Years in the making, The SAVI Singing Actor will be here in just a few more weeks!
After months of writing and testing, weeks of preparation and endless late nights of revision, the long-anticipated day is here! Well, nearly here. June 24 is the big day when my new book The SAVI Singing Actor will be officially released at the International Thespian Festival!
I’ll be showcasing the SAVI System of Singing Acting this summer at the 2019 International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska, where top-performing high school students and teachers from across the country and around the world will convene for a week of total immersion in all things theatrical. D’Arcy and Madison will join me to help unveil the new book, The SAVI Singing Actor, and D’Arcy and I will be demonstrating SAVI Cards, the innovative practice tool that is a featured component of the SAVI System of Singing Acting, in workshops. The premier edition of SAVI Cards will also be on exhibition and available for sale at the ITF.
What’s that you say? You can’t hop a plane and join us in Lincoln? No need for FOMO! The SAVI Singing Actor book and cards will be available for online ordering starting June 24. If you’re on our SAVI VIP mailing list, you’re guaranteed to get the inside skinny on:
how to order your copy of the book
live updates from the ITF
workshops available to schools and performing arts camps this summer
and exclusive details on our Philly Launch!
Just click here to have us add your name to the VIP list!
Once a year, teachers from musical theater programs all over the world gather to share best practices and new developments in their field at the annual meeting of the Musical Theater Educators Alliance (MTEA). The attendees are a “who’s who” of the field of musical theater performance training – singing teachers, dance teachers, acting teachers, music teachers, directors, choreographers and administrators from institutions in the US and abroad.
This group includes some of the most sophisticated and discriminating thinkers and leaders in the field, and it may surprise you to hear they are as generous as they are insightful. I know this firsthand, having benefited from the steadfast support of my MTEA “tribe” while creating the SAVI System over the past decade.
Naturally, it was an honor to be invited to give a presentation at the January 2019 MTEA conference, held at NYU Steinhardt in the Loewe Theater. In my presentation, entitled “SAVI Cards: The Singing Actor’s New Secret Weapon,” I demonstrated one of the innovative performer training tools featured in the SAVI System of Singer-Actor Training. If you were there, I hope you’ll find it helpful to recall some of the highlights of that presentation; if you weren’t, I hope this account will be instructive, even though I can only offer a glimpse of what happened.
The SAVI System is organized around a few core principles, foremost among which is this: the singing actor creates behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase. To that end, SAVI offers exercises and procedures that develop the musical theater performer’s ability to create expressive behavior and coordinate it with a musical score. SAVI Cards were created as a training aid to be used in those exercises.
SAVI Cards are like “having a musical theater coach in a box!” observed one workshop participant, my former student Sam Stoltzfus. What a great way to describe the purpose and value of SAVI Cards: “A musical theater coach in a box.” Each card contains a single idea, expressed in a word, phrase, image and/or icon, that the singing actor can use to stimulate or provoke more specific and creative choice-making during the course of a rehearsal or performance. When the singing actor thoughtfully introduces SAVI Cards into the practice room or the rehearsal process, it’s like having a coach or director on hand to say, “Now here’s an idea: what if you tried to do this in the next moment or phrase?”
I demonstrated the SAVI Card exercises with a group of five volunteers, all alumni of MTEA-member BFA programs living in New York. I offer a grateful shout-out to Michael Vandie, Samantha Stoltzfus, Tess Marshall, Sarah C. Kline and Riley McManus, all of whom rose and shone to be with me at 9am! They represent one of the key audiences for the SAVI System: early-career professionals who are looking for ways to practice and continue developing their craft even though they no longer have access to a structured routine of classes, lessons and coachings. SAVI was designed to serve and inspire them in every part of their work cycle – the practice room, the classroom and the rehearsal room – and judging from their reaction during the demonstration, it has great possibilities!
SAVI Up Your Warm Up
The first part of my workshop introduced ways to use SAVI cards to “level up” a typical vocal warm-up. SAVI Cards are a means of instigating expressive behavior during the vocal warmup, expanding the variety and intensity of expression available to the singer when it’s time to sing a song. In the words of Michael Vandie, one of the participants, adding SAVI cards not only helps warm up the face and body, but also “your awareness and your ability to make choices, making sure everything you do is in service of storytelling and communication.”
The cards come in many different categories, including primary emotions (e.g., rage, joy, grief, courage, tenderness), adjectives (e.g., nervous, bold, confident, harsh, tender) and action verbs (e.g., to threaten, to explain, to demand, to enchant). Each card is designed to produce a heightened state of animation and expression in the face, voice and body. The cards are particularly useful to awaken the face and eyes and counteract the neutral, blank expression many singers unconsciously favor.
The second warm-up exercise I demonstrated was the “Mirror Canon.” A valuable core exercise in the SAVI system, the Mirror Canon is a total workout that engages all the organs of communication in concert. In the Mirror Canon, the group is divided into pairs, with one person in each pair serving as “Leader” while the other is designated the “Follower.” This exercise provides a great framework within which to practice making specific behavior choices and coordinating those choices with a partner and a musical score. SAVI Cards can be introduced to add a further level of challenge to the exercise.
SAVI In The Practice Room
Apart from their value in the warm-up, SAVI Cards are also invaluable when you’re alone in the practice room trying to strengthen your technique. I tell my students, “You’re not alone in the practice room if you have your SAVI Cards.”
