Enhancing the Lecture Recital : Carole J. Bufford Shares Advice from 54 Below and Beyond

In university music programs, when we hear or read the words “lecture recital,” many of us think of studio attendance requirements or an academic hoop to jump through in partial fulfillment of a doctoral degree. These words lead many of us to imagine ourselves in a small recital hall, sleepily supporting a studio mate at 6 p.m., squeezing this event in before an evening of opera rehearsals or paper writing. For those students charged with preparing and presenting a lecture recital, autopilot planning can take over when designing the format and pacing of the event. The format of speaking/reading from a text, changing into a gown, and then finally singing seems to be the only option.

Even if this format is prescribed or required, there are still numerous ways to enhance this formally directed recital to turn it into a musical happening, aimed at informing, entertaining, and engaging your pre-dinner/pre-homework audience. Singers hoping to do this (at the university level or outside of school walls) needn’t look only to other classical singers to empower their lecture recital planning and performances. In fact, it’s especially helpful to look beyond the boundaries of classical idioms and to benefit from the experiences and concepts of singing artists who entertain and inform eager listeners through other genres.

Earlier this spring I attended two fabulously programmed and marvelously paced concerts that drew me to this topic. The first was an evening at New York’s legendary jazz club Birdland, where I saw Grammy winner, music director, and performer/pianist extraordinaire Billy Stritch, known to many for his ongoing collaborative relationship with Broadway icon Liza Minnelli. Leading a small combo of veteran jazzers, Stritch performed and curated an evening of song, centering on the music of Cy Coleman, whose influence on the landscape of musical theatre and popular song is, thankfully, inescapable.

Stritch’s deft and seemingly effortless musicianship resulted in an expertly paced, highly informative, and terrifically entertaining evening. Over the span of an hour—the traditional length of a university/conservatory lecture recital—this artist served as tour guide to an eager audience, taking them through many of the lesser- and more well-known songs of Coleman, in addition to several new songs.

Late in the program, Stritch introduced and performed Coleman’s “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life.” Well before the closing cadence, I found that he’d led me exactly to the place I long to go musically and emotionally as an audience member—I was smiling though tears and had learned about the piece, its context, and performance history in the process. Stritch had not only entertained and transported me to the context he described, but he had also educated and informed me. And this is precisely what we have the potential to do as classical singers preparing to present and perform a lecture recital.

Not long after, I was given a ticket to see Carole J. Bufford’s show “Speak Easy” at 54 Below, Broadway’s ultra-popular cabaret and supper club. 54 Below regularly welcomes Broadway’s biggest stars as well as those quickly ascending to join them. One of these rapidly rising stars, Bufford has quickly become one of the most sought-after young performers in the New York cabaret and jazz scene. I had never seen Bufford in performance, but from the moment she appeared—in full flapper gear—to begin an evening of Prohibition-inspired stories, revelry, and song, I knew I was in for something both unusual and special.

As the evening progressed, I couldn’t help but marvel at how, in their respective performances, both Stritch and Bufford masterfully educated their listeners on their evenings’ songs and associated epochs. By establishing context for each song while deftly weaving in compelling stories, jokes, and lore throughout, Stritch and Bufford achieved what so many classical singers wish to but frequently don’t in the context of a lecture recital. With the aim of arming classical singers who currently are or will soon be planning and performing lecture recitals with audience engagement strategies, I asked Bufford to share a bit about her process and experience as they relate to informing an audience while entertaining them.

On a hot July day in New York, Bufford met me in the popular Library Bar of the Hudson Hotel, not far from 54 Below, where she performs regularly. Surrounded by paneled walls, the Happy Hour crowd, and thousands of faux books with painted bindings, Bufford and I chatted over the din of music composed long after the Prohibition era. Petite and beautiful, with bobbed hair framing eyes that are giving, telling, and expressive—perfect for storytelling—Bufford is quick to share stories, jokes, and advice regarding her own process. Laughter is ever present in our conversation, and hers reveals resonant shades of the brassy and expressive voice which Stephen Holden of the New York Times recently described as “the real thing: you know it when you see it . . . . The way her voice, with its Blues inflections, cut a swath, leaving nothing standing, tempts me to describe her as an earthier, more acerbic 21st century Barbra Streisand.”

Bufford is an excellent storyteller whether speaking or singing. In her shows she affords her audience members ample opportunities to learn about a song’s historical context, its layers of entendre, and the key elements of the text that ultimately led her to program it. Because “Speak Easy” is such an epoch-centric show, I asked her to expand on how the programmatic process evolves for her.

“I read anything I could get my hands on,” she says. “What’s great about anything prior to 1924 is that it’s in the public domain. You can go online and colleges and universities have these great sheet music digital collections, and you can just thumb through PDFs and read the lyrics and pick out the songs. I found several this way. I do a song called ‘How Are You Going to Wet your Whistle (When the Whole Darn World Goes Dry?).’ With that title alone, I thought, ‘Yes!’ And I ended up opening the show with it.”

