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Archive for October, 2010

Physical Performance for Singers – PART II – the “how”

 When the spoken word begins to fall short, a performer launches into song (or dance) that takes the level of expression to a whole new place.    The same way music is an important part of contemporary dance, movement is an important part of contemporary music. 

Here are some simple tips for improving your physical performance when singing.

Watch your feet and knees.  We all learned in jr. high choir not to lock our knees or we risk passing out, but planting your  feet can also make you look stiff on stage.  When you look stiff, it can make your audience nervous on your

Strong vs. Stiff

 behalf.  Often, a performer with feet glued to a single spot on the floor has also locked their knees.  

Don’t be fooled, guys, into thinking a stiff posture looks masculine… “disciplined” maybe, but not masculine when performing.  Not sure how many praise songs call for a posture of discipline, but hey, maybe you can use it some day.

With the lower body stagnant, when the tempo is up and the performer wants to move, the only place for that movement to go is in the upper body. 

Bobbing birds plant their feet and lock their knees.

The “knee locker” may bend and straighten repeatedly at the waist – which combined with no movement in the lower body makes the performer look like one of those bobbing bird toys that dips its beak in water over and over. 

The solution?  Simply try putting one foot slightly in front of the other.  Feet shoulder width apart.  Make a conscious effort to move your feet once in a while and keep your knees loose.  This may feel (and look) awkward at first,  but it’s a step in the right direction.  Get it?  Snort!

Resist the temptation to repeat a footwork pattern for the whole song.  Step touch, step touch, step touch… somebody SAVE ME from step touch, step touch!

Next,  watch your hands.  Stiff hands with fingers spread wide is called “jazz hands” and it’s hard to imagine a time when sustaining that gesture for more than a beat or two would be appropriate for praise music. 

Careful with the jazz hands


Similarly, watch the ballet hands. 

Careful with the ballet hands

This may be beautiful when dancing Swan Lake, but it looks artificial on a singer.

Solution?  Relax the hands completely.

Relax your hands.

Shake them out to relieve tension and hold them slightly cupped like a choir conductor or contemporary dancer.  Even when raised above the head, a relaxed, slightly cupped hand looks great.  You can use this hand position when keeping time by slapping your thigh to the beat (don’t flick your wrists), when “fake clapping” with a microphone in one hand, when raising your hands in praise, or just standing still wondering what to do with your hands.  When in doubt, relax into conductor hands.

The angle of your chin matters.  Hold your chin too high (head tilted too far back) and you look arrogant, not praise-filled. 


Not this.

When your chin is tilted down the temptation will be to cast our eyes down at the floor.  Do that and the audience looses all the expression on your face.

downcast eyes. distraction? shame? an otherwise neutral expression changes dramatically with downcast eyes.

If your chin is down and your eyes are elevated, you risk looking flirtatious at best and slightly insane or evil at worst. 

the cast of the head and the angle of the eyes are important

Subtle differences in th angle of your hands send very different non-verbal messages.

Without honest feedback, we might not really know how we are perceived.

click to enlarge

And wanna know the clincher?  There is no set formula for how a particular gesture will look on every person.  The same or very similar hand position may work perfectly for one performer and not at all for another.  So what do you do?  Find someone you trust to give you feedback and welcome their feedback like a gift!  (Proverbs 25:12)  That someone might also be your mirror or a video camera.  If your church records services on video, watch the playback of your performance with an eye toward improving your technique. 

Lastly, be patient with yourself and the others on your praise team.  It can take a while to learn how to get what you feel to match up with your stage presence.  Make small changes and try to make every performance a little better than the last.  Remember, God wants you to be FREE!  Relax and worship!  Loosen up!  Try “going big” at rehearsal one night… people will probably tell you they LOVE the way you worship God!  Believe that, trust that, and serve with your WHOLE SELF! 

hugs, v-


Physical Performance for Singers – PART I – the “why”

Creating an environment for worship without being a distraction is probably one of the toughest challenges praise team members face.  There is so much more to this than sheet music! First, you iron out all the musicality, the vocal technique, the style, the acoustics, the sound system … and then comes the hardest problem of all…. looking “right” on stage. 

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not about your personal “looks” or how you dress.  I am a chunky monkey and the poster child for the “BEFORE” part of What Not To Wear – so don’t expect me to go there.  The topic of this post is how you physically present yourself on stage.  Recent studies show only 7% of our communication of attitudes and feelings is verbal.  Over 90% of the way we share our attitudes and feelings is NON-VERBAL.     

