First of all, a little word to the people who are looking in on this blog. I’ve discovered over the last few days that it seems to be everywhere and I’m truly amazed. Thank you – I’m very humbled that people seem to be enjoying what I’m doing here. I’m still trying to figure out all the niceties of WordPress, but seem to have hit on how to get media into my posts. This is great progress! Over the next few days I am hoping to be able to make the rest of it look pretty too, so do take a look back at the older posts to see what I have done in terms of illustrating them. My thanks today to Kinkykiedis and IamjustMissy for letting me use their material – enjoy!
Anyhow, on to the real business…
So you can sing; in fact, you can sing really well and you can make a beautiful sound. Is that enough? What else do you have to do to be a good performer? How does the singer become an artist? Does it happen automatically? Can anyone do it? Or is it a gift? The difference between someone who is “just” a singer and the performer who is a true artist is performance skill and this is where things get brilliant, or you miss the target completely.
There are a lot of different components to this, so get the glass of wine or the chocolate/cookies/ice cream and settle down; there’s quite a bit to explain.
On a basic level, performance is about:
- Movement, gesture and energy
- The visuals
- The x-factor – stage presence and projection
Some of this can be learnt and improved upon, but some of it is just intrinsically there; you’ve got it, or you ain’t.
This of course is where Adam has had a massive advantage, particularly in the context of the QAL tour as he has developed into such a sophisticated performer. I’m sure this is one of the things that has made him such a success working with Queen, as the “end product” is so polished and full of attention to detail.
In most types of pop and/or rock music, how well the music is put across to the audience is a pretty random thing. Some people just are naturally good performers; they can instinctively interact with an audience and just seem to know what to do. Alternatively, they have some natural ability but they are bright, learn by observing other good performers and incorporate this into what they do. Freddie was an instinctive performer and he’d obviously learnt lot through his own love of theatre and opera. He was excellent at commanding the audience; I watched the old footage of Live Aid earlier to remind me and he just owned the stage effortlessly. He commanded a vast audience in what was probably the greatest live rock performance ever. Freddie just did it with sheer will and a very strong stage persona. He wasn’t what I would call graceful, but he had an arresting presence, used the stage well and was utterly convincing, even if offstage he was much more of an introvert.
So, how do these component parts get put together?
Of course for a singer, this is about the words; it may sound a bit obvious to say that you need to understand the song you’re singing, but you would be amazed at how many singers seem to miss this very important point. This is even more vital if you’re singing in a foreign language!
Some songs are pretty basic in meaning – think all the way back to the Beatles and She Loves You; what you see is what you get. However, there is infinitely more complicated music out there, covering a huge range of emotions, and this is where you have to really think about it.
There are all sorts of nuances to communicating onstage, but broadly there are two techniques:
- The Method (as in method acting)
- Putting on the mask (my terminology)
Method acting is well-known and there have been lots of words written about it. In a nutshell, to put the meaning across you draw on your own feelings and experiences in order to connect with the emotions in the words (and obviously, the music). The idea behind it is that your performance is “real” if you are actually feeling those emotions at the time. There are lots and lots of famous method actors out there and it does also get used by singers.
However, when I did my stage training, we weren’t encouraged to get deeply emotionally involved in what we were doing, as if you have to express profound grief or pain, one of the first places you can get tense is your throat, which affects the sound that comes out of your mouth.
Instead, I was taught to think of the emotions and character you’re portraying being a mask or a veil that you put on over yourself. The audience sees the end result, but you remain in touch with yourself emotionally and don’t lose control.
The range of emotions you can express are only limited by the songs that you sing, but some emotions are definitely easier to put across than others, and I think this is often affected by your own personality. As a general thing, people with strong personalities will find it easier to put over strong emotions and conversely, people who are optimistic and joyful will put these emotions across very naturally. Personally, I love doing fierce; this is why I played a lot of wicked queens. Fierce is great!
Of course, communication is more than just the words. I think I’ve said in another blog entry that nothing irritates me more than someone who constantly sings with their eyes shut! You have to be aware of your audience and engage with them. On the opera or theatre stage, there is always a good distance between you and them as there is an orchestra pit in front of you. You can usually see the first few rows of people; beyond that you’re aware of them, but everything’s black. On the rock arena stage though, you’re often very close to the audience; you can (and should!) make eye contact with the people that you can see. You can pick individuals to sing at, wink at – or worse. Another very common trick is to get off the stage and amongst the crowd.
