Monthly Archives: September 2013

ENERGY IN PERFORMANCE – Engaging Your Audience

Photo of candle flameHave you ever gone to a concert – any kind of concert – and felt completely “underwhelmed” by the performers even though they were performing competently, doing everything right as far as the music itself was concerned?  What was it that struck you as less than engaging about the performance?

I’ll wager it was a lack of commitment to the audience – a lapse of energy – that your were sensing.  It could stem from a few different things, such as:

  • Inexperience – Unless you’re at least somewhat experienced in the art of performing, you might have an insufficient insight as to how much you might have to do in order to have it “read” properly from the audience.  You may think you’re overdoing it, when in fact it could prove to be not nearly enough.
  • Tentative grasp of the material – Without the confidence that comes with full mastery and internalization of what you’re performing (be it music, a play, a comedic bit, etc.), your delivery might come off as tenuous and uncertain.
  • Stage anxiety – Sometimes nervousness can actually work in a performer’s favor, but just as often it can serve to quell the best aspects of delivery.
  • Fatigue or illness – Here again, nerves might prove beneficial in compensating for otherwise low energy.  Failing that, experience should tell the performer when that extra effort will be needed to make up for when we are tired or sick.
  • Lack of enthusiasm (“I’ve done this so many times….”) – This may be the most challenging barrier of all to giving the audience a scintillating performance.  If you ever acted in high school or college theatre where the production ran for more than 1 or 2 nights, you might recall that by the 3rd night, it was tough to summon the same kind of commitment onstage.  Now try and imagine yourself (as I often have) as a professional having to go on night after night for weeks or months in an ongoing Broadway production!

Regardless of the reason(s), a lack of full and complete commitment (aka “phoning it in”) will be all too apparent to the audience – as a lackluster performance, one with no “sparkle.”  Imagine whether Bruce Springsteen would be as successful as he has been without his fabled stage energy!

The fact is – whether you are singing or playing in a solo role or in an ensemble, whether popular, classical or ethnic music, whether it’s a concert or a sacred ceremony, or even a speech – energy and vitality in performance is absolutely key to engaging your audience.

Sometimes the energy lapse is limited to specific aspects such as diction, or facial expression, or musical line.   But even just one part of the performance that doesn’t quite sizzle can make all the difference between an “okay” performance and a truly exciting one.  And quite often having that sizzle can more than make up for other shortcomings.  An audience is far more likely to forgive an innocent mistake in notes or the occasional crack in the voice than they are to accept an overall tentative performance.

High Energy Doesn’t Mean LOUD or FAST.  While volume and speed can sometimes serve to convey a sense of engagement and immediacy, we can’t always sing everything loud and fast.  And yet the energy has to come from somewhere.

A classic example of this sort of challenge is in singing a very slow piece.  This often means having to sing long held notes.  You may feel it’s so slow, it’s like swimming in molasses.  The all-too-typical fix is simply to speed up the tempo.  But even this won’t make up for all of the energy deficiency, so why not deal with the problem head-on?

Listen to a good recording of Bach’s famous “Air for the G String,” or Handel’s equally celebrated “Largo” from Serse [Xerxes], two classic examples of very slow pieces which would lose their very identities if they were taken even just a little faster.  As you listen, try and notice how the initial very long notes are given life and energy, how they are made to “bloom” as they lead seamlessly into what follows.

No Rest for the Musical.  What you might notice is a feeling of crescendo without an actual crescendo, along with a sense of urgency without an actual speeding up.  These add up to a feeling of heading toward a destination.  This is the secret to singing or playing with a proper sense of “line,” of giving it shape and contour.  Although we are listening for it in those long-held notes, it must ideally be present in every note – long, short or in-between, and even through the rests!

Quiet Urgency.  This sense of constant energy is especially important when singing softly.  In fact a good rule of thumb is to increase your energy as you get softer.  Think of that urgency, that near-crescendo, and of diction, especially consonants (always important, but especially in those quiet moments).  Spit them out!

Learn to Gage How to Engage.  Energy does not mean OVER THE TOP, nor does it necessitate a lapse of dignity or good taste.  But it often does mean going farther than you as the performer might think is necessary or appropriate – exaggerating diction, facial attitude, dynamic changes, etc.  Let your conductor or other reliable advisor watch and listen from the house during rehearsals to gage what does and doesn’t work.

Put On a Happy Face (Or At Least An Engaged One).  If you’ve watched truly top-notch classical performers, they may not be putting on the smiley faces as they play or sing.  But they truly look engaged.  Solo and chamber players, and even orchestral players move and sway with the phrases.  And it’s a good bet they’re not faking this.  A solo singer communicates the song or aria on his/her face.  Choral singers should likewise be able to convey the mood and context of what they are singing facially.

