The 2011 Grammy Awards

By Lis Lewis

Rihanna – Red Carpet

Superstars Are Very Shiny

I wish I were good at talking about the gorgeous clothing and the tallest shoes and the fabulous, extravagant excess that make up so much of the Grammy Awards. You’re probably better off going to a fashion website for that. But I must say, I sat backstage Sunday night and saw almost every artist who was about to perform walking up and down the halls and greeting each other. The list is endless – but I’m sure you know because you watched the awards. Nicole Kidman (you just can’t imagine how truly elegant and beautiful she is), Will Smith, who gave me a courteous little bow, with his son Jaden Smith who was wearing the biggest platform sneakers I’ve ever seen (I don’t know how he walked in those), Hayley of Paramore who was right in front of me in the security line, Cee Lo without his big costume looks like a normal guy in a t-shirt, the debonaire John Legend with a stunning woman who must have been six feet tall before the six inch heels, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin striding down the hall like the royalty they are, and I can’t even begin to describe the effect of seeing Nicki Minaj’s hair. I had a prime spot for viewing the stars, but not the show. I actually didn’t get to see the show until much later that night. I’ll have to write a whole other article on the performances – I think it was the best Grammy Awards in recent years.

The Work Begins

But there’s a lot of work behind all that glamor and that’s why I was there as Rihanna’s voice teacher, along with the many many other professionals who made the magic happen backstage. When I arrived at 3:30 Rihanna swooped by, stooped to give me a quick kiss, and ran off to the Red Carpet wearing that amazing wedding cake of a see-through dress. What a way to start my workday! After the red carpet, she  went to sit in her seat for the show’s opening number and then came back to her dressing room to get ready for her first performance of the night. She is the only artist who sang twice. Her dressing room was packed with people; three people were sewing her into her huge billowing tulle dress and one was getting her shoes ready. All this while I warmed up her voice. There’s no room for a keyboard so we did it a cappella, which is no problem for her since she has such a good ear. It’s no secret how sick she had been for the last week. She had to cancel a benefit performance a few days earlier due to laryngitis and bronchitis but she has the best Ear Nose and Throat Doctor on the planet, Dr. Shawn Nasseri, and she sounds great.

And Then The Show

Rihanna’s performance

Once she was in the dress, the hair and makeup people had to do their magic but the dress was so big she couldn’t sit down in a chair, and people, she is TALL. So she knelt down for about fifteen minutes while everyone finished their work. When the knock on the door came to tell her it was time, she sailed out to the stage with her assistants and bodyguards and sang the hell out of her duet with Eminem. You may have noticed that in the middle of her song she pulled her ear piece out; that’s because it completely stopped working. But she is a trooper and finished (and sounded amazing) without being able to hear herself. Then back to the dressing room for another costume/makeup change and her final hot performance with Drake. When she came back to the dressing room, the crew packed everything up and they all headed to the airport for a redeye flight to London where she performed at the British music awards show (and won again!). You have to be an athlete to be a superstar, and she is. I was exhausted. So much for my glamorous life. I went home and collapsed in front of the television to watch the show I had just worked on.

Charisma, The Sequel

By Lis Lewis

If you read part one of this series, The Charisma Factor, you know that charisma involves being comfortable inside of your personality in front of an audience. Your songs, your voice, your relationship with the band and your relationship with the audience should reflect your point of view, your concept. By now you have started working on discovering what sets you apart from other artists and who people see when they see you onstage. Now the next step is refining what they see so it expresses how you feel and the message you are trying to convey.

Lead vocalist Tyson Ritter of The All-American Rejects

As the frontperson of your band you are in unique position. You are the person who the audience connects with first. Through you they come to understand the material and meet the other musicians. The persona of the singer often defines the character of the whole band. This is especially true if you are also one of the songwriters.

