When American singer Beyoncé was in her 20’s she would embody an alter ego named ‘Sasha Fierce’ when performing on stage. This invented personality, she claimed, was separate from her everyday ‘shy self’. Sasha would perform in stiletto boots, skin-tight leotards and bejewelled gloves; Beyoncé described her as ‘sexual’, ‘sassy’ ‘confident’, ‘powerful’ and’ ‘free’. So integral was this artistic duality for performance that in 2008 Beyoncé released an entire album dedicated to this alias entitled ‘I am…Sasha Fierce’, which later went on to win 6 Grammy’s and several ‘People’s Choice’ Awards.
Though embodying an alter ego a la Beyoncé might initially seem ridiculously far-fetched – especially for a musician who doesn’t perform in stadiums while dancing in gold sequence—such techniques are by no means new to the world of performance coaching. Back in the 1980’s (when Beyoncé would have been just a kid), Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey co-wrote The Inner Game of Music, a guidebook to help musicians ‘reach a new level of musical performance’. In their chapter on techniques for ‘letting go’ they suggest that you try role playing in order to ‘allow yourself to access more of your hidden musicianship’.
One such exercise from the book asks you to pretend to be your favourite virtuoso performer by playing in the way that person would do. The trick in this exercise is that the goal isn’t about recreating the sounds of the person being role played but to capture the physical expression instead. In fact, Gallwey and Green tell the performer to imagine that they are being filmed as a ‘stand-in’ and the sound doesn’t matter because it will be dubbed over later by the virtuoso. In other words, it’s only the way that the performance looks that counts–for example, the walk on stage, the breath, the posture when playing, the mannerisms, the final bow, etc.
The first time I tried this exercise with my flute students in a performance class, I was flabbergasted. Fergus was a 58-year-old student of mine who suffered from tremendous nerves and was usually uncomfortable playing in front of anyone—his weekly lessons with me included. By embodying James Galway—his favourite flautist—Fergus’ hesitant, wobbly tone and shaky lips disappeared; he walked on stage with a gusto that I’d never seen before; he had no trouble filling the room with sounds of a Bach minuet that were unlike his ‘usual’ playing. The results were unquestionable.
Over the past years since the Fergus experience, I have expanded this exercise to have students embody other characters beyond virtuoso performers. Instead—and perhaps similar to Beyoncé’s ‘Sasha’–I have students channel an ‘alter ego’ that represents a side of their personality that they wished appeared more in their music-making. Secondly, to make stepping into this role more tangible I have students wear an item that their alter ego would also wear when playing.
For example, my student Elsie’s alter ego was ‘Lula’, a 1980’s American diva who had Aqua-net styled bangs, a loud laugh and sported a chunky silver belt and 4-inch heels. Lula represented unabashed freedom, spontaneity, and ‘having more fun’ while playing.
For Jed, an exhausted new dad, his alter ego was simply a more relaxed version of himself– but on holiday in the Caribbean. A relaxed Jed wanted to feel ‘creatively open, to have head space and a sense of complete calm no matter what was happening around him’. His wearable item was a plush terry cloth bathrobe.
As you learn to channel deeper parts of your musicianship you will realise that because we are complicated souls there are multiple sides (and characters) to our beings that are still waiting to be unearthed.
Want to try this exercise for yourself?
Tools you will need:
- An open mind.
- An item that you will wear to represent your alter ego.
- Two different areas in your practice space that could work as an ‘on stage’ and an ‘off- stage’
- A video recording device of any kind (your smart phone, for example).
- Someone to be your audience (not necessary, but it helps to have additional feedback).
Here’s how it works
Step 1. Press ‘record’. Step onto your ‘stage’ as your ‘everyday’ self. Play all the notes in your music as perfectly as you can and really ‘try to get it right’. Pay attention to your tone, phrasing, posture, rhythms, breathing, etc.
Step 2. Now go ‘off stage’ and put on your chosen item that represents your alter ego because you are now that character.
Step 3. Start recording again.
Walk out onto your stage as if you were that persona. If it’s Elsie’s ‘Lula’ you might be confidently smiling to your crowd, shoulders back as if you owned the stage. If you’re Jed, you might be walking deliberately as if not a care could phase you and looking like you’re at peace with the world, breathing slowly and deeply.
Step 4. Now you need to play the same music as you did in the first recording using the same gestures that your alter ego would make. Don’t forget: it’s only the visual cues that matter, no one cares about the sound as you have to imagine that whatever you play will be dubbed over later.
Step 5: Watch the recording you made in Step 4 only. Did your gestures fully embody your alter ego? If you were to turn off the sound could you tell that you were channelling another persona? For example, did you forget to look confident as you entered the stage? Twitch nervously when adjusting the music stand? Fiddle with your head joint too much? Make an annoyed face when you missed a note? Look apologetic when you bowed?
It has been my experience that most students need to go back and repeat Step 4 again to make their alter ego’s gestures more convincing. If this was the case, don’t forget to record this one, too.
Step 6: Watch all of the recordings you have made from Step 1- Step 5, one after another. Take stock of what you witness. Here’s the magical bit —did you hear any differences in your playing, however small (or perhaps, not so small) across the recordings you made? What were they? Is there any golden moments that you could use here for future ‘real’ performances? How about any gestures that looked especially confident?
Of course, any positive changes to your music performance from the place of your alter ego you could simply put down to good ‘acting’– but don’t discount the fact that you are still the one playing the music.
Will you have to access an alter ego forever to evoke such freedom in your playing? Not necessarily. Maybe it’s still a hidden part of you that you haven’t fully explored in your music-making that needs to come to light.
For example, Beyoncé reported that she eventually ‘killed off’ Sasha Fierce back in 2010 because she ‘didn’t need her anymore’. As she matured she was finally able to merge Sasha’s sassy characteristics and her ‘everyday’ self to ‘fully own’ her musicianship. Similarly, the moment we are able to unite the full range of emotions that represent the colourful spectrum of our beautiful, complicated, messy and multi-layered selves is the same moment we can offer profoundly deep musical performances.
Now let’s talk about you. What part of you is waiting to be expressed? What would your alter ego be? What would this character wear? What would they represent in your own playing? Feel free to share in the comments below.