre traverses the stage and screen, it relates to audiences familiar with the theatre world and those outside of it, and its existence decolonizes the arts by putting the Black experience – in all of its complex forms – at the forefront.

Black theatre is not a monolith. Each element of Black theatre in each performance is distinct and should be regarded as such. However,  Black theatre in every form “encompasses the soul and spirit of Black people, and represents our whole experience of being here in this oppressive land”. While the United States is multicultural, aesthetic value is shaped by the dominant European culture. So, to further decolonization within the arts, Black theatre, like Black music, should be extensively studied, performed, and considered equal to European and white-dominant theatre. 


Afrofuturism is a genre that centers Black history and culture and incorporates science-fiction, technology, and futuristic elements into literature, music, and the visual arts. In a conversation with Prof. Antonio Cuyler, he mentioned the ways Afrofuturism works toward decolonizing the arts. The genre imagines impossible futures like science fiction but creates an aesthetic invested in the beauty of Blackness, and can also involve spirituality, an escape from reality, or an examination of real-world problems.

Afrofuturism is prolific in music, with artists such as Sun Ra and Janelle Monae offering plenty of examples. Sun Ra, a prominent musician of Afrofuturism from the 1930s-1990s, created futuristic sounds that incorporated Egyptian mythology. He literally described himself as “a musical astronaut, sailing through galaxies through the medium of sound.” Janelle Monae is an artist I am particularly passionate about, due to her genre-bending music – which is both imaginative and socially conscious. She takes an intersectional approach to Afrofuturism by incorporating her experience as a Black queer woman into her music. For example, her album The ArchAndroid, uses androids to represent the marginalized and oppressed and tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, who is on the run for her crime of falling in love with a human. 

Check out Janelle Monae’s “emotion picture” Dirty Computer where she tells the story of another android in her Afrofuturist universe, Jane. Monae also celebrates Blackness and queerness by incorporating what seems to be her own experience in the song “Django Jane” and emphasizes the fluidity of sexuality and gender in the songs “Pynk” and “Make me feel.”

In dance, Raissa Simpson incorporated Afrofuturism in her project Mothership, a trilogy of performances that examines race and gender, speculative fiction, anti-colonialism, current events and social movements. 

Check out this clip of highlights from Mother ship 3 to get a glimpse of the performance: 

The Last Blues Song of a Lost Afronaut illustrates Afrofuturism by embodying a world in which Black people were not affected by European colonialism. The theatrical experience is set millennia into the future where Afronaut Femi travels through space in search of life on other planets. She then recreates the last survivor of a desolate world Maya, who is a white girl, a being Femi has never seen before.

The study of Afrofuturism can be used to decolonize the arts because it not only pushes back against a eurocentric way of thinking, but it has an investment in Black history and culture. It imagines worlds without the effects of colonization while taking into account the current experiences of Black people. Afrofuturism transcends genre. It embodies a space where Black people can be unapologetically themselves, without conforming to white-centric notions.

Overall, by studying these Black art concepts and others, we can give a voice to the unheard. Incorporating autophysiopsychic music, Dunham technique, Black Theatre, and Afrofuturism into arts education and our own individual learning can broaden horizons and amplify Black voices. These art forms make space for Black people in a world that often excludes them. As a Black artist in the performing arts industry, I have spent a lot of time searching for art forms that I see myself in, because I do not see myself in the traditional canon. There are so many Black art forms flourishing and it’s great to know that I am not alone in working toward decolonization. Even if we cannot fully erase the impact of white supremacy and colonialism on the arts and within society as a whole, we can take the time to learn more and celebrate Black artists and amplify their voices. I hope by reading this post you found new Black arts techniques to learn from and to influence your own artistry, which can further the effort to decolonize the arts and pave the way for a new future within the arts and beyond. 

Additional Resources: 

Learn about Afro Pessimism, another concept evident in hip hop that if studied can work toward decolonizing the arts 

Read some of Sonia Sanchez’s poetry

Learn more about Michael R. Jackson’s musical, A Strange Loop

Image Sources:

Highlighting Black Artistry: The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin

Happy Black History Month! We’re back again here on the EXCEL Log for a Black artistry feature. In case you haven’t read our previous post, this month at the EXCEL Log we’re highlighting Black music, theatre, and dance. It’s important to celebrate Black artistry every month, but during Black history month, we can intentionally broaden our horizons and focus on creating tangible efforts to amplify Black voices. This week we will be featuring Cortez Hill. He is a 3rd-year Business Administration and Theatre Arts student, an EXCEL Enterprise fund recipient, and the producer of The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin, a musical by Kirsten Childs that will be performed at the Arthur Miller Theatre on February 24th and 25th.

