Secrets of the Cards: SAVI at MTEA

Photo: Marzio Fulfaro

Once a year, teachers from musical theater programs all over the world gather to share best practices and new developments in their field at the annual meeting of the Musical Theater Educators Alliance (MTEA). The attendees are a “who’s who” of the field of musical theater performance training – singing teachers, dance teachers, acting teachers, music teachers, directors, choreographers and administrators from institutions in the US and abroad.

This group includes some of the most sophisticated and discriminating thinkers and leaders in the field, and it may surprise you to hear they are as generous as they are insightful. I know this firsthand, having benefited from the steadfast support of my MTEA “tribe” while creating the SAVI System over the past decade.

Naturally, it was an honor to be invited to give a presentation at the January 2019 MTEA conference, held at NYU Steinhardt in the Loewe Theater. In my presentation, entitled “SAVI Cards: The Singing Actor’s New Secret Weapon,” I demonstrated one of the innovative performer training tools featured in the SAVI System of Singer-Actor Training. If you were there, I hope you’ll find it helpful to recall some of the highlights of that presentation; if you weren’t, I hope this account will be instructive, even though I can only offer a glimpse of what happened.

The SAVI System is organized around a few core principles, foremost among which is this: the singing actor creates behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase. To that end, SAVI offers exercises and procedures that develop the musical theater performer’s ability to create expressive behavior and coordinate it with a musical score. SAVI Cards were created as a training aid to be used in those exercises.

SAVI Cards are like “having a musical theater coach in a box!” observed one workshop participant, my former student Sam Stoltzfus. What a great way to describe the purpose and value of SAVI Cards: “A musical theater coach in a box.” Each card contains a single idea, expressed in a word, phrase, image and/or icon, that the singing actor can use to stimulate or provoke more specific and creative choice-making during the course of a rehearsal or performance. When the singing actor thoughtfully introduces SAVI Cards into the practice room or the rehearsal process, it’s like having a coach or director on hand to say, “Now here’s an idea: what if you tried to do this in the next moment or phrase?”

I demonstrated the SAVI Card exercises with a group of five volunteers, all alumni of MTEA-member BFA programs living in New York. I offer a grateful shout-out to Michael Vandie, Samantha Stoltzfus, Tess Marshall, Sarah C. Kline and Riley McManus, all of whom rose and shone to be with me at 9am! They represent one of the key audiences for the SAVI System: early-career professionals who are looking for ways to practice and continue developing their craft even though they no longer have access to a structured routine of classes, lessons and coachings. SAVI was designed to serve and inspire them in every part of their work cycle – the practice room, the classroom and the rehearsal room – and judging from their reaction during the demonstration, it has great possibilities!

Photo: Marzio Fulfaro

SAVI Up Your Warm Up

The first part of my workshop introduced ways to use SAVI cards to “level up” a typical vocal warm-up. SAVI Cards are a means of instigating expressive behavior during the vocal warmup, expanding the variety and intensity of expression available to the singer when it’s time to sing a song. In the words of Michael Vandie, one of the participants, adding SAVI cards not only helps warm up the face and body, but also “your awareness and your ability to make choices, making sure everything you do is in service of storytelling and communication.”

The cards come in many different categories, including primary emotions (e.g., rage, joy, grief, courage, tenderness), adjectives (e.g., nervous, bold, confident, harsh, tender) and action verbs (e.g., to threaten, to explain, to demand, to enchant). Each card is designed to produce a heightened state of animation and expression in the face, voice and body. The cards are particularly useful to awaken the face and eyes and counteract the neutral, blank expression many singers unconsciously favor.

Photo: Marzio Fulfaro

The second warm-up exercise I demonstrated was the “Mirror Canon.” A valuable core exercise in the SAVI system, the Mirror Canon is a total workout that engages all the organs of communication in concert. In the Mirror Canon, the group is divided into pairs, with one person in each pair serving as “Leader” while the other is designated the “Follower.” This exercise provides a great framework within which to practice making specific behavior choices and coordinating those choices with a partner and a musical score. SAVI Cards can be introduced to add a further level of challenge to the exercise.

SAVI In The Practice Room

Apart from their value in the warm-up, SAVI Cards are also invaluable when you’re alone in the practice room trying to strengthen your technique. I tell my students, “You’re not alone in the practice room if you have your SAVI Cards.”

In the workshop, I discussed the importance of making time during each practice session to work with a few of the cards one by one, allowing time to go into each individual card in depth. It’s important to “endow” each SAVI Card with deep personal meaning in order for the cards to serve you optimally during an exercise. Choose a card and then use your senses, your imagination and your memory to explore how the prompt on your card might be expressed in behavior. For example, let’s say you’re working on the emotion card “rage.” Think about experiences you’ve had that filled you with rage, or invent a set of imaginary circumstances chosen specifically to incite the feeling of rage. In your mind’s eye, let yourself hear, see and feel the things you might sense during such an encounter. Notice how you breathe when you’re angry. What kind of sounds do you make? What kinds of facial expressions? Practice creating behavior and singing, intensifying your choices in each of the behavioral modes – face, voice, breath and body – as you push deeper into your imagination and your memory. Improvise some vocal sounds or a gibberish song based on the prompt on your card.

