CMU Students offer more Freshman survival tips

The Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama Class of 2017 got together to offer this friendly advice to students starting their freshman year in a BFA Theater Arts program. (Thanks to Ken Davenport for posting this on his excellent blog, “The Producer’s Perspective!

If you missed it, you should also check out this advice from faculty at top performing arts schools; the grown-ups have a few useful hints of their own to add!

Newly published: “The Vocal Athlete”

Vocal Athlete closeupWhat?! You don’t have your copy of The Vocal Athlete yet? I mentioned to a couple of my colleagues that I had gotten a review copy of this new book by Wendy LaBorgne and Marci Rosenberg and suddenly I was barraged with requests to share it.

It seems as though the word has already begun to spread. With the publication of The Vocal Athlete, singers and voice teachers now have access to a remarkable, unprecedented collection of resources. The breadth and comprehensiveness of this two-volume set are remarkable, a testimony to the remarkably generous spirit of its two principal authors and their supporting cast of distinguished contributors. What makes this a truly landmark accomplishment, however, is the unifying point of view the authors have taken and the way it serves to anchor this ambitious undertaking.

The cover image offers the first clue to the book’s approach: a flame-haired woman in a green gown is depicted in the act of singing, her arms outstretched and her hair and gown wind-blown, creating an impression of dynamic energy. It’s arresting but slightly disconcerting, though, because the artist has drawn the figure in such a way that her skin appears translucent in places, with the muscles below the skin and even the larynx itself visible on one side of her body. The image dramatizes the fundamental approach of the book, which strives to present scientific information and insight while maintaining a consistent awareness that this information, once fully understood and integrated, is meant to serve the act of singing with passion and expressive force.

What this image doesn’t convey, however, is the core concept of the “vocal athlete.” Though this semi-transparent diva may be belting her face off, that gown looks more suited to a formal dinner-dance than to an athlete in training, or indeed, to the versatile and resourceful “hybrid singer” this book was created to serve. The authors have built their collection around the notion of elite athletic-style training performance as being the key to successful singing performance, and the cover could do a better job of representing their uniquely useful point of view for the reader.

Meet the “Hybrid Singer.”

The authors have coined the term “hybrid singer” to refer to someone who is equally comfortable singing classical, rock, country, pop or theater repertoire. The hybrid singer needs to be able to move, to dance, to be emotionally expressive, to communicate a text with clarity and understanding. In short, this is a book for the singing actor, and both its authors have substantial experience studying and working with musical theater performers.

There are easily more than a hundred musical theater programs now offering undergraduate degrees in the US, which means there are thousands of students training to be “hybrid singers,” and thousands more who have completed their studies and are now seeking to start or maintain careers in the field. So how many programs are there training teachers to train this new sort of singer? How many that equip teachers with the specific concepts, tools and techniques that will help their students negotiate the challenges of “CCM” (contemporary commercial music, a term and abbreviation that appear throughout the book)? Just two. That’s an incredible imbalance that the information in this book may help eventually to remedy.

Please don’t think for a minute that I’m suggesting teachers who haven’t trained in the grad programs at Penn State or Shenandoah are not equipped to train students for the musical stage. On the contrary, I know a vast number of committed pedagogues doing invaluable work in the field, many of them friends and colleagues. Their backgrounds, though diverse, usually include some sort of foundation training in classical technique, but over the years, they’ve learned to adapt their bel-canto foundation in response to the unique stylistic demands of the modern repertoire, often because they’re facing those challenges in their own performing careers, or because their students need to be able to sing in styles where old-school bel canto technique just doesn’t seem to do the trick. The phenomenon of the “hybrid singer” has led to the proliferation of a “hybrid teacher,” one whose pedagogy has been developed through a combination of trial-and-error, clinics, master-classes and demonstrations of various sorts from a range of presenters in a range of disciplines. Early responses suggest that this kind of teacher will find “The Vocal Athlete” to be an incredibly valuable resource, a compendium of some of the best and most current thinking in the field, complemented by a thoughtful review of the scientific literature. (Already, one reviewer has described this book as “the go-to Vocal Pedagogy textbook for years to come.”)

What’s Inside?

But what, you ask, am I likely to find inside this collection? Let me break it down for you. First of all, you should know that there are two volumes, the second of which is described as a “workbook,” which comes spiral-bound with an enclosed audio CD. The first volume is divided roughly into three parts, the first of which provides an overview of the mechanics of vocal production from an anatomical point of view, covering topics like posture, breathing and neurology along with vocal anatomy. Great singing isn’t just about what happens in the vocal folds; it’s the product of an exquisitely coordinated effort of body, mind and spirit, and this book goes a long way toward promoting a holistic view of singing.

