The Charisma Factor

By Lis Lewis

Whether you are trying to get signed to a record label or are creating a career for yourself independently, in order to have musical success you have to develop an audience who identifies with you. You need great songs and a great voice but there is another more elusive element, sometimes called charisma. This other skill is hard to put a finger on, but it has to do with the force of your personality and how it affects your singing, your songs, your interaction with your band and your audience, your photos and press releases – in fact every element of your band’s image and concept.

As the frontperson of your band, you are the one the audience comes to know first. Through you they become familiar with the material and the other band members. You set the tone. Are you deep and gentle like Sarah McLaughlin, introspective and intense like Thom Yorke of Radiohead, or aggressive and dangerous like Pink?

Where do you fit in? Or rather, what makes you stand out? How do you become intriguing enough to be considered a star? How do you create a concept around which to shape your songs and your band? Let’s take a look at a few people who have accomplished this feat and see how they did it.

Mythic Artists

The most mythic artists, like Lady Gaga, have such a strong persona that you could actually sum them up pretty easily. Gaga is provocative and outspoken, infusing her electronic dance music with glam. She pushes against the values of society in many ways: with her sexuality, her dark lyrical perspective, her outrageous clothing and her mash-up of musical styles. She rebels against any kind of limitation. When you think of Lady Gaga, a very clear and strong image comes into your head. She has created a myth and it shows in every element of her work – from music to clothing, from lyrical content to video content.

Gwen Stefani is also a rebel but in a different way. She is street smart and uses humor to defy the restrictions set by society. She is definitely not “Just A Girl”. She is glamorous even while wearing track pants. Although the lyrics might be intimate, there’s an aggressiveness in the music that keeps her from getting too close or being too sweet. She’s tough and vulnerable at the same time and plays these contradictions off in her clothing, gestures and movements.

Even artists who aren’t as radical as these two have honed their message down to its essence. Sheryl Crow was once described as the ‘thinking man’s party girl’. She’s tough and she’s smart with a vulnerable side you only rarely get to see. She’s a cynic and nothing is going to get past her. You would probably never hear her sing a lyric that is as confessional and intimate as a Colbie Caillat lyric nor will she use that kind of sweet vocal sound. Even though Sheryl Crow is certainly capable of singing with a beautiful tone, she chooses a more conversational, undersung style, whether consciously or unconsciously. This is because it mirrors her personality and her view of life, which is not sweet, not pretty. Her guitar sounds, her clothing, her attitude, all reflect the same concept.

No matter who you respect as an artist, whether they are flamboyant like Adam Lambert or completely unglamorous like Dave Matthews, you can still see who they are and what they represent in the way they bring life to the songs, the musical style, the stage show, the photos, the press and all the other elements.

Your Own Myth

Where do you begin to find your image, your onstage persona? Start with yourself, your history and your real personality. You can’t pretend to be an angry young man or a sexy babe if it isn’t what you really feel – you won’t do a very good job of it. Who are you really? It’s hard for us to know who we are and how we appear to others. Here is an assignment to help you get started: ask five of your friends to write down a list of your three strongest personality attributes. They don’t have to be nice things because if you are a troublemaker, for instance like Pink is, that might play very well on stage. And they shouldn’t be characteristics like ‘nice’, ‘smart’, ‘talented’ or ‘creative’. Those things won’t set you apart from anyone else. We are looking for the things that make the people who know you recognize you. Maybe you are a caretaker type of person or maybe you have a lot of energy. Maybe you are a geek or a loner. If someone says you are sexy, ask them to be more specific. Are you sexy in a ‘girl–(or boy)–next–door sort of way? Wholesome, brazen? Sensuous? Are you funny? Is it dry humor? Bawdy humor, adolescent humor? Try to get your friends to be specific. When they are done you will have fifteen words or phrases that are descriptions of your personality as others see you. Some of them may overlap. If you are very funny, probably everyone will include it. But the point is to see yourself from the outside. When you start to have an idea of what image you present to the world, you can begin shaping that image.

From The Inside Out

Image is not something you apply from the outside. Sure some producer can tell you to wear certain clothes and act a certain way and sing his songs and then he will make you a star. But it rarely happens that way (with a few exceptions) and it isn’t very satisfying. You aren’t you. You are pretending to be what he has created. You feel like a fraud. Even the boy groups that have been created by a producer have later gone on to take a strong stand on what they really want and who they really are. Image comes from the real you. It comes from the inside out. Look inside yourself for your opinions and feelings and then write about them in your songs. When you sing them the force of your convictions gives you great energy and stage presence. This is the start of charisma.

If your material is socially conscious, then your band shouldn’t be dressed like they’re going to Mardi Gras. If you’re writing romantic songs about the joys and sorrows of love, then your band will probably not be covered in pierces and tattoos. If you are singing blues songs, chances are you won’t have a cellist. If you’re a garage band then you probably won’t want to look like you stepped out of business meeting. Of course there are exceptions to all of these and the exceptions are sometimes the most interesting. Contradictions can be fun. But it’s still a choice based on what you want your audience to perceive.

