Before we can talk at all about the technique of singing-acting, we have to have a basic understanding of the nature of the work we are about to face, and the state of mind it will require of us.
When I use the word “train,” I am thinking about what athletes do, what dancers do, what instrumentalists do when they practice their instruments. The lessons that follow will be meaningless and useless unless they are approached with the attitude of an athlete in training. Antonin Artaud refers to actors as “athletes of the heart.” Here’s the relevant passage from his book The Theatre and Its Double, (in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings 259-60)
We must recognize that the actor has a kind of emotional musculature which corresponds to certain physical localizations of feelings.
The actor is like a real physical athlete, but with this surprising qualification, that he has an emotional organism that is analogous to the athlete’s, which is parallel to it, which is like its double, although it does not operate on the same level.
The actor is an athlete of the heart.
I first encountered Artaud’s provocative concept of the actor as an “athlete of the emotions” or “athlete of the heart” in a workshop on the Rasaboxes pedagogy developed by Richard Schechner. This notion immediately resonated with me (as did the Rasaboxes work, which I found visionary and provocative).
For the moment, I want to focus on the implications of the perceived analogy between the athlete and the actor. In what ways is an actor like an athlete?
An athlete is defined as “a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.” (dictionary.com) The etymological root of the word, athlein (Greek), means “to contend for a prize,” derived from the Greek “athlos,” a contest.
Talking about athletes as contestants or contenders means talking about winning and losing, and that part of the analogy is not really useful, but the notion of training appears to be inherent in the definition of athleticism, as does “physical agility, stamina [and] strength.” The athlete attains higher levels of performance through persistent, purposeful repetition of activities that have been selected for their effectiveness in enhancing specific attributes. In art as in sport, mastery can only be attained through training, which is routine, ongoing and frequent. When one ceases training, skills eventually begin to diminish, a phenomenon that is sufficiently important to deserve being stated as a corollary or subtitle for this first lesson:
USE IT OR LOSE IT.
So what do we strive to gain in our training as Olympic singer-actors?
If you’re teaching in a classroom environment, this is a great moment to encourage discussion, and to have your students help articulate what it is they expect to gain. I’ve participated in dozens of such discussions during my years as a teacher, and I’ll try to distill my findings into a few pithy statements that I’ll offer up shortly, but there’s no understating the importance of getting your students to engage with these questions on their own before you provide them with ready-made answers.
If you’re new to the SAVI System and reading this right now, I’d encourage you to stop reading and pick up a pencil (or whatever tool you write with, digitally or manually). What kinds of gains do you think you could make as a singing actor if you trained diligently?
Obviously, you’re not going to compete like an athlete does against other singing-actors. Well, there is that pesky business of auditioning and getting jobs, and it doesn’t get any more competitive than that, so we won’t dismiss the notion of competition entirely. But the point of training is not just beating out the other auditioners to get a particular role. Training and skill are only part of what you need to compete successfully in that arena.
Think about what goes through your mind during a visit to the gym. Anyway, I’ll talk about what goes through MY mind during my (distressingly infrequent) workouts. You need cardio, activities that stimulate and strengthen your heart and lungs, that build stamina and efficiency. You need strength work, focusing on toning a wide range of specific muscle groups. You need to stretch, to remain supple and increase your range of motion. And beyond that, there’s often work that addresses the issue of coordination, the ability to execute a sequence or combination of movements with optimal timing, ease and grace. If you’re training for a sport, these often take the form of drills; in the ballet studio, these are exercises across the floor or combinations.
The performers I encounter in the musical theater world who get this notion, who embrace it eagerly, are the ones that have trained as dancers or instrumentalists. They have prior experience of the patient, persistent, purposeful effort that goes into building technique. They work on exercises – the ballet barre, the musician’s etude – that are designed to cultivate that technique. And they know it’s crucial that this work is done routinely, daily if possible, in order for real progress to occur.
PERFECT TEN VIDEOS
I ask my students to collect examples of performance videos that are a “perfect ten,” that is, an reflection of all the skills and attributes they associate with an ideal singing-acting performance. The “perfect ten” reference comes from the Olympics, of course, where the judges assign scores based on how individual athletes measure up to an established set of standards and criteria.
The notion of a “perfect ten” performance may seem to be entirely subjective and personal, but this exercise provokes useful thought and dialog about those attributes that appear frequently in the students’ judgment.
Nowadays, there seems to be an unlimited supply of performance videos available on the web. Everyone from Broadway stars to high school newbies are posting footage of their singing-acting performances; colleges post their students’ work in an effort to promote the quality of their programs, and individuals upload footage for the purposes of self-promotion. Sites like BlueGobo.com offer historical examples that reach back for decades. Enthusiasts are digitizing footage from a variety of sources and sharing it via YouTube.com. The act of curating this footage – making decisions about quality, articulating the rationale behind those decisions, and discussing and defending that rationale in a group setting – is a powerful learning experience for developing singing actors.
DOCUMENTING, MEASURING, QUANTIFYING
Inherent in the notion of training is a component of documentation and measurement. Training is not random but purposeful, and requires the trainee to identify goals and track progress toward those goals.
God knows I’m no Olympian, but when I’m at the gym, I have a certain routine I follow and certain benchmarks I track. How many push-ups did I do yesterday? When I do pull-ups on the Gravitron, what is the weight set to? Can I eke out another minute, another pound, another inch in my stretching? Am I achieving the perfect form in a particular stretch or asana? How do I know when I’ve worked out long enough? In my way, I am quantifying strength, endurance and range, and my workouts are undertaken with the intention of accomplishing certain benchmark results in each of these areas. At the end of the workout, I visit the scale and weigh in, providing me with another data point that I track over time; weight loss is a cause for elation, since shedding unwanted pounds is one of my goals. A workout is especially effective when it is data driven. There are a variety of apps for my iPhone that allow me to capture this data and track it over time, which gives me a sense of progress.
Of course, singing acting is an artistic endeavor, something much more refined and creative than my lowly gym bouts. Or is it? I propose that there is genuine value in treating the training of the singing-actor like a workout, and that extends to the notion that a good workout includes some component of documentation and measurement. Peter Drucker, a noted management consultant, once famously said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
This philosophy has made its presence strongly felt in the world of higher education, which now places a growing emphasis on the concept of outcomes and assessment. As a student, it ought to be possible for you to know what you’re setting out to learn (outcomes) and whether you’re indeed learning it (assessment). In a math class, that’s a fairly simple proposition, and your test scores will give you an accurate picture of your mastery of the subject. In the arts, we tend to resist such procedures, arguing that the artistic process is more mysterious, more ephemeral, more subjective, and not to be subjected to the same dreary mundane measurements that are employed in the non-artistic world. I am persuaded that defining outcomes and using tangible, quantifiable means of assessment is a meaningful component of the learning process, and no less important in the world of the arts.
I have become an enthusiastic proponent of video as an assessment tool. In my classroom, students frequently present work in front of the camera, and are required to watch their own work and that of their classmates outside the studio. While the students still groan on the days when I walk into the classroom with my camera and tripod, they’ve embraced it eagerly as a learning tool, and their comments confirm my belief that this is a valuable addition to my teaching and learning strategy.
Changes in technology pertaining to shooting, editing and sharing video in the past few years make this a relatively painless task nowadays. If you own a camera that links to the internet via WiFi (like the camera in your iPhone or iPod Touch), the process of shooting and sharing video can be accomplished quickly and seamlessly. Where in years past videos had to be downloaded to a laptop and downsampled before they could be uploaded, the features built into IOS can be quickly learned and easily implemented. (Sorry, non-Apple users, I won’t be sharing any specific instructions for the Wintel world, but I’m sure there are plenty of equivalent options available there.)
We shoot a baseline video as close to the first day of class as possible, without any specific instructions to the student apart from, Present a song the best way you know how. Once shot, videos are uploaded and shared so that the students can view and critique them outside of class. Critiquing performance in the classroom is a challenge; time is limited and egos are fragile, with the result that both the instructor and one’s classmates can be hasty or so diplomatic as to be confusing or worthless. But when the student (or the instructor) is alone with the screen, with plenty of time to pause, rewind, review and consider, the insights that a video provides are immensely valuable.
