No One Is Alone

The work of the singing actor is a lonely business.

Sure, it might not seem that way at first. Singing actors are often in shows, either rehearsing or performing, and we feel ourselves come to life in the company of our fellow artists.

In RehearsalAnd they’re often in classes, either attending college or high school or enrolled in classes for continuing professional development.

But those hours account for only a small fraction of most of our lives, and during the remaining hours, we still feel a need to connect. It’s an instinct that all humans have, and singing actors are no different. We long to commune with our tribe, to share the latest news, to feel a part of something larger and greater than ourselves.

In a classroom or college experience, powerful personal connections get made. That’s what the past weeks have been like for me, as students in the classes I taught came together weekly not only to acquire new skills and demonstrate their growing mastery but, equally importantly, to connect with fellow artists-in-training. The fellowship, the sharing of experiences, the commiseration and the celebration are a powerful part of the college experience.

But what about summer vacation? What happens to the connection then? Sure, there’s the occasional (or not-so-occasional) Facebook post from your friends, the Instagram photos of your most recent foodie splurge, the tweet from the beach. But for the most part, the work of the singing actor is a lonely business when you’re not in school or in rehearsal. Summertime is one time of year when you are likely to find yourself with time on your hands.

What if there was a way to maintain that connection? To continue to engage on a weekly basis with thought provoking material that was relevant to your growth as an artist, and to connect with fellow artists as they pursue their version of the same adventure?

My weekly posts and emails are intended to help make that happen. Each week I publish useful, provocative information that I think will be meaningful to serious singing actors – material that I’ve culled from my own years of experience making musicals and teaching young artists to perform successfully in them. As you read each week’s posts, my dream is that you will realize that you are not alone, that others are pursuing the same dream as you, and that there are ways that you can continue to learn and grow and thrive even when you’re not in the classroom or in rehearsal.

And let’s not forget, you have the chance to connect online. Perhaps you’ll feel inspired to make a comment on this week’s post. Or you see that others have done the same, and that moves you to chime in and add your own two cents. You find people in other cities, other states, other countries that share your passion, people pondering the same questions and issues that are vexing you, and you learn from their points of view.

My vision of the SAVI Singing Actor site is to provide a place where that can happen. It’s not just a platform for me to broadcast my own ideas about singing acting, though that’s one important feature of the site. I know I have a tremendous amount of valuable information to share; I’ve seen generations of students benefit from my instruction, and nothing brings me greater pleasure than seeing young artists thrive and grow.

But also, it’s a place where we can connect as fellow humans and artists passionately engaged in the same pursuit. My subscriber list includes both students and teachers of musical theater in many countries. What a great community to be able to connect with!

In Act Two Into The Woods, Stephen Sondheim reminds us, “You are not alone, no one is alone.” It’s a message that resonates powerfully for those characters, but we’re all seeking our way through some kind of woods, aren’t we? As a subscriber to the SAVI Singing Actor, you’ll feel a little less alone, and a little more connected to the kinds of community and information that you’ll benefit from.

Dramatic Circumstances – a new book by William Wesbrooks

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 4.04.44 PMOnce upon a time, there was a professor who taught singing actors about how to perform songs. He worked in a big city at a university with a big reputation, and many students came to study with him. He loved his work; he loved being able to help students, and the things he taught them were genuinely helpful. After awhile, he thought to himself, “Maybe I could help more students if I were to write about the ways I train my students in a book.”

Yes, this is my story, but it’s also the story of Bill Wesbrooks, Director of Vocal Performance at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at NYU. The difference between Bill and me is, he’s actually written the book. It’s called “Dramatic Circumstances,” it was published a few months ago, and it’s a great addition to the literature of singer-actor training.

Books about Singing-Acting

Since I began teaching thirty-five years ago, a surprising number of books have been published about the training of the singing actor. The two most prolific authors in the field are H. Wesley Balk and David Craig, both of whom passed away around the end of the millennium but each of whom managed to publish three enormously valuable books in the last years of their lives. Balk’s “The Complete Singer-Actor: Training for Music Theater” appeared in 1977, and though Balk was an opera director who worked chiefly with opera singers, the pedagogical principles he has identified and the exercises he has invented remain valuable to performers in all genres of musical theater. David Craig’s “On Singing Onstage” (1978) is an equally important early contribution to the field; since Craig is profoundly attuned to the Broadway repertoire, singers of show tunes are likely to find his work more immediately relevant. Balk went on to complete two more books, “Performing Power” (1985) and “The Radiant Performer” (1991) before he passed away in 2003, and Craig followed up his initial effort with “On Performing” (1987) and “A Performer Prepares” (1993) before his demise in 1998.

In more recent years, the onslaught of books for the singing actor has continued. The most impressive and comprehensive contribution to the literature in our own era is Joe Deer and Rocco DalVera’s “Acting in Musical Theatre” (2008), which is already headed for a second edition and being translated for the Asian market. All in all, by my count, more than a dozen books that have been published during the years since I began teaching in this field. In fact, Bill Wesbrooks’ volume is one of two to be published in the past few months; the other, “Stanislavski Never Wore Tap Shoes,” is the work of Burke Moses, a Broadway performer who began his performing career around the time that Balk and Craig were publishing their first books. (And yet the promotional copy for Moses’ book begins, “Finally, a book about acting on the musical stage!” “Finally?”)

