Understanding the Artist: Exploring how singers are evaluated
Daniela da Coista Coimtra, Dimitra Kokotsaki, Jane W. Davidson
University of Sheffield
The Power of the Voice for the Listener
The singing performance, possibly more than any other sort of musical performance, involves a very direct relationship between the performer and the audience. Firstly and most importantly, the singer stands in front of the audience in a face-to-face position. There is no instrument between the two parts of the performer and the listeners that may impair the view of the whole body of the performer. Thus, the singers are often preoccupied with the physical fact that their bodies include their instruments (Radocy, 1989). In this respect, the body is not only the initial but also the most fundamental means through which communication between the singer and the audience is attempted and eventually established. Indeed, singing per se incorporates two powerful factors, the voice and the body. These constitute the primary level of human communication as it has been described by Noy (1993). Within this system, while the objective knowledge is expressed on the secondary level by means of language, the subjective feelings and experiences are transmitted on the primary level through the voice and all the accompanying gestures and movements. It is evident that the combination of voice and movement as means of primary communication, are active components in every singing performance.
Thus, through the physical and the vocal aspects of singing, the signal transmitted by the performer is received by the audience. If this transmission is done successfully, it will most probably result in the audience being affected.
Because of the inevitable vocal and physical requirements imposed upon singers to produce their voices in a technically appropriate manner, it has been argued that they need to develop a high degree of 'body sensitivity'. According to Howard (1982), there are three specific factors which lead to this necessity. Firstly, singers cannot hear themselves in the same way as others hear them, secondly, there will always be a particular sensation accompanying each sound produced and, thirdly, singers need to develop the ability to relate particular desirable sounds with specific body sensations.
The relationship between the quality of the vocal production and the body again becomes apparent. In this paper, however, we are primarily concerned with the way the intended meaning is finally perceived by the audience. What in fact seems to be happening, according to Balk (1991), is that the performer's inner processes guide him/her to project the required energy through his/her outer visible and audible processes.
To date, there has been limited research interest in the topic. Wapnick (1997) carried out a brief study on University entrance auditions for singers and discovered that singers who were more animated, smiled more often and established more eye contact with the assessors were rated as attractive. Thus it seems important to consider the role of gestures in the assessment of performance quality. Indeed, Davidson (1991, 1993, 1994), in a series of studies about the content of body movements discovered that musical intentions were more clearly revealed in physical gestures than in musical sounds, suggesting the critical perceptual role of the body in understanding and communicating a musical work to the audience.
Furthermore, Sundberg (1982) in a study on speech, song and the emotions argues that there is a connection between the psychological emotion to be transmitted, the performer's external body movements and the acoustic consequences of the gesture of the speech organ - the internal body movements of the vocal tract which result in varying the timbre of the singing tone.
In spite of the fact that some performers and teachers are aware of the importance of body movement in conveying musical expression, it is not clear the extent to which body movements are considered important criteria in the assessment of musical performance.
It is noteworthy that in a study by Saunders and Holahan (1997) it was discovered that both teachers and assessors discriminate readily between levels of technical and artistic attainment, and use these two distinct categories to determine an area of 'performance error'. To date, no explanation of how the elements that are said to constitute musical performance quality are judged has been attempted. There is an acknowledgement that performances comprise both technical merit and aesthetic appeal like Saunders and Holahan's work describe, yet there are no indications about what stocks of knowledge are being drawn upon when assessments are made. The current study is an attempt to explore what these criteria may be.
The population under consideration in the current study is the staff and students of the Vocal Studies Department at the Guildhall School of Music in London where second year mid-term assessments were examined.
The Research Design and Procedure
Twenty-one second year vocal studies students' mid-term performance assessment procedures were investigated. A panel of four highly experienced singer/assessors sat in judgement of the students.
