I recently attended a performance of young singers who sang from the stage frozen in one position. Feet cemented to the floor. Lots of furtive gesturing (what I affectionately refer to as ‘serving muffins,’ and ‘herding geese,’) and vague attempts at facial expression to convey the meaning of the text.
It got me thinking about two people: Richard Miller and Uta Hagen.
I’ll start with Hagen.
Hagen’s method of teaching was very centered in the body. Her first Object Exercise (Destination) was all about the body in space, and understanding what moves us from one place to the next on stage. Every time a student makes an unmotivated cross I die a little inside. Hagen saw this as foundational to building an ‘inner’ life onstage. We have to observe ourselves through her Destination exercise to make the distinction of where we go and why.
(By the way, I realize I owe everyone an outstanding blog on Hagen that hasn’t been completed. I hope to come back to her this summer!)
An understanding of WHERE we are and WHAT surrounds us, as well as our relationship to those things goes a LONG way to developing a sense of relaxation onstage as we let our creative life take over. Students who lack this sense of circumstance, destination, and place will FIGHT to relieve the tension that they feel. They have not been shown how to develop an inner life from their body first. Observation is key here, and I think the singer should spend a month doing the first Hagen Object Exercise.
The other question you must ask is: under what circumstance do people literally FREEZE in position – not moving at all? I can’t think of very many, unless they’re hiding from a serial killer and don’t want to be noticed. But FREEZING is ALWAYS ASSOCIATED WITH FEAR. This is the connection that isn’t made very often as to why rigid postures are so unhelpful to young singers. Nothing makes them feel even MORE afraid than the direction to HOLD STILL during the singing act.
The body is predicated upon MOVEMENT not stillness. All the shaking knees and legs can be ameliorated by MOVING around – taking a step. I have found it interesting to see how bodies and psyches relax when given the direction to move around when singing a bit. For a beginner, some planning into ‘where to step’ in the music may be necessarily.
There’s an idea that to be ‘grounded’ the singer must plant both feet SOLIDLY on the floor at ALL times. Well, the problem with this is that we are rarely always standing in that posture in real life – it is artificial. It can be a good ‘home base,’ but the minute you feel constrained to one location, the body rebels: the knees will lock, the posture will be thrown off, and psychological fear ensues. I have known coaches who have promulgated this ‘frozen’ position as vital to good singing.
This is where I come to Richard Miller.
In his book, Solutions for Singers, he was asked that very question. I think his response is solid. We want to portray human beings onstage: not statues. I’ve underlined some key points from Miller’s assertion below.
In short, the body must be free to move. Locking in place is NOT GROUNDING. Let me repeat that: LOCKING YOURSELF in one place is not GROUNDING. It is an attempt to ground oneself by END-GAINING a rigid tenseness into the body that does little to relieve muscles of inflexibility, or the performer a sense of freedom, and lack of fear in singing. None of the aforementioned qualities are necessarily or desired for a free expression of music and text.
Inexperienced singers, trying to keep erect posture, tend to cement themselves to the floor of the stage. They stand with feet firmly planted and move only from the waist as they attempt to communicate the text; the torso typically sways slowly back and forth in response to rhythm or to phrase length, but the feet never move. This rigid fixation of legs and of feet bears no relationship to the body language of spoken communication. How often does a speaker sway from side to side? Never, except to portray distress or madness. In speaking privately or publicly, we do not weave rhythmically back and forth from the waist, but we do make slight alterations in our stance. We do not separate the body into two parts—the lower half consisting of the hips and the legs, the upper half of the torso and the head. We remain axial, but from time to time we shift our weight.
During singing, the weight of the torso should be seldom equally distributed on both legs for long periods of time, unless we are being as statuesque as the Commendatore, or pretending to be invisible. Body language is altered now and again by shifting from the right leg to the left leg; then the reverse process. Arms are relaxed, occasionally making small emotive movements, as in narrative speech, while avoiding meaningless gesticulation. As a new thought or emotion arises in the text or music, while remaining axially poised, we occasionally shift the body—a nearly imperceptible half-step forward or half-step back—while still retaining noble posture. At a later moment, we return to the original position. During the singing of a lied, a mélodie, or an art song, such occasional shifting of stance is in response to the drama or mounting emotion. On the opera and music theater stage, the performer finds independence from rhythmic servitude. Accommodating the varied pace of the drama, one learns to walk out of rhythm, to make predetermined movements that appear free of the musical structure. The technique of altering body language through weight-shifting is an integral part of producing a believable stage persona.
Intermittent shifting of stance produces performance freedom and dramatic authenticity. It places an audience at ease as well. Stance alteration removes the artificiality of singing an hour’s recital, appearing like a statue attached to the crook of the pianoforte or being rigidly positioned center stage for the aria. Occasional weight-shifting also avoids the wiggling, jiggling, and meaningless gesticulations that seem, like a communicable disease, to beset some solo and group performers. But don’t overdo it.
Richard Miller, Solutions for Singers