Speech 5: Your Body Speaks. The fifth speech of the Toastmasters Competent Communicator program is meant to show me how to complement words with posture, stance, gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact.
Can I get a quick show of hands, how many of you have seen a professional pianist play? It could have been as part of an orchestra, or a jazz band. Cool. You were probably paying more attention to the music, but think back for me: was the pianist sitting still, or moving?
It was something like this, right? Their fingers were flying, feet tapping, probably rocking back and forth, flipping pages.
Instrumentalists are masters of letting their music move them. Think about those unbelievable hair bands from the 80s. Instead of head-banging and making “let’s rock” gestures, can you imagine them standing stock-still behind their guitars? It’s ridiculous.
Let’s compare this to one of the first things I learned as a singer: plant your feet hip-distance apart, hold your folder up so you can see your music and the director, and don’t. move. a muscle.
This is ingrained so deeply in singers that most of us end up with what my college choir director calls “dead face” — this is me singing a song about frolicking through the flowers with my lover. This is me singing about how sad I am that my lord and savior died for my sins. We end up with the emotional range of jam jars. It’s crazy!
Why this difference? Why are pianists and guitarists allowed to rock back and forth or wear lycra emblazoned with flaming skulls while us poor choir kids have to stand like statues while sweating through our black polyester pants and matching cummerbunds?
Based on my highly scientific research — aka brainstorming ideas with my husband — I think it comes down to breath control. Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation while running or working out? It’s hard, isn’t it? This is probably why singers have to stand still: because any extra movement takes up breath and makes singing harder.
One of the great challenges and joys of being a singer is figuring out how to show emotion and convey meaning with the tiniest of movements.
For choral performance this means using your face to show the feelings a song should evoke. It means leaning forward as if excited to share a secret, your body coiled like a spring, full of life and energy.
In musical theatre the actor’s body language and gestures can tell more than their words alone.
I can use them to convey youth and innocence [“I wonder, I wonder…”].
Or I can help you figure out if a character is good or bad. For example… [“Poor unfortunate souls…”]
I can even, hopefully, make you feel what the character is feeling. [“You’ll walk unscathed…”]
These movements don’t make it harder for me to sing. They’re small things I use intentionally to help tell a story.
It’s not easy to incorporate gestures into performance. One person I went to college with had the voice of an angel, but the movements of a malfunctioning robot. I am singing and acting. It made it impossible for me to enjoy his performances.
Elsewhere on the spectrum is what’s known in the industry as “schmacting” — the line between doing enough and doing too much. I’ve worked with several actors who try just a little too hard, gesture just a little too big, and come across as just a little fake. They make the work of acting visible when it shouldn’t be.
The best performers, those we love watching no matter what, are the ones who incorporate gestures seamlessly. The next time you watch a singer, pay close attention to their gestures. See how they add to the performance. Chances are the actor put a lot of effort into it, and they’ll appreciate that you noticed.