Mattie Levy: What was the inspiration behind producing Bubbly Black Girl?

Cortez Hill: Our Music Director, Caleb Middleton (SMTD ’24), and I were introduced to this work by Musical Theatre Department Chair, Michael McElroy. We were instantly drawn to this amazing piece of work written by Kirsten Childs and wanted to bring it to the U-M community. The piece addresses serious issues but also talks about them in a hilarious way that I think really appeals to the humor of our current generation and population at the University of Michigan. Kirsten’s creative mind and unique musical talents are not like anything I have ever seen before in a production on campus, and I am excited to introduce this musical to the community.

Mattie Levy: What do you think audiences will get from the experience of watching the show?

Cortez Hill: I hope the audience will learn so much from the story about a unique experience of a Black woman that is not often represented in other works, even other works that are also written by Black artists about Black communities. Still, Bubbly Black Girl really has something for everyone – all identities – to relate to. Additionally, we have so many incredible artists from various disciplines involved in this production. Our actors, designers, and creative teams have dedicated so much time towards bringing the story to life and I’m so thrilled for our audience to see their amazing work!

Mattie Levy: Anything else you would like to share?

Cortez Hill: Starting this project involved introducing it to various students and organizations on campus. I’m so happy and grateful for the amount of support we receive from the U-M community to put this show on the stage!

Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL log! Mark your calendars and go see The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin at Arthur Miller Theatre on February 24th, 2023 at 8pm or February 25th at 2pm or 8pm. Tickets are free but can be reserved here. Check out this link to learn more about the show.

Highlighting Black Artistry: An Evening for Sarah

Happy Black History Month! This month at the EXCEL Log we are highlighting Black Artistry by featuring student projects and highlighting the contributions of Black artists to music, theatre, and dance. It’s important to always celebrate Black History, but Black History Month can be a time to intentionally reflect and educate ourselves on the ways Black people have shaped and continue to shape performance, art, and culture. We kick off this series with a brief interview with 4th-year dance major, Brooke Taylor, about her project An Evening for Sarah, a performance honoring Sarah Collins Rudolph on Friday, February 10th at 7pm. 

Mattie Levy: What was the inspiration behind creating an Evening for Sarah

Brooke Taylor: Last May, I was watching Channel 7 news and there was a story about a woman named Sarah Collins Rudolph. I quickly found out that she was the fifth little girl, who survived the 16th Street Church bombing on September 15th, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. I was so shocked because throughout my years I was only aware of the 4 little girls, who were killed due to the bomb. This news segment was not only the telling of Sarah’s story, but it was also about Oakland University honoring Sarah Collins Rudolph with an honorary nursing degree because she wasn’t able to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. As I continued to watch this story, my mind started to turn and I got the feeling of butterflies in my stomach. This feeling, which I am very accustomed to, means I have an idea to plan something. I thought to myself, I want to plan a concert at the University of Michigan to honor her through art and dance. 

Mattie Levy: Can you tell us about some of the performances we’ll see at an Evening for Sarah?

Brooke Taylor: You will see students from across the University of Michigan honoring her through song, dance, and poetry. 

Mattie Levy: Is there anything else you would like to share about the project? 

Brooke Taylor: This year will mark 60 years since the hate crime that was the 16th Street Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to remembering these impactful moments of history, we should also be honoring and learning from the ones who lived through them. 

Check out An Evening for Sarah on February 10th, 2023 at 7pm. The concert will take place at the Dance Building’s Performance Studio Theatre, 1000 Baits Dr, Ann Arbor, MI, 48109. Tickets will be available for free an hour before the show and are first come, first served. 

Additional Resources on Sarah Collins Rudolph:

“Birmingham’s 5th Girl” a Washington Post article that provides more information about the 16th St. Church Bombing

Sarah Collins Rudolph’s website 

Taking the Stress out of Social Media

Image description: An image of a laptop keyboard is shown against a black background. Logos for various social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and youtube are situated on top of the keyboard.

I’ve always been an introvert. I enjoy my time to myself, and I use alone time to recharge. As I came into myself as an artist I realized some “extroverting” was required. Some recent examples were when I gathered up the 60 seconds of confidence required to talk to a clinician in a master class, or randomly approached an instrumentalist I didn’t know to play one of my pieces. Those moments of putting myself out there took effort – lots of it – which means that posting videos of myself on Tiktok dancing or playing music, curating the perfect caption for Instagram posts, or creating content to advertise my performances is overwhelming.