When you go to a concert of a person you admire, you come away feeling that you’ve gotten to know that person. How did that happen? What did they do to express who they are? Were they shy? Talkative? Angry? Arrogant? Bubbly? Silly? Serious? What about you? Who will you be? When your audience walks away from your concert, who will they have seen? Remember, this is a longtime process. You will always be creating yourself. As your beliefs and attitudes become clearer to you, your concept will evolve. And as you take a stand on those beliefs you will develop the confidence and clarity of purpose that leads to charisma.

Read part 2 – Charisma, The Sequel

Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!
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Advice for ‘The Voice’ Auditions

By Lis Lewis

The VoiceI was the vocal coach for two singers who were on a recent season of The Voice and several others from prior seasons. After watching them go through the audition process I have some thoughts about how to survive and endure.

Pick songs that reflect your personality. Just because you like a song doesn’t mean it shows who you are. Also prepare a lot of songs; they might throw something at you at the last minute.

As a contestant on the show, you aren’t just a singer. You are a character and a story. Try to shape that story yourself so you have some control of it. Rather than being the guy whose wife left him, try making it positive – the guy who turned his life around. Adversity in life makes good television but don’t be a victim. Phillip Phillips, who won last season on American Idol, had multiple surgeries while on the show, but that was never part of his story.

The audition process is high stress. Get enough sleep, eat at regular intervals (bring snacks), dress in layers (you might be waiting in line outside) and most of all prepare. Know your songs, practice being interviewed, warm up your voice and then let go and show them who you are.

It’s hard not to take it personally if they don’t pick you. Your goal should be to do your personal best whether you’re chosen or not. You don’t know what they’re looking for – they may already have picked their ‘rocker Mom’, or their ‘soulful country’ voice. All you can do is be the most authentic ‘you’ you can be.

Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!
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Why Do Singers Take Out Their Earpieces?

Beyonce Earpiece

Beyonce after she pulled her ear piece out at the Presidential Inauguration

By Lis Lewis

If you saw the inauguration you watched as Beyoncé pulled out her earpiece while singing the Star Spangled Banner. That earpiece is called an in-ear monitor. It allows her to hear exactly what she wants. For example if you are a singer singing with a live band, there is a lot of noise onstage with you, especially from the drummer. It can be very hard to hear yourself which can make you sing louder and even shout. Your voice can get tired and you might feel like you’re straining. If you use in-ears, you can have the sound engineer put only your voice and, let’s say, the keyboard in your ears. You won’t hear the drummer at all! You can choose how much or little of each instrument you hear.

There are some drawbacks to in-ear monitors though. A rehearsal in an empty room sounds entirely different than in a room full of bodies so you can’t be sure how it’s going to sound at the show. Also you don’t get any ‘ambient’ sound in your ears so there’s no room noise. If you aren’t used to the way that sounds, it can feel ‘dead’. I don’t know exactly what happened in the case of Beyoncé but I imagine it’s hard to predict what you want to hear in your ears when you’re singing outdoors in front of hundreds of thousands of people. She probably had too much of the Marine Corps Band in her ears and took one earpiece out to try to hear her voice coming out of her mouth.

Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!

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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

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.

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.

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.

Backstage at The American Music Awards

by Lis Lewis

It’s Sunday morning, November 21, 2010 at 10 AM and I’m hanging around in my pajamas. It’s my day off. The phone rings and it’s Thomas, Rihanna’s tour manager. Do I have time to work with Rihanna today, he asks? Well I guess so, what time? Can you be here at noon? he says. It’ll only be for an hour or so. Of course I say yes. I really can’t say no to Rihanna.

So I jump into some clothes and tear downtown to the Nokia Theater. Turns out it’s the American Music Awards. Wow! Thomas comes running out to guide me past security and then into the theater. (Why are we running?) As we go through security a big security guard steps in front of the line and stops everyone to allow Pink to go through by herself.

The dressing rooms are three flights down underground – little dark hallways and dressing rooms with no windows. I’m guided to a narrow hall with a couple of folding chairs. Good thing I brought my iPad – but wait there’s no WiFi! Really? In the Nokia? OK, whatever.

It’s very distracting down there. There are people running everywhere. But no one looks famous. Oh wait, is that Santana? Yes, he’s waiting with his entourage for the elevator that will take him up to the stage for rehearsal. He looks good! But now there’s absolutely nothing to do but wait till Rihanna is ready for me. I wander around a little and find a snack room with candy and chips and coffee – ugh. Then drift back to my folding chair. An hour passes. Two hours. Suddenly Thomas comes out and yells ”Lis!” I jump up and run into Rihanna’s dressing room.

And there is beautiful Rihanna who comes over and gives me a big hug.

Rihanna and Lis Lewis

There’s also a huge 10 foot-long rack of clothes and more shoes than in a shoe store.