Given this impressive array of books (not to mention the shelf space they occupy in my library) and the collective insights of their authors, I find myself wondering: Is there really something else that needs to be said?

A Focus on Story

Wesbrooks’ response to the challenge is to go deep rather than broad. He chooses a provocative focus for his teaching and his writing, digging deeply into the importance of STORY and how a student is well served to examine each song thoughtfully and imaginatively to determine the true story being told and the personal significance of that story. The subtitle of his book is, “On Acting, Singing, and Living Inside the Stories We Tell.”

In his preface, Bill quotes the English author Philip Pullman, who said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Reading this immediately made me think of Dan Pink’s “A Whole New Mind,” a provocative 2005 study about moving from the “Information Age” to the “Conceptual Age.” In it, Pink identifies “Story” as one of six essential aptitudes that need to be mastered in order to flourish in the complex new era we currently inhabit.

“The essence of persuasion, communication and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative,” observes Pink. Quoting Don Norman’s “Things That Make Us Smart,” he wants us to understand that “[s]tories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion.”

Bill Wesbrooks is very wise to focus on the importance of story. It shows that he is attuned to the needs of artists and audiences in the present day. It also connects him to a rich tradition of actor training that stretches back to the seminal work of Konstantin Stanislavski, whose goal was to train actors so they could live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Wesbrooks’ “dramatic circumstance process” owes a great deal to Stanislavski, and the fact that it is not wholly original doesn’t make it any less valuable. By describing this work in an organized and thoughtful way with concrete examples, Wesbrooks shows the aspiring singing actor “how to take specific steps to organize your thoughts so that you will be able to live more fully inside any story you choose to tell.” The payoff is a “new kind of freedom and clarity” evident in the work of students willing to employ this procedure diligently.

“It has been my experience that artists of all disciplines seek, in the pursuit of their art, two fundamental experiences: freedom and truth. … Freedom is the sensation of having liberated yourself from the limitations of self-consciousness that can constrict you as you study, practice, rehearse, and perform. Ultimate freedom is freedom from fear. … Truth is allowing yourself to see, with unadorned clarity, what you know about yourself and what you have learned in the course of your life about human behavior,. and then – and this is the key – having the courage to take action based on that knowledge.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Mirror Canon-2Readers of The SAVI Singing Actor know that I am very interested in the importance of practice as a tool for developing technique and achieving mastery, and Wesbrooks has some valuable words to contribute on that topic. He cites a British study that concluded the only statistically significant factor that had any impact on musicians’ success was the amount of time that had spent practicing: “It is a fact: the more you practice, the better you will get. [But] figuring out just how to practice is one of the biggest challenges most performers face.” In my experience, I have found this statement to be profoundly true, and one of the things my students seem to benefit from most is instruction in what and how to practice. I wrote about it most recently in an article called “Making The Most of Practice Time.”

Since singing-acting involves both a rich inner life and the outward expression of that inner state through behavior, there are many points of view about whether singing-acting training should use an “inside-out” approach or an “outside-in” one. Wesbrooks’ view is similar to mine, and to the approach that Wes Balk developed in his three books:

“To think of your emotional life as somehow ‘inside’ while your physical life is ‘outside’ is already a perception that denies the complex interaction between the various parts of your mind and your body. Your emotional self and your physical self are forever intertwined and totally dependent on one another. … Of course you want to find a true emotional connection in your work, and the dramatic circumstance process is the most effective way I have found to bring that about. Even so, emotionally connected work will be diminished, and your ability to sustain it will be seriously compromised, if your body and voice are not at the same time functioning both efficiently and effectively.”

A Fine Addition to the Literature

WesbrooksBill Wesbrooks has written a fine book. He is an intelligent, humane teacher, dedicated to his students’ growth; his calm, reassuring demeanor and generosity of spirit shine forth on every page. The work he describes in the pages of his book is important work that every singing actor needs to undertake.

It doesn’t diminish Bill’s accomplishment to point out that he clearly stands on the shoulders of others who have gone before him; the same can be said for nearly everyone in every field of endeavor. Stanislavski’s influence is evident, not just in the types of work and the procedures that Bill encourages his students to employ, but in the way he has chosen to present much of his work in the form of dialog between teacher and student, much as Stanislavski did. The seminal work of David Craig, especially his 1978 book “On Singing Onstage,” also appears to have influenced Wesbrooks’ approach; the forensic gathering of information from the song’s text that Craig calls the “One” and the personalized “This is a story about me” approach employed in his “Two” are a foundation on which Wesbrooks has skillfully built.