In the second part, the authors survey the range of ways that things can go wrong with the voice. One study of incoming musical theater freshmen found that the majority of these students exhibited some sort of “phonotrauma,” some way in which their vocal production deviated from the ideal, and this part of the book is an eye-opening survey of the pathologies they present, including reflux, vocal fatigue and the consequences of intubation during anesthesia. If you’re a singer prone to anxiety and hypochondria, there’s plenty here to make you wonder if there isn’t something wrong with your voice, but have no fear: the real emphasis of this book is wellness, not sickness, and the next section holds the key to a healthy voice.

The third part of the book examines a range of topics in vocal pedagogy, starting with a history of classical vocal training before diving into the subject of “belting.” That topic that may have been controversial long ago, but nowadays wringing your hands about the dangers of belting is SO twentieth century; a combination of solid science and shrewd observation of current best practices will drive a stake through the heart of those worries. I found the chapter on “motor learning principles” to be especially provocative, since it laid out a logical and clear-cut set of principles from the world of exercise physiology that can be applied to any sort of training. A practice regimen built according to these principles can serve not only the development of good singing but also good singing-acting, that is, the effective coordination of the singing voice with the face, eyes, body and other “organs of expression.” I can’t wait to explore these concepts further in my own studio practice.

The final chapter is the work of guest author Matthew Edwards from Shenandoah University, whose experience working in the recording studio has given him invaluable insight into what every singer and singing teacher needs to know about microphones and signal processing. Matt’s a pioneer who’s had great success introducing audio technology in his singing studio, as I learned during an especially compelling demonstration he gave a few years ago at a conference of the Musical Theater Educators Alliance. This final chapter adds tremendous value to an already worthy compendium of singing wisdom.

But as if that weren’t enough, the authors have created a companion workbook to showcase a wide range of exercises and training techniques. They’ve persuaded leading practitioners in the field to contribute some of their most interesting ideas, documenting their work in text, photos and audio and organizing their collection into useful categories. Some of these exercises have self-explanatory clinical names, but there’s plenty of wacky and whimsical nomenclature to be found here as well. Want to try the “Meow Mix” or the “Hoot-n-Hollar?” Curious about “Clari-bees,” “honking” and “mirening?” This workbook and CD provide both teachers and students with the opportunity to explore some of the best practices of the world’s top pedagogues.

What’s In A Metaphor?

AthleteTo conclude, let me come back to the notion of the “vocal athlete,” a metaphor which I find incredibly useful. Antonin Artaud has referred to the actor as “an athlete of the emotions” (or “of the heart,” depending on which translation you consult), and the concept of athleticism as it pertains to the performing artist is not a novel one. The metaphor of the athlete is meant to convey an essential notion of elite performance achieved through deliberate, persistent practice. Concepts of strength, range, flexibility, agility and coordination are as relevant to the singer or actor as they are to the quarterback or the basketball center, and for these reasons, I’m totally down with the concept of the “vocal athlete.”

However, there’s some unwanted psychological baggage that comes with this metaphor. For one thing, there’s that business of “no pain, no gain.” One of the principles of building strength or skill is that one has to push beyond one’s comfort zone to a point of “overload” in order to experience progress, and in the case of the singer, overloading the delicate mechanisms of vocal production can lead to damage. Pain is a useful warning and the vocal athlete ignores this warning at his or her peril.

Beyond that, in the athletic world, elite performance is most commonly associated with extremes of range and power. Singers who embrace the metaphor of athleticism may be tempted to believe that they need sing as loud and as high as possible in order to compete successfully in the employment marketplace. While it’s true that there are moments where one needs to be able to bring that kind of extreme force, I want to suggest that there are other aspects of elite athletic performance, most notably flexibility, agility and coordination, that deserve greater emphasis in the training of the vocal athlete. I know the intoxicating rush you get from belting your face off like the chick on the cover of “The Vocal Athlete” – anyone for “screlting?” – but the savvy singer (and, yes, the SAVI singer is a savvy singer) understands that a little of that goes a long way.

From Top College Experts on What You Need to Know to Survive Your Performing Arts Freshman Year

Robert Viagas of posted these survival tips based on years of watching freshmen stumble–and succeed a little more than a week ago. The link I saved no longer works, but this is worthwhile information that deserves to hang around a little longer.

All incoming freshman college students face a period of adjustment, but performing arts students face challenges unique to themselves. went straight to the source and asked people who work with students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Ithaca College, Carnegie-Mellon University, Marymount Manhattan College and Kent State University to share survival tips based on years of watching freshmen stumble–and succeed.

Chris Andersson, Director of Admissions for the Drama Department at New York University – Tisch School of the Arts:

1. Get to know yourself. Artistic training is rigorous, demanding and requires a lot of introspection. All this work will be very rewarding so don’t be afraid to dig around inside yourself. It may unearth some challenging stuff but you will be better off to understand it, grapple with it and let it go. You will become an artist with deeper access to truth, to emotion, to full and delicious expressiveness.

