Whether you want to be the next Opera Diva, Rock Star, Pop Sensation, or Musical Theater Idol, you need to understand the basic concepts and skills to make your performance come alive for the audience. This article is the start of a course-style series designed to teach singers how to act on stage.
“But I want to be a singer, not an actor!”
What if we exchange acting with communicating or “expressing oneself effectively.” Does that change things for you? The reality is that there is no way to NOT communicate when we are on stage. If you choose to do nothing with your body, then you are communicating something along the lines of either “super nervous, uncomfortable performer” or “super bored, disengaged performer.” If you want your audience to think and feel something else then it is time you learned how to act.
“But I’m just going to get up on stage and be myself,” you say. “I’m not going to act like someone else.” To which I respond, “Which version of you are you going to be? You on the stage? You when you wrote this song? You at the moment you are describing in this song?” These are all different characters.
Anytime you are on stage, you are playing a character. Even if that character is some version of yourself. When you are performing, each new song you sing is telling a story. If you don’t know how to let yourself inhabit the person who would say those words to the emotion that music requires in that person’s world, then you will never take your audience beyond the 5 seconds worth of a “wow” moment they might have when they hear your pretty voice.
“But I’m already an actor. Is acting really any different while singing?”
In straight theater or cinema, a lot of time is spent finding the right “timing”. If you don’t have the right timing, then it won’t work no matter what you do. The challenge for singing actors is that, for the most part, the timing is already determined. This is often because it is music and has to fit in a certain number of beats per measure. The timing in music by definition isn’t natural. Consequently, the challenge is making unnatural timing and pitch inflection look organic and natural. Yes, acting skills definitely apply here and help a ton. But there is a skill set unique to the singing actor. I have had many students come in to work with me who have had extensive acting training who realize that they just don’t know how to make it come across right when they have to act while singing or just to live music.
“What makes it so hard? Why do I actually need to practice this?”
Here are some possible reasons that singing and acting at the same time might be particularly difficult. First: because for most people being on stage gets the adrenaline going, and when the adrenaline starts pumping our body does weird stuff. Second: because our brain functions differently when we sing. Third: because when we sing and perform we are asking our mind and body to multitask more than it would with just about any other human activity. Fourth: because we are trying to look natural on stage while doing a not everyday kind of activity.
Naturalistic Vs. Stylized
In this course, we are going to be focusing on naturalistic acting. What I mean by naturalistic is that we are trying to make it look like even though you are singing and on a stage, that you are a real person in an imaginary world where singing is a natural part of that world. Your body language matches the music. The music matches the words. And your audience forgets that you’re even singing. It becomes an organic way of communicating and storytelling on a higher level. By stylized acting or stylized performance, I mean that the performer’s body language does not try to follow normal patterns of everyday human behavior. Think of it this way: if you stripped away the singing and music and just saw this person using their body in this way in everyday life, would you believe it? Would it look authentic and genuine? If yes, then it is probably naturalistic acting. If not, it is probably stylized acting. Like most things we will talk about, it isn’t as clear cut or black and white as I’m making it sound here. Naturalistic and stylized are extremes of a continuum where most performances fall somewhere in between.
For more about naturalistic vs. stylized acting:
The article linked above talks in terms of film, but can be applied to your own type of performance.
I loved this video a lot. I agree that we are looking for realism rather than naturalism, but for ease of being understood, I will use the term “naturalistic acting” as being a form of realism (though a part of me cringes at that because of this video). “Realistic acting” has a connotation to me that communicates something that I don’t like. As they said at the end, as long as we know what we mean, then that is what is most important. This discussion is more Acting 501 though instead of Acting 101.
Why do I have any business talking about this?
You can read my biography to get an idea of some of my experiences, but here’s a brief description. I have taught a lot of students with a wide variety of backgrounds and experience for a decent amount of time with results that I am proud of. If you are like me though, no matter how amazing someone looks on paper, it doesn’t mean that they will have what I need. I can be pretty skeptical. Experience has taught me that a great performer in a field does not necessarily make them a great teacher in that field. Performing and teaching someone to perform are different skill sets. Sure, there is overlap but some of the best teachers I have worked with are not the best singers or the best performers themselves, BUT they are amazing at helping others progress quickly. The tools I am sharing with you in this course have helped every single singer I have worked with that was willing to apply it to progress exponentially. Comments like, “I learned more in one class than I have learned in any other acting class!” are common. Am I touting my teaching? Nope. I am touting the material though. It is all exceptional material that has come from world-class teachers. See below where I give credit to some of these masters!
What am I trying to say? Don’t take my word for it. Try what I am asking you to do. Give it 100% for a while and see what it does for you. Don’t judge it based on what it feels like as you are performing. It might feel strange or unnatural to you when you start because it hasn’t become a habit for you yet. Do trust any videos you take and others’ reaction’s as they watch you. Ask yourself as you watch videos of yourself applying what we are talking about in your performance, “Is it more believable, more engaging, and more enjoyable as an audience member this way?” Also, give yourself some space and be patient. The goal is progress, not to have it perfect immediately. It will take some work, thought, and effort. So as you watch yourself in videos after you performed, look for progress and not perfection.
Why Record Video Yourself Performing?
Tip: It is hard for many people to watch themselves perform. The best way to get past the barrier of being hypercritical of yourself and not recording or watching videos of yourself is to imagine that the person you are watching is a stranger who you are teaching. So you are looking for what they are doing well and what they can do to improve. It also gets easier the more you do it.
Make taking videos of yourself and reviewing them a regular part of your practice. By taking videos of yourself and reviewing them, you are also participating in one of the most important deliberate practice steps.
Video recording and watching your performance is also a large part of deliberate practice. “Deliberate practice” is a term that came from studying what made the very top people in their field the top. Here are some books and articles if you want to know more:
Outliers by Malcom Gladwell
Talent is Overrated by Geoffry Colvin
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
Giving credit where credit is due
Most of what I have learned has been either learned by experience or learned by word of mouth from other educators and professionals. It isn’t always easy to identify where someone else’s ideas leave off and my original ideas start. I do not in any way suggest that all of these ideas are my original ideas. There are some people though whose ideas and teaching have influenced me heavily. Maybe the ideas that I use of theirs here are their original ideas, or maybe they got them from someone else too. Either way, I wish to give them recognition for their teaching and propagation of what I have found to be incredibly valuable information. There are, of course, many more who have influenced me that are not mentioned and I thank you as well.
So a HUGE thank you to these following educators:
Richard Crittenden, Dr. Robert DeSimone, Dr. Arden Hopkin, Richard Isaacs, Dr. Lawrence Vincent, Elizabeth Vrenios.
And of course, without the many, many students who have let me use them as guinea pigs and who have taught me by just being themselves. Without them I wouldn’t have a purpose in sharing these ideas.
If what you read is amazing it is probably theirs. If you think it is rubbish feel free to blame me.
Disclosure: Links to products will take you to my online store. If you purchase items on amazon by going through those links I get a small percentage of profit from those purchases that help me continue to make this content. Thank you!