Singing has been and always will be my first passion. My joy for singing has only increased over the years, although my discovery of acting in college now comes a close second. However, there have been a few rare moments when I’ve realised how truly inseparable the two arts must become – something I feel any performer must come to realise if they are to consider themselves good, let alone extraordinary.
It is easy to spot those performers who have. They are Patti LuPone and Donna Murphy (just watch her performance of I Read in Sondheim’s Passion). They are the performers who give you chills up and down your spine, conveying emotion seamlessly through their body and voice. I had the privilege of hearing Norm Lewis belt out Being Alive in Sondheim on Sondheim featuring Vanessa Williams and Barbara Cook, and I have never been able to forget it. I bought the cast recording with the expectation of reliving the musical magic of that night, but I will never hear it the same way again. Such is the allure of live theatre.
As mentioned in my previous post, I have started taking voice lessons with a wonderful teacher who has so quickly grasped what my voice is capable of and picked out fantastic material for me to work on. In my last lesson, I realised that our focus after warm-ups was how to act the song, not how to sing it. At first this frustrated me, since I struggled with delivering the power I felt was necessary for Patterns from Baby. I later realised, however, that my problem wasn’t that I couldn’t deliver that power vocally – in fact my teacher has commended my vocal ability, and I think I have been underestimating myself in that respect. The main issue is that I am focusing on the vocals and not on the emotions behind the song necessary to deliver that power.
Following my teacher’s advice, I have been watching several videos of other people performing Patterns, and I recognise the same problem in many other vocalists. They have incredible instruments, but it is clear they have only done their job as singers and not as performers. I am not convinced of their emotional state and I only catch small glimpses of specifically what they might be talking about. They use all of their vibrato and belting power throughout the song, and they adhere too strictly to the technical aspects of the music. Obviously musical structure is necessary, but as musical theatre is a storytelling art, it should sound more like a monologue and less like a perfectly sung musical piece, such as in opera. Here lies only the beginning of the difficulty in striving towards a career in this industry.
As actors we either have, or must develop, a strong imagination. If you can imagine your circumstances to be true, so can the audience. Every day we people-watch and wonder what someone must be like based on what they are wearing, how they are walking, and the expression on their face. That is real, and we need to evoke that same kind of reality any time we are on stage. Creating theatre is creating life. What I am really talking about is the difference between technical performing and living truthfully on stage. Remember Christine in Phantom of the Opera? The Phantom wants her to sing for him, but he demands so much more of her than that. He demands her voice, her life… her soul.
There comes a time in every performer’s life when they become relatively comfortable with getting up on stage in front of a group of people. But sometimes we rely too much on that ability and only do the bare minimum by performing as rehearsed, instead of letting ourselves be completely exposed and vulnerable on stage. I somehow find myself able to convey intense emotion without using anything specific to invoke reality into my performance. I need to spend more time researching the character I am portraying and then using acting methods to bring out those emotions. Some follow Stanislavski in using personal experience, while others draw on Chekhov’s approach by using the body and specific actions.
Everyone has their own acting techniques which they use to dig into a character, and this same process is necessary for any good performance, even of one song. We must fight our tendency to just sing. It takes a lot to go through a song lyric by lyric, to research a character and imagine all the details of their situation. It’s daunting, for sure, and tedious at times. Lots of people can sing well, but as performers we must use our acting ability to take our vocal ability to the next level.
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