In the workshop, I discussed the importance of making time during each practice session to work with a few of the cards one by one, allowing time to go into each individual card in depth. It’s important to “endow” each SAVI Card with deep personal meaning in order for the cards to serve you optimally during an exercise. Choose a card and then use your senses, your imagination and your memory to explore how the prompt on your card might be expressed in behavior. For example, let’s say you’re working on the emotion card “rage.” Think about experiences you’ve had that filled you with rage, or invent a set of imaginary circumstances chosen specifically to incite the feeling of rage. In your mind’s eye, let yourself hear, see and feel the things you might sense during such an encounter. Notice how you breathe when you’re angry. What kind of sounds do you make? What kinds of facial expressions? Practice creating behavior and singing, intensifying your choices in each of the behavioral modes – face, voice, breath and body – as you push deeper into your imagination and your memory. Improvise some vocal sounds or a gibberish song based on the prompt on your card.
The next exercise in the workshop, the “ABC Song,” helps build proficiency at sequencing a series of choices, a core skill for any singing actor. Not only do you need to be able to commit fully to a choice in any given phrase, but you also need agility managing the transitions from one phrase to the next. The exercise uses a series of cards chosen at random and the “ABC Song” (sung to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), a song with six two-measure phrases. During the exercise, participants sing the song but switch to a new card at the beginning of each phrase, with me ringing a desk bell (“ding!”) from the sidelines at each transitional moment. Both participants and observers quickly saw how practicing this exercise would make them more proficient at coordinating the transitions between phrases and moving quickly and impulsively from one choice to the next.
SAVI Up A Song
In the third and final part of the workshop, I asked two individual singers to sing prepared repertoire to demonstrate how SAVI Cards can be used to craft a performance that is more “SAVI” – that is, more specific, authentic, varied and intense. Surprisingly, this is the case even when the cards are chosen at random.
The first singer, Michael Vandie, performed an audition cut of the final bars of “Betsy” from Honeymoon in Vegas. To begin, I invited Michael sing his cut, including any performance choices he’d prepared for this song. Next, I asked him to speak the text of his song, focusing on the moments where one phrase ended and the next one began – the transitional moments or, as they’re referred to in SAVI lingo, the “dings” in his song. I wanted to make sure he understood when changes occurred in the thought or expression in his song, so that we could coordinate his behavior choices with those moments of change.
I then randomly chose a number of SAVI Cards and asked him to speak the phrases of his lyric while flipping to the next card in the deck at each “ding,” each moment when a new phrase or idea began (a skill we’d begun to build earlier in the “ABC” exercise). Finally, I told Michael to put the cards down and sing the cut while incorporating as many of the dings and card prompts as he could – understanding, of course, that all of this was being done on the fly and would only get easier given time and practice. The contrast between his initial and final presentations was dramatic, and the response from observers confirmed this enthusiastically.
Later, I had a chance to ask Michael what he recalled about working together on the song. “Using the SAVI Cards completely changed my phrasing,” he said. “Before, I wasn’t using the full potential of the lyric. It’s such an intricate lyric, with lots of wordplay, but because the music is energetic, it’s tempting just to ride on that energy and present a general idea of someone who’s elated and joyful. Working with the cards made me pay more attention to each individual line, finding something different to be excited about in each phrase, which brought much more variety to what I was doing.”
Michael reminded me that, in an audition situation, your auditors have seen a lot of renditions of the same material, which means that having a creative interpretation and distinctive original behavior are a way of making yourself stand out in the crowd. There’s a real temptation to stay in your lane and play it safe, he says, but you hear lyrics in a different way when you’re working with the cards. The cards awaken a new sense of possibility, because their recommendations feel open-ended, provocative but never prescriptive.
The second singer, Tess Marshall, presented a section of the ballad “I Will Always Love You” from Ghost. Tess’s song, unlike Michael’s, was slow and serious, but we followed the same steps for her ballad that I had led Michael through. Tess admitted to the group she was aware of her tendency to “wallow” in the sad feelings of the song, leading to a general wash of emotion and a lack of specific behavior in her initial presentation. Just like Michael, she discovered that locating the dings and adding the cards brought a new variety and specificity to her interpretation. Many of the observers found the song more meaningful once she added those new choices, and they praised her for the improvement she showed.
In the discussion at the end of my presentation, attendees were quick to volunteer ways they thought this tool could be useful to their students. One voice teacher commented that bringing SAVI Cards into the voice lesson was a way to keep the student engaged in the work of making performance choices without the voice teacher having to teach acting during the lesson.
As it turns out, January’s masterclass at MTEA is likely to be the last public appearance of my home-made SAVI Cards. Those “do-fer” cards, created for classes using desktop publishing and the office printer, served me well for years, but it’s time to kick the visual impact of the SAVI Cards up a notch (or ten). I’m thrilled to be working with P’unk Avenue and graphic designer Sarah Romig preparing the Premier Edition of SAVI Cards for production and distribution, anticipating a late June launch of the cards to accompany the release of my book, The SAVI Singing Actor.
I’ve also begun to book appearances at summer musical theater training programs and camps, looking for opportunities to introduce this technique to a younger generation of musical theater artists. One comment I have heard repeatedly from college students learning SAVI is, “I wish I’d known about this in high school.” Many singing actors feel confused, overwhelmed or stuck in their development, and the SAVI System has proven to be invaluable for students who feel this way. SAVI technique can also help students who feel confident take their work to new heights of expressiveness and creativity.
