Monthly Archives: February 2016

How Poor Diction Can Hurt a Performance

images (16)Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the Tony-nominated production of The Crucible. I am a huge fan of director Ivo Van Hove’s work and loved his powerful production of A View From the Bridge earlier this season. Needless to say I was really looking forward to this evening at the theater. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. A large part of my disappointment was due to the fact that several of the main players were difficult to hear and understand.

There is a simple and profound lesson in this. If an audience member can’t hear you, there is a good chance they cease to care about you. AND if the character is important enough to the plot, one may even stop caring about the entire story. Fortunately, I know The Crucible quite well, having studied it in both high school and college. Even so, I found myself straining to catch certain plot points because I simply couldn’t hear some of the actors. And unlike most Broadway shows, these actors were not mic’d.

Whether you’re a young actor embarking on your career or a seasoned professional, it’s so important to take your voice and speech training seriously. Oftentimes young actors place way too much importance on getting the “emotion” of a speech and not enough focus on vocal clarity. Actors, first and foremost, need to be heard and understood. It is the most important aspect of your job. If I can’t hear or understand you, I can’t appreciate your beautiful character or emotional work!

That is not to say that you need to yell onstage in order to be understood. But you do need to be speaking from a supported and grounded place. It is also important to make sure that your consonants are sharp and crisp. In speech, the vowels carry the emotional life of the word and the consonants carry the thought. They are equally important.

If you are lacking training in voice and speech, check out my article on “5 Essential Physical Warm-Ups.” In that post you will find valuable information on how you can open up your body and voice so you are able to get a fuller breath and speak from a more open place. I also recommend picking up a copy of Edith Skinner’s Speak With Distinction in addition to working with a private coach who can help you speak with a more neutral American accent and improve your diction.

There are many variables in this business that are out of your control. One that isn’t is the clarity of your voice and speech. Don’t underestimate the importance of this aspect of your training. It can literally make or break your performance.

 

WHAT IF? Musings From a Haunted House

images (20)What if you decided to build a haunted house? What if you knew that you were uniquely talented to scare the bejesus out of your neighbors? What if all your friends had the same opinion of you? What if your talented friends wanted to get involved in the project?

What if your haunted house had a specific theme? What if that theme had rarely been exploited in the past? What if you not only had a theme, but you were hell bent on telling a compelling story? What if the story was so good that could turn your haunted house into a movie? What if you wrote the story before beginning to design the experience?

What if you viewed your haunted house as its own self-contained world of horror? What if you viewed the whole attraction as a hellish experience for your guests? What if your guests became totally immersed in your world? What if they felt as though they were stepping into a Stephen King novel?

What if you exploited the senses to their fullest in your haunted house? What if you decided to incorporate four, even all five senses in the experience? What if the lighting was theatrical in quality and interactive in nature? What if the light shifted as the story progressed?

What if your guests were greeted with a beverage tied to the story? What if the sound was immersive? What if accompanying music set the tone for the storytelling? What if sound effects rose and fell in a cacophony or ordered chaos? What if your characters each had their own unique voice? What if bits of dialogue helped flesh out the telling?

What if certain items were designed to be touched? What if jets of air gave the impression that something unseen was touching your guests? What if your actors used lighting, sound and touch to their greatest effect?

What if it smelled like a haunted house? What if the story included fire and the room reeked of burning material? What if the distinct smell of perfume fleshed out one of your characters? What if you used her smell – and her unique voice – to later imply that the same character was behind a closed door?

What if someone explained that surprise is a random startling where suspense intensifies surprise because of the building anticipation? What if you were determined to use suspense instead of the standard cheap thrills?

What if you decided not to use graphic blood and guts scenes? What if all the horror was implied? What if you used humor to balance the intensity? What if one moment, guests were laughing and the next terrified?

What if you decided against the familiar hockey masks for costumes? What if you knew exactly where to find custom masks for your characters? What if the clothing was custom and uniquely designed for your story? What if your actors all had stage experience? What if you directed them with the flare of a Hollywood director?

What if everyone tied to the project wanted this to be a haunted house like no other? What if the guests left the building muttering, “Wow”? What if they left with a satisfied smile on their faces? What if at the end of the night, you did the same.

 

“Never Forget!” Our One Hundred Forty-Eighth Year Celebration of Memorial Day

images (17)Sunday evening, May 29. I lounged on my living room couch enjoying the end of what had been a nappy afternoon, and now began thinking of what I might have for dinner and what the evening’s entertainment would be.