2. Let’s get physical. Actor training requires a whole lot of physical work. It is the basis for character development. You must engage your body in everything you do. If you arrive at school with any body issues, discuss them with your teachers and seek the help of a counselor. The earlier you address these issues, the more successful (and enjoyable) your training will be.

3. See stuff. Find all the theatres, art galleries, concert halls, museums, independent cinemas and historical societies in the vicinity of your school. Learn about student discounts or opportunities to volunteer. Find free art! See as much as you can. Artists are inspired by other artists.

4. Don’t sing in the bathroom. We all sound great in the shower. And if you live alone in the middle of the woods, sing out, Louise! But dorm life is very close living. Keeping your vocalizing to soundproof practice rooms will keep you in good favor with your hall mates.

5. Be an urban explorer. If you are beginning school in a city, get out on the streets immediately. Learn your neighborhood. Get on the subway. Explore a new neighborhood every weekend.

6. Be an adventurer. New worlds weren’t discovered by timid people. You are embarking on a four-year artistic adventure. Be open. Be excited. Be ready for anything.

7. Listen to Stella. Stella Adler, one of the great American acting teachers of the 20th Century, held the belief that “growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous.” Don’t forget to continue to develop yourself as a person outside the studio. The more you learn out in the world, the more you’ll have to inform your artistic work.

John R. Crawford, Dean of the College of the Arts and Professor of Dance at Kent State University:

1. Focus on the process and enjoy it! Although we all want to get the part, it’s most important to enjoy the process of the work. That will keep you motivated.

2. Get plenty of sleep. Take care of your body. Exercise. What you eat, drink and how you rest and relax are all just as important as the performance. For performing arts students, don’t forget that your body is your instrument.

3. Always, always warm up your body and your voice to keep them strong and ready.

4. Be safe. Don’t overindulge at parties. If you’re underage, don’t drink. Stay focused on your craft.

5. Find out about the student support services on campus. If you need help with writing, tutoring or psychological services, seek them out and use them.

6. Manage your time wisely. Plan ahead. Use a calendar either on your electronic device or on paper.

7. Always be “off book” and prepared for class.

8. Feed your creative soul by going to museums, art galleries and other kinds of performances.

9. Network and make friends–not just with other performing arts majors.

9. Support your fellow students and you will make lifelong friendships.

10. Don’t burn any bridges. You never know where something will lead.

Chrystyna Dail, PhD, Assistant Professor, Theatre History, Ithaca College:

1. It’s okay to not get involved right away. You may have been the “big fish” in your little high school arts pond; however, there are going to be many talented people in your program. Audition, submit your designs, put in your application to stage manage, direct or dramaturg, but know that you may not find that perfect part or assignment in your first semester (or year).

2. Most students enter their programs with an abundance of intuitive knowledge. This is wonderful. However, allow yourself to become immersed in new information, practices and experiences. If you knew everything, you probably wouldn’t need or want an undergraduate education.

3. Introduce yourself in person to ALL of your professors and instructors before the end of the second week of classes every semester. This includes your “general education” professors. You never know who you will need to rely on for a letter of recommendation down the road.

4. Go to class…no matter how tired you are or how boring you think it is…go. Be present in your education.

5. Talk to upperclassmen about their experiences, but don’t necessarily follow all of their advice.

6. Take an introductory music theory, acting and dance class; even if they are not required for your specific major.

7. If after your first year you are not feeling fulfilled or inspired by your major or program, speak to an adviser about your situation.

8. Don’t wait to make your own art and don’t get your feelings hurt if people are hesitant to join you on the journey. Part of being an artist is being an entrepreneur.

9. Keep your family in the loop. They want to hear from you and not just when you need to borrow money.

10. Ask for help before you really need it.

David Mold, MFA, Professor of Theatre Arts; Chair, Division of Fine & Performing Arts; Marymount Manhattan College:

1. Read the entire play for assigned scenes in your acting class. The acting clues are throughout the play.

2. Script analysis is not just dramatic literature theory, it is a foundation for acting. You can’t make compelling acting choices if you can’t analyze a play. If you can analyze a play it will assist you in making compelling acting choices and you will learn much more in your acting training.

3. Reading the play your scene is taken from once is not enough. Read again, and again, and again. You will keep making discoveries and you will grow in class.

4. Acting is not about getting a character right; it is your interpretation and how you act a character that reflects your point of view.

5. Wear clothes for your scene presentations that are appropriate to the character. It will help your acting choices.

6. Pay careful attention to the acting work of your classmates. If you do, you will learn from their failures and successes and it will improve your own work.

