Adam Lambert performing in Birmingham, UK, during his Glam Nation Tour, 2010 – photo kindly supplied by Grrr_girl.
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(This is an outline only of the radio script used for this programme – it is not a transcript – please listen to the full programme by clicking on the little ‘speaker’ icon above.)
Today I’d like to look at the singer and the art of communication, so let’s take a brief look at what communication actually is and why it might be important.
According to the Oxford Word Power Dictionary, “communication is the act of sharing or exchanging information, ideas or feelings.”
And Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, states that “Communication is the activity of conveying meaningful information, and that communication requires a sender, a message, and an intended recipient…”
Most of us are by now aware of a study that come out of the University of California in Los Angeles in the 1970’s which stated that communication is 7% verbal, 38% through the tone of the voice and 55% through non-verbal clues.
However, Professor Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues at UCLA actually conducted studies into human communication patterns. And when their results were published, it was widely circulated in the mass media in abbreviated form, and that’s where the myth started. The fact is the studies were based on information that could be conveyed in a single word. So subjects were asked to listen to a recording of someone saying the same word in three different ways and then asked to guess the emotions they’d heard in the voice and seen in photographs, which means that the words and facial expressions would not necessarily have matched.
Prof. Mehrabian’s conclusion was that for inconsistent or contradictory communications, body language and tonality may be more accurate indicators of meaning and emotions than the words themselves. He apparently never intended for his results to be applied to everyday communication.
And it does put me in mind of the proverb: “actions speak louder than words,” especially if we take it to mean “show me rather than tell me”, or as Confusius said: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember… because of course, words are the paint that poets and writers and other story-tellers, such as singers, use to create pictures for us.
But we are not going to investigate the academic subject of communicology here. Rather, I’d like to take a broader view and focus particularly on the communication that takes place between a performer and their audience, and more specifically, between a singer and their audience. And of course, tonality and body language is of considerable importance to singers, for whom conveying meaning and emotions is almost as important as breathing.
But it might be illuminating, first of all, to find out how we communicate when we cannot hear sound. And it is our great good fortune that we have with us today, the wonderful Cassie, whom some of you might recognize from Adamtopia, a fan site dedicated to the American Grammy nominated recording artist, Adam Lambert. Outside of Adamtopia, she is known as the wonderful Christine.
So a little background: Christine’s career spans over thirty years as a teacher of deaf children, a sign language interpreter, and a teacher of sign language, and the process of interpreting to facilitate communication between people who are deaf and people with normal hearing.
Growing up in a musical family, Christine studied music theory, piano, violin and voice. But, when it came time to choose a career, she realized that musical performance was not her niche, and chose, instead, to dive into the world of alternate communication through the totally visual world of sign language. However, music has always remained her constant companion and refuge. Music and the visual language of signs…. two fascinating ways we communicate with those around us.
Welcome to the Sound Bath, Christine. It’s a real pleasure and a huge thrill to have you with us.
Can you tell us first of all, how deaf people learn sign language and communication skills?
Christine talks about the impact of deafness: lack of free communication with other human beings, lack of access to the world of information learned through language. The intrinsic need to communicate. Humans find a way. Invent a way.
Deaf children learn from deaf family members, teachers, peers – acquiring it as naturally as hearing children acquire spoken language. Biggest challenge (not handicap) is the lack of exposure, which can slow language, learning and social interaction skills.
Angelina: How can one communicate the subtleties and emotions of communication, conveyed with vocal inflection and tone, if the language is visual?
Christine’s answer – outlined:
* Where there is a need, humans find a way and communicate fully. Example: texting and emoticons. Since text telephones were first available to the deaf in the 1960s, deaf people have developed their own version of emoticons.
*Sign language, contrary to popular belief, is much more than just hand gestures. Hand shapes, movement and location denote words or concepts. Again, just a small percentage of total meaning. Sign language uses body movement, posture, space and facial expression to convey those subtleties of meaning and intent. Without the rest of the body expression, the signs are meaningless.
* For example, on the concept of beauty – we can say, “beautiful” (with inflection that is sarcastic and negative), “pretty” (kinda meh), or “gorgeous” (!!!) and our tone modifies the words. In sign language, the same hand shape and basic location would be used in all three instances, but in the first, a facial expression of irony and a head shake would show the true meaning – that’s the inflection. “Pretty” would be a brief, small, un-emphasized movement of the hands with pursed lips and head wag. “Gorgeous” would be an expansive, elongated movement with the mouth rounded “ooooo” , eyebrows furrowed, and a head nod. Those modifications are the “vocal tone” of sign language.
