Use It, Or Lose It

I often hear about performers, “Wow, they have a gift,” “They are so talented,” or “They’re so lucky.” I think what audiences often see is the smallest slice of the process; and that is the final performance, not the years of training.

The performers we see could not present with such skill and expertise without the discipline behind it. What they do doesn’t simply just happen. I am reminded of this if I don’t practice; when I sit down to the piano without warming up or having played in a while, I feel like the Tin Man. Oil can, oil can. My fingers are stiff, less agile.

Like singers, dancers, actors: everything is a muscle. The voice is a muscle, the body is filled with muscles, the mind used to deliver the emotional understanding of a scene is a muscle. And when we don’t use them, we lose them. It is difficult to think that because once a master always a master. The student studies, and once the skill is mastered, they need to (and want to, hopefully) keep studying.

Some Of The Parts

Is what you do who are? Is what you everything that defines you? I’m a doctor, I’m a lawyer, I’m a pianist. I’m more than what I do. Sometimes it feels as if what you is what you are and only what you are.

I had the chance to catch up with a colleague. We discuss this feeling of doing more things than the job title required of us; often the job is limited to some of our parts; there’s more to us than the job. As freelance artists, we need to take on a variety of jobs: actor, writer, choreographer, rehearsal accompanist.

Nobody is just their job. I’m reminded of this every time I am surprised by how multifaceted people can be. And that should give hope; if there’s something you haven’t tried, it doesn’t mean you cannot include it in the sum of your parts.

Start From Scratch

It’s important to know where to begin; a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Often when we’ve traveled the same path day after day, we forget exactly how we get from point A to point B.  Think of your daily routine: traveling to work, to the store, to the coffee shop; now that it’s second nature, we so easily forget how we first made the journey.

I find this to be true in learning material for a show.  After we’ve learned the music, the lines, the blocking, we become so familiar with the rhythm and feel of the show; it becomes easy to forget every step and the meaning behind them.  As I’ve worked on material, coaching performers for auditions, sometimes the performances can fall into old habits, or sound tired.

The energy and work comes from starting fresh every time.  Every time you get up and sing, no matter how many times it has happened before, the integrity of the material must be maintained.  It’s the difference between holding that musical note for it’s full count, being clear with the rhythm, being clear with the text.  Starting from scratch is not to suggest we forget what we’ve learned, rather approaching the material fresh and interrogating every aspect of it.

Familiar Values

It’s possible that although you’re a better option for a job, someone else will get hired. And it’s possible that your accomplishments make you perfect for a job, yet still you are not hired.

What’s makes you a good option for employment? For performers, it’s entirely subjective. Think about the number of actors who continually get hired in TV, Film and on stage; are they the best for the role? Or are they merely familiar?

When we get hired for a role, a job, often it’s because of the values of the team hiring; so what are the values? Is it the look, the talent, the color of the skin? We may never know, but it’s important to ask.

Swinging On A Show

Audience members watching a show, often don’t know what goes on backstage. For every actor on sage there are murk ripe people working the set, lights and sound. And for every actor on stage there are understudies; and there are swings who know multiple roles.

It’s important for shows to have swings; these are the individuals who are responsible when not only a performer calls in sick or is unavailable. They cover when even the understudies are away. They know every line of dialogue, every armory of music for each character they know. Sometimes they cover up to 10 to 12 roles.

Imagine knowing 12 different storylines within one show. There are several differences and nuances to each role. To swing is to have a focus and a mindset that is nothing short of amazing. At a moment’s notice the swing gets called to go on for a role, and they need to perform it as if they do it every night.

To Thine Own Voice

In many ways we are advised to “be ourselves.” “Be true to yourself,” “go your own way,” and many other sayings that hit home the idea of individuality. So why do we work so hard at blending in with one another?

On a variation to yesterday’s post, I’m reminded that we tend to emulate the speech patterns that we hear. I’ve noticed men forcing their voices in a lower register, to sound more manly or to fit in with their peers. For some of us with higher pitched voices, it can make us feel exposed and stick out in the crowd.

Likewise I hear some women forcing their voices down into vocal fry, which you’ve probably heard if you’ve ever seen a celebrity reality show; it’s like rubbing two sheets of sandpaper together.

I wonder if the need to force a voice pattern and range is to sound cool or acceptable to each other; inevitably this hurts the voice, drying it out and can lead to vocal damage. Why not use your real voice? Be yourself: easier written than said.

Speak Up

It is amazing how hard people work to fit in. The right brand-name clothes, the diet trends, or latest hair styles are all ways we can “fit in.” Another way I find fascinating is how we talk.

Speech patterns vary depending where you are. I’ve noticed the latest trend in up speak: making everything a question by raising the pitch of the voice at the end of the phrase. Is it so we don’t sound committed or too self-assured? Is it because no one wants to stand out or seem too confident.

The other trend in speaking is what I like (or don’t like) to think of as the “retail voice.” The voice that is slightly overly nasal, slightly up speak and sounds like someone asking you if you’ve found everything at the department store.

Maybe that is how someone really speaks; maybe it’s completely natural an unaffected. Or maybe it’s a way of sticking with the herd and fitting in.

All The Feels

Showing emotion on cue, as actors often have to do, is not always easy.  Can you cry on cue?  Or laugh, convincingly?  How about reserving the emotion?  The opposite is also true for performers: sometimes not showing emotion is more powerful than showing it.

I’ve often thought that sometimes performers who over-emote, or shows that embellish the emotional state of a character, can lead to indulgent performing.  When a performance is about the performer and their feelings, it sometimes leaves the audience out of the experience.  An example might be similar to an inside joke you hear, that you are not in on; The emotions have to land and make sense just like a punchline.

When the material becomes weepy, or self-reflective in a way that allows the performer to walk on stage, already in tears, what makes us care?  What makes the audience want to hear this particular story.  Every time the performer walks on stage, they need to entice the audience to feel, allowing them to have the emotional reactions.

The Department of Self Perception

I know how I see things, unequivocally. I can tell you exactly what I perceive and why it is true. And that is the limitation we all face: we see what we see. We know only what we know.

When we confront an issue with colleagues, or people in our personal lives, it’s often hard to remember that their point of view is as equally valid and as equally flawed as our own. We all have a piece of the truth, but none of us have all the facts.

Learning to accept our blindspots can go a long way when receiving and giving criticism. Even an observation can be altered by the mere fact that what we perceive is contextualized by our experience, which is solely our own. In the professional (and personal) arena, sometimes realizing we don’t have all the facts can help us take in new information.

In General, Be Specific

Get better. Just get better. You already do this; you never do that. Sound familiar? I’ve had the experiences of working with other creative artists, who speak in generalities, unable to be specific when delivering a note or an adjustment. It makes it impossible to diagnose and fix the problem.

A problem named is a problem solved. In both the professional and personal life, when there is conflict, it’s best to be specific. I can recall several times in a music rehearsal to just “get better.” In a score of two and a half hours of music, I thought, good luck finding where to get better. Rather, “at measure 32 in the musical number 5, this beat could be more steady.” Or something to that effect.

Likewise, when we are looking for a clearer direction from a friend or colleague, it’s more constructive to hear, “yesterday in our conversation about [x] I felt [blank],” rather than drawing a blanket statement that cannot be refuted, nor truly defended. Your clarity will gain you respect and a follow through.

A little stage write