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.
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.
Christ rode a donkey into Jerusalem with the crowd waiving palm branches and shouting (talk about an entrance!)
2 Sam 6:13 David danced before the Lord with all his might.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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 – 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 – 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-