This is a book which other teachers of singing acting will want to study, so they can incorporate Wesbrooks” “dramatic circumstances process” in their own studio practice. Students will also benefit from his lessons, providing they take the time to peruse the material thoughtfully and put it into practice methodically. We are, I fear, a quick-fix culture, one reliant on the charismatic influence of experts, and Wesbrooks’ approach is not a hard-sell one. I admire that about his book, but I don’t know whether it will win him many acolytes.

On that theme, then, here’s another story to conclude this post:

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who loved to sing songs. She dreamed of success on the musical stage, and thought that the grandest possible thing would be to get a job to perform in a Broadway show. She knew that, in order to do this successfully, she needed to get some training, because as much as she loved singing songs, she had a feeling that there were certain skills that she needed to have to sing them better, to sing them in a way that would give her performances greater impact. She wanted to attend college at a university in a big city where she knew she would learn more about these things, but the college was very expensive and the big city was far away.

And then one day she stumbled upon a book called “Dramatic Circumstances,” written by a teacher who taught at the school she where she longed to study. Reading this book, she could imagine what it was like to attend his class. The book offered detailed accounts of the teacher’s interactions with the students in his class, accounts of the work they did exploring songs and preparing to perform them. In the book, the teacher sounded like a kind and wise man, and the students in the book all got great benefit from his lessons.

What happened next?

(1) She followed the instructions and the procedures described in the book, and discovered that she sang better when she prepared her songs that way. She felt happier and more successful.


(2) She read the book and felt even more determined to study with this professor. She was fortunate enough to get into NYU, even though it meant borrowing thousands of dollars, and graduated with a rich understanding of the craft of singing acting – and a substantial debt.


(3) She ordered the book from and read the first pages of it, but after a few minutes, her attention began to wander. She reached for her mobile phone, checked her text messages, looked at the new posts that had appeared in her Facebook news feed, and forgot to continue reading til later. When she went back to the book, she thought the things in it sounded interesting, and she meant to try them out eventually, but she never got around to it.

Which of these three scenarios seems most likely to you?

Are there books that have made a significant contribution to your training and development? Tell me about them in the comments section of this post!

June Is Bustin’ Out All Over

The month of June has just begun. Out in my garden on this first day of June, raspberries are fruiting in rude profusion. Lavender that I thought had been killed off by an unusually harsh winter has not only sent out new leaves but its first fragrant flowers. Roses on a neighbor’s bush are spilling over my back fence, triumphing over her futile efforts to prune it back last fall. Early lettuce and radishes have already found their way from the garden to my table. The first day of June is a feast for the senses, delighting the eye, the nose and the tongue.

All of which puts me in mind of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric from the 1945 musical Carousel:

JuneJune is bustin’ out all over,
All over the meadow and the hill!
Buds’re bustin’ outa bushes,
And the rompin’ river pushes
Ev’ry little wheel that wheels beside a mill.

June is bustin’ out all over.
The feelin’ is gettin’ so intense,
That the young Virginia creepers
Hev been huggin’ the bejeepers
Outa all the mornin’-glories on the fence.

Because it’s June!
June, June, June–
Jest because it’s June– June–June!

(Read the complete lyric here and listen to the soundtrack of the 1994 Broadway revival, sung by Shirley Verrett with a much younger Audra McDonald in the role of Carrie Pipperidge.)

I suppose you can tell I’m really feeling this June thing. But chances are you’re not. If you’ve thought about this song at all, I’m guessing you probably think it’s an old-fashioned lyric sung in by an old lady with an old-fashioned voice. The language that I find so original and full of character (“huggin’ the bejeepers outa all the mornin’-glories on the fence”) might just as easily be seen by you as quaint; likewise, the colloquial regional dialect (the dropped g’s, the phonetic spellings like “hev” and “outa”) that is a trademark of so many Hammerstein lyrics. The music is definitely old-school, a vigorous polka tempo, and even if you go for this kind of thing, you could find yourself succumbing to the temptation to deliver the song with generalized gusto but without much attention to the particular images and details that make it fresh.

To sing Hammerstein’s lyric (indeed, to sing any lyric), you must awaken yourself to the truth it conveys, and that means awakening your senses. In the song, Nettie Fowler is describing the sights and sensations of an early June day in Maine, and the joy that stirs in the heart to know with certainty that the rough winter is past and the next few months will bring a bounty of seasonal pleasures. Hammerstein was a man of the land, making his home on a farm in Doylestown (not far from me) where he took refuge from the slings and arrows of his show business career in Manhattan, and the delight he takes from nature is evident in this and many other lyrics he wrote.

It’s a challenge worthy of a fresh June morning: how can the SAVI singing actor breathe life into this classic musical theater song? What words of wisdom can the coach or director offer to guide the singing actor to a successful performance?

Stanislavski’s “six fundamental questions” are an excellent place to start:

  • Who am I
  • Where am I?
  • When am I here?
  • Why do I come here?
  • What am I here to do?
  • How will I do it?

