Elaine Paige was a tough task master but great to watch and proved to be a real help for the individuals who came up on stage. As a member of the audience you were under the impression that she would be much tougher on herself than she was with the participants, as she knows that you have to be dedicated, determined and honest with yourself about what is good enough, to succeed in this business. It was clear from the beginning that she was trying to set up a working atmosphere in the theatre as she tried to prohibit applause from the audience stating that, ‘this is a class not a performance.’ This proved difficult for a dramatic audience.
Elaine didn’t train at a music college but instead picked it up as she went along. For her the real lessons came in learning through experience, real dedication and understanding that there are ‘no shortcuts to singing in theatre.’ For Elaine there were 7 objectives that you must follow to get to where you want to be:-
Memory (he he!)
Fit and healthy
Audition (make yourself a little different from everybody else.)
Winning the part
With technique posture is the most important and basic measure to remember. Think about how you are sitting and where your shoulders are – upright or slouched, sunk in the middle? When you are on stage you should always try to remain centred with your shoulders pulled back and down and your head in a relaxed position, slightly held back but being careful not to let your chin stick up in the air. In this position, all your airway passages are open and help you to project your voice. Breathing is also incredibly important and this should be done from the diaphragm and not from the shoulders.
Elaine made us all stand up and put this into practise and then she and her pianist Chris guided us through a selection of exercises that should be practised everyday for around 30 mins to keep the voice strong and supple.
We worked on a ha ha ha ha ha up and down the scales. This helps to strengthen the diaphragm, which if working properly should mean that you never lose your voice!
An octave jump on vowel sounds. By jerking the diaphragm in on the high notes the air will come out freely helping to produce a strong top note.
Diction is very important and is necessary to help convey the story to your public. You have to be a servant of the music (the composer and the lyricist) and if the audience can’t hear you or understand what you saying then you are not fulfilling your duties. With Elaine we practised the two exercises ‘red lorry, yellow lorry’ and ‘the lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue’ up and down the scales to help improve our diction.
Never be late. Always be early and prepared. Bring a notepad, pencil, rubber, script and your research to all rehearsals. Being early and prepared can boost your confidence and help you battle nerves.
Research – read as much as you can, try and understand the story of the character and the who, the what and the why of the situation. Research will bring you a confidence (without arrogance) and a certainty in what you are doing. Once you know the song off by heart you can begin to play with it and put your own spin and interpretation on it. It is of vital importance to have some connection with the song as this will help you to explore the emotion with more depth and appreciation. If you don’t understand the song it would be to your advantage to choose a different song.
Memory. Knowing a song off by heart (the lyrics and the meaning and its place and context within the musical) is imperative in an audition situation. Elaine felt particularly strongly on this point as at one of her first auditions for Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley ‘Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd’ she forgot her lines and dried up for the rest of the audition. It was such a horrible experience for her that she promised never to let it happen again. Her advice was to learn something so well that you almost don’t even have to think about it, ‘You must know the character so well that as soon as you begin you are there in that zone and don’t have to worry.’
The research was a key point that she kept on picking up with the participants when they came up to sing their songs. Other suggestions of things to look at were:-
– Dynamics of a piece – always make sure that you have somewhere to go. Don’t use your big bang up at the beginning or where it is not necessary as it will take the wow factor away from where it is needed.
– Gesturing in odd places. Less is more (Edith Piaf never did more than 1 or 2 gestures per song). Don’t gesture unless you have a reason to.
– Act throughout the song. Don’t stop just because you don’t have lines to sing.
– Know melodically where the crux of the song lies – it is important to follow the orchestration of the piece.
– Think before you sing! Don’t just hope the lyrics will convey the meaning on their own.
– If you are singing to someone, know were they are on stage. This will help give you a focus and not confuse the audience/audition panel.
– Don’t wear shoes that are too high as it can put your balance off – especially if you know that you will be on a stage as most of them are raked forwards. If you are leaning too far forward it can put pressure on your diaphragm. (n.b another top tip that Elaine gave was to never wear satin on stage as it shows every movement of your body which is particularly unflattering when singing and moving your diaphragm.)
– Force yourself to do things over the top – even if it feels silly. It gives you confidence and playfulness. It can always be pulled back and refined.
Elaine had a tendency to be a harsh critic but it was very constructive for the participants and there was a great humour and rapport between her and them. It was wonderful to see and hear someone speaking about their career who is obviously driven and passionate about what they do. Although luck always plays a key role in people’s careers with Elaine you were given the feeling that she has created her own luck through sheer determination and hard work and of course a bucket load of talent. At the end of the session we gave her an enormous round of applause whether she liked it or not.
Suggested Books to read from Elaine Paige (her bibles)
1. So you want to tread the boards? – Jennifer Reischel (self help book)
2. The Voice Book (for actors and pubic speakers) – Michael McCallion
3. Master Class – Terence McNally (play based on the life of Maria Callas)
4. Voice and the Actor – Cicely Berry
5. At the Actors Studio – Strasberg (tape recorded sessions) ed. R.H. Hethman