Last Note or Syllable
When it is your character’s music your eyes should begin to shift on the last note or syllable of every phrase of music you sing or that is played.
But this is art not rocket science!
True. The art is found in the different ways you shift your eyes to capture the music and text you are about to share. The art is how your body follows in expressing that music and text. The art is in how you deliver that music and text. If you don’t follow the natural patterns of communication though the audience either won’t believe you mean what you are saying, that it is a lie, or won’t comprehend what is being communicated. Meaning is made by patterns. Make art but do it in a way your audience will be able to understand by following the formula.
Is it always that way?
Here at the start as you are earning this it will be most helpful to you if you think that it is always this way. In reality, there are composers where the shift happens earlier. For example, when directing Carmen by Bizet I realized that his shifts seem to all happen on the second to last note. But for the vast majority of songs it is the last note or syllable if we are trying to be naturalistic.
What happens if we don’t start on the beginning of the last note or syllable?
Shifting your eyes too early is better than shifting your eyes too late. An audience can tolerate a lot more time if what they see comes before what they hear but if it is the other way around even a split second will ruin the magic.
A little too late or way too early reads to the audience like bad dubbing.
If you shift on the downbeat of the phrase then it will start looking like choreography instead of naturalistic action. It looks robotic and unnatural. It results in something similar to the not natural action over uniform and ridged actions of Mickey Mouse.
Common reactions for top professionals.
I have taught this principle in front of some well experienced and excellent performers from around the world. I get one of two reactions.
The first kind of reaction is that after they think about it they realize that they do this but never really thought about it. It was either intuitive or they picked it up over years of experience and effort applied towards being honest and authentic with how they portrayed their characters and the music.
The second kind of reaction I have seen is that they get really upset, defensive, and say something to the effect of “I don’t do that”. To which if I get the chance I respond, “You do when you are performing at your best.” To which I have had many respond that after they went back and thought about it or watched old video clips that it is indeed what they do in their best moments. Then there are the few who get angry, defensive, and refuse to consider it further because it is a threatening idea that maybe there is something they didn’t know or didn’t do.
This principle isn’t meant as a means to condemn or identify bad performing. There are plenty of performers who have had excellent careers that do not regularly apply this principle. With the visual astuteness of current audiences though those having successful careers that don’t apply this will become increasingly few. It is a tool to help any performance to the next level of believability and engagement in a hopefully infinite loop of improvement and progress. If you are doubtful that is great. Be skeptical. But give it a legitimate try and see what your audience’s response is once you feel like you can do it and be authentic to your character and the music.
Warning: If it doesn’t feel natural at the start don’t panic. Something only feels natural if it is in our toolbox of habits we are already accustomed too. If you have spent years not doing this then, of course, it will feel strange to go against all the muscle memory you have built up. Trust your audience. Take a video and watch seeing if your performance is more believable, clear, and has more variety.
You have already started this by drawing your arrows on the last note or syllable of every phrase and by identifying what your character is going to start to see at that arrow.
To get the timing down, have one person responsible for calling “shift” as you get to each arrow signifying that the singer should shift their eyes at this point. Don’t worry too much about where to shift them to at the start. Just keep shifting them to somewhere new.
The changes don’t need to be huge, they just need to happen. The longer that final note is held the longer your eye shift should change. The bigger the change in music the bigger the change in eye movements. Also, the change doesn’t need to happen all at once you can take the whole next phrase up to where you have another arrow to find what you are looking at until if need be.
Do this over and over until the singer starts to anticipate and move their eyes at as the person calling starts saying shift. At this point, the person calling should stop calling and watch their shifts. If the shifts get off again then go back to calling. Rinse and repeat.
Common Mistakes and Helpful hints
Eye shifts don’t happen all at once. There is a process of discovery.
The faster the final note the faster the eye shift. The longer the final note the slower the shift.
Practice makes perfect. Practice just shifting your eyes at the right time to someone else singing. Practice until it become muscle memory because that isn’t what we want you thinking about when performing.
The bigger the musical change between phrases the bigger the eye shift switch should be.
Shift at the beginning of the last note or syllable and not the end.
Thank you to Dr. Lawrence Vincent for helping me learn to help others assimilate this technique in their own work and as a director.