FOCUS on PERFORMANCE
The Elite Singer’s Secret Weapon
by Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas
based on their book for Oxford University Press:
Power Performance for Singers:
Transcending the Barriers
Imagery has long been a primary skill of high profile sports competitors like Tiger Woods and Michael Johnson. Yet, traditionally, the value of imagery in the training of singers has been regarded simply as a useful tool to increase dramatically their interpretive skills, probably by at least fifty percent. Alma Thomas and I, after many years of combined experience teaching singers to utilize imagery in far reaching ways, propose that imagery skills have more than one application and offer a myriad of benefits. Far more than increasing singers’ interpretive skills, imagery strongly supports a singer’s ability to give an elite performance by promoting correct performance thinking. Imagery facilitates singers’ capacity to modify their vocal skills toward improvement when that proves necessary. Imagery enables a singer to practice proficiently and to reduce musical problems to a manageable entity. Imagery provides singers with a method of avoiding distractions during performance. Imagery allows a singer to rehearse silently on those many occasions when that is useful. Imagery helps makes it possible for singers to do under the stress of performance what they have been doing in rehearsal. Imagery can even be utilized to work at controlling singers’ performance anxiety levels.
Our theory, based upon eleven years of shared work as the only known voice teacher/ performance psychologist team, states that imaging for singers can be described as a “method of using all the senses to create or re-create an experience in the mind.” It is clear that those singers fare better in their careers who have acquired a heightened awareness of all their senses: of visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli, of kinesthetic feedback signals, of taste and smell—and are skillful in their use.
bring a much greater detail to their interpretations and do so with far
more ease. They see colors; they hear sounds; they feel the emotions;
they sense the performance kinesthetically as part of the body. In
addition, it is a simple matter for them to
rehearse repertoire while awaiting their turn at an audition or
Efficiently and silently they see and hear and feel themselves
executing the piece perfectly (while not being distracted by their
Those singers who have honed their imagery skills will find it simpler to remember more clearly the essence of a vocal technical skill and repeat it efficiently until it is firmly within their grasp. In this way, they will eventually move from analytical thinking, which is decidedly not recommended during performance, to the intuitive, musically-responsive thinking that is necessary for elite performance.
What singer has not at one time or another found it necessary to change his technical skills so as to improve vocally? Those singers who have well-developed imagery skills can more swiftly characterize the old way and the new way by feeling, by hearing and by seeing. In the end, they are much more adept at leaving behind the old technique and adopting the new. Such singers, in sum, practice better.
Singers with highly efficient imagery skills can focus more easily on the pictures, colors, and objects conjured up by their imaginative interpretation and not yield to the person in the front row who is blowing his nose so loudly; in short, those singers are better equipped to resist distractions.
Our results show that improving one’s imagery skills is not a difficult task. It simply requires learning the skills and understanding the nature of their application, the will to do this, and the time in which to do it. Imagery exercises are readily available in performance literature. If one were to count up the factors that lead to a successful singing career, imagery would play a large part in most of them:
The acquisition of dependable vocal technical skills;
The maintenance of a beautiful tone;
The capacity to remain in control, focused, and concentrated during the stress of performing;
The confident enjoyment of performance;
The power to transport an audience into the life of the composition by the singer’s sheer personal belief in self and the text.
It is difficult to think of another single skill that has so many applications to the art of singing. It is easy to believe that imagery is the language of performance. Voice teachers might well say to their singers: “Image your way to a successful career!”
©Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas