The Magic of Songs

Reflections on the power and pervasiveness of song, on the occasion of a new class

musicnotes-thumb-400x400-335656What is it about songs? If you’re a singing actor, you’ll spend your lifetime performing them, interpreting them, living inside them, so surely you must be curious: just what, exactly, is the deal?

Songs are ubiquitous, that’s for sure. Everywhere you look, people are plugged into their headsets, going about their daily business with a secret soundtrack. But songs are public, too, and public songs permeate our culture: they’re playing when we wake up, worship, make love, get married, put our children to sleep, bury our dead. In stores, restaurants, cars: there’s no escaping them.

As someone who writes songs and teaches others to perform them, I am fascinated by their power and influence, and constantly curious about what makes them tick.

That’s why, this fall, I am preparing to teach a new course called “Enchantment Studio.” This is a multi-disciplinary studio experience designed to explore the expressive nature of song. The enrollment in the class reflects a variety of disciplines: a voice major, but only one; a handful of animators; a couple film makers; a graphic designer; a music business student; and a theater-maker. It’s a great diverse group, and there’s still room for a few more.

Each week, I propose to undertake a collaborative studio project with these students, introducing a concept, discussing it briefly (with examples), then proposing an activity or process based on that concept. Some will be done quickly, as “sketches,” others more fully developed. Every student will work in image, word, sound and movement.I envision processes where the student will be assigned to respond in one medium to a “provocation” in another media.

It’s a crazy, art-school sort of idea for a class, but it’s got me genuinely excited. I think of the work we will be doing as research that will feed back into my own understanding and my personal artistic process regarding the creation and performance of song.

For this reason, I’m going to be writing a series of reflective posts, which I’ll publish here, and solicit comments on those posts. I’m not quite sure what form the contribution will take, but I anticipate that there will be some exciting discoveries shared during the next few months.

In this introductory post, let’s examine the title I invented for the class: why “enchantment?” The centerpiece of this long word is “chant,” which means “sing” in French and a particular sort of song or intoned speech in English; trace it back etymologically and you reach the Latin verb “cantare,” to sing, and the related noun “cantus,” meaning song. But an “enchantment” is not just a song; it’s a kind of spell that gets cast, using song (and movement, in some cases) to beguile the senses, summon a certain spirit, and make something happen. Spells aren’t chanted randomly, but have a function – they are designed to produce results.

“Rain, rain, go away…”

“Rock-a-bye, baby, on the treetop…”

“My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.”

“You say you want a revolution?
Well, you know, we all want to change the world.”

Songs are compact, both decorative and functional. They have a kind of singularity: that is, the mood, the sound and the ideas of a song all can inhere as a single expressive unit, and the title of the song is a short verbal phrase that not only refers to but evokes the experience of the song: “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Satisfaction,” “After the Ball.” This singularity is often achieved through devices like rhyme, repetition (including phrases, refrains and stanzas), transformation and association, all of which serve to create mental connections between separate but sequential moments of experience.

Within that singularity, however, songs have a vigorous, almost disorderly energy, as the impulse to express collides with the constraints of form. Ideas and sounds introduce a series of disruptions and counter-proposals that expand upon the song’s central premise. Certain moments, in particular, are charged with greater expressive force, for instance: the first utterance, the first time repetition or rhyme is used, the first big change (verse to chorus), the beginning of the contrasting middle section (variously called “the bridge” or “the release” or “the B section”), the recurrence of the original idea or motif, and, of course, the ending.

I think that performers who are more alert to this phenomenon, the diversity or variety that exists within the tidy package of the song, are equipped to be more expressive. They can fashion their behavior, their vocal, physical, facial and emotional choices, in a manner that responds to and reflects the dynamic of the song.

For that reason, one of the lines of inquiry I’ve proposed for this class is an investigation of what makes a song “song-y.” How do we recognize when something is a song? And just as important, how do we know when a particular concatenation of music and language is NOT a song? Are there particular defining elements that separate songs from other forms of utterance? Does it have to have rhyme, repetition, a “hook?” Does it have to have words? A tune? An accompaniment? What about birdsong, whale song, coyotes howling? Does it have to be short? Does it have a minimum length? Does it have to tell a story, or have a purpose?

How about you?

Do you ever wonder about songs? Do you have any stories about a particular song and the role it played in your life? Does the class I’ve described strike you as an interesting way to spend a few hours together each Friday morning? Which of these proposed activities sound most intriguing to you?

The single most important thing to do in your college audition

My interview with Joe Deer (published in three parts, here, here and here) generated a ton of traffic and response on the site, which leads me to believe there are a lot of serious singing actors with college auditions on their minds.

As a followup, I want to tip you off to the single most important thing you must remember to do in your college audition:

Show ’em you can sing and ding!

It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what song you sing, or what you think or feel about your song, if you don’t ding it when you sing it!

I’ve been in the audition room with thousands of hopeful candidates over the years, and for me, this is the one single attribute that’s most likely to get you an offer. It helps me see you as a promising applicant, and makes you stand out from the clueless crowd. It gets you into the “yes” pile.

If you’re not familiar with SAVI lingo, you’re probably scratching your head, so please let me explain.

DeskBellTo “ding” a song means to break a song down phrase-by-phrase, and create expressive behavior that changes noticeably at the beginning of each phrase.

The first ding – the first change – is the impulse that compels you to begin singing at the beginning of your song. It launches an action, an intention that animates the entire phrase.

The second ding is the beginning of the second phrase, and offers the first opportunity to make an adjustment, a change in your behavior. The quality of that adjustment will reveal something about your understanding of how the new phrase differs from its predecessor. Ditto for every subsequent phrase, every single ding.

Each ding is specific to the text, the music and the dramatic moment; a new phrase requires new behavior, some sort of variation or disruption of the previous. That change may be a response to something external – your partner’s behavior, the environment – or it may be internally triggered, the result of a realization or an impulse that has just occurred. Just like the sound of a bell, however, a “ding” happens all at once, and is slightly startling.

