After a recent performance, my friend J. told me that I was keeping my eyes closed too much while I sang. “You have expressive eyes,” J. said, “and when you sing with your eyes closed, it’s the same thing as turning your back on us, the audience! You have to give us more of yourself!”
It’s awfully scary to gaze into a sea of strangers (or, even more terrifying, close friends) and sing for them. “I close my eyes to hear the music better,” I replied, a bit peeved. But I was forced to acknowledge (to myself, anyway) that closing my eyes isn’t really about looking cool or hearing the music better. It’s a way to put a barrier between my fears and the audience. And my friend called me out on it. As a singer, I was being selfish, plain and simple.
In the weeks following J.’s loving admonition, I’ve been thinking a lot about generosity and what it means to really give as a performer. Then, I serendipitously stumbled upon an episode of Elvis Costello’s TV show, Spectacle. Tony Bennett was the guest, and just listening to him speak was a lesson in giving.
Tony told Elvis about his love of the Great American Songbook. “This isn’t old music,” said Tony, “it’s great music.” He went on to say that that demographics, while very important to record labels, don’t interest him; he sings for the whole family. Tony was ardent in his respect for the great American composers, like Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Ellington, Kern, and Arlen.Believing that American schools should have flourishing arts programs, Tony founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens. When discussing this extraordinarily generous act, he preferred to focus on the achievements of his students and the power of creative expression to transform lives.
Tony had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement. When Elvis Costello asked him about it, Tony said simply, “I thought everyone should’ve been there,” then spoke about his belief that, one day, human beings would see that peace is truly possible. His faith and optimism were humbling.
Elvis asked Tony to sing. Tony obliged, prefacing his performance by saying that the real reason he was appearing on Spectacle was to introduce the world to Bill Charlap, a hugely respected jazz pianist who is not well known outside the jazz community. He continued to laud Charlap the rest of the show. I mean, isn’t that amazing? Tony Bennett, one of the most legendary singers of all time, made a television appearance and spent a great deal of his airtime singing the praises of his accompanist.
With exquisite accompaniment by Bill Charlap, Tony sang “The Way You Look Tonight.” Now, I’ve heard that song a million times. I’ve sung it at weddings, regarding it as a sweet piece of nostalgia. But I’d never really heard “The Way You Look Tonight” until I heard Tony Bennett sing it.
Even through the television screen, it felt like Tony was singing right to me. No–it felt like we were having an intimate conversation. His smile and sparkling eyes told the song’s story as much as his singing. Every gesture, every nuance, was in service to the music. At the song’s conclusion, he threw his arms open, as if to embrace the audience. Tony Bennett gave himself entirely to the song, then gave the song to us.
It’s so easy to let fear–of mistakes, of inadequacy, of just plain not being liked–override our basic human generosity. But giving of ourselves always feels better than giving in to our fear, which is just another way of saying “ego.”
Thank you, J., for telling me that I need to open my eyes and be more generous when I sing. And thank you, Tony Bennett, for opening my eyes and showing me what generous singing really is.