Recently I went to a cabaret performance at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. A friend of a friend was performing there. She’d received rave reviews from the NY Times. It’s my dream to perform there myself one day, so I was really excited to see her show.
My first instinct – and if you’re a singer, you’ve probably done this yourself – was competitive. I sat there sizing her voice up against my own, as if we were both auditioning for the same spot on that coveted stage that she had already earned. In the first few moments, as I listened, I was feeling pretty confident that if she could get this gig, so could I. But as she continued, I started to realize that there was a lot more to her performance than a pleasant voice.
This performer is an actress who more recently turned her attention to cabaret. As an actress, she instinctively knows that the way to connect with an audience is to draw them in with your story. Everything you do and say on stage must be interesting. In fact, being interesting is much more important than having a beautiful voice.
Of course your sound matters – but it’s not the only thing, or even the most important thing to connect a singer to his/her audience. Take Bob Dylan. People don’t spend $200 to go to his show to hear his beautiful voice; they go for what they experience when he sings. American author Joyce Carol Oates described Dylan’s voice when she first heard it as “raw, very young, and seemingly untrained…frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing...” Yet she added that the “effect was dramatic and electrifying.” When Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen’s said that on first hearing Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” he felt like “somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.”
I’m not saying that a beautiful voice doesn’t matter. Of course it does; it’s just not enough. Consider Barbra Streisand. Barbra actually describes herself as an actress first, who happens to sing. Her voice and her music are tools that help her to deliver her story. All of her vocal techniques, her intonation, phrasing, and timing help you feel what she is feeling and connect you to her. The beauty of her voice is a vehicle, but it’s not her goal to prove it to you.
Getting back to woman I saw at the Carlyle, as I listened, I began to understand that her show sold out night after night not because she had a nice voice. She does. But so do a lot of people. This woman had energy. She told stories about her life and the people who were in it. She is not a famous singer, but the audience was interested to learn more about her and listened with rapt attention. She changed costumes throughout her 75-minute set as she changed moods, themes and songs. She had original interpretations to a number of pop songs that aren’t typical cabaret fare, making you think about them in a new way and appealing to a larger (younger) audience. She engaged everyone, and we all had fun. She was warm and sincere, and truly original.
So the next time you (this applies to me, too) are getting ready for a performance, focus on more than how good you sound. Think about the story you want to tell. When you are clear on your message, things will fall into place. You will reach your audience and you will give your best performance.