Many classically oriented singers consider attending live performances as a vital part of their career training. Some of the performers they hear also demonstrate exceptional communication skills, leaving the audience with a memorable experience. But have you ever wondered what factor in a performance inspires a special audience response? Often individual audience members connect with one performer more than another, depending upon personal taste in vocal timbre or color, but this connection often depends upon whether or not the artist has the ability to communicate the meaning of the music and text precisely and artistically.
Kirsten Flagstad was a singer who has often discussed as having a ‘haunting color’ to her voice; a special timbre that invites an emotional response from the listener. Notice that her tonal quality is immediately identifiable, a result of correct training. But there are other factors beyond the pure voice that can create a special performance. Some singers may not have a specific vocal sound like Flagstad, yet the voice may inspire an emotional response from the listener. One characteristic in a performance that touches an audience most is that of communicating feeling or emotion, offering the listener an experience with which he/she can identify personally.
For the younger singer/student, it is important to study a performer’s ‘intention’ to communicate, an aspect of singing that is often present in internationally famous singers. Learning the skills that can move a performance to a deeper level is very important for any singer who wants to accomplish a high level of career performing. In a world where electronic stimulation is wide spread through digital video and audio formats, some have not had the special experience of attending an exceptional live performance. Those of us who have had such opportunities know that a good live performance is extremely different from digitally produced video or audio recordings. First of all, live performance offers a three-dimensional form of human expression, one that cannot be replicated in the same exact form. Many of us realize that there will never be any two live performances that are exactly the same, even if the performer is consistent in his/her presentation. Since performance energy varies from day to day, It is extremely important that young professional singers become comfortable with these slight variations in their level of performance, while still working toward consistency. None of us wants one great performance followed by one that feels unsuccessful. Consistency in preparation, which involves the discipline of daily practice, can result in consistency in the performance arena. Balance in vocal technique is a positive factor in achieving performance consistency, but remember that performing involves more than just a special or beautiful voice. A special performance involves a combination of voice, body usage, and emotional expression, which is also connected with musicianship. How we express ourselves is a direct outgrowth of intention. What do you intend to communicate? What feeling do you intend to convey to the listener? A professional international singing artist develops performance and stage skills in addition to vocal development. Efficient performing is an outgrowth of both preparation (experimentation) and experience (performing repeatedly). For both audition and performance preparation, I recommend Janet Williams’ book, “Nail Your Next Audition” (www.nailyournextaudition.com), a fine and rare example of learning preparatory skills for the singing artist. This book is literally full of ideas on communication skills and how to develop the self-confidence that allows a singer to compete in the professional arena.
Preparatory Skills: As human beings, we feel differently every day, adjusting to slight changes in the sensations of the voice, body energy, and emotions. As a vocal preparatory skill, Kirsten Flagstad used to study the hall and embrace it as a resonator for her voice, never considering it a space to fill with sound. This was a type of self-study, which released what could have developed into a negative emotional response to a large hall. Birgit Nilsson once said at a master class, “During my career, I had about 50 days when my voice and psyche felt nearly perfect and I only had 2 performances on any of those 50 days!” She was emphasizing the fact that the vocal and mental discipline in performance preparation challenges even the strongest performer, demanding specific emotional and vocal preparatory skills. During my study with Alan Lindquest, he once said, “When I sang on tour across the United States, I often had 10 performances per week, 7 days per week. Sometimes I was not feeling very well, or I was tired. BUT when I came out on stage and saw the glowing faces of the people in the audience, something else took over, a performance energy that was inspired by a desire to communicate to the audience!” Lindquest’s account is one that is shared by many professional singers, and it exemplifies why singers are true athletes, making self-care (physical and mental preparation) a critical factor toward a balanced performance.
Intention is the triggering factor that creates motion. The basis of artistic expression is motion, whether it is in the area of instrumental music, dance, singing, painting, theater or any art form. Motion is what keeps an audience interested, striking interest through intention. Creativity travels through a performer’s intention, which stems from specific concentration. If intention is NOT a part of a singer’s discipline, then the result can be a studied sound, which can be boring to the audience. If a singer is to compete in the professional arena, it is critical that he/she learn the power of expression and what fuels it.
