Tag Archives: SAVI

Musings about singer-actor training from the SAVI Savant.

A Song That’s SAVI (Day 23)

After spending more than a week presenting selections from Realities, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a change of pace. Today’s post is brief (less than a minute), and it’s on video.

When I sing, I will create behavior
That communicates the dramatic event
Phrase by phrase!
Each time, I raise my voice in song,
I’ll make a specific choice in song,
And I’ll sing a song that’s SAVI
All of my days.

Continue reading

The review I wish all my students would get

11audra-SUB-popupA few weeks ago, Audra MacDonald sang at Lincoln Center’s spring gala, and Stephen Holden from the New York Times was on hand to review her performance. I’m not surprised by his praise – I’m a fan, too, after all – but I was struck how some of his observations appear to reflect my own values about singing-acting.

Ms. McDonald’s soprano […] seemed to unfurl in ever-richer textures as she imbued songs with a sense of bursting possibility. The familiar songs “First You Dream,” from the Kander and Ebb show “Steel Pier,” and the Styne-Comden-Green ballad “Make Someone Happy” from “Do Re Mi,” were infused with the excitement of discovery, as if Ms. McDonald and the audience were together realizing how humble Broadway songs delivered with passion and intelligence could convey basic emotional truths.

Okay, so we’ll let “humble Broadway songs” pass without complaining that it’s a condescending remark. His reference to Audra’s “sense of bursting possibility” reminds me of a comment from composer Adam Guettel I read over a decade ago: “People like Audra have an innate instinct for the opportunities in a song.” Such opportunities inhere in classic Broadway showtunes (“humble” or not), and “songs delivered with passion and intelligence [can indeed] convey basic emotional truths.” Near the end, Holden observes that:

One of Ms. McDonald’s greatest gifts is to find the story inside the song and deliver it with immediacy and clarity, in a voice that finds a flexible, intuitive balance between storytelling and singing — a defining voice of our time.

Indeed, I agree that Audra’s approach to singing-acting – which he describes with words like “immediacy,” “clarity,” “intelligence,” “passion,” and, above all, a “flexible, intuitive balance between storytelling and singing” – is definitive, the gold standard for integrated singing-acting to which I hope all my students aspire.

When Meisner is not enough…

A student writing a research paper in the UK recently presented me with some provocative interview questions, including the following:

How can acting techniques such as Meisner be translated into acting through song? Can you explain the objectives of the SAVI technique? How does it differ from other techniques and is it applicable to all styles of musical theatre song ie, operetta, to golden age, to rock musical?

The phrase “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is a direct quote from Sanford Meisner, but my experience is that this pedagogical approach by itself is not sufficient to the singing actor’s training needs. I have observed that students capable of success at living truthfully under imaginary circumstances can still be incapable of crafting successful performances in plays and musicals, and I set out trying to figure out what it what else it was they were lacking.

I named the four key attributes that the acronym SAVI refers to – specificity, authenticity, variety and intensity – after considering over a considerable period of time what what else was missing that kept them from crafting successful performances. In addition to being truthful (an elusive concept in itself and one subject to a wide range of interpretations), the performer must also be able to make choices which are specific to the dramatic circumstances and that vary in response to the changing circumstances of the drama. In addition, I observed that students needed to have the ability to create a greater intensity as singing actors that they might otherwise be called upon to create in non-singing repertoire. Though the study of Meisner/s technique is highly effective in cultivating authenticity – enabling students to “sing their truth,” if you will – the SAVI technique provide some tools and strategies for achieving greater specificity, variety and intensity.

SAVI promotes the idea that the singing actor’s job is to “create behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase.” This, as you’ll see, is substantially different from Meisner’s “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” The SAVI singing actor takes an active approach to the notion of “creating behavior” – it’s not something that magically or providentially occurs, but is crafted or authored by the performer, with painstaking “phrase by phrase” detail.

It is a short step from the idea of “creating behavior” to the notion that different musicals from different eras require different “behavior vocabularies,” a term that can incorporate physical behavior, social mores and manners, and even vocal behaviors (like the use of “vocal dirt” as a gritty signifier of truth in contemporary musicals which would be wildly inappropriate in an upperclass nineteenth century milieu). In my studio, students study the “behavior vocabularies” of different eras as they explore the repertoire of those eras.