At RMCC,  our auditorium seats something like 1200 people.  LOTS of folks like to sit in the back, and there, they can’t actually see facial expressions without looking at the overhead screens.  (Your face counts too when it is 8′ high on the wall behind you!)  If the congregation looks at YOU, not the screen, from that distance, will they know what you are singing about?  Or does your performance say, “I am stuck in the 1980’s”  or “Petrified for Jesus”  or “Really Don’t Give A Rip About You, This Is The Only Time I Spend With God All Week!” or my personal pet peeve… “It’s just me and Jesus up here in our own little world.”  That expression/posture totally has its place in authentic worship, but if I have to sit there every Sunday for a 15-minute worship set watching you in a spotlight,  clinching your hands over your chest, eyes squeezed shut with a look of pained, self-indulgent rapture on your face, Im’ma get up and go the Perks and Pages coffee shop for a latte until the preacher gets here.

When we are on stage leading worship on Sunday morning, the part we play in the service is to warm the hearts and focus the minds of the congregation so they can hear the rest of the message.  The message in song is usually more about attitudes and feelings and less about conducting a lecture on fracture mechanics, wouldn’t you say?  So according to that study, physicality counts in what we do.  It matters. 

The Bible is full of examples of the use of physicality and gestures to powerful effect.  

C.H. parts the Red Sea. Notice how he "commands" our attention with a simple gesture. Get it? Snort.

Moses held his arms up in the air to signal battle (he could have just used messengers, but he stood in plain sight with his arms in the air).   Charlton Heston used lots of grand gestures in his role of Moses in the movie “The Ten Commandments.”  His portrayal of this Biblical character has probably defined the mental picture of Moses in the minds of more than one generation.


Entering Jerusalem

Christ  rode a donkey into Jerusalem with the crowd waiving palm branches and shouting (talk about an entrance!)

David Dancing by Richard McBee

2 Sam 6:13  David danced before the Lord with all his might.

Israel Blesses Ephraim with the Birthright, by Keith Larson

In Gen 48, Joseph takes his two sons to be blessed by their grand-father Jacob.  Jacob crossed his arms, significantly placing his right hand on the head of the younger brother  and his left hand on the older grandson.  With this physical gesture, he made the point that the younger son would be the greater man.

One of my favorite stories about Jesus is full of drama, intrigue, mystery, danger, and scandal.  It’s that of the woman caught in adultery. 

Why this physical gesture?

When asked by the religious leaders of the day what they should do with the woman, Jesus said basically, Hey, if your conscience is clean, throw the first rock to kill her.  That’s important, but heeeeeere’s the part that intrigues me…   Not much happened when Jesus talked … but then…. Christ stopped talking and made a simple physical gesture.  He stooped down and wrote in the dirt.  In the middle of a highly charged, potentially violent situation where a woman’s life was at stake!? Whah?!  (John 8)  Why that?  Why stoop down and write in the dirt? Why do it twice? Could he have been physically expressing Jeremiah 17:13 by writing the names of the accusers?   ” Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water”? Talk about a visual analogy!! What an interesting physical choice the Lord made in that moment.  But the Bible is clear. The gesture was the turning point.  The physical statement Jesus made was just as powerful as the words he spoke on that day.

If your physical presence on the stage were not important, your church leaders could just project the latest artists on screens at the front of the auditorium and ensure perfectly produced sound and visuals.  But it’s your physical presence that matters to your congregation. Your being there in person creates the worshipful environment and personal connection that is so meaningful to the audience.  Presenting a worshipful presence to a room full of people can be harder than you might think.  Is what you think you look like on stage what you actually look like?  Is the physical story you tell the minute you step on stage the one you are actually trying to tell?  Often there is a reality gap between what we feel and how we look.

Praise Team members are wonderfully diverse! This isn’t about how you look, it’s about how you move.

 It’s not about age, or weight, or height, or how many tattoos you do (or do not) have, or the body shape of the performer. It is about physical gestures and postures that you MUST learn to control so that you can communicate with the audience.

A big complaint we often hear from beginners is, “This just doesn’t feel “natural” and “How can I worship if I feel fake up here?”  Most of these same people will say that singing feels natural but moving around on stage does not.   So I ask this…  Does the physical act of singing really come “naturally” to us?  If you answered “yes”, let me ask you how often you resort to song in your day-to-day activities.  Do you “sing” your thanks to the grocery clerk, or sing your fast food order at the drive thru window? Do you sing “please pass the salt” at the dinner table?  Reaching for the salt is far more natural than singing about it.  SO!  No more nonsense about “singing is natural” and “physicality” is not, OK?  Singing is a LEARNED SKILL, you may have learned it very early in your life, but singing and speaking are NOT “natural” behaviors.  They are learned, practiced, and refined over our lives so that we can better express ourselves to each other.  It takes a lot of hard work to learn to speak and sing and walk.  