In short, really get into your performing, and show the audience that you are enjoying it, even if it isn’t necessarily happy material.  If the music is sad, revel in that sadness and gloom, or whatever the mood and emotion might be.

If you want to engage the audience, be engaged.  But whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to commit the cardinal sin of performing – boredom!     Join Email List

WHAT IS GREAT MUSIC?

Photo of Ravel piano score excerpt painted on a city building in Minneapolis.

Ravel in Minneapolis

A good question to ponder, with perhaps a different answer for each of us.  For some, great music is music you can dance to.  Or make love to.  For others, great music can lift the spirit from the depths of despair.  Or maybe it’s just relaxing.

I have to admit, I’m not much of a dancer, and frankly, for my money, music and sex make for a rather uncomfortable mix.  But I am a sucker for those romantic, poetic images that can be found in many of the great standard tunes sung by the likes of Sinatra or Nat King Cole, or in the great art songs of Schubert, Brahms, Debussy or Fauré.  For me, great music can be a voyage of mystery, nostalgia, and fantasy.

How About You?  Think of your favorite popular songs or classical works.  Is it the lyrics that get your attention?  Are you hooked by melody, harmonies, or perhaps the backbeat?  Better yet, is it some combination of two or more of these elements that produces a synergy that “sends” you?

It’s Personal.  Back in the mid ‘70s, before the days of “big-box” stores, the internet or MP3 downloads, I worked a summer or two in the records & tapes department of one of our big downtown department stores.  As sales staff it was our job to help customers find what they were looking for.  But unlike with other kinds of merchandise, we found that most of our customers came in already knowing what they wanted, jealously guarding their preferences, and unwilling to consider other things.  And while there might have been a handful of hits that drew lots of sales (that summer the big album was Rumours by Fleetwood Mac), I was struck by the wide variety of artists and genres that met these individual tastes.

My Classical is Your Renaissance.  The same might be said about classical music lovers.  Someone who enjoys opera may not care much for Brahms (who never wrote an opera), whereas a Brahms fan may turn up the nose at Donizetti or Rossini (who wrote mostly opera).  Some prefer symphonic music, while others live for chamber, solo voice or choral.  In other cases, preferences fall by historic period, for example, Baroque vs. 20th Century avant-garde, or Renaissance vs. Romantic periods.

What’s the Matter with Kansas?  I can relate to having those deeply held personal preferences and the frequent myopia that accompanies them:  When I was younger, it was all I could do to get myself to listen to anything new, especially popular music.  I had always had to “be sold” first.  I came to enjoy the group Kansas only after having sat through many card games with friends who constantly played that music.  At first I didn’t care for it, but before long I owned a few Kansas albums.  If I still couldn’t regard it on the same plain as Bach or Rachmaninoff, nonetheless I found the music far more complex, sophisticated and affecting than I would ever have dreamed.

This pattern has repeated often in my musical life.  As I trained to be a classical singer, I only very slowly acquired an appreciation for the rich culture of opera.  Over time, I’ve gotten to know and appreciate the tranquil dignity of Baroque, or the intimacy of chamber music.  Even with my favorite composers my full embrace of some of their pieces took time and patience to achieve.  But once I had, my world was so much the richer from then on.

Make an Investment.  Sometimes the most rewarding musical experience, in the end, is that which requires an investment of time to get to know it.  For example, If you’ve never really familiarized yourself with a work of classical music, why not try this “investment” exercise?  Maybe you’ve had a curiosity about a famous piece or a great historic composer, whether Gabrieli or Gershwin, but never got around to looking into it.  If it’s famous, it’s probably great, having withstood the test of time, and is therefore worthy of your time.  And you’ll probably be able to find it easily online.

Let the Music Learn You.  You can listen to music actively or passively, while doing something else, allowing it to insinuate itself into your ear.  Listen to your chosen work once or twice a day for, say, two weeks.  Then leave it alone for another two weeks, then come back to it.  You may just find it has grown on you!  If it’s well crafted, you’ll begin to appreciate the finer points of it.  You might even gain a background curiosity about the piece and its composer, history, cultural context, etc.

You Don’t Have to Be a Genius.  Such an exercise doesn’t require you to be a musicologist.  You need only the ability to listen, or at least to hear.  In the process, you’ll be developing, over time, a more discerning ear.