This month at the EXCEL Log, I’m hoping to overcome these fears and learn more about how to navigate social media. To help with this I reached out to EXCEL Program Assistants KJ Ludwig and Lesley Sung. KJ is a singer with Anytime Band and an Instagram wizard. Lesley is a 3rd year piano performance student, helps manage EXCEL social media and graphic design, and just so happens to be a TikTok icon.

I think what makes me so nervous about social media is not that I don’t know what to post, but that I don’t know HOW to post. I feel like sometimes when I share links to my recordings, or when I want to encourage people to attend a performance, I just don’t know how to convey that information in a digestible way. I end up with awkward long captions, weird pictures at odd angles, or random videos that don’t get any views. I asked KJ and Lesley for their top tips on how to navigate these areas, and this is what they recommend:

  • Create posts before, during, and after a performance

One key tip that KJ recommended was to keep your audience engaged throughout the performance process. She says: 

“It’s your job as the digital marketer to hold guests’ hands through the experience. Before the event, post a story of where to park with an image of the parking lot. For dinner or drinks before or after, feature local restaurants. Before the event, take a picture behind the curtain. Your audience will appreciate feeling a part of the journey” 

Keeping your audience engaged throughout a performance day can make them feel like they’re a part of the whole experience. This often leads them to engage more with your content because they get a more personal connection to you and your work.

  • It’s important to follow social media trends

This tip is especially important for TikTok. Lesley says that keeping up with social media trends allows you to get multiple views on your videos and posts. Now if you’re like me, you are probably wondering: “How do I even know what a social media trend is?” 

Trend is a very broad word that generally means “a prevailing tendency or inclination” or “general movement” but TikTok uses it to “describe the creative formats, ideas, and behaviors that get a lot of attention and in turn influence what people do on the platform.” When you open the TikTok app, you’re able to see numerous examples of what is currently trending. You can also explore various trends on TikTok’s creative center which allows you to get a detailed view of trending hashtags, creators, and songs. You can even browse what is trending in different countries, figure out what age range content is trending, see for how long a topic may be trending, and more. Lesley shared with me an example of one of her videos that blew up in 2021 she said: 

 “Back in 2021, there was a massive trend that was going around where people would utilize the Siri voice effect to make funny videos. I decided to hop on this trend using my actual personal experience to engage with my audience” 


✨My thoughts on stage when I’m about to perform✨ #fyp #foryoupage #pianist #performance #umich

♬ original sound – Lesley Sung
Image description: An embedded video from Lesley’s Tiktok. She is seen walking toward a piano and the caption “My thoughts on stage when I’m about to perform” is written under the image.

Social media trends aren’t only found on TikTok, though they tend to hit TikTok first and then migrate to other platforms. However, if you don’t have TikTok, you can still follow other creators in your niche, see what’s trending on Twitter, Youtube, Instagram or google, or join Facebook groups that reflect your audience to keep up with current trends.

  • Pay attention to how you frame your caption

Captions are a small detail that I never thought mattered, but it turns out the perfect caption can go a long way. KJ and Lesley say to try to keep your captions concise and to try to use captions that engage your audience. Social Media Today says to use captions that encourage conversations. This can be done by posting open-ended questions, so your audience is invited to share their opinions and connect with you. You can also use social media captions to add value to your audience’s day. Perhaps you can include a funny/satisfying pun, or share some inspirational advice, “giving a little something can encourage your audience to give a little back. They may thank you, or share their own take on your post.” 

Here’s an example of a great caption from KJ (notice the wonderful Mr. Roger’s neighborhood pun): 

Image description: an Instagram screenshot of KJ’s post. A crowd stands at the diag watching KJ perform with her band “Anytime band” A caption is written under the image that says “It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood

And if all else fails and you can’t think of one, you can always look up engaging captions online.

  • Utilize Planning and Graphic Design Software

KJ and Lesley both agree that posting frequently will help you build your social media presence. However, you also need to be careful about posting too much, as that would overwhelm your audience and cause them to unfollow you. Christine Galbatto, a travel influencer and business educator for creatives, says that Instagram recommends posting “A reel 4 to 7 times per week, an in-feed photo 3 to 5 times per week, a set of stories 8 to 10 times per week, an IGTV and go live at least once per week.” However, if you don’t have the time for this kind of schedule that’s ok. Ultimately you need to set your post schedule and be consistent with it. Social media planning software allows you to set up your posts in advance. You can schedule when each post goes live to strike a balance between posting too little and posting too much, and be consistent with your posting schedule. KJ recommended a variety of resources for setting a posting schedule in the EXCEL Creative Marketing 101 Toolbox. 

