Vulnerability vs. Oversharing, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about oversharing being the projection your emotions onto someone as opposed to being vulnerable and having those emotions resonate with them. This brings me to the topic of projection.

People often ask me to teach them how to project (i.e., be louder), and I usually counter that what I want them to learn how to do is to resonate more. It’s a common question. For example, in a master class in Milwaukee some years ago, baritone Thomas Hampson was asked how he approached projection, and he said [paraphrasing somewhat]: “I don’t like to think of projection. It seems so one-directional. Bullets project. Missiles project. Small children thrown through plate glass windows project. But voices resonate.” In addition to amusing me greatly, that resonated with me.

Here’s an example of vulnerability that I witnessed within my Milwaukee studio. In the penultimate studio recital there, one of my students sang “Empty chairs at empty tables” from Les Miserables. He sang it beautifully. He was expressive, authentic, emotional, and he made people cry. He said to me a few months later, “Did you notice that I was crying?” and I told him that I didn’t, because it didn’t interfere with his singing and with his story. Often, singers and actors are told, “If you make the audience cry, you’ve done your job. If you cry, you just make the audience uncomfortable.” I generally agree with that – however, in his case, his emotion was so organic and genuine that it did not become uncomfortable. 

Then there’s the quintessential demonstration of oversharing that I came across a few years ago, when I judged lower college musical theater women at NATS. A young woman came in and sang her three pieces:

  1. Someone to watch over me,” Gershwin, Oh Kay! She decided to sing this while maintaining seductive eye contact with each of us judges. It was really uncomfortable.  And weird. She had two straight women and a gay man judging her and none of us were interested. The singing wasn’t particularly interesting – it was not as though she was coloring her voice or shaping the phrases to express a longing or a yearning – she was doing it all through contrived gestures and come-hither looks.

  2. “Honey bun,” Rodgers & Hammerstein, South Pacific. This involved a sailor hat. And interspersing her singing with shouting, “That’s mah little HONEY BUN!” Now, this song isn’t emotional – it’s a funny song. But the humor fell flat because it was inappropriate vocally and physically. And it depended on the use of a hat.

  3. And then the pièce de résistance, “Your daddy’s son,” Ahrens & Flaherty, Ragtime. For this one, she grabbed a blanket and bundled it up to look like a baby. She sang the entire song to the bundle, but as she got more and more agitated – it is a very dramatic song – the bundle started getting out of control and had there been a real baby in the blanket, it would have suffered from shaken baby syndrome. And vocally, she went out of control as well. She began to scream, “Only ANGER AND PAIN, THE BLOOD AND THE PAIN, I BURIED MY HEART IN THE GROUND –  WHEN I BURIED YOU IN THE GROUND.” The response it evoked from us was not, “That poor young woman, she feels so much grief and guilt,” but rather, “Oh my God, she’s going to have a vocal fold hemorrhage right here in front of us. Blood is going to start spurting out of her mouth.” And then it became funny. Unintentionally funny. On the final chorus, she burst into tears and could barely get the words out between sobs and when she got to the line, “You had your daddy’s hands – forgive me,” which is traditionally nearly whispered, she just screamed, “FORGIVE ME!” and I had to put my hands over my mouth so that I wouldn’t openly laugh.

It was the worst performance I’d ever seen at NATS. Or pretty much anywhere, for that matter. Worse than someone standing and doing nothing. It was not an authentic performance. It reeked of, “Look what I can do! I can be sexy, I can be funny, I can break your heart – just watch me!” What she should have been saying was: “I’m lonely and need someone to love me,” “I’m in love with a real peach of a gal – let me tell you about her,” and finally, “I hate myself for what I did, and I have no excuses – except this.”

She did not resonate with her audience. She projected her emotions – more like projectile vomited her emotions all over us. And like projectile vomit, we couldn’t wait to wash it off. (Was that too much? Probably.)

Tell a story. Tell the truth. It’s not about you as a singer/actor, it’s about the story that you have to tell. What is the core truth of it? What can telling this story offer your audience? What can it offer you as the storyteller?

Don’t hold back. Give your audience as much as you can, but make it real. Tell the truth.  Be real. Invest yourself fully and not on a superficial level of “watch ME!” or “listen to ME,” but “hear my story.”

Projectile Vomiting

Creating a Cabaret FAQ

Creating a Cabaret FAQ

From last night’s Curiously Stronger Performing workshop (in case you weren’t there):

  • “What is a cabaret? How is it different than a recital? Or a musical?”
    Cabaret is personal musical theater” (Amanda McBroom).

    Cabaret Traditional Recital Musical
    VENUE Place where people are seated at tables, eating or drinking (or both) Performance hall or church; audience is seated in rows or pews. Theater; audience seated in rows.
    PROGRAMS Usually none Yes Yes
    THEME Maybe Maybe A specific script
    PATTER Often scripted, but shouldn’t seem like it. None, unless it’s a lecture/recital Scripted
    REPERTOIRE Anything goes! Classical, usually in specific sets; other styles occasionally thrown in to make you seem edgy 🙂 One composer (unless it’s a jukebox musical)
    MICS Yes No Yes
  • “Isn’t cabaret singing just singing in a nightclub for a bunch of drunk people who aren’t paying attention?”
    Generally not. People who come to a cabaret know that they are coming to hear artists, not just background music while they talk.