On an assessment sheet, the assessors were asked to make free comments about the student's performance of each of three pieces sung by the student. At the bottom of the assessment sheet we asked the assessors to award a grade. There were no specific written criteria for the grade bands, but none of the assessors asked for clarification, so we were intrigued to explore what features they believed constituted each category.
After the singer's performance was completed and he/she left the concert room, one further sheet of specific questions was completed by each assessor. The answers to these questions would shed light on the influence of the previous knowledge on assessment, what the assessors considered to make a good/bad performance and what struck them most about the singer. In other words, we were trying to establish their rating criteria.
Then, the assessors were asked to participate in a round table discussion, during which time each assessor was asked to state his/her opinion. During this discussion, the assessors not only summarised their own written reports, but they offered comments in order to construct a collaborative final report. This report was eventually given to the students along with their grades. All performances were video taped and all discussions were tape-recorded.
In summary, using an interpretative phenomenological approach to analysing the data, the assessors revealed that the following 'criteria' were being used:
- Technical Control
The assessors were very concerned about how the voice and body were controlled. That is, how the technical aspects of singing were embodied. For instance:
'At the moment, what we hear is a good voice. Everything else is slightly lacking: not enough connection, support, and engagement with body and brain. (...) At the moment, the small voice and big physique don't match'.
Perhaps the most significant sub-theme to emerge from the technical issues was the concept of vocal support. If a singer does not have a strong foundation of support, with the correct development of the muscles in question, the voice cannot reach its full potential.
'Today there was little to help the sound. No teamwork between the muscles'.
'Posture- she collapses too much, needs to cool it physically'
'There is quite shocking neck tension and an overall lack of support. The tension begins to make the voice wobble (...) whilst the potential is very impressive we feel as though it will be compromised unless the physical tensions are removed'.
In summary, it seems that the assessors looked for an ideal connection in the body for the achievement of technical control. Additionally, there was a concern that the mind and body were working in synchrony for the performance:
'The voice seems very young- the inflexibility-vocally, mentally and physically this was worrying'.
'The voice breaks because he does not know how to draw on his physical strength, and this leads to not harnessing the passion that is in him'.
The single most striking and surprising criterion to emerge was the emphasis the assessors placed on the physical appearance of the singers.
- The Body and Appeal
Comments of this type were very often of a personal nature. Here are several examples:
'Odd looking chap' (female assessor of a male singer)
'Visually: Odd make-up and ill-fitting cardigan' (male assessor of a female singer)
'Pretty girl. Stood like a dancer' (female assessor)
'A big guy. With a high lyrical voice' (female assessor)
'A rather puppet like physical appearance' (male assessor of a female singer)
'Very (oddly) splayed feet' (male assessor of a female singer)
'Bow ankles and sweater covered hands. You seem a bit motherly matronly in this outfit' (male assessor of a female singer)
Physical appeal was very often the first thing the assessors noted, when asked to write their impressions of the performer and his/her performance.
- 'Bodily Communication'
The assessors also focused heavily upon bodily communication, and more specifically upon aspects related to the use of facial expression and eye contact, as shown in comments such as:
'A self-possessed beam'
'A visual "performing" element missing. A problem of self-image: Does he need/want to develop as a performer?'
'Very appealing visual/facial expression', or on the contrary, 'Eyes dead. Blank face'
'Body involvement needed'
'Lovely freedom of body movement'
'Eyes attempted audience involvement'
In summary, one could say that the body was regarded not only as the physical support of the singing process, but also as a means of expression and so, a primary means of communication with the audience. From these comments it is evident that the physicality of singing and how this interfaces with the performer's inner mental processes - what we believe the assessor's label of 'artistic communication' to mean - are key criteria in the assessment process.
Indeed, the next most strongly emergent criterion employed by all of the assessors was 'artistry'. Here, we try to de-construct what they mean by this term by the issues they raised to discuss allied to its use.
- The importance of artistry
We have identified three components of artistry: communication, performance personality and presence.
