Following last week’s post about my Big Ass Singing Class, here’s what happened on the day of the final open master class.
Last week I took part in an open master class of Singing and Speech for Actors. Though a large part of the program focuses on singing, the purpose of the two week course is to give participants access to their voice, which David Coury, a vocal coach and our teacher, reminds us is, “The organ of the soul”.
So what does that mean? Well for me, it was about getting to the truth of who we are. Cutting through the bullshit and sharing the authentic essence of ourselves.
Particularly in acting, it’s easy to simply present a mask, hiding behind the words someone else has written or the character someone else has created, evading using who we really are to bring that character to life and so in this course, SFA 2.1 Point Of No Return, we are encouraged to strip away that superficial exterior and just be ourselves, which is harder than it sounds.
In performing a song in front of an audience the temptation to get showy, is strong, waving our hands around, diva-like, closing our eyes because we’re lost in the music but weirdly, all that, as pleasing to the eye as it may seem, takes you and the audience out of the experience. By being you, staying with the audience and keeping your intention on them, something greater than simply a performance unfolds. David Coury told us, “don’t sing. Tell a story on key”, an entirely different proposition.
The format of the course was that all ten students met with David in closed sessions for two weeks prior to the open master class. In that time, we had to select and rehearse two songs. One would be what was referred to as a gender bender, a song that shouldn’t work when someone of the opposite sex sings it. For example a woman might sing, Me and Mrs Jones or a guy might take on I’m Every Woman.
By using material that we wouldn’t normally perform, it brought the lyrics to life in a way that a “performed” version couldn’t. I heard lyrics to songs I knew well in a totally new way.
We also had to write a ninety second story about our lives. Again, easier said than done. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others or try and cherry-pick the most dramatic highlights for effect. But because we had two weeks, we were able to work through that and find an elegant way of saying the things we wanted to say, leave behind the things that we realised were irrelevant and get down to the core of who we really are. Even this process was powerful. I saw, as I wrote about my life’s events, that none of them where as significant to me as I had once thought. Yes, bad things happened, as did good, yes, I’ve achieved stuff I’m proud of, but in the final analysis, not many of those things were what I really wanted to say about myself. Life events seemed just that, events. They weren’t me and I really appreciated coming to that conclusion organically over the course of the two weeks.
Finally, we would end our piece with an a capella song, something we love singing and that we coulld naturally segue into from our stories.
So it’s Thursday night. We’ve just had our last session with David. We ran our accompanied songs a couple of times. After, he gives us notes, the most significant of which was encouraging us to see what a difference practice can make. Howard Fine, my acting coach is constantly telling us, freedom comes from mastery. It’s only when you know or can do something well, you can truly do it with abandon.
So I went home and I practiced – a lot. It felt strange at first singing in my apartment because it couldn’t be less soundproofed if the walls were made of tracing paper but I thought, what the hell. I’m not gonna let a bit of self-consciousness get in the way of me doing well on Saturday.
I recited my story and I sang my a capella. I was ready… and excited.
On the day, we met early with our amazing accompanist, Brent Crayon who had been a rock for us through the whole process. We ran all the songs and then waiting… for the audience to arrive.
2pm came around pretty quickly. David Coury set the whole thing up perfectly reminding everyone it was a class and to keep that in mind as they watched. It was weird. I didn’t feel nervous at all, which was very unlike me. Normally, I am a bag of anxiety before any type of performance. Before a stand up gig, I pace like I’m on death row. Oh, I’ll have a laugh and a joke with people beforehand but inside I’m in knots, thinking, this is it, this is where you’re going to have the most magnificent and inglorious death of your life. Strap in, sister.
We all settled in our seats but before I’d even had a chance to acknowledge, this is actually happening, David said “speak what you feel not what you ought to say…. Andi Osho!”. I know David never tells the participants the running order but I hadn't really factored in that I might go first!
Hold on a minute, me? First? I reminded myself it was a class and that the audience were friendly faces, people I knew and were willing us all to do well.
I strode confidently, or as much as I could in my 5 inch polka dot heels (what was I think) and took centre stage. Brent tickled the first few notes out of the piano on this peculiar new arrangement of my well-known gender bender.
Some of us would be singing to the audience but I was singing to an imaginary person so I fixed my eye on the back wall and smiled. David said, be in it from the moment your feet hit the stage, so I was.
