PREPARING TO PERFORM

MANY FOLLOWERS OF THIS  BLOG WOULD LIKE TO TALK ABOUT HANDLING PERFORMANCE ANXIETY .

As the Fall season approaches every serious singer, be they student or professional, will be “performing” in some manner or other, I.E.  an audition for the Opera Department at your school or for one of the important Young Artist Programs. Many of the major and regional opera companies will be auditioning for their future seasons. Professional singers will be embarking on a new performance calendar in opera, recital or concerts. 

        A singer never stops “performing”. It is a much better mind-set than “auditioning”, of course. To perform means to share musically, vocally and interpretively. To audition connatess “being judged”. If we think of “performing” in the broad sense of the word we will go a long way in mentally preparing our thoughts as to how we want a piece to sound, what emotion we want to convey. So many young singers, either through inadequate vocal and musical preparation, become very nervous at the thought of “performing” in whatever venue he is facing and mentally treat it more as “auditioning”.

      There are many reasons why a singer feels a great sense of fear in facing a performance of any nature. One of these reasons can be their attitude in developing a good technique. If this goal is approached as an end in itself the singer will not be as ready to  “perform” as to much as to “exhibit”  technical skills. The needed impetus to communicate music and text will not be in the forefront of their  thoughts. Instead they will be “trying” to do it “correctly”. It  is absolutely necessary then that  vocal study, from the beginning,  must incorporate the intuitive, spontaneous, musical and vocal impulse each singer naturally brings to their voice lessons or coachings.

      Voice science has taught us so very much about the workings of the singing voice–about the anatomy of a singer.. But this knowledge must not be isolated and focused on to the point of making a singer overly conscious of their physical mechanism. This will only induce a sense of “holding”,  not allowing a singer to go to the level of truly comfortably expressing  the human emotions inherent in the music,  be it on the Operatic Stage, in the Audition Hall, the Studio or the Practice Room.

     How does one then find the calmness and alertness to perform with joy and ease. Is it by being “excited” when you walk on stage? Or is it a definite gathering of energies prior to stepping out to sing? The latter, of course, is the more sensible way. The former only is uncontrolled energy, somehting like a runaway car.

     This brings us to Preparing to Perform. And it is all has to do with how we prepare mentally, physically & emotionally prior to stepping onto the platform with the healthy impulse to perform and to share. And this preparation takes time, concentration and calmness. A body that is tightly held  because of over-focusing on the mechanical  cannot vibrate. By the same token, a body that is under-energized and “loose” will never make a beautifully ringing  tone. Therefore the postural preparation of the singer is a good place to start in any lesson, coaching, audition or performance.    We have to wake up the body and the mind to “want” to perform.

     Cecilia Bartolli is quoted as saying she feels like a young race horse in the wings -” eager for the gate to open” so that she can go out and run with energy, making the performance a wonderfully joyous experience.

    Some singers find this calmness and readiness  by  doing physical warm-up exercises. it is a good idea to have a set that one does regularly.  They can be stretches, Tai Chi moves, dance steps, etc.

    Another way of finding the impulse to perform is to be affected when  hearing certain  piece of music, a poem, a particular thought.  Each singer is able to find something of this nature that will be the driving impetus  that brings one to the wings with energy and alertness.

    All of this preparation takes time, patience, intelligence and concentration. Only if these skills are developed in advance  will the performer truly perform with ease, energy and a wonderful sense of calmness.

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“STOP – LOOK – LISTEN” – THE ROLE OF IMAGINATION IN SINGING

 DEVELOPING THE IMAGINATION  is one of the major tools in the development of  the classcal singer’s art and craft.   This concept  enables  the singer to  “allow” rather  than to “try” to sing with ease. This concept of “allowing”  is important to so many of life’s activiities, but especially important to the singer.  Why?  Because as singers we do not see our instrument .  All that we are able to see is our posture, and our speech mechanism (lips, teeth, tongue, jaw & soft palate).  The rest of the instrument  resides deep in the body & cannot be  seen by nor heard realistically by the singer themselves.

Therefore the role of the Imagination  must be carefully  and continuosly developed.  The”Inner Ear” and the “Inner Eye” will   develop a  clear sense of what the singer wishes to achieve technically, musically, interpretively, etc.   Thought turns into beautiful tone, legato line, smooth registration,  clear text,  dynamic contral  – all the characteristics of classical singing  which we call the  “Bel Canto” style and technique.    It first must happen in the Mind.  In other words, we  learn to “allow” what we have mentally heard and seen  prior to singing  rather than “trying” while we are actually physically engaged.  

