Performance 101 – singer to artist

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:

  • Communication
  • 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.

Mercuryliveaid

So, how do these component parts get put together?

Communication

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!

Pic credit - @IamjustMissy

Pic credit – @IamjustMissy

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.

Pic credit: @IamjustMissy

Pic credit: @IamjustMissy

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…

Pic credit: IamjustMissy

Pic credit: IamjustMissy

The visuals

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.

Queen

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.

Pic credit: IamjustMIssy

Pic credit: IamjustMIssy

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.

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34 thoughts on “Performance 101 – singer to artist

  1. I just want to say that I’m really enjoying your blog, so thanks for that. What you have to say about the science behind singing and performing is really interesting. I’m learning a lot. The fact that you are using my all time favourite band and singer is such a treat. I wanted to make a suggestion. If you have a chance listen to Adam’s performance of his song soaked of his live acoustic album. You won’t be disappointed and is be really interested in what you thought.

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  2. Fun fact: Freddie was a Virgo, who are def more shy and quiet but his rising sign was Leo, the rising sign is sort of your “mask” the face you show the world, how they perceive you, he most certainly was a strutting prowling king of the lions type on stage 🙂

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    • I’ve noticed that there has been an astrology explosion on Twitter in the last 242 hours because of one of Adam’s tweets! I think I sort of have a foot in both camps about astrology; the side of me that works with scientists all day makes me sceptical, then it comes up with stuff you can’t adequately explain. The considered view about having Leo strong in a birthchart is that it’s often associated with performance, but also a person who can be very easily wounded – which does sound rather like Freddie!

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      • haha yes I got caught up in the astrology on twitter as I am really into astrology, Leo’s like Mick Jagger and Madonna know how to perform for sure 🙂 Im pretty logical but observationally find astrology to work so it fascinates me, especially when it comes to complexities like with Freddie, a very different exterior “face” to the interior, where he was naturally actually quite shy and reserved. Adam is what you see is what you get although Libra rising sign does make him pretty and charming LOL

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  3. Such a great blog, very insightful & informative from a singer & performer’s point of view; as well as a true Queen fan. Adam is different for all the reasons you mentioned. From something you said, as much as I love American Idol for giving Adam a platform, reality shows could be the reason we have so many wannabe singers making “music”. Singers that don’t understand about music and words and how they go together, singers that don’t think. Like you said, it’s too easy for labels to make a quick buck and go on to the next star possibility. They almost have to run these kids through like cattle because every year they get a new crop. The more reality shows, the larger the crop they have to tend to. Adam has been amazing since his Cabaret/Zodiac days. His cabaret performances are some of my favorite. When I first discovered Adam, I had stopped listening to music for years. He brought that love back to life and I wanted to hear and see anything he had ever done. I have playlists of everything I can find on Adam by show, interview, etc. I’d like to provide you the link so that it might make it easier for you to see the shows you’re looking for. https://www.youtube.com/user/store4books I hope this helps you to get to know Adam as much as you want to.

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  4. One thing you didn’t mention is confidence. Adam had it the first time we saw him on Idol. the little head flips, the eye movements, his shoulders. his sway-all of these things were there and they were delivered with confidence. Not arrogant confidence. Confidences oozes out of Adam’s pores.

    I would like to know if you make the same observation about something that I do. When I watch Idol singers being physical during a performance-moving a lot, using their arms and legs and their body to emphasize parts of a song-whether or not the physical part of the performance is good or bad and believed is based on how well the song is sung. When someone is so off tune or if they are shouting the song, the singer’s body movements and how they are singing becomes awkward looking and stupid. If the person was singing in tune, I would not have noticed the physicality of the performance so much if the singer had been singing in tune. Idol is concentrating so much on performance this year, they are not spending enough time getting them to sing in tune while they move.

    Adam does not put on a superior air while he is performing. Adam giggles a lot. That brings you into his world. He is very humble, even though he is good enough not to be humble. An arrogant performer is a turn off.

    I have seen judges tell singers not to use their vibrato in certain parts of the song. Why is that.

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    • Hi Sue – confidence is something I nearly included in this blog about performance, but in the end I didn’t because I think I’m going to cover it separately. The reason for this is that you can get musicians who are very confident in their own abilities, but when they’re on stage they’re in a little world of their own and don’t take in the audience.