Getting answers to these fundamental questions will help us dispel the “old lady” stereotype, for starters. The libretto tells us the character of Nettie in Carousel is the proprietor of “Nettie Fowler’s Spa.” The twenty-first century listener may think a “spa” is a posh health resort, but Nettie’s spa, a weathered clapboard building on the Maine coast, appears to be more like a diner, a place where the hungry watermen of the town gather for their morning coffee and donuts after rising before dawn to dig for clams. Judging from the action of the scene, Nettie is the hard-working cook, supported by a couple younger women (including Carrie Pipperidge) who serve and clean up. But that doesn’t make her an old lady.

Christine Johnson, who originated the role of Nettie when The Theatre Guild premiered Carousel in 1945, was in her early thirties, as was Claramae Turner, who played the role in the 1956 film adaptation of the musical. A woman in her early thirties still has plenty of vigor and sensual appetite, though she is undoubtedly more mature and worldly-wise than girls like Julie and Carrie (teenagers or in their early twenties). More recent audiences may have seen Patricia Routledge as Nettie in the National Theatre’s landmark 1992 revival, directed by Nick Hytner, or Shirley Verrett in the 1994 Broadway transfer of that same production; both of these actresses were in their sixties when they played the role. What led Hytner to re-conceive the role as being several generations older than the authors originally envisioned her? I think it’s at least partially about the vocal style the role requires, especially in the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a song of advice and consolation that Nettie sings to Julie after the ghastly suicide of her husband, Billy. Nettie traditionally sings in a mature “legit” mezzo-soprano or contralto that, to our present-day ears, is the old-fashioned sound of an old lady. But I think there’s great dramatic value in seeing Nettie as someone in the prime of her life rather than its twilight.

In the scene leading up to “June,” the hungry watermen arrive at the spa, demanding their doughnuts and apple turnovers, and the girls of the spa rebuff them with spunky flirtatiousness, scolding the boys for their impatient rudeness. When Nettie arrives with coffee and doughnuts, the girls complain that she appears to be giving in to the rowdy boys’ demands, but she is like an indulgent, affectionate mom, generously acknowledging that boys always act this way at this time of year. “It’s like unlockin’ a door,” she says, “and all the crazy notions they kep’ shet up fer the winter come whoopin’ out into the sunshine.” Cue the orchestra, as she starts with a lyric that describes March’s blustery weather and how the promise of spring has kept everyone waiting through April and May for the inevitable arrival of June and its fertile promise.

Answering the fundamental questions, while important and terribly useful, doesn’t give us all the information we need. After all, the SAVI singing actor’s job is to “create behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase.” It’s crucial that you look at the song in this detailed way, phrase by phrase, paying particular attention to the opportunities each phrase offers and the ways in which is may differ from previous phrases.

Taking this kind of close look quickly shows that “June” is about more than little green shoots stirring in the garden. Turns out that the animal kingdom is equally stirred by the changing seasons, and that evidence of fecund eagerness can be seen among the rams and ewes in the field and the fishes in the sea. Nettie goes on to acknowledge the effect that the changing seasons have on the men and women of the community, first evidenced in affectionate behavior – “Ma is getting kittenish with Pap” – but soon apparent in the appearance of carnal appetites, as the watermen “are payin’ court” to the ladies because they “hanker for a comfort they can only find in port.” Carrie chimes in with a stanza about “lady fish… wishin’ that a male would come and grab her by the gills,” and Nettie’s final stanza conjures up visions of couples on a beach:

“From Penobscot to Augusty, all the boys are feelin’ lusty
And the girls ain’t even puttin’ up a fight.”

Holy moley! This is no vague pastorale, no perky parade of pretty pictures sung to an oom-pah beat. It’s practically an orgy by the time we get to the dance break! Each image has a particularity about it, a vivid clarity and specificity that unfolds with a logical progression the singer needs to understand in order to “put over” the dramatic event of the song for the listener.

So: a specific understanding of the dramatic event and the phrase-by-phrase unfolding of the lyric is essential if you want to put the song over with freshness and particularity. Along with understanding, though, you’re going to need musical theater technique. In particular, you’ll need strong diction to deliver this lyric in a way that takes full advantage of its onomatopoeia. You’ll need an easy, unbraced physicality with alert senses, always a challenge for the singer, whose tendency is to brace up in a state of “fight or flight” readiness when it’s time to belt out a big number. And you’ll need to be prepared to create behavior with your face, eyes, voice and body that helps to tell the story, making specific adjustments in your behavior at the onset of each new phrase to help the spectator understand how the current phrase differs from the preceding phrase. All these attributes can be cultivated through patient, persistent, purposeful practice, and when you’ve got a strong singing-acting technique to “put over the lyric” and support the unfolding dramatic event, the results will be “fresh and alive,” just like a June day on the coast of Maine.

The SAVI Savant loves musicals and offers techniques, tips and tools for the serious singing actor. Like what you’ve just read? Leave a comment, and head over to The SAVI Singing Actor website ( to sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Say the words!

That’s it, folks – the single most powerful piece of advice I can give a singer attempting to interpret a song in performance.

Say the words!

Time and again, my students have told me that when they’re feeling stumped by a song, lost in a fog of moods and sounds and prior interpretations that present an overwhelming array of options, the simple act of speaking the lyric of a song aloud has been enormously beneficial.