Take the risk!  The most you stand to lose is a little time, a little effort, and maybe the acquaintance of music you end up not caring for.  (If you don’t like the piece, try another work in a contrasting period and style.)  What you stand to gain, however, is the enrichment and gratification born of something truly high-quality that you’ll always have.     

Make New Friends.  Once you get to know a great work of music, it’s like making a new friend for life, one you’ll never tire of.  Then, along with the familiar, you’ll keep discovering new qualities (or foibles) that will engage and fascinate you.  Besides those things that have attracted you to your favorite songs, you’ll come to appreciate other elements of this music, and of music in general, that will “send” you.  And – dare I say it? – your tastes will be elevated and refined.
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CONCENTRATION IN CHORAL SINGING – Finding the Relaxed State

blue&white3-1Have you ever noticed how relaxing it can be to do a routine task, like folding laundry or washing the car?  Your mind wanders as you go about a simple task.  Maybe you have the TV or radio on while you’re doing this “mindless” activity, and without even trying, your focus goes to the program.

Do you find golf to be a tranquilizing activity?  Do you enjoy relaxing with a good book?  Maybe you like to decompress by knitting or needlepoint, or by surfing the web.  How often have you fallen asleep to your favorite music?  (And yes, if you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you’ll know that successfully falling asleep can be a matter of focusing the mind on counting those sheep.)

Just what is it that all of these activities have in common?  They are all potentially relaxing.  But why?  They all lure us into a state of trance, a kind of hypnosis – in simplest terms, a place of deep concentration.

“Concentratus Interruptus.”  Now imagine that your concentration is repeatedly broken.  Sometimes this break is induced by outside sources.  Often it comes from within ourselves – we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to inhibiting our concentration.  In either case, I’m sure you’ll agree these interruptions are anything but relaxing, and can be deeply irritating.

Concentration is relaxation.  This is common knowledge, stated by many experts on effective performance of any kind, whether it be music, theatre, public speaking, sports, or what-have-you.  And yet, it’s all too easy to overlook.

We might sometimes think of intense concentration as some sort of tense, stressful condition.  We are confusing intense concentration with the kind of intense frustration we may feel when we’re unable to focus, but really need to.

It’s Only Natural.  True concentration is the opposite of tension.  It’s so natural, we usually don’t notice we’re actually doing it.  As a personal example, I really enjoy typing, especially when I can establish a flow over a long period of several minutes.  It is very hypnotic, relaxing, soothing.  And I’m actually producing something, so there’s an extra note of gratification.

The same goes with music.  For those of us involved in choral singing, performing music is not only gratifying, it can be a remarkably effective way of unwinding.  This is in part a result of the deep breathing required for singing – taking deep breaths is relaxing and cleanses our mind and body by reconnecting us with a steady oxygen flow.  But it also has to do with the mental concentration required.

For effective choral singing, indeed for any sort of accomplished ensemble performance, concentration is key.  That’s what it takes to really tune in to one another:  to enter and cut off together, to blend our vowel color and our consonants, to feel each and every nuance of articulation, dynamics and tempo, to be at one with the music, and with one another.  And when that chain of group concentration is broken or torn by even one person not fully participating in it, it can be frustrating for all concerned.  But don’t let it get to you!

Concentration is Focused Attention.  This means attention to what’s being requested of us during rehearsals, listening carefully to the conductor’s (hopefully clear and succinct) instructions, and then an equally sharp focus on carrying out those instructions in the music.  But each and every individual has to do his/her part in this communal concentration – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  And it takes practice.

There’s really no mystery about concentration – just focus your mind on the thing at hand.  (And try not to be lured into that pitfall of stopping to notice how well you’re focusing, because that’s not focusing!)

In the context of singing, there are a whole set of specific things to concentrate on.  It’s impossible of course to focus on too many elements all at once – that’s why we must learn and rehearse the music over time and build it into our minds and our bodies.  Then the notes and rhythms and our coherent sense of form become second-nature, and we can focus in on energizing and selling the music to our audience.

Practice Makes Perfect.  Once you get to know first-hand the synergistic magic that can happen when everyone is concentrating, the communal experience of effective music-making can be unforgettable, just as it can be in an effective team effort in sports.  And the more we practice both individual and communal concentration, successfully tuning in to each aspect of the music, the easier and more second-nature it becomes.  And the better our choir will sound.
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GIVING BIRTH TO MUSIC – The Thrill (and Fright) of Showing a New Child to the World

Hayom T'amtzeinu by Michael Reid Winikoff - photo of sheet musicTo Change the World?! – One of the great dramatic prayers of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins, “Today the world is born.”  The old traditional interpretation of this is that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of Creation.  Another even more compelling version is that today, each year, the world is re-born, created anew.  Each of us has the opportunity to re-create our own world, and by extension the whole world, for the better.