      It is a big issue though, and it can be a killer if it deserts you – I know this from bitter experience.

      Vibrato is a fairly complex part of the voice, it’s a natural component part of it and can be added or subtracted. However, it can veer out of vibrato into a tremolo or wobble, which can be pretty unpleasant! I’ll go into this in another post…

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  5. HI KYM! I’m not very objective in The subject of Mr Adam Lambert! I’m unable to! I just want to say Thank You for this informative and insightful blog! I love that you can explain so well and put into words what Adam is, and have true scientific fact to back it up too, because my words fail me when I try to explain. My eyes fell on him on YouTube one day and I haven’t been able to look away since! I wish that he’ll finally get the whole worlds attention and the recognition all his wonderful talent, hard work and achievements warrants! He is an Amazing person and my heart loves him always!

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  6. I found it interesting what you said about being the part and the danger of getting sucked into the emotion and the veil method where you basically protect your performance from that happening (and affecting the voice).

    Adam feeds off the audience a lot and I’ve caught him and other artists in a deep emotion reflecting the song or lyric, and then a face in the audience makes them snap out and they just have to flash a smile. Some artists even can be taken out of their stage moment so that they lose their lyrics, may it be by a happy/excited face or that one single bored husband in front row.

    For me what makes an artist authentic are these human moments. It’s all in the eyes. If they perform in sunglasses or the stage show is so overchoreagraphed that it looks like a movie really, it doesn’t reach me. You don’t necessarily have to be in the pit to feel an artists presence, these days the giant monitors help to make everybody feel loved.

    This of course is totally different to theater, opera or musical stage productions where the actors should not flirt by eye contact I think 😉

    (I am German, I hope this makes sense haha)

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  7. Thank you for your wonderful blog posts. As a long-time Adam fan, I love when professional singers agree with what we have known all along. Your explanations are both entertaining and educational. A few years ago, a British opera singer, Angelina Kalahari, also wrote about Adam, analyzing his voice, but we haven’t heard from her in a long time. She was at the Hammersmith concerts.
    I am looking forward to your discussion of Adam’s acoustic performances. They are among my vert favorites. If you haven’t seen the videos of Adam’s VH1 unplugged concert, you must check it out! Here is the link to the first vid with Adam’s intro and from there you can go to all the rest. I love Broken Open most of all.

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    • Hi Rena – I have come across Angelina Kalahari’s writings about Adam; they’re very insightful. I am planning on writing about Adam’s acoustic performances some soon as I think they’re tremendous. A lot of pop and rock singers sound very different when you take away the sound engineering, but for Adam it just reveals the true beauty of his voice.

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  8. Thank you for writing this blog, I love it!I think is because the way you explain yourself, I mean, you explain it under the technique point of view.that makes it “impartial”, because you are not saying that is good, that is bad,you just explain it and let the readers decide which is “good” or “bad” according to their ouwn point of view.
    I always say that there are two kind of Singer, the ones who needs TONS of production(dancers,extra high volumen music, extra high volume instruments,lights,somoke, stage special effects in general, so that makes the audience do not put their all attention to the Singer because they are “distracted” by other dozen things, so you can barely notice if there even a Singer sometimes, Thouse use lips sinc too…so.. not really singers…not giving names but people knows …;)
    and the second group of singers are the ones that they are their own show, I mean, they don’t need anything, even sometimes if there’s dancers or something you want them to go away because you want to focus only on the Singer, nothing else is needed, or in the case of unpluged performance you are so focus on the voice that you barely notice there’s nothing else, beacuse you don’t miss it. In the case of QAL,it’s like HEAVEN, because you have the great production and a GREAT Singer. Also the production of the show, it’s totally focus on the Singer and the band,to add the “dramatic” ,funny, sweet, etc…touch on a certain parts of the show.
    Sadly there are much more singers in the firts group…… BUT lucky us we have Adam that brings light to the people that still love real singers and real live shows!!

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    • Thanks Sylvia – I do try very hard to be impartial as you can’t make reasoned judgements otherwise (and anyway, I’m usually too bloody logical for my own good! 🙂 ). QAL together, as far as I’m concerned, are a match made in Heaven as it’s a whole-body experience.