*Sign language requires people to lose their inhibitions about expressing themselves with their whole body. There is a blatant physicality to sign language, that perhaps you as a singer can relate to, since you sing not only or even primarily with your vocal cords, but with your entire body.
Angelina: I once met the highly inspirational world-renowned solo deaf virtuoso percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie. She advocates listening to music with your whole body, I imagine much in the same way, that in particular, opera singers, who spend years studying and training and learning to understand their vocal instruments, sing with their whole body.
She talks about ‘listening to yourself first of all’ and she says you must let go and relax, because when you allow your body to be free to feel and experience the vibrations of music, you can ‘hear’ more than listening with only your ears.
I know of deaf dancers, too, who feel the rhythm of the music and the dance through their feet, but I would imagine that they too, must be using their entire body to ‘feel’ the sound.
And of course most deaf people can feel vibrations too, so they might therefore also be able to ‘feel’ music, right?
Christine’s response – Definitely. And, contrary to popular conception, most people who are deaf still hear some sounds at some volumes. Most commonly the bass tone or notes. So the bass line and drums are heard and felt. Many deaf people love music and dancing, especially since the advent of music videos that visualize the music for them in a tangible way.
Angelina: Dr Steven Halpern, composer, performer and pioneer in the field of sound health has said that – and I quote: “we hear and ingest sounds with more than our auditory mechanism. The whole body responds to sound and consumes it whether we consciously hear the sound or not. Consider how the mind tunes out the ticking of a clock or the humming of a refrigerator. But even though the conscious mind can filter out the sound, the body cannot.”
As an audience member myself, I can testify to the fact that I indeed experience music with more than my ears. But I also know that when there is a singer on stage, then the instrumental music becomes almost secondary to what the singer is doing, especially if the singer has a beautiful voice and is able to communicate the music in a way that transports me into their world.
I believe the reason for this might be because we all have a voice and we can therefore all relate to singers especially, whether we ourselves sing or not. But how about deaf people, do they experience their voice in this way?
Christine’s response – outlined: Some speak, some do not, because it’s very difficult for deaf people to learn to articulate a spoken language if you cannot self-monitor. They may receive many years’ speech therapy in school, but the voice may remain alien to them. They may try to use their voice and it sounds awkward or people may not be able to understand what they’re saying and then people might look at them like they’re stupid, because they mumble their words, or whatever.
But if you have one of those singers, who is really good – when you see a singer perform, and you see it on their face, in their body and in their movement and how they get caught up in the music – all of that translates physically and visually to a deaf person.
Angelina’s comment: Of course, what was also amazing to me about Dame Evelyn Glennie was that she speaks with a Scottish accent!
Christine’s response: If you were born with regular hearing, then you have the self-monitoring system in place. Then if you lose your hearing later in life through an accident, illness or medication, etc., you will still remember how to articulate and in her case, she would have learned the Scottish brogue. But children who are born deaf or lose their hearing earlier in life, it’s very difficult to learn how to articulate.
Angelina: But to come back to our singer, as hearing people, it is easy for us to become enveloped in the music a good singer with a beautiful voice is able to make, especially if that singer is also able to communicate effectively with us – I don’t believe I am alone in this experience, right, Christine?
Christine’s response: Transporting is definitely the word for what I experience. When you have that kind of a voice it adds a dimension to music. There’s a certain soul that’s added to music when it’s a gorgeous voice.
Over the years, I have tried to interpret my favourite music into sign language, with only partial success. I can convey the words, convey the mood, convey the rhythms, but not the pure sound that overwhelms us. We can listen to a song in a language we don’t know, or listen to a singer riff and scat through runs up and down the scale and the pure joy infuses us. I have never figured out how to express that in sign language. For example, the Hallelujah Chorus. Gives me chills and brings tears to my eyes every time, but, remove the music from the lyrics, and it is the most boring, repetitive song in the world in sign language.
Angelina: So this might be a good time to look at what makes a singer a masterful communicator. Would you agree that, briefly:
1. The voice – the singer’s voice must at least be pleasing and able to touch us emotionally, and at most, we must be astounded by its beauty, and by the music inside the voice, and be satisfied with the singer’s musicality and musicianship
Christine’s response: For me when I hear the singer’s instrument, that communicates to me on a visceral level, I really feel the sound.