7. Your voice and your body are more important to making and supporting your acting choices than you ever imagined.

Peter Cooke, Professor and Head of School of Drama, Carnegie Mellon University:

1. Ring home often.

2. Learn the names of all staff, students and faculty.

3. Get a pin board in your dorm so that you have your schedule in view at all times.

5. Establish a healthy diet plan–no hamburgers or junk food.

6. Sign up at the gym for body toning, not bulking up.

7. Establish a semester-long private reading list.

8. Subscribe to an online newspaper, e.g. The Times or The Wall St. Journal etc.

9. Create a close and regular contact with your academic advisor.

10. Be prepared and do the work needed prior to every class.

11. Never be late.

12. Look after your health, sleep and not too much partying.

13. Remember to enjoy being at college!

“My Heart Is In The Work”

What is the essential work of the singing actor-in-training?

My Heart Is In The WorkMy alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, uses these words of its founder, entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, as its motto, and what better day than Labor Day to recognize the importance of having one’s “heart in the work?”

Today is a U.S. holiday established to pay tribute to the American worker and recognize the value of their contributions, individually and collectively, to our society and its economy. I’m sure the founders of Labor Day never intended to include artists and theater-makers in their definition of “laborers,” but our work certainly makes a contribution to both society and the economy.

In our society, we consider “work” and “play” to be opposites. “Work” is supposed to be hard, a form of drudgery, and if it isn’t drudgery – if it isn’t “hard” – then it isn’t work. Meanwhile, in the theater, we make “plays,” and though we know that making them is hard work, the element of play involved makes the “straight” world suspicious of our efforts.

But here’s the thing that I’ve learned over the years: When your heart is in the work, you are able to undertake that work in a spirit of joy. You become absorbed in the task, the work seems effortless, and time passes without your even being aware of it. “Work” and “play” may seem like opposites, but it’s crucial that the artist understand how these two concepts are linked, like day and night or yin and yang: you can’t have one without the other. “In play we trust,” wrote pioneering musical theater educator H. Wesley Balk, “if we’re serious, we must.”

Labor Day falls at the beginning of the American academic year, and here in Philadelphia, the work of the fall semester has begun at the University of the Arts. Students are shedding the torpor of the summer months and the machinery of academia – lessons, schedules, syllabi, homework – is shifting into a higher gear as the fall term begins. As a lifelong academic, the back-to-school vibe of late August and early September has always been pleasing and familiar for me.

As I kick off my fall classes, I want to write in the most basic terms about learning to become a better singer or singing actor. The nature of that task is fundamentally two-fold; that is, pursuing the goal of improving your communication skills while singing involves two sorts of work, different and distinct from one another though inevitably linked. I call them

Work on the singer


Work on the song.

An Actor's WorkThe visionary pedagogue Konstantin Stanislavski saw this fundamental duality at work in every aspect of actor training he taught in Russia and on tour throughout the world. His first book, known to generations of readers by its imperfectly-translated title “An Actor Prepares,” was actually titled “An Actor’s Work on Himself,” while its sequel was conceived by the author as a volume about “An Actor’s Work on the Role.” Work on the self, work on the role: In Stanislavski’s view, you have to have them both, two different sorts of labor, if you intend to succeed.

Work on the self (“on the singer,” as I put it) is a type of training, not unlike what an athlete will go through. That work must be done diligently, daily, putting in hour after hour in the practice room to sharpen your skills as a singer and communicator. Attention must be paid to the excellence of the vocal sound being produced, but special emphasis must be placed on cultivating the ability to “create behavior that communicates the dramatic event” is crucial and central.

Work on the song (or “on the role,” in Stanislavski’s formulation) is equally demanding, and begins with a thoughtful examination of the material at hand, looking for evidence of the opportunities for artistic choice-making that inhere in this specific repertoire. In preparing the work for performance, the singer will apply the technique skills that have been explored and cultivated during his “work on the self” to craft expressive choices and coordinate those choices with the musical event of the song.

You’ll find more here about the nature of that work in the pages entitled “Train to Gain” and “Making The Most of Practice Time,” and I encourage you to consider this material thoughtfully if you haven’t done so already. There’s plenty there to guide your efforts and inspire your spirit as you undertake the work of the months ahead.

“There is work to be done, to be done,” according to the Gershwins’ song “Strike Up The Band,” and that’s true regardless of whether you’re a student, a working pro, a teacher or a passionate amateur. Work on yourself, work on your songs, but whatever you do, do the work! Today, on Labor Day, I remind you that, if you undertake that work purposefully, playfully, passionately and with plenty of heart, your efforts will be rewarded. Our work is indeed a labor of love, and I’m immensely grateful to have been able to make it my chief occupation for nearly forty years!

The Most Common Mistake Singing Actors Make (And How You Can Fix It)

DangerI love ballads, and I’ll bet you do too.

A beautiful melody, gorgeous harmonies, poignant lyrics, delivered at a slow and soulful tempo. Every musical I’ve ever written, and nearly every musical I can think of, has a “big ballad,” and many of those big ballads have become so familiar to listeners and performers that they’re referred to as “standards,” songs that every musician worth his or her salt is expected to be familiar with.

