“I am a confident and capable singer!” she exclaimed.
I love these spontaneous moments of truth-telling that come out in coaching sessions.
This particular moment came a few weeks ago as I was working with a talented young soprano at Peabody Conservatory, my alma mater. One of my former mentors and current head of the Opera department, JoAnn Kulesza, had invited me to be a guest teacher.
The singer had just sung through one of her recital pieces and though her performance was respectable, my intuition told me she was capable of much more.
The thing that had me most curious was what she was doing during piano introduction, before she even sang a note. During those opening measures she had a contorted, even pained look on her face. As the listener I was confused – was she trying to set the mood of the song or was she just externalizing her internal negative thoughts?
I asked, “What were you thinking during the introduction?”
She thought for a few seconds and then said, “I really don’t know.”
My confusion about those opening measures now made perfect sense – her lack of a clear plan was influencing, one might even say tainting the rest of her performance.
She needed a plan and as a possible framework, I coached her through what I call the 4 Pillars of Performance:
- Pillar 1: You – your entire coordinated Self (mind, body, spirit, voice) as the vehicle of musical and dramatic expression
- Pillar 2: Your Colleagues – the people onstage that you are collaborating with to express the music
- Pillar 3: The Music – the stuff of expression
- Pillar 4: The Audience – the people that have organized their lives to attend your performance
Together these 4 pillars form part of what Frank Pierce Jones calls the ‘unified field of attention.’ Like the four legs of a table, each of these four pillars plays an absolutely essential part in the performing experience. Neglect one pillar or focus on one pillar at the expense of the others and the performance will inevitably suffer.
It seems so obvious to include the things that are already there but I never take it for granted that performers include all four of these elements, let alone even have an awareness of them.
So often I see singers disappear into the mechanism of making sound and their technique losing sight of the forest for the trees.
“Lift this…relax that…suck in this…push out that!”
In doing so, they often become disconnected from the music, their colleagues onstage, the audience and even lose an awareness of themselves.
The effective performer integrates and stays connected to all four pillars in performance.
So I began the process of coaching this singer through each of the four pillars.
Pillar 1: You
“What’s a constructive thought you could think about yourself?”
She thought for a brief moment and then exclaimed, “I’m a confident, capable singer!”
(I noticed a positive shift in her and a twinkle in her eyes)
Pillar 2: Your Colleagues
“What about your colleague onstage with you (the multi-talented JoAnn Kulesza)?”
She pondered the question for a moment and then said, “She’s wonderful and follows me.”
I reflected back to her: “So you have 100% trust in your colleague onstage.”
She nodded vigorously in agreement.
(something in her released…more freedom)
Pillar 3: The Music
“What about the music you’re singing?”
Barely missing a beat she responded, “This music is really cool and I LOVE to sing it.”
(she was becoming more expansive, enlivening the room)
Pillar 4: The Audience
When I asked her about the audience she said, “I can think of my gratitude that they showed up for my performance.”
The class gave a collective “Awww!” (by this time she was positively glowing, her whole body in a much more coordinated state)
I summarized for her: “Ok, so we’ve got confidence (in yourself), trust (in your colleague), love (of the music) and gratitude (to the audience). Such wonderful things! Let’s have you sing it again and during the introduction and through include those four new thoughts in your performance plan.”
As the piano started playing the introduction it was immediately clear:
She was a totally different singer.
She was now fully embodying the music – her face and whole body expressive and her presence magnetic. By including us, the audience in her plan, she drew us into the world she was creating. Her second time through turned out to be a much more moving and meaningful performance for both her and us, the audience.
Consciously creating a constructive relationship with each of the pillars allowed for a more authentic and truthful performance.
Why does this work?
We are one WHOLE self – our thoughts, for better or worse, have a decisive effect on how well we perform.
Constructive or positive thoughts like the ones she created – love, trust, confidence, gratitude – engender greater freedom and authenticity by creating a more psychophysically coordinated state.
But it does take a conscious and concerted effort to generate constructive thoughts.
Have you noticed that non-constructive or negative thoughts like fear or worry are generated automatically?
They require absolutely zero effort to produce. In other words, fear is cheap.
My favorite poet Hafiz says this so eloquently, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”
Fear (and the consequent physical tightening) is what shows up in the absence of a clear performance plan.
However, you can upgrade your ‘living conditions’ with a constructive plan that is more interesting than your fear.
I encourage you to experiment with this – during your next performance, lesson or coaching session, try consciously creating a constructive thought for each of the four pillars (you, your colleagues, the music, the audience) and see what difference it makes.
You might discover that there’s much more enjoyment and a lot less worry.
And you might discover that you’ve set yourself up for success before you even sing your first note.