Two events from last week inspired this post: Meryl Streep did a lovely interview on NPR where she said something that I want to put on my business card: “Voice lessons bring out the voice we already possess;” and The Terrified Adults and Spotlight Whores Sunday Afternoon Musicale opened its season.
The Terrified Adults and Spotlight Whores Sunday Afternoon Musicale, known on my calendar merely as T.A. is what I call my adult student recitals. My students can register as Spotlight Whores with as many songs as I will let them sing, they can be audience or they can come with Ambivalence Status. Ambivalence Status means they decide once things are underway if they want to perform.
The T.A. Musicales are not your stereotypical music recitals. I do my best to provide as relaxed an environment as I can. To this end, I provide props, costumes, and suggestions for ways to reduce the anxiety about singing or playing in front of an audience. And everyone gets a chance for a do-over at the end.
On Sunday I asked the performers to explain what their objective was in singing that day. Was it to sing without throwing up? With the music memorized? Without saying “Damn it!” in the middle of the song? Without apologizing or saying that it sounded better an hour ago? (Always including one of my objectives: Please stay focused while I finish playing the accompaniment. It’s part of the song, too.)
Our first performer, who will go by the name of Samantha because she has suffered enough exposure for one week, said she wanted to sing her song without crying. She immediately started to cry, seemingly from the terror of what she was setting out to accomplish. We started over a few times before she got underway and as she sang through the verses, her voice got steadier and stronger. She went from looking terrified to beaming and sounding confident.
She demonstrated something that is missing from so much singing one hears these days, something that I think makes a performance compelling: vulnerability. She had her heart out there with no interface except raw courage. One by one, my students got up and sang better than I have heard them sing before. Everyone had a different objective but everyone sang with a kind of vulnerability.
Every performance surprised and moved me, and if I can be frank, that is a tall order with me. For one, I am at the piano accompanying the singers and wrestling with pages that won’t stay flat. Secondly, I hear a lot of voices in my studio and I listen to many attempts to sing things “perfectly,” which always backfires and is often accompanied by expressions of self-loathing. Whatever the word perfect means to one person, it means something different to everyone else. A song or a single note is different every single time you sing or play it because it’s alive. If you once get it “perfect,” you’ve now not only killed it, but no one else thinks you’ve done anything notable so it’s an exercise in masochism.
Terrified Adult and Spotlight Whore are two sides of the same coin, but they have to be in balance in order for the coin to spin. When you are too enamored of the spotlight, you are up there amusing and impressing yourself alone. The word masturbate comes to mind: there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s something one usually does alone. If you are too terrified, you don’t share yourself at all. In the balance, in the spin, you have room to experience the wonder of your own voice and to share it at the same time.
Performing is intimacy. There’s an intimacy with your accompanist, you trust him or her. You can’t know ahead of time what clumsy goof you’ll make that you hope your accompanist can make look like is her fault. Or better yet that the two of you can weave into the performance itself. There’s an intimacy with the audience. You can’t know what any particular audience is going to feel like. You don’t know what they expect or how flexible and open they are.
You can’t be intimate in advance, and you can’t fake vulnerability. You begin by falling in love with your own voice and inhabiting the music. You present yourself and your song with as much openness and courage as you have in that moment. And then you let go. There’s nothing more to do and you can’t control the response.
Samantha went back for a do over. Her face was incandescent and her voice was her own. She didn’t cry until the very last note and that mattered to her. But she had me from the beginning of the afternoon. I was moved by her just standing up and singing with tears in her eyes.