Rack of Clothes

I haul out my keyboard and set it up on the coffee table. Then Ri and I go to work. We warm up her voice, and then practice parts of the eight minute medley she’s singing to open the show. Forty minutes later we’re almost done when she asks me if I can stay to warm her up right before the show two hours from now. Of course, I say. (I can’t say no to Rihanna) So I go back out to my little folding chair and sit. But wait, who is this with the tiny dog? Oh it’s Christina Aguilera and her entourage waiting to go up to the stage for rehearsal. Another hour goes by. I see the Black Eyed Peas and Taylor Swift. It’s exciting and boring at the same time. Rihanna goes up to walk the red carpet. Twenty minutes later she comes down. Another twenty minutes later I’m summoned back in to her dressing room for the warm up before the show. She looks incredible, she sounds amazing and she’s ready to open the AMA’s. I don’t know how she stays so calm in the midst all these people running around but she’s serene and focused. We’re done and she and her entourage go out to wait for the elevator to take them to the stage. And after five hours, I’m ready to go home.

Here’s a picture of the Gibson guitar that Dick Clark Productions sent around for the artists to sign. It will be sold for charity.



Signed Gibson Guitar

Q&A: Collaboration

Dear Lis,

My 15 year old daughter is a talented singer/songwriter but I feel her songs need to be stronger.  She’s tried writing with a kid from school but she felt he wasn’t as knowledgeable as she is and that he was stubborn about using his own ideas. How can we find someone to write with her.


Dear Kim,

It’s hard to find a collaborator because you want someone who is just like you. But of course you aren’t going to find that. You will find someone who has different ideas and probably cares a lot about them. So you butt heads. But that’s part of what collaborating is. She should write with many different writers and try to be open and flexible with them. It’s their creation as well as hers and they want the song to reflect their ideas just like she does. Collaboration will help her stretch beyond what comes naturally to her and explore new territory. Here is a link to a list of songwriting organizations across the country where you can seek out possible writing partners:

Q&A: Singer’s Block

Dear Lis,

I’m stuck. I sound the same every time I sing my songs; my shows are the same. I’m losing the feeling. How do I break out of my funk?


Dear Wayne,

We all go through periods of time when we get bored with our own ideas – tired of singing the same things over and over. What was once inspiring gets dull and lifeless. You can turn this into a very productive period for you. Now’s the time to break out of old ruts and try new paths. The problem is, you have to take risks; you have to be willing to make mistakes. Here are some ideas. Take a song you’ve been singing for a while and radically change the tempo. Don’t worry if the tempo makes any sense or not; just try to come up with ways to sing it at the new tempo. If it was a ballad and now it’s fast, you won’t be able to sustain notes as long and might have to use a lighter, more flexible melody. If you are slowing it down to a ballad, you may want to cut out some of the rhythmic figures and make it smoother, more legato. Also try changing keys. Play it two whole steps higher. You won’t be able to sing the melody the same way and you’ll have to change the notes. Try new runs; break up old patterns. Sing lower when it gets too high.

The same is true for your songwriting. Try writing in a key you normally wouldn’t use. Challenge yourself with a project like writing the verse in the minor key and the chorus in the major. Listen to other people’s songs and use them for inspiration – for instance if there’s a chord structure you like, try using it with a new melody over the top. Experiment with using images, colors or numbers in your lyrics. Let this be a time to reinvent yourself.

Q&A: Married To The Band

Dear Lis,

Last night at our gig the bass player was really sloppy in his rhythm playing. I don’t think he practices enough. Is it time to look for a new one?


Dear Alice,

There are, of course, good players and bad players. But even good ones have their flaws. Anyone you work with for a long period of time will have traits that annoy you. Maybe they don’t read charts, or they talk too much in rehearsal or they refuse to work with a click track. Maybe they are too aggressive onstage or too shy. You could respond to these problems by saying ‘fire him; get a new one’. But the next one will have their problems too. So instead, think about ways to work on the issues; have a band meeting and talk things through. It’s a bit like a marriage – you have to learn to communicate. Keeping a band together is hard work but it pays big dividends.

Q&A: Fear Of Scales

Dear Lis,

I hate doing scales. Why can’t I just sing songs?


Dear Lis,

Exercises don’t do me any good. I want to improve my range and strength singing songs not exercises.


Dear Lis,

Every teacher I go to wants me to do those ‘la-la-las’. What’s the point?


Dear Alec, Justin, Rebecca and all of the others who’ve asked the same thing,

You don’t play football to get ready for a football game. You do drills that focus on the abilities you will need for the game: coordination, agility, speed and strength to name a few. If you want to improve your singing, you need to isolate your particular problems. When you sing a song, you’re thinking about many things at once: lyrics, melody and emotion. How can you also think about tension, breathing or tone? The exercises help your body learn how to hit the high note, how to release the tension and many other skills that you need. Then when you sing a song the muscles that you’ve trained in the scales will operate well without you thinking about them.