If you’d like to learn more about the possibility of offering a SAVI masterclass or short residency, or if you know someone you think would be interested in introducing their students to the SAVI System of Singer-Actor Training, let me know.
You and I have a lot in common. We share a passion for musicals, especially the art and craft of musical theater performance. We are fascinated by the challenge of singing and acting at the same time. We probably admire many of the same individuals, the writers who create songs for musicals and the singers who bring those songs to life. We have felt the life-changing, heart-splitting, mind-blowing power of a good song well sung, and we want to understand and master the mysterious skills that makes that possible.
Am I right? I’m guessing that’s what brought you to the SAVI Singing Actor website the first time, and perhaps even prompted you to sign up for my newsletter. You may have discovered this site recently, or you may have signed up so long ago that you’ve forgotten you did it, but if you subscribed, you joined a community of seekers and fellow enthusiasts, and I’m grateful and glad you did.
I’ve written thousands of words on this topic, and you may have taken the time to explore and read posts like my article on award-winning actor Forrest McClendon and his tips for the singing actor and this one on singing iconic songs. But no doubt you’ve also noticed that there haven’t been any recent dispatches from the SAVI Savant. Yes, I continue to teach (most recently at a conference in Oslo) and ponder and write, but I’m focusing my efforts on the book I promised myself I’d write, and that means I haven’t added much new content to The SAVI Singing Actor recently.
Today, though, in the spirit of the upcoming holiday, I’m happy to be able to offer you a gift – the first seventy pages of my book, Sing and Ding: Secrets of the SAVI Singing Actor. Click here to download the PDF, and you can start reading immediately! You’ll also find a table of contents that gives you an idea of the plan for the book and the chapters that’ll be coming soon.
In the first two chapters of the book, I talk about how songs, when properly performed, can change the world, and about the essential attributes of effective singing acting. I tell a little bit of my own story and how my experiences and skills give me a unique vantage point from which to tackle the challenges of the singing actor. I even introduce an original song, The SAVI National Anthem, and use it as a framework to establish some outcomes for the training of the singing actor.
The pages are a gift to you, and come with no strings attached. If you find you have questions, comments or reactions, I’d love to hear back from you, either via the comments thread on this post or via email. Was anything confusing? What would you like to hear more about? Did anything seem like it wasn’t helpful? This is an early draft, and your comments will help make future drafts even more valuable to readers like you.
And if you’re so inclined, leave a comment and tell me what you’re working on now, and what excites you and frustrates you about the amazing art of singing onstage. Maybe you’ve seen or read or heard something that’s stirred your thoughts about the field we both have so much passion for. As I said, I think you and I have a lot in common, and I think we can be helpful to each other.
The singers are thrilled to have the opportunity to sing such iconic material. Though we include this sort of repertoire in classroom study, the opportunities to perform songs like these are, sadly, few and far between.
As singers and educators, our relationship with familiar songs is a complicated one. Within the insulated world of professional musical theater and programs that train students for the profession, there’s an odd sort of stigma attached to familiar songs.
As teachers, even the best of us get tired of hearing them, in the same way I imagine that wine-tasters must get weary of drinking fine wines, and restaurant critics grow tired of delicious food.
Some schools even go so far as to publish “DO NOT SING” lists for prospective students planning to audition for admission, and heaven help you if your favorite song has been designated “off limits” by a jaded, grumpy professor at your dream school. Working actors are similarly advised that certain songs are taboo in professional auditions. It’s as if these familiar songs are like Kryptonite, possessing the power to compromise even the most talented performer and get them booted from the room before they’ve even sung a note.
Ours is a field of specialists and cognoscenti, and familiar songs suffer in this rarefied environment. The connoisseur who scorns a particularly familiar song may simply be executing an esthetic maneuver designed to set himself apart from the hoi polloi. We jump to the conclusion that someone singing a familiar song must be lazy or ignorant; how else are we to explain their painfully obvious choice?
The question of taste is actually a vast and complicated one for those who would study musical theater and those who would teach it. The concepts of “quality” and “popularity” get all muddled up in our heads when we talk about shows. The history of the musical theater is a tangled tale of mingled threads, highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, elite and vernacular, historic and contemporary, commercial and experimental all evolving side by side with the passing decades, and it takes a particular sort of open mind to embrace the rich and varied array of work that has been created in the past century or so.
Everyday theatergoers, however, have quite a different relationship to familiar songs, and it should come as no surprise that familiar songs are catnip at the box office and during the performance. During our revue, we often find audience members singing along quietly (and sometimes not so quietly); it’s as if the familiarity of the song deepens their experience, sometimes to the extent of making it possible for them to participate in the performance.
When someone hears (and sees) a performance of a familiar song, a remarkable thing occurs in the brain. A relationship is instantaneously created between the present performance and whatever memories of that song are stored in the listener’s memory. Songs are designed to be memorable, built around repeated “hooks,” catchy turns of phrase that use rhyme, rhythm and melody to embed themselves quickly in long term memory; it only takes a handful of notes to activate those memories, and the mind quickly begins to compare the current version to the versions it has stored. Is it faster, slower, higher, lower? Does it have similar tone and texture, or does it contrast with those?
Comparison is not the only mental process that comes into play when you hear a song; equally important are the associations that exist in your memory. Where were you when you heard this song? Who were you with? If you stopped to consider its lyric and message, what impact did that have on you?