I’m not talking about mechanical, robotic recitation. I mean, say them in a way that seeks to make sense of them, to discover their content and what they were intended to communicate. Speak them like a monolog, without regard for the rhythms and patterns the the musical setting imposes on them. Speak them with emotion, as if you were having a conversation with somebody.

It usually helps to write them out, separate from the music, and without regard for the line breaks that make them look like verse on the page. Write them out one phrase at a time. Put each phrase on its own line on the page, and every time you detect the beginning of a new thought or impulse, begin a new line.

Even better, get yourself some index cards, and write each phrase on its own card. For each new line of the song, ask yourself, is this a continuation of the previous phrase, or is it a new thought? If it’s a new thought, what makes it different from the previous thought? If it’s a new thought, it goes on a new card; if not, continue writing on the current card. It’s that simple.

Some of your cards may only have a word or two on them. That’s fine.

Now read the text of your song, starting with the first card. As you get to the end of the text on your first card, move it to the left of the pile of cards so that you can see the phrase you’ve completed and the next phrase side by side, the first phrase on the left, the next on the right. Use this as an occasion to notice what’s different about the two cards, as well as what’s the same. For the purposes of acting the song, the differences are more important than the similarities; the similarities will help give the experience of listening to your song some structure for the listener, but it’s up to you to make the differences clear.

As you say the words aloud, use your “actor voice.” Pay attention to the sounds of the words, the vowels and the consonants, the way the lyricist uses sounds to create meaning. Taste the words, savor the sensations that they make. (In the musical Sweet Charity, the character for whom the show is named says the phrase “fickle finger of fate,” over and over, and then observes, “Feels good. It cools the mouth.”) Take full advantage of onomatopoeia, the technique that writers use to make things sound like what they mean.

Time and again, I’ve seen students stumble and falter in their efforts to do this. They make a funny face and complain that it feels weird to hear the words without the tune. Maybe it’s weird, but it’s definitely worth it, and after you’ve practiced it a couple of times, it doesn’t feel weird any more.

Trevor Nunn, during the first rehearsals for the National Theatre’s revival of Oklahoma, had the cast read the entire text of the musical, including all the song lyrics, without singing. “Oh, what a beautiful morning” had to be read as a dramatic text, and the actors had to examine this and every other line of the musical’s libretto in a search for a full and particular meaning of the text. It helped them to strip away the accumulated habits and traditions clinging to the songs and interpret them with freshness and specificity.

Yes, even songs that are familiar to you will benefit from this kind of examination. When you need to re-connect with the truthful core of a song that you’ve been rehearsing (even performing) for awhile, speaking the text with clarity and intention is a terrific tool to use.

It may feel weird at first, but it’s so worth it. Time and time again, I’ve seen it work. It’s a simple piece of advice, but a powerful one:

Say the words!

Give it a try, and leave me a comment below to let me know how it went!

Why does it matter if we do good work?

Singing today from the hymnal of Seth Godin:

As Jony Ive said, “When you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.”

Practice is not the answer here. Practice, the 10,000 hours thing, practice alone doesn’t produce work that matters. No, that only comes from caring. From caring enough to leap, to bleed for the art, to go out on the ledge, where it’s dangerous. When we care enough, we raise the bar, not just for ourselves, but for our customer, our audience and our partners.

Starting with subtext

“There are two aspects to the technique of the [Stanislavski] ‘system’; one inner, where the mind and imagination create the thoughts and feelings of the character; the other outer, where the body expresses and communicates what is going on inside. It is no good my carrying imaginative and subtle thoughts and feelings inside me if they are not reflected in the minutest detail in my body.”

Benedetti, Stanislavski and the Actor, p. 13.

I’ve just begun work with a new crop of freshmen students, who are justifiably proud that they have been taught to understand the importance of creating a subtext, which is the first of the two “aspects” Stanislavski describes above: “the mind and imagination create the thoughts and feelings of the character.” I asked them, “How can you tell if someone has a subtext?”  Obviously, subtext itself is invisible, but its presence is manifested in the way Stanislavski describes in the second half of the passage quoted above: “the body expresses and communicates what is going on inside.” I would go farther (as does Stanislavski, in fact) and include the voice, face and eyes along with the body as the expresses tools that the actor can use to make his thoughts and feelings evident. In my approach to actor training, I refer to this as “behavior”: all the ways in which the face, eyes, voice and body can communicate and express one’s thoughts and feelings.

I go a step further in my approach, and stipulate that the ability to create behavior can (indeed, must) be cultivated and developed with the same kind of deliberate purpose that students invest in the cultivation of subtext through forensic investigation and imagination. Experience has taught me that behavior doesn’t just “happen.” It is a fallacy to suppose that the whole work of acting is to figure out the inner thoughts and feelings of the character, and simply trust that those will be evident to the spectator in performance. There are several reasons why this isn’t the case:

  1. For reasons of nature or nurture, some people are less expressive. We are taught that, in public life, it is appropriate to conceal our feelings rather than reveal them. Much of the experience of our early years makes us expert in the repression rather than the expression of emotion.
  2. For some, being onstage invites a certain self-consciousness or fear, which diminishes our ability to express ourselves freely.
  3. Being onstage arouses feelings of excitement, and the increased flow of adrenaline muddles our thoughts and distorts our behavioral expression. (Note that these feelings of excitement and the fear referred to in the previous item can happen at the same time.)
  4. The act of singing requires complex, coordinated and highly focused effort, and the effort of singing often produces unwanted tension and distraction that diminishes the ability to create dramatically expressive behavior.

