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

Making Your Case in Auditions

Seth Godin wrote a blog a few weeks ago about the conventional wisdom of making your case vs. how it actually works. This was from a business/marketing perspective, but when I read this, I thought, “Wow, this could apply to auditioning!” My notes are in brackets.

Conventional wisdom:

Find a large group of people [audition for as many people as possible]

Explain why you’re better. [show off your technique]

Prove that you are the right answer. [sing better than anyone else]

Done. [get cast]

How it actually works:

Earn attention from precisely the right people. [audition for groups for which you’re the ideal candidate]

Gain trust. [be reliable – show up on time, be prepared]

Tell a story. [tell the truth – get into more than just the notes]

Create tension. [find a point of view that no one else has found before]

Relieve the tension by gaining commitment. [again, tell the truth]

Deliver work that’s remarkable. [go the extra mile in your interpretation]

They spread the word. [word of mouth – even if you don’t get the role this time, they might tell someone about you]

***

What would happen if you approach auditions this way, instead of just focusing on getting the part? Try it!

2020 – A new vision

Today is the first day of a new decade. The last decade began with me recovering from laser eye surgery – not LASIK, but something much more traumatic. My vision, pre-surgery, had been quite horrible – approximately 20/800. Meaning I couldn’t see my hand clearly if it was in front of my face. It took a few weeks to get to a place where I could function, and even then, my vision wasn’t perfect; probably about 20/35, which is within the range to function without correction. It was a heady experience – to wake up and see the clock across the room and be able to read the numbers instead of it being a red blur. I wish I’d done it sooner.

I feel as though that was the beginning of my eyes being opened in many ways – that year, I decided to run a 5K (up to that point, the only thing I’d ever run for was the bus). I switched from PC to Mac. I bought my dream car, after settling for a practical car in the past.

And in the two years after that, I decided to work on my own voice and wound up singing on the Hal Leonard Publishers Showcase at the NATS 2012 Conference – which changed my life. People told me that I still had something to offer as a singer – and I told my husband that I wanted to move back to the East Coast. And in 2013, I did.

My East Coast performing career has gone from community theater (something I pooh-poohed in Milwaukee) to professional solo gigs (choral and cabaret) to Washington National Opera chorister. My teaching has gone from dabblers to community theater performers to budding young professionals.  All of whom are valuable to me, in different ways.

Today is 2020. It is the beginning of a new decade. 20/20 is the symbol of clarity and seeing things for what they are. And what I’m clear about is that I want to help people perform and communicate.

This year will be the year for people to explore a variety of performances. How to audition effectively. How to communicate in languages they might not understand. How to create personal musical theater through cabaret. How to re-create a piece that you might be tired of or that you might consider old-fashioned. And I have more ideas about future workshops.

Whether you do this through your lessons, through the Curiously Strong Performing Workshops, through NATS auditions, solo-ensemble, or performing in school or community theaters – that’s up to you. Open your eyes, open your mind – see what is ahead for you. Make this decade matter.

This Small Room

 

When I was growing up, I lived in a small 3 bedroom ranch house. We had one bathroom, two good sized bedrooms (although neither was particularly large) and a third bedroom which we called the small room.

Until I went to college, I had one of the bigger bedrooms and my sister (who was 8 years younger) had the small room. I commuted to college the first year and then moved to the dorms for my second and third year, coming home most weekends to work, since school was only five miles down the road.

One day during summer break, I came home from going to the Wisconsin State Fair with my friends to find that my sister had moved into my room and that all my things had been put into the small room. I wasn’t informed this would be happening, even though I still had three more weeks before school started, and as much as I protested, I was relegated to the small room for the remainder of the time I would be a resident of that house. Even when I moved back home for my senior year of college. With my stuff crammed into a small dresser that wasn’t mine, my clothes crammed into a too-small closet, and my body up against a wall in a too-small bed.

And for much of my life, I felt contained by my surroundings. I felt that I was too much for my space, for those I grew up with, and even for my family.

Once, long after I’d moved out, I had learned a new aria and was eager to sing it for my mother. After I finished it, she said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s too loud for this small room.

She didn’t like opera. But I don’t think any room would have been big enough for her to enjoy my singing.

So many of us feel or have felt constrained by rooms that have been too small, whether it’s the actual physical space or the room in our heads, whether it’s through our own perception or that of another person. I haven’t felt that way for a long time now, thank goodness. And if you feel that way ….

Blow off the doors. Knock down the walls.

Spring Forward!

UGH, it’s Daylight Savings Time. I hate the transitions both in and out of DST. I feel like I gain nothing in the fall because I wake up too early, and I definitely feel the loss of the hour in the spring. (Spring? It’s spring?)

But I do like the idea of “spring forward.” Of finding some new things to do and thinking outside the box.

For example, at my church job today, I decided that I was going to put the emphasis on all the prepositions in the hymns and responses. At first, it was a source of amusement (which pretty much sums up how I approach almost anything new), and then I realized it was a way to be really aware of the words I was saying. Too often, responses are on autopilot, and so are hymns (if you’re just singing the melody to something you’ve known for years). But if you put the emphasis on a different word, you have to think about all the words before and after it.

“And also with you.”
“Our Father, who art in Heaven.”
“Make you to shine like the sun.”

I did something like that recently in a cabaret performance of the song, “As if we never said goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard. I have always sung the lyric, “Has there ever been a moment?” with the emphasis on “ever.” But in my last performance, it just felt right to put it on “been.”

Now, I realize that emphasis is kind of Chandler Bing-esque, but it felt right to me in that moment. It seemed like it made all the other words in the line even more important.

There’s an acting game to take a phrase and change the emphasis to get a different point across:

I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”

How would you interpret each of this lines with the different emphasis? Which one might be defensive? Sad? Evasive?

How could you apply this to a song you’re working on? Or a song you’ve known for years? How would it change the interpretation? What works? What doesn’t?

Try this and see what happens. And remember….

Thank you, Barbara Cook

[To Terry Gross on FRESH AIR]“When I’m standing in the wings, waiting to go on, I kind of plant my feet and feel a kind of strength coming up from the ground into me. And then I think about giving back this gift that I have been given. And when I do that, then I get out of ego so much. And then I don’t worry so much about what people think about how I sing or how I look. And I just try to sing more deeply and more personally. And I really enjoy that. I love singing. I do. I get rid of so much stuff by singing. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.” 

Barbara Cook, 1927-2017

And here’s a recording of her at nearly 80 (picture below to the contrary). The voice stayed fresh (one may quibble about certain closed vowels sounding reedy, but my contention is that those vowels sounded reedy back in the 1950s and that’s a whole ‘nother thing).


She never learned to read music (to which I always say, “and why not?”), which makes her learning the role of Cunegonde in Candide even more mind-boggling. Her career stalled due to alcoholism and obesity, but she reinvented herself and gave back as both a performer and a clinician. 

I’ve always said I want to be Barbara Cook when I grow up. Maybe I still have a shot.