2. The songs – we must be able to relate to, or be inspired by the lyrics and find the rhythms and melodies pleasing or thrilling
Christine’s response – outlined: It is wonderful to listen to listen to opera singers because they sing with such passion.
3. The performance – we want to feel a connection to the singer, to be entertained and to ‘lose time’, to feel as though the singer cares enough about us that he or she wants to share their performance with us and that they’re excited about it and feel energized by it
And singers who can live inside the music and give a dazzling performance whether they’re singing in front of 5 or 5000 people, are the master communicators. They don’t depend only on the energy from an audience to help them with their performance, but at the same time, they know how to use the energy they receive to amplify their performance to a larger audience, and they also know how to give back the energy received from their audience. To me that feels like communication.
4. The visual – we want our singers to present a pleasing image – how they dress, how they move, what they look like, are all an important elements of what we require from our entertainers
Christine’s response – outlined: I think the demand is higher and higher for that, because that is part of the performance now. Years ago, we didn’t know what the singers looked like, but now, with visual media so prominent, the expectation is you have to perform and treat all my senses.
5. The charisma/stage presence – we want our singer to be dynamic, larger than life, to excite us, and to enthral us but simultaneously we also want them to make us feel safe and happy, knowing that we’re in good, capable hands, that we can relax and just enjoy the show, that we don’t have to be nervous or tense on their behalf
Christine’s response – outlined: That is so true and I’ve very rarely heard people say that. There are performances I cannot sit through – not because it’s bad, but because I’m so worried that they’re going to mess up somehow, that I cannot relax and just enjoy the performance. The best performers for me, are those who are so grounded in their competence, in their background, in their years of training and knowing what to do, that I don’t have to worry – I can just let go and let them take me wherever they’re going. And if on top of that, they have that charisma that just reaches out, like some pheromones or something, then it becomes an incredible performance.
6. The magic – we want to be enthused and leave the show feeling satisfied, having experienced an exceptional, authentic and confident performance
Christine’s response – outlined: Yes, sometimes you feel the performers have done the show a hundred times and they’re just doing it by rote, that they don’t really care about their audience – that’s when they’re not communicating!
I thought these were some important basic points on communication for performers, but you, Christine, talked about the communication examples so clearly shown in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” .
Christine explains how the movie is all about communication and the compulsion to communicate with another life-force, or whatever. When they first make contact, what do the aliens use to communicate? Musical tones – they teach the humans first of all musical tones. And then later when they first make official contact, the humans play back those musical notes to them and await their response. So how they first start to communicate with each other, is through music, and then, that music is translated into different types of lights. So we first have the auditory, then we have the communication extended into the visual and when the aliens come out of the space-craft, they use hand signals (the Kodaly hand shapes for pitches) to represent the musical tones. So that we have everything we’ve just been talking about that is communication, represented in a science-fiction movie about how can we communicate with new beings. And I think that’s cool!
Angelina: For me, a singer that stands out from all other singers in his ability to incorporate all those elements and who communicates masterfully with his audience, is the aforementioned Adam Lambert.
Christine’s response: Absolutely. For those of us who have become enamoured with him, it starts with the voice – just like in the movie – it starts with the auditory. But then, as we see him perform, the visual is enhanced and the rapport with the audience enhances the communication further and the back and forth of the energy between him and the audience. He has an infinite tattoo on his wrist and when asked what it represents, he said it represented the flow of energy, the give and take, that happens between himself and his audience, plus the incredible vocal technique and the charisma you’ve talked about – all in this one performer. And he is one of the most exciting performers I’ve seen in years.
But it seems to me that it’s difficult for many singers and performers to translate what they’re doing on stage into their everyday lives – they may be great communicators and performers on stage, but off stage, they either have to stay in their ‘stage persona’ or they don’t know how to incorporate those same skills. So to do it naturally and easily and comfortably off stage with best friends or with strangers or with someone you’ve just met for five minutes, to be able to establish that communication and comfort level is a rare skill, isn’t it?
Angelina’s response: It might also have something to do with the different personality types. There is, for example, a school of thought that states most performers are actually introverts. But when they get on stage, they become extroverts and then revert back to their introvert selves off stage again – possibly because they need that time on their own to re-charge their batteries, regroup and get in touch with their artistic selves again – which, as we all know, is a solitary condition. And then there’s the other school of thought that says; actually performers are mostly both introvert and extrovert at the same time.
