"We were the first band in music history to be conducted by an ass." These were the words of drummer D.J. Fontana about Elvis Presley. And these words were not meant pejoratively, but quite literally. At the band's early performances with the later superstar, the audience was so loud and hysterical that the musicians could hear neither Elvis nor themselves. They therefore had to orientate themselves on Elvis' movements as a beat and impulse generator. The "ass" that led the band, that was the famous hip swing of the King of Rock 'n' Roll. It served to communicate, with the band and the audience. And communication is a key to stage presence.
A voice or a singer is "present" when it captures the attention of the audience in the here and now. Being fully present - captivating, entertaining and inspiring the audience: that is stage presence. How does that work? Instead of looking for general criteria, it is sometimes more helpful to look at a few good examples. An older, but still good example of stage presence we see here: Elvis' live performance of "Suspicious Minds" in 1970.
Stage Presence & Entertainment
Although Elvis had a style all his own, we can learn a lot from his performance: the cheering for the band, the particularly close communication with the drummer, the glances into the audience. He doesn't stay in one place for long, but moves all over the stage. Try it out: Take up more space on stage. Go to the left, sing to one or two people from your audience there, go to the right, go to your musicians who are playing, or sit down on a monitor box in between. If you have fun and enjoy moving around on stage, then by all means incorporate this into your stage performance. You will see: the audience will join in because your fun will be transmitted to everyone.
Elvis does even more. The song follows a predictable, set sequence, has verses, chorus, middle section, but Elvis breaks the pattern with unexpected actions. The unexpected captures the audience's attention. And humour. One moment Elvis sets himself up dramatically, but a moment later takes himself back and laughs. People come to a live concert to be entertained. Even if your songs may be serious and sombre, it's ultimately about entertainment.
Error culture & safety
Did you notice in the video that things go wrong in between? The performance is by no means perfect, the band, including Elvis, make mistakes. But that doesn't matter, on the contrary: it creates closeness. Perfection, the fear of making mistakes, maybe not getting a high note, that makes many singers insecure on stage or inhibits them. The result: the insecurity is transferred to the audience, they feel uncomfortable and turn away inwardly. But don't worry. Even the biggest stars have made mistakes, maybe you didn't even notice: Elvis also 'sang' one of those tricky high notes in the video. The lesson is: Work on your performancebut be good to yourself and allow yourself to make mistakes. Not just once, but many times. That's the only way we learn and become better.
Making a song your own
Preparing for a song is not just about being able to sing it well vocally. Songs tell a story, and the audience comes to a live concert to hear a good story. So before a singer steps in front of her audience with a song, she has to ask herself: Why do I want to sing this song? How much of myself is in the lyrics of the song? What do I want to share with my audience or give them as a message?
Let's say our singer wants to sing the song "Suspicious Minds" and asks herself these questions. She might sing the beginning of the song very differently from Elvis, because the words "caught in a trap" and "can't walk out" have a very different resonance in her personal experiences. Maybe her feelings about it are such that she wants to sing those words in a very restrained, introspective way, maybe her voice will be full of impotent rage when the part comes: "we can't go on together with suspicious minds", or something else entirely. If she makes the song her own, it becomes her very own, in other words, her "authentic" interpretation.
An example of how to do it differently from Elvis and still be "magical" and captivating is singer Beth Gibbons of Portishead. She remains static behind her microphone and stages herself with nothing more than a cigarette and her expressive voice. Here she is with her song "Glory Box":
The next step in developing a song is: rehearse, rehearse a lot. Make recordings of yourself, preferably video recordings, watch them, get feedback and rehearse again. It is also helpful to involve a vocal coach in the process in order to support and secure the song interpretation through good vocal technique. Such comprehensive preparation helps a singer to appear before his audience with a sense of confidence. If he is convinced of what he is singing and how he is getting his message across, the stage presence will follow. The audience will be spellbound.
Like good stories, songs have an arc of suspense, a dramaturgical structure that holds the audience's attention from beginning to end. It results from the singer's intense personal involvement with the lyrics of his song. If you feel like it, take another look at a masterpiece of such dramaturgical staging at the end: Elvis Presley with the title "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'". One of the highlights of the song is the soulful alternating vocals between Elvis and the Sweet Inspirations, the African-American backing group in the band. Apropos: Even the mother of the great Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, sang with them for a while. The Sweet Inspirations were an integral part of the Elvis Presley show until the very end. Here is the video:
Sing a Song - Be Happy!