One message resounded throughout the 2014 NATS conference in Boston earlier this month: BE YOURSELF ON STAGE. The phrase was uttered in master classes offered by classical, Broadway and pop/rock experts. Thomas Hampson went on to say, “There is an amazing connection between what we think and the acoustics of our voice.”
I couldn’t agree more with what these master teachers were telling singers. Our voices are wired with more nerve endings than almost anywhere else in the body and they are our primary pathway for expressing emotion. But, what I found interesting about the conference was that none of those teachers delved into WHY or HOW to be yourself on stage.
So, what does that mean? Why is it important to ‘be yourself’ and how do you do it? How do you know who you are?
I believe the answer lies in learning to feel. It is in the nature of our minds to try and distract us from experiencing the suffering that is inherent in every day life. Sometimes we don’t even want to experience the joys either. Instead, we choose other behaviors that pull us away – eating, drinking, scrolling, television watching, etc.
The ‘why’ is this: If we aren’t experiencing our feelings on an every day basis, how can we possibly get on stage and understand how to communicate the emotions of a song that someone put on paper and someone else set to music while working with a piano, or a band or an orchestra? And I mean, really feeling….like, going beyond saying, “I’m heartbroken,” to knowing that you have a physical pain in your chest, your stomach feels like it is in a vice grip, your head has a constant dull ache behind the eyes from crying and you want to just curl up in a ball.
I know, doesn’t that make you want to really feel your feelings? It is painful for me to even write the description above as I can recall all too well how I felt when I last was really, truly heartbroken, even though it was 20 years ago. But, when you feel that, and really let your body feel the full scope of emotions, it will color your voice in just the right way.
This ability to feel means you are present. Present to what is happening in this moment, right now. Not thinking about what just happened or jumping ahead to what may come in the future.
Here’s the how: Pause now, take a breath and feel the coolness of the air as it passes through your nose. Now, do it again with your next breath. And your next. And on, and on.
Feeling your breath is the start of present moment awareness. This takes practice. Just as you wouldn’t debut a song on stage without having practiced it, you don’t want to debut emotions without taking time to get to know them. Get to know who you are, and know that all of these experiences, good and bad are a part of the fabric of your life. They will inform your performance, down to the repertoire you decide to perform. When you incorporate emotions into your performance you draw your audience in, better connecting with them. Once you know who you are, by opening up to feeling, you will better sense when you connect to one song over another. Why sing Mozart if you really want to sing Metallica?
One of the reasons I love mindful movement is that it helps you experience the whole body in the present moment in a deep way. When you are in a challenging pose it is impossible to ignore the sensations of your muscles that are being worked. When you are in meditation it becomes impossible to ignore the chatter in your mind. When you focus on your breathing you discover how it changes given your physical and emotional state. Cultivating that awareness on the mat means you will carry it off the mat into the rest of your life.
The next time you are in a situation where you feel yourself tempted to divert from feeling and move into the numbing activity of choice, pause, take a breath and tell yourself, you want to feel and just be with whatever emotion arises, noting where you feel it in your body. Don’t judge it, just observe. It might be interesting and it definitely will be scary. But it is so worth it. Trust me.