Besides being able to play your instrument (your voice), you have to be able to move well, use your face and body to express your feelings and communicate with the band and with the audience. None of the other band members are required to be the conduit to the audience in quite the same way. The skills of a frontperson are very specific. In order to perform comfortably, consider taking dance or movement classes, improvisation classes, performance workshops and acting classes – anything that will help you connect your thought and feelings to your body and your actions.

Sing It Like You Mean It

I often see good singers giving dull performances. They sing with their eyes closed, or stand stock still. Or even worse, they run around the stage without any real purpose, just keeping busy. One of the things that makes a great performance is the connection the singer feels to the material, usually to the story they are telling. If there is no urgency in the telling, if the singer is on automatic pilot just rehashing something they no longer feel, then there is no energy in the performance.

These are some of the questions you must ask yourself: What does the lyric mean to me? Why do I care? What do I want the audience to walk away feeling as a result of my performance? It is not enough that the audience thinks you are a good singer. Singing is only a means to an end – the end you want to accomplish is affecting your audience, making them understand you, convincing them of what is important to you. That is what makes your performance compelling. As an audience member I’m bored when a singer is showing off how pretty their voice is, or how good they look, or how cool they are. It doesn’t affect my life. What they have to say should matter to me. I want to be moved.

Rihanna

Even if you feel the power of the story you might not be communicating it. You might be inhibited. Growing up we have been socialized. We learned not to be rude, not to interrupt, not to be too loud or take too much attention. But onstage those rules are not useful. I’m not saying you should be rude, but you should be more responsive to your impulses and not stop yourself from reacting to the things you feel. Maybe you wouldn’t shake your whole body and throw yourself around in a conversation with someone when you disagree, but onstage that might be just the thing to do to when you feel adamant. In our daily lives we are careful about going from an impulse to an action because we have to live in society with others. But onstage those rules aren’t appropriate. You can and must respond to your impulses. This doesn’t mean that you have to act in dramatic ways although that certainly works. You can choose to be gentle or quiet; you don’t have to dance or shout. You do have to care and it has to show.

Practice Spontaneity

It’s tough to practice being more impulsive, more spontaneous. There aren’t many opportunities. Here is an exercise. Go to the art supply store and buy a fairly large pad of drawing paper. Also buy some colors that you love. They can be any medium – pastels, paints, magic markers, watercolors, crayons – it doesn’t matter as long as you love the colors. Set aside 20-30 minutes and do five fast paintings; they should be abstract, not ‘of’ something. No literal pictures. Just a splash of color here and a wiggle of color there. There is no right or wrong here. You are just trying to act impulsively. Lay the colors out in front of you and look at them. Pick one that looks good to you and paint with it. Then pick another. Don’t work at the paintings. They should be quick. When you are done with one painting start another one. Then after you’ve done five, look back over them and you might see that one grows from another. In one you worked in one set of colors and then when you started the next you wanted to work in new colors. Or you hated one when you finished it so you started in an entirely different direction on the next one. Maybe one had a squiggle in it and you didn’t want to do a squiggle in the next. Or you found a combination of colors you liked and wanted to use them again. Even the paintings you dislike had a purpose – they led you to the next ones.

This exercise is useful on a number of levels: it allows you to accept even the impulses that you had that you didn’t like because they are part of a process; it allows you to see that you have a process; it starts you toward responding to what you like and don’t like, to what you feel without worrying about what you should or shouldn’t do. It is a small start on practicing spontaneity.

Then the next time you are rehearsing with your band, tell them that you are going to practice your performance as well as the music. Try things. Start with moving your hands, or using your neck. Don’t face straight forward the whole time. Play with the mic stand. Try being flirtatious, aggressive, silly, or coy. Try anything. It doesn’t matter if the things you try work or not – they are just steps toward the things that will work. This ends up being a lot of fun once you get over being embarrassed. The next time you see a band you love, watch what the lead singer does and try to imagine yourself trying it. Or imagine what it was like in the rehearsal room when that singer tried it for the first time. Be brave; it’s worth it. You are on the path to charisma.

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