A few weeks ago my post Getting the most out of your choir: preparing for performance PART 1 generated quite a lot of heat in the comments section! Most of this focused around the concept of stage presence and where the ‘meaning’ of a song might reside.
I think this discussion warrants more time, so I’ve decided to devote two posts to it rather than limiting it to the to and fro of the comments section. This week I want to talk about stage presence for singers, and next week I’ll look at the ‘meaning’ of a song and how it might affect the way it is sung (Singing what you mean, and meaning what you sing).
introducing Tom Carter
I wrote a post some time ago that set out my personal attitude to lyrics in songs and how we might express the ‘meaning’ of a song which has foreign lyrics (Sing it like you mean it). That’s when I first ‘met’ Tom Carter, author of Choral Charisma: singing with expression. Since then Tom and I have had several lively exchanges on this topic. I’m sure that at some fundamental level we agree since we are both very keen to find ways of getting the best out of a choir in performance. But on the surface we seem to have very different approaches and understanding of certain concepts.
I think Tom and I represent two clear and different approaches to singing. I think both our approaches are useful and possibly produce the same results. I think whichever point of view you adhere to is very personal, and neither is ‘better’ than the other. However, considering these two approaches does allow us to look in more detail at several important concepts in singing and performance.
being present or ‘stage presence’?
I said that
“presence simply means that the performers are totally in the present and only engaged on the task at hand. That’s what makes them so watchable.”Tom fundamentally disagreed with this and said that
“presence is much more than just focusing ‘on the task at hand.’ Indeed, the SPECIFIC nature of the task makes all the difference […] A singer will have presence if they are connecting specifically with the meaning (passion, poignancy, power ...) of the text and its musical expression – while at the same time being free of all impediments to that presence.”
Deb suggested that maybe Tom and I were talking about two different things. That Tom was talking about ‘stage presence’ whereas I was simply talking about ‘being present’. But I am actually talking about the same thing!
being in the moment and serving the song
I’m sure that there will always be two very views in this discussion, and that neither side will never agree with or completely understand each other. In my previous incarnation as a theatre performer, teacher and director, I was also in a different camp from many of my peers. My belief then, and now, was that an actor/ performer on stage needs to be totally engaged in a task which serves the play at that particular moment. It may or may not have anything to do with the text at that point.
An apocryphal example of this was when a famous actress was complimented on her acting in a very moving scene in a play. Her character had just been told of the death of someone close to her. She appeared stunned and lost in thought whilst she stared off into the middle distance. When asked how she had achieved this (maybe she’d been thinking about someone in her own life who had died?) she responded: “I was wondering whether to have steak pie or chicken pie for tea”. She knew, as an experienced actress, that what served the play best at that moment was stillness and the impression that her character’s focus was entirely on her inner thoughts. And, from the perspective of the audience, that’s precisely what she achieved.
At that moment she had enormous stage presence, she was totally watchable because she was simply engaged on the task at hand. No more, no less. What is most important at that point is what the audience experience, not what is going on for the performer.
Another example is when a famous theatre director came into an empty theatre one day. The stage lights were on and the house lights were out. On stage a man entered sweeping the floor. The director was mesmerised and watched until the man left the stage. The man on stage had enormous stage presence because he was simply and totally engaged on the task at hand: sweeping the stage – no more, no less. What made him particularly watchable was the context: being on stage in a theatre.
To have presence as a singer is to simply be engaged totally with the task at hand: singing the song. Not thinking about the effect it may have on the audience, not worrying about whether they are standing with the correct singer’s posture, not focusing on their breathing, not struggling to remember the words of the second verse. It is not important whether or not the singer experiences the emotional content of the song, but it is of vital importance that the audience does.
Tom’s notion of ‘charisma’
Tom wrote in the comments section:
“Chris, it occurs to me that your presence is my ‘full commitment.’ As Deb mentioned, my presence IS what I also call ‘stage presence’ or ‘charisma.;’ That requires full commitment, but it also requires a particular focus on the ‘human’ elements of the performance (as in character, meaning, story, yada yada).
For example, if we transplant the discussion to the opera hall, take two singers performing the role of Carmen – both are committed and not self-conscious, but singer A has a more technical focus, and singer B has a more ‘human’ focus.
Singer A: Is focused like a laser beam on following the conductor, hitting her marks on the stage, and on creating her most beautiful sound. She’s also allowing herself to enjoy the rhythms and cadences of the music.
Singer B: While a part of her is focused on technical elements, she is more dominantly focused on seducing, taunting, and teasing the men around her. Her thoughts are primarily ‘character’ thoughts rather than ‘singer’ thoughts – when she successfully teases a man, she experiences a victory and that victory is clearly seen on her face and in her body. When she is done taunting one man, she looks around to see who looks like the next easy mark.
To me, only Singer B has ‘stage presence.’ The other singer’s technical focus and commitment might make her more watchable than if she were self-conscious and self-doubting, but she lacks true charisma.”
my understanding of ‘character’
David Mamet is a playwright and theatre/ film director who believes that there is no such thing as ‘character’, there is just the performer, the text and their actions. I’m with him on this one! In the context of singing in a performance there is simply the singer, the music (which included lyrics and melody/ harmony) and the singing.
To comment on Tom’s opera example above I’d need to see these two singers myself before I decide which one has ‘stage presence’. My claim is that Singer A, if engaged with the appropriate tasks and actions, may well have as much stage presence and ‘charisma’ as Singer B. Singer B doesn’t need to have any understanding of ‘character’, she just needs to behave and act in a manner required by the opera at any given moment.
Singer B’s job is to make the audience to believe that she is taunting and teasing those around us. Most of that work will have been done by the composer of the music and lyrics, the rest will be by done by the way in which the song is sung and the actions carried out by the singer. The audience don’t care what’s going on inside the singer. She may be using internal imagery of talking to her cat or imagining she is a snake. It doesn’t really matter.
But we digress … Tom’s example has used opera which is very much a storytelling medium and has more in common with plays than with concerts. What about songs that have no story, no ‘characters’, or maybe even no recognisable words?
My claim is that as long as the singers are in the moment and focused on doing their job properly (singing the song to the best of their ability), following whatever instructions the director has given (e.g. which passages are loud, which sections go faster, which verses should be sung more gently, what imagery might be useful, etc.), then they will have stage presence, be eminently watchable and will communicate the music and its emotional content in the way in which the director has intended. No more, no less.
It’s the director’s job to help the singers convey whatever ‘meaning’ or emotional content that she believes the song contains. That work will have been done in rehearsal. In performance the singers just need to get on with the job!
My division of this discussion into two parts is rather arbitrary since they both impinge on each other. Tom in particular would claim that connecting with the ‘meaning’ of a song is vital to creating any kind of stage presence. So next week I will look at what a song’s ‘meaning’ might be, where it resides and how it affects the singing of the song: Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing.
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