But singer, beware! Ballads are tricky, and the most common mistake I see singing actors make is succumbing to The Ballad Trap.

When you let the mood take over, when the loveliness of the song and the atmosphere of the music cause you to become inattentive to the phrase-by-phrase content of the song, you’ve fallen into The Ballad Trap.

It happens all the time. Ballads seem to lure the singer into a vague wash of behavior, like the mythical Sirens who lured unwary sailors with their songs; before you know it, your performance has been shipwrecked on the rocky coast of generalization.

Let’s consider an example:

So, this song was written for Bernadette Peters by Jerry Herman, and she sang it in the premiere of Mack and Mabel, which presumably means that this is as good as it gets, right? Authoritative, state-of-the-art song interpretation, direct from the star who ought to know best, right? And listen to that adulatory applause!

I’m going to speak heresy now – I don’t think this is a successful performance.

I don’t think Bernadette’s choices communicate the dramatic event of this song phrase by phrase. Do you?

I don’t see choices, but rather a single choice, a somber melancholy attitude. And I don’t see changes – well, sure, she walks down the stairs at one point, but that’s blocking, and pretty unmotivated, if you ask me. I don’t see those changes that occur at the onset of a new phrase or thought, those flickers in the eyes and face that suggest the presence of an active thought process going on during the delivery of this lyric.

Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost love and respect for Miss Peters. In the 1980’s, she rocked my world as Dot in Sunday and the Witch in Into The Woods. She’s an iconic figure in our field.

I just think she falls into The Ballad Trap in this performance, and the experience that she delivers to the audience (spectators and listeners, taking her in with both eye and ear) is not as rich and specific as it could be if she’d just snap out of that trance.

Here’s another clip of the same singer, a different performance of the same song.

What’s different? Yes, the arrangement, and yes, the tempo. But also the behavior, yes? Do you see the flashes, the little adjustments? The evidence of a thought process?

So that first clip came from a 1987 Tony Awards tribute to Robert Preston, and the second one was recorded 14 years later, at a 2001 tribute to Jerry Herman. And the second clip shows a performance that’s closer to my ideal – even if there is a damn microphone blocking my view of her mouth, and only one lousy camera angle for the entire song.

In her face and voice, I see evidence of moment-to-moment life. The struggles of an individual alive in the present moment, trying to make sense of her feelings and what she’s been through over the past months, desperately seeking of some magic that will “make the moments fly” and transport her out of the “hell … [she’s] going through.”

There are plenty of reasons why even an experienced actress like Bernadette Peters might fall into The Ballad Trap. Perhaps she was feeling tense, or stressed, or tired. Perhaps the presence of the cameras exerted a constraining influence. Perhaps she felt that, since this was a concert and not a performance of a dramatic story, it might make not make sense to include behavioral choices that focus on the drama.

Whatever. It happens to the best of us. The good news is, it’s really simple to fix.

So here’s my antidote to The Ballad Trap. It’s really simple, and maybe you even see it coming.

You gotta Ding It before you Sing It.

DeskBellEvery song has “dings” – that is, moments when a new phrase or thought begins. The “ding” is a moment of change in the thought process of a song, and ballads have them, same as every other song.

Time heals everything.
Time heals everything.

Let me try to explain my interpretation of this song, and shed some light on the logic behind these “dings.”

First, it’s important to have a grasp of the given circumstances of the song. Even without access to the libretto for Mack and Mabel, the drama of this song is fairly self-evident: a woman sings about how, despite the passage of time, she has not been able to banish her feelings of loss and sadness resulting from the end of a love affair. Although it is not made explicit for much of the song, the final line (“except for loving you”) brings the identity of the person to whom she is singing vividly into focus: the person to whom the second-person pronoun refers, the “you” of this song, is her former lover, the person for whom she still “carries a torch,” as they used to say.

During the “first heartbeat,” the moments when the musical introduction plays but the singing has yet to begin, the singer is affected by these imaginary circumstances: the presence of her former beloved is causing her some turmoil. This is evident in Bernadette’s behavior in the second video example; we can see her thoughts are in turmoil, setting the stage for the first “ding,” the moment when she makes a transition from troubled silence to song.

What motivates that first line of singing? I find it often useful to imagine an imaginary cue, a question or statement made by the imaginary partner that prompts the first line of the song as a response. In this case, I find it useful to imagine he has asked her a question – “How are you?” or “How have you been?” An innocent enough question, to be sure, but one that has profound implications given the imaginary circumstances.

Hoping to make him think that she’s okay, she offers a familiar cliche, “Time heals everything,” with the implied subtext, “That’s what they say, isn’t it?”

The next moment is of crucial importance in sidestepping The Ballad Trap and acting the lyric with specificity. The next word, “Tuesday,” is a new beat, the beginning of a new phrase. She has moved from the general – “Time heals everything” – to a specific example, a day of the week, as if to say, “That’s what I said to reassure myself back on Tuesday.” The next work, Thursday, suggests she is recalling the days the passed without relief from her anguish: “On Thursday, I was surprised and disappointed that I was still upset.”

