Monday, February 25, 2013

We can be the way we were

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

It was thrilling to hear Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand sing at last night's Oscar ceremony! Those brilliant performances contrasted sharply with the rest of the show,  which often lapsed into sophomoric tastelessness (see this review at The New Yorker online).

And it was pretty exciting to see someone I actually knew (way back when) take home an Oscar. Ang Lee and I overlapped in the Theatre Department at the University of Illinois where he was dong an M.A. in theatre and I was a first year M.F.A. student. It was good to see such a talented, genuinely nice guy win!

But the highpoint for me was the wonderful singing by those two veterans who obviously did it for love of their community -- because neither of them needs to self-promote. Shirley Bassey is Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and Barbra Streisand is, well... Barbra Streisand!

And they sounded so good. Two more examples of how the voice can stay healthy and strong for a lifetime. As I tell my clients, your voice does not have to age if you take care of it. And experts back me up on this. What we often perceive as the inevitable "sounding old" may be a reflection of other poor health habits or overall illness. Voices can stay strong if we do not abuse them and continue to exercise them to maintain strength and flexibility.

Now I can't promise that when you turn 70 you will croon like Babs, or be able to belt like Shirley at 74. But if you support your voice now, exercise it and keep it "in shape" you should sound "mahvelous" for a lifetime! (And can we please have Billy Crystal back to host the Oscars?)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Can you hear me now?

I had to laugh when I heard the title of Katherine Bouton's new book, Shouting Won't Help: Why I -- and 50 Million Other Americans-- Can't Hear You.  It reminded me of that classic joke: Q: How do you sell a deaf guy a duck? A: (Yelling) WANNA BUY A DUCK?  But joking aside, it sounds like Bouton's book gives lots of information we will need as more and more of us develop auditory deficits. These days hearing loss occurs early and often, due to factors ranging from extreme environmental noise to personal sound systems that live in our ears.

So how do we communicate when we can't hear -- or understand -- one another? Many of us do not regularly interact with members of the deaf community. But we do try (and often fail) to communicate with people who cannot "hear" us. Volume isn't the only problem. Some people try the ineffective shouting technique with those who don't speak their language as well as those whose ability to hear is limited. Or speakers just repeat what they have said, thinking that eventually they will be understood. I can see why you might do this once -- if there's a chance your listener did not understand because you were mumbling, or the phone connection deteriorated, etc. But repeating the same phrases over and over again (especially in response to an "I don't understand" from your listener) does not further communications.

I had a week of such dead-ended exchanges with "customer service" representatives of my insurance company, as well as "support" departmenets of various companies I have been dealing with regarding all things internet. Some of these folks were responding to me via the ironically named "chat" line where the repetition of written instructions, in response to specific questions of mine, was maddening. Did they just press "copy+paste" each time I posed a new query? My current webhost, on the other hand, is very good at reading my questions and responding. They seem to have been taught the "tricks of the trade." They respond as if they consulted a communications professional.  They engage in best practices to ensure clear communication with their less techno-savvy clients: listen to the question, think about it in your terms, do a quick mental translation, then rephrase the question in language you think the questioner will understand, and ask "is that is what you mean?"

Let's face it, we all interact with people who use words and phrases differently. Each profession has its code, jargon, or just a way of describing things that is particular to that group. Families have buzz-words that non-family members do not understand. Different generations certainly speak different languages. And yet, how often do we assume that just because members of a certain group all grew up speaking English they "naturally" understand each another.

So don't be like the man selling the duck! Put on your thinking cap and make yourself understood.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The "boredom" trap

I was teaching my beginning acting class last week and I was surprised by an answer of "boredom" to the question: in your daily life, what most gets in the way of your concentration and focus? Usually when I ask students this the first answer offered is "distraction." When we tease that out, we discover that the listener can find ways to block out distractions, or put them on the back-burner in order to focus on the matter at hand. But naming "boredom" as a reason is shifting the burden from us ("I need to try to make some connections so I can concentrate") to others ("if the speaker is boring I lose interest.")

It is true that as an acting teacher and a speaker-trainer, I tell my students and clients they must Never Be Boring. Giving listeners even half a chance to be bored can block effective communication. And so it is up to actors and speakers to make sure it never happens. But I also know that the excuse of being bored is one that comes too easily to many folks who expect to be constantly entertained and stimulated. As I used to say to my kids (and as my mother said to me), "You can't be bored; find something to do." Or as I told my acting students. "if you're bored, that's on you." And I am in good company: I heard legendary jazz musician Wayne Shorter say this in an NPR interview over the  weekend: "When you say something's boring, that means you haven't even scratched the surface of something. And boring is a trademark of being arrogant and complacent."

Onstage, you can never be bored! To successfully portray a character you need to think like that character. Get inside her skin. And go even further - be aware of even his subconscious thoughts. You do this by surrendering your immediate (actor) needs to the character's needs. And for that, you need to be able to identify the character's objective (what she wants) and how she fulfills it (what she does to get what she wants). It's not about you, you see. You are embodying the character, and playwrights never create bored characters (boredom may be a secondary emotional state but it's never a primary one).

But we know sometimes we lose sight even of our own objectives, so isn't it that much more challenging to stay on track with the objectives of a fictional construct? Yes. That is why you need to constantly find something to engage in: a memory, a smell, a reaction to another character.

Mothers are right. Don't fall into the trap of lazy excuses; find something to do (and mentally exercising definitely qualifies).  That's a lesson for anyone who wants to be an effective communicator - onstage at a theatre or on the stage of Life!