Some fortunate individuals have a natural vividness of expression and feel easy about expressing themselves in front of others. For others, it will require diligent effort to reclaim the lively and vivid ability to express oneself that we were all blessed with as small children. And some lucky few may be able to sing with a minimum of behavioral distortion, remaining easy and authentic in the face, body and vocal delivery. For the vast majority of singers, this too must be reclaimed, and a patient, persistent regimen of conditioning and studio experiences will prove enormously beneficial.

Break the spell!

I’ve spent the past few days at the Danish Musical Theater Academy, teaching workshops and coaching students for a concert they will present later this week.

They’ve participated bravely and eagerly in classes and rehearsals, exploring new ideas and taking risks in order to grow as artists.

Last night, after a full and rewarding day of rehearsal, I thought back to see if any sort of theme or recurring motif had emerged from my work with the Danish students, and I recalled a note that I gave several times in the course of our work that seemed to produce some fairly remarkable results:

“Break the spell.”

cartoons_53In watching a run-through of the concert, it occurred to me that the students seemed to be under the spell of the music. They often seemed to move and sing as if they were on a sort of auto-pilot, singing each phrase and each lyric accurately but in an oddly lifeless way.

I explained to them that, in order to seem truthful and real, they had to find a way of discovering and embodying the inner impulses that occur before each phrase, the “pinch” of thought or feeling that led to an “ouch-y” expression of that idea or emotion in the next phrase of the song.

To do that, I said, required “breaking the spell,” rousing themselves from the comfortable state of going through the motions and expecting the song to do the work for them. It requires an impulsive burst of energy, a kind of fearless departure from the choices made in the previous phrase, no matter how well those choices were working, no matter how good they felt, boldly attacking the new phrase with the confidence that, though it may be new and to a certain extent unknown, it will be great BECAUSE it is new, because it represents a change from the previous moment.

(This kind of “pinch” is rightfully experienced just before the onset of the new phrase. To introduce that kind of “spell-breaking” impulse at any other time during the phrase creates a kind of randomness or disorderliness that will mar the clear communication of the phrases of the song.)

I had them shake themselves, like a dog would shake water off his coat, and practice taking sharp, sudden breaths, both of which are concrete physical exercises that replicate the experience of shaking off the “spell” of a certain mood or moment.

Once they understood my note (which they did quickly, since they’re not only bright kids but possessed of remarkable English-language skills), the results of the adjustments they made were immediate and profound.

Even though they were singing the same words and doing the same movements, suddenly the stage event came to life, crackling with little details like a kind of electricity. It was as if their words and behaviors were etched with a new clarity and vividness. I saw their faces and eyes come to life with new expressions, and each new choice was imbued with a surprising sense of ease and fullness. It was, in a word, magical.

Later, I got to thinking about the idea of “breaking the spell” in a broader sense, as a kind of life lesson worth revisiting.

We all get caught up in the “spell” of the quotidian, going through our routines in expected ways, “comfortably numb,” as the Pink Floyd song says. Taking a moment to “break the spell” means embracing the possibility that our next choice has immense potential – IF we’re willing to make a change. “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.,” said Henry Ford – or Albert Einstein, or Mark Twain, depending on which Internet pundit you prefer, though I’m pretty sure I first encountered this quote in Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits Of Highly Effective Individuals.” Regardless of who said it, it’s a powerful quote, and one that challenges us to shake off the spell of the moment and choose again. Doing so creates a powerful magic.

The Twelve Days of SAVI

To help with the holiday spirit, here’s a DIY Christmas Carol for Singing Actors

On the first day of SAVI, my teacher gave to me
A lesson in specificity.

On the second day of SAVI, my teacher gave to me
Two moving eyes
And a lesson in specificity.

(You know how this goes, right? So I won’t write out every verse in full.)

Three shish kebabs
Four action verbs
Six truthful moments
Seven varied choices
Eight different levels
Nine chunky choices
Ten kinds of gestures
Eleven funny faces

On the twelfth day of SAVI, my teacher said to me
Let’s go gesture shopping!
Eleven funny faces
Ten kinds of gestures
Nine chunky choices
Eight different levels
Seven varied choices
Six truthful moments
Five GOLDEN DINGS (massive harmony here)
Four action verbs
Three shish kebabs
Two moving eyes
And a lesson in specificity!

Have a great holiday, everyone!

The Stanislavski Centre talk – Part I

NOTE: I’ve been invited to deliver a talk at the Stanislavski Centre at Rose Bruford College in London on October 20, and have chosen the title “Stanislavsky and the Singing Actor.” Below, a draft of the first part of my talk. I’d love to hear your comments; add them in the “Comments” section at the end of the post!