I had finished all the sections of my Sunday San Diego Union-Tribune, and settled back with my remote to browse the television channels for something worthwhile. I had watched parts of two major league baseball games–including my struggling San Diego Padres getting trounced by the Arizona Diamondbacks out in Arizona. Time for some less-intensive entertainment. I intended to check the usual channels including my local Public Broadcasting Station out of San Diego, which ordinarily always provided good programming on Sunday nights. You could count on that.

As I traversed the channels, each had nothing of interest to me pertaining to my desire for a peaceful night, not one of intense murder programs or other types of all-wrong televising for this particular evening.

I had not paid much attention to the time as I visited the litany of Cox Cable stations one-by-one. I had only traveled to three or four of them in my quest when I hit upon PBS and the announcement by two familiar, respected actors of note, Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna–two great choices with no right or left wing political baggage in tow–of the National Memorial Day Concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra being held at the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C, two miles from Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place for more than four hundred thousand seven hundred Americans who had given their all, paid the ultimate price to guarantee our freedom and liberty. There, row upon endless row of white crosses stretch for as far as the eye can see, perfectly aligned no matter what angle look at them from.

Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, is our nation’s monument to valor, “… the field of the dead… ” It is six hundred twenty-four acres of pristine hallowed ground where fallen American military war casualties rest as witness to the cost of freedom. “Arlington shelters them all.” More than four million visitors a year pay their respects to them.

During the concert, Trace Adkins sang movingly and personally of those buried there with his acclaimed song, Arlington.

I’m proud to be on this peaceful piece of property,I’m on sacred ground and I’m in the best of company.

I’m thankful for those thankful for the things I’ve done,

I can rest in peace, I’m one of the chosen ones, I made it to Arlington.
And every time I hear twenty-one guns,I know they brought another hero home…

Joe Mantegna began by stating that it was raining in Washington, and many of the 300,000 of those who normally attend were at home watching it on television. “But our troops have served under far worse conditions than these,” Joe said, “so we will carry on.” A rousing cheer erupted from those in the audience.

Joe continued, “Gary and I look forward all year to hosting this extraordinary evening when we honor those who have given their lives for our country as well as those wounded veterans, our living memorials. All of us appreciate your sacrifice.”

The concert began with the National Symphony Orchestra accompanying American Idol Champion Trent Harmon in singing the National Anthem. He did so with none of the usual singer’s attempting to add their own flair to it. Trent sang it pure, straight, and beautifully–as it was intended to be sung.

The program moved quickly from one performer to another, from one renowned song to the next flawlessly. Even the Beach Boys were at their best, singing songs of those long ago, somewhat turbulent sixties.

The best of the evening? Alfie Boe closed out the 2016 National Memorial Day Concert with “Forever Young,” sang so movingly and passionately, which touched me as so surprisingly appropriate and so much appreciated, especially by the aging veterans and their families in attendance shown with tears in their eyes as the cameras scanned the audience.

May God bless and keep you alwaysMay your wishes all come true.

May you always do for others,

And let others do for you.

May you always be courageous,

Stand upright and be strong.

May your heart always be joyful.

May your song always be sung.

May you stay forever young.

At about 9:15 pm, the National Symphony Orchestra began to play a medley of the songs of each of our nation’s branches of the military. Gary announced each song until, near the last, the “Marines’ Hymn” began to play. I immediately jumped from my couch to stand at attention alone in my living room. Tears began to flow from my eyes, down my cheeks, and drop to the floor below. I still get those chills and that deep feeling of pride when I hear that familiar refrain and those memorable words I learned more than forty-nine years ago upon arriving at boot camp, Parris Island, South Carolina.

First to fight for right and freedom

And to keep our honor clean;

We are proud to claim the title

Of United States Marine.

Too soon, the program was nearing an end. More than an hour had passed since I tuned in to this magnificent concert. Where had time gone so suddenly? I had the same question for all those years since 1968-1969 when I served in Vietnam. Where had time gone since the days I was so young and so dedicated to serving my country, as were so many others. I was sad that this program was concluding–it had stirred me with its music and honors rendered to our nation’s servicemen. I felt included, I felt part of it, and I felt grateful.

The inspiring, splendid, and thoroughly enjoyable National Memorial Day Concert was wrapping up. What a show! What music! What an appreciative display of thanks to veterans. It had moved me to tears several times, surprising me as well as arousing my feelings of gratefulness for such a joyous show of gratitude.

This brilliant musical tribute had certainly reminded us that Memorial Day was more than a four day weekend, backyard barbeques, and drinking liberal amounts of our favorite beer. Much more!

Gary and Joe: “As we say goodnight, we send a personal message to all those who have served our country, yet are suffering in body, mind, or spirit… don’t be afraid to reach out.” In doing so, Gary and Joe were advising–pleading even–for those who needed help to come forward, come out of the darkness that war puts one into, and come into the light.