EFFECTIVE physical communication works the same way.   In an adult, awkward physicality does not appear “natural” to an audience, it usually just gets in the way of the message you want to share as a performer.  (unless your name is Mick Jagger).  However, a skilled physical performer can actually create an intense feeling of intimacy and trust between the audience member and the performer.  As a worship leader you wash the feet of those you serve with your gifts, so set your ego aside and get to the business of presenting your story with ALL your self, not just your singing voice. 

Sometimes, you have to de-construct bad physical performance habits that interfere with your ability to show your honest feelings on stage.  Sometimes, you will have to practice movements and postures that will not feel comfortable at first.  Like riding a bike, dancing, or perfecting a golf swing, think consciously about what you are doing, find a coach you trust, use the mirror, and soon your body will be able to reflect your heart from across a progressively larger area. 

Hal Holbrook plays the drunk in Mark Twain Tonight

Recently, I was fortunate to see a live performance of Hal Holbrook playing his famous Mark Twain character.   Below is a link to the part of the show where Hal’s physical acting really shines……  (caution, this clip is an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn which portrays drunkenness and use of the n-word) .  You will see him play a middle-aged drunk, a 12-year-old boy wrestling with a life-changing question,  and if you watch to the end, he steps back into the role of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) with the simple act of closing a book and lighting a cigar.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-JtcC7mRTw&feature=relatedAfter After procrastinating about buying tickets, they were almost sold out.  We sat literally against the back wall of a large auditorium. We were too far away to see facial expressions without opera glasses, but I was riveted by his physical performance. Hal is 80 years old and  even though he was standing there with wild Mark Twain hair and a Colonel Sanders white suit, he carried us with him down the Mississippi River.   I sat there wondering if I could “reach” an audience member in the back row of our church auditorium.

You may not want to spend the time and effort required to become a master actor and story-teller like Mr. Holbrook, but setting the modest goal of thinking through the motions of your next song would be a great first step! 

Changing your physical performance can feel artificial at first, so begin with small, deliberate observations and changes.  Pay attention to what you are doing with your hands and feet.   Learn a few easy tricks of the trade, and soon your congregation will be focused on your message and not your stage fright or the “canned” moves you think look so praise-filled.

Mick's signature moves never change do they? Like, ever?

We all have our “go-to” moves.  Those automatic gestures we use over and over again.  If you don’t know what yours are, you are simply not paying attention.  Whitney Houston and Carrie Underwood flick their fingers up and down on the microphone,  Nicole C. Mullens covers here heart with her hands a lot, comedians have fun with all Mick Jagger’s mannerisms. 

In part two on this topic, we’ll look at some specific, practical things to be aware of… but for now turn an ANALYTICAL eye toward some of these examples of Singers who are also Great Story-Tellers with their Physicality.

Nicole also gets the award for most beautiful arms on the planet, btw.

 Nicole C. Mullins – When I call on Jesus – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpHSGP6U1Ws&feature=channel   What a wonderful graceful performance.  Note the movements get bigger when the song gets bigger.  Nicole is a dancer, and her complete performance is probably beyond the average beginner, but is there a hand gesture or the angle of her head and arms that might fit into your movement repertoire?

These rascals know how to perform

Rascal Flats – Broken Road – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkWGwY5nq7A&feature=channel   Studied, subtle, relaxed and intimate performance.  Note the guitar player’s posture sitting on the stool. All he can really do is lean forward and back and tilt his head, tense and relax his legs and shoulders… but he uses those limited movements to great effect.   Men, you do not have to dance like David or wave your arms around wildly to have a powerful stage presence.  You do need to be deliberate about the way you move, though.

Elvis is trying to get to us.

Elvis – Trying to get to you – http://www.youtube.com/user/elvis?blend=1&ob=4#p/u/7/2xtfazXu45U  (this link is kinda flaky, just look for the song in the right colum on the page when you get to the site) in this tune about a man’s romantic frustration, Elvis masterfully controls his audience with his movements (no racy stuff here).  By moving in and out of extreme tension on his face and in his body, the performer tells his story.  Watch the girls react to him at time marker 2:15 when he looks like he’s going to charge out of his seat.  But he keeps it light, tongue-in-cheek, by nearly laughing at himself several times.  It’s all fun, we’re all in on the joke (which creates intimacy with the performer), but when he wants to turn on the masculine charm, he knows how to do it without vulgarity.  Just good ‘ol physical story-telling, the man holding back the tiger inside.

