Ghosts In The Room: The challenges of singing familiar songs

The past few weeks, I’ve been working as music director for a production that features songs with music by Richard Rodgers, many of them quite familiar: My Funny Valentine and The Sound of Music are just a few of the most well-known.

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.

The Song Is You

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?

Learning outcomes at the high school level?

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!

“Whenever I feel afraid…”

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.

Come To Your Senses! Part II

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.

Singing A Song That's SAVI

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:

See me
Feel me
Touch me
Heal me

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.”

Come To Your Senses! Part I

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.

To be continued

Singing-Acting Tips from Furby? Seriously?

FurbyInspiration 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:

  1. It has to show emotion
  2. It has to be responsive to its environment
  3. 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?

Shish KebabIn 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!

Finding “ease in the critical moments”

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by this year’s Musical Theater Educators Alliance conference. Every year for the past sixteen years, leading pedagogues from musical theater training programs around the world have gathered to share presentations on their most effective methods. This year, our meeting was hosted by New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, home to the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions.

This is the moment,
This is the time…

Frank Wildhorn’s lyrics from Jekyll and Hyde speak of the sense of excitement we experience as we are about to begin something important. Dr. Jekyll is facing what Alexander Technique teachers would call a “critical moment” – “critical” in the sense of “crisis,” a turning point when future outcomes will be determined by present choices. Finding EASE in those critical moments is a key to success, but since critical moments are often accompanied by stress and tension, ease in the critical moment can be elusive.

Many performing arts schools include training in Alexander Technique as part of their program of studies, and many performing arts teachers have had some training in Alexander Technique. Alexander Technique focuses on how we use our bodies, particularly at times when we are under pressure to do something stressful or challenging, and this makes it especially useful to singers, actors, dancers and instrumentalists seeking to improve their performance. AT helps the student become aware of unconscious physical habit patterns that add unnecessary tension and effort, and re-educates performers to achieve more optimal use of their bodies. AT has benefits that extend to people in all walks of life, and many individuals have derived great therapeutic benefit from the technique. Performers who are able to incorporate the Alexander Technique notice greater poise and ease, less pain and tension, and an expanded sense of possibilities.

What is Alexander Technique? It is a way of thinking about movement and posture, a way of moving, a re-education of the body. F. Matthias Alexander, who originally discovered and articulated the principles in the technique that bears his name, was a public speaker who lost his voice; in his search for the cause of his problem, he discovered certain patterns of movement, ways he used his body while speaking, and restored his voice by training himself to use his body differently. Self-awareness of one’s own patterns of use is a key first step in an education in the Alexander technique.

When Alexander Technique teachers speak of the “critical moment,” they are describing the moment that occurs right before you begin an activity. As you are about to do something, your body prepares itself unconsciously, as a reflex; often, this includes a slight contraction of the neck and spine, a bracing up of the joints and a decreasing awareness of your senses. For singing actors, this moment occurs as you begin to sing a song, speak a speech or play a piece of music – the moment when you make the transition from “not performing” to “performing.” At that critical moment of beginning, certain things happen unconsciously in your mind and body. You think “get ready, get set, go,” but as you “get set,” you lose the freedom that is essential to beginning your activity with ease and poise. You think, “I’m going to bear down, try harder, make more of an effort,” all in the name of achieving success, but all these thoughts, and the subconscious physical adjustments that accompany them, are diminishing your chances of achieving the very success you seek.

I have found it very helpful to think of the beginning of each new phrase – in SAVI parlance, each “ding” – as a kind of critical moment in the journey of the song. As you finish doing one thing (singing a phrase, playing an action) and prepare to do the next thing, there is a tendency to hold over the effort and tension associated with the previous phrase. Gwen Walker, in her marvelous workshop at MTEA, describes this using the analogy of playing the piano. Muscles, she says, are like piano keys, and you need to release them before you can press them again. There is much to be gained by thinking of each new phrase as a new event, and for the SAVI singing actor who seeks to work “phrase by phrase,” the onset or beginning of each new phrase is a critical moment, the moment when you cease to do the dramatic action and behavior associated with the previous phrase and make a conscious change or choice to begin to undertake the behavior associated with the action of the upcoming phrase.

The study of Alexander Technique is designed to impart a sense of ease at those critical moments. You come to learn that you have a choice at the critical moment, and learn to inhibit or adjust the unconscious habits that interfere with your ability to make the optimal choice.

It is often maddeningly elusive to try to talk about AT, and even bright and eager undergrads can become impatient as they begin to become acquainted with the method. AT teachers can compound this problem when they adopt an exotic air of mystery in their demeanor. There is indeed something mysterious and marvelous about AT, but it is, at the same time, quite simple and practical. Indeed, some of the thought patterns we associate with learning and performing – for instance, the idea that in order to succeed, you need to “try harder” – have been found to be destructive habits of thinking that constrain your ability to be free and easy at the critical moment.