Musicals take advantage of this song by employing reprises, the recurring use of a song at different points in the narrative. When Eliza revisits Covent Garden in Act II of My Fair Lady, the song Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, which she sang there in Act I, is heard with a melancholy air. The reprise and underscore evokes her innocence and enthusiasm in that earlier scene, and a sort of wistful nostalgia for the loss of those qualities in her life. When Adelaide and Sarah meet at the end of Act II in Guys and Dolls, they sing their respective theme songs, “Adelaide’s Lament” and “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” in counterpoint, and the juxtaposition serves to remind the listener of how two very dissimilar characters could arrive at such a similar place in their life’s journey. And when Magnolia sings Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man in her audition at the Trocadero Night Club in Act II of Show Boat, accompanying herself on a battered guitar, the audience remembers her youthful innocence on the occasion when Julie sang that song early in Act I, and how “lovin’ that man” has brought Nola to this low point in her life.
The same quality in songs that makes them work as reprises in a musical also serves to link any present performance with other remembered performances. Aging hipsters at a Steely Dan concert groove on “My Old School” and “Hey Nineteen,” and their present pleasure results in no small degree from their recollections of other occasions when they heard those songs. If you sing “Strange Fruit” in a performance, you bring Billie Holiday into the room with you, and many listeners are likely to have a particular memory of that song that will color and augment their experience of the current performance.
Jazz artists in particular are noted for their creative ability to “transform” familiar songs. When a jazz vocalist alters the melody of a song, chances are that the listener has some other “pure” version of that melody in their memory, and the two versions – the remembered original and the present riff – are compared. When an improviser uses a melody as the basis for an extended impromptu (I’m currently listening to Brad Mehldau fashion My Favorite Things into an elaborate Lisztian fantasia), the listener’s ears remain alert for signs of the tune that forms the basis of the improvisation, and a palpable sigh of relief is felt when a familiar motif or fragment can be glimpsed amidst the torrent of strange, new music. The interplay of familiarity and invention makes the experience of such performances breathtakingly exciting.
I’d go a step farther and claim that our experience is influenced by similar songs, songs with different titles and lyrics but some sort of stylistic resemblance. This is what makes pastiche work: we hear a song and, while we recognize that it is new and unfamiliar to us, it bears such a strong resemblance to other songs that our associative memories are engaged. Think of how the songs in Follies evoke historical predecessors (can you hear “Losing My Mind” and not think of “The Man I Love” or “The Man That Got Away?”), or the pseudo-Dubin-and-Warren pastiche of Dames At Sea, or Jason Robert Brown’s ingenious Surabaya Santa, which preposterously links Mrs. Claus and Lotte Lenya? Our brains are puzzle-solving machines, and they create meaning by making connections between something occurring in the present moment and other occurrences of the past. This is an integral part of the experience of song, and the SAVI singing actor will recognize this, acknowledge it and utilize that knowledge to his or her advantage.
Forewarned, then, is forearmed. How can the SAVI singing actor employ this phenomenon, this inevitable aspect of the act of experiencing a performance, and use it to his or her advantage? Let’s begin by saying that we all stand on the shoulders who have gone before us. Choose to sing People, and Streisand’s iconic performance will have to be taken into account; embrace it, reject it entirely, or digest it and use it to create something new, but it’s foolish to pretend it doesn’t exist. Choose to sing the Dentist song from Little Shop, and you’ve got to reckon with the ghost of Elvis Presley and his James-Dean-bad-boy persona. Sinatra’s persona hovers over The Lady Is A Tramp (even though Rodgers and Hart wrote it for a woman originally), and Chet Baker has staked a claim on My Funny Valentine that vies with Sinatra’s in the listener’s memory and serves as a prism that will refract the rays of your present performance.
This means that schooling yourself in the DNA of a song is almost always valuable. You want to be sure you’re aware of what your listeners might be experiencing internally while they listen to you. Do your research: what have past interpreters of this song done with it? Listen to original cast albums, cover versions, concerts and anthologies. Track the versions down on YouTube and BlueGobo and sift through them for ideas, for clues, for inspirations that will lead to YOUR version, your creation, your specific set of choices.
The present moment is always experienced in the context of the past. That context serves to make the present moment meaningful. Any form of communication must be undertaken with an awareness of context: how you say what you have to say will be shaped by what’s been said, how it’s been said, and how it’s been interpreted in the past.
They called him “The Voice.” Capital T, capital V, with the definite article “the” signifying his eminence, his personification of the attributes any voice ought to have.
Frank Sinatra, born one hundred years ago this week, is regarded by many as the pre-eminent singer of songs in the 20th century. But what qualities that earned him that sobriquet?
