S is for Specificity

“There is so much more potency to be found in detail than in generalities, but most souls cannot train themselves to sit still for it.”

– The character Ambrose Pike, in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things”

The S of SAVI stands for Specificity, and the ability to be specific is at the heart of successful singing-acting. Being Specific means making a choice, considering a variety of options before settling on one, and the singing actor who knows how to be Specific can avoid being random or general in performance.

In considering Specificity, we have to ask: Specific about what? The answer can take a variety of forms:

  • Specific to the dramatic event of the song and to this particular phrase or moment of that larger event
  • Specific to the text, the precise meanings of the words and the implications of syntax, diction and rhetoric
  • Specific to the music, which means both scrupulous attention to the details of vocal delivery specified in the score and an awareness of the information contained in the accompaniment
  • Specific not only to the general meanings and emotional environments of the text and the music, but to the precise moments when changes occur (presenting opportunities to make corresponding adjustments in behavior)
  • Specific to the other characters onstage and the environment, that take into account what’s just happened and how the world of the play is changing at any given moment.

All of these understandings lead, in turn, to specific choices made in performance regarding behavioral content; that is, decisions have made regarding face, body and vocal expression that can executed with clarity and expressiveness.

It is equally important to be specific about the inner life of a song – the given circumstances, the psychology of the character, all the choices that go into building a vivid and usable subtext – and to be specific about the outer life of a song – the vocal, facial and physical behavior that is an outward manifestation of that inner life. Each of these has the power to affect the other: a change in subtext or the inner psychological landscape of a song will (or, in any case, should) be apparent via some behavioral expression, and a change in behavior has the potential to alter the way you feel and your inner psychological. Stanislavski used the term “psycho-physical” to describe this interrelationship, and one of the goals of training should be to cultivate the pathways that interconnect the physical and psychological energies of the actor, so that an adjustment made in one can produce a complementary change in the other.

Specificity from the Inside Out

The ability to be specific begins with a process of analysis, a forensic investigation of the text of the song and (when applicable) the musical it comes from. The singer must determine who is singing, who is being sung to, what the circumstances are, what is being done, and what is at stake. Stanislavski’s Fundamental Questions provide an excellent basis to begin this inquiry:

  • Who am I? Physically, psychologically, in relationship to others.
  • Where am I? Environment and your relationship to it.
  • When is it? Time of day, year, season? What has just happened?
  • What do I want? This is your goal or objective.
  • Why do I want it? What makes it important? What motivates you?
  • How will I get it? Express your answer in the form of action verbs.
  • What must I overcome? These obstacles serve to create conflict and intensify the struggle of the character.

Analysis of the text of a song is complicated by the fact that songs rely on a manner of expression that is highly compact, often formal in its structure, and heavily reliant on association, implication and poetic imagery. This is why I like the term “forensic” to describe the process of song analysis: it’s a bit like detective work, gathering clues, filling in between the facts with inferences, and using your imagination to get a clear picture of the whole. Think of yourself as an archaeologist who’s found a couple of bones and has to use them to construct a model of the whole creature; it’s a fascinating and stimulating challenge, or anyway, that’s how you should learn to think of it.

Arriving at a picture of the whole, a comprehensive understanding of the dramatic event of a song, is not sufficiently specific for the SAVI singing actor. It is important to examine the song PHRASE BY PHRASE, to “zoom in” on the song and look at it closely enough to be able to discern the individual phrases of the song and the ways in which those phrases differ from one another. We can begin to do this if we add a few additional questions to Stanislavski’s list from above;

  • What’s happening now?
  • How does the present moment differ from the previous moment (or moments)?

Imagine, if you will, that a song is a journey. This metaphor is useful and meaningful in a number of ways. Like a road trip, a song has a particular duration; it lasts for an interval of time, and unfolds as a series of events during that interval. Of course, it is easy enough to think of a journey as a single thing: “the trip from Philadelphia to Copenhagen,” for instance, can be thought of an a single event, which starts in a certain place, ends in a certain place, has a certain price, and so on. When I say “I am traveling from Philadelphia to Copenhagen,” the concept of that event has a certain singularity in my mind. That trip can be taken a number of times, and no matter how many times you undertake the journey, you will always begin in Philadelphia and end in Copenhagen. After you’ve taken a journey, you probably file it away in your memory as a single event, “that trip I took to Copenhagen.”

But when it actually comes time to take the trip, you can only do it step by step: the taxi to the airport; checking in and getting a ticket; proceeding through the security scan; waiting to board your flight; the time spent in flight, which includes events like a meal, a movie, a trip to the bathroom or a snooze; leaving the plane; transferring to another plane – and so on and so on, until you arrive at your destination. At the outset, you know where you are going, but you can only get there by going through a series of distinctly different steps that can only be undertaken in a certain order. You can’t board the flight if you haven’t checked in; you can’t clear security if you haven’t got your boarding pass. This series of events must be executed in the proper sequence, and each one must be done with sufficient attention to detail and to the specific circumstances of that part of the journey.

