Kashu-do (歌手道): Stage Presence and Confidence: A Result of Conscious "Ausbildung"

The German word Ausbildung might seem strange to English speakers in particular. The root word is Bilden, literally “to form”. For those of us who speak Romance languages, the words formation (Fr.) formazione (It.) or formación (Sp.) come quite literally to mind. The reflexive verb sich ausbilden (literally to form oneself) has direct equivalents in romance languages (e.g.. se former, formarsi), which have educational implications. The idea of forming oneself or better said, giving oneself a shape is of paramount importance to the professional performer taking his/her product to market.

What makes one singer with great skill appear bland and another with less skill appear magnificent? I have been both, and I continue to see how perception can change the quality of a product. To that end, there is a reason athletes need a coach to give them a pep talk before a game, a boxer a cornerman before a fight, or a singer a coach or teacher before a performance or audition. In the end however, the best singers I know enter an audition room with a sense that the auditors are lucky to be able to hear them, and this is not based on some empty ego-trip but a certain knowledge that some element of what they offer is spectacularly better than that same element offered by most others. Some others will copy this attitude, but will not do as well because they are simply putting on an attitude without believing in the product they are selling.

This subject came clearly to my mind as one student who just finished a Broadway national tour came for a lesson because he is being considered for a rather important part for a show currently on Broadway. Another student of mine also just finished a different Broadway national tour and the two know each other very well.

Singer one is a very committed young man with a voice that still needs some basic work, but when he walks in a room, there is no doubt that he is there to conquer. After working on some high notes he had to sing for this audition, I asked him what makes him so confident. He said two things that I think are very important to success: 1) “I’ve worked hard to get here! I know what I have done and I know it is good. I’m an optimist too.” 2) I came from a small town with nothing in it. You gotta take a risk to get anywhere. I have nothing to lose by giving it my all. Whatever happens, I have sung on Broadway.

Singer two is a source of great pride for me as a teacher. It came to mind at our last lesson that we had been working together on and off for 8 years (how time flies, I thought)! This singer is one of those who began her academic career with what (to my chagrin)  my colleagues use to call “a singer without a voice.” Well low and behold, this singer without a voice has sung the lead role in a Broadway national tour. I love her for her work ethic, for her continuous building, for not giving up when it got hard, etc. But at many lessons, I remember having to build her up, helping her to value the work she had done and convincing her that she indeed had a terrific voice that was growing daily and besides she was a terrific dancer and a natural actress. BUT, despite landing a lead role in a Broadway show, she finished the run with the thought that perhaps she would never get another chance like that again.  What will it take for her to believe she is no longer a “singer without a voice”?

Guess which of the two will have a grand career? I am betting on singer one. Although he has work to do, he values the work he had done. He is very much a “half-full” kind of guy. As for my darling student who I cherish for working so hard, I am praying that she learns to “own it”, that she gives value to the way she has “formed herself”!

In the end, it is about being a sculptor of self. If I were a sculptor, how would I form myself? I am currently doing it, and guess what, I’m a pretty good sculptor and I am liking what is coming out. But not enough yet to put it in public. As my own voice develops (and voice is only a part of my sculpture), I am seeing how truly extraordinary it could be. If I can get it to behave consistently in the way that I now perceive it, I will have no qualms about entering a room with the attitude: “I have prepared a present the likes of which you have not heard before”!

But ignorance is bliss. There was a time, in my baritone days when I thought that voice was a minor part and that my artistry would trump everything. I won competitions against singers who sang technically much better than me, but I was more confident because I felt my overall product was of a singular quality. Of course as I progressed professionally, I got to a point whereby the obstacles could not be overcome and I had to discover that my vocal quality lacked something. In my case, I was singing the wrong vocal category and would not ever sound my best until I re-calibrated the instrument to fulfill the functions of its natural design. In other words, I had to sing as a tenor to discover my best quality.

To make the argument more tangible, it is not possible to enter an audition room or a performance stage with confidence if one has fears about any aspect of the performance. Singers often have success before they even understand the nature of what it is that merits success and adulation.  They are often equally surprised when they are dismissed.

A certain pianist, known as much for his hurtful commentary to burgeoning musicians as for his absolute dependability as a collaborative pianist once told me something I never forgot: “If you cannot sing that note dependably on your worst day, don’t perform it!” Nothing could be more true. Unfortunately he said this to me as an argument that I should become a bass-baritone instead of a lyric baritone because my high G was problematic when I was 22. years old.

Because of such people (and they are plentiful in our field) it is important to consider both sides of this critical issue. We must not present something we are not completely proud of and we must be proud of what we have built. We must give ourselves the chance to “form ourselves” in a way that gives us a sense of pride and confidence in our work such that we will have no reason to second-guess ourselves when confronted with negative commentary, whether constructive in nature or not.

It goes back to the conclusion of a recent post. If you do not value it, why should anyone else? If you do not value it, why would you present it to anyone with a feeling that they are going to value it?

In short, true confidence comes from Ausbildung. Educating oneself in a way that makes one proud.

© 02/01/2010

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