Mind Talk: It's good to listen

Part I - The Inner Monologue
How to sing moment to moment so your song's character walks off the score and into the hearts and minds of your audience.   

As you read this sentence, focus on what your mind is saying. Listen to it.  What conversation is it having with you? 

Is it feeding you expectations; like the hope of finding some good tips to apply to the repertoire you are currently working on? Or perhaps it's waiting to find a point of disagreement?  Maybe it's reminding you that you need to do a task, or worry about something?  But whatever your mind is telling you, it is linked to an intention - you want something. 

Even when engaged in this blog activity, your mind is talking.  Every day, from waking to sleeping, our mind is in dialogue with us.  When we answer the phone, pause in our own speech, listen to someone, or are somewhere on our own, our mind throws us lists of questions and ideas ranging from weekly shopping lists to the hopes and fears of the future.  Even in our sleep, our mind doesn't stop talking; we call these moments, dreams.

When in character on stage, the believability of the actor or singer's portrayal stems from how human the characterisation appears.  If one of the things that makes us human is our mind talk, then it figures that to create a characterisation that is three dimensional, something the audience can connect to as real, we therefore need to re-create our mind talk.  

Stanislavski described mind talk as follows:

"In a play the author provides the dialogue, the things we say, but we need to create the Inner Monologue, the thoughts that lie behind them.  In life, action and thought are simultaneous.  In a play, this mental activity has to be [consciously] created for each character."  Jean Bendetti: Stanislavski and the Actor: The Method of Physical Action, p57-58

And he saw our mental activity as being made up of two things:
1. mind talk - the things we tell ourselves (the inner monologue)
2. the images we see (mental images)

We'll be looking at mental images in the next blog post, but for now, let's stay with the present and explore the inner monologue.

The 5 steps of creating an inner monologue
Song and opera repertoire offers us an interpretative gift, because the score provides the triggers for the inner monologue. Every piano or orchestral interlude, rest and pause is feeding us interpretative information.  Here's a handy five step guide to take you through the process:

1. Who are you and what do you want?
Go through the text and score, and find out what the given circumstances are.  
a. What does the character want? (overall objective)
b. What will stop the character getting what they want? (character's obstacle)
c. What decisions or events help the character achieve what they want? (actions)

2. Location, location, location
Go through the score and highlight every piano/orchestral interlude, pause and rest.  And also include the silence at the beginning and end of the piece.  These are the points where the character's inner monologue emerges and interlinks with the score. 

3. Label it
For each section that you have identified as inner monologue, use the 'magic if' exercise by asking yourself what the character might be thinking in order to say the words.  These thoughts must help the character achieve their objective or feed their obstacle.  To find the answers to this, look to the score. What clues does it give in terms of texture, harmony, dynamics, melody, motif, orchestration? Then give a name or action to each section.  For example - doubt, success, mother, first love, betrayal, breathe, etc..

4. Improvise
Now that the content of each section of the inner monologue is understood, it's time to make it real.  Play the accompaniment and speak/physicalise the inner monologue by improvising around the name and actions you have just created.  This helps you to understand in time and space, how long the thought needs to be.  Once you've played with this and got to know the length and speed of the character's thoughts, move on to number 5.

5. Make it invisible
What we're very good at as human beings is reading expressions, situations, atmospheres and environnments.  It's how we survive; we're natural detectives.  So now it's time to allow the audience to find these thoughts between the bar lines and stave.
a. Say the inner monologue and sing the melody.
b. think the inner monologue and sing the song.
This process helps put the inner monologue back where it belongs: inside.
In your private practice, don't demonstrate the inner monologue, it must always remain below the surface. Once you've built the co-ordination up between thinking through the bar lines, you will find that all the hard work becomes invisible, leaving the audience's senses to find the thoughts.

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A working example of the 5 steps
Here's a quick example of this process using a section of Die Junge Nonne by Schubert:
In this courageous lied, the young nun is concerned that she will not be able to make it as a Nun.  The extract below is at the point in the song when the Nun starts to doubt her ability to live a good and chaste life.  When this happens, her past sins start to overwhelm her Faith.

1. Who are you and what do you want?
Overall Objective: To live her life as a nun
Obstacle: The bad luck, shame and earthly temptations of her previous life overwhelming her
Actions: Reasons it out, looks to her faith, puts her past behind her by accepting who she was.

2, Location, Location, Location
See score extract where the red boxes are these.  These indicate a location.

3. Label it
See score extract and explanations below:

Doubt
The descending bass seeds moments of doubt.  All is not well and good - it's a cover up.

The Murky Past
The ascending bass line mimics the nun's past life catching her up.  The tremelo of the storm symbolising the shame of her past.

4. Improvise
Possible improvisation of these sections might throw up the following ideas:

Doubt
Possible thoughts in reaction to 'all is well and good':  It's not though is it?  Stop covering up?  Who are you kidding? Will God save me? It's all useless.

The Murky Past
Possible thoughts in reaction to her past lurking in the shadows:  Stop chasing me.  That stupid affair/crime/betrayal, etc..  Leave me alone.   I don't want to keep looking over my shoulder.

The rest of Step 4 and Step 5 
To be continued in the practice room.

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Final thoughts
This exercise isn't easy.  It asks for focused thought, creative thinking and some pretty hefty co-ordination of the mind and body.  But for the pursuit of truth and the communication of what it is to be human, the adventure is worth it. 

What is important to me is not the truth outside myself, but the truth within myself.  Stanislavski


References:
Lead Illustration: check out the fantastic work of Tara Jacoby here 
Benedetti, Jean: Stanislavski and the Actor: The Method of Physical Action
Franz Schubert, Die Jonge Nonne, First Vocal Album, Schirmer
Black and White Photograph: Stanislavski at work.  For more information about Stanislavski, go here

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