WE CANNOT “ALLOW” WHAT WE HAVE NOT PREPLANNED IN OUR INNER EAR & INNER EYE.    One will not create images aurally or visually without knowledge. Therefore it goes hand in hand that the young singer develop physical, vocal, musical & interpretive goals.

With the guidance of the voice teacher, the young singer will slowly create   images both aurally and visually .  Eventually the singer will, as they develop and grow, come up with their own specific images, based on the bel canto principles,  and thus take ownership of their own singing, developing  their own uniquness to sound, text and phrasing.  The wonderful American Mezzo soprano, Stephanie Blythe calls it developing one’s owns Point of View.

     This approach to singing well  is often neglected.  A young voice student  very, very often will simply plough into a phrase without first hearing it in their  Inner Ear or having a clear  “Inner Eye” picture of the instrument or of the phrasing  It is  often called “Visualizaton”.   There is no end to its possibilities born of knowledge and that Point of View.

“KEEP THE MIND AHEAD OF THE VOICE” (Benita Valente  MC, NATS) sums up this approach  perfectly. 

 A driver does not get into his car without knowing where he is headed and what he must do to get there. A pilot does not dare fly his plane without filing a flight  plan both realistically and mentally  before he “takes off”.  Visualization has long been a tool for Olympic athletes. The 2010 Olympic Champion Snow Boarder, Shaun White described to an interviewer how he prepares for the performance of his lifetime. To paraphrase “I quietly imagine in my mind’s eye what I am going to do and then I go out and ‘allow’ it to happen.” In other words he carefully preplans in his imagination before, not during, the execution of the program. He does not “watch” himself or “try” as he executes the incredibly challenging curves he must conquer with great momentum and speed. Rather, he sees the pathway in his mind’s eye and calculates mentally how he will physically negotiate these twists and turns. He carefully has programmed his Imagination.

Again praphrasing,  the British Pedagogue, Thomas Hemsley (Singing & Imagination) wisely acknowledged that   the development of a solid technique is about basically  two things:

 1. Training the Imagination  to give clear and precise impulses to which the body will respond. 

2. Training the body to be able to respond with an easy facility. 

LEARN TO DRIVE A CAR – NOT MECHANICALLY BUILD ONE

Too often a singer’s training focuses on “mechanics” – information from the outside either from a book or from a purely technical point of view. Often the Technique becomes an end in itself. Of course, a clear  knowledge as to how the car functions is important, but to drive the car one must allow the coordination of  all the elements that allow one to drive safely and to reach their destination.

“LISTEN TO YOURSELF BEFORE YOU SING, NOT WHILE YOU SING” (Thomas Hampson – Master Class – Manhattan School of Music”

      How many times do we hear a singer say when he is struggling with a technical issues,  – “But I’m trying”?    However,  if that singer would “STOP – LOOK – LISTEN” before he tries executing the phrase he would save himself a whole lot of frustration and he would be “allowing” what is already programmed in his Imagination to do its work.  He will stop listening to himself while he attempts that phrase,  but will “allow” what he has aurally and visually imaged.  It goes without saying, then, tht the Imagination has to be developed intelligently and sensibly.  

      Of course,  there are many aspects to developing the Inner Ear & Inner Eye i.e.    Knowledge of the instrument  and how it works in singing ;   A strong point of view as to the emotional content of the phrase or aria; a thorough knowledge of the text (diction & exact translation).

In approaching it this way the Inner Ear will develop the desired tone color to reflect the emotional context of the music and the text.  

The Inner Eye will allow the singer to  experience certain positive physical sensations.   Calling on these sensations repeatedly is what develops the Technique that allows a singer freedom to express with ease what he wants the audience to hear and feel.

 Remembering that their are no hard and fast rules to developing the Imagination is important.   It is a fertile playground.   Give it free reign.  There is a wealth of potential in every Mind. It takes patience and concentration, and yes, knowledge to “Allow”.  So give yourself permission to Stop – Look – Listen.

No better advice is given on this subject than the following:

“SINGING IS MENTAL RATHER THAN PHYSICAL —-  PSYCHOLOGICAL RATHER THAN PHYSIOLOGICAL.  THINK THEREFORE  OF THE EFFECT DESIRED RATHER THAN OF THE PROCESS”  (Richard Hemsley “Singing & Imagination” (Oxford University Press)