Sunday, December 09, 2007

Out of Your Head

I’ve been planning a post for weeks, maybe months, about the importance of getting out of your head and into your body as a singer, and, well, here it is. (Ed. Note: It’s true; I started this post in July...)

The idea first came to me while watching “the big stars” in rehearsals at the Met this past year. Singers who have extensive backgrounds in physical arts - like Diana Damrau (dance) and Rolando Villazon (clowning), for example, two folks I got to see in action – are such a joy to watch onstage! They are not only more comfortable with crazy stage actions like lying down to sing or running or dancing, but they are also able to use their full instrument (it’s more than just the voice!) to engage the listener and to tell the story. Their minds were were completely present on stage, or, at least, so it seemed from the outside. Which, ultimately, is what you want.

It’s as if they’re not actively “thinking.” Singing for them is a physical act, not a cerebral one. Of course, of course: the mind is involved, and the hours of “armchair work” studying languages and rhythms and endless drilling of memory are not unimportant. But when it comes time to get a character on her feet? It’s physical. Not to mention the fact that our actual instrument is located in the body, not the mind...

I can add now, in December, Bryn Terfel: I don’t know what his dance/movement/sports background is, other than rugby, but he is a great physical actor, someone who definitely just goes and there and plays. He has obviously put a lot of thought into his performance and practice and character, but the cerebral brain is turned off on-stage. More on physicality and my Figaro experience in another post.

One night this summer, over at RM’s for dinner, LB and I started waltzing in the kitchen (doing our best to get in the way as much as possible). It began just kind of silly (sillily?), but it didn’t take me long to realize that he actually knew how to waltz! So, instead of just playing around, I had to actively turn of the thinking part of my brain and just give over to the physical act of dancing. When I could let go and let him lead, it was smooth sailing. (It’s so nice to dance with a tall man who knows how to dance, right?) But as soon as my head got involved again, we were at odds (but only slightly). I’m not saying you shouldn’t think when you’re on-stage; obviously, you have to. But it is possible to get in your way.

When students ask me what they should do with themselves while they are building their voices, waiting the 5-10 years between finishing school and being ready (maybe) to work, I encourage them to dance. Take any kind of dance class - ballroom, modern, jazz, ballet, hip-hop, whatever. Or take martial arts or fencing. Anything that gets you out of your mental, analytic, judgmental self and into your physical, instinctual, visceral self. Get out of your head and into your body. Your voice will thank you for it.

3 comments:

Tim Munro said...

Great post! This is an issue I've been thinking about a lot since joining eighth blackbird last year.

Obviously we do a lot of movement on stage, and getting out of my brain and into my body has been quite an effort. What I realize is that I have natural "flute movement" - I sway, I bend my knees, I shuffle "expressively" in circles - but much more than that requires a lot of awkward, intrusive mental effort.

I played Guitar Hero for the first time the other night, and found air guitar-style gyrations totally freeing. Maybe this is the way forward...

There are very few flute players I know or have seen who look totally at ease, physically, on stage. Emmanuel Pahud is an inspirational exception. And what is particularly wonderful is how his freedom of movement translates into an unbridled musical freedom that is frankly astounding!

So bloody glad you chose those hippy-dippy, one-hit-wonder Aussies, Frente, for your Fri-pod. I loved that song ("Accidentally Kelly Street") at the time.

ACB said...

Thanks, Tim. Judging by recent events, your body will also thank you for getting out of your head... ;)

And, yes, Guitar Hero is FABULOUS!! We are all rockers, on the inside; some just don't know it yet.

Patm said...

Saw Bryn Terfel and Simon Keenlyside in Figaro this November and went away incredibly impressed. Look forward to your thoughts on Terfel.

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