Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
“Cognitive dissonance, the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in people is relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: they reject, explain away, or avoid the new information; persuade themselves that no conflict really exists; reconcile the differences; or resort to any other defensive means of preserving stability or order in their conceptions of the world and of themselves.”
Have you ever sat in a performance where you could not shake the feeling that something was off? I’m talking about those moments when you’re watching a performer and you know that in that moment, you would expect that the person on stage should be feeling something specific, but they do not appear to be having that feeling. For instance, grief at the loss of their loved one. As you watch, it seems that the combination of their acting and vocal choices do not match up with what you believe would be “normal.” It is hard to put your finger on, but you know something is off.
I see this happen a lot in master classes. Usually, the clinicians work with the performer to help them make stronger acting choices. However, there are many times that no matter how strong the choices are when the student monologues their song, when they go to sing it, something is still off.
I am not a psychologist, but psychology interests me. For instance, the concept of cognitive dissonance, which essentially describes situations where our brain realizes things are not lining up the way that we expect them to in a given circumstance. For instance, a person’s facial emotions do not match their vocal tone. What’s fascinating to me is that we as human beings seem to be preprogrammed to notice these irregularities. It seems that our ability to recognize irregularities has evolved in part to help us recognize psychopaths and sociopaths.
Imagine walking across a continent 10,000 years ago. At some point you meet a stranger for the first time, knowing nothing about that person or their community. All you would have to rely on to determine whether you were safe or not would be your perception of the other person’s physical actions and vocal tone. Your brain would have to make split-second decisions for self-preservation. For instance, is the other person genuinely offering you a free meal or are they planning on turning you into a free meal. A very important split-second judgment to make. What humans learned along the way is that some people were, in fact, trying to fool us, and we evolved the mental capacity to assess the whole picture and determine if that was the case in any situation. That allowed us to sort out genuine people from psychopaths and sociopaths and therefore survive and thrive on this planet.
Psychopaths and sociopaths often have one type of vocal inflection and a different type of physical body language. They are unable to empathize with others in certain situations, which is why their vocal tone or physical body language doesn’t always follow what we expect. Sometimes when we sing, we get so focused on technique that our voices become rigid and emotionless. Without knowing it, we come off as having traits of a psychopath. The brain is likely telling the listener that everything is ok, this is a performance. But the audience member can’t shake the feeling that something is off and therefore the brain spends its energy trying to make sense of it, instead of living in the moment with the performance onstage.
There are many times that we spend a great deal of time working on the acting as a separate component, and then try to merge the two together, only to realize a song still doesn’t work. I believe one of the reasons we often fail to get the desired result is because we are not also addressing vocal quality. If the vocal quality does not match our cognitive expectations, all the acting choices in the world will not fix the performance.
If I suspect this is the issue, I ask the performer to consider what a person’s voice would sound like at that moment in real life. We monologue it again while audio recording the monologue. We then listen back, think about the vocal inflection we heard in speech and then translate that to the singing. The end result is a performance that matches cognitive expectations and comes off as “authentic.”
If you get the feeling that something is off during a student’s performance, try thinking about the emotional context of their vocal tone. I’m not suggesting you have them think about emotions when they sing, but rather consider whether or not normal people would speak with that type of inflection at that moment if this were a real situation. If they wouldn’t use that type of tone, help them make adjustments that would better match an audience member’s expectations and see what happens. More than likely, you will discover that when their voice truly follows their actor, everything begins to click and the audience reacts authentically to what they’re experiencing.
This is definitely outside of many of the technical things I tend to write about on this blog but there are many occasions where technique can get in the way. It is without a doubt a fine line to balance, and that is where the art comes into what we do. It is important to remember that we sing to communicate the human experience through song. If we are going to communicate universal human experiences, it is reasonable to assume that audiences will expect that performances of those experiences align with their emotional expectations. When they do, magic happens.
Have you thought about how vocal tone and physical expression work together in storytelling? Please feel free to comment below and add to the conversation. If you are not yet following the blog, please sign up to ensure you receive each new post in your email.
Thanks for reading and have a great week of teaching!
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Coordinator of Musical Theatre Voice at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA, and Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. He is the author of “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N Roll” and dozens of articles and book chapters on functional voice training for non-classical styles. For more information visit EdwardsVoice.com