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Failing Our Singers: How a Demand for Execution Kills the Freedom to Create

Updated: Feb 19, 2019

From the time an actor arrives at a university or conservatory program, they're presented with a list of "don'ts," instead of a creative environment where it's okay to take risks. It's time to admit that this cheats our audiences and creates performance anxiety in our actors. We can do better.

Hey guys: Amy Marie Stewart here, singer, voice teacher, and founder of TheoryWorks, which teaches music theory to actors in 6-week online courses. Welcome to the blog!

I’ve used this platform in the past, namely to share our incredible interview with Tee Boyich of Broadway’s “Mean Girls," and pass along musicianship and audition tips. But, it's finally time to dig in and post on a more regular basis.

I'm leading off with the topic most on my mind these days.

“We Are Failing Our Singers”

I run a public Facebook group called Accompanist Connection, where actors can find accompanists, coaches, and arrangers at a moment's notice.

Usually the posts are pretty straightforward: “hey, I need a this, who can help.” But not too long ago, the illustrious pianist-extraordinaire Dan Pardo made the following post to the group:

From the number of reactions this received, you can tell it hit a nerve.

Here was my response:

As stated above: this is my regular soapbox. It’s why I wrote the TheoryWorks course in the first place: not just so actors could learn their sides faster, and save money on tracks (though, I certainly wrote it for that reason, too).

But also so we can improve communication between actors and their creative teams. Our goal is to empower actors, so they can feel on a more equal footing, and better positioned to truly collaborate. Because, as I'll discuss below, that's a battle they're currently fighting uphill.

The Trust Is Gone

Take for example what I've heard from multiple accompanists:

"Since actors always come in nervous, I automatically assume the tempo they've given me is too fast. So when I play for them, I play it slower."

Smash cut to my studio, where actor-after-actor comes to me saying: “I gave them my tempo exactly like we discussed, but I swear she played it slower than I asked for. I felt dead in the water. What did I do wrong?”

So, what's the actor to do here? Play against the potential misconception, and intentionally give it two clicks too fast? Is that even enough clicks to land in the right place? What if this particular pianist doesn't default to a slower tempo, and we've gone too far the other way?

It seems like it would be easier to just trust actors, instead of presuming their ignorance.

Our Schools Create and Reinforce the Narrative

So where did this dynamic come from? I have a theory, and I think it starts in our colleges.

Most conservatory programs aren't in NYC. That's fine. But trends are set in NYC, and they're ever-changing. Consider the pop/rock tunes you needed 5 years ago. They’re not the same ones you need for shows like “Hadestown.”

And because professors know this, they're paranoid of letting their students down.

Out of this abundance of concern for you (and, perhaps somewhat more cynically, their own reputations) they have a tendency to over prepare you:

  • Don’t do that. You won't get hired.

  • Don’t use your hands when you act.

  • Don’t sing that song.

  • Know your type.

  • Have a pop/rock song from every era, a 90s mega musical ballad, and a Gilbert & Sullivan aria. Build a book with 27 songs.

  • Don't refine what interests you. Instead, be ready to please everyone.

  • Show up at 4am.

  • Follow the rules best to beat the competition.

Instead of encouraging them to trust or even cultivate their own taste, we're training performers to anticipate and appease the tastes of others.

And we hem in their creativity with a list of "don'ts" until their creative spirit collapses back in on itself and into their own heads.

I have a voice student at a performing arts high school in NYC. Just yesterday, she told me her juries are sung in front of all of her peers, freshman to senior. They're graded on singing the same Italian art song, on the same rubric. If any of them run out crying from fear (which apparently happens with alarming regularity), they're scolded in front of the class for their "unacceptable" behavior.

Who would emerge from a system like that a brilliant, free artist inspired and ready to take emotional and creative risks?

And if you did, would that would that be because of a system like that? Or in spite of it?

Our Art Is Suffering As A Result

That standard of cautious perfectionism has infected performance at the highest levels.

Last month, Fox had the opportunity to show something truly daring on air when the actor playing Roger broke his ankle the night before. They could’ve aired something raw, if potentially imperfect. And what a win for differently-abled Americans it would've been to see a Roger in a wheelchair. But they didn’t air it. They defaulted to the safer, more perfect tape, and we were denied the opportunity to see it.

Apply this trend as you will across the industry, to over-produced and auto-tuned cast albums, lip-synched awards show performances, and highly-rehearsed performances that only give the illusion of being impromptu:

I mean, don't get me wrong, she sounds glorious. But I promise you: she knew that key beforehand.