A song, as I hope you can see by now, is organized in very much the same way. It is easy to think of a song as a single thing. “Why don’t you sing My Funny Valentine?” the voice teacher asks her student, and at that moment both teacher and student have an image of that song which is more or less singular: the classic elegance of a “standard” ballad, a particular anguished tug at the heartstrings, and so forth. The title of the song is one of the elements that provides this singularity; it is a single track on a CD (though that track is made up of millions of individual bits of data), a single title in the table of contents in the Rodgers and Hart songbook, and so on.

What’s more, you can take the journey of “My Funny Valentine” (or any song) any number of times, and it will always originate in the same place and arrive at the same destination. Inevitably, the song will have a plaintive minorish introduction; inevitably, the singer will utter the title phrase as the first words of the song; inevitably, the song will be suffused with a particular mood of rueful fondness; inevitably, it will make that surprising modulation to the major in the final moments of the song, and the words “Each day is Valentine Day” will provide a satisfying ending that links back to the opening of the song. The diligent singer will invent a dramatic circumstance (one that might be, but isn’t necessarily, based on the circumstances of the story of “Babes in Arms,” the musical for which it was originally composed), decide who’s being sung to, patiently work through all the Fundamental Questions. And all this seems fairly specific, doesn’t it? We wouldn’t confuse “My Funny Valentine” with “Here’s That Rainy Day” any more than we confuse a trip to Copenhagen with a trip to the library.

And yet: when it comes time to take the trip, that level of understanding is not sufficient. We must have a clear and specific understanding of the individual events within the song – the PHRASES – just as the traveler must know where to turn when navigating on the highway, what stop to get off the train, what address to give the taxi driver. I’m a huge fan of Google Maps and the kind of turn-by-turn directions it provides; while the app starts out by showing me a map, a single picture that summarizes the trip I’m about to take, it then provides me with a list of individual steps that will be necessary to traverse that map. In the same way, the singer needs to progress from the map of the song (a map made clear by the answers to the Fundamental Questions and the forensic work of preparation) to the individual steps, the turn-by-turn details that will be necessary in order to get from the starting point (the first measure of music) to the destination (the double bar at the end).

In my years of working with singing actors, I have found this analogy and the insight it yields to be an exceptionally powerful, and those willing to put in the additional effort required to sing a song with specific phrase-by-phrase detail find themselves able to create performances that are a quantum leap better, more creative, more compelling, richer and more satisfying, than those who content themselves with the general answers of who, what and why. This is why it has become axiomatic for me to state, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that ding!” a motto that I explain in greater detail in a subsequent chapter.

“God Is In The Details” – Specificity from the Outside-In

In the preceding discussion, I’ve tried to show how being SPECIFIC in song starts with having a specific understanding of the content of the song, both its verbal and musical meaning and its implied, subtextual content, on a phrase-by-phrase basis.

But there’s a further implication to the word SPECIFIC that deserves consideration here. Making a specific choice implies that you will consider a variety of choices, and out of that universe of possibilities, you will choose the one that seems best suited to your interpretation of a particular moment. This entails another kind of specificity, that is, BEHAVIORAL specificity. This means taking painstaking control over the various forms of behavioral expression you engage in. Is the voice loud or soft? How loud? How soft? Are certain words to be accented? Are certain words to be sung legato, or staccato? What kind of timbre or vocal color is to be employed, and on which words? Where is your focus? That is, where are your eyes looking when you sing at this moment? What kind of facial expression are you using? Which muscles of the face are involved in making that expression? What is your stance like? Your body language? Yes, this barrage of questions gives you an idea of the number of different choices that a singing-actor faces for each phrase of a song, and for each phrase, making a choice implies being as specific as possible about these details.

“God is in the details,” says the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Stephen Sondheim adopted this saying as one of his three fundamental principles of songwriting. (The other two, “Content dictates form” and “Less is more” are equally relevant to the craft of singing-acting, but we’ll save them for another time, and in the meantime I’ll refer you to the Introduction to “Finishing The Hat,” the first volume of SS’s collected lyrics, for more Godly details on what that maxim means to him.) Attention to details is the hallmark of specificity, and any artist’s signature will be evident through the specific details he chooses.

The singing actor needs to activate, strengthen and coordinate those muscles and senses required to make specific vocal, facial and physical choices. This work is akin to the work of the musician or the dancer, who sculpts and shapes each individual phrase of a performance with detail and nuance, and like the musician and the dancer, the singing actor accomplishes this through purposeful practice. The SAVI System provides a range of exercises designed to cultivate phrase-by-phrase specificity of behavior, exercising the voice, the face, the eyes and the body, separately and in concert, to achieve the fullest and most expressive range of specific choices.

NEXT: The “A” of SAVI is Authenticity.

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