But there are the rare artists, like Adam, who seem to be able to take his stage ‘persona’ and translate it into his everyday life quite comfortably. But ‘persona’ is probably the wrong word to use in his case, because, watching him, I do not feel as though he creates a stage persona. And I believe he has mentioned in interviews that he magnifies ‘himself’ slightly when he goes on stage, but that it’s all still him. And I suspect that’s why it’s so easy for him to be himself in interviews as well as on stage, because he’s basically just being himself.
Christine: But there are artists who are that stage ‘persona’ in every interview, so you never know who they really are.
Angelina: It is also amazing to watch Adam being interviews, because he seems to be able to switch from interviewer to interviewer and to communicate with them each almost at their own level.
Christine: In my field, which is communication, it is not only the words, but the affect, the degree of formality, the degree of respect, the degree of use of idioms, or use of erudite language, or whatever – all of that I have to be aware of so that I can provide an equivalent interpretation. So I notice these things when Adam talks. He does what we call ‘code switching’, which is to change the way he talks – the vocabulary, the grammar – to match the person he’s talking with and he will even do it with body language, he’ll match their body language. I don’t know where he’s learnt that, but it’s smart.
Angelina: It’s part of the very basics that you learn in stage craft. One of the very first exercises they usually give you, is that you have to find a partner and then you do the mirroring exercises, where you mirror each other’s movements first of all, and later, facial expressions, body language, words and voice tone and inflections, etc.
Christine: Oh, do you know? You do the same thing in beginning sign language classes. You have to be able to read what the other person is saying visually.
Angelina: See? Master communicator. And then taking it a step further – taking it on stage and doing that for a lot of people – making them feel safe.
Christine: And making them feel as though he’s connecting with them individually. People who have been to his concerts have told me that they were right up in the balcony, but they were convinced he looked them right in the eye!
Angelina: And to take this point even further, Christine sent me this YouTube video of a recent interview after his performance in Moscow, where Adam talks about how people meet and communicate with each other through his music, online or at his shows - relevant to our topic today:
The following comments were made on the video, which support our discussion on Adam’s ability to code-switch in order to match the situation:
“I love how Adam slowed his cadence and is using words that have clear
meanings. Asked these same questions in the US, this would have been a very
different sounding interview.”
“I’m not surprised as he always seems to know just how to interact with anybody
“There is no “cow” in Moscow so Adam pronounced it correctly when he said
Mo COE not Mos COW.”
To give you a taste of his exquisite voice and his superior interpretative and communication skills, this song, which he sang at the Upright Cabaret in Los Angeles, is a very good example. It’s Adam’s version of OneRepublic’s song, Come Home:
Christine explained that the lyrics of ‘Come Home’ was written from the perspective of a sister or girlfriend of a soldier serving in the war in the Middle-East, saying that although their job is important there, she needs them here with her.
As a singer/performer myself, I certainly try to remain true to the meaning of the music and lyrics at all times, but simultaneously, I, like so many others, have to find within ourselves, those feelings which will help us to convey the meaning of a song to our audiences, and it may therefore not always be what was originally meant by the lyricist or the composer. I mention this here, only because I have a sense that Adam might have had to find something more personal – for this song in particular.
Not everyone can sing one of Michael Jackson‘s songs well, but Adam did a brilliant job with Black or White:
And finally, a song, which drew a standing ovation for Adam, even from it’s creator, Smokey Robinson – The Tracks of My Tears:
The songs have all been taken from live performances – “Black or White” and “The Tracks of my Tears” are from his performances on American Idol and “Come Home” is also from a live performance, so there are no second takes – you cannot get it wrong. And he didn’t!
During a recent ‘twitter party’ where Adam asks his fans to tweet him questions, one fan asked: “What is the best thing about being a singer?” And Adam’s answer: “Being able to communicate a thought or feeling through song” seemed to fit in perfectly with our discussion here about the art of communication and the singer.
The music for the intro and outtro of this programme has been composed and performed by Elizabeth Dockrell-Tyler.
We do not own the copyright to any of the pictures, music or videos presented in this programme, only copyright on all scripts presented within the programme, and no copyright infringement is intended. This blog is offered to invite comments and discussion on the work presented by The Soundbath.