I will talk further about practical considerations for shooting, sharing and critiquing video in the future, but for now the point I want to make is – video can be the singing actors Number One resource, nowadays more than ever.
WORK ON THE SINGER AS WELL AS THE SONG
The approach I’ve come to use in the studio reflects my realization that it’s necessary to work on the SINGER as well as the SONG in training. Too often, in my experience, the training of the singing actor favors work on the SONG, and the particular needs of the song or repertoire being prepared become paramount under such circumstances. In this approach, class is more like a rehearsal, and indeed, rehearsals are something that every singing actor is familiar with. In rehearsal, you present the material as you’ve prepared it (either with guidance from your director – or others – or implementing your own ideas) and then the work is critiqued as to whether or not the moments “work” in the context of the show.
Theater is one of the few fields of endeavor where rehearsal is the prevalent model for artistic training and preparation. Music, dance and athletics are all fields where equal or greater time is spent on the cultivation of technique apart from the application of that technique in rehearsal, performance and game-play. Think of the poor misguided children who follow Professor Harold Hill’s “Think System” in The Music Man: every sensible citizen in River City knows that it’s impossible to play band music without some sort of systematic preparation designed to cultivate instrumental technique.
If my approach to singer-actor training is at all innovative, it’s in the way it gives priority to the development of the SINGER, and the technical skills that any singing-actor needs to possess to successfully approach a SONG regardless of its stylistic demands. Through painstaking trial and error over a period of years, I’ve developed a number of exercises and “etudes” (little songs or studies that, like instrumental etudes, are opportunities to cultivate a particular attribute) that enable the student to cultivate technical skill in a group setting, quickly and efficiently.
So, a lot of talk about rationale, but I’ve been stalling before presenting my own list of the skills that a “Perfect Ten” music theater performer needs to possess. Some of these skills are fundamental to singing (as a separate discipline) or acting (ditto), such as:
- The ability to sing music accurately, with correct pitches and rhythms, as notated.
- The ability to sing intelligibly, with good diction and clear enunciation to deliver the text to the listener.
- The ability to sing with a focused, vibrant tone that projects clearly and evenly throughout the singer’s range.
- The ability to act truthfully, that is, to believably inhabit each moment onstage.
- The ability to sing and move without unnecessary tension, in a manner that is easy and expressive.
However, when singing and acting are combined, the challenge of meeting these demands is multiplied by the complications that arise from the combination. Further challenges are introduced by the need to “act in tempo,” that is, to execute the emotional, textual and musical demands of the song in accordance with the tempo established by the music, and to coordinate changes in acting and voice with the changes in the musical score.
At its most basic level, this is how I define the skill that every singing actor must possess, the single most important thing that you can “train to gain:”
A greater ability to create behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase while singing.
Over the years, I’ve instructed students about Axiom One of the SAVI System, the fundamental precept on which it is built:
“When I sing, I will create behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase.”
Whether you use my exercises and etudes or make up your own, I submit that this outcome is first and foremost in the training of singing actors, the goal of any meaningful course of musical theater performance study.
Where I believe my approach becomes controversial is when it seeks to cultivate behavior as a phenomenon that is consciously created. A fundamental precept of many (though not all) approaches to acting is that behavior is something that “just happens” when one is successfully engaged in “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” In this view, the emotions that pour forth from the actor (and the behaviors that convey those emotions) occur spontaneously and unconsciously, like the sweat that pours off an athlete’s brow during moments of exertion.
The discipline of training requires that you work routinely, persistently, day after day. Although eventually certain skills will become like habits, there’s no real end to this journey. Not only do you TRAIN TO GAIN, you must TRAIN TO RETAIN. For this reason, it’s necessary to become master of your calendar, to create systems that will make training habitual. To accomplish this, I recommend that you make appointments on your calendar to set aside time for practice. Hold yourself accountable to keep those appointments. Begin each training session with a plan and a purpose: what do you want to accomplish, and what will you do to accomplish it? If you use your practice time just to sing through repertoire, you will be perpetuating the habit of sloppy, general performance. A PRACTICE LOG is a valuable tool for tracking your training; keeping a log facilitates goal-setting and purposeful practice, gives you a place to reflect on your practice, and gives you the opportunity to look back over the days to see whether you’ve kept to your plan.
