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.
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.
Lis Lewis is a voice teacher and performance coach in Los Angeles, CA. She has been training recording artists for over 30 years. Learn more about her private voice lessons. Lis is the author of the books The Singers First Aid Kit and The Pop Singers Warm-Up Kit both published by Hal Leonard. In addition to private coaching, she has worked in collaboration with managers, record labels, producers, bands and songwriters in the recording and rehearsal studio to get the best performances from their artists.