Singing and dinging requires insight as well as the technical ability to execute a range of choices. Proficiency at making impulsive changes – “I was doing this, but now I’ve decided to do something different” – is a fundamental skill that any singing actor must possess, and it can be mastered through patient, persistent practice.

In case you’re worried – you don’t have to be an Olympic-level dinger-singer at your college audition. You just need to show that you understand the importance of dinging while singing, and that you’ve devoted some time and effort to it in preparation for your audition. You’ll gain proficiency and the ability to apply this principle to a variety of roles and repertoire with time.

By the way, does this pertain to monologues? Hell, yes! And to every performance you’ll prepare for the rest of your life!

Ding Cash RegSo get busy! When you sing your songs, ding your songs! Be on the lookout for my Sing and Ding Tutorial, on its way soon. It’ll soon become a habit for you, an indispensable tool you’ll use with confidence and flair! And before long, you’ll know the truth of this SAVI Saying:

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that “ding!”

So You Want To Sing Music Theater?

There’s not much literature on voice training specifically calibrated to the needs of the singing actor, and that makes the arrival of “So You Want To Sing Music Theater,” a new book “developed in coordination with” the National Association of Teachers of Singing, something to sing about! NATS has taken considerable strides in its approach to the training of singers for the stage. It seems not that long ago that many voice teachers regarded “belting” as the devil’s work, and musical theater programs were encumbered with tenured voice faculty whose old-fashioned pedagogies were incompatible with the needs of the musical theater. Nowadays, musical theater specialists routinely give presentations at NATS regional and national conferences, and the organization sponsors an annual Music Theater Competition. Their sponsorship of the development of this volume confirms that the tide has turned at NATS.

Cover_Karen-Hall_WEB_250px“So You Want…” is a book that appears to have been planned by a committee, and in this case, it’s a good thing, since it gives specialists the chance to provide compact, detailed chapters on subjects that have been covered in book length studies on their own. The principal author is Dr. Karen Hall, and her preface quotes a famous lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II, “By your students you’ll be taught.” Faced with the challenge of teaching young students eager to master the musical theater repertoire, she responded resourcefully and re-examined all aspects of her pedagogy. Her philosophy is a pervasive one among the best teachers in our field: there’s jobs to be booked and art to be made here and now, and we owe it to our students to give them the best possible training in the most efficient and effective manner so they can do those tasks well.

Serious voice pedagogues may be surprised to discover how much of this book is actually about repertoire. The first chapter is a brief overview of the history of the musical (one that relies heavily on John Kenrick’s history of the musical), and the book devotes several chapters at the end to lengthy lists of repertoire organized by style and voice type. Those lists are indicative of the bewildering diversity of styles that are part of the commercial musical theater in the present day, and the historical overview helps provide an understanding of why that is the case. Musicals tell stories about all sorts of people in all sorts of worlds, and songwriters have risen to this challenge by creating songs that require many different sorts of vocal technique. What all these shows have in common is the phenomenon of characters expressing themselves through song in dramatic situations, but the singer-actor seeking maximum employability is well advised to pursue proficiency in as many of vocal styles as possible.

A chapter on the singer as athlete by Dr. Wendy LeBorgne (who has just published her own two-volume book, The Vocal Athlete) is full of practical information. Though its tone is a bit clinical for the lay reader, her authorial voice gave me confidence that her recommendations were solidly grounded in scientific fact. Readers of The SAVI Singing Actor will also know that I am much enamored of the singing-actor-as-athlete metaphor, and this perspective is one that I know generations of students have found useful: train to gain, patiently and persistently.

Larynx anatomyA “how it works” chapter on vocal anatomy by Dr. Scott McCoy provides useful information about the physiological basis of singing. Again, the lingo gets a bit technical, and talk of formants, Boyle’s Law and muscular antagonism may be daunting for the lay reader. This is invaluable knowledge for the teacher, of course, though there’s plenty of Broadway stars who’ve built successful careers without knowing any of this. Is it appropriate knowledge to cover in an undergraduate musical theater course? Given the number of former students of mine who’ve gone on to teach or coach young singers (often alongside a performing career), I think there’s an argument to be made in favor of equipping aspiring singing actors with some rudimentary knowledge of vocal anatomy.

The chapters on vocal pedagogy provide a valuable overview of some of the best work being done in the field. The teaching approaches of Jeanette LoVetri and Mary Saunders Barton are featured prominently, along with other pedagogues like Robert Edwin, Jo Estill and Seth Riggs. Professional practitioners like conductor Lawrence Goldberg and coach/accompanist Robert Marks also provide recommendations that will be of value to students and teachers alike.

One aspect of the book that seemed particularly promising was the availability of supporting material on the NATS website that presented vocalizes, exercises and examples. However, I immediately ran into a dead end when I followed the instructions for accessing the online resources that are supposedly available (“on the NATS Website, click on the ‘Resources’ tab and follow the instructions”), since I couldn’t find the “Resources” tab. I did find a link here (http://www.nats.org/Music_Theater_-_Resources.html) that included some material from the book as well as Spotify links for the listening examples, but it looks like a work in progress. It’s a good idea whose execution is not yet well implemented.

Despite this one complaint, “So You Want To Sing Music Theater” is a comprehensive and useful addition to the literature, a worthy addition to any musical theater singing teacher’s library. It will also has great potential value for the undergraduate student of musical theater, especially those who anticipate finding themselves one day in a teacher’s role. Educators can preview the book on the website of the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, by requesting an e-inspection copy.

Keys to Success in Your College Audition

Part III of my conversation with Joe Deer, co-author of Acting in Musical Theatre.

Joe DeerJoe’s book has the well-deserved subtitle “A Comprehensive Course,” and he recently shared his comprehensive knowledge about the training of the singing actor at the Educational Theatre Association conference last weekend. Prior to that, though, he was kind enough to give me a preview of the presentation he would be giving high school teachers about preparing students for college theater auditions. If you missed them, here are links to the first and second parts of our interview. Now, on to Act III!