It is a well known fact that some performers are shy, but when they get on stage, they feel a freedom to express beyond their shyness. This energy that takes over in such a setting is fueled by intention.
Mental Discipline and Knowing the Inner Self: A solid basis for any individual is that of emotional balance, which allows the singer to be comfortable with self-study. One powerful tool for self-study is that of the video camera, which allows us to experience our personalities from a different point of view. Knowing how we come across on film is a powerful tool toward measuring one’s balance in communication, and it is a critically powerful basis for achieving balance in performance. Many singers develop and require different preparation tools and the video camera can expose the missing pieces in a singer’s communication skills.
Another tool that is important to every performer is to learn through self-study exactly what emotional and technical tools fully prepare them for a performance. Many say that they need alone time, without a lot of conservation. Knowing the inner emotions allows an individual performer to learn emotional preparatory skills, skills specific to his/her needs. Whether it is alone time, meditation, or reading an inspirational passage from a book, these skills are necessary to establish personal comfort before going out on stage. Every singer is different in these needs and knowing the inner self will prepare any individual in developing appropriate mental preparation for their specific needs. I recently warmed up a singer for a performance with the Cleveland Symphony. My way of approaching this kind of warm up situation is that I tell the singer, “Let me know when you have reached the point of warming the voice that is perfect for your vocal needs today. It is your time!” Every singer knows his or her voice more than anyone else, and allowing the singer the freedom to make this decision is extremely important in a warm up that is part of performance preparation.
So knowing the inner self is a foundation for preparing psychologically
for a stage performance. Awareness and knowledge of self are powerful
tools that make this kind of preparation possible.
Mental preparation is certainly an aspect of performing that is beyond a beautiful vocal sound. When a professional singing artist moves onto the stage, he/she must include musical skills, interpretive skills and concentration (emotional) skills into the venue. An excellent performance requires knowing the inner self, and use of psychological tools to create a more balanced performance is a gift for every singer.
Getting Out of Your Way: We all have experienced fear as an emotional part of performing. Often stemming from attempting to please parents or peers, this fear is most easily dealt with using emotional tools, or even acting tools. I remember a couple of years ago, I decided to sing on a master class after I had taught for several hours. Due to my history of having difficult performances as a tenor, I still have a nervous response. But I dealt with it through an acting took. I suddenly became an internationally famous singer in a concert hall, and this psychological tool took away the nerves. You will find more tools in Janet Williams’ book, “Nail Your Next Audition”.
Power IS Intention: Many singers who are on the path of an international career realize that the word ‘intention’ holds great weight, both in the expression of the music, and in the level of energy required to perform. Mental preparation is part of a performer’s list of skills in order to achieve what many call stage presence. Since emotions inspire a response, we can use word thoughts that trigger colors in the voice. Joseph Hislop used the three contrasting emotions of joy, sadness, and anger, having the singer use these emotions in the say key and in the same vocal exercise. The resulting changes in vocal timbre are simply a response to the different emotions. Yet because they are preformed in the same key with a familiar exercise, the singer develops vocal consistency within emotional diversity. Alan Lindquest often used the word ‘intention’ in order to fuel a singer’s energy. “Take the breath as though you have something to say!” It is critical for each singer to ask, “What is my language, musical, or dramatic intention in this phrase?” While vocal technique is critically important in establishing a solid vessel of expression, connecting all aspects of intention moves the singer toward accomplishing a successful performance.
THE primary motivator that directly influences vocal color is that of intention in singing. Many years ago, I heard a recital by the great Christa Ludwig. Every word of every song involved intention to communicate. A seasoned artist by that time, there was no question what was intended in each musical phrase. Every word led (in crescendo or decrescendo) toward a higher or lower point in the musical phrase, offering excitement even in the slowest of tempi. I had a similar experience with Jose Van Dam in a recital at Lincoln Center in New York. Both of these artists are exactly that, artists. Inspired sound is feeling in motion, and each of these singers moved within each word as though it was the upward or downward stroke of a great painter’s brush.
David Jones' instructional CD, "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones", is available at www.cdbaby.com.
His new book, "A Modern Guide to Old World Singing", is available from many booksellers including Amazon.
Janet Williams’ book, “Nail Your Next Audition” is available at www.nailyournextaudition.com