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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.