It Matters To Everybody

The process of selecting a college and getting the right match between the school and the prospective student is as important to the school as it is to the student. Joe emphasized that schools nowadays go to considerable time, effort and expense to get the right mix of students; if the student’s goals and expectations aren’t well-matched to the school’s offerings, it’s bad for everybody. That’s why, if you’re a student, it’s so important for you to articulate your personal goals and pick schools based on how well their offerings match those goals.

Audition Requirements

Many schools, particularly those offering a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) degree, require an audition, either live or on video; some require a video audition as a preliminary screening to the live audition. There’s no denying there’s a great deal at stake in these auditions, but following Joe’s advice will make the process less stressful and increase your likelihood of success.

Each school will provide information on their audition requirements: how many songs, how many monologues, what types of material and how long your audition cuts should be. Gather that information for every school you’re applying to. Some schools publish a “do not sing” list or a list of over-used audition monologues. Pay attention to guidelines like these; if the school went to the trouble of publishing them, then it “matters a lot to them,” Joe says. Monologues you are likely to need could include one or two contrasting contemporary pieces and perhaps a classical monolog (that is, one in verse or “elevated text”). You’ll also need two contrasting songs, but the specific guidelines (ballad? uptempo? classical? length of cut?) will vary from school to school. Your goal should be to come up with the minimum number of pieces that will satisfy every prospective school’s requirements; this will allow you to prepare your material efficiently and effectively. Whatever you do, start this process as early as possible, and don’t leave it til the last minute!

Choosing Good Material

Good audition pieces, both scenes and songs, allow you to “show yourself in your best light,” says Joe. Don’t choose material that will force you to go beyond the limits of what you feel you can do confidently. Your material should be appropriate for someone your age, and not so quirky in its characterization that it hides your personality from the auditors. Most importantly, choose pieces you actually care about, songs and monologues that “awaken an inner passion” and stir the artist in you. Auditors will regard your choice of material as a clue to your artistry, your curiosity and your passion.

The search for the perfect audition material is a challenge that singing actors face throughout their careers. The problem for most high school students is that your experience is limited – you haven’t read or seen that many plays or musicals. This is a place where a more experienced coach or teacher will probably be able to help, but expect to spend some time searching and digging if you want good results.

Homework and Preparation

Once you’ve chosen your material, you need to master it on the technical level. Learn the songs cold, both the text and the music. Practice reciting the text of your songs as a monolog, which is one of the simplest and most effective procedures for improving comprehension and memorization. “Technique should not be your focus in the audition,” says Joe; the auditors are interested in your ability to tell the story and to live truthfully in the imaginary circumstances of the story, he says, and that means practicing your material til the technical challenges of execution can take a backseat to your artistic expression.

Joe recommends that your homework include asking and answering what he calls “the basic acting questions” about your songs and monologues. Who am I? Who am I talking to and why do they matter to me? What are the important given circumstances? What I am fighting to make happen in this moment? What is my immediate need right now? What is my imaginary partner doing in response to that? Do your homework and the results will be evident in your behavior; skip it and that’ll show, too.

Certain kinds of practice can be especially helpful, Joe observes. Try delivering your audition material under stressful circumstances: in front of a class, in a recital or open-mic night. Get used to coping with the pressure of performance. Get someone to pretend to be your scene partner so you can speak and sing to a real person instead of an imaginary one; notice how this influences your behavior, and put those discoveries to use next time you’re alone.

Shall We Dance?

Many musical theater schools have a dance audition, and the preparation for this is different. Unlike the singing and acting, where you’re presenting material you’ve prepared previously, the dance audition requires you to learn new material (a “combination”) on the spot and then execute it in a way that demonstrates not only your skill and your personality but also your ability to “pick up” the choreography. If you’re an inexperienced dancer, there’s no way you can cram in enough classes in a short period of time to make yourself an expert; that kind of development takes time. You can, however, get yourself into classes and brush up your skills, so that you can confidently exhibit whatever dance ability you have.

Some time spent in the dance studio in the weeks before your audition will have the added advantage of enhancing your physical tone and vitality. You can do yourself a favor during these weeks by paying attention to how you eat, too; cut back on the soda and junk food, and load up on salads and whole foods if you want to feel and look your best.

Dress For Success

Check out the guidelines regarding how to dress for the dance audition, and suit up accordingly. You don’t have to be Baryshnikov to get into a musical theater program, though a high level of dance skills will give your standings a boost at many schools; you do, however, need to look like you have a clue about how dancers train, and show that you’re eager to do so. How you dress will make a difference in the acting and singing auditions too. Don’t dress like you’re going to Sunday dinner at Grandma’s, the prom or a job interview. Choose clothes that you feel you look good in, like you might wear on a first date – clothes that express your personality and show you respect yourself. Be prepared to change between your dance clothes and your acting clothes, and to do so quickly in a place that’s not very convenient, probably a bathroom.

Finally, you need to recall that, when you audition for a school, it’s as much a chance for you to check them out as it is for them to check you out. Take the time to talk to students or teachers who might be available while you’re hanging out waiting. Don’t be so caught up in the stress and drama of your preparation that you forget to breathe and look around. Think of it as a chance to let your light shine, I like to say, and I know Joe would agree with that.

Bonus links for further reading

There’s plenty of worthwhile material written on this subject, first and foremost among which is Chapter 18, “Auditioning,” in Acting in Musical Theatre, the book Joe co-authored with Rocco DalVera. Jonathan Flom’s Get The Callback: The Art of Auditioning for Musical Theater is well worth a read, and Amazon also offers several articles by Jonathan (who teaches at Shenandoah Conservatory) in Kindle format. VP Boyle’s Audition Freedom is a breath of fresh air that reminds us to be human in the audition room, and Mary Anna Dennard’s I Got In (2014 edition) bills itself as the Ultimate College Audition Guide for Acting and Musical Theater. Get reading!

