To Gesture or Not to Gesture. That Is the Question
February 29, 2016
A gesture or movement during performance should seem natural. There are vocalists through whom music courses. Valerie Simpson can appear to be puppeted by rhythm and feeling. She struts, bends, punches the air…you get the idea. The result is an infectious uniting of her audience. During a blues number, the veteran folds in and/or lashes out with less expansive, but equally strong visuals. Relationship to what she’s singing is authentic.
Swing material sometimes evokes the punctuation of a sharp move or two, representing exuberance, letting off steam. Something waltzy might elicit a sway.
The great Marilyn Maye uses her arms/hands as if breathing the lyric through them. She doesn’t physically touch her heart or snap her fingers, yet achieves the same results. We catch our collective breath or bounce with her. Maye also occupies the entire stage, in part to include everyone, in part because her feet catch the spirit.
On the flip side, I’ve seen a successful musical theater actress with a fine vocal instrument sing otherwise evocative Brazilian songs standing completely still, ruining selections with utter lack of sensual comprehension. Even a bit of hip action would’ve helped. And I’ve seen a young performer with a well-written tribute show who shied away from teasing sexuality that might’ve made it a home run. (If you know who you are, go see Carole J. Bufford.) We believe what we see more than what we hear. Your body is as much an instrument as your voice. It should reflect emotion.
Start with less is more. Many young performers err on the side of hands that never stop moving or stock gestures that repeat in every song. This merely distracts. I’ve watched a balladeer move an entire club sitting on a stool, lifting his hand from his knee once or twice, letting it curl into a fist and open. You could’ve heard a pin drop. Those small gestures were an extension of the feeling poured into his vocal. The hand moved because it had to.
Watch out for the refuge of pockets. Singing a torch song with your hand in your pocket will probably kill it no matter how good you are. The same thing occurs if the number is joyful. Casual physical attitude diminishes effect unless the song is insouciant/flip or perhaps wistful.
Tony Bennett uses one arm to extend a phrase or mark openness, little else. YouTube Sinatra. Remember that Mabel Mercer did it sitting down!