Who’s Perfect?

Singers tend to think that perfection is the only thing that counts in performing. Even though everyone knows that perfection is unobtainable, they refuse to abandon their quest. A very successful baseball player once summed up the issue like this: “Stop obsessing about perfection. Just get on first base.”

The key performance skill, therefore, is learning to work to your own recognized strengths and qualities rather than being concerned with things outside your control. Performance is about control. Performance happens in the present. Within that present you can control only what you are capable of doing now. Yet singers often spend a lot of performance time thinking about other concerns: “Oh, oh, there’s so and so. What if I don’t do well? What will he think of me? These shoes are killing me. Why didn’t I plan something for these three bars?”

Change your thinking pattern. Here is an excellent exercise that will help. First, think carefully about your best audition piece. Then draw the following diagram on a sheet of paper.

0 ——————————–10

0 represents the worst your song or aria could be at this moment and 10 represents the piece when it is as good as it could ever be. Mark on this line a number representing how good this piece is at this moment in your development. Let’s say that you marked 7.5, meaning that right now 75 percent of the performance is excellent and 25 percent is not. During the performance the only information you need is the information that constitutes the 75 percent. That is what you can do now. Never mind the 25 percent. Eventually that number will change, but it is not important now.

Organize your 75 percent performance assessment into three parts: physical, technical, and mental. Under each heading list what strengths make up your 75 percent.

Under the heading physical, you might write:

l My body language is very confident during this piece.

l I’ve conquered that old nervous habit of flexing my thumb.

l I’m proud of how I present myself.

Under the heading technical, you might write:

l The musical requirements of this pieces are totally under my control.

l I manage the low notes well enough to make them powerful but not vulgar.

l That third high note at the end is always really excellent.

Under the heading mental, you might write:

l I am focused for this piece and will not easily be distracted.

l This is my performance. I own it, and I will sing well.

l The audience is going to love what I do.

“Knowing that you know” is a great confidence builder. Accepting the positive truths about your skills will make you execute those skills even better. Complete these lists when you are feeling calm, logical, and thoughtful about your singing. They should be unemotional and unbiased. It would not help you to remain positive if you did your lists when you were feeling angry or frustrated about your singing.

Develop the habit of working this way for all your repertoire. Soon this kind of thinking will be automatic. The information gleaned from the exercise will form the basis for your performance thinking. Remember: if what you can do now is 75 percent, then that’s just fine!

More information about improving your performance can be found in Power Performance for Singers, by Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas, published by Oxford University Press in July 1998. Oxford’s website is www.oup-usa.org, and their fax number is (212)726-6455.

Shirlee Emmons

Shirlee Emmons was educated at Lawrence University, later studying with the legendary soprano Elisabeth Schumann at the Curtis Institute and in Milano, Italy. She toured American and Canada with great tenor Lauritz Melchior, sang leading roles with the Santa Fe Opera and the NBC Opera, and has recorded for RCA Victor. She received an Obie (Off-Broadway Oscar) for her portrayal of Susan B. Anthony in Virgil Thomson’s Mother of Us All. During her 40-year teaching career, she has taught at Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers, and Boston Universities in America, at Myunging and Taegu Universities in Korea, and at the American Institute of Musical Studies at Graz, Austria. She has appeared as a master teacher, clinician, and lecturer at schools and universities in twenty-seven of the United States, before The Voice Foundation, the national conventions of MTNA and NATS, the International Congress of Voice Teachers and the Vocal Arts Congress, the College Music Society, the National Society for Arts and Letters and for the NATS master/intern teacher program. She is the author of Tristanissimo, the biography of Lauritz Melchior, co-author of The Art of the Song Recital and Power Performance for Singers. Books in progress include a choral book, a series of performance psychology manuals, and a lexicon of the literary allusions in the great song literature, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2005. Her New York private studio has produced such singers as Harolyn Blackwell and Hei-Kyung Hong of the Metropolitan Opera.