Who knew that a singing class could pack such a punch? This last week, I’ve been working with an amazing teacher, David Coury in his transformative program, Singing and Speech for Actors.
You may know that several months ago I plunged myself back into study and returned to training at Howard Fine’s Acting Studio, arguably one of the best studios in Hollywood. If you’re gonna do it, might as well do it right I say. One of the things I really appreciate about training with him is that he has no acting aspirations. He realised early on that his calling was working with actors not being one so he became a director and coach culminating in opening his successful studio here in LA. He’s coached stars such as Michael Chiklis (The Sheild) who wrote the foreword in Howard’s book, Fine on Acting, a must-read for all performers, Will Smith, Bradley Cooper and Academy Award winner, Jared Leto. So Howard knows what he’s doing. Equally he has an amazing faculty of teachers who are also masters at bringing out the best in the artists they work with.
All of them uphold the schools ethos of using yourself in your work authentically. At Howard’s studio, presentational performances just don’t cut it. Here, you are encouraged to dig deep. Students are often told, our performance must “cost us something” i.e. you must have given something of yourself to achieve it. Phoning it in won’t do!
Shortly after beginning the foundation course, Howard invited us to watch an open master class for the Singing and Speech for Actors program run by faculty member and voice coach, David Coury. The participants are required to sing what David refers to as a gender bender, a track that’s iconically something someone of the opposite sex should be singing. For example, a guy might sing Man, I Feel Like A Woman, My Milkshake or Private Dancer where as the women may take on, I’m The Man, Fat Bottomed Girls or She Bangs.
The idea is that by singing a song not traditionally considered something you should be singing, it opens you up artistically to make new discoveries about the material but also yourself.
After students have sung their gender bender, they then tell a short story about themselves, segueing into an acapella song, one they love to sing and follows on naturally from their story. I’ve never attended an open master class for anything and I was blown away by what I saw, or more specifically experienced.
The actors were all so open, and honest, sharing stories about their lives but also telling a story in their songs. Hearing a guy sing Alanis Morissette's, You Oughta Know... and mean every word is powerful stuff. Accompanied by Brent Crayon on piano they were able to bring to life songs whose lyrics, up until that point, had been just words to me.
Regardless of technique or experience, all the performances were beautiful and alive because the actors were willing to do what not all performers are and that is, risk themselves and put all of who they are into their performances.
Months later, sitting in one of eight closed classes leading up to my open session, David Coury would tell me and my fellow students, “it’s not about showing off, it’s about showing up”.
Isn’t that sound advice for life? It’s not about forcing who or what you are to appear significant or important, it’s about allowing people you encounter to experience all of you, as you are. By doing that, you immediately become significant.
As an audience member at the master class, I shed many a tear as did people around me as we were all moved by the power, vulnerability and beauty of the performances we’d witnessed. This wasn’t a class, this was a happening. After each set, David Coury would come and work with the students so we, as the audience, got to sample their process, which was an education in itself, reminding all of us that if we allow ourselves to enter into a process, much is possible.
So two weeks ago, I, with nine others, embarked on our Singing and Speech for Actors program. Even after the first day, I was shattered, emotionally more than physically. There’s an energetic movement that can happen inside of you when you enroll into a program like this.
SFA is not a singing class. It is not primarily a technical training course to make actors better singers, it is about shining a light on who we are and giving us access to it in our work. This meant that as soon as we began, we were working on a very deep level.
Even when picking our gender bender, it had to be something that scared us. Like, it will cost us something to do it or feel like we’re risking ourselves. After all, it’s only in the pushing yourself beyond what is comfortable that change, transformation can occur. When we do what’s within our comfort zone, we’re staying in the known and therefore can only get expected results. It’s only when we push beyond that, that real breakthroughs can occur. This path is also littered with breakdowns as we were all going to discover as the two weeks rumbled on but it would be worth it for the end result (David assured us). The program isn’t subtitled Point of No Return for nothing!
On day one, I brought a couple of options for my GB. The Way You Make Me Feel by Michael Jackson and the Maroon 5 track, This Love.
But as the day progressed, I realised, neither or those two hit the nail on the head. Neither really scared me so I kept looking. We also had to come up with a story. Sum up our lives in a 90 second monologue. We could choose how deep we wanted to go but it had to be a minute and a half, about us, in the first person and authentic. How do you reduce an entire life down to just a few sentences.
I didn’t like my first few attempts. It either read like, “poor me”, a resume or just a random selection of circumstances but it didn’t speak to me.
It was now week two and we were supposed to have started memorising our stories but I was looking at mine thinking, “meh”. This isn’t me, it’s just stuff that’s happened to me.
I told David as much and he said, “OK here’s some things I know about you” and he began to reel off bullet points, things I’d said and forgotten but that he had observed, registered and recalled, all of which cut to the heart of who I was. This was a great start but it was almost like I was waiting for permission to say what I really wanted to say about myself.
And finally, we had to choose our closing a cappella piece. Deep down, I’d made my mind up about this months ago. Creep, Radiohead. I’ve sung this before and it touches me. Done. Now we had to rehearse, get notes and keep rehearsing, keep discovering, keep using ourselves and telling our story through the material we’d chosen to work with.
It’s an exhilarating and scary journey to go from no material to having the two songs and a very personal story to tell, in front of an audience but here I am on Friday, writing this post, not knowing what tomorrow’s master class will bring.
Part of the program was inviting people to come and see us perform. My M.O. is exactly the opposite. If I invite anyone at all to see me perform, I usually leave it to the last minute, when I've decided I might not be a disaster. Even then, I’m more inclined not to let anyone know what I’m up to. Family have to pester me for tickets to my stand up. Why, what if I’m shit? That’s what I always think. One of the breakthrough steps we were encouraged to take on SFA was inviting people as soon as we began rehearsing, before we’d know if it was going to be any good. It was a small change but a significant one as I was so much more vulnerable in the inviting. In fact, at that point, I didn’t even know what I’d be singing.
In two short weeks, I was already become aware of a change in me. One of David Coury’s sayings is “Speak what you feel not what you ought to say” and I could feel myself taking that on. Saying No, when I don’t want to do something rather than acquiescing to avoid disappointing someone, putting myself forward when I'm I'm normally inclined to hang back and wait to be asked, being more open in my social encounters, laughing more, enjoying people, allowing myself to need them.
One of the discoveries I made was that I’m missing home which I wrote about last week. I certainly didn’t expect that to come out of a singing class. I learned a lot about how I feel about myself and my life. The first manifestation of my story was just a list of circumstances but when I really got down to it, I saw that how I really feel is, that stuff was behind. There's more to me than that.
So, it's Friday night. The open master class is, at the moment, only a …., a what-may-come, but even before I arrive there, I know I’ve already learned so much, speaking what I feel no what I ought to say.
I’m honoured to be a part of the final Singing at Speech For Actors as this currently location. Howard’s studio will soon be moving to a new address so there will be a number of previous participants and friends of the school come to say farewell at the event tomorrow.
I have no idea what's on the other side of singing my song, telling my story and being with an audience in such an open and raw way but I’m told by previous SFAers that it’s amazing.
See you on the other side.