  • “How do I pick music for a cabaret?”
    What do you want to sing? Do you want to have a specific theme? Do you just want to sing some songs and find a theme from what you’ve chosen?

  • “How many songs should I sing?” [not addressed last night]
    Generally, a minimum of 16. Maximum 24. Don’t make people feel like they got shorted but also don’t make them feel like “Is this over yet?”
  • “What is patter? Do I have to do it?”
    Patter can be introducing a song. It can be talking about what the song means to you, or why you picked it, or the history of the composer. It could be funny. It could be serious. It’s expected. It makes the experience more intimate and personal.

  • “Should I use a microphone? How do I use a microphone?”
    Short answer: YES
    Depends on what kind of a microphone you have. Omnidirectional? Unidirectional? Corded? Cordless? Body mic?
    Do you want to hold the mic? Do you want to sing into a standing mic? Do you want to sit on a stool and sing?
     
  • “Who needs to be on my team? Do I need to have someone write a script for me? Do I need to hire a director?”
    You need to have a pianist or a guitarist (unless you play piano or guitar yourself). If you want to put together a small ensemble, you or your pianist can serve as music director. As far as hiring someone write a script or direct, well, I never have, but there are a lot of people who do. It depends on what your specific skills are.

    There was a lot more discussed, but you would’ve had to be there! Come to the next one on April 29 (rescheduled from February) on Singing Expressively in “Foreign” languages.

In the meantime, you can see us implement these elements in our upcoming cabaret show at Germano’s Piattini in Little Italy, “Dames in C – and D – and Other Keys,” which will feature music by female composers. We have a great program put together, and the cost is only $5!

Dames in C

Curiously Stronger Performing, Session #2: Singing Expressively in a Foreign Language

On February 12, we will be holding the second session of the Curiously Stronger Performing series at the Roland Park Community Center. The topic is Singing Expressively in Foreign Languages. The class goes from 7-9pm, and I’ll be working with 6 singers for 15 minutes each.

The inspiration of this workshop was going to recitals where students were assigned to sing in a foreign language and were singing with completely blank faces, no connection to their text whatsoever, and were clearly not aware of what the meaning of their songs were. It was boring for them, and honestly, boring for the audience.

Of course, it’s hard to sing in a language you don’t understand. I find it hard, and I do it for a living. While I’m confident in my knowledge and execution of diction rules in a lot of languages, I really wish I were fluent in languages other than English (I speak a smattering of German and French, but I’m not fluent, by any means).

But if you are going into classical music (or even if you’re not, but you’re in a program or a competition that requires you to sing in multiple languages), it’s something that you have to do. And you owe it to the poet, to the composer, to the audience, and to yourself, to be the best interpreter of your text that you can be.

In this workshop, I will help you find:

  • Strategies to sing as expressively in a language you don’t necessarily understand as you would in a song in which you understand every word
  • Commonalities between the theme of a song in classical music and one in a more popular genre.
  • The important words to emphasize and how the music helps that process.
  • The inner monologue that underlies the word for word translation

And if you’re singing in English, but you don’t understand what the heck the song means (“I remember sky,” amirite?), I can help you with that as well. There are many esoteric English language songs in both classical music and musical theater that flummox people, and I’ll be happy to help you get to the crux of those songs as well.

Sign up here to participate in the class or here to audit the class. And feel free to comment here or message me at mezzoid@gmail.com if you have any questions!

What are you singing? Do you know?

One thing that annoys me is mandated recitals where people are assigned music to which they have no affinity. And, consequently, they sing it with no connection to the text, to the music, to the history of the song or the poet, or to the style of the period. They’re singing the right words, and often, according to the diction rules of the language. They’re singing the right notes. They’re singing with technique appropriate to where they are in their vocal development. But it’s not interpreting the song, or expressing anything. It’s just duplicating what they were told to do. And as soon as it’s done, it’s forgotten. It’s like a school uniform that they’re required to wear, and soon as they can take it off, it’s off.

Whose fault is that? Is it the fault of the student? Of the person who assigned the song?

Sometimes, you are assigned songs that fit a requirement and may or may not be songs you really want to sing. If you are an artist, it is your job to find something in the song that speaks to you. If your song is in a foreign language, translate it. Whether it’s in English or not, create a vernacular translation/inner monologue for yourself. Know the history of the poem, of the composer, know what its performance practice (style) is, know how the accompaniment enhances the text, and what you can do to bring that out.

This post was inspired by Seth Godin in a post called memorization and learning. In it, he says, “memorizing anything that you’ll need to build upon, improvise on or improve is foolish. You’ll need to do the work of understanding it instead.”

You need to do the work to understand that which you sing. And you need to make it your own.

Stay tuned for more information about the Curiously Strong Performing series of performance workshops I’ll be presenting in 2020. We’ll be doing the work.

