Universal Orlando Resort’s Awesome Expanded Workshops!

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • May 13, 2017

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Universal Orlando Youth Programs has expanded the music/ film offerings for its “STARS Performance Program workshop, Sound Design: Music and the Art of Foley,” which they developed a few years ago with notable composer and music educator Robert W. Smith.

I first saw it in action in Sound Stage 33 at the Universal Studios park. They recently invited me back, two years after I first saw the program, to get a look and listen, so down I went. Go back to Universal Orlando Resorts? Twist my arm! It is always a fun trip, and this was no exception. The students participating were having a great time, actively engaged and excited to be there. It was clear they had learned their parts and took capturing their performance in a soundstage studio very seriously.

“Sound Design: Music and the Art of Foley,” is designed to let students experience a day in the life of a musician working in a studio on a film soundtrack. With the new additions, band and orchestra students perform new underscore music and create sound effects, along with ADR work (automatic dialog replacement) voiceovers films matching attractions at the parks. The new workshop offerings now include choices, in addition to the original “Frankenstein” workshop, such as Illumination Entertainment’s “Despicable Me” and “The Lorax.” The workshops are endorsed by the National Association for Music Education and align with the National Core Arts Standards.

I discussed the expansion of the workshop and performance programs with Eric Marshall, vice president of Universal Orlando’s youth group sales, who stated, “We like the fact that now we have classic and contemporary. We have a lot of groups that repeat. So, the ability to provide multiple experiences to them is important to us.” And going forward? “I think there’s two things that we’re going to continue to focus on. One is continuing to develop new [workshop] content that we think is relevant, and then the second thing is a commitment to continuing to improve what we’ve already got. There are opportunities to march as part of the Macy’s parade, and we are coming out with all-new holiday content, which we’re very excited about.”

Connecting with the Composer

I spoke with Robert W. Smith about the new additions to find out his approach to the expanding project. “I was asked to create these two projects in early 2016. I was fortunate to have free-reign over the musical underscore and the sound effects. However, that free-reign was tempered with my respect and reverence for the original films and Universal Orlando Resort’s intellectual properties,” said Smith. “I had seen both films before. I’m a fan of animated motion pictures and appreciate the artistic work in these two incredible productions. I re-watched the films prior to writing to ensure I wouldn’t be drastically altering the mood and tone of the original films. The actual film clips were selected by the team at Universal Orlando Resort under the leadership of [manager of program development] Teresa Crews.”

Crews explains, “We partnered with Robert W. Smith for original music, and it syncs with a three-minute clip of each film, which are ‘Despicable Me’ and ‘The Lorax.’ They are all original compositions, but it maintains the energy and the feel of the movie. When the kids play it, they’re part of the creation of a whole new movie clip. We gave him the clip that we wanted to use in the workshop, so we let him work his magic.”

I asked Robert how these new film clips and underscores differed for him in composing, and how he thought students would relate to them versus the original workshop and its use of the silent film version of “Frankenstein.” He replied, “The ‘Frankenstein’ film clip was entirely different based on the year of its original production and the technology available. Universal Studios originally released ‘Frankenstein’ in 1910. It was a silent movie. The underscore in the theater was created by a live musician on piano or organ. With this setting in mind, I used classical themes in the public domain that would represent that era of theater musicianship. With the early 1900s camerawork and perspective combined with the iconic Frankenstein character, the underscore is big, broad and aggressive. The approach to ‘Despicable Me’ and “The Lorax’ is completely different. Students can clearly relate to these characters including their personalities and voices. As a result, the underscores were written to capture and reinforce those characters and the action on the screen.”

When asked about the challenges of writing a workshop for students that range from middle to high school with comparative levels of ability, Smith replied, “We created multiple performance levels of each film clip to allow for success at various levels of experience. I wrote the more advanced versions first and followed with arrangements suitable for developing bands, orchestras and choirs. The choirs required multiple voicings including SATB, SSA and unison/two-part. The strings also required arrangements for full orchestra as well as string orchestra. I’m also working on settings for beginning band to broaden the options for directors and their ensembles.”

