‘Tis better to give.

Exhibit B: Eyes Closed.

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!”

Exhibit A: Eyes Closed.

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.

Exhibit C: Eyes Closed. Okay, so he had a point.

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.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts

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.

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6 thoughts on “‘Tis better to give.

  1. It’s funny. I get the same criticism quite frequently from those who are near and dear to me. I really do try to concentrate on keeping my eyes open and connecting with the audience, but then I find myself disconnecting with the music, so I panic for a second and then close my eyes to find my place in my interpretation, phrasing, improvising, etc. It’s apparently really difficult for me to do both in that genre. However, I noticed that during my classical recital, my eyes were open the whole time. Perhaps that’s because I was holding to the tried and true “always look above the audience, to a place in your mind” classical singer thing, so there was still a barrier, even with my eyes open. Not sure where I’m going with this, but let’s just say that I have a hard time scatting with my eyes open, and am not sure how to remedy it. Lovely blog, by the way, my dear.

    • I SO hear you about the classical stuff. I never mastered looking over people’s heads at an imaginary place “in my mind,” as you say. It always felt so contrived and odd. Somehow, with jazz and jazz-based stuff, it feels easier to sing “to” and “for” the audience in a more immediate way. I’m thinking it’s because I’m not in character the way I had to be doing classical stuff. But it’s still a real challenge! It’s SO NAKED. And, while I don’t do much scatting, when I do improvise a bit, it helps me to close my eyes, too. Shutting off one sense (sight) helps my ears do a better job. Anyway, thank you for reading & understanding & sharing your experience, too! xo

  2. What I see Tony Bennett doing is acting, emoting, gesturing, communicating, feeling and connecting with the music, with his artfully collaborative pianist Bill Charlap, and with his audience. Tony may close his eyes briefly from time to time, but it is always in relation to the lyrics. He holds the microphone near his chest rather than let it obscure his smile. He waits until the last moment to move and come back in at the bridge, as if he wants the audience to listen to every last note of Bill’s solo. Tony is a singer for the stage who can fill a concert hall with his voice and can communicate through body language all the way to the back row. Singing with eyes closed and a microphone in front of your mouth is more accepted in intimate settings with delicate music. That being said, improvising with eyes closed seems to be common regardless of the context. Perhaps when thinking less about words and meaning and more about notes and harmony one becomes more introverted. However, as a pianist, I find more inspiration if I don’t stare at my own hands or close my eyes but rather try and connect with the other musicians. I’d say if it’s hard to look at the audience start with looking at your collaborators. They have a lot to give too.

    • Lots of insightful stuff, here, Ben. Thank you for reading & sharing your thoughts! I thought Tony’s mic technique was interesting, too, by the way. He’s such a master of using the microphone to create intimacy, then backing away from it for more dramatic moments.

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