Now she re-states the title of the song, the phrase she has clung to in her long process of grieving: “Time heals everything,” thinking “Well, surely, that must be so!” As before, she returns to a more fine-grained level of detail: “April,” meaning “I remember how upset I was back in the month of April,” followed by “August,” an occasion to reflect on how neither days nor months have managed to ease her suffering.

The next phrase, which beings “If I’m patient….,” bears out this interpretation. She is telling her partner how she has tried to remain patient over the past months of anguish, confident in the expectation that the passage of time will eventually diminish her pain.

I won’t analyze the remaining phrases, but I encourage you to imagine how you might do that. Here is the lyric:

If I’m patient, the break will mend
And one fine morning, the hurt will end.
So let the moments fly,
I’ll forget you by this year,
Some year.
Though it’s hell that I’m going through,
Some Tuesday, Thursday,
April, August,
Autumn, Winter,
Next year, Some year…
Time heals everything!
Time heals everything but loving you.

My point is, it’s a beautiful song, musically and lyrically, and a haunting and effective dramatization of heartbreak, but if it’s played as a wash of mood, you don’t really experience its full impact. I sometimes refer to this approach as “mood sauce;” imagine a dish in which all the ingredients are coated with a thick sauce, one that obscures the texture and flavor of the individual components. Go easy on the mood sauce, that’s my advice, and make changes at the “dings” in the text, the moments when a new thought or phrase begins, if you want to avoid the ballad trap.

Rattle Your Own Cage

Creative inspiration from Erik Wahl’s Unthink

UnThink cover
A successful creative life is one filled with disruption and provocation, and I’ve found this to be true on every level.

That’s why an article about Erik Wahl and his book Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius seemed especially resonant for me. Ekaterina Walter offered this summary in a recent post in Fast Company:

Wahl says that “purposeful provocation” should be a part of our personal and professional lives, every single day. Here are the four steps he suggests we need to take to inject a healthy disorder to remain progressive:

1. Step outside your bubble.

When we don’t prod or question the way things are, our existence ends up being based on outdated assumptions and erroneous conclusions. Look at the everyday issues from a different perspective, gently invite others to step outside their comfort zone by asking the questions no one wants to ask, challenge status quo in little ways. It will all spark a bigger change in the long run.

2. Live with some discomfort.

We all want comfort and safety. It’s in our nature. But progress comes from doing what is right and best and necessary. The choices to move forward, innovate, and confront the issues we may not be comfortable with confronting are not always easy, but they are necessary for innovation.

3. Ask forgiveness instead of permission.

Often the only time a boss or a company will see the need for change is when the change has been made without permission.

4. Start small.

Sometimes all that is needed is a small adjustment to make a major, much-needed impact. Often our fear of being provocative is based on the notion that if we speak of or make a change in a process it will be like pulling the office fire alarm, says Wahl. That’s almost never the case, especially when you start small.

The big secret about being provocative, recaps Wahl, is that “not only do you become a change artist in a sea of sameness, you amplify the element of adventure in your own journey.”

Wahl and Waller use the language of the business world, but it’s not hard to see how valuable this advice can be to the singing actor. The act of creation is a disruptive one: every choice you make is a challenge to the status quo, one that requires courage and commitment. Whether you’re grappling with the broadest concept or the minutest detail, it’s incumbent on you to use your curiosity, your intelligence and your technique in a provocative way, interrogating the material to find out what’s possible. Stanislavski’s “Magic If” is the most fundamental of provocations: “What if…” is a question that unlocks the door to all sorts of unknown possibilities.

The SAVI Singing Actor embraces the notion of authorship – the principle that a performance of a song or a role is the unique creation of the artist who performs it. This requires the kind of personal courage that Sondheim describes in his song, “Everybody Says Don’t”:

Make just a ripple.
Come on, be brave!
This time a ripple,
Next time a wave!

How could being purposefully provocative help you take your singing acting to a new level?

Putting It Together: The Art of Making “Herringbone”

DibbleHerringbone1Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you,” and Philadelphia actor Ben Dibble clearly has taken the former First Lady’s advice to heart. Known around town for his versatility and his chops as well as his sang froid, the plucky Dibble acknowledges he was plenty scared by the challenge of Herringbone, an unusual, little-known musical produced by Flashpoint Theatre Company earlier this summer. “This show … scared the living s@&t out of me,” he confessed to his Facebook friends, and in a pre-opening interview, he described it as “more nerve wracking that most shows I’ve done.”

Then again, who wouldn’t be daunted by a musical in which you have to play ten different roles, by yourself, without ever leaving the stage?