This lovely YouTube video by kinkykiedis shows what you can do in terms of crowd engagement in a big rock arena!
You also have to consider what you do when you’re not singing, as you can’t stop communicating. This is another one of those “mind over matter” moments when you have to keep thinking about the song. If you switch off, believe me, the audience will know. If there is a point in a performance where you really need to disengage, then for a pop/rock musician you have to take yourself out of the spotlight and turn the attention on to the other musicians.
Movement, gesture and energy
OK, one slightly wacky idea about performance is that you, the singer, make the music happen through what you do dramatically; this is usually described as “action initiaties music”. This is used a lot in opera and music theatre, but singers who believe they can do this seem to be better at putting drama into a performance. Yes, I know this sounds a bit far-fetched but there are some bits of the performing arts that are a bit new age!
Think about Adam’s performances of WWTLF and the moment that he plunges his hand into the lights on “touch my world with your fingertips”. You know the song, you know the shape of the music, but somehow that action makes the climax of the song happen.
Movement is always dictated by the mood and tempo of the song; it’s impossible to do Another One Bites the Dust without dancing, but it should be really obvious when a song needs to be static. Static songs are always more difficult – it takes a lot of confidence to use only a minimum of movement. Classical singers usually refer to this as “holding” the stage and it’s difficult – it’s you, the song and your personality. Back to WWTLF; Adam knew when to move and when to stand still, and again he’d obviously thought carefully about how to make the song look good, how to use the drama within it. Songs like this engage the audience from within; you’re not beating them round the head with the notes, but you’re getting them to draw on their own memories and feelings. You do that largely with stillness.
When you do move, you have to move with power and purpose, and also cut out odd, extraneous movements as they will always distract an audience. You also have to adjust movement according to the size of arena you’re performing in, or whether you’re performing for a TV camera.
As a general thing, movements in a stage environment have to be “bigger” (i.e. more definite) and slower, as you are being seen from a distance and quick movement looks agitated and sometimes peculiar. Small movements in a huge environment just get missed, but for TV, movements can be much smaller as the TV camera picks up nuances. Of course on the rock stage you have the wonderful luxury of being able to strike a pose…
This covers the stage set you’re working with, the lighting and how you look – how you’re styled. Of course, the stage set and lighting for the QAL tour was typical Queen – extravagant and larger than life, adorned with lots of gold at Adam’s request.
How you look as a performance is also really important. Classical music usually still works to very strict dress conventions and of course when you’re on a stage in opera, drama or music theatre, you invariably wear some sort of costume.
I’m aware that some of the detractors have poked fun at Adam’s costume changes in the QAL tour, but I think these were well thought out and were a good fit to the image of each group of songs. After all, when you watch a performer, you’re taking in everything that’s going on around you and that includes how everyone looks. Even in the age of glam rock, Queen in the old days were different – that’s why I was drawn to them in the first place. It was the whole Queen experience that I loved.
The X-factor – presence and projection
Here we’re into the realms of the stuff that can’t be taught, and also one or two other things that are, frankly, a bit new age.
Stage presence (or charisma) is the X-factor and you have it or you don’t; this is the je ne sais quoi that can make someone a great public speaker, actor, singer – or even politician. This is the thing that makes people look at you and not be able to tear their eyes away. If you’re very attractive as well, then this is a bonus, but there are people out there with great presence who aren’t incredibly good looking, but they just have “it”. They will walk into a crowded room and people will stop what they’re doing to look at them.
I’m not sure whether I can translate stage presence scientifically, so I think I’ll just have to go for the new age version.
There is one definite thing – it’s been proven scientifically that we are all produce an electro-magnetic field as a product of being alive; a lot of people would call this an aura, so this is where the new age stuff comes in; you use your aura to perform. When you step out on a stage to perform, in my experience you go into a state of heightened awareness and you really feel different, as though you’re occupying more space than usual. The best way I can describe this is that it’s like turning up the volume control on a radio.
What you are doing is radiating or projecting your own personality and presence out to the audience, and they will be aware of this, even in a huge arena. This is how some performers really do appear larger than life and you can use this projection to command and even overwhelm an audience, or draw them in towards you.
As we saw in the old videos, Freddie could command vast crowds and Adam also has the gift of being able to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. They achieve it through different personalities, but their charisma is the thing that can’t be learned.