In addition to knowing when to post, you should also make sure what you’re posting looks great. This is where graphic design software comes in handy. There are plenty of resources like Canva, Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe Express, and Google Doc templates that can make your posts more engaging to viewers. It’s important to pay attention to the appearance of your posts because “94% of first impressions of a brand or company are design-related and 75% of people judge how credible a brand is based on its website.” This probably means that people will do the same thing for your posts on Instagram, or your videos on TikTok which definitely makes me nervous. However, I think using the software above could ease some of that stress. 

  • Post Consistently

This is probably the hardest and most important thing about social media. The key to building social media presence is consistency. This is especially difficult for me because as I said above, I’m an introvert, so posting on social media always takes a lot of energy. I am also always running around, and never have the energy to try to take the perfect video of my composing process, or pose for a photo before a concert.

As mentioned above,  KJ and Lesley both agree that posting regularly is key for building your social media presence. “If you go weeks between posts, it’s unlikely that your audience is seeing your message frequently enough for it to be memorable and make an impact.”  However, thankfully KJ says “If you don’t have the capacity to use all social media platforms, using one platform pretty consistently is a good thing.”

My to-do list for my social media future

After talking to KJ and Lesley, I’m still freaking out about social media (and how much work is involved), but I feel better because I have a clearer idea of how to approach it. I’m going to use this post for some personal accountability and set a few goals for social media this month. I’m going to:

  • Download a TikTok (nervous laughter) and plan my first video 
  • Schedule out posts on Instagram and Facebook using some of the social media planning software recommended above
  • Be more consistent about posting and set a dedicated time each week to schedule my social media posts. 

Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL Log. I hope by reading this you feel a little better about social media and think of ways to use it that work for you. Visit the EXCEL Log next month to find out if I stuck with my social media goals, and hear about more topics regarding life in the performing arts, arts entrepreneurship, and more. 


For keeping up with trends: 

8 Tips for Finding New and Emerging Trends on Social Media

For creating a social media marketing plan

The Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Social Media Marketing Plan From Scratch

Scheduling software and calendar templates

Hootsuite Post Schedule App

For graphic design/content creation

How to Canva tutorial by Lesley

Creating YouTube videos

Learn more about KJ 

KJ stands on a bridge with trees in the background. Her hands are raised and she is smiling. She is wearing a blue jacket, a bright orange shirt and some jeans.

Karen Jane “KJ” Ludwig, [she/her] a curious Yooper, born and raised in Marquette, MI, is actively questioning the world-at-large, through a lens of painted color and song. KJ is dreaming BIG as she enters her Senior year at the University of Michigan, where she studies voice performance with Professor Stanford Olsen. KJ is working toward a multidisciplinary degree within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, which allows the freedom to concentrate in music composition and performing arts technology, as well as minors in arts administration and entrepreneurship. There’s a world of pure imagination in KJ’s brain, and while creating, KJ feels the most at peace and present with the world at large. Learn more about KJ here:

Learn more and Lesley

Lesley Sung is currently a junior studying Piano Performance and Film, Television, and Media studies at the University of Michigan. Although her passion for music plays a huge role in her career path, her passion for creating content has grown in recent years due to the influence of Tiktok trends and viral videos. She has been managing multiple social media platforms such as those for clubs, Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity, and her parents’ donut shop Instagram/Facebook accounts. With these experiences, she was recently recruited to work with EXCEL as a Program Assistant that solely focuses on social media. Her role in EXCEL consists of creating graphic designs for newsletters, planning content for Facebook and Instagram, organizing events, and attending weekly meetings to discuss and plan for future projects.

The Legal Side of the Performing Arts: Trick…or Treat?

Image Description: A banner with white string and orange flags spells out the words “Happy Halloween” in black font. Jack-o-lanterns are also hanging from the banner, which is pictured in front of a black background.

I’m walking into a dark room, unable to see or hear anything around me. My stomach curls inward, trembling with fear as I open my laptop, and take in the details of…ENTERTAINMENT LAW. *DUN DUN DAAAA* 

Happy Spooky Season! This month at the EXCEL Log, we’re taking a look at entertainment law which I think is one of the scariest things about being a performing artist. What is it? How does it work? What’s an LLC? What are contracts? Copyright?? AHhhh. 

