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When I was young, I constantly had my parents read to me “The Monster at the end of this Book.” I loved Grover who, despite all his trying, couldn’t keep me from turning another page, bringing us closer to what he thought was our inevitable doom. And what happened?? [spoiler alert] Turns out HE was the monster. It was all in his head the entire time. How silly!
Well, it’s not so silly when it comes to singing. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with students and clients about getting out of their heads when they sing. They become paralyzed by the technique that is supposed to free them up. They become singing zombies, utterly lacking communication. And, not surprisingly, the joy of singing completely disappears.
Believe it or not, I think this generally comes from a good place. They’re trying to do what I taught them, making sure they’re on their breath, placing the tone well, keeping the language forward, raising the soft palate… it’s a lot to coordinate. But somehow, all of these things become a noose around their neck. Or worse, they begin judging themselves as they sing. My undergraduate professor Dr. Andrew Waggoner used to call these Orfeus moments: when one looks back, becoming unaware of the present moment, and all is lost.
When I see this happen I have two choices: I can talk about technical things that will free them up or I can engage them in specific exercises that will get them out from behind themselves (what I call the POSTED part of the brain. “All trespassers will be shot!” I announce). If I know they have the technical tools available to them, I usually choose the latter.
Here are some exercises I have found help my students get out of their heads and back to communicating a song.
Assign Action Verbs
I usually keep a deck of cue cards close to my keyboard, which have written on them strong action verbs: beg, threaten, seduce, etc… I hand them to the student or client and ask them to flip to a new card every time they breathe. Their job is to play the action listed on the card. More often than not, the action is in direct opposition to what the song is saying. Good!
One of my favorite actresses, Sam Tedaldi, did a masterclass for Marymount Manhattan College students involved in our VOW Workshop (see the trailer here). One of her best pieces of advice was playing the opposite of what the song is saying to see what it might yield. It seems like such a simple assignment, but it can be difficult to get a singer out of their preconceived notion of what the song is about. Playing opposites can help the performer make what Tedaldi calls “strong and wrong” choices that open up the spectrum of dramatic options in song delivery. I would argue it can also keep the singer making active choices that engage the breath and open the voice.
You can find a great list of action verbs online here.
Translate the Lyric
This was part of my “Investigating the Text” presentation at the International Congress of Voice Teachers conference in Australia in July 2013 (see the presentation here). Sometimes when students are not in the moment as singing actors, I ask them to translate the lyric of their song on the spot while singing. It forces them to think about what the lyric is actually saying and figure out how to say it in their own vernacular (I tell them they don’t have to rhyme or use the same amount of syllables). This is a particularly helpful trick for students singing repertoire they might not feel especially connected to.
When students are open to this level of improv, I am often shocked by how much lighter their approach is to singing – they automatically have to remain agile to find the right words.
Run, Forrest, Run
I sometimes make my students do various physical activities like looking for a lost item in my studio, lifting my desk chair or waltzing as they sing. Usually, when they get in their heads, the body becomes locked. Freeing the body often frees the mind and voice, so long as the activity is not strenuous. I also have lightweight exercise bands that I use to show how the singer gets locked in their body. Inevitably, as soon as they stop breathing they freeze in their movement. It’s fascinating to me! Having students work on this coordination is a great thing to do, and helps physicalize what we know seems like a terribly abstract exercise.
Almost always, one of these three things is enough to shake the singer loose from their Orfeus moment and get present in their work as a singing actor. I’m amazed at how these exercises open up a singer’s voice and immediately engage their breath in a healthier way. If there are technical adjustments to be made, I find the student will be much more receptive to them after doing one of these exercises.
We have to help our students realize that, so often, the monster at the end of our book is us. Getting them out of their heads will get them excited about turning the next page in their book as a singing artist.
P.S. – Out of Their Heads is also the title of a great album by Michael Kooman & Christopher Dimond. Check it out!
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