I let the open lyrics fall out of me quietly, “If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say, If you can’t read from the same page, maybe I’m going deaf, maybe I’m going blind, maybe I’m out of my mind”. I was aware of a few titters of recognition but I couldn’t play up to the crowd, I was too busy chatting up the imaginary girl in front of me!
In escaping just performing the song to telling a story, I was now this confident guy who’s seen a hot girl at the bar and I want her! The shoe being on the other foot was a lot of fun.
But getting to this point had taken many hours of rehearsal. Not only technically, but I also had to make sense of the song. What was I trying to say? What did “what rhymes with hug me?” mean to me? It sounds silly in a way to break down what is seemingly a superficial pop song but that’s what we had to do.
Blurred Lines is a crazy catchy song and actually, in the final analysis, for me, it isn’t “rapey”. He’s not saying I’m going to take something from you, he’s says I want you to release the animalistic side of you. Stop just being a good girl and let your wild side out too. And which woman hasn’t wanted that for herself at some point and which man wouldn’t be driven crazy by a women in touch with her animalistic sexuality.
I don’t think this song would have had anywhere near as much criticism if Robin Thicke had subjugated himself to the women in his video. If he’d been their servant, saying “let me liberate ya” the song’s meaning would have been a lot less aggressive. Plus, that T.I. rap would have to go to.
But for the gender bender, none of us where allowed to change any of the lyrics so I went into it full pelt, in fact we ended up slowing the rap down which meant every word was heard. “I’ll give you something big enough to tear that ass in two”. The audiences screamed in shock at the lyrics but delight that I was going there.
All my life, I’ve had this thing where, I have an idea of how I want to perform something but then I hold back and take the soft or safe option. At primary school I had the lead role in a musical where I played a jester. I sat back stage planning all these cooll things I could do for my entrance, cartwheel on stage, pirouette then playfully bowing but when it came to it, I bottled it and played it safe. It was good but it could have been so much better. What I did was comfortable and there have been many times in my life where I’ve faced the same choice and stayed inside my comfort zone instead of cutting loose and risking myself.
There’s no harm in playing safe but if I want to be fully present, fully alive on stage, I realised I have to give all of myself be it singing, stand up or acting. If I’m going to show up, I want it to be completely. And who would have thought that in the middle of Blurred Lines I would finally do that.
What rhymes with hug me? I mouthed “fuck me” and the audiences screamed again.
With the resonant hum of the piano still in my ears I began my story “There is a storm inside me”
That’s how I feel and have only now been able to give it a name. It hasn’t always been pleasant and it was only through the work that I’ve done with David Coury in this course and the previous one, that I’ve realized that it was no bad thing to have this storm within me and that if I learn to harness its energy, I can do anything and nothing can harm me.
“I am too much” I said. “Talking to loud, running too much”. It was refreshing to give voice to things I’ve always thought about myself but also always battled with. Through this two week process, by saying it so many times, my “too muchness” stopped being a negative, even becoming a good thing and not the burden or the unwieldy beast within that I had to try and tame so that people would like me.
My last line was “I am my own Prospero”. This was a line that arrived in my head and summed up what I need to be for myself. Prospero, the character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest who was able to control and harness the wild storm.
I began my a capella song. “When you were here before, couldn’t look you in the eye”.
In rehearsal I had to figure out, what was I saying and to whom. I realized it was a young version of myself and that the song was a celebration of my “creepdom”, my 'not belonging'. I’d always heard the lyric, “I don’t belong here” as a negative but when I told my story, using this song, Radiohead's Creep, it was about saying, You and I are all spirits having a human experience. We don’t belong here so enjoy it. I remember, I know now.
After, David came on stage and reworked some of the sections with me which was great but I almost felt as though the greatest lessons and gifts this course had for me, had already been received.
Ostensibly this course was for performers but I think it was more than that. It was about life. It was about learning to speak your truth. Through all ten performances, we saw people’s passion, fear, hopes, dreams. We saw students struggle with self-forgiveness, self-love, self-harm, judgment, grief, loss, love and so much more. And because everything that happened on stage was so truthful, as an audience member, you couldn’t help but be touched by what you saw. Even Brent, the pianist was caught by surprise when he heard one of the stories.
It was a magical afternoon from which I am forever changed.
This post is dedicated to David Coury and the amazing work he does all over the world helping people find their authentic voice.
Here’s a recording of me a friend performing Creep a couple of years back.