And if you agree this trend suffocates musical theatre, it is positively killing opera. The singular goal for an opera singer is vocal perfection. All other considerations (like telling a story) come a distant second, or not at all. Audiences more akin to the edgy realism in television and film are greeted with staged concerts where we watch beautiful singers execute beautifully for 3 hours.

Perfectionism is killing our art.

When Creative Freedoms are Limited, Performance Anxiety Takes Its Place

As a teenager, I had zero stage fright. I just loved the heck out of being onstage. Lots of actors felt the same. Otherwise, they probably wouldn't have gone to college for theatre.

It was in college that I learned to be afraid. And many can relate.

There is nothing more triggering for anxiety than the professional pressure to *execute*.

I can remember a time when a colleague wasn't getting a rhythm, after two attempts, in an opera rehearsal. The conductor could have moved on, spoken to them afterwards, and saved time. Instead he chose to make an example of them, mocked their intelligence, and made them do it again and again, less and less correct every time. It terrified all of us. This was normal.

And who wins there?

Of course, not the cast. We now lived in terror of the conductor. If the goal going in was to collaborate and create something great, the new goal was just to survive rehearsal unscathed.

And not the conductor, who wasted rehearsal time and the potential for a great performance in berating a singer it was too late to replace anyway.

And certainly not the audience, who saw a more cautious and fearful performance.

Because bottom line, you, the leader, will never get the creative product you're looking for if you create a culture of fear. Yeah, you can go home and bitch and moan about how that person “couldn’t deliver” and “wasn’t a professional,” and never hire them again. Conductors and directors have been doing it for decades.

But make no mistake, it's you that dropped the ball. Not the actor. It was your job to foster a creative atmosphere. And if you didn't, you neglected your most fundamental duty.

It’s the CEO’s Job to Set the Tone

As every business owner knows, it's the CEO who creates the company's culture.

Search for articles on how to facilitate successful brainstorms, and you'll find article after article after article that call it a "leader's responsibility" to "facilitate ideation," create a "level playing field," and "make sure that nobody dismisses ideas as stupid or impractical."

And, they all emphasize that "a fear of criticism (will) kill a team's creativity."

A stage director is the CEO of the rehearsal, and the casting director the CEO of the audition. Right now, it's the actor who gets told to “own the room,” “take up space,” or “have more fun.” As if any of that is a reasonable expectation given the sterile and scary audition environments with which they're presented.

So you, dear actor, who are by now quite well-acquainted with articles that provide a laundry list of things that you should do, are officially off the hook.

This one's for the creative teams. For them: a challenge.

Where's the fun in auditions and rehearsals? Who's creating it? How?

What's The Solution?

Here are some possible alternatives.

What if, instead of structuring auditions in a “come-and-impress-us” format that makes actors feel like sycophants meekly requesting an audience in front of a high court, groups of 5-10 were brought in at a time to read from the script and the score and collaborate a bit -- together?

What if instead of sitting behind a table, creatives circled up with the actors and inspired a spirit of collaboration?

What if creative teams looked back to our roots and companies like The Group, which founded American theater and put directors and actors on equal footing, instead of handing down a creative vision from a position of superiority?

And finally, somewhat more controversially: why not kill the open call entirely?

Why not a self-submit appointment day for unmanaged actors?

Another nugget in those business articles above recommends that you limit your invite list for brainstorming sessions. If there are 600 people lined up outside, you probably can't create a collaborative and easy-going atmosphere. (That, and you're probably asking these poor souls to freeze at 5am in February weather, 90% of whom you're not interested in hiring. And we're all beyond that as human beings, right?)

Plus, as the aforementioned Dan Pardo pointed out to me, if you're doing "Miss Saigon" and the Asian actors are in line behind 300 overeager Ellens, we're probably not doing our best by diverse actors.

NYC actor Patrick Howard recently created and posted to social media his own survey to get this conversation started. I'd highly recommend everyone take it.

These are all just beginnings. I'm sure I don't have all the answers. But maybe this is a great invitation for our creative teams to go ahead and get creative.

Because it's time we stop putting actors -- many of whom are highly-trained experts who have worked decades in their field -- at the bottom of a totem pole. Maybe it's time we ditch the totem pole altogether. Talk to each other. Collaborate with one another.

Our art and our lives only stand to improve by doing so.


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Check out our 6-week online courses in music theory for actors:

Course 1: Music Theory for Broadway Actors, which teaches actors to learn sides on their own (covering rhythms, plunking at the piano, self-conducting):

Course 2: Sight Singing & Harmony Essentials, which covers sight singing, song form, making your own audition cut, and holding a difficult harmony:

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