How, then, can one attain ease at the critical moment? One powerful strategy I learned about in Gwen Walker’s session: Come to your senses. “Effort causes you to not notice yourself. Asking the student to notice something, to attend to the quality of himself, is an effective way of reducing tension,” according to Gwen. As you approach the critical moment, allow yourself to take in as much sensory information as you can, not only from your body, but from your companions (your partners in a scene, for instance) and your environment. When we sing, we are transmitting information, sending it out to be seen and heard by others; you will experience greater ease if you allow yourself to RECEIVE as well as TRANSMIT. The moment when you take a breath, allow yourself to also take in information.

AT teaches us that how we begin something is enormously important to how we will do what we’ve begun. This is true whether you’re talking about getting up from a chair, climbing a step, or taking a breath to begin to sing a phrase. The moment just before we begin – that instant of “onset” when we make the transition from the previous thing to the impending next thing – is critical to the qualities we will bring to it.

What Moving Day Can Teach You About the Art of Singing Acting

Moving DayThe boxes are piling up in my house, and every time I look at them, I feel a bit of dread in the pit of my stomach.

Yes, it’s moving day, and the anxious, worried feelings I’ve been experiencing are familiar to many of you, I’m sure.

When you’re settled in, everything is comfortable. You know where to look to find things (usually), your routines are well established, and the belongings you’ve accumulated contribute to a sense of stability and well-being.

But no matter how good you think things are, the time will come when you have to move.

And there are also plenty of times when you know that a move would be the best solution to those feelings of dissatisfaction, but you’re afraid or daunted by the prospect.

Moving day will be here any minute for me, and it’s got me thinking (inevitably) about singing-acting, and the way that the typical singing-actor approaches a song.

Beginning to work on a song, everything is new and unfamiliar, like that day when you arrive at a new house or apartment for the first time. Where should I put the TV? Where should I hang the pictures? What color should I paint this room? What’s the best route to take when I commute to work? The number of choices is overwhelming, and to make some quick headway, we make some quick choices, reassuring ourselves, well, I can always go back and change this later.

In the case of a song, this usually means settling on a mood, a tempo, a point of view. We start to paint the world of our song, using a roller and a big bucket of paint to get through the job quickly. We unpack behaviors that we’ve used in the past, and set them up to decorate this new song.

And very quickly, we settle in. After all, it’s easier not to have to think about those choices. If a certain choice works well for the first phrase, then why not use it for the next one? And the next, and the next? And the baggage of past experience, the belongings you bring with you when you “move in” to a new song, means that you often begin your new song with a set of old choices,

And this is, to be quite honest, regrettable, at least when it comes to the singing of songs. When you settle in to a song, when you start to become a creature of habit about your performance, then the life starts to go out of it.

A song, after all, is a journey, and singing a song requires you to go on that journey as if you were taking it for the first time. Sure, many of the landmarks will be familiar, but for a performance to have authenticity, it must create the impression that you’re experiencing these insights and feeling these feelings for the very first time.

And taking a journey is all about moving, not keeping still. If you’re encumbered by accumulated belongings, if you’re constrained by fear and anxiety that the the place you’re going couldn’t possibly be as good as the place you are now, your ability to move through the journey of a song, or the journey of a life, is compromised.

So here’s a couple suggestions that you can implement to bring greater specificity and authenticity to your work, insights I’ve gleaned from my recent preparations for moving day:

1. Travel light.

Don’t let yourself get weighed down by belongings, or by excess baggage. Wisdom comes with experience, but don’t let the past become a burden. Purging accumulated beliefs, notions and behaviors will leave you feeling buoyant and liberated.

2. Don’t get stuck in one place.

This is especially true when you’re in the middle of a song, and it’s time to make a change at the beginning of a new phrase or section. When the ding comes, treat it as a welcome opportunity to get un-stuck.

3. Don’t fear the change.

This is hard to remember when you’re in the middle of a phrase that’s working well. You feel good, you sound good, and you think to yourself, there’s no way that I could sound and feel this good if I do something different. Such fears are groundless, and there’s inevitably some new discovery that awaits you just as soon as you make the change.

4. Pay attention to your new surroundings.

When we become creatures of habit, we don’t see the possibilities around us in our environment. Moving day is the ultimate disruption to habit, and we need to learn to be grateful for such opportunities. Explore your new place eagerly, embrace its unfamiliarity and relish the ways that it’s different from where you were before. New songs offer such opportunities, but even more importantly, they’re built into every new phrase. Entering a new phrase is like walking into a new room; look around, check out your surroundings, try out its possibilities.