The meaning of the song or aria's message was a central concern. The assessors suggest that ideally the interpretation should be 'heart-felt', 'from the centre of the person', and therefore with 'self-possession'. The consequence of these terms seems to be that an expressive performance is created emerging out of the individual's personality and presentation on stage.
2) Interacting with the audience
The singers showed commitment in interacting with the audience in various degrees and in different styles varying from physically approaching the audience to simply smiling, or introducing the performance pieces to explain their performance intentions.
Connected to the concept of singer-audience interaction, there was much discussion of the singer's 'presence' - the assessors referred to it as the singer's projection of the 'self' on the stage.
The more focused the singer is on transmitting the musical intention with a strong projection of personality, the more the assessors seem to be captivated and willing to interact, and therefore, consider the singer as being 'appealing'. The underlying logic may be, as one of the assessors commented: 'The singer is so focused that nothing interferes with our relationship, and so, not only the composer's message is important, but the singer also acknowledges that I am here and I am important too'.
If the singer is not sufficiently 'present', if he or she does not bring sufficient personality to the stage, the assessors feel either that there is a lack of energy or interest, or that the singer is hidden behind the song's message. Lack of energy or interest in acting is then considered as a deficiency in the performance itself:
'A lovely sound, but rather disappointing as she doesn't get involved as an artist'
Although the assessors are aware of a 'performing personality' which seems to be different to the 'inner self', on several occasions a process of identification between the performing and the inner personality occurred simultaneously. This was perhaps due to the fact that the singer may have identified with the song and so internalised its meaning, or contrarily, the singer may have acted in a rather convincing way:
'Charming girl-Charming voice.'
'A sweet and sunny personality. A sweet and sunny voice.'
'The Barber was transfixing. Lots of intelligence, self-possession and humility here.'
'I am just flooded with pictures of Sarah Black, his girlfriend-Why not? This is the reality of this song.'
'This is an engaging performing personality showing great intensity. It is all engaged and heartfelt.'
From the above-mentioned it can be extrapolated that singers are expected to display their emotions in overt behaviour. It seems that the assessors expect the overt behaviour to show internal states. How much of this is 'acting' and what effect this 'acting' has on the singers' personality and identity is clearly a fascinating emergent issue to which we have no further insight at the present time. We are all aware of the cultural stereotype of the 'luvvy', 'loud' and 'extravagant' personality of the operatic Diva. We would have to ask whether the job demands this kind of behaviour or if this kind of person is attracted to the stage.
From the analysis of the data, it is evident that in assessment the body is a critical factor for consideration: how does the body look, how it is presented; how is the singing physically prepared and executed? The interface of personality through both music and stage presence was critically important. Also, the appropriateness of repertoire to the singer's level of achievement is of great influence in assessing performance.
The results clearly show two different dimensions of criteria used by the assessors; those related to the technique of sound production; and those related to the presentation of musical content such as emotional expression and the personality of the interpreter. These two dimensions proved to be highly interrelated, since it is evident that a correct technique not only enables but also integrates a greater degree of artistry, which would be the main aim of each performance.
However, in the assessment procedure, technical proficiency and artistry seem to work as 'compensation laws'. That is, if a student has not acquired a sufficient technical proficiency, the assessors feel obviously more involved and touched with the performance artistically; if everything is technically correct but does not involve emotional expression and personality, the technical content becomes the central focus. Hence the compensation of technical for artistic and vice-versa.
As far as technical proficiency is concerned, comments, critiques and even solutions were presented to the singers in a far more objective way than the comments made about the artistry level of the performance. Maybe this occurs because technical proficiency is less subject to stylistic and social influence, and relates to more concrete (bodily, facial and physical) aspects of the sound production.
Another emergent criterion of assessment was the importance of body movements as a means of expression, on the one hand, of the emotional state of the singer and, on the other, as a means of conveying structural and expressive features of the music to the audience. Therefore, it would be relevant to explore the existence of a vocabulary of both body movements and phonation processes, which would enable the singers to achieve better performances.
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