Lee Strasberg’s (1901-1982) theory of method acting using the senses with the actor correlating emotional experiences from their personal lives directly into the character being portrayed sparked my fascination. To enable me to use his ideas in my work, I would like to connect his theory to emotion in singing.
Lee Strasberg perhaps most famously known as Hyman Roth in the 1972 drama, “The Godfather”
Strasberg was influenced by Konstantin Stanislavsky after attending a performance in New York City of Moscow Art Theatre directed by him in 1923. Strasberg later became famous for his acting approach called “The Method” drawing and expanding from Stanislavsky’s method called “The System”. Stanislavsky was the first to devise and disseminate broadly a systematic approach that connected the actor’s behavior, body, emotion, and intelligence. (Bial, 252). Strasberg, a Polish-born American, began his career in New York City as a stage manager, then actor, and then director, where he created his own theatre organization.
“The real secret to method acting—which is as old as the theater itself—is creating reality,” Strasberg once said, according to the Boston Globe. (Lee Strasberg Biography.com, 2014)
Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre, directed experimental plays, worked in Hollywood, and returned to New York to be artistic director of the Actors Studio.
Emotional recall was the basis for Strasberg, i.e. recalling physical sensations surrounding emotional events and incorporating them into the character. His organic process of creativity trained actors to use their imagination, senses and emotions in creating intense and realistic performances.
He said, “Method acting is what all actors have always done whenever they acted well.” (Lee Strasberg Biography.com, 2014)
Some successful 20th century actors trained by Strasberg were Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Alec Baldwin and Ellen Burstyn. His techniques also inspired Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi. Strasberg, himself perhaps is most famous for his role as Hyman Roth in 1972 drama “The Godfather” where he plays opposite his students, Pacino and Brando.
Three-time Oscar winner, Daniel Day-Lewis, is notorious for his method acting, extreme preparation, and even commits to living in the skin of each character. He felt that voice is a deep personal reflection of character of who we are, a fingerprint of the soul. He is a master of many accents and this is evident in this example below as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s, “Lincoln”, where he not only mastered an Illinois/Kentucky accent, but also possessed the long, lanky physicality of the president himself.
In singing with emotion one must understand that it is in vulnerability that the singer can communicate the lyrics to move listeners. By wearing your heart on your sleeve, the performance will sound authentic with the ability to link the emotion with the vocal sound. The singer must first listen to a song to feel and determine the main emotion, sing from the heart, feel the mood, and like Strasberg’s method, add one’s own natural emotion from one’s own experience in the performance. (Danz, 2010).
As the singer or actor matures, life experiences can make this attainable. In my experience, it is often difficult to teach younger students who have not yet experienced real-life situations and felt these emotions first hand to do this while feeling it in their bodies, showing it in their facial expressions and hearing it in their voices. A naive singer might have the most beautiful sounding voice, but in an audition, it is the young performer with the highest level of maturity that can combine the facial expression and emotion with the vocal tone that will be distinctive and get the part. This ability at a young age never ceases to amaze me.
Skilled vocalists express their emotion through technique. Some techniques are working with a vocal coach to train the voice, adding clarity by breaking down words into phonetics. Singers must learn how to control breath and clearly control vowels to impact emotional content. Finding the right sound, producing it, and creating mouth sounds to create different feels benefits the performer. Manipulating the voice by cracking, growling, and breathiness, for example, are additional ways in which to make a connection with the listener. Another technique is to practice building emotion by singing one word over and over in different ways. The end of Jared Leto’s Modern Myth video exemplifies this with the singing of the word “goodbye.” (Taylor, 2011).
Audiences respond to emoting, often thought of as the most significant part of singing, whereby the singer can relate the intensity of the music through facial expressions, body movement, and be seen as believable and authentic.
These three factors will enable the artist to connect with the listeners:
- The sound
- The song hook (the catchy bit, often the chorus)
- The emotional level of the performance (Fisher, 2014)
Here is a performance by method actor, Joaquin Phoenix in the movie “Walk the Line”, a biography of singer/songwriter Johnny Cash, directed and co-written by James Mangold, where Phoenix not only acts, but also sings in this video. His first attempt in performing for a record producer in a recording studio is lackluster and he is instructed by the producer to stop and sing with emotion and feeling so to be appealing to listeners for the purpose of selling records, similar to Strasberg’s emotional-memory exercise where Strasberg states, “in being able to recreate it, an actor can control the expression of emotions on stage”. The development of this skill will enable flexibility on stage. (Bial, 229). In relation to the video, the agent gives Phoenix’ character, Johnny Cash, an exemplar of a real-life situation to contemplate and asks him to try again.
Here is the video asking Johnny Cash to retry during his audition.
Here is the performance of Johnny Cash’s song, “Folsom Prison” sung with full emotion by actor, Joaquin Phoenix, as a retry in the audition.
Here is an iMovie experiment of a performer singing the old sea shanty, “Drunken Sailor”, using different emotions. Can you pinpoint each emotion that the singer is exemplifying?
What other emotions can you think of to change the affect of “Drunken Sailor”?
Bial, H. (2007). The Performance Study Reader (Second ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 229, 252.
Clarity. (2017). Successful Singing – Singing With Emotion. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from https://www.successfulsinging.com/learn-to-sing/singing-with-emotion/
Danz, T. (2010, September 1). 10 Ways to Sing it With Emotion. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from http://www.emusician.com/how-to/1334/10-ways-to-sing-it-with-emotion/43402
Fisher, J. (2014). Once More With Feeling – Singing and Emotion. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from http://vocalprocess.co.uk/singing-and-emotion/
Lee Strasberg Biography.com. (2014, July 8). Retrieved April 19, 2017, from http://www.biography.compeople/lee-strasberg-9496658
Leto, J. (Writer). (2006, June 29). 30 Seconds to Mars – A Modern Myth [Video file]. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evZKQKhxWlw
Mangold, J. (Director). (2005). Walk the Line [Video file]. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYP2EJb1nTQ
Shear, S. (Writer). (2014, April 25). Free Singing Lesson – Performing with Emotion [Video file]. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCQnRG0blOk
Speilberg, S. (Director). (2012). Lincoln [Video file]. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qjtugr2618
Taylor, K. (2011). Singing With Emotion. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from http://www.askavocalcoach.com/articles/singing-with-emotion/
Wright, K. (2014, August 26 ). 8 Acting Techniques (and the Stars Who Swear by Them). Retrieved April 19, 2017, from https://www.backstage.com/advice-for-actors/resources/8-acting-techniques-and-stars-who-swear-them/