I have spent a lot more time lately looking into how the voice is completely and utterly affected by the performer’s charisma and stage presence. I have wanting to write about this lately as there seems to be a cultural shift away from the ‘charismatic’ singer to the apologetic one.
By apologetic, I’m referring to the desire to come across as modest or reserved when singing so that the audience is kinder. This is normally a result of stage fright. It is important to remember that you can have integrity, stage presence and charisma without seeming too arrogant – although I personally believe that singing does take a degree of desire to ‘show off’.
The video that inspired me
I was inspired by this video from youtuber and singer Janet Tabaka (channel here). I will be writing this article around her two concepts of overcoming stage fright and creating stage presence – I will, as usual, add my own insights as well 🙂
If you watch some of Janet’s other videos, you will note that she definitely practices what she preaches – the commitment and integrity in her performances are truly something to behold. The approach is simple and true to the art of singing – ‘meaning’ and ‘seeing’. I don’t want to spoil the contents yet so please watch! She’s definitely someone worth following and subscribing to.
I then got thinking about ‘stage presence’ and why it is hugely important as a singer. Beyond this, the singer should develop a natural charisma – an unapologetic one. Two videos come to mind from two incredible tenors of the past. I strongly urge you all to watch (at least) the first minute of each video (the Lorenz video from 3:10 when he arrives at the rehearsal):
Despite the fact that Bjorling was often a nervous wreck, as well as the Melchior clip being staged, you will note that the ‘culture’ behind singing during this period is very unapologetic. Lorenz strides into the room, says “Morgen” (“good morning”) to everyone there. The charisma is utterly unmatched.
As for modern singers, I think the expectation is that this charisma is present – otherwise it would be impossible for them to get through 2-3 hour long shows where they are the name of the act.
I hope you’ve watched Janet’s video by now! If not, please do! Because if we take her two tools: ‘know the meaning’ and ‘seeing the person’ are things that I will now discuss. In each of the videos of the tenors, the men establish a connection to the pieces: Bjorling, of course, is singing in his mother tongue. Melchior is playing a character. Lorenz is also singing in his mother tongue and established an identity very early in his career as the ‘heroic’ tenor – so he more or less ‘parks and barks’ but with true gusto and love for the art. Each of the singers also address their piece to something or someone – Bjorling to the camera, Lauritz to Jane Powell’s character, and Lorenz to the ‘room’. Without asking them, it will be impossible to know if they were imaging ‘someone’ who they were singing to, but you can observe that each singer has a ‘direction’ and ‘purpose’.
Singers should strive to emulate this charisma a little more in the modern world – not only opera singers but singers from all backgrounds. It affects both the psychology and body of the singer. Michael Trimble in his book refers to posture as involving an outward facing sternum along with a lengthened spine (tucking the pelvis in) and shoulders down and slightly back. Any kind of hunch or ‘mother Theresa’ position will suppress the sound. I should also note that Trimble was influenced by Tetrazzini and Caruso’s book (among many other more contemporary opera singers), so there does appear to be an agreement that great singing does require an element of stoicism in the posture.
Fight or Flight and its affect on posture and charisma:
If the singer is frightened, the fight or flight mechanism will kick in. Remember that there are two nervous systems, sympathetic (fight or flight) and asympathetic (digestion) (Richard Drake, 2004). More often than not, singers who are newer or who are easily defeated by stage fright, will go into ‘flight’ mode, which involves making the body seem smaller to hide from predators (aka the audience or the casting director). There are plenty of well known singers who have been smitten by stage fright – Enrico Caruso, Katey Perry (see her documentary), Celine Dion, Luciano Pavarotti, Jussi Bjorling etc. When you seen these singers on stage, however, their posture and gusto represents ‘fight’ mode, not ‘flight’ mode. In the case of Kirsten Flagstad, who is a special case, she said that she was ‘so relaxed before a performance that I am yawning.’ Maybe Flagstad had mastered the art of moving beyond her fight/flight mechanism.
How do I find meaning?
From my theatre background, there are elements from practitioners (Stanislavski’s emotional memory, Alfred’s ‘actioning’) that involve finding your own meaning in a piece as well as your own objective. Theatre practictioner Sandy Silver once said in a masterclass I attended that “If you are playing a mother whose child is killed, but you’ve not experienced it, how do you know? You need to go back far enough into your own collection of memories to find out how you felt when you experienced deep loss, even as a child.” This is similar to the way in which Janet Tabaka approaches stage presence work; where you are using your own memory and experience to sing. I personally use this approach myself and it does not impact my instrument or my posture negatively.
If you feel that your voice is affected by your memories of something, then consider actioning. This is where you look at a phrase and think the words “I….” – So for example, if I were singing Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you”, for that particular phrase, I will internally say the words ‘I look’, ‘I lose’, ‘I drop’ (my wallet). These are all ‘actions’ that, if thought of along with the words of the song, may affect the way you present it. The proper way to do this process is to not actually sing the song, but to simply go through each phrase and replace them with the actioning words. So instead of singing “Comfort ye” in the opening of the Messiah aria, I would say (not sing) “I comfort” or “I hug” there are many ways to play around with this process. The idea is to create a series of intentions. The process is iterative, you should try different words to see what they do to the action and settle for words that result in the best performance.
A thesis was recently written by a colleague of mine on the exact subject of Actioning in singing, so you will get the best information about it there:
http://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/handle/10289/11380 – Dams, J. (2017). Preparing for Operatic Roles by Combining Elements of Stanislavsky’s System with Alfreds’ Actioning (Thesis, Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10289/11380
Who do I sing to?
Tabaka talks of ‘seeing the person’ during practice. I would like to add to this and say that whether you’re in front of an audience or not, you should have an ‘objective’ at all times. If you’re extremely comfortable with the idea of seeing the people you want to sing to in the audience, then visualise them in your rehearsal. See their faces and their reactions to each passage – and LAP IT UP. Lap it up unapologetic. Do not, at any point, feel as if any part of you needs to apologize for this.
Beyond this, if you are truly uncomfortable ‘seeing’ your audience, sing the music to someone who doesn’t exist. Picture them in your mind as you rehearse and as you deliver. This could be someone who is attending, but you won’t be able to see in the audience, someone who is not attending, or someone imaginary. Sing to them directly (or collectively if it’s a group of imagined people). Also remember that this person should be somewhere in the audience – or further out. The direction of most good singing is an extroverted one – unless you are lucky enough to be singing an extremely intimate piece with a good microphone.
Remember, charismatic does not mean extroverted
It is important for introverted people to know that charismatic does NOT mean extroverted. I like to think of singing as an art that transcends these ridiculous labels. Having charisma in music is about having integrity, a genuine interest in the piece you are singing, a genuine connection and an unapologetic delivery. Anyone can achieve this if they focus on these things. Extroverts don’t have magical powers over their musicianship that introverts have – they can just cope better in certain social situations – such as schmoozing, presenting ideas to a group or talkativeness.
If you’re considering a singing career, or even wanting to sing frequently as a hobby, I urge you to listen to musicians like Tabaka, who are conquering these hurdles themselves. Also watch charismatic singers in the past and present (Max Lorenz, Celine Dion, Beyonce, Amy Winehouse, Elvis, Lautiz Melchior, Maria Callas, Jesseye Norman to name a few) and watch them for their artistry, temperament and style. If singers spent as much time working on their stage presence, charisma and confidence as on their technique, we would truly have a music revolution on our hand!
Happy singing, and thanks to Janet Tabaka for her video as well as Dr. June Dams for her contribution to Actioning in singing.