What’s your experience? Did the Meisner technique give you everything you needed to be a successful actor? Leave a comment below.

It’s just a three-letter word…

butBut often the word “but” is the most important word in a song lyric. Why’s that? “But” is a “coordinating conjunction” and it “coordinates” the meaning of the phrases it comes between; specifically, “but” is a signal to the reader or listener that the statement about to come (the one following the conjunction) is different from or contrasts significantly with the previous statement.

Look at the opening of this post, for instance:

It’s just a three letter word, but often “but” is the most important word in a song lyric.

The first phrase (“just a three letter word”) seems to suggest that small words lack importance, while the information after the coordinating conjunction contradicts the original implication.

The truth of this was made evident to me in class last week when a student of mine presented her work on Adam Guettel’s song Migratory V.

We sail above the weather
We search the ocean floor.
We rival our creation,
Still yearning for more.
But can we fly together —
A migratory V?
How wonderful if that’s what God could see.

A single voice in whispered prayer
Can only pray to travel there.
But all as one,
We sound the everlasting sound
And sing our salvation.

Notice how the word “but” serves as a pivot, a turning point in the argument of the first two stanzas of this song. In each case, the first part of the stanza provides examples of things that single individuals can accomplish. After the “but,” the content of the lyric turns to group accomplishments (“fly together,” “all as one we sound the everlasting sound”), and argues these are also important – perhaps even more important, since they earn God’s favor and hold the key to “our salvation.” In the note Adam penned for the CD booklet and published vocal selections, he speaks of how the songs in Myths and Hymns (the song cycle in which “Migratory V” is featured) address our “desire to transcend earthly bounds, to bond with something or someone greater.”

Over the course of analyzing hundreds of songs with student performers, I have found that the transitions between phrases (the “dings,” if you will, using the SAVI term that refers to the onset of a new thought) fall into a handful of categories. One significant category is the “but ding.” Oh, go ahead, say it out loud – it sounds vaguely bawdy, but it plays a crucial role in the architecture of thought in many songs. Right now, off the top of your head, I’ll bet you can think of a song lyric in which the word “but” figures prominently as a transitional or “hinge” word. If you can, leave me a comment!

Don’t go with the flow!

gushinghoseWhen I coach students, I find a great deal of my effort goes into getting them to recognize the opportunities that each individual phrase of the song offers. But why aren’t those opportunities more readily apparent? Why don’t singers recognize those chances until they’ve been pointed out? I think one major reason is that singers tend to be swept along by the flow of the song. Once a musical composition begins, the composer has taken control of the flow of time, and the thoughts and emotions of the song are swept along by its flow like a rushing river. When you’re singing, you can be swept along to the next moment before you’ve fully lived in the present moment.

Many of the exercises and strategies I use in my studio are designed to disrupt that flow. Analysis helps to focus the singer’s attention on each individual phrase, one at a time, so that the specific content becomes clear and the nature of the opportunities that phrase affords become more evident. Phrases are copied onto individual cards to make their separate-ness more tangible, and the individual cards are styled and annotated in ways that highlight the distinct qualities of each phrase.

Of course, awareness and insight are just the first step. The singing actor must cultivate a technique that enables them to behaviorally manifest that variety, to communicate the dramatic event as it changes phrase by phrase. This requires a kind of alertness and ease in the mind and body during performance that can be elusive at first. The task of singing is often accompanied by physical tension that is the result of anxiety or excitement, which causes the singer to brace up physically. It’s an intuitive “fight-or-flight” response, the way our bodies are instinctively conditioned to respond to stressful situations. With mindful practice, it is possible to de-stress the act of singing and unbrace the body and mind during performance. Only then is the singer physically capable of communicating the unique impulses that accompany the onset of each individual phrase.

Thoughtful analysis and mindful conditioning are both important to successful singing acting, but there’s a third component that’s equally valuable: practice. Like an instrumentalist tackling a complex passage, the singing actor needs to learn to practice slowly with attention to coordination and detail. Phrases should be practiced individually to cultivate their unique characteristics, then executed in sequence, taking pains not to sacrifice the specific qualities of each phrase for the sake of the “flow” of the music.

Awareness. Analysis. Alertness. Ease. Practice. Coordination. All of these are crucial to successful singing acting. Applied patiently and persistently, they will help you live in the moment and not get swept mindlessly along by the torrential flow of the music.