Choosing Your Target Schools

Part II of my conversation with Joe Deer, co-author of Acting in Musical Theatre.

Joe DeerPreviously…

The estimable Joe Deer, co-author of Acting In Musical Theatre: A Comprehensive Course, author of Directing in Musical Theatre, and Distinguished Professor of Musical Theatre at Wright State University, graciously gave me a preview of his upcoming presentation for the Educational Theatre Association’s national conference about helping high school students prepare to study theater in college. In the first part of our conversation, we reviewed the difference between the BFA and BA degrees and other degree options.

Let’s assume, now, that you’re ready to begin a search for the school of your dreams. You’ve thought about your goals and the type of program that would be right for you, but now you’re faced with an overwhelming array of options. Which schools should you apply to? And how many schools should be on your list?

It may be a comfort to know there are consultants ready to assist you with this daunting task. They’ve got considerable expertise, and they work hard to keep their knowledge up-to-date, but their services aren’t cheap. (Of course, neither is college, so some extra dollars spent choosing wisely isn’t hard to justify.) Often, you can pick up a few free pointers in the “blog” area of their websites. You’ll also find books on this topic on Amazon, but make sure you choose one that’s up to date, since this is a dynamic landscape where the schools, the players and the requirements change from year to year.

The pointers that Joe will be offering in his EdTA presentation, however, make it possible for an applicant (perhaps with a little help from a teacher, parent or well-organized friend) to get the job done without a price-y consultant. Let’s get started!

I’ve Got A Little List

When making a list of schools to apply to, your thoughts may go first to “marquee” schools that have well-established reputations, the ones you’ll find on lists like this. Because of their reputations and notable alumni, these schools have thousands of applicants every year competing for a dozen or so slots in the freshman class, so the odds of getting in are pretty slight. There’s no reason not to apply to one of these schools, even if it’s a long shot; however, it’s a good idea to get a teacher or trusted advisor to help you assess your likelihood of getting in and make sure you have other viable options.

Apart from the super-famous schools, where do you look? Teachers, guidance counselors, graduates from your high school and friends will have suggestions, and maybe even some opinions or anecdotes to share. Word of mouth is sure to bring you some good leads, but take the time to research the schools they recommend to you. Visit college fairs and regional theater events (like the International Thespian Association’s regional conferences) to see who’s represented there. Many schools offer a summer pre-college program, which is an ideal opportunity to “test drive” a particular school (and gather information on its competitors from your classmates).

You’ll quickly discover there’s a wide range of schools in every part of the US (and many other nations) that have well-established, highly-regarded training programs for serious singing actors. A resource Joe suggests that you may not have thought of is the membership list of the Musical Theater Educators Alliance, an organization that he and I helped create. While MTEA’s site does not offer comparative details on the programs of its member schools, you can feel confident that any school that belongs to MTEA is serious about providing a quality education to its students. As a plus, their site provide links to those schools’ main web pages, which makes it a useful shortcut in your search.

The Peterson’s Guide is another popular resource that allows you to search colleges of all sorts; a search on “Musical Theater Colleges and Universities” turned up nearly 250 hits. Other specialized guides have been compiled by industry publications like American Theater magazine (in their annual Education issue), Backstage, Show Business, PlaybillEdu.com, BroadwayWorld.com and CollegeExpress.com. The diligent searcher will find more than enough information online.

One online resource that Joe suggests you use cautiously is the forum at College Confidential. This site relies on the efforts of parents and students who are eager and well-intentioned but seldom experts in the field. Over the years, the forum members have compiled a sizable body of useful information, including lists of schools that offer a degree in musical theater, but there are no moderators, and you’d be well advised to treat whatever information you get from such sources with a dose of skepticism.

Compare Apples to Apples

If you’ve done your homework and cross-referenced all your sources, you probably have a substantial list of possibilities to consider and compare. When comparing schools, don’t let yourself be seduced by glossy brochures, college-fair trinkets or a starry roster of alumni. Dig into the website, ask faculty and students at prospective schools, and take a close look at these four key factors, advises Joe, so you know that you’re comparing “apples to apples”:

1. Curriculum.

What courses are offered, requirements and electives? How many hours per week and how many students in a section? Any musical theater curriculum will offer a mix of voice, acting and dance, but how much of each is offered, and what kind? Is the singing instruction compatible with the specific demands of the musical theater repertoire? Does the acting instruction embrace the notion of singing-acting, or does it condescend to the musical stage? Does the dance instruction include ballet, jazz, tap, musical theater styles, and contemporary vernacular dance? Are there opportunities to “put it all together” in integrative studio experiences? Are there opportunities for project-based learning? What about electives? How do the academic courses offered serve to enhance your development as an artist and a human being?

2. Faculty.

What is the mix of professional and academic experience in the faculty? How many full-time faculty are there, and what fraction of your education is being delivered by part-time “adjuncts?” Do the faculty have the particular qualifications you seek? For instance, are the singing teachers expert at teaching the vocal techniques required for the musical theater? What connections to “the business” do the faculty have?

3. Opportunities on campus.

What range of opportunities will there be for you to practice your craft? How many plays and musicals are produced, on what scale, and how are they cast? Will there be a chance for you to direct, choreograph, get original work produced? What about student films? Are you allowed to pursue off-campus opportunities? Are there student organizations where you can get experience with collaboration and leadership? And, equally important, are there opportunities to see first-rate professional work that will excite you and give you an awareness of the “state of the art?”

4. After graduation.

What is the success of alums and how does the university help them get there? Does the school help you make connections to the industry – guest artists, casting directors, guest directors? Can you begin building a professional orientation and a professional network there? Is there a showcase, either in New York, Los Angeles, or in places where there’s a professional “critical mass?” Many BFA program are likely to say they do a showcase, but is it effective? Are there measurable results? What has happened for recent grads?