I turned to Will Friedwald’s “The Song Is You” for some help describing the Sinatra style, and here’s a little of what I found there:
While Sinatra has a wonderful voice, he is not a vocal virtuoso. … But what he has substituted for pure technique in the very good years since his youth has proved far more meaningful. His ability to tell a story has consistently gotten sharper even as the voice grew deeper and the textures surrounding it richer. (19)
With Sinatra, all vocal considerations – and even all musical considerations – come second to his fundamental mission, which is to tell a story in the most expressive way possible. His formidable musical and dramatic skills immediately blur together. (22)
The result is total credibility. No popular recording artist has ever been as totally believable so much of the time as Sinatra. “Frank was very attentive to lyrics,” explained Alan Livingston, who signed Sinatra to Capitol Records in 1953. “If he was looking at songs, the lyric would be his first consideration. Frank wanted to know what that song said and whether it appealed to him or not. He said, ‘I’ll leave the music to somebody else. I pick the lyrics.’” (24)
Sinatra makes any word sound like what it is, as the late lyricist Sammy Cahn observed. “When he sings ‘lovely,’ he makes it sound ‘lo-ovely’ as in ‘weather-wise it’s such a lo-ovely day” [in Cahn’s “Come Fly with Me”]. Cahn demonstrated to me, caressing and extending the long soft vowel at the center. “Likewise, when he sings ‘Lonely’ [in “Only the Lonely”] he makes it into such a lonely word.” (19-20)
The late Gordon Jenkins once explained: “Frank does one word in ‘Send in the Clowns,’ which is my favorite of the songs we did together, and it’s the damndest thing I’ve ever heard. He just sings the word farce, and your whole life comes up in front of you. He puts so much in that phrase that it just takes a hold of you.” Where other singers, at best, work with lyrics and melodies, Sinatra deals in mental images and pure feelings that he seems to summon up almost without the intervention of composers, arrangers, and musicians, as vital as their contributions are. (17)
“Lovely.” “Lonely.” “Farce.” It is indeed astonishing how a single word, sung with truth and specificity, can trigger an avalanche of sensations.
Ironically, there are plenty of examples of Sinatra altering the lyric of a song in performance, either accidentally or intentionally, but those occasions don’t diminish the magnificence of his “way with words.”
As a teacher who works with singing actors, I strive to help my students develop not just a voice, but a Voice. A capital-V Voice is heard when someone has something distinctive, arresting, surprising to express. A capital-V Voice emanates from the soul, and conveys the humanity of the vocalist. It flows from a deeply personal and specific understanding of the song, and particularly the lyric of a song. The skill of the vocalist and the skill of the songwriter come together in a unique alchemy that can stir our souls, and this soul-stirring is what an audience craves more than anything. “The song is you,” wrote lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, and Sinatra embodies this principle even as he sings these words.
The centenary of The Voice is a good occasion to renew our commitment to the primacy of the lyric in song interpretation. What does your Voice have to say?
A friend who runs a musical theater program at an arts-centric high school wrote to inquire what skills a student graduating from her school’s program ought to be expected to possess. Her question got me thinking: what are the most important learning outcomes to be pursued in a high school musical theater program?
Personally, I think that one part of the answer to this question is a practical one: the student graduating from a high school musical theater program should be able to audition and compete successfully for admission to a college musical theater program. Tis means they need to know about song preparation and performance, dance auditioning, monologue preparation and presentation — in other words, the procedures that are routinely part of the college musical theater audition process. More fundamentally, the student should have an understanding of themselves not only as a performer but as a person, along with ability to present themselves with ease and authenticity in an audition situation.
This isn’t to suggest that getting into college is the be-all and end-all of training for musical theater at high school level. A number of young performers have professional ambitions, and they should be able to compete successfully for age-appropriate roles in a competitive professional environment. But here again, the skills associated with this outcome have to do with the ability to audition: song presentation, monologue presentation, selecting appropriate material for the audition, learning and executing a dance combination, and so forth.
Apart from that, I can think of a few things that would be helpful, though not absolutely indispensable, to a high school graduate with a passion for music theater and a serious interest in pursuing it in the future. These would include:
an awareness of the diverse nature of the musical theater repertoire, to be acquired through exposure to representative specimen works;
a rudimentary knowledge of music notation that would enable the students to learn new repertoire quickly and accurately;
an introduction to voice and speech skills that will help the student shed their most conspicuous regionalisms and present themselves as an individual with intelligence and adaptability.
That’s not a comprehensive list, by any means, but maybe it’s enough to get you thinking – what are the learning outcomes that you think would be most desirable in a high school musical theater program? Please leave your response in the comments area!
Monday, October 5 was one of the more bizarre experiences I’ve had in my years as an educator.
The previous evening, everyone at my school was informed via text message that the FBI had picked up a vague threat on the internet suggesting there would be a violent incident at a Philadelphia-area university around 2pm on Monday afternoon.
Coming as it did just days after the tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, this threat made everyone in Philadelphia area colleges – teachers, students and staff – feel understandably anxious. The promise of heightened security provided little comfort for the worriers.
Still, I felt compelled to show up for work on Monday morning, terrorist threats be damned. In fact, I was inspired to kick things up a notch sartorially that morning, adding a vintage bow tie and tweed sport coat to my ensemble. As I stood in front of the mirror tying my tie, a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune popped into my head:
Whenever I feel afraid,
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect I’m afraid.
While shivering in my shoes,
I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune,
And no one ever knows I’m afraid.
The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell,
For when I fool the people I fear
I fool myself as well!
Though I don’t recall whistling, there was definitely a spring in my step as I strolled up the sidewalk to my school that morning, and even though more than half my students were absent, I tackled my morning class with more than my usual gusto.
Make believe you’re brave
And the trick will take you far.
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are.
Regrettably, many of my students succumbed to their fears and stayed home on what proved to be a beautiful fall day and a splendid opportunity to learn something new. The day passed without incident, I am relieved to report, but please don’t get the mistaken notion that I am passing judgment on those who felt too skittish to venture out on that October afternoon. We live in profoundly unsettling times, and some deeply troubled individuals have committed heinous crimes in recent months that have claimed the lives of far too many innocent Americans. Fear is a logical and appropriate response to these sorts of occurrences.
