In an article in today’s New York Times Rosanne Cash is quoted, I like restraint. I like expression that’s framed in restraint, that gives a certain dignity to it. I don’t like this kind of yelping, where everybody’s’ a victim and everything’s all out there. To me there’s a bottom line that there is a life lived in the back of the instrument, and I want to hear what that life is.
As performers we want to be emotionally honest, but sometimes we leave no room for the audience to have their own emotional reactions to the song because we’re too busy with our emotional reactions. We want every moment to bleed with our emotional truth so much that we forget to leave space for the audience to meet us halfway. That’s where restraint comes in. There are times when what you leave out is as important as what you put in.
It is easy to ruin a song before the first note just by how it is set up for an audience. Talking to the audience is as much an art as singing to them, and can be much more frightening. Some singers get around this by simply not saying anything, which is no good because you’re denying people an opportunity to get to know and love you. But at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s the “Ick Factor”. Some things belong only in a therapist’s office or a confessional, not on stage. When the stage becomes the analyst’s couch the results are usually disastrous. The audience spends so much time trying to unhear what they just heard that the song following doesn’t even register.
Restraint when singing is even more difficult. Singers work hard on our “chops” and we want to show them off, and that doesn’t always serve us well. Bigger, faster, louder, more melismatic, doesn’t necessarily mean we’re effectively telling the story. Again, Ms. Cash You’ve heard plenty of great singers that leave you cold. They can do gymnastics, amazing things. If you have limitations as a singer, maybe you’re forced to find nuance in a way you don’t have to if you have a four octave range. There is such power in finding the nuance, and letting the song breathe. Stepping aside and letting the story shine through without all the “gymnastics” is enough.
When we exercise we restraint we make conscious choices about the picture we’re painting with words and music. We begin to see the music in front of us in a new way, illuminating the human being within and drawing our audience in into that space in the middle where wonderful things can happen.