 

 

Don’t Memorize The Words – Tell The Story

I follow Marketer Extraordinaire Seth Godin’s daily blog. The biggest thing about Seth Godin is that he doesn’t talk about selling your product, he talks about telling your story. Consequently, a lot of his blogs, even though most people would think they were intended for someone in a traditional (non-artsy) business, relate to us as performers. A recent one was called “Awkward Memorization,” and I’ve attached it here.

A few lines that stood out for me:

Watch a great performance and you’ll see no artifacts of memorization. Instead, you will see someone speaking from the heart.

This is what it means to know something by heart.

And:

Don’t memorize your talk. Memorize your stories.

Are you working on a song for an audition? What’s the story? Is there more than one story? Identify your story or stories. Where does one finish and the other one start? Tell us the stories.

Singing a string of words is rote memorization and it’s boring. Sing from the heart. Be vulnerable. Be authentic. Tell your stories.

Stages of Grief (5? 7?) and Interpreting a Sad Song

I find that a lot of my students, both past and present, love to sing sad, heart-breaking songs of woe and loss. It goes with the emo-ness of youth, I think.

Personally, I gravitate toward funny (some might say nigh-ridiculous) songs, especially in programming. People say comedy is hard. I think tragedy is hard. At least, tragedy that isn’t just superficial. 

Which is often the problem with interpreting sad songs. They’re just sad sad sad from beginning to end. Come on! “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables starts out with “I dreamed a dream in time gone by – when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die. I dreamed that God would be forgiving…” Nowhere in there is the word, “DAMMIT.” The first time we get the sense that things didn’t pan out the way she wanted is at “But the tigers come at night with their voices soft as thunder – as they tear your hopes apart, as they turn your dreams to shame.” 
And even then, “He slept a summer by my side – he filled my days with endless wonder.” This is a fond memory, at least until: “Then he was gone when autumn came.” That’s where sadness comes to stay for the rest of the piece. Not earlier. But if you see the movie, the song pretty much slams you in the face with a shovel of sadness all the way through. (Which I don’t blame Anne Hathaway for – I blame the director.)

A few years ago, I asked a student to think about applying Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief to a song.  These are

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
Not all of these stages may be present, and not all in equal amounts. I’ve used this device a lot and it seems to be helpful.

The five stages of grief have since been updated to seven in today’s psychological circles (and some say they’re completely invalid in the first place). The current stages are:

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Pain and guilt 
  3. Anger and bargaining
  4. Depression (reflection/loneliness)
  5. Upward turn
  6. Reconstruction/working through (in another site, it was called “testing”)
  7. Acceptance and hope
Clearly, these have been fleshed out a bit more. Depending on what you’re working on, the basic five may be enough for you to apply.  You might want to pick from the seven – does your song involve survivor’s guilt (“Empty chairs at empty tables”)? Shock and denial (“I’m still hurting”)? Making a choice to change your life and move on (“Astonishing”)?

If you’re singing a song of woe, especially one that is really well-known and overdone, how can you apply contrasts using these ideas? And how will you implement those contrasts? With dynamics? With a change in registration? With a change in tempo? A physical change? Where do you wail? Where are you curled up in a vocal fetal position? Where might you sing through clenched teeth (without hurting yourself, of course)?

What can you do to give life and depth to a song that might otherwise be on the “Do not sing” list? 

If you feel stuck, go through the song and see where these steps could apply.

She’s the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – with something to say

I am a huge fan of the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the fourth (and final) season of which I’m watching on Netflix right now. The star and creator and producer and writer of the show is the multi-talented (as well as multi-tasking) Rachel Bloom, who plays the title character, Rebecca Bunch.

Each episode of the show features one to two musical numbers (also co-written by Ms. Bloom). They can be about mistakes Rebecca has made in her relationships (which are legion), about the men in her life and their reactions to her, her friends, her family, etc. They vary greatly in style, from

  • big, showy musical theater numbers, complete with Broadway-level choreography; 
  • intimate cabaret-style solo performances
  • dance music videos
I just happened upon this video of an interview Rachel Bloom did with Seth Meyers about a year and a half ago, and in it, he asks her about using songs to tackle some pretty significant issues, particularly regarding mental health. I loved the way that she describes how a song is structured (this comes in nearly 4 minutes in). She refers to them as musical essays, with the thesis statement the chorus, and the supporting paragraphs the verses and bridges.  She says, “It’s a great way to distill something down,  to be like, ‘this is what we’re trying to say.'”

What are you trying to say in your songs? What is the main point? What is in the supporting material? 

Let’s take the song “Someone like you” from Jekyll & Hyde. It’s very clear what the point is: If I had someone like you in my life, it would be better. That’s the chorus. You sing it three times (and the last time, higher).

The supporting material:
The beginning: I’m an outsider. Nothing has ever worked for me. I’ve never had any hope.
The second verse: I’m feeling things I never felt before and I think there might be a way out. I know what that is now.

Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix, if you haven’t seen it already (caveat: adult content).