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  9. What you said about the difference between a ‘Method’ and a ‘Mask’ technique of getting emotion over in a song really struck a chord in me. There have been so many of my favorite singers and artists who have died young or got into trouble with drugs and alcohol and I think that often it could be that they really ‘lived’ their songs.
    I’m thinking of people like Billie Holliday or Jim Morrison or Amy Winehouse.
    Wonderful as these people are I sometimes think that it’s a bit unfortunate that these people are so revered after their deaths whereas some who live to a good healthy old age are not even though those artists are just as good. It also seems like sometimes when artists are well adjusted and healthy they are sometimes slammed for not being ‘Authentic’ by a certain type of music fan and as I’ve got older I’ve come to see this as being a very selfish way to see things, as if our entertainment is more important than the health and well being of the artist.
    Personally I would love to have my favorites around and alive for as long as possible and I don’t see why anyone should suffer for their art. I would rather get attached emotionally to someone I know has a good chance of outliving me such as Adam probably will so I don’t have to get my heart broken if they die from some preventable self inflicted cause.

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    • I think there is a huge risk to “living the dream” as you have to stay grounded. It’s the people that can’t manage this that tend to get problems, as they either find that their heads can’t cope with life, or they get tempted by the trappings of fame and fortune. And you’re right, over pop/media history there have been some very sad casualties.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Kym, just love this post. Very informative. Where you talk about action initiates music, when I watched Adam’s Idol performances, it always struck me how well he played the camera, worked with it and made dramatic movements to amplify parts of the song….Mad World comes to mind, when he stands up from the chair; coming down those stairs in Feeling Good (where I first saw him and got hooked by the time he reached the bottom of the stairs LOL).

    Thanks for these insightful blog posts.

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    • That’s absolutely right, and a really good example of how you make the music happen as a performer. You make the audience believe that the music is reacting to you, rather than you reacting to it.

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  11. Pingback: Adam Lambert Week – March 8-14, 2015 |

  12. ‘the moment that he plunges his hand into the lights on “touch my world with your fingertips’ <—- so dramatic, it is one of my favorite moments of the QAL shows, his instincts for enhancing a moment are just off the charts. Love your blog…have you heard his rendition of 'Come To Me, Bend To Me' from Brigadoon, omg it's astonishing

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    • Yes, someone pointed me at the recording from Brigadoon a few weeks ago. It’s incredible when you think he was only 22/23 at the time, as most guys’ voices are still a bit rough around the edges at that age. But this is Adam being a “proper” music theatre tenor.

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  13. Thank you for an insightful blog.I love reading about what it takes to pull off an exceptional performance There are so many singers,but there are very few who are so unique as to have the voice & the performance down to a science. Mr Lambert & Mr Mercury are two of the finest examples of this phenom.

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  14. I saw this post on Facebook, not sure why comments here aren’t seen there and vice versa. But just want to say again how much I appreciate your insightful posts. Coming from someone with professional credibility like yours makes them all the more meaningful. I’ve loved Adam since coming across that first video nearly six years ago, but could never adequately explain *why* to anyone, except to say his voice was incredible and incredibly unique. You’re helping me to understand the *why* and for that I’m grateful! I also find the comments about performance very interesting. I’ve seen flashes of that musical theater background in some of the QAL performances, especially those moments where he sort of “half talks” a line or a few words before returning to the sublime singing. I could see him on the Broadway stage in those moments. But to me it’s the singing that’s the greatest attraction, and why I love his collaboration with Queen so much. Their songs are, above all else, eminently *singable* and Adam sings them perfectly.

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    • Hi Chris – you’re right, Queen’s songs are incredibly theatrical with massive, expensive vocal lines and it takes a true performer like Freddie or Adam to pull them off properly. Of course, the problem the rest of the band had when Freddie passed away was that their songs were too difficult for most mere mortals to sing! A lot of their output is quite comfortable for a woman’s voice and will push a male voice to its limits, so you needed either a high baritone with a huge top extension to their voice, or a high tenor. If you can’t get the high notes, it cuts out a lot of their repertoire.

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