Sticker Shock

As you gather information, you will also be looking at the tuition cost of each school. While every school publishes an official figure for tuition price, nearly every school offers discounts to that price in the form of grants and scholarships. This is especially true if you’re talented or represent a part of the student demographic that’s in demand. Making an objective assessment of the relative cost and value of your school choices will be hard, and you’re right to worry about the prospect of excessive loans to be repaid in the future. Still, there’s no avoiding this important step in your college selection process.

It’s a big job, and it requires a fair amount of organization and determination to complete it successfully, but diligence and patience will pay off. According to Joe, you’ll want to use your findings, along with information on geography and price, to narrow your search down to a list of 6-10 schools to apply to. Your list may well include one or two “marquee” schools but will also include a healthy mix of lesser-known schools offering BFA and BA experiences.

What next?

Once you’ve chosen your target schools, it’s time to prepare your auditions, and that’s be the subject of Part III of my “Joe Deer Sessions.” Please jump in with a comment if you’ve been through the experience of the college search yourself, or if you have questions I haven’t answered to your satisfaction!

Bit By Bit

I’ve got a new favorite catchphrase – “Just do your bits” – and it comes from a fascinating profile of the comedian and actress Maria Bamford that appeared in the current New York Times Magazine.

Among its many insights, the article offers a behind-the-scenes view of the amount of labor – surprising, no doubt, to the casually curious observer – that goes into the crafting of a successful performance.

Each “bit” in Maria’s comedy performance is painstakingly crafted through thoughtful development and testing.

That means that, even if the prospect of performance is frightening and overwhelming for her, she knows that if she just does her bits – each one in its turn, each one the product of a meticulous process – the chances are good that she’ll connect successfully with her audience.

This one, and then, when it’s time, the next one. Each one with integrity, duly delineated and differentiated from its predecessor.

Just do your bits.

Bits, beats, dings, phrases – different people use different words, but they’re all meant to identify and describe a single act, a single statement, the smallest unit of emotional and intellectual transaction possible. When it’s broken down into small parts, a large, complex task is less intimidating. It’s like the old riddle: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

The extra added advantage is that working this way results in performances that are articulated and nuanced in a way that mimics the subtle and delicate arrangement of details in life. For the singing actor, that’s what it’s all about.

SAVI Video Clinic – “The Sound of Music”

There’s a lot to be learned from watching someone else perform, and online video has made a trove of riches available for study. Your first viewing of a clip will yield valuable first impressions, but repeated viewings with a more analytical approach will yield exceptionally useful insights. Even inferior work can teach us useful lessons if it is thoughtfully examined; ask yourself, what could have been done differently?

With this principle in mind, my plan is to feature video clips on the site from time to time, and to offer my comments about the work and the performer’s success at exploiting the opportunities the song presents. Here’s a clip of Carrie Underwood singing the title song from The Sound Of Music.

I have no desire to join the legions of haters who materialized when it was announced that Carrie, an accomplished musical performer with little theater experience, would play the starring role in this live telecast. I daresay that the producers of the broadcast felt vindicated in their choice by the large number of viewers their program attracted, and I sincerely believe that the success of the broadcast is a good thing for our industry. That said, I do also believe there are lessons to be learned from Carrie’s performance, which makes a strong case for the importance of well-developed singing-acting technique.

I’m going to focus on the first minute of the clip, so take a couple minutes to view that several times. As you do, pay attention to the editing of the song, and the moments when director Beth McCarthy Miller chooses to cut from one shot to the next. Do you see how the video cuts to a new camera angle at the beginning of each new phrase – at the “ding?” The director recognizes that the audience craves some variation, some new information or point of view, with each new phrase. The responsibility for this doesn’t rest solely with the director, though; the performer shares some responsibility in the task of creating Variety, the “V” of SAVI.

Here are the lyrics of the introductory “verse” of the song, the lines that precede the first “refrain” and the memorable title phrase.

My day in the hills has come to an end, I know.
A star has come out to tell me it’s time to go.
But deep in the dark green shadows, there are voices that urge me to stay.
So I pause and I wait and I listen for one more sound,
For one more lovely thing that the hills might say!

I’ve arranged them so that each new line begins with a “ding,” the onset of a new thought, and this differs slightly from the published libretto.. In deciding how to lay out the lines on the page, I’ve made some interpretative decisions about their inner logic which I’ll explain in due course. First, though, I want to get you involved in the discussion. What is interesting to you about this clip? What pleases you or puzzles you? What does it teach you about the craft of singing acting? Take a few seconds and jot down your thoughts in the comments area, below. I’ll be back in a subsequent post to probe the choices Carrie has made in her individual phrases more deeply.

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5 Things We All Can Learn from Elaine Stritch

Photo by Todd Heisler, New York Times

Stritchy has left us, and fans everywhere are hoisting a vodka stinger in tribute to this feisty, salty-tongued singing actress. I saw her in Company on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London more than 40 years ago, and the Pennebaker documentary Original Cast Album memorably captures her in the studio struggling to nail a good take of her signature song, The Ladies Who Lunch. It’s an unforgettable clip.

Years later, I saw her as Parthy in Show Boat, directed (like Company was) by Hal Prince, who understood that Parthy, like Stritchy, had no tolerance for bullshit, not even when it came from her charming bullshitter of a husband, Cap’n Andy, played by the equally memorable Robert Morse. Sublime casting, especially when it meant audiences got to hear her croak out “Why Do I Love You?” to her infant granddaughter Kim in an unexpected moment of tenderness at the top of Act II.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you already know and admire Elaine Stritch. If you need some schooling, start with this tribute in the Times, and for fun, check out the documentary Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me, currently streaming on Netflix.

Now then, as promised, 5 Things We All Can Learn From Elaine Stritch. Shut up and pay attention.

1. Stritchy was FEARLESS.

That’s right, she didn’t give a fuck. And that mean’t she didn’t fear self-exposure, which is an actor’s stock-in-trade. Warts and all, that’s what you got when Stritch sang.

