Gesture

Every singer, actor and anyone who doesn’t have their hands full on stage, struggles with what to do with them. Should they hang down straight? Should they point and lead? Should they give visual cues as to the words being sung or spoken? Should they be cut off? How easily they can be underused, overused, and simply misused. How to hold the hands isn’t always taught in voice classes, but it is taught in the theater.

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The hand, attached to the arm, gloved or bare, is as expressive and sensual a thing as the eyes and mouth for the performer who knows how to use them. The important thing is that the entire limb, from shoulder to middle finger be completely relaxed. Then if one opts to stand with the arms hanging down along one’s side, or held as in prayer, or secured behind the back, or used to accentuate a word or a part of the body, or to beckon and otherwise gesticulate, it will be natural.

Intention is the key behind my gesture. I may make it look spontaneous, and sometimes it is, but often there is forethought and intention behind it. A part of my artistic head, separate of the one concentrating on making good sounds, is actually calling out the moves seconds before they happen. This is how they can be remembered later as successes or failures.

Gesture is a risky thing. It can easily steal focus and interfere with the music and the rest of the scene. Less is always more. An audience is accustomed to seeing a trained singer hold her arms at her side. Everything else is extra. If she has good gesture, it’s called a nice touch. If she has exceptionally good gesture, it’s called style. It’s part of her overall “package” – her mystique – and people will attend performances for it alone. 

Gesture is the reason that I, when singing with a microphone, prefer one that is standing to one I must hold in my hand. At a standing microphone my hands are free to be used as tools in my song, extensions of my spirit, my heart and my intelligence. When I do use a handheld mic, whether corded or cordless, I make it an extension of my hand. It is invisible. It draws no attention to itself and simply moves with me. I don’t wave it around but keep it close to my body, relaxed. I have no death-grip on it. It is my friend, my link to the one up in the booth whose own artistry in sound brings another element to my work.

Experience is no guarantee of great gesture. I am thinking right now of a few world-class singers I know who can stilted and clumsy with regard to their gesture. Their limbs flop about as though the strings to which they were attached were severed from above. It is disheartening in so much as it distracts from an otherwise beautiful presentation and truly good vocalizing.

If you struggle with gesture, go the dancers, go to the actors – the movement artists – and study with them. In trade, teach them how to tell the truth, in words.

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About Karen Kohler

Born in Frankfurt and raised in New York, Karen began her professional music career in Austin. Since returning to NYC in 2001, she has been a leading exponent of the cabaret arts as performer, director, producer and historian. Her performances blend multiple genres - classical, cabaret, jazz, blues and folk-rock - in six languages. She is founder of the award-winning ensemble, Kabarett Kollektif, and producer of Kabarett Fete, a celebrated international cabaret festival. Karen gives private lessons and conducts master classes in stagecraft, the art of public speaking and creativity coaching. View all posts by Karen Kohler

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