Dibble’s efforts were rewarded with a unanimous chorus of praise, and standing ovations became routine at the Off-Broad Street Theater. “All hail Ben Dibble!” trumpeted critic Neal Zoren.”‘Tour de force’ is too light a praise to let it suffice to encompass all this brave, virile, agile, expressive triple threat performer. … Ben Dibble … did everything but swallow fire and prepare a soufflé. I’d bet neither of those tasks would daunt or distract him.” Toby Zinman of the Philadelphia Inquirer concurred: “Ben Dibble giv[es] a performance of stunning virtuosity,” she observed, adding, “Everybody who goes to the theater regularly in Philadelphia knows Dibble’s range, from Shakespeare to children’s shows; he sings, he dances, he acts in comedies and tragedies. But in Herringbone, he does it all at once, playing multiple characters–dead and alive, male and female, old and young– while narrating the story.”

Okay, reading rave reviews for a show that’s already closed is a poor substitute for first-hand experience, but take my word for it: it was a rare occurrence to see work this masterful, and the experience leaves one feeling privileged and stirred. In my case, proud, too, since Ben is a former student, and though I can’t take any credit for his remarkable talent, I could see the evidence of his training in the technical mastery he displayed onstage nightly. The work Ben did in this production was the embodiment of everything I teach about singing acting, and there’s much to be learned by examining the creative process with the artist himself.

I asked Ben what his thoughts were when he realized the challenge he’d gotten himself into with this show, and he replied:

I spent a good part of May reading the script and having no idea how in the world I was going to tell this story. I wanted to learn the script in advance, but felt quite blocked and overwhelmed. The first several days of rehearsal as we read and sung the show, I think [director] Bill Fennelly, [music director] Dan Kazemi and I were all putting our best game faces on while inwardly trying not to panic over what seemed an impossible puzzle to solve.

So how does one go about the task of preparing a performance this complex? Each character required a distinctive vocal, facial and physical characterization, and many scenes called for Dibble to switch characters frequently and instantaneously. What’s more, one character, an eight-year-old boy, is “possessed” by the ghost of a middle-aged actor, and the ghost’s voice appeared at times to come from the boy’s body as the action culminated in a the climactic battle of wills between the two. As you can imagine, diligent preparation and patient drill went into the crafting of each moment, so that the sequence of individual moments could be executed with dexterity and panache. Looking back on the process of preparing to play the role, Ben recalls:

I think the key for this show for me was finding the voice for each character. Once we locked in on certain cadences, timbres and accents (guttural rural drawl for Arthur, plantation lilt for Louise, etc.) then the physicality became more apparent. And once I was able to find keystone physical shapes (fanning of the face for Louise, suspenders for the lawyer, thumbs in pants for Arthur, etc.) then the scenes started to make sense to me as they played out. Bill was really astute to keep my movement through space economical. At first I was trying to act each character where they would be in the given room, but that quickly became too much and Bill kept encouraging me to keep the scenes open and let the audience follow my shifts as part of the joy within the structure.

In a scene early in Herringbone, the aged vaudevillian “Chicken” Mosley tries to teach eight-year-old George how to be a performer, and the process is mechanical and laborious at first: one word, one step, then the next. Performing in a musical is nearly always like this, mechanical at first, as one struggles to learn the songs (fiendishly complicated in this case), memorize the text and master the staging and choreography. After a bit, the execution of the “routine” (a vaudeville term that seems particular fitting here) becomes more flowing and requires less conscious thought – more “routine,” as it were. Relegating the mechanics of a performance to the “background,” where mental processing is nearly automatic, is like mastering the skill of driving a car; as you gain proficiency, the activity requires less conscious thought, leaving you free to devote more of your attention to other things. In this case, it allows the actor to fill the words, melodies and movements with emotional truth and focus on bringing the story to life.

DibbleHerringbone3“The art of making art,” observes Stephen Sondheim, “is putting it together, bit by bit,” and that’s a fitting description of the process Dibble undertook in collaboration with director Bill Fennelly and the “Herringbone” creative team. “Every little detail plays a part” in Dibble’s performance, from a flick of the eyes to a flutter of the hand. I asked Ben to describe a couple favorite moments from the show, and he replied:

One of my favorite scenes is a scene in Act II that takes place entirely at the (invisible) mirror where I use only my face and voice to depict the character changes while putting on eye makeup. When Bill told me this idea I felt terrified and exposed. He kept telling me to slow down and trust that facility and pace was not helpful, which was hard for me to do. Once we found the rhythm I came to absolutely love the power of taking the audience deep into the first big psychological turns. I also love the Louise number. After keeping the show so compressed and leaping from one character to the other, it is such a release to be myself and just sell the hell out of a real showstopper. And I added some of my own riffs up to show off a little of my high notes, which makes it a total blast to sing (even though I am still managing my breath as I get winded from the choreography!)

