Limp Arms and Fourth Walls

A number of years ago, I heard the great operatic baritone, Håken Hagegård, speak and remember well his topic, as it was startling. He described how he operates during a performance. Having heard him at Lincoln Center sing the famous Schubert song cycle “Winterreise”, which was gorgeous but truly chilling, I could only say that he ranks amongst the finest singer/actors I have ever witnessed, and I was eager to hear his talk.

I can’t quote him exactly but the gist of his message was that he sings to the audience. He said that if someone falls asleep in the 7th row, he sings to the people next to that person, looking directly at them, until they wake up the guilty party. (Which he said they always do!) He wants to bring the song to each and every person in the audience. At his school in Stockholm, “HåkeGården”, they train young singers an actors in all kinds of approaches to performance so that they can capture an audience. The ability to do that is a GIFT.


If you are in New York and you want to study acting, sooner or later you will encounter the version of Stanislavski’s training for actors called The Method, as all of the great acting schools here were started by one of his disciples (Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and others) and that’s pretty much all there is here to study, (unless you bump into someone teaching Shakespeare). In any one of these training programs, you find out in short order that there is no audience. There are the three walls of the stage and the fourth wall separating the performers from the audience — the fourth wall that would be there in a room in real life.

There are other things you learn. Actors “practice the craft of acting”. They must be “organic”. They do not “act” or “portray” emotions. They must always be specific, and they must NEVER EVER play to the audience or try to entertain.

Singers are encouraged in these schools to sing with their arms hanging limply at their sides and move only when the “movement arises from within”. In the act of standng there like a wet noodle, waiting for some overwhelming urge to move to overtake you like a Tsunami, you are taught to disconnect from the very impulse that would help you get where you need to go. The body becomes a mast and the arms become the unfurled, empty sails. Stanislavski never intended that.

The incongruity of singing an animated song with a droopy body doesn’t seem to bother anyone at these schools but it surely bothers me. Singing as if all emotion was experienced from the neck up is unnatural, but that is often what I see in students. In an effort to get these young people to be calm and believable, the fact that they are standing up in front of an audience, who came to be moved and entertained, is deliberately thrown out. Theatricality is considered a sin.

Irving Berlin and his contemporaries wrote lots of songs for Vaudeville. The songs were done by great performers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Phil Harris, George Burns, and Beatrice Lillie, Fanny Brice, and May West….entertainers all. Most of them went on to have successful careers in film and on TV and my guess is that NONE of them had any interest in a fourth wall. Look at old shows of Ethel Merman singing to a full house. She knew how to “put a song over”. No fourth wall there.

When I sing I know who, what, where, when and why I am singing any particular song, but I also know I am singing to an audience, and I want to bring the song to them, just like Hågen Hagegård. There is a time and a place for the “fourth wall” but it isn’t in a vaudeville tune from Tin Pan Alley. I don’t want to stand there waiting for my arms to move, and I don’t want to sing to my mental image of something that is so personal that I cause the person in the fifth row to wonder who I’m staring at in the distance. I don’t want my students to do that either, but when I guide them to perform, I meet resistance. It isn’t what they are trained to do, or to respect.

I have great admiration for the actors of our time who have been trained in “the method” and who have left an indelible mark on theater, film and TV, and there are many. If, however, I was sending my son or daughter to a school to learn how to sing well enough to go out after school was over and work in Show Business, I would want that child to know how to sing to and for the audience. If they can’t do that, they won’t get a job. That’s reality, not academia. If you remember any singer in your life whose performance was compelling it wasn’t because they stood and sang with their arms hanging limply at their sides while they hid behind an imaginary fourth wall.

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