75 years after the death of Konstantin Stanislavski, the systematic approach to actor training that he devised has had a widespread and profound influence on the theater. His influence extends beyond the training of actors and extends even to the literature itself, as playwrights have come to count on the Stanislavski-trained actor’s ability to communicate texts and theatrical events of increasing complexity and subtlety.

Tonight I want to focus on the impact that Stanislavski has had upon the training of singing actors, which is my own field of professional endeavor. For over thirty years, I have taught musical theater performance classes in a studio setting, and had the happy experience of devising and implementing the undergraduate musical theater course at the University of the Arts over the past twenty years.

The connection between Stanislavski’s pedagogy and the work of the singing actor might appear a bit tenuous at first glance. We associate Stanislavski’s approach to actor training with the works of playwrights like Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev and with a sort of nuanced approach to truthful realism on the stage that is a far cry from what many musicals seem to require. In the words of Bella Merlin, who has written extensively on Stanislavski and the value of his approach for the contemporary actor, “Stanislavsky’s ‘big thing’ was ‘truthful’ acting,” and it can be difficult to reconcile the notion of theatrical “truth” with the sort of heightened and stylized theatrical expressions that characterize the musical theater repertoire.

Yet it is precisely this paradox – finding a way to create and express oneself truthfully within the artificial strictures of song and dance – that lies at the heart of the training of the singing actor, and I am one of a number of pedagogues who are exploring this paradox in ways that will help young singing actors achieve technical proficiency, artistic excellence and professional success.

The importance of truthful singing acting and the role it plays in both artistic and professional success has changed considerably over the past decades, in parallel with changes in ways in which musicals are written and staged. David Craig observes that “up until the early forties the segregation between a ‘legit’ and a ‘musical’ career was total. In the late thirties, when I first dreamed of making my way in musical comedy, it was a light year apart from its other half, and fraternization was almost unknown. I do not ever recall meeting an actor professionally, and on the rare occasions when we met socially there was a benign disdain implicit in the greeting, the actor holding the opinion that he was considerably higher up the achievement ladder than the hoofer, the belter, the comic, and the denizens of Shubert operetta country.”

This began to change in the 1940’s, not least because of the success of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and their revolutionary “integrated” approach to creating a musical. Among Oscar Hammerstein’s innovations as a librettist and lyricist was his understanding of the importance of subtext, and in many Hammerstein songs, what is unsaid is far more important than what is said. Hammerstein’s protege, Stephen Sondheim, embraced that fundamental principle and built a remarkable body of work that challenges and inspires singing actors. Choreographers like Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, who studied the acting techniques of Stanislavski and his American acolytes, effectively incorporated subtext and intention in their dances for works like “West Side Story” and “Sweet Charity,” and Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line” was built on an ensemble of triple threats – performers who could act, dance and sing with compelling truthfulness.

College courses offering professional training for the musical stage began to appear in the 1970’s, with the goal of promoting excellence in singing, acting and dancing as well as the successful integration of those three component disciplines. As such artists entered the field and matured, they have inspired a new generation of writers to build works which demand virtuosic singing-acting and inspire performers to reach new heights of artistic achievement. Meanwhile, the segregation that David Craig observed in the forties has all but disappeared, and artists like Patti Lupone, Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison can have careers that span the range from musicals to plays to television and film.

Achieving integrated singing-acting begins by treating the song as a dramatic text. Whatever other delights a song may provide, whatever enchantment it may work upon the listener, it is also a text that can be investigated – “mined,” in the words of Bella Merlin – in ways that will provide the actor with useful guideposts for interpretation and performance. Stanislavski was a pioneer in his development of procedures for probing and investigating a dramatic text, and provided the world with an invaluable set of concepts and terminology to frame that investigation. Terms like “subtext,” “given circumstances,” “physical action,” “verbal action,” “intention” and “motivation,” all introduced by Stanislavski and now a permanent part of the vocabulary of the actor, are widely used by teachers, directors and students in the musical theater, and Stanislavski’s “six basic questions” can be as productively applied to song repertoire as they can to scenes and monologues.

A quick survey of the literature of singer-actor training will confirm this. Joe Deer and Rocco DalVera’s “Acting in Musical Theater” (published by Routledge in 2008) draws heavily upon Stanislavski’s terminology and procedures. When I queried Joe about his view of the importance of Stanislavski’s approach, he replied:

“I use Stanislavski’s fundamental precepts as the basis for integrating acting with singing, absolutely. Objective, obstacle, tactic, personalization. Whether strictly from Stan (sic), or assimilated from his many followers, it is the most practical and reliable means of “consciously accessing the unconscious” I’ve seen. And it continues to work with my students after almost twenty years of using it to directly address the issue of connecting the work they’ve done in traditional acting classes with that of the singing actor. Once they have a foundation of truthful, personalized, specific work, then we can move on to issues of style, performance, expanded expression, etc. that MT work invites and requires.”