Finally, I asked Robert what it is he hopes the students get from of this experience, to which he replied, “In addition to a strong musical experience, I hope each student comes away with an understanding of how their study of music fits into their daily life, both in terms of traditional live performance and in media production. The concepts and skills they are learning and experiencing each day in their music classroom are key in terms of their success in all fields of endeavor, including motion picture production. The creativity experienced and used in Universal’s Sound Design workshop is invaluable in terms of its application in their lives. I am thrilled this workshop brings that creativity into focus in a fun and entertaining educational experience.”

So how long is this workshop? Crews stated, “The plan, is that, beginning to end, it’s about a 90-minute experience, including the warm-up, but the actual workshop itself is really an hour. Then we can get kids out and enjoying the parks as well.”

52 Middle School Students Can’t Be Wrong

Director Susan Mears, of the Charleston County School of the Arts, from Charleston, South Carolina, talked with me after her middle school group participated in the workshop featuring “Despicable Me.”

“We have a total of 52 with us today… violins, violas, cellos, and basses. This is sort of a culmination of a year-long process of learning to play together, good technique, good intonation. And we culminate that into a good trip, a nice trip at the end of the year. We chose to do the Sound Design workshop this year to expose the kids to something a little different than just performance-oriented program. It gets them another perspective of what they could possibly do in their career, as well as expose them to what goes on behind the scenes in so many of the things that they experience — movies, music they listen to on the radio, commercial music. And all that must be done in a studio. So now they understand from going through this workshop what goes into that production,” said Mears, who also offered, “It’s a good discipline experience for them as well, to have to play precisely and then be quiet. And that’s something Covered by one or more U.S. Patents. See website for details. Metal Cradle Offers Versatility, we work on all year too is, in rehearsals, is we need to be quiet when we stop playing so that we can fix whatever needs to be fixed.” I asked Susan her thoughts on Robert’s score for this “Despicable Me” workshop. She said,” I thought it was excellent. At first glance, … something might look a little easier and when you really get into it, it’s not. I would say it’s very challenging. It had lots of musical elements that were great for them to learn. Thematic elements, rhythmical elements were very challenging for all the students. I thought it was a great score. You know, the kids really enjoyed learning it.”

Her students began working on the music before the journey. “I gave them their music about a month prior for them to practice on their own, because that’s what professionals do, is they get their music and practice it. And we had about four serious rehearsals on it before coming here today, which gave it more of a realistic-type experience for them. Because professional studio musicians, they basically are supposed to show up knowing their music. So, they don’t get a whole lot of rehearsal time. Of course, we had to rehearse, because they are still learning, middle school students. But I wanted to give them as much of a real experience for the professional world as possible. I spent 10 years plus in the professional world, and playing in symphonies. And, you know, you get your music a couple weeks ahead of time, you know it, you sit down and rehearse for a couple of rehearsals, and you play a concert. And then repeat. And what they’re learning now is not only going to benefit them if they decide to go that direction, but it’s also going to benefit them no matter what career they choose, if they have the discipline and the motivation to do their best and to hold themselves to a very high standard. I hold them to a high standard. And I’d say most of the time, if they reach that standard and sometimes exceed it, they’ll carry that into the rest of their lives no matter what it is they’re doing – whether they’re a mom, a dad, a surgeon, or lawyer. Whatever it is they choose to do that they will hopefully carry on that experience of having a high standard, setting a high standard for themselves.”

Back to the Bay

Mears chose Cabana Bay Beach Resort for her second stay at Universal Orlando Resorts with her students: “We absolutely love Cabana Bay. I would not stay anywhere else.” When asked about what the kids like the most about it, she replied, “I’d say the swimming pools. And I like the fact that they have the cafeteria there for the kids to go and get whatever they want. We had a pizza party last night. We bought the pizza right there and had it out right by the pool. And they show movies every night — it’s a great kind of outlet for them after being at the park and walking around all day. Just to go have fun, swim. There’s plenty for them to do so that they’re hopefully not going to even think about getting into trouble, and it’s easy to keep an eye on all of them. We have a wonderful booster club. The eighth graders came with me when they were sixth graders — they were so excited that they were going to get to stay at Cabana Bay again. Last time we came, one of the students came back with their family that summer and stayed at Cabana Bay for two weeks, with ten people in their family.”

About Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando Resort has been around now for over 25 years, but the workshops have come about only in the last few years, as an added enhancement to the various marching/performance opportunities and festival partnerships. Universal Orlando’s two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, feature a wide array of thrill rides and attractions, popular with teens seeking some fast-paced fun after their workshop and performance experiences. On-site resort hotel properties include Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Universal Orlando connects it all through the hub of their entertainment complex, Universal CityWalk, with shopping, dining and entertainment options for all ages

Monmouth Returns

Jerry Romano has been teaching at Monmouth Regional High School since 2000 and has brought his band down from New Jersey seven times over 14 years. I interviewed him two years ago when I first visited Universal Orlando Resorts to experience the “Sound Design: Music and the Art of Foley” workshop. By coincidence, he happened to be in Orlando during my visit, vacationing with his wife, after having recently returned with his students to the park, this past February, where his group did three performances. On what he likes about performances at Universal, he said, “They have a huge stage venue at Universal, and they actually set it up on the water side. They have two stages, the one that’s parallel to the water side and one that’s right on the water side, which is awesome. I like the way they do the sound [systems]. I like the way they do the setup, the staging, the backdrop, the whole nine yards. It’s really cool here. Plus, you know, they have the Music and The Art of Foley here, which is part of the Stars Program — So they’re really molding the kids into getting into the whole thing of performing arts, singing, playing, performing, all in the same.”

I asked Romano about what it takes to raise the funds to take 80 people to Florida on an airplane. “You got to do it, like, a year out, is what I recommend. What they should put into place is have a committee, work group, sit down and say, ‘What can we do?’ Every band director in the country can do this. It’s called ‘Sponsor a Musician’ or ‘Sponsor a Dancer’ or ‘Sponsor a Choral Student.’ What you can do is just write up a nice document stating that, ‘I would like to donate X amount of dollars to the program,’ which could go inside their Student Activities Account. At my school, but it’s specific for that student. Someone must do the accounting process. Someone sends in their $15. Instead of buying wrapping paper, they donate money to the kids’ cause of going on the trip, which is an educational trip. So, we have, a donation type of thing. We [also] do a big thing that I started called ‘Jazz Night.’ We take our cafeteria — We set it up with round tables and chairs, and the parents come in. My wife also helps and dresses up the entire place to look like a jazz club. I mean, soup to nuts, where we set the place up, the walls, backdrops, setting up the jazz band in there, sound system, lights, people. We sell tickets.

We raise several thousands of dollars.” When asked how important is was to him that students learn about Foley in addition to the musical experiences, Romano emphasized, “Jack Donovan Foley was a visionary. His work allowed us the hear where we didn’t know to listen! It is important to study that history to put our current lives into context and build upon the work of those that came before us. Simply stated, Foley changed all our lives through the enrichment of artistic media.”

From my observations, the team at Universal really cares about providing students with a well-rounded experience from their accommodations, to their meals, park fun, and of course, the unique educational and performance experiences. They have already come a long way with their sound stage offering since I saw it last. I look forward to keeping my eye on the evolution of “Sound Design: Music and the Art of Foley” at Universal Orlando Resorts, and maybe even venturing back down to explore the now-opening water park, Volcano Bay. Now, where’s my sunscreen?

Underneath the Sapphire Falls

I typically stay at Universal Orlando Resort’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which is a perfect hotel for school groups given its design, food offerings, and other amenities. I’ve enjoyed Cabana Bay so much that I’ve taken my family there a few times on vacation. The price point is good, as is the value across the board.

This trip I opted for the more recently opened Loews Sapphire Falls. This is Universal Orlando‘s fifth on-site hotel. It’s a Caribbean-themed hotel with traditional island styling and modern touches. Sapphire Falls has a more grown-up feel to it, and doesn’t have the youth-focused features like a bowling alley, or multi-restaurant cafeteria, or constantly running cartoons. It does, however, have a water taxi to the park, which is much better than taking the shuttle bus, and the onsite restaurants (and room service) are excellent. The pool and waterslide are great. It is only moderately more expensive than Cabana Bay Beach Resort, and a step up in-between Cabana Bay and their next level property, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, but below higher-end resorts such as the Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. It’s a good option for high school students and groups of older kids, if the budget allows a little bump in accommodations. In fact, a hotel ballroom was the site of a prom while I was there.

For me, if I go back to Universal Orlando Resorts with grownups, I’ll stay there again. I really like the water taxi. If I am with the younger kids in my world, I’m back at Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Either way, I can’t go wrong.


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