5. Mix things up.

Try something different just for the sake of the change. Honest, it won’t kill you. Let yourself be ornery and curious and random and find out what’s possible when you deliberately make a change.

Singing-actors, like all artists, run the risk of being overwhelmed by the tyranny of the quotidian. The routine, the repetitive, the everyday – these bring comfort and order to our lives, but there’s no underestimating the value of change. Otherwise, we become prisoners of our habits and the fears that have led us to form those habits. At the grand “macro” level, that can mean pulling up stakes, packing your belongings and moving to a new home or a new town; at the “micro” level, it means being willing to disrupt your routine, try something different, look for a new approach when a new phrase presents you with a new opportunity to make a new choice.

Moving day makes me a little crazy, yes, but it’s worth it. The change is good, and forces me to rethink a lot of choices that I’ve settled into simply for the sake of convenience. Life is a journey, and the SAVI Singing-Actor can learn a lot about the “journey of the song” by paying attention to life’s little lessons – don’t you think?

Video Clinic: In Search of the “Perfect 10”

The concept of the “perfect ten” is associated, at least for me, with Olympic gymnastics. A score of 10 was the highest possible score an Olympic gymnast could receive (at least it was until the rules were changed few years ago), and the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci made history in 1976 when she became the first female gymnast to score a “perfect ten” in Olympic competition.

The notion of the “perfect 10” showed up a few years after Comaneci’s win in the title of a 1979 sex comedy called “10,” featuring Bo Derek as the epitome of female attractiveness. That movie also made Ravel’s Bolero famous as a perfectly hilarious soundtrack for her tryst with the hapless Dudley Moore.

But I digress.

I’ve encouraged my students to think about what constitutes a “perfect ten” performance in singing acting, and I often begin the semester asking them to submit videos that document performances representing their ideal notion of performance. Bo Derek may have been divinely endowed with her “perfect ten” attributes, but for singing actors as for Olympic gymnasts, the “perfect ten” performance is the result of years of hard work and preparation, with painstaking attention paid to every detail. Any blemish or flaw that occurs at any point during the performance gives the judges a reason to deduct points from that perfect score, which means the challenge is not simply to be “the best,” but to execute a challenging sequence of specific events and do each and every one optimally, with perfect form and expressiveness.

Today I’m showcasing one student’s submission for the “perfect ten,” a performance by the singer and actress Heather Headley that was filmed during a live performance on Rosie O’Donnell’s television variety show. Headley, a singer and songwriter born in Trinidad, originated the role of Nala in the Broadway musical The Lion King before going on to star in the title role of the musical Aida, a performance that won her both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards. Since Aida, Headley has focused her efforts more on her music career, but she returned to the musical stage a year ago in London to play the title role in The Bodyguard, a musical adaptation of Whitney Houston’s 1992 movie.

Here’s the video:

One aspect of Headley’s performance that absolutely floors me (and did when I saw her play this role live onstage) is the quality of her diction. Heather has – well, let’s not beat around the bush, she has a large mouth, with an extremely flexible and well-conditioned facial musculature, giving her the ability to enunciate every word in a way that drives its meaning home.

Another thing I admire about this video is the way that she uses subtle but distinct behavior choices to support specific moments in the drama. Look, for instance, at the focus shift she makes between the first and second phrases (0:37), as she raises her gaze from the floor with a perfect eyes-first focus shift. Or the little tilt of the head she uses in between the repetitions of the phrase “It’s easy, it’s easy,” (1:05), which, combined with her tight smile, conveys the bitter irony hiding behind those words.

It’s a smashing performance, captivating and compelling, but not quite a perfect ten for me. For instance, I think there’s a small flaw at the beginning of the stanza at 2:29 on the tape, where she sings “But then I see the faces…” The word “but” for me indicates a strong shift in thought process from the preceding, but Headley’s behavior choice doesn’t do anything to differentiate this new beat from the previous. She appears to be caught up in the emotional drama, and her intensity is accompanied by a physical tension that mutes any impulse that she might have had to make an adjustment at the onset of this new thought.

I firmly believe there’s much to be learned from studying others’ performances, whether the singer is acclaimed or unknown. By thoughtfully analyzing the interplay of music, voice and behavior, it’s possible to discover a great deal about the art of expressive communication while singing. Watch some of the video (or indeed, any video) with the sound OFF, and you’ll learn even more.

What do you think? Is this clip a “perfect ten” for you? Am I being too picky? Are there other performances you’d nominate for that honor? Leave your link as a comment, and I’ll post more of these in the weeks ahead!