2. Stritchy TOLD THE TRUTH.

“You cannot tell an audience a lie. They know it before you do; before it’s out of your mouth, they know it’s a lie.” Even when the truth was scary, or unflattering, or both – she told it.

3. Stritchy was DANGEROUS.

Phyllis Newman describes her as “dangerous, completely original [and] achingly funny.” Of course, this follows from #1 and #2, above. But, as Newman recalls, “You’re never sure what she’s going to do with a song, a scene or even a line. So you best keep your eyes on her, lest you miss something.”

4. Stritchy could LAND A LYRIC.

Her tempos were slow, but the content LANDED. It was a combination of impeccable diction and her megawatt personality.

5. Stritchy HUNG IN THERE.

Still going strong in her 80’s? My god, we should all have her tenacity. An indomitable spirit, surely kicking ass in the afterlife. God bless her.

If you have time on your hands, here’s more than two hours worth of Stritchy.

To BFA or Not To BFA – Is That The Question?

Is a BFA Degree Part of the Recipe for Musical Theater Success?

Part I of my conversation with Joe Deer, co-author of Acting in Musical Theatre

Sooner or later, any serious singing actor faces the College Question – should I study musical theater in college? And what do I have to do to get into my “dream school” and continue my journey? Perhaps you’re facing that challenge now, or you’re a teacher whose students are grappling with these issues. Or perhaps you’re a college student or graduate blessed with hindsight about that big decision and its eventual outcome, or a college teacher involved in recruiting and screening prospective students. I’d love to hear about your point of view regarding college in the comments area below, whether you’re auditioning for it, you attended it, you avoided it, or you teach it.

Joe DeerRecently, I had the opportunity to talk with someone who’s uber-qualified to offer valuable advice on this topic: Joe Deer, co-author of Acting In Musical Theatre: A Comprehensive Course and author of Directing in Musical Theatre. Joe is Distinguished Professor of Musical Theatre and Director of the Musical Theatre Initiative at Wright State University, where he heads the BFA Musical Theater Program. He’ll be offering a workshop at the upcoming Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) National Conference in Cincinnati for high school teachers who want to help their students prepare for college auditions. He had a ton of valuable advice about every aspect of preparing for college auditions, way more than I can fit in a single post. In this post, I’ll talk about Joe’s recommendations regarding choosing a degree; stay tuned for more of Joe’s wisdom in upcoming posts!

Why College?

Let’s start with the big question: do you want to study musical theater in college? Do you think that making, performing and teaching theater is likely to be an important part of your life for years to come? Then it’s smart to continue your training with qualified educators, and college is a great place to do that.

Of course, Joe says that, and of course I endorse his recommendation; after all, he and I are both professors who teach at schools with well-established BFA training programs. But we don’t make this claim just to boost enrollment at the schools that employ us. Nowadays, college is the “default” option for students considering a professional career performing in musical theater, and nearly every artist on a professional stage has a college degree on their CV. A good college experience will equip you with valuable tools and techniques, broaden your understanding of the arts and the world in general, and introduce you to fellow artists who are likely to become your lifelong friends and collaborators. It will help you make the transition from “student” to “professional” by providing career skills and networking opportunities.

Kiss Me Kate photo call

It’s still okay, though, to question whether college is your best option. Maybe you’re impatient, and full of self-confidence. Maybe you don’t thrive in the classroom environment, or you’re not cut out for the “academic” side of college. There may be no good reason not to sally forth and begin your career right now. If you’re talented and a marketable “type,” you should give this some serious thought. Your youth is potentially one of your biggest assets, and spending the next four years in school might be a wasted opportunity. Voice lessons, dance classes and acting coaches can all be found outside the walls of the university, and online resources like The SAVI Singing Actor are available to provide additional specialized support wherever you are in your journey.

I’ve found that teenagers who have such a high level of self-possession is the exception, not the rule. One of the chief functions of undergraduate school is to provide students with the opportunity to finish growing up, in a stimulating and supportive environment. But college isn’t cheap, and you should weigh the value of the money that you will spend (and borrow) to attend against the value of growing up in the sheltered environment of the university.

Major in Theater?

Once you’ve decided that college is your path forward, is majoring in musical theater the right choice to make? Should you major in theater at a school that gives you a broad range of options and electives? Or choose a major in another field that you feel passionately about and study theater as an elective or extracurricular option? Each of these paths is a worthy one, and any of them could lead you to a role in a Broadway show or a life spent working in the professional theater.

Joe emphasizes the importance of thoughtful planning at the outset of your college search. Do you want to perform on a Broadway stage? Run a theater company in your hometown? Write or produce original work? Be a teacher? There’s no reason not to dream big at this point in your young life; very few people succeed without a big dream to keep them motivated. But it’s crucial that you think specifically about your own path, and not follow someone else’s. Take the time to consider these options and discuss them with the people you trust most – your friends, your teachers, your parents – then choose a degree path that fits with your dream.

BA or BFA?

If you’ve got your heart set on majoring in theater in college, the next big decision facing you is: BA or BFA? Actually, even stating the question that way is a little misleading, since it’s not a simple either-or choice between the Bachelor of Arts and the Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees. For musical theater, there’s also the BM (Bachelor of Music) route, and there are two-year Associates degrees (like the AA) and non-degree options available as well, but with Joe Deer’s help, we’ll tackle the controversial “To BFA or not to BFA” decision first.

College degrees are like recipes, or formulas, that dictate the distribution of credits and experiences that you’re likely to have during your time at school. Generally speaking, the BFA is more focused and intense. A larger percentage of the credits you take in a BFA program will be in the area of your major, and a smaller percentage will be devoted to electives and general studies (liberal arts or so-called “gen-eds”). In a BA program, a smaller percentage of course credits are devoted to the major, leaving you more freedom to explore a broader range of subjects and courses. Typically, the BFA requires an audition for admission (in some cases, a very competitive one), while the BA does not.