To help defeat the entertainment law demons, I talked to Schuyler Donahoe. He’s a 4th-year student in percussion performance with a minor in performing arts management. He also works as a program assistant for EXCEL, and we spoke about his career journey, and his decision to work specifically within the legal side of the performing arts.

After the isolation and canceled concerts due to the pandemic, Schuyler – like many of us may have – says he “lost his drive for performing a little bit.” It led him to wonder, “What else is there?” 

In his sophomore year, Schuyler got an internship with Just a Theory Press, a music publishing company that works to publish music in a fair and equitable manner. Working with Josh Devries, an EXCEL prize winner, at Just a Theory Press ignited the “legal spark” within him. 

“I was just doing a bunch of random stuff for him where he needed extra help: emails, taking notes, phone calls, those kinds of areas, but then he asked me to help with contracts,” says Schuyler. He thought he was going to hate it at first. But then, “​​I got more into it, and I was like oh, I really like this.” Soon, Schuyler realized that he wanted to help musicians with legal issues and started to actively pursue entertainment law by looking into law schools and talking to people who went to law school but had a music background.

Entertainment law is basically “a broad legal area that encompasses a wide variety of issues, (including intellectual property protection, endorsements, licensing and personal service agreements)” that performing artists may encounter. It involves business structures of organizations (e.g.: starting a non-profit music organization or arts collective), copyright (e.g.: obtaining rights to music compositions or sound recordings), or contract and labor laws (e.g.: a contract between two collaborators or labor unions respectively). 

Schuyler took classes in arts administration and the business side of the performing arts and did his own research to learn more about these issues and other legal situations artists were facing. Soon he came to EXCEL with his thoughts, he said, “ ‘Hey, I saw you have Grant writing modules. What do you think about having something like this for entertainment law? Is that something you’re interested in? Do you want some legal stuff?’ And EXCEL being EXCEL was like ‘yes, absolutely.’” 

EXCEL is always looking for new ideas and does everything possible to help bring student initiatives to life. The EXCEL Lab works to “explore students’ individual visions and goals, and then connect them with the resources they need to thrive.” Schuyler’s initial meeting with EXCEL served as a catalyst for the development of a much-needed resource for performing artists. 

He started off working as a contractor for EXCEL, slowly developing a document to present entertainment law to the SMTD community. Pretty soon, he was working for EXCEL in a program assistant capacity and developed “The EXCEL Lab Legal Resource, Module 1: Business Structures and Incorporation” the first in what will become a series of modules that demystify the “legal jargon” of entertainment law.

Many student artists within SMTD (myself included) want to express their discipline in innovative ways but have a hard time jumping through the many legal hoops involved. For example, I’m hoping to register my music as a composer, but I’m not sure of the steps I need to take. My friend is starting a non-profit to diversify flute performance repertoire but is overwhelmed by the process of establishing an LLC.

Schuyler said, “[I] thought of what people in the school were having issues with, and sort of narrowed it down to 3 different categories. The first module talks about how to start a non-profit, or how to start an LLC. for an organization. What do all these different business structures mean? What do I even do to start these?” This module is already available online. After reading it myself, I can say that it delivers on its promise of being accessible to the public. It explains different types of business structures, the definition of some of the common legal terms associated with them, and provides resources for further reading. 

The second module will be all about copyright, exploring topics like how to avoid copyright infringement, and what to do if someone infringes on your copyright. I can’t wait for this one to come out. As an oboist and composer, I’m often confused about the process of performing arrangements of other’s songs or how to protect my work from theft. Module 2 will be available later this semester. 

“The third module, which is a work in progress, is going to be all about contracts. It will answer questions like: What should I be looking for in a contract? What if I’m writing one, what do I need to make sure is in there? The modules just have a lot of different things that will make sure that musicians are well protected” explained Schuyler. 

The modules provide an accessible starting point for musicians to tackle the mysteries of entertainment law in an understandable and efficient way. Schuyler says that: “One motivation for this project comes from the fact that musicians don’t have time to do anything. Time is a valuable resource that we have.” 

As a performer-composer getting 2 degrees, working 3 jobs, and gigging I completely agreed with this sentiment. Every minute is valuable. I appreciate how Schuyler uses his music background to inform how he approaches entertainment law. There are many resources on legal issues out there, but I feel like this one is special because it really approaches entertainment law from the lens of a performing artist. Schuyler pointed out that: “If someone said: ‘Here are some of the things that you need to know in one document.’ That would save you from a lot of random Google searching.” The modules aren’t exhaustive, but Schuyler hopes that they can give musicians a starting point so that when they go to a colleague, to EXCEL, or to an attorney for help they have a “grounded foundation” to build upon. 