Tracey Moore’s “Acting the Song,” published by Allworth Press in 2008, presents a variety of procedures for exploring the song as a dramatic text, and Tracey also acknowledges the influence of Stanislavski on her approach.

An interesting dissenting voice among the singing-acting teachers who valorize Stanislavsky’s system is H. Wesley Balk, whose work has been highly influential to my own development. Balk’s “The Complete Singer-Actor,” first published in 1977 (the same year I completed my graduate degree), hit me like a lightning bolt of revelation when I became familiar with it in the 1980’s. During the ensuing years, I made a close study of this book as well as his two subsequent books, “Performing Power” and “The Radiant Performer.”

Equally important, I had the opportunity to observe Wes teach and, eventually, to bring him to UArts for a guest artist residency. Though it was late in his life and his classroom demeanor was compromised by symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, I consider that residency to be one of the watershed experiences in my development as a teacher.

Balk writes, “Anyone teaching Acting in America, whether for singers or for actors, must finally come to terms with Stanislavski, or, more correctly, with the naturalistic doctrine based on his teaching. Every young person in our country seems to have acquired either educationally or osmotically an unconscious but voracious appetite for realism-naturalism, whether from films, television or acting classes. The confusion that exists about the terms realism, naturalism and believability has created a swamp of acting systems and jargon surpassed only by the morass of religiosity and terminology surrounding vocal pedagogy.” Balk goes on to discuss how Stanislavski’s precepts have been misinterpreted and oversimplified by a generation of teachers and misunderstood by a generation of simple-minded students.

Balk goes on to conclude that “one must acknowledge that inner truth is vital, as much as external truth. Stanislavski oversimplified does not invalidate Stanislavski. The best thing one can do is follow his example: that of a lifelong search for ways of achieving total artistic truth in the theater, knowing that although the goal will never be attained, it is the process of searching that is important.”

During the time that Balk was creating his book (and I was studying for a graduate degree), Theater Arts Books published “Stanislavski On Opera (1975).” Of course, it comes as no surprise to those schooled in the full scope of the life and work of Stanislavski that he dedicated considerable time and effort in the last twenty years of his life to the training of singing actors, notably at the Opera Studio of the Bolshoi Theater starting in 1919. But to those of us who (as Balk observed) mistakenly associated Stanislavski’s pedagogy with a naturalistic, hyper-personalized performance style, this book was a revelation.

The book consists of a detailed account kept by Pavel Rumyantsev, a student in the Bolshoi Opera Studio, of his experiences training under the master, along with extensive quotations from letters, articles, diary entries and manuscripts by Stanislavski himself. It details Stanislavski’s attempts to mentor his students in their efforts “to combine the art of living a role with its musical form and the technique of singing.” Although the examples cited in the book come from the operatic repertoire rather than the commercial musical theater, the precepts and procedures it describes are equally applicable to the training of singing actors in a wide range of styles.

I suppose at some point in any discussion about “musical theater,” one has to come to grips with the terminology used to define and describe the genre. How can accounts of acting instruction and analysis of scenes from La Boheme or Eugene Onegin be useful for the student who wants to perform in Rent or The Book of Mormon? My particular approach to musical theater is eclectic and wide in its embrace of a range of styles and musical languages, and I think that reflects our current cultural norms. The term “musical theater” is used to describe a wide range of works, ranging from pieces that require voices of operatic scale (Candide, Street Scene, Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables, Light in the Piazza) to pieces that embrace vernacular modes of expression like rock and soul music (Hair, Dreamgirls, Rent). Particularly fascinating to me are the works that mix elements of elite and vernacular musical theater, like Street Scene, Show Boat, Les Mis and so on. I have always maintained that stylistic open-mindedness and technical versatility are keys to a varied, interesting and successful professional career. People who limit their notion of musical theater (“It’s this but not that”) ultimately limit their own employability.

Welcome to The SAVI Singing Actor!

This site has been a while in arriving, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably among my first visitors, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you and fill you in on what this site intends to be.

I’ve spent my entire professional life, nearly four decades, making musicals and training people to perform in them. I’ve taught at universities (most recently, at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which has been my home base for over twenty years), helped to found a professional organization (the Musical Theater Educators Alliance), and taught clinics and master classes at conferences and schools in the United States and Europe. This website “The SAVI Singing Actor” is an opportunity for me to extend those efforts, a way of reaching out to the growing community of singing actors and share that knowledge with fellow enthusiasts.

I envision this site growing into a leading resource for serious singing actors, a place where you’ll find useful tools and valuable information and make contact with others who share your passion for performing in musicals. I encourage you to join the SAVI mailing list by entering your email address in the widget on the right; that way, you’ll get regular updates from me delivered directly to your inbox. I also hope you’ll make comments and respond to the posts you find here; I’m eager to get the conversation started and find more ways that this site can be a useful resource for you.

I know it’ll take a little while to get things going, but I have big ambitions for this site. I take inspiration from the lyrics of Dorothy Fields, who wrote: “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” No matter what happens, I know “The SAVI Singing Actor” will be at the heart of my professional endeavors for the next decade.