Have you ever sat there in the audience, listening to a singer who maybe *sounds* good enough, but whose stage presence is just… awkward? I’m talking hapless, seemingly random gestures, a deer-in-headlights look, a wild lack of visual focus, and/or an obviously huge emotional disconnect from what they are singing about. Yes?
Or, maybe you’ve watched someone perform and marveled over how well they embodied the character, but cringed every time they hit a high note. Or maybe you were completely distracted by the fact that they were unable to keep time with the accompaniment. Or maybe you could not get past the fact that they sang some completely wrong notes, or botched the words in a very obvious, oops-I-made-a-mistake kind of way.
Performances like these highlight the fact that most singers are naturally gifted in one particular area of their craft. Some are excellent technicians, able to execute vocal fireworks with finesse and aplomb. Some are compelling actors/actresses and have great physical command of the stage. Others are incredibly musical, creating imaginative phrases out of a simple series of notes. And still others are masters of vocal expression, drawing emotion through their instruments from the very depths of their being.
The thing about being a singer though, is that we must be able to do all of these things. This is why it takes years to become a good singer and a good performer, and this is why we pay the big bucks to see a Broadway show or opera performed by professionals. There is so much more to master than just technique, or acting skills, or musicianship. In order to present a compelling performance, all of these aspects must work in sync with each other. In fact, they should feed each other.
Now, depending on the style of the piece, one of these elements may require more emphasis than another. For example, the way you approach musical theater is a lot different from how you’d approach classical music (not to mention the fact that both of these styles have a myriad of sub-genres that each require a unique approach); contemporary singing is yet another, highly varied ball game. These differences in emphasis are part of what makes each style fascinatingly distinct from the others.
However, I believe that there is a basic hierarchy when it comes to these various layers of learning and performing a piece. There is an order in which things must be established, and I believe it goes as follows:
Your personal, emotional connection to the piece
This list is not necessarily the order of steps you will take to learn every piece. This is more like a priority checklist. Technique and musicianship, the bedrock of any good performance, have to be established before you can make any character/interpretive choices. Why? Because even a good choice probably won’t make much sense, or won’t be executed properly, if the singing is bad or the music is learned incorrectly. Similarly, outward acting will mean nothing if you don’t first have an inward, emotional connection to the piece. How do you expect your audience to feel something if you don’t?
Some of these elements happen concurrently as you learn a new piece, especially as you become more experienced and can absorb new music more quickly. This list also assumes that, before you attempt to learn a new piece, you’ve already determined that it is a good fit for you, and that you’ve already done some research into the character and the background.
1. Technique. The piece must be in your voice, and the way to get it there is to practice, practice, practice. Every note, phrase, and breath must be done over and over again until your muscles become so familiar with the piece that you can literally roll out of bed and sing it successfully. Yes, of course technique is always a work in progress. The takeaway here is to do as best you can with the piece right now.
2. Musicianship. You must learn the correct pitches and rhythms, sing at an appropriate tempo, and be able to keep time with the pianist (or whatever kind of accompaniment you have). You must have a good handle on the musical and vocal style (is it a belt or legit song? Contemporary or classic?), and execute each phrase in a way that is congruous with that style (how much vibrato does it demand? What vocal register should you use?).
Now, as you can see already, technique and musicianship often go hand-in-hand. Many of the musical/stylistic choices you make can’t be achieved without technique; conversely, you often can’t complete technical work on a passage until you know how to handle it musically.
But, you are thinking, sometimes we practice and practice and things still go wrong in performance! This is true. Sometimes we have a random memory slip or completely miss a high note. Those things can be forgiven, however, if the overall technique is good, the musical intention is clear, and the piece is musically cohesive. But wrong notes due to inadequate preparation; sloppy technique due to poor attention to detail; constantly missing vocal entrances as if you’ve never sung the piece with accompaniment before in your life – these are the “unforgivable sins” of performing, and if they happen in an audition, you can be sure that you won’t get cast.
3. Personal emotional connection. There are some pieces out there that you’ll be able to connect with immediately – maybe you and the character have similar personality traits, or similar life experiences.
However, there will be many pieces where you will not feel this immediate connection. There will be times when you cannot relate to the character’s feelings or actions. In these cases, it is difficult to find something within us that resonates with the piece, but it is our job to dig up something. An audience can smell an emotionally disconnected performance from a mile away. If you’re not connected, they won’t be, either.
This is a very important step in the interpretive process. It is from this point that your vocal and physical expression grow. Skipping this step results in a shallow performance that may come across as inauthentic, shallow, and meaningless, even if you use gestures – actually, especially if you use gestures. Think about it: we don’t gesture in regular conversation unless our emotional instincts move us to do so. The takeaway here is that you need to be the character, not just physically act like him or her.
4. Vocal expression. I’m talking about acting with your voice. If a listener were to close his or her eyes, he or she should still be able to tell what emotion is being conveyed just from the sound of your voice. We see again how technique is the foundation here. We cannot explore different vocal colors, or use them safely and effectively, without technique. Your vocal expression should be an organic outgrowth of your personal, emotional connection, just as the various tones of your speaking voice in everyday life reflect how you feel deep inside.
Pro tip: take the text of your song and treat it as you would a monologue. This should be done fairly early on in the learning process. Taking the text on its own terms allows you to see what is there, independent of the music. It allows you to engage with it without having to multi-task too much. By speaking it, you can play with different emotions and inflections. You’ll be surprised how much naturally carries over to your singing.
5. Acting/stage presence. This is really the icing on the cake. Without the cake, the icing is meaningless. And boring. And maybe yucky. Just as your vocal expression should grow naturally from your inward emotional connection to the piece, your physical embodiment of the character should be a natural outgrowth from your vocal expression.
Again, this list is not a hard-and-fast process for every single piece, and again, some of these elements will happen simultaneously in the learning process. Some singers might even disagree with this order, but that is okay. Singers disagree about a lot of things, but but what we do all agree on is that healthy technique is essential, and that that technique is the vehicle for a truly expressive, authentic performance.
So as the school year gets underway and you’re preparing for auditions, talk to your teacher or coach about the process you should follow to perform your best. Keep practicing, and keep making music!