DibbleHerringbone2How hard is it to allow yourself to become emotional while executing a demanding score of musical and behavioral details? In a particularly memorable scene, little George finds himself in a hotel room with a floozy while the spirit of The Frog, the ghost who possesses him, tries to use the lad’s pre-pubescent body to consummate a tryst with the woman. It’s a musical trio in which each of the characters – the boy, the Frog and the woman he has marked for conquest – have distinct character traits and strongly differing points-of-view. Dibble delineates each one masterfully – the urgent, grotesque desire of the Frog, the panic and confusion of the innocent boy, and the woman by turns charmed, aroused and bewildered by a seducer who looks like a child and sounds like a satyr. We hear from each in turn as Dibble writhes and changes positions, passionate and yet precise, building to a climax that left the audience hushed and shattered. I asked Ben what went through his mind during the scene with Flo in the hotel room, and how he managed to balance technique and emotion in a scene like that:

Great question. This play is structured so specifically as to help the actor; even in its extremity of emotion and rapidity of character changes there is a logic to the way the scenes play out. Bill was incredibly helpful the day we staged the hotel scene of finding the thread that would keep clarity and allow me to really live in each moment. It took a long time for me to know it well enough to let it flow and trust that the next words would come out of my mouth! And I like to always find the infrastructure of a given scene or song (music, physical shape, vocal range) first because then I feel free to let the emotional life arise in a visceral way.

Ben’s search for the “infrastructure” of the scene is a process that begins with externals (music, voice and body) which, in time, unlock the key to an inner life. In other words, it’s an “outside-in” process, one that the best singing actors endorse. While this may seem contrary to the “inside-out” process advocated by actors working in the Stanislavski tradition, my experience suggests that these two approaches are complementary, not contradictory, and that the singing actor is well-served by a technique that recognizes the value of both.

A one-man show presents challenges of stamina and endurance that a performer doesn’t encounter doing a more typical show. There’s never a moment to relax, never a moment when the show doesn’t rest entirely on your shoulders. Describing the challenges of performing the show repeatedly, nightly, over a period of time, Ben said the key issues were:

Stamina and pacing! You could easily give an entire show’s worth of vocal and physical energy in the first act, and have nothing left for the emotionally draining second act. I really had to keep in touch with my whole physical instrument in a moment-to-moment way during the performance to know “hey, you are over-singing cuz you have friends here-ease up” or “you are dragging the pace and your legs are tiring…dig in pal!” In some ways the constant activity of the show is helpful as I never have a chance to worry about my mistakes or how much show is still in front of me-it is the most in-the-moment I have ever been on stage, which has been really liberating.

However, with repetition comes efficiency and greater ease, and Ben found the show easier to do as the run progressed. He took advantage of this opportunity to explore individual moments more fully, curious about how far and how deep he could go with their content. Of course, good health and self-management are key under these circumstances. Ben got a little panicked when he discovered his “cords getting a little crunchy” after a grueling three days that included four shows plus three ninety-minute master classes for high school students. The father of three, he was also alarmed to experience symptoms of a cold that was affecting his young children. It required enormous mental focus and the life-style of a monk to survive a feat like Herringbone. Looking back on the entire experience, Ben says he feels

Very proud and grateful. I would never have sought out this role, and now I can do it and it feels so affirming to climb this mountain of a role and survive. There is no role that could scare me right now. And I guess it says something about my unique gifts as a performer if my most iconic roles to date are Bat Boy, Toad and Herringbone. And this team, with Bill and Dan and [choreographer] Jenn [Rose] in particular, was a dream team. I could never have flown in this without their artistry and support.

I owe a thousand thanks to Ben for his thoughtful responses to my questions, along with a chorus of huzzahs in recognition of his accomplishments. I know that Ben and Bill are exploring the possibility of recreating this production of Herringbone at other regional theaters, and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see it yourself one day.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Take steps now to achieve Maximum SAVI in the new school year!

On the rifle range, the command rings out: ready, aim, fire!

Rocket launchShimmering on its launchpad, the school year waits like a rocket, ready for liftoff at the start of September. Now, as the countdown dwindles down to its final days, we must READY and AIM ourselves. A new year begins; do you want to do better work this year? Have more rewarding classes, more satisfying lessons, more successful auditions, more fruitful creative projects? Take steps to READY and AIM yourself now and you’ll be more likely to achieve your goals this year.

Happy New Year!

My whole life has been organized according to the academic calendar, and September is a time of bright beginnings. A new school year brings new students, new classes, new opportunities to learn and grow. Whether you’re currently a student or a teacher or not, the season has an unmistakable feeling of promise.

Meanwhile, August is a time for laying low, denying that the school year will start soon for as long as possible. Those syllabi, those advising questions, those artistic projects about to commence, they can wait just a little longer, while we cling to summer’s luxurious idleness. But though I feel the sand between my toes, my thoughts inevitably stray to the imminent onset of the academic year, and I want to get my shit together.
Continue reading “Ready, Aim, Fire!”

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!”