BFA: focused, intense, conservatory, vocational, audition
BA: broad, exploratory, liberal arts, no audition

The Bachelor of Music degree in musical theater, as its name implies, is a degree offered by a music program, and philosophically that means that music is the center of the training. In these programs, you’re likely to find more credits devoted to music than to theater or dance. Similar ingredients, but a different recipe, somewhere in-between the BFA and the BA.

Many people think that the BFA is the only way to go if you’re serious about your craft. If you get admitted to a BFA program, you’re more likely to be surrounded by serious, talented, highly-motivated classmates. The fact that these students had to clear the hurdle of a highly competitive audition and selection process to gain admission means you’ll be in pretty fierce company. And BFA programs tend to put more emphasis on career preparation, including opportunities for networking, self-promotion and professional development, which is another plus. But not everyone who wants a BFA can get in; most BFA programs have a limited capacity for enrollment. Nor can everyone afford them; “name” programs with strong cachet don’t need to offer much in the way of “discounts” and scholarships to fill their enrollment quotas, and the sticker price can be upwards of $50,000 a year – yikes!

Plus there is a potential downside that comes with the tightly-focused intensity of a pre-professional conservatory program. The pressures that come with high standards and a competitive student body can be overwhelming for some students. The narrow vocational focus of the curriculum often frustrates a student who seeks a broader, richer exploration in their undergraduate education.

Still, the impression is out there that the BA in theater is for the also-rans, the ones who aren’t quite good enough or rich enough to get into a BFA program. This impression is reinforced by the schools that offer a BA-to-BFA track, that is, a curriculum that admits students to a BA track and offers them the opportunity to audition (usually in the fourth semester) for admission to a more exclusive BFA track. It is Joe’s observation that at schools that offer both a BA and a BFA, the students in the BA track are likely to find their opportunities (and their self-esteem) diminished.

For what it’s worth, both Joe and I are graduates of BA programs, and we both did okay. Of course, in our day, dinosaurs roamed the earth, and the number of BFA conservatory programs was quite small; since then, we’ve seen a proliferation of BFA programs in musical theater, and an enormous growth in the pool of applicants seeking admission to such programs. But Joe and I both felt very well-served by our BA experiences. There was no New York showcase at the end, and no high-strung stable of thoroughbred students to compete with. There was, though, an abundance of capable, compassionate faculty and an environment that encouraged and supported exploration, risk-taking and project-based learning while holding students to a fairly high standard of excellence. There’s no reason to turn up your nose at the BA experience, even if you’re a serious singing actor. You can still get a first-class undergraduate education and continue to pursue your passion in a variety of ways.

It’s worth pointing out that the lines separating these degree options are blurry. There are BA programs with highly accomplished faculty and demanding advanced-level coursework, whose graduates are very competitive in the professional employment market. There are BFA programs that are increasing the breadth of their offerings, in the belief that students are not optimally served by a narrow trade-school orientation in their curriculum. Joe speaks for many educators in BFA programs when he observes, “We need to do a better job of encouraging our students’ curiosity and thinking of the educational opportunities that college can offer beyond vocational training.”

So, to return to my initial analogy, you need to consider the ingredients as well as the recipe – the faculty, the campus environment, the opportunities in the region. It’s possible to make a terrific dish using a simple recipe and outstanding ingredients, and the reverse is also true: a great recipe doesn’t guarantee a good meal if the right ingredients aren’t used. To sort them out, you’ll have to do your homework, and that’s what my next post will be about.

A Little Quiz

John Stefano from Otterbein University created a little quiz to see whether you’re more the BA or the BFA type. Try answering the following questions by circling the appropriate number from 1 to 7, where 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree.

1. I absolutely cannot imagine being anything other than a professional actor.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

2. I want to learn about as many different subjects as I can in college.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

3. I am an actor, singer and a dancer, and I want to spend my life performing.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

4. I really enjoy spending time in classes in literature, history, social science, etc., listening to lectures and engaging in discussions.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

5. Except for being onstage, I’d rather be in dance class, or acting class, or choir than anyplace else in the world.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

6. I need lots of solitary time, to think and to write.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

7. I need to be active and busy all the time.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

8. I am really torn between doing a BA or a BFA degree in Theatre.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

Add up your scores on the even questions and the odd questions. If your score on the odd-numbered questions is significantly higher than your score on the even-numbered questions, then you’re probably going to be more comfortable in a BFA program. If your even score is significantly higher than your odd score, then you probably want to be in a BA program. And if your scores are more or less equal, you should examine both options closely, looking for a program that gives you the right balance of freedom and focus. There’s more about this quiz and this topic on a thread on the College Confidential forum:

For another point of view, there’s a compelling essay on “The Green Room Blog” titled “Why Your Degree Doesn’t Matter,” in which the author, who goes by the handle “The Reckless Artist,” writes about her college experience. She writes, “Most of the people I’ve met in my travels working around the world, not only have never heard of the “prestigious” department that I placed on such a pedastool [sic] when I went there, but they don’t know what a BFA is.” That’s an important reality check – what you do with your education is as important as the school you choose to attend.

So by all means, consider all the options when considering your future as a college student. I’ll pass along Joe’s valuable advice about choosing schools in the next chapter of this post.

Dear readers, what was your college experience like? Do you have any pearls of advice for prospective students? Or burning questions about this topic that I haven’t answered yet? Leave me a comment below!

It’s No Disgrace To Use Your Face!

DibbleHerringbone3
Actor Ben Dibble projects great intensity with his facial expressions in Flashpoint Theatre Company’s production of the musical “Herringbone”

The face is the ultimate “organ of expression.” Its chief purpose is to transmit information for the benefit of those around you – I’m friendly, please approach; I’m scary, better step back; I’m lost, can you help me?; I’m in the mood for love, are you? Communication like this is central to our survival as a species. How else to explain the exquisite network of muscles that have developed on the face for the purpose of transmitting facial expressions?