Sanctus Real is alright!

Sanctus Real – I’m Not Alright – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2LCvCBaqVg  great illustration of some fairly “stock” movements used to very good effect.  This is a textbook example of how powerful the simple act of opening and closing your eyes can be.  He is very introspective when his eyes are closed, but looks right into your soul with eyes open.  He doesn’t spend the whole song with his eyes shut! These guys have a young, awkward all elbows-and-knees attitude, which works perfectly for them.  You don’t have to be a dancer to use studied movement to great effect.

Stay Tuned for “Physical Performance for Singers – PART II”  which will have less theory and more practical examples.                     hugs, V-

The “cloppers”

Woot the Monty Python!

Here’s a quick, simple “how-to”.

Remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail?  As the knights galloped around the country-side, they were actually on foot, galloping along accompanied by the sound of horses hooves they made by clop-ping two coconut shells together.  Recently, I got the idea that Reginald Fastidious III (actor and orator extraordinaire) should enter, exit, and generally cavort about the stage to the sound of clopping horses.  I didn’t have any coconut shells around the house, but I did have some red plastic cups that made an appropriate clopping sound when the open mouths of the cups were klonk’d together.  Thusly: 

Bring the Cloppers together thusly with a resounding clonk!


I draped them around the actor's neck with a string for "hands-free" acting when the cloppers are not in use.

Note the cloppers hanging from Brian's neck at rehearsals.

Shakespeare in the House (part II)

Brian D in his Shakespearian headgear.

Hi!  Who knew my blog would become so full of stuff about costuming and props!  Well, these days, that’s the most blog-worthy stuff I’ve been working on. So there you have it.  Props and costumes. 

I could try to wax poetical about the challenges of doing a 45-minute, 2-man  show in one week with only two rehearsals, but meh… who would find THAT interesting!?  Besides there are no nifty photographs to upload for that kind of brain damage – unless exploding grenades count.  LOL.

Brian Reginald Fastidious III and Sir Phillip

The Shakespeare and “Information-ator” costumes turned out well I thought.   And they were pretty easy to construct. Interestingly enough, this week’s REAL challenge wasn’t about memorizing pages and pages of dialog, lack of rehearsal, or making more elaborate than usual costumes for our two campuses… it was the subject matter of the day that proved to be surprisingly difficult.

It was a tough topic for more than a few of us.  The topic was very, VERY challenging.  It’s easy to view Rush Hour itself as my way to reach out in love to our world, but THIS  Sunday’s RH was all about how to TALK about what you believe to other people – like normal people. People in the coffee shop and facebook friends kind of people.

Here are the simple things we talked about:

click to enlarge

1. Just talk normally.  You don’t have to sound like a preacher (or like you are reading from the King James or Shakespeare) to answer a question about your faith.

2.  It’s OK to say “I don’t know.”  I only know a handful of people who went to Bible College.  OK, for me that is a big handful, but you know what I mean…  I get lost around Ecclesi-spasti-seeze when reciting the books of the Bible and I think I have a total of 2 verses memorized, and those are from the King James version!  (Matthew 28:19-20 and John 3:16). 

3.  You can talk to anyone about your faith… Not just Ethiopians sitting in chariots in the middle of a desert conveniently located near a body of water for baptism – which was the Bible story for the week.

It’s hard to speak openly about being a Christian in an era where Christian Bashing is so popular and so many Christian leaders find themselves in the press where they become vulnerable to public ridicule . 

click to enlarge

It’s much easier to dress up in fun costumes inside the safe walls of the church and act and sing and dance. 

But I digress. .. TODAY we’re talking about how I made those costumes…   I sewed the shirt from a pattern.  See “Shakespeare in the house” post part I. 

Here’s an illustration with the how-two on making the Baggy pants. 

click to enlarge

These pants will work in a variety of situations… Shakespeare, comic pirates, as “bloomers”,   for animal costumes (turkey legs)  or any number of situations. 

I made them out of CHEAP knit fabric ($1.50/yard @ WallyWorld).  And for around $10 I had enough fabric to make 2 of these pants and a modified Victorian skirt (Steampunk style) for a different project.

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