As composers, many of us hold the audacity of hope that each of our new compositions, to which in a very real sense we give birth, and which we often think of as our children, will in some small way make the world better, will introduce into it a tiny sparkle of joy, of hope, of inspiration, of a more profound understanding of things.

This past week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I had the great honor of having one of my liturgical choral works, a setting of the concluding litany Hayom T’amtzeinu, introduced to my lifelong home congregation.  Although I was leading services at another synagogue and so wasn’t able to hear it sung for the first time in situ as part of the service, I had been attending the choir rehearsals and helping them to prepare the piece, and had the privilege of hearing it come into full flower.

Winning Over the Performers – I was delighted (and relieved) at the very positive response to the work by everyone involved.  While the parts are occasionally tricky with unexpected melodic turns, I knew pretty much from the first read-through that the group would be able to tackle it quite easily – that they “got” it.  Much of the harmony came through immediately, and they seemed to catch on quickly.  It also didn’t hurt that they found the parts vocally comfortable.

I’ve been fortunate not only that we have a particularly fine choir this year, but also that the two cantors and the conductor have all been strong advocates of my new piece, both in deciding to take it on and in ensuring meticulous preparation of the choir.  They too seemed to “get” it, and I didn’t need to say very much.  By all accounts, it came off very well in the service.

The Best Laid Plans – There was, unfortunately, one frustrating aspect of this wonderful adventure.  This year the synagogue is using a new prayer book, in which the editors felt it necessary to change the order of verses in the text.  It’s the sort of frustration that undoubtedly many composers of sacred settings in many faiths have had to experience – that of having to try and accommodate text changes for an existing musical setting or risk that setting becoming unusable and irrelevant.  Fortunately, I think I’ve found a way to address the changes.

Winning Over the Audience – Given that this place in the service is a beloved opportunity for congregational song, it can be daunting and risky indeed to dare make any change of tune, let alone introduce a choral setting.  This is perhaps the chief reason my Hayom was sung only once, on the second day, so that congregants would only be confronted with it once, after they’d gotten to sing the old tune on the first day.  But mine features a very singable, congregation-friendly melody, and I’m hoping they’ll come to embrace it and not resent the change too deeply.

What’s So Good About It?  In the wake of this gratifying experience, I’ve been trying to understand the possible reasons why my setting has been so well-received by the musicians.  Here are some thoughts:

Consider Both Performer and Listener.  I tried to think of both as my audience, and to know that audience.

Make it Accessible – For this particular audience, I ensured it wouldn’t be too avant-garde or esoteric – this is not the place for experimentation.  On the practical side, it couldn’t be unduly difficult, either musically or vocally – it would need fit the resources of the average synagogue choir.

Appropriate.  I endeavored for something not only beautiful and memorable, but especially apropos of the particular mood and occasion.  In this case, it meant knowing and making creative use of the special chant idioms for the High Holy Days and, of course, understanding the meaning and significance of the text.  Thus the old adage of authors – “Write what you know.”

Singable.  I made certain the music was tuneful and coherent, taking special care to fit the music to the rhythm of the text in an optimal way for maximum singability.  In our Jewish community at least, all too often we encounter a congregational melody that doesn’t really fit the text, which has been shoe-horned in.  This doesn’t make for a very satisfying singing experience.

Concise.  I knew this would be no place for undue length, so I got to the point, avoided repetition and stayed within two minutes.

Ledgible.  I also made sure the score was easy to read – this seems obvious, but is not to be underestimated, and too often it doesn’t happen.  In general, if the performers are presented with too many obstacles, the frustration and wasted time can prove counter-productive.  This is especially true with an orchestra, but it applies here as well.  I try always to grease the skids in introducing new music by making things as easy as possible for everyone.

Interesting.  Finally, I tried to achieve some degree of musical depth and substance.  A bit of harmonic interest, a touch of counterpoint, a compact and cohesive sense of form, all sprinkled with occasional subtle touches of the unexpected.  This may constitute a bit more challenge in learning at first, but properly done it can increase the gratification factor for both performer and listener, and might increase the durability of the piece in your repertoire over time.  Boring pieces can quickly become passé.

Think of your perennial musical favorites, and try to figure out some of the things that make them work so well for you.  Then apply those principals to your own creations.  It’s sure to make for more successful, well-bred “children.”       Join Email List