The next exercise in the workshop, the “ABC Song,” helps build proficiency at sequencing a series of choices, a core skill for any singing actor. Not only do you need to be able to commit fully to a choice in any given phrase, but you also need agility managing the transitions from one phrase to the next. The exercise uses a series of cards chosen at random and the “ABC Song” (sung to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), a song with six two-measure phrases. During the exercise, participants sing the song but switch to a new card at the beginning of each phrase, with me ringing a desk bell (“ding!”) from the sidelines at each transitional moment. Both participants and observers quickly saw how practicing this exercise would make them more proficient at coordinating the transitions between phrases and moving quickly and impulsively from one choice to the next.

Photo: Marzio Fulfaro

SAVI Up A Song

In the third and final part of the workshop, I asked two individual singers to sing prepared repertoire to demonstrate how SAVI Cards can be used to craft a performance that is more “SAVI” – that is, more specific, authentic, varied and intense. Surprisingly, this is the case even when the cards are chosen at random.

The first singer, Michael Vandie, performed an audition cut of the final bars of “Betsy” from Honeymoon in Vegas. To begin, I invited Michael sing his cut, including any performance choices he’d prepared for this song. Next, I asked him to speak the text of his song, focusing on the moments where one phrase ended and the next one began – the transitional moments or, as they’re referred to in SAVI lingo, the “dings” in his song. I wanted to make sure he understood when changes occurred in the thought or expression in his song, so that we could coordinate his behavior choices with those moments of change.

I then randomly chose a number of SAVI Cards and asked him to speak the phrases of his lyric while flipping to the next card in the deck at each “ding,” each moment when a new phrase or idea began (a skill we’d begun to build earlier in the “ABC” exercise). Finally, I told Michael to put the cards down and sing the cut while incorporating as many of the dings and card prompts as he could – understanding, of course, that all of this was being done on the fly and would only get easier given time and practice. The contrast between his initial and final presentations was dramatic, and the response from observers confirmed this enthusiastically.

Photo: Marzio Fulfaro

Later, I had a chance to ask Michael what he recalled about working together on the song. “Using the SAVI Cards completely changed my phrasing,” he said. “Before, I wasn’t using the full potential of the lyric. It’s such an intricate lyric, with lots of wordplay, but because the music is energetic, it’s tempting just to ride on that energy and present a general idea of someone who’s elated and joyful. Working with the cards made me pay more attention to each individual line, finding something different to be excited about in each phrase, which brought much more variety to what I was doing.”

Michael reminded me that, in an audition situation, your auditors have seen a lot of renditions of the same material, which means that having a creative interpretation and distinctive original behavior are a way of making yourself stand out in the crowd. There’s a real temptation to stay in your lane and play it safe, he says, but you hear lyrics in a different way when you’re working with the cards. The cards awaken a new sense of possibility, because their recommendations feel open-ended, provocative but never prescriptive.

The second singer, Tess Marshall, presented a section of the ballad “I Will Always Love You” from Ghost. Tess’s song, unlike Michael’s, was slow and serious, but we followed the same steps for her ballad that I had led Michael through. Tess admitted to the group she was aware of her tendency to “wallow” in the sad feelings of the song, leading to a general wash of emotion and a lack of specific behavior in her initial presentation. Just like Michael, she discovered that locating the dings and adding the cards brought a new variety and specificity to her interpretation. Many of the observers found the song more meaningful once she added those new choices, and they praised her for the improvement she showed.

In the discussion at the end of my presentation, attendees were quick to volunteer ways they thought this tool could be useful to their students. One voice teacher commented that bringing SAVI Cards into the voice lesson was a way to keep the student engaged in the work of making performance choices without the voice teacher having to teach acting during the lesson.

As it turns out, January’s masterclass at MTEA is likely to be the last public appearance of my home-made SAVI Cards. Those “do-fer” cards, created for classes using desktop publishing and the office printer, served me well for years, but it’s time to kick the visual impact of the SAVI Cards up a notch (or ten). I’m thrilled to be working with P’unk Avenue and graphic designer Sarah Romig preparing the Premier Edition of SAVI Cards for production and distribution, anticipating a late June launch of the cards to accompany the release of my book, The SAVI Singing Actor.

I’ve also begun to book appearances at summer musical theater training programs and camps, looking for opportunities to introduce this technique to a younger generation of musical theater artists. One comment I have heard repeatedly from college students learning SAVI is, “I wish I’d known about this in high school.” Many singing actors feel confused, overwhelmed or stuck in their development, and the SAVI System has proven to be invaluable for students who feel this way. SAVI technique can also help students who feel confident take their work to new heights of expressiveness and creativity.

If you’d like to learn more about the possibility of offering a SAVI masterclass or short residency, or if you know someone you think would be interested in introducing their students to the SAVI System of Singer-Actor Training, let me know.

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