I find the connection between working on song interpretation and relieving performance anxiety very fascinating. The coming week, over a series of blog posts, I will contemplate on how working on your song interpretation can save you from your nerves. Here is some background information.
Singing is expression and communication
One of the reasons to why some singers experience performance anxiety is they feel uncomfortable being put in the spotlight. They feel uncomfortable feeling expectations from the audience, afraid to be judged in their performance. You might become nervous about performing because you’re making the performance about yourself instead of making the whole thing about the music that flows through you, the song that is being sung and the story that is being told.
In his book ‘Effortless Mastery’ Kenny Werner quotes Keith Jarrett (from an article in the New York Times):
Try to imagine the first musician. He was not playing for an audience, or a market, or working on his next recording, or touring with his show, or working on his image. He was playing out of need, out of his need for the music.
…in the beginning, music was our sole means of communication.
The question is:
How can we train the Ego to get out of the way and focus on the expression (the music, the story) and communicating our story to the audience, instead of focusing on ourselves – which leads to performance anxiety?
Shifting the focus
Interpretation tools are used to help us express ourselves while singing. Expressing yourself means connecting to your emotions and feelings. Some might experience this as scary, and think “if it feels scary, how can it help me with my nerves?”
I’ll tell you why. I have this idea, that when we are working on song interpretation, we can learn to shift the focus from the performance situation being about us (‘I am singing this song to the audience’) to it being about the story we tell. That way, we can learn to allow the music and the story to flow through us, instead of becoming self-conscious and eventually nervous.
I have worked on song interpretation with a lot of singers suffering from performance anxiety, and found it very helpful.
Interpretation does not equal an analysis!
Please note that when working with interpretation, the point is not to come up with an analysis of what the songwriter or lyricist has meant the song to be about. Sometimes people get stuck on these kind of details. If you are not the songwriter or the lyricist, then you cannot know what they were thinking about when they wrote the song!
I work a lot with singer-songwriters too, and sometimes it can be quite interesting to notice that the songwriter wants to express one thing, but the singer feels something else – even when they are represented by the same person! But more about that another time.
The point is also not to start arguing whose interpretation is right or wrong (the singer’s or some other person’s: e.g. the teacher, another singer). That does not help you at all.
The whole point is to create a story that the singer can relate to and work with to help their performance.
Trust your own feelings
When we work with interpretation, we make use of our own (life) experience. Like Alfred Hitchcock said:
Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.
And as a note to teachers and coaches working on interpretation with singers: let the singers use their own feelings, experiences and pictures. The song might mean something different to them than it does to you.
The song (and the interpretation of it) will anyway mean different things to different people in the audience. We can involve the audience in the song/story by creating pictures, feelings, awaken memories and so on. But we cannot control what each individual in the audience will feel like when they hear the song or our interpretation! So focus on the things that are in your control: interpreting the story / singing the song the way you feel works the best for you.
Work with concrete tools
Sometimes song interpretation work has the tendency to become wishy-washy. It can be difficult to give our emotions a concrete form, and to give the process of interpretation work a clear structure.
Being concrete is important whenever we work on something (or teach, for that matter). The same goes for working on song interpretation.
The interpretation tools I like to work with are originally found in Constantin Stanislavski’s work, and were developed further in the US by teachers like Sanford Meisner. They are also found in the acting techniques taught by Broadway coach and teacher David Brunetti. Other tools come from the improvisation work developed by Keith Johnstone. I’d like to thank some of the wonderful teachers I’ve had, including Søren Møller and Ole Rasmus Møller, for teaching me how to work with these tools.
I hope that got you interested! Tomorrow I will post about the first tool.
©2012 Katja Maria Slotte
Originally published in the katjamariamusic blog in March 2012
This is a post in the series of special guests sharing their Lessons From The Road: things they have learned and experiences they have had in their music (or teaching) careers. The guest is a singer, songwriter, musician or teacher whose work inspires me in some way, or whose work I think deserves special attention. I think these ‘lessons’ can be an inspiration to many of us!