Still, it’s not too late to learn something from that day’s experience, and it strikes me that this is a fine opportunity to consider the value of the outside-in approach to performance, the one that Oscar Hammerstein (writing for the character Anne Leonowens in The King and I) refers to when he suggests that one can “fool [one]self” into feeling brave under scary conditions, or choosing to feel one way rather than another. Even though the “outside-in” approach seems to be held in low esteem among certain educators, my experience in the training of singing actors has taught me that the relationship between inner feeling and external behavior is a two-way street, and that the SAVI singing actor is able to approach the creation of a performance working both inside-out and outside-in.
Stanislavski referred to acting as a “psychophysical” phenomenon, as Bella Merlin describes it in this passage from her 2007 book The Complete Stanislavski Toolkit: “The foundation of a decent actor training as far as Stanislavski was concerned was PSYCHO-PHYSICALITY. … [a term which] basically alludes to the fact that your body and your psyche are trained together to achieve a sort of inner-outer co-ordination. This means that who you experience internally is immediately translated into an outer expression, and (conversely) what your body manifests physically has a direct and acknowledged affect on your psychological landscape.”
In her famous TED talk (28 million views as of this this writing), Amy Cuddy offers scientific evidence that your body language shapes who you are, and that you can change how you feel by changing your body language. “Power posing” – standing in a position of confidence, even when you don’t feel confident – can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, resulting in a greater feeling of confidence and diminished feelings of anxiety. We smile when we feel happy, but forcing ourselves to smile can actually make us feel happier. This social psychologist offers research data to corroborate Stanislavski’s notion of psycho-physicality and how it can be made to work, not just for actors, but for anybody.
“You can be as brave as you make believe you are,” Anna reassures her son when she sings the song Whistle A Happy Tune to him. In the world of make believe, we can all be brave, or fearful, or smart and clever or tender and foolish or whatever. Sometimes, though, it helps to “fake it till you become it,” and that’s Amy Cuddy’s advice.
Final thoughts from the presentation that I gave at “Australasian Overtures,” the international conference of the Musical Theater Educators Alliance held at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in Perth, Australia.
Students sang “A Song That’s SAVI” and learned more about the SAVI System of Singer-Actor Training at my workshop. Flom-tastic photography by Jonathan Flom.
Earlier this month, back in my home town of Philadelphia, the Arden Theater celebrated its 30th anniversary by giving its first ever Master Storyteller award to Stephen Sondheim. That masterful storyteller celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday in March, and the title that the Arden honored him with – Master Storyteller – is worth mentioning here because we want all our students to become master storytellers, using music and song as our vehicle for telling a story.
I want to quote from him as I end my presentation today.
In the song “Move On” from Sunday In The Park With George, Sondheim has the character Dot sing these worlds:
Everything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see.
When you come to your senses as a performer, your work becomes more Specific, more Authentic, more Varied and more Intense: more SAVI.
Since the guests at the conference had attended a very successful performance of Legally Blonde earlier in the weekend, I invited them to think about the moments in that musical where the senses of the characters are particularly important.
When Elle hears Warner say, “We have to break up.”
When the Admissions Committee at Harvard experiences the impact of Elle and the company’s performance and decided that she is indeed What They Want.
When Elle sees her name on Callahan’s list.
When Brooke hears Elle sing the Delta Nu song and realizes she’s found someone she can trust.
When Emmet emerges from the dressing room and we see him seeing himself with a new sense of who he might become.
When Warner and Vivian see Callahan hit on Elle, and Vivian discovers a new respect for Elle and for herself.
Even the sound of the Snap in the Bend and Snap song is a powerful sensation, one so forceful it knocks Kyle to the floor and changes his life and Paulette’s as well.
Legally Blonde is a story about coming to your senses, about seeing beyond prejudices and assumptions and lazy, convenient stereotypes. It is a show filled with kinetic and aural exuberance, a feast for the eye and ear and also for our kinesthetic sense.
In the rock opera Tommy, the blind boy the show is named for sings these words:
Coming to your senses is a way of healing the world. So often, we look away from life. It is too much, too hard too see what is really there. In America right now the news is full of a terrible tragedy, the murder of nine individuals in a Charleston church. Too hard to see, too awful to hear, too dreadful to take in this news. We rush through our days, our senses bombarded by sounds, images, sensations, and we have filter nearly all of them out. We would go crazy if we didn’t have some control over the portals of our senses.
But the theater is a seeing place. The term theatron in Greek literally means a seeing place. What’s more, we also refer to the room a theater performance happens in as an auditorium, a room for hearing, and the people who gather in the theater are called an audience, people who have come to hear and see a story, and in doing so, come back to their senses, have their feelings touched and be healed.
When you come to your senses as a performer, you help audience members come to their senses, and we all feel more alive for it. I know I felt more alive Saturday night at Legally Blonde, and I think we all feel more alive as theater artists and as humans in the presence of a great performance of a great song. It contributes to the feeling that Sondheim describes in the title of another one of his songs: the feeling of “Being Alive.”
This post, as well as the next one, is based on a presentation that I gave at “Australasian Overtures,” the international conference of the Musical Theater Educators Alliance held at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in Perth, Australia.
The title of my presentation, “Come To Your Senses,” is the title of a song by the late Jonathan Larson from his musical Tick Tick Boom. It’s also an idiomatic phrase in vernacular English that may not have been familiar to some of the international guests at the WAAPA conference: to “come to your senses” is to pay more attention to what’s going on around you, to use your senses more fully so that you are attuned to your circumstances. “Coming to your senses” is like waking from a trance or a spell.