Studies by psychologists have shown that our words account for a small percentage of our actual communication. Vocal tone and facial expression account for the majority of the information we transmit. If the words you’re saying and your tone and expression don’t match those words, people are more likely to disregard your words and heed your non-verbal messages. (Imagine someone saying “I love you” while their facial expression is tense and troubled, for instance. Which would you believe – the words or the face?)

Caeli2All this is crucially important information for the singing actor, and yet it’s information that many singing actors seem to be hesitant to use to their advantage. Some of my students are initially surprised by the idea they need to master the messages that their faces transmit. The idea that there might be a “technique” associated with the face seems almost like heresy. After all, the face is supposed to work unconsciously, right? All those muscles, they’ll do what they’re supposed to and send the right message if I’m feeling the right feelings – isn’t that how it works?

Acting teachers warn their students about the sin of “mugging,” making faces to show emotions they don’t feel. “Leave yourself alone!” is one of the central tenets of Sanford Meisner’s approach to acting; trying to manufacture emotion or counterfeit its expression on the face is one of the cardinal sins an actor can commit in an acting studio environment.

How Are You Feeling Today?

Wesley Balk’s analysis of the face and its role in the expression of emotion while singing remains seminal and enormously important. He writes about this with great detail in his 1985 book Performing Power, describing it as “controversial” but noticing that students with a background in singing were more open to exploring the technical aspects of facial communication than those with a background in acting:

“The idea of making faces, grimacing to convey emotions, or even working with facially oriented techniques is anathema to those who have studied and worked in American theater traditions. … Actors were more resistant than singers because [of these] … preconceived notions… Singers, being involved in a highly technical act to begin with, accepted the concept more readily. … [T]he change and growth made available through the exercise and development of the facial/emotional mode have been genuinely astonishing.” (141-2)

Maggie2Psychologist Paul Ekman has undertaken decades of noteworthy research into the psychology of facial expression, and demonstrated that the conscious use of certain facial muscles can arouse organic emotional responses. Susanna Bloch built on Ekman’s findings to develop the technique known as Alba Emoting, an innovative “psychophysical” approach designed to help actors create and control emotion.

This means, when I hear an acting teacher rail against paying conscious attention to the face as an organ of expression, I take those objections with a grain of salt. The work of Balk, Ekman and Bloch, supported by my own experience working with students in the studio for several decades, tells me I’m on solid pedagogical ground.

One thing my own experience has taught me is that singers who simply “leave their faces alone” often wind up expressing very little apart from the effort of singing, even if they’re in a strong state of emotional arousal. The facial distortions that are the result of the effort of singing are further compounded by the natural tendency (particularly evident in adolescents) to want to conceal rather than reveal our innermost feelings. Singers need help becoming familiar with the workings of the face, exercising and toning those muscles so that they are flexible and expressive and learning how to counteract the distortions that singing often produces.

Here are the ways I encourage my students to put this knowledge to use:

1. Warm up and condition.

The face is an important part of the SAVI Workout, and you can begin to improve your facial expression using these techniques. Use a “facial flex” (sometimes called “gurning”) to stretch and energize every muscle in your face. The SAVI Workout slides include a mini-lesson in facial anatomy to help you isolate various areas of the face and give them all equal attention. Collect some photographs of faces in extremes of emotional expression and try to mimic the facial muscles used in the photos. If you want to be comprehensive in your approach, gather faces associated with the most common emotional states (Ekman focuses on the emotions of anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, and curiosity in his studies; Bloch’s basic six are tenderness, eroticism, anger, fear, sadness, and joy) and try them on like “facial masks.” Spend part of the beginning of every practice session “turning your face on,” and give yourself a quick “facial flex” right before you take the stage to sing.

The use of the eyes within the facial mask is so important that I’ll devote a future post specifically to the eyes. During your warm-up, though, you should definitely be attentive to the muscles that control your gaze as well as the muscles around the eye that control your eyelids and the “squint” muscles below the eyes. Squinting is a common unconscious side-effect of vocal effort and diminishes the expressiveness of the eye. Practice singing with an open, expressive eye, and move your gaze about in different directions to cultivate a “thinking eye.”

2. Explore deliberately.

Whether you’re vocalizing to build technique or working on repertoire, it’s always a good time to explore how you might use your face while singing. Deliberately activate difference muscle groups while you sing. Bring out your pictures and try on some of those facial masks, using one for each phrase. It doesn’t matter if the faces match the emotions of the repertoire exactly; indeed, there’s plenty of room for creative discovery by trying out faces that you might initially think don’t “fit.” Use a mirror or, better yet, a video camera to get feedback on what your face is saying. A full-length mirror is commonly part of any vocal practice room, but watching yourself in the mirror requires a kind of split attention which can be confusing and inhibitory; video is better because you can watch yourself calmly after the fact, rather than while you’re in the midst of being expressive, and rewind and replay as often as needed til you see clearly what you need to change.

3. Craft thoughtfully.

Make decisions about how you’re going to use your face and when you’re going to change your facial expression. Facial expressions usually change “at the ding,” that is, when a new phrase begins, and remain relatively unchanged for the duration of the phrase. Deciding to make a change is sometimes all you need to do; it may not be necessary to decide the exact nature of the facial expression you’re going to use next so long as you make a change. An effective singing-acting performance has SPECIFICITY, and this pertains to the use of your face, for sure. If you are deliberate about making some changes in your facial expression, this will help you to achieve VARIETY in your performance. And it’s always important to work patiently and persistently with each expression until each of your choices has AUTHENTICITY, the quality of truthful expression. To be ready for performance, you will need to have practiced the coordination required to choose your facial expressions and change them at the “dings.”

Your singing acting will take a big leap forward if you condition your face so that it’s supple and strong when you want to express feelings. Try to expand your facial vocabulary of expressions by imitating examples form real life. And incorporate decisions about how you’ll use your face and eyes into your performance plan. These three steps will help you take your singing acting to a whole new level!