Through my workshops I have had the pleasure to meet and coach Inge, a talented aspiring singer-songwriter. I think Inge’s projects deserve some attention because the story of how her first album came to be is an inspiring lesson in persistence!
Inge’s first album “I See You” was completely funded by her fans on Sellaband. By active self-promotion and connecting with her fans, Inge reached her target of 50.000 dollars, and was able to go into the studio to record. She wanted it to be a special album, with all the songs that matter to her and that she has written over the years. Together with producers Coen Molenaar and Jeroen Molenaar, and co-producer Angela Groothuizen, it turned out to be a very unique album.
Inge’s Lessons from The Road:
To get your own songs on a professional album, you could try to raise money through crowdfunding like Sellaband, Akamusic or similar. Remember this takes a lot of your time and energy because you have to continuously keep promoting yourself in order to get more fans and investors.
Don’t focus on becoming famous. Just enjoy what you do and do what you enjoy. And be yourself!
Try to be unique – in your music and/or in the way you present yourself. Find out what makes you different from others and emphasize that.
When this blog was originally posted in katjamariamusic in March 2012, Inge was fundraising for her second full length album. “Heaven Knows” was released in 2013 and can be bought on iTunes, CD Baby and through Inge’s website.
Recently I started re-reading ‘The Art Of Possibility‘ by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. It is one of those books I would recommend everyone to read: teachers and students, bosses and employees, leaders and members of an organization, choir conductors and singers, band leaders and musicians…
Rather than living in a world of measurement, where we know things by comparing and contrasting them, the Zanders invite us to step into a “universe of possibility”. The book presents twelve practices that will shift our view of life, and open up new possibilities and opportunities where we thought there were none.
The challenge of ‘giving an A’
One of the practices in the book, and the one I would like to challenge you to try out this coming week (or month), is the practice of ‘Giving an A’.
When you give an A, you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves. Your eye is on the statue within the roughness of the uncut stone. This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.
In essence, the practice of ‘Giving an A’ means the following: when we assume that people will do well, and teach them how they can do this, they will. The Zanders remind us that practicing “giving an A” will not only transform the person receiving the figurative or literal A, it will transform the person giving the A as well.
Possibilities to live into. Reading these words made me think about how much faster people learn in a positive learning environment. And about how important it is to ‘reset’ and have a ‘clean slate’ every time we go into a teaching situation, and not to bring in any expectations or judgements based on previous experiences or on what we have read or heard about someone.
To whom could you give an A today?
This is one of my favorite TED talks. Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) talks about creativity and creative genius. She reminds us of the many impossible things we expect from artists.
The ancient Greeks and Romans did not believe creativity came from human beings. Creativity was considered something spiritual, and creative ideas came to human beings through divine attendant spirits. But the times changed. And so did people’s views on creativity. Instead of believing in all of us “having” a genius, we adopted the idea of a (rare) person “being” a creative genius.
And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.
– Elizabeth Gilbert in her TED talk on creativity
Gilbert’s talk is funny and inspiring, and it reminds us about the importance of showing up at the page and doing our creative work no matter what. Because then at least you did your part of the job.
This weekend I had to think about the importance of rest and ‘oyster moments’ (let me explain that one later on). Rest for body and mind (emptying your head), and rest as in sleep (so underestimated!). For me, ‘rest’ can also mean a change of scenery, going away from daily life for a while and visiting places I have never been before. That kind of rest can include the two types of rest mentioned earlier, but also another aspect: the ‘retreat’ type of rest that is very necessary for every (creative) human being.
Creative Retreats And Mini-Breaks
I like to think of ‘creative retreats’ as any activity that fills your creative well. If you just keep taking out water from the well it will dry up at some point. Filling the well means you do things that inspire you. Filling the well also means resting, pampering and spoiling yourself.