After learning about Schuyler’s journey and the canvas modules, I asked him to offer up his top three tips for navigating the legal side of the performing arts: 

1.) Know the basics of copyright and be careful of copyright infringement. 

Schuyler points out that “there are three aspects of copyright that I wish everyone was aware of: The first is Protection is present at the creation of the work.” 

Schuyler says that this means “If you make something it is automatically protected under copyright.” If you write a song and it’s on some staff paper in your house, it’s protected. Did you write a script in a notebook and throw it under your bed? That’s protected too. The second thing Schuyler wants everyone to know about copyright is that “If someone steals your work that’s illegal. However, you do have to register your work with the copyright office to enforce the copyright.” 

Registering your work with the copyright office involves going to and following the procedures listed for your respective discipline. For the performing arts, this involves filling out a form, and submitting the work that you wish to be registered in a certain medium- either printed or electronic- depending on the circumstances. You will then have to pay a registration fee. Click here for more information

Schuyler says, “The 3rd thing to be careful about is sampling or using other people’s work, even if it falls under fair use. If someone says, ‘you stole my thing!’ they can sue you and dealing with lawsuits can be very expensive” Just as copyright can be beneficial to creatives, it also can get uncomfortable and spooky if you use someone’s work without their permission, so be careful everyone! 

2.) Don’t be afraid of uncomfortable conversations during collaboration.

It’s important to discuss ownership in formal collaboration at the beginning to avoid personal and legal consequences. 

An example Schuyler shared is, “let’s say two people are in a duo, and one person composes a piece for their instruments. Person A could be under the impression that [the two musicians] would share the copyright and Person B could think that they would own the copyright for the whole thing. If this project starts to make money, it can get dicey if these parameters weren’t discussed beforehand.” 

Schuyler and I agreed that performers and creatives are very particular about their work, and the credit that is due when it is created. Artists put a lot of time and effort into their craft, and everyone wants proper recognition for that work. You don’t want to lose important relationships with colleagues over disagreements in ownership or end up dealing with an expensive lawsuit due to a miscommunication between two parties. 

3.) Take your time. 

This one is simple. Schuyler says “The legal stuff is really complicated. There are so many moving parts, and it’s okay to ask for help, it’s ok to google stuff, ask colleagues, or set up a meeting with EXCEL. Don’t fall into this ‘musician trap’ where you need to like, know everything. Take the time to get the legal stuff right the first time.”

After talking to Schuyler, the legal side of the performing arts seems less scary. This conversation was just a starting point, and I’m sure I have plenty to learn when it comes to entertainment law, but I feel like I learned some of the basics. To the artists in the SMTD community: I hope this article made legal stuff less spooky, but if you’re still scared, check out the EXCEL Legal resource. I promise it will be a treat, not a trick ;). 

Thanks for tuning into the Excel Log! Check below for some more resources and to learn more about Schuyler, and I hope hearing about our conversation allows you to think of new ways to enhance your artistic career! 

Sources/Additional Resources: 

Entertainment Law Overview – an overview of the basics of Entertainment law

All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald S. Passman – Schuyler calls this the music industry bible

All You Need to Know About the Music Business  -A link to check out “All You Need to Know About the Music Business” from the UM library 

Student Legal Services– A legal resource for University of Michigan Students

Featured image source

Schuyler Donahoe is pictured smiling. He is wearing glasses and a blue shirt and are standing in front of a brown and white background.
Image Description: Schuyler Donahoe is pictured smiling. He is wearing glasses and a blue shirt and is standing in front of a brown and white background.

Schuyler Donahoe (he/him) is a senior majoring in Percussion Performance and minoring in Performing Arts Management and Entrepreneurship. In the EXCEL Lab, his primary work is to expand SMTD legal resources by creating a series of modules called the “EXCEL Legal Resource” as well as curate events around legal topics.

Happy Hispanic/Latine Heritage Month!

Image description: The words Celebrating Hispanic/Latina/o/x heritage month September 15th-October 15th are written in multiple colors.

Happy Hispanic/Latine heritage month! In case you didn’t know Hispanic/Latine heritage month takes place from September 15th through October 15th each year. Since this year’s blog just launched with an intro post, I thought now would be a great time to celebrate! 

First, a little history. 