Not only one sense, but use all five
Come to your senses
Baby, come back alive
The audience at WAAPA was made up of nearly 200 musical theater educators and students who came from all over Australia and Asia, as well as the US, the UK and Europe. It was awesome to be in the company of so many people who shared my passion for the thing that’s been a big part of my life’s work. And of course, they wanted to know: what makes this advice important for the singing actor?
In the many years I’ve spent teaching and coaching singing actors, one of the things I’ve noticed time and again is that, if you want to take your singing acting to an elite level, you need to come to your senses. Yes, this sounds like a vague platitude – Wake up and smell the coffee, stop and smell the roses, pay more attention – but in fact I mean something very specific, focused and practical. In my presentation, I explored that idea a little bit, and demonstrated some strategies that you can use in the classroom, the rehearsal room and the practice room to put this idea to work.
What makes a good singing-acting performance? Well, first of all it’s specific. That doesn’t just mean it’s accurate to what’s on the page, of course, though that’s an important part of being specific. More importantly, it includes specific behavior choices that communicate the dramatic event, the given circumstances and the present action. It’s authentic: that is to say, it has the ring of truth. It doesn’t seem fake or phony, but instead gives the impression of a person who is living truthfully under those imaginary circumstances. It’s varied, which is to say, it changes over time. The singer needs to make choices specific to each moment, each individual phrase of the song. When we experience a singer’s performance, meaning emerges as we take in those specific choices in sequence over time. And it also has intensity, a level of vocal and emotional excitement that lifts it up beyond the everyday. Specificity, Authenticity, Variety and Intensity: for me, these are the four key attributes that distinguish a successful singing-acting performance. These four qualities are so fundamental to successful singing-acting that, over time, I decided to name my teaching approach after them: I call it the SAVI System, a system of technique training that’s designed to cultivate those attributes, and you can read more about that elsewhere on this site.
So – a good singing-acting performance is SAVI, and it turns out that coming to your senses, singing with an enhanced level of sensory awareness, plays an important role in being specific, being authentic, being varied and being intense. If your senses aren’t alive, it’s certainly possible to go through the motions of a performance and to make some compelling noises. However, your five senses are the way you engage with the world around you, the real world as well as the imaginary world of the play, and without that engagement, your work as a singing actor won’t be as good – as SAVI – as it needs to be to succeed.
I didn’t anticipate getting much disagreement about any of the assertions I’ve said so far. But here’s the thing: it’s not as easy as it sounds. In my years and years of observing singing actors at work on the stage, I’ve found it to be one of the most basic challenges the singing actor faces. Why is that? These were some of the responses that came up in our discussion:
The culture of musical and vocal performance places a high value on correctness, which consumes a considerable amount of concentration and mental effort. That usually leaves little bandwidth, little mental capacity to think about anything else.
Vocal performers live in fear of making a mistake, of doing the wrong thing. The singer is understandable driven by the earnest desire to avoid mistakes (of pitch, musical execution, tone), need to coordinate with accompaniment and other singers. In singing-acting, there’s so much more that can go wrong, and so many experts – including your own inner critic – standing by to point out to you when it happens.
Student performers in musical theater are often trained to execute an externally-defined performance (choreography, blocking, musical interpretation) under the supervision of powerful supervisors (director, conductor, choreographer)
Singing is stressful physically as well as psychologically. Singers must project and sustain tones that are often very loud, very high and very long in duration. The tension that results from the stress of singing interferes with the natural relationship between inner impulses and external behavior.
Singing actors experience this stress in the form of tension, and the body responds to stress with an increased production of the hormone cortisol. This leads, in turn, to a greater flow of adrenaline, stiffening of the joints, physical “armoring,” shallow breath, narrowing of the gaze (“glassy” eyes) – a set of phenomena associated with the “fight or flight”syndrome that affects animals in threatening conditions. In short, when you’re under stress, you’re less open to your senses, and less likely to be able to respond and act freely on your impulses.
“Acting is receiving and singing is giving.”
I read an interview with soprano Natalie Dessay where she talked about the challenges of singing and acting. “It’s almost impossible to sing and really act at the same time. For me, acting is receiving, and singing is giving, and that is why it is so difficult, because your mind does one thing and your body does another.” The point she is making is that singing acting is a form of communication, but because it involves singing, we tend to focus chiefly on transmitting rather than receiving.
In actor training, it is common to stress the importance of listening as well as talking – that is, receiving information as well as sending it. When you are singing, activating the senses is a way of restoring the balance between sending and receiving. The singing actor must acquire the ability to do both, in turn. This is true even when – especially when – a character is alone on stage. Note that simultaneity is rarely required – you’re either transmitting OR you’re receiving, but seldom are you expected to do both at the exact same time. In fact, the score provides a great deal of guidance as to when you are required to transmit and when you are available to receive.
Sending and receiving are twin aspects of the act of communication. In the score of a song, the writer and composer have set down what is to be transmitted, with no indication of what is to be received. But think about it – it’s unnatural, even impossible, to have one without the other. You have to inhale in order to exhale – you must breathe in before you can breathe out. This give and take, this ebb and flow, this in and out is all part of the natural function of any living organism. But when we sing a song, we become fixated on what we give, what we send out, because that act of sending is complicated, challenging, difficult.
I have found it necessary and productive to devise training experiences in the studio that disrupt the pattern of “fight or flight” stresses and restore a more natural and robust flow of energies between impulse and expression. This is very similar to what I heard Annie in her presentation on Saturday describe as “breaking the cycle.”