These concluding words many had waited to hear for so long, and had probably missed them on many occasions, but may perhaps now be willing–eager even–to finally, at last, accept the outreach. Words so compelling, heartrending, and needing to be heard by many:

“… we are here for you… ”

Post Script: The concert was presented by Public Broadcasting (PBS). It is available on YouTube, and is a worthwhile expenditure of your time. I highly recommend you view it. It is a fitting tribute to those who have served our country, many having died doing so. It will bring you out of your lethargy in appreciating the price of freedom we enjoy, many times taking it for granted. If only for a few moments, you will come to recognize that what you are privileged to have here in the United States without much thought, has had a price for your doing so.

 

Why Noisy Cities Like Bangkok Are Bad for Your Voice

unduhan (32)A couple of my voice pupils who come from Bangkok have all got something in common… the withheld tone. You would wonder where this came from, right? Well, as I trained these pupils and continually assessed their progress, I realized their voices were particularly difficult to re-balance. And so I sat down with one of my students to dig up some voice history on them, and my findings are what have inspired this article. If you live in a large and noisy city, beware of what it can do to your voice.

My student describes the sound of Bangkok as being a constant, never-ending hum, no-matter what time of day it was, and as she was growing up in this noisy, vibrant city she began to develop a safety mechanism to cushion the blow when she spoke above the noise. The result over time was a shrilly withheld tone that was completely disconnected from her true voice, in that her vocal posture was not the same as it should be when you’re speaking comfortably. To give you an idea as to how this kind of safety mechanism kicks in, assuming you are an adult, try to speak like a child cartoon character and I’m sure you’ll get the picture. And while you’re at it, notice how with this affected tone, as it were, you will experience no pain or strain in your larynx. So this is how eventually, one’s voice is altered from what it should be, to that which comes to the fore to help you cope with talking above the noise without straining the voice. But hey, you seriously cannot sing with this voice!

And hence, the greatest challenge with re-balancing the voice is in trying to get the subject to do the vocal exercises in their chest voice upward. The voice is so far gone due to the way it has been used incorrectly over the years–AND from a very tender age–that the process of re-learning takes a heck of a lot longer than the average person. And so if you come from a busy metropolis that never sleeps, and you’re experiencing similar issues with your voice, now you know what possibly went wrong and hopefully, you’ll be better informed to take the necessary steps to correcting your voice–like hiring a vocal coach! Once you begin to work with a professional tutor, you’ll realize a significant improvement in your voice.

 

Why You Mustn’t Take Singing Lessons Simply to ‘Prove Yourself’ to Anybody

unduhan (33)Indeed, quite an off the beaten track topic this is, but I’ve been inspired to write this article because I know it can help a lot of people come to terms with how important it is to take up singing lessons not to prove themselves to anybody, but to do it for themselves. Some particular cases emanating from my studio have made me realize how a self-inflicted burden such as this can affect a pupil. So let me explain the thought processes that run through such an individual’s mind, and how that affects their performance and concentration in class.

The crux of the matter is, one taking up singing lessons to prove to someone else or a group of people that they have the potential to become good singers, instead of that being a source of motivation to achieve what they signed up for, it tends to lay a huge burden upon them that constantly distracts them from focusing. Through the lesson, I have observed, that I repeat myself on countless occasions. The pupil, I find to be eternally self-conscious and lacks the confidence to perform well. When I dig into the probable cause of this, I find that there’s someone or some people waiting to see HOW they fair. Now this puts a lot of pressure on them to deliver because they’re constantly worried about failure. And the end result is they DO fail miserably because they’re way too distracted to concentrate on learning. It becomes a state of constant fear and panic. Not a pretty sight. If anything, it is very annoying.

So here’s the deal. You want to learn to sing? Do it for YOU. Do not get into this to prove anything whatsoever to anyone in your circle of friends or elsewhere. (In any case, why would anyone want to do that?) If you hadn’t read this article you wouldn’t have discovered that it actually works against you. You’d be better off not taking singing lessons at all. Wouldn’t you agree? The ideal student of voice is one that wants to do it to improve their voice for THEM rather than for anybody else. And this type of student steps into class looking forward to the lesson and enjoying the therapeutic qualities of the lesson. Just the other day, one of students said to me “I really feel relaxed when I come here. This is a form of therapy. And looking out the window, your garden is so beautiful it adds to the calm.” So there you have it! If you want to enjoy your singing lessons AND come away with something, take a more relaxed approach. The less outside pressure you impose upon yourself the better. So the next time you attend a vocal training session, be sure to leave your burden at the door, and enjoy the lesson.