Yesterday I was watching a Facebook Live done by my business coach, Michelle Markwart Deveaux (of faithculturekiss studio for voice and acting and the Speakeasy Cooperative), and she was talking about the difference between teaching and coaching.
As voice teachers, our job is to give information to our students. This is fine – this is the reason why many/most of our students come to us in the first place. Coaching, on the other hand, is intended to give specific prescriptive advice to clients based on their individual needs.
I’ll write more about the specifics of coaching at another time, but one of the points was that a coach helps people through a process of self-discovery and, in the case of voice lessons, have them learn to trust their own sound. While mimicry might be a tool to find out where different sounds “live in your mouth,” we need to make certain we aren’t giving “plagiarized performances.”
A plagiarized performance is one that is taken by listening to/watching a singer and imitating everything that they do – phrasing, dynamics, even diction choices – in a public performance. The term comes from Michelle via Meredith Pyle Pedley, another voice teacher (and recent NATS Intern) from Los Angeles.
Many young singers are guilty of this because they listen obsessively to a song and sing it just like the artist who created it. And there is something to be said for historically informed performance practice, particularly in classical music. It very well may be part of the process and the journey to finding your own voice as well as the voice of the storyteller. But when you become a professional, you need to be able to make choices that reflect your own abilities as a performer and storyteller and not as a mimic. And, unfortunately, some professionals don’t always know the difference.
Take, for example, this performance of Barbra Streisand in the 1968 movie Funny Girl, singing “Don’t rain on my parade.” (As I’ve mentioned before in my very first blogpost, this is the song that set me on my own journey to becoming a singer.) Her phrasing, her diction, her dynamic choices, are all what makes her an artist.
In 2009, Lea Michele sang the same song on the TV show Glee. Not only did she sing the same song, she sang every phrase, every syllable, very dynamic exactly the same way that Barbra Streisand sang it.
And not only did she sing it that way on Glee (in which her character was, admittedly, inspired by Barbra Streisand), she sang it that way at the 2010 Tony awards (can we talk chutzpah?) and again at a concert in San Francisco just three years ago.
This is a plagiarized performance.
Here’s another example of a singer who makes this same song her own. The late Naya Rivera also sang this song as Santana on Glee in season 5 (by which point, I will admit, I had stopped watching). While there are a few similarities in phrasing (and perhaps you could call those historically informed performance practice), she takes risks and makes choices that make the song her own and not a transparent rip-off of the original (too harsh?). It is an homage to the original, but goes in a new direction that is Naya’s/Santana’s.
This is not a plagiarized performance. It is an original performance – she is not telling Someone Else’s Story – she is telling her own.
Because when it comes right down to it, we have to find our own voices and we have to trust them.
As Mama Cass sang, you’ve gotta “make your own kind of music – sing your own special song.” (And yeah, she did it a little flat, to be honest, but it’s still an authentic and honest piece of storytelling.)