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Amateur to Pro in One Step: A Quick Lesson in Acting a Song

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Take your acting to the next level by following this one simple directive:

Move, then sing.

That's it. Amateurs move on their phrases. Pros move before them.

I teach Movement for Actors at the Stella Adler Studio, Los Angeles. There, we spend countless hours laboring over truth in performance. Truth is what your audience connects with--more than great vocal technique, more than powerful lyrics, more than personality. And the truth of human behavior is that we express ideas with our bodies before we express them with our words. To act the heck out of a song, your performance behavior must reflect the truth of natural human behavior.

When you see someone struggling with an armful of packages, do you stand there and say, "Oh! My gosh, let me help you!" and then go running over to help them? No, you run over, and, while you're running, you say, "Oh, my gosh, let me help you!" After you pour someone a drink, do you say, "Here you go," and then offer them the glass? No, you offer the glass and then say, "Here you go." When you hear a loud noise behind you, do you say, "What was that?" and then spin around? No, you spin around and then say, "What was that?"

Your performance will be more truthful, and therefore more compelling, if it expresses the same truth of human behavior illustrated in the examples above. The way to this truth is to allow yourself to get caught up in the ideas of the song before you sing the symbols (words) that express those ideas. Your body is only a manifestation of what you're thinking; it has no intelligence to move on its own. So, if you get caught up in the ideas, your body will naturally express those ideas before you make the choice to express them through symbols (words).

Wanna see what I mean? Check out these two performances:

The first is Steve Perry singing "Faithfully." Notice what happens at 1:09. He moves his right hand just before he sings, "Right down the line..." See how natural it looks? And it feels natural. Steve isn't just a great voice, he's a singer, an artist. He's connected to the truth of what he's saying, and his body expresses it before his words do.

The second is Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Watch her eyes. They almost always move before her phrases. You can see she's thinking about the ideas, not just singing words, so her body expresses the same naturalness of human behavior that you experience every day. It's why that performance is so compelling! It's like she's just talking to you, the way she would to a friend who'd stopped by for some tea.

For some reason, when amateurs sing, they move counterintuitively--on the phrase, instead of before it. DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU. Naturally, it's okay to do it if you have to dance during a song or when you're adding emphasis to a particular word, as Steve Perry does in "Faithfully" when he sings, "...you and me." And sometimes the song is so fast, it's tough to move before you sing. But don't let these become excuses for a lack of truth in your performance. Your audience came for the deeper truth that art can express. Move, then sing, and give 'em what they came (and paid) for!

Paul Cuneo is the founder of NotToneDeaf.com and the author of Correcting Tone Deafness. This is the ONLY completely sensible approach I have ever encountered to resolving the problem and stigma of "Tone Deafness. -Jeannie Deva.

Paul is also an actor and teaches Movement for Actors at the Stella Adler Studio, Los Angeles. He blogs on the topic of Performance and Movement for Actors at MovementalLA.com . This essay first published February 5, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.

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