I have found that activating the senses is one of the most reliable ways to break that cycle.
Inspiration often comes from unexpected places, but I bet you never imagined that a Furby could teach you something about the craft of singing acting!
Millions of these little guys have been sold since the Furby was first introduced in 1998. One of the secrets of this animatronic toy’s success is how it makes you want to interact with it. In a recent segment on the always-fascinating Radiolab podcast, Caleb Chung, one of Furby’s designers, described three principles that guided his efforts to make a toy that will engage children in immersive play:
It has to show emotion
It has to be responsive to its environment
It has to change over time.
Furbys have to be super-simple to exhibit engaging behavior with a handful of chips and servo-motors, and these principles are super-simple, too. But does the behavior you exhibit in your singing acting pass the Furby test?
1. Showing emotion.
Designer Caleb Chung learned the art of emotional expression from his early days working as a mime performing on the streets. He understood that expressive behavior was a kind of vocabulary. Changing the tilt of your head or the lift of your ribcage can signify a thought or feeling. When it came time to create Furby, he used his street-performer’s insights to determine how Furby would move its eyes and ears.
Take a look at the photo of Furby, and notice what strikes you right away. It’s those big eyes, of course! The eyes are featured prominently in Furby’s expressive repertoire. The more recent models of Furby have LCD eyes where the pupils are a digital display, while the old-school models like the one pictured above have painted eyeballs. Regardless of the technology used, however, the eyeballs and the eyelids both move, and that gives the toy an uncanny expressiveness.
So – a toy designer with super-limited resources chose to make moving eyes a prominent feature in his creation. How do you use your eyes when you sing? Do you gaze off vaguely into space? Are your eyes glazed over because of stress or fear? The SAVI singing actor understands the importance of eye language, and realizes that, in order to communicate effectively, you have to mobilize your eyes! Use your phone or a camera to record your face while you sing, and take stock of your eye language. I’ll bet it could use some work.
Of course, there’s more to expressing emotion than wiggling your eyeballs, but you’d be amazed how many singers neglect this basic element of communication and how profound an improvement it can bring to your performance. Facial expression, gesture, stance and other components of non-verbal communication also play an important role in your performance, and you’ll want to activate them all for an optimal performance.
2. Responsive to the environment.
Furby creates the illusion of being interactive by being responsive to sensory information. Make a loud noise, and Furby will cry out; poke him and he’ll laugh; turn him upside down and he whimpers with fear. None of this would happen if Furby’s sensors weren’t continuously active, taking in data from the environment.
Making your senses more alive is one of the key ways you can bring greater truth and believability to your singing acting performance. Too often, singers get hyper-focused on OUTPUT – especially the sounds they are making – and don’t take in any INPUT. It’s like breathing out and breathing in – you can’t have one without the other. If you take in some sensory data, it’ll make a change in the behavior you express.
This is tough for the singer who is performing solo in a classroom, club or concert. There’s no scene partner to respond to, no environmental cues to stir your senses. You’ve got to use your practice time in ways that stir your senses so that you build up your expressive vocabulary. Look at meaningful photos, inhale some stimulating smells, work with a partner, handle props and objects that provide tactile stimulation – there’s all sorts of ways you can “come to your senses!”
When you are playing a scene with a partner, you get all sorts of signals that you can used to bring your performance to life. Treating a solo song as a conversation with an “imaginary partner” is a powerful strategy, but give your “imaginary partner” some provocative lines and actions so that you’ve got something useful to “react” to.
3. Change over time.
Furby’s creator observed that living things don’t always act exactly the same, and built changes into his creation’s behavior so that children playing with the toy would stay interested and engaged. Not only does he respond to stimuli like tickling and loud noises, but he uses more English words (as opposed to “Furbish” gibberish) as he gets older. If Furby did the same thing all the time, he’d be boring, and certainly not lifelike!
So what does this tell you about singing acting? Too many singers get “stuck” in a general attitude or mood, and don’t make new choices that produce behavioral change as the song goes along. Sometimes the simplest change is all you need – shift your focus, vary your volume, adjust your stance. Change creates a quality of lifelike authenticity and increases your spectators’ engagement with your performance. What’s more, change creates meaning – when you do something different, your spectators can’t help but think, Wow! That’s different! I wonder what’s up with that?
In the SAVI studio, I use the term “applesauce” to describe a performance without changes. Applesauce is delicious, but every bite is exactly the same. You need to serve up a varied menu, a “shish kebab” of varied flavored and textures, and this means analyzing the song to determine what the writers have done to vary the song phrase by phrase.
Tension is the enemy of change, and that’s probably the biggest reasons why singers get stuck. When you’re singing onstage, you shift into “fight or flight” mode, same as you would if you were facing a threatening predator. Your so-called “lower brain,” where your instinctual behaviors are controlled, causes hormones like cortisol to be secreted when you’re under stress. Your body braces up, your senses become highly focused (screening out all but the most important stimuli), and you experience what seems like a burst of energy. The “fight or flight” response robs you of your ease, and ease is what you need if you want to remain responsive and truthful.
Be like Furby?
Don’t think for a minute that I believe you should imitate a robotic toy to be a successful singing actor. The human organism is far more sophisticated than a Furby toy, and your human qualities have to be on full display to be a successful singing actor. However, a lot of thought went into simple things that Furby could do to create the illusion of being life-like and engage children in immersive play. Try a trick or two from Furby’s repertoire and see if it doesn’t bring new expressiveness to your singing-acting!