Julia Cameron writes in ‘The Artist’s Way’:
Making art begins with making hay while the sun shines. It begins with getting into the now and enjoying your day. It begins with giving yourself some small treats and breaks.
A simple change of scenery can give you lots of new ideas and inspiration. It’s not always necessary to travel far in order to fill your well. Enjoying a good cup of coffee in a nice café close to your home can be a treat, and a long walk on a nearby beach can be a mini-break. But sometimes it’s good to get away from your daily routines. Exploring new places makes time pass by slower and empties your head.
Allowing yourself treats and taking mini-breaks sounds very simple, but actually doing it can sometimes be difficult. Being my own boss, I found one of the hardest things is actually to schedule my free time and allow myself to take (mini) breaks. I have even had to learn not to feel guilty about taking time off for myself (can you believe that!?). I never felt guilty about my free time when I had a so-called ‘normal job’. Isn’t that strange. I am getting better at being a much nicer boss for myself though, because I have learned that if I don’t take breaks my (creative) work suffers.
Last weekend I went for a mini-break to Ghent in Belgium, a town that had been on my list of nearby places to visit. I stayed in Bed & Breakfast Bel Etage, a studio apartment on the first floor of a neoclassical building very close to the historical center of Ghent. The apartment has been recently redecorated with good taste and attention of the authentic details. The hostess Sofia is very friendly and will give you lots of nice tips on cafés, restaurants, and shops. The street outside of the apartment is pretty busy, but I still slept like a baby!
There are signs like these all across town in Ghent. It made me think of how important it is to pause, even if it’s just for a little moment. The sign might as well say ‘mini break’!
Belgians enjoy the good life and eating out, and there are lots of good restaurants to choose from in Ghent. I think making a reservation is smart especially during the weekend. If your favorite restaurant is fully booked, you can perhaps still manage to have a culinary experience like I did, by scoring some fresh oysters and cava from the street vendor on the Groentenmarkt (opposite of the Yves Tierentyn Mustard Shop, which is a must visit for foodies). Having delicious oysters and cava on a Saturday afternoon get you in a perfect relaxed mood!
You might ask yourself, what do oysters and cava have to do with creative retreats? For me, they have everything to do with feeling alive and relaxed. These kind of ‘oyster moments’ also give me a sense of luxury and abundance, and feel like a reward for taking myself and my creative work seriously. If you don’t like oysters, you can invent your own ‘oyster moments’. And remember, luxury doesn’t even have to cost money.
When is the last time you took a mini-break or treated yourself for something special? How do you fill your creative well? What makes you feel inspired and rested?
©2012 Katja Maria Slotte
Originally published in my blog katjamariamusic in March 2012.
Yesterday I gave two workshops for the singing students of the Jazz & Pop department at ArtEZ Conservatory. The workshop was an introduction to the techniques in CVT (Complete Vocal Technique), I gave a presentation about the philosophy behind CVT, an overview of the techniques, and worked with a couple of singers individually in a masterclass. I enjoyed working with the students a lot. They were eager to try out different sounds and techniques, and asked me a lot of good questions. One of the questions that I got yesterday inspired me to write this blog post.
What made you choose to study Complete Vocal Technique instead of some other vocal method?
What a great question. Before I go ahead and answer, here is an important thing we talked about with the students yesterday:
Techniques and methods are not important, singing is!
Let’s not forget that singing technique is not a goal in itself. What is important in singing? Vocal performance is. Vocal performance is dependent on the message we deliver and the expression we use to deliver our message. Without a message and without expression, there is no vocal performance (at least no performance worth while listening to!). Tools that help us deliver our message include: interpretation, sound, rhythm, melody, and text. Vocal technique is merely a tool that helps us create the sound we want, to sing the melodies we want (or need) to sing with more ease, and so on. Vocal technique also exists to helps us keep healthy while doing this. Whenever we talk about vocal technique, it’s good to remember what its role is in the big picture.