Similar to so many classical singers charged with informing an audience about an era and the related songs of a composer (or group of composers), Bufford knows well the challenge of having an embarrassment of repertoire riches from which to draw. Just as so many of us labor to find creative cohesion in the multitude of Lieder or French mélodies available to us, Bufford also has to go through the process of gathering and then eliminating.

“Look, I find everything fascinating, but we [Bufford and her collaborators] have to pare it down to what we think the audience would find fascinating,” she says. “Otherwise, we’d be there forever if I was spouting off what I thought was cool.”

An avid researcher, Bufford seeks to inform her audiences not only through compelling, sung interpretations but also through related resources. And in the same way that those presenting a lecture recital have the opportunity to present and quote sources from times past, Bufford informs and amuses her audience by reading an excerpt from the August 1921 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, which quotes Anne Shaw Faulkner, head of the Music Department of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs:

“Jazz . . . is harmful and dangerous, and its influence is wholly bad. A number of scientific men who have been working on experiments in musico-therapy with the insane, declare that while regular rhythms and simple tones produce a quieting effect on the brain . . . the effect of jazz on the normal brain produces an atrophied condition . . . until very frequently those under the demoralizing influence of the persistent use of syncopation, combined with inharmonic partial tones, are actually incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong.”

That Bufford delivers this text in a flapper gown between interpretations of these “harmful and dangerous” songs is especially appealing and heightens an atmosphere that she tempers to become both conducive to entertainment and learning.

Other research treats she encountered while programming “Speak Easy”—which is only one of her several shows—were stories about how people got around the restrictions of Prohibition. “This story is going to make me sound like a lush, and it’s not really about music, either!” Bufford says, laughing. “But I did discover it while programming a show—it was for ‘Speak Easy.’ They [bootleggers] used to sell these dried grape bricks during Prohibition—so, obviously, it was illegal to drink, and there would be a little placard on the front that read, ‘Do not follow these instructions to make wine—it is illegal!’ and they would then give detailed instructions.”

Bufford says that a great song has “great lyrics and a melody that stays in my head. I love songs with Blues influences, because I find that that really stays in my head—but it has to have a dramatic point of view that I find interesting—worth telling.” Once she and her collaborators establish which songs fit these musical, textual, and aesthetically pleasing guidelines, Bufford goes to work in a major way.

Her priority first and foremost is to entertain, and when I asked her to share how her collaborators would describe her performance style, she was quick to reference two of the most popular interpreters of the Great American Songbook. “I would hope they [her collaborators] would say that I’m very dramatically involved in the story of the song,” she says.

“Look, I’ll tell you this—because I think this would probably help you figure out what my performance style is,” she continues. “I grew up on Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland, watching them over and over and over—and not that I copy either of them, but some of it’s just ingrained in my body. I don’t plan hand gestures, but I use my arms quite freely. There are some who might say I tend toward the over dramatic—I like to toe the line—that’s what is exciting to me. I like someone who gets right up to that line of almost crossing into insanity, but stays behind it. And I’m sure there are times when I’ve crossed the line because that’s how you learn.”

In a lecture recital, a classical singer has the option to select his or her collaborative pianist or ensemble. Bufford, too, has choices to make—choices that have proven quite successful thus far. When asked about her collaborator wish list, she enthusiastically mentions Billy Stritch and two other musical greats: Catherine Russell and Michael Feinstein (with whom she’s already shared the stage).

“If I ever got a chance to share a stage with Liza Minnelli, I might just explode from excitement—that would be like tears and laughter all at the same time,” she says. “She just is the top for me. She’s the be-all, end-all performer. She was actually my first concert that I ever saw. My mom and dad took me to see her in Chastain Park in Atlanta.

“And then,” she follows up with musical laughter, “my second concert was New Kids on the Block!”

Her rapport and relationship with an audience on any given night appears effortless. Yet Bufford admits that when it comes to the quasi-scripted and -improvised banter she offers so readily, it isn’t as easy as it looks. “That’s probably the thing that gives me the most shivering fits in the night,” she says. “I am much more comfortable singing than talking.”

Her strategy to combat this is to put the audience as the highest priority. “[I take] a read of the room and where everyone’s sitting—if it’s going to be a quieter audience, I usually know within the first 30 seconds,” she says. “As far as what it means to engage an audience, I want them to listen. My job is to put it across in a way that is as accessible as possible so they don’t have to do the work—I don’t think they should have to work for anything. I have to do the work for them.

“My performances are always a little bit different depending on the audience,” she continues. “Some audiences give so much, and there’s that energy flowing in the room and you can just feel it—it’s like a circular thing, coming from me on the stage and coming right back to me.

“And when that really happens,” she concludes with laughter and a sigh, “that’s one of those evenings where I don’t ever go to sleep. I drift off at eight in the morning.”

Bufford’s attention to storytelling, programming, and pacing and her inclusion of spoken material are easily applicable to the process of planning and executing an engaging lecture recital. In all aspects of your preparation, consider your audience. Ask yourself, “What would I like to take away from this musical happening if I were attending it myself? What would I find informative? How might this material and performer entertain and engage me?”

Bufford appears to ask these questions, and the results continue to engage and dazzle audiences in New York and beyond.

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com, @peter.thoresen (Insta), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).