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.

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.

Vulnerability and pretending not to care

From the twitter feed of Xstrology (online astrologer):

Gemini will pretend that they don’t care at the times they are most vulnerable.

I’m a Gemini. I’m the quintessential Gemini – I talk a lot, I’m constantly doing 6 million and 12 things at once, I love change, I’m versatile – and on the downside, I find it difficult to stick to one thing at a time, I’m often indecisive, and sometimes I give the impression of being somewhat shallow.

And I often – too often – pretend that I don’t care at the times I am most vulnerable.

In my personal life, this can result in my making jokes at inopportune times – I recall going to an emergency room for unexplained abdominal pain and making stupid jokes so that I wouldn’t show that I was terrified. Consequently, the doctor didn’t take me very seriously and thought I was wasting her time.

When my feelings are hurt or if I’m angry or frustrated, it’s very easy for me to cry. But if I cry, then people might be uncomfortable or think I’m overreacting – so I make jokes or laugh. My husband says that he can always tell when I’m about to cry, because I start smiling really broadly. My speech becomes choppy and my movements a bit more abrupt.

And if I’m in a relationship that is coming to an end – whether it be romantic or a friendship – my defense is to become flippant, to become somewhat distant, and sometimes, I’m afraid, to be a little mean. As though I were saying, “Yeah, well, you didn’t mean anything to me either, so go already. I won’t miss you.”

And in performing, specifically auditioning – for, after all, this blog is supposed to be about singing – I have found that I have occasionally done the same thing, especially with companies for whom I’ve auditioned in the past but who have not hired me, for whatever misguided reason. I don’t get mean, per se, but I give off the attitude of, “Whatever. I don’t really care. It’s not like you’re going to hire me anyway.”

Consequently, my audition is unengaged and unengaging. And just like driving away someone I cared about because I was afraid of being rejected and thereby bringing the relationship to the end I expected, I fulfill the expectation that, in fact, they’re not going to hire me.

What I need to do – and what all of us, as performers, need to do – is to stop making the audition about myself and about getting the gig. I need to make it about giving a performance that is genuine and authentic. It may or may not get me hired, but I have no control over that. I can control my performance, I can control how I relate to people, I can control my preparation.

As I mentioned in my blogpost on vulnerability and oversharing, vulnerability is “the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, [and] of love.” (Dr. Brené Brown)

Yes, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and then not hired (or dumped) can bring about the feelings of shame and fear and unworthiness, but being open to the possibilities and presenting yourself as open and genuine and accepting might just allow you to find that joy, that creativity, possibly belonging, and hopefully love. However you define love.

Which is a whole ‘nother topic altogether.

Vulnerability vs. Oversharing

Recently, I’ve been watching videos by psychologist Brené Brown on the topic of vulnerability. She has done extensive research on the advantages and disadvantages of making yourself vulnerable and allowing yourself to be authentic as a person.
 
What I love that Dr. Brown says about vulnerability is that it is “the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, [and] of love.” And also thinking about how people “surrender and walk into it.”
Most of the times when we think about not being vulnerable in a performance, we think of being stiff and unexpressive. But there’s another way that’s even more egregious (in my opinion). And that is oversharing in performance.
I’ve been accused of oversharing – in my Facebook posts, in my personal interactions with people – and sometimes, my accusers are right. I  have given out too much information (hereafter TMI). Perhaps it wasn’t necessary to tweet about how cold the gel was on my body while lying on a table, waiting for an ultrasound…. 
And sometimes, I’m just being honest and it’s their problem that they can’t handle my honesty. I hope. 
So what’s the difference? When do you cross the line from opening up to others and being vulnerable into oversharing? I’ve been thinking about this as far as how it relates to performing. I strive to be an authentic performer, and to teach my students to find authenticity in their performances. 
I think the difference is intent. Vulnerability is a real expression of your feelings, telling a story, telling the truth.  It is an attempt to connect with your listener or your viewer and evoke a response that is also genuine. It is not an attempt to impress but to express. It is an attempt to resonate with your listener or viewer.
Oversharing is selfish. It is an attempt to evoke a response – of admiration, of pity, of concern, of outrage. You are putting something out there that is one-sided, not really looking for a dialogue or gaining an understanding, but just spewing it out to the world and damn the consequences. It may be truthful, but it’s not authentic. It is projecting rather than resonating.

[Which brings me to a vocal point:

Baritone Thomas Hampson was asked in a master class 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.” And now back to psychobabble]
Perhaps oversharing is the other side of the coin of being afraid to be vulnerable. It’s a way of overcompensating.
Here’s an example of vulnerability that I witnessed recently. In a recent recital, 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 – 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.”