Choreography: "Breaking it Down"
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
One of the most common errors singers make when they perform is NOT carefully thinking through their performance choreography - especially when dancing is NOT involved. Singers too often "wing it," thinking that knowing the pitches, the words, and the message of their song will be enough - or that even the "soul" or passion they bring to the song will be enough" - that their movements on stage will naturally follow. This may occasionally be the case for an experienced singer or a singer with great kinesthetic sense and a very clear story to tell. However, most often, if a singer fails to plan, a singer plans to fail.
When I worked on Broadway as the female lead in Hollywood film director Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's opera, La Boheme, I learned very quickly that detailed choreography of even the smallest movements on stage is key to telling a clear and moving story. I remember Baz directing the slightest movement of my eyes on stage, choreographing every detail of my scene as if every moment were a still shot - a masterful photograph I could proudly hang on my wall after rehearsal. Baz taught me that the moment the audience sees my eyes, I am telling a story - and if my eyes don't say anything, the audience won't see anything. So choreography, first and foremost, begins with the movement and focus of the EYES.
So let's "break it down" and choreograph your song by following these 4 simple steps:
1) Print out the lyrics of your song - I recommend typing your lyrics out by hand, not just printing them out from the internet. When you type your own lyrics you learn them better, and you can arrange them in ways that work better for you visually. I recommend trying to fit complete sentences onto one line like this:
"I'm tryin' to hold my breath.
Let it stay this way.
Can't let this moment end. ...." ("Never Enough" from The Greatest Showman)
2) Identify the dramatic "beats" by either [bracketing them like this] or typing them on separate lines as shown above. Dramatic beats are defined in the drama world as "the smallest division of action in a play, film or other work of drama." For singers, I like to think of dramatic beats as complete and separate ideas, thoughts, or actions expressed in a single phrase of a song or a full sentence or couple of sentences unified by a single idea or action. In other words, every NEW thought or action is what I will define as a basic dramatic beat in a song.
For example, the three sentences listed above represent a complete beat for our purposes: the single action of the protagonist holding her breath in attempt to stop and preserve the amazing moment she is experiencing with her love interest. In a less poetically complex song like "My Favorite Things," a dramatic beat could be each new "favorite thing" listed:
"Raindrops on roses
and whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles
and warm woolen mittens, ... "
Each line represents a NEW image or thought.
3) Pair each dramatic beat with 3 things:
a) an ACTION VERB*
b) a FOCAL POINT**
c) a MOVEMENT or STILLNESS that suits the text***
4) Mark your lyric sheet with your "choreography" like this:
[Dramatic Beat] - Action Verb, Focal Point, Movement
[Raindrops on roses] - Celebrate, C (for Center)/direct focus (on roses), Body Still/Arms Bent at Elbows
In order to help you choose the appropriate action verb, focal point, and movement/stillness that suits your text, let's discuss each element below.
The most powerful acting happens when the actor or actress is clear about what they are DOING to get what they want, or to achieve their objective. The most useful action verbs I learned to use as a singer while studying acting in the Theater Studies Department at Yale University are the following. They are some of the most simple and universal, found in almost every song. I recommend you choose from the following in your 1st Round song:
1) To celebrate
2) To plead (or beg)
3) To seduce
4) To destroy
5) To dominate
For more exhaustive lists of useful action verbs or "actable verbs," see the following links:
The Top 10 Action Verbs to Have in Your Toolkit (from Backstage)
The Ultimate List of Acting Verbs (Tactics) - Texas Art Project
The Ultimate List of Acting Verbs "Objectives"
Actable Verbs (Screen Actors System)*
*This link provides a great way of thinking about using action verbs:
“I want to __________ (actable verb) __________ (another character) so this person will __________ (feel or do something), and I am willing to __________, and _________, and__________ (list tactics here) to see that happen now!”
There are 3 basic focal points, 2 planes of focus, and 3 types of focus that will aid you in telling your story effectively:
1) Center (C)
2) Left (L)
3) Right (R)
Planes of Focus:
1) Straight out (just above the judge's heads or just over the orchestra)
2) Upward toward the 2nd balcony (I call this "the God place" - the place you might talk to God or lament something to the big, wide universe)
If my focus is upward, I would mark it like this:
1) Center Up (CU)
2) Left Up (LU)
3) Right Up (RU)
Types of Focus:
1) Direct, still focus
2) Panning focus across a plane (like panning across the stars in the sky from left to right or right to left) - I think of this as panoramic movement of the eyes
3) "Soft focus" - this occurs when the dialogue is internal and the eyes blur
***MOVEMENTS OR STILLNESS:
Stillness in the entire body can be one of the most powerful positions on stage. Movements should be very few and very clear - less is more. Too much movement or twitching or fidgeting is very distracting and diverts our attention away from the singer's main storytelling tool: the eyes.
Movement should always be organic and should never look fake or contrived and should never be distracting or disturbing to the viewer. Movements that are organic but are done half-way are very distracting because the actor or actress is clearly suppressing an organic instinct or movement. Movements should be done "full-out" and never halfway or they run the risk of looking unnatural or disturbing to the lay audience.
I like to think of every song I sing as a "dance" with every cell of my body, which is always moving and never staying completely still, even when stillness is part of the "dance." Movement should be fluid and should flow from one movement to the next very naturally and beautifully.
Stillness for a singer is best defined by the singer's "fighting stance" - when feet are shoulder width apart, feet are staggered, knees are slightly bent, the singer is standing on their core or center of gravity, shoulders are up, back, and down, chest is in a regal position (not slouching or overextending), and the arms are down to the sides with hands and fingers relaxed and loose.
Movements that are most common and natural for singers are the following:
1) Pointing directly with the finger and arm towards a specific person or object
2) Moving the hands up to the heart
3) Moving the hands and arms outward to the sides, tilting the head back slighting to look upwards at "the God place" (this is a triumphant ending pose)
4) Moving the hands from the heart forward towards "the God place"
5) Walking or running forward, back, or to the sides a short distance
6) Jumping in place
7) Clasping the hands together in excitement
8) Forming an "X" with the feet and arms with "jazz hands" (fingers spread apart) in a celebratory pose
9) Reaching one arm out towards "the God place" contemplatively
10) Putting hands on hips
11) Arms bent at the elbows in the shape of a "W" as if you are excited or on edge about something
12) One hand holding a microphone, other hand down
13) Both hands holding the microphone (this can be a crutch, so beware not to do this too often)
Any other movements that are more complicated would be defined as "dancing," and if your song involves dance, I recommend you hire a choreographer to give you very specific "dance moves" if such fit your genre of pop or musical theatre singing.