Hispanic Heritage” month was originally “Hispanic Heritage” week, and it was created by then-president Lyndon Johnson in 1968. The celebration was soon expanded from one week to one month, in 1988, by then-president Ronald Reagan. On August 17, 1988, the recognition of the “Hispanic Heritage month” we know today, which lasts from September 15th through October 15th was enacted into law. 

I put “Hispanic Heritage month” in quotations above because the term Hispanic does not emphasize all of the groups that are included in the month. Though many people use “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and “Latinx” interchangeably, there is a difference between the terms. “Hispanic” now refers to anyone who speaks Spanish, though this excludes Brazil, whose primary language is Portuguese. Some people take issue with the term Hispanic because it originally referred to Spain, a country that at one point colonized many countries (including Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the Philippines among many others) that have since gained their independence. For this reason, many people identify with the term “Latino or Latina” which refers to any person from Latin America or of Latin American descent that is currently living in the United States. However, Latino/a is not the same as the term “Latin American” which refers to any person living in Latin America. 

Since Spanish is a gendered language with masculine and feminine spellings for words, the term,  Latinx, was coined as a gender-neutral alternative. Some people are against this term as well though, because “Latinx” is harder to pronounce according to the Real Academia Española (the group that maintains the consistency of the Spanish language). Others argue that the word latinx was imposed by non-Latino whites, but some say that the term was created by queer latinx people. Finally, there is the term Latine which is used as another gender-neutral alternative. It was created by feminist and nonbinary communities. According to El Centro at Colorado State University “The objective of the term is also to remove gender from Spanish, by replacing it with the gender-neutral Spanish letter E, which can already be found in words like Estudiante.” In addition, some people just like to be referred to by their specific country of origin, instead of using a term that unites all Latin American countries. 

Terminology is important. The words we use can be powerful in understanding one another and learning about varying perspectives. Further, broadening your horizons, beyond terminology and history can be one way to celebrate Hispanic/Latine heritage month. 

With that effort in mind, I thought I would gain the perspective of two Latine students at SMTD to see how they feel about the month and the ways they celebrate. 

When talking to 4th-year BA dance student Annabella Vidrio, she says that she “doesn’t like Latine Heritage month events that are just lectures that educate others outside the community.”  

However, she does think that the Office for Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) took that into consideration when planning their events this year.  “I went to the Latinx Heritage Month Opening Ceremony and I plan on attending more of the other events too. I just enjoyed seeing my community and going to an event that celebrates us,” says Vidrio. She believes “Hispanic/Latine programs should be celebratory events for those who share a Hispanic/Latine identity and allies.” 

MM in Violin Performance and Chamber performance student Javier Torres believes that it’s important to celebrate Hispanic/Latine heritage and that celebrating the month looks different to each person.  “I think because I haven’t been in the US for that long, celebrating my culture is different for me. I still feel connected to Puerto Rico and when I go home, that’s where I celebrate. I think Hispanic/Latine heritage month is especially for people who have been in the US longer, it’s a time that they can remember their roots, celebrate their families, abuelos, and abuelas,” says Javier Torres.

“I am so honored to have a month that is dedicated to honoring my culture which is a melding of so many cultures.  Particularly where I am from, Puerto Rico, we have a beautiful mix of African, Taíno (Indigenous Caribbeans), Spanish, Arabic, and many other cultures.” -Javier Torres

Just because people have different backgrounds, does not mean they can’t find ways to relate to one another. Javier believes that Hispanic/Latine heritage month should be about all Hispanic/Latine cultures coming together and being in community with one another, while allies support them in that effort. 

SMTD still has an opportunity for growth in supporting Hispanic/Latine students.

So far, SMTD has advertised MESA Hispanic/Latine heritage month events on social media. The SMTD Office for DEI also did Instagram takeovers sharing resources on Hispanic/Latine heritage month. However, many feel that SMTD as an institution still needs to create more tangible initiatives to support Hispanic/Latine communities. Javier says that “if [SMTD is] doing Hispanic/Latine heritage month we have to go all out, with Bomba events, Salsa events, El Jarabe Tapatío, and more. We need to incorporate Hispanic/Latine culture into the music, theatre, and dance.” Offering internal programs to both support Hispanic/Latine students and properly celebrate Hispanic/Latine heritage month could establish a stronger sense of belonging among Latine students. An effort that is especially needed, since the white-dominated fine arts world is often one that excludes them. 

Annabella also believes that SMTD needs to do more to support Hispanic/Latine students. She thinks that “presence is the most important thing. Supporting Hispanic/Latine people and DEI in the arts should be about an emphasis on bringing our school and its resources to people of diverse backgrounds, not just advantaged ones.”

In addition to planning for the future, SMTD as a school needs to extend its reach to marginalized communities and work internally to support the marginalized students that are here now. All performers, composers, artists, students, and faculty members both within SMTD and outside of it need to be more intentional about the ways we uplift marginalized voices. Working together, we can create tangible strategies to facilitate systemic change. Yes, performers/conductors can program more works by BIPOC composers, but this needs to be more than just tokenism on a few choice concerts. Representation is important; it fosters a sense of belonging among marginalized artists and encourages more marginalized people to take up performing arts disciplines. Yes, professors can offer classes on “Hispanic/Latine music forms,” but they need to be more specific about accurately representing the wealth of cultures and styles that exist so students can broaden their horizons beyond western classical music, and thus enhance their creativity. Yes, everyone can read a quick article or watch a video on Hispanic/Latine heritage month, but we need to continually celebrate Hispanic and Latine people, listen to their perspectives and learn to dismantle any unconscious bias or stereotypes. These actions, if applied in relation to both Hispanic/Latine and all BIPOC communities, will allow students of these marginalized identities to feel seen and valued in the performing arts, redefining the meaning of the performing arts canon and who has a place within it.

Hispanic/Latine heritage month should be about making space for Hispanic/Latine identities within the arts and beyond. SMTD and EXCEL have plenty of funding, performance, and collaboration opportunities, and all students, faculty, and staff can use these resources to make room for identities that are often silenced. Through this, and by continuing to broaden our perspectives, we can learn more from one another, and create art that is by and for everyone. 

Thanks for tuning into this post! If you’re curious about what our guest contributors Annabella and Javier are doing, you can look forward to seeing Annabella Vidrio in the Annual Dance concert at Power Center for the Performing Arts in February. She is also performing in her sister Ariel Vidrio’s BFA concert in April. Javier Torres will be performing Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Violin Concerto Op. 80 in the Sphinx Competition in January. More information about the dance concerts can be found here. To learn more about Sphinx visit

Additional Sources Consulted:


Image description: People of all ages sit outside, some looking at the camera some not. The words the invention of Hispanics is written on the bottom, and the beginning lines of an article are written beneath that text. Click the image to learn more.

Image from Florida Atlantic University:

Introducing the New EXCEL Log Writer, Mattie Levy!

Image description: Mattie Levy, the person writing for this blog stands in a clearing with green trees and a pond blurred in the background. She is smiling and happily waving her arms. The words Introducing the new Excel Log writer Mattie Levy are written at the bottom of the image.

Hi, I’m Mattie! I’m a first-year master’s student pursuing an MM in oboe performance AND an MA in music composition and I’m so excited to be here writing on the EXCEL Log!  I went to UM for undergrad, so I came into my master’s having already been a part of many organizations within the campus community. You can also find me working as a (now Graduate) student coordinator for the SMTD office for DEI, a poet on the arts, ink. column “Mannerisms,” and leading events as a Black Leaders in Art Collective executive committee member.  

Aside from my other activities, EXCEL has been critical to my success as a musician here at SMTD. I think the reason I was able to pursue graduate school here is that I had coachings with EXCEL staff to help bolster my career.  My resume and CV were both improved with the help of the wonderful EXCEL Program Assistant Gala Flagello, and I even was able to utilize the EXCEL Enterprise fund, to create a project last year titled No Dead White Guys that was a performance series celebrating BIPOC composers. 

In case you’re new to SMTD or did not know, this lovely website you stumbled upon is called the EXCEL Log and is an extension of the EXCEL Lab which works to provide resources for entrepreneurship, leadership, and career services in the arts.  We have A LOT of exciting things planned for the EXCEL Log this year, including posts discussing burnout, social media, the legal side of performing arts, and so much more. Through these topics, I’m hoping to showcase many resources to students on this platform that will help us navigate the challenges and roadblocks we face as performing artists. We are also expanding the reach of the EXCEL Log to include the voices of SMTD students, highlight intersectionality in the arts, and celebrate the diverse world that is the SMTD community. 

Tune in once a month as we uncover the world of resources that the EXCEL team and artists both within and outside of SMTD have to offer. By engaging with the EXCEL Log, we can broaden our mindset and think critically about innovative ways to expand the reach and impact of our artistry. We can learn new skills we need to succeed and be in community with one another as we embark on our journeys as performing artists. That said, I hope you continue to check out the EXCEL Log and I can’t wait to engage with you virtually!