Your use of practice time between lessons can definitely influence “getting your money’s worth.” You will make progress even if you rarely practice between lesson sessions, but you will get more for your money and get ahead more quickly if you make good use of your practice time. Here are some thoughts. Feel free to comment or add to the list.
Stealing the good stuff is probably closer to the truth. As educators and artists we do it all the time. At least I know that I have and will continue to pilfer the truths that I find in others’ work and observations. Of course, we tinker with the knowledge we glean from other sources, tweak it in ways that make it, in some way, our own and convince ourselves that we have created a better thing. Or, we just take it as we find it and quietly use it word for word without shame. No guilt is necessary, I think, unless we claim it as our own and try to profit from it on that basis.
So, now is the time for me to “fess up” by acknowledging the people I “borrow” from daily. If you are a former colleague or student, be assured that I have borrowed from you a lot. As I have stated before, over the years I have learned more from colleagues, friends and students than they have ever learned from me.
In my teaching and coaching of actors, I have harvested and continue to harvest huge amounts from writings by Constantin Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meissner, Maxine Klein and Uta Hagen. There are others, but these are, in the main, the ones I rely on most. I sought them out on my own with the exception of Maxine Klein, whose book, Time Space and Designs for Actors, was introduced to me over twenty years ago by the drama instructor at Saginaw Valley State University. Three of my high school students, Maria Infante, Kathy Christian and Melissa Stenzel and I, signed up for a summer acting class. It was great and I have been stealing from all of them ever since. Thanks kids.
The most recent of the books from the above-mentioned authors is Uta Hagen’s, The Challenge for the Actor. I have found it most useful and highly recommend it. I only borrow the good stuff.
While coaching a student recently, I found myself going on at length about the importance of bringing “yourself” to an audition. As I went on, I realized that this has multiple meanings for me. Each of these is equally important and also perhaps equally contrary to what many students are taught in school.
The most obvious element to this is simply being yourself. What I think many young actors don’t realize when they first begin auditioning, is that the folks behind the table are just the same as anyone they’ve worked with on a show before. They are talented, passionate people with a love for their work, and the thing they are looking for at an audition–sometimes more than anything else,–is someone they will like. The actors they cast from this audition are people they are going to be stuck working with for the length of their show’s rehearsal period at the very least and just like you, they want to have a good time. I don’t necessarily mean “a good time” as in “hours of partying, fun, and frolic” (though with some companies that may be accurate) but this is a business people go into because they genuinely love it and part of what makes that sustainable is choosing fun, adaptable, talented people to work with. Forget everything you learned from voice recitals, college auditions, and drilling for the SETCs, and just be yourself. Be a polite, well-groomed, articulate version of yourself, yes, but don’t be afraid to be warm or to smile or laugh if something is funny, and above all show them who you are. When I was performing professionally, I was never the person who fit most perfectly into anyone’s preconceived notion of what they were looking for in an audition, but with a combination of talent and an easygoing, distinctive personality I was able to be someone people wanted to cast, and the directors I worked with would alter their preconceptions to make that happen.
Secondly, one of the most important things you can do for yourself as a professional performer is to recognize your greatest strength. At any given audition, there are going to be at least forty people (that is a completely made-up statistic, but you get my point) who fall into the same general category as you do in the minds of the auditioners. What is it that makes you special? Do you have an exceptionally fantastic singing voice? Are you an extremely strong actor? Can you dance circles around everyone else? Chances are, no matter how hard you’ve worked to shore up your skills, there is still one thing that you do better than the other people around you. Be honest with yourself about what this is, and use that in any way you can. Maybe what makes you special isn’t any one of these things, but the fact that you are genuinely competent in each (this is much rarer than you think). Or maybe the truth is that you are simply better-looking than anyone else in the room. If you’ve got it, use it. What makes you special is your foot in the door. Keep working to improve your weaker areas, but don’t hesitate to show off what’s best in an audition, and don’t be ashamed to take steps to cover up those weaknesses. If you are worried you can’t hit that high “A” every time, don’t sing a song that requires it. Find the piece that shows off your strength and nail it at every audition.
Lastly, and this is the one that’s going to get me in trouble, don’t let ideas of perfection train your uniqueness out of you. Some of your teachers may hate me for saying this, but sometimes your faults are what make your talent unique. I was listening to Rufus Wainwright in the car today. He’s one of my favorite singers, though his technique is terrible. He barely opens his mouth, giving him a lazy, nasal tone. He’s a heavy smoker, which makes his mid-range raspy and kills his breath control (this is most obvious in live performance). He slides all over the place, like he’s singing with a slow drawl. It is all these things, however, that make him sound like Rufus Wainwright and the truth is, I absolutely love that sound. I can’t get enough of it. I’d even go so far as to say that his studio recording of “Poses” is one of the loveliest performances in my entire CD collection. Now, I’m not suggesting that you should all start smoking and stop opening your mouths when you sing (no, please no), and certainly Rufus’ particular characteristics are not things generally accepted in theater. What I am saying is that there may be something unique about your talent that is contrary to accepted norms and it’s not necessarily something you should get rid of, at least not entirely. If it makes singing, acting, etc. harder (like Rufus’ smoking), then absolutely you should. And yes, if you want to get first class chorus work, you’d better work to have that perfect voice. But if you want to be remembered, sometimes that little imperfection is what will push you over the edge. If you think this is the case, don’t fear it. Use it. Even as you’re working to be your best, you want to be the best you, not someone else.
As you train for a professional career in theater, remember that the instrument for your work is you. Never lose sight of who that is and don’t underestimate its importance to your success.
Uta Hagen in her book, A Challenge for the Actor, gives the following quote from George Bernard Shaw:
“This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to further generations.”
Malcolm Gladwell has been quoted often as he suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become skilled at anything. I expect he is right. Performers who become “overnight” sensations have put in their time. Are there exceptions? Perhaps. But that is why they are called “exceptions.” Most everyone has spent a lot of time honing the craft. Intelligence and talent are factors, big factors. But the 10,000 hours may be the most important step of all. And that is why no one should become a performer if they don’t like to practice and rehearse. If you don’t love the process, you still can enjoy any of the arts as a hobby. But, if it is your career you are talking about, do you like the preparation? We’ve all had jobs we didn’t like much. It is much more fun to go to work if you love the job. How much do you love acting or singing?
It’s all right to change your mind along the way. You may think you want this, or you may like the process for awhile. When you no longer enjoy the process, it is time to do something else. Is there something you love so much that you are willing to spend 10,000 preparing to be skilled? I found along the way that I loved teaching rather than performing. What is your choice?
Today’s thought comes from the website of J Timothy Caldwell. I quote:
Exercise: ask a choral singer to sing a scale in a legato manner as you watch the area of the throat known as the “Adam’s Apple.” You will probably see tiny, jerky motions as the singer moves from pitch to pitch. The motions come from “jumping” from pitch to pitch. If you ask a well-trained solo singer to perform the same exercise, you will see little or no movement-this is because the singer is “sliding” from pitch to pitch.
(The whole discussion is here: http://www.jtimothycaldwell.net/blogs/?page_id=28)