What Makes For A Powerful Singing Performance?

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Classical Singing By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Singing » Classical Singing
Last updated: 09/05/2017
Tags: classical singing, performance, performance coaching, singing techniques, voice training

In performance I’m often struck by how a singer’s natural desire to sing beautifully can stand in the way of a truly powerful performance of the song itself.  

This isn’t surprising. As classical singers we spend years training our voices to meet the technical demands of the music we want to sing and these are often considerable. We aim for flexibility, a large range, flowing legato, stamina, excellence of diction, beauty of tone. We learn how to use dynamics and vowels to colour the voice, how to sustain a long line – hallmarks of those successful classical singers we want to emulate.

With all this effort focused on learning to produce the sounds we want, it’s easy for students to believe that a good performance will be one in which they succeed in making their voices behave beautifully. But is this really what our audience comes to hear? 

For students taking the step from studio to stage, classes in performance skills provide a very useful bridge. Singing for, and in turn watching their colleagues perform, gives them the opportunity to learn the (surprisingly difficult) skills of how to walk on and off stage with authority, where to focus their gaze whilst singing, how to keep their poise during instrumental interludes, or when they make a mistake, and a host of other useful techniques.

But performing for peers also offers singers the chance to develop another, deeper quality that lies at the very heart of powerful performance. It’s been described, for example, as openness or generosity, vulnerability, the ability to be in character, to be in the music. This subtle quality is difficult to cultivate in ourselves because it is much easier to recognise others. 

For singers it is natural to want to be liked, admired even, for our beautiful voices. We want to sound and look in control, collected, confident. The revelation for students comes when they see in their colleagues how the aim for beautiful singing can create a barrier between singer and audience. In fact, it often stifles the voice as well. 

When a singer focuses on “how” he or she is singing, energy is channeled away from “what”.  What is the meaning of the song? What is my image of the character in this aria? What am I communicating? becomes How am I sounding? How is my voice working? How well am I doing?

Colleagues are able to identify the instant a performer lets go of “how” and finds “what”. At that moment listeners are caught up in the meaning of the piece. Instead of being conscious of the singer’s method, the observers’ emotions and imaginations are engaged. They are moved, carried away by the music and the drama and become participants rather than observers. 

And how did the singer experience this moment?  It was when she stopped listening to how she sounded, when he concentrated on understanding for himself the words he was singing, the moment they trusted their training, gave up trying to edit their voices and let others take them as they were.

Katharina Megli Classical Singing Teacher (Cambridge)

About The Author

My private practice as a singing teacher and performance coach in Cambridge is based on years of professional singing performance as a mezzo-soprano, as well as my own extensive vocal training and long experience as a voice teacher.

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