THE GAINS YOU SHOULD SEEK TO MAKE
Practice makes perfect – the old saying is true. But what should you practice? Learning your songs accurately is only one part of the work you need to undertake in the practice room. It is my experience that practice should include work on skills – work on the SINGER – as well as work on repertoire – the SONG. Your practice sessions should be organized so that both kinds of work get done.
In “working on the singer,” you’re going to seek to improve your ability to create behavior while singing. The term “behavior” deserves some extensive consideration and careful definition, but for now it will suffice to say that I am referring to your ability to use your face (including your gaze), your body (both gesture and movement in the space) and your voice (phrasing, color, dynamics and everything not notated by the composer) to enhance your expression of the drama of the song.
Nearly every singing actor has a certain limited set of behaviors that come naturally to them while singing. These may be behaviors you have observed in other singers, which may be iconic or cliche, while some are probably habits you’ve settled into over years of vocal study. It is important to begin to expand your vocabulary of behaviors – the choices available to you while singing – and this can be accomplished through a kind of “behavior gym.” Many of the exercises I present in the classroom are designed to provoke, inspire or stimulate behavior, and such work can be very successfully undertaken in a group setting. The cultivation of behavior during solitary practice is more challenging, since you don’t have access to the same robust set of stimuli or catalysts that a group class provides. However, there are strategies and tools that you can adopt that will enable you to continue to expand your behavioral vocabulary through private practice.
Being able to create behavior while singing is an important skill for the singing actor to possess, but it is equally important that you are able to coordinate the creation of behavior with the musical event of the song. In the next of the six lessons, I’ll explain about the DING and how you must identify the onset of each new phrase and coordinate the onset of new behavior in an impulsive way to help communicate the beginning of each new idea. I’ll refer to this as an “ouch” or “ouch-y impulse,” because behavior appears most truthful when it appears to begin impulsively with a strong onset. Each phrase is an opportunity to make a specific choice, and it is often to your advantage to differentiate the choices you make from phrase to phrase. This pattern of CHOOSING and CHANGING, initiating each new phrase with an OUCH-Y IMPULSE, is something that can be practiced with any sort of vocalise or song, and the coordination that is required to do this successfully can be improved through persistent, purposeful practice.
The quality of the effort you use in the creation of behavior is also worth cultivating, and significant gains in truthful expressiveness can be made by practicing your ability to SUSTAIN and DEVELOP behavior with no more effort than necessary for the full duration of a phrase and to end each phrase with a FLOPPY RELEASE that allows the effort associated with the behavior of the previous phrase to extinguish itself so that you are in the ideal state to initiate the next impulse. I’ll refer to this as a FLOP-AND-OUCH pattern, one that the SAVI singing actor uses to end and begin phrases. Through intentional practice, this pattern will become habit, giving you indispensable technical coordination.
The work that you do on EXPANDING YOUR BEHAVIOR VOCABULARY and REFINING YOUR COORDINATION in the way your behavior choices match the musical phrases of the song will prepare you for the other part of your practice session, in which the song itself will challenge you to build and execute a behavioral score that supports the dramatic event of the song phrase by phrase. This, in turn, points the way to a third technical skill that can be practiced separate from the song: the ability to EXECUTE A SEQUENCE OF CHOICES, which requires not only a robust vocabulary and good coordination but the ability to make a plan, remember that plan, and execute it truthfully, impulsively and flexibly while in a fully aroused and energized state.
Last, and by no means least, as you train as a singing actor, you have the opportunity to focus on improving the four qualities that are most essential to successful singing-acting. These attributes are so fundamental to good singing-acting that the name of my training system is an acronym for them.
SAVI = SPECIFICITY + AUTHENTICITY + VARIETY + INTENSITY
Each of these concepts is worth exploring in greater detail in future pages. For now, let it suffice for me to note that independent practice and group training sessions in the studio can both provide great advantage in making gains in each. You can acquire the habit of singing with greater specificity, authenticity, variety and intensity through purposeful, persistent practice, and apply those qualities more successfully to each phrase of every song that you sing. Sound good? I’ll bet it does.