So why all this need for vocal methods? Why do I have to know about CVT of EVT or [singing method name here] in order to sing? I have news for you: you don’t have to!! If you want to sing, just go ahead and sing! You only need vocal technique if you are not able to sing the way you want to. Or if the way you sing brings you trouble and hoarseness and strain. Those are the only reasons you need technique. If you can produce all the sounds you want, reach all the notes you want, and you never get hoarse, you don’t have to study singing technique. You are DISMISSED!!
Different people, different approaches
Luckily there are (and have been) pedagogues and researchers who are passionate about the voice and want to find out how it works, in order to help singers solve problems that they encounter. This is a good thing. The reason there are different methods is that different researchers have been focusing on different aspects of the voice, and different pedagogues have had different philosophies about the voice and vocal pedagogy. And how great is that, because that way you can choose the approach that suits you and your personality the best. Every method also keeps developing, because research is ongoing and because teachers are all individuals that come from different backgrounds. This also means, not every teacher of a certain vocal method will be exactly the same.
Every singer and teacher has a path
After completing my Master of Music degree at the Sibelius-Academy in Helsinki, I had learned a lot about singing but still had lots of unanswered questions about the voice. This was not because my teachers were not good, but because you cannot learn everything about something during any study. I decided to go look for more answers and to keep learning. I found an approach that provided me with answers, helped me develop my own singing voice further, suited my personality and style of learning, with a pedagogy and philosophy that I liked. That approach happened to be Complete Vocal Technique, developed by Cathrine Sadolin. It is not called ‘Complete’ because of some ‘we know it all’-thought, by the way, but because it contains techniques for every style of singing and also for the speaking voice. I learned so much more than just technique in the 3-year CVT singer/teacher course at Complete Vocal Institute in Copenhagen.
But CVT is just one part of the ‘package’ that creates the teacher-me. Yes, I am an Authorized CVT Teacher, but I am most of all a vocal pedagogue. I have other things in my ‘teaching backpack’ too, some belcanto, some Estill Voice Training, music teacher training, music education approaches like Orff-Schulwerk, Kodàly and Dalcroze eurhythmics, the various music styles I have studied, my own experience as a singer, musician and performing artist, things I have learned through creativity and career coaching, from personal development courses, body-work like Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, Pilates and yoga, working in theater, etc, etc… And I keep adding new knowledge and experience to this package by working in music, staying updated on vocal pedagogy and research, communicating with teachers of other methods, working with logopedists, ENT doctors, producers, choir directors, and countless singers. I keep staying updated in the developments of CVT, and because I love to keep learning I am following workshops and courses with inspiring teachers from other methods and approaches. I don’t really see being certified in a specific method as the only defining factor in how I teach singing. It’s just one of the things that crossed my own teaching path.
Choosing a vocal method
What method should you choose then? The answer is very simple: choose what works for you. Ask questions until you get answers that you are satisfied with, and find solutions to your vocal problems. If something doesn’t work for you move on and find something that does! If you feel you want to pick and mix from different methods, go ahead and do that. And don’t waste your energy on trying to figure out (or prove) why one method is better than the other one, focus your energy on more important things such as singing!
This goes for singing teachers too. Focus on helping singers, teaching, sharing your knowledge and building bridges. Spend less time criticizing, comparing, trying to prove who is right and who is wrong, who was there first and who wasn’t. That’s waste of energy. Focus on dialogue. Share your experiences with your colleagues, communicate with teachers of other methods than the one you teach. We don’t have to agree on every detail or all the terminology. The world would be a boring place if everyone would think the same way and speak the same language. What we can agree on is that we all just want what is best for the singer. Remember that every teacher has a path, and we all share a passion for the voice and a passion for teaching. Try and share those things, instead of focusing on method names and differences. Open doors instead of closing them because of fear of the unknown or fear of competition. There is room for all of us, and we can all learn so much from each other.
©2012 Katja Maria Slotte
This article was originally published on my blog katjamariamusic in February 2012.