Midwest Cabaret Conference, by Guest Blogger Andrew Harmon


“Don’t you sing that note!”

Echoing. These words. A week later…

Earlier this week, on Facebook, the teacher, songwriter, and entertainer Lina Koutrakos wrote that she couldn’t “pussy-foot around” or “poo-poo” the meaning of this “confusing sub-culture of the arts to many people,” this thing called cabaret. “Cabaret only means singing honestly and authentically,” she wrote. “It means having the courage to be human — on purpose — and then crafting the skill to give that to others in elegant abundance.”

I have a past in the art form going back to the open mic opportunities I took in college in Manhattan in the early ’90s, when my friends and I would hit the downstairs piano bar of Rose’s Turn in the West Village every Friday night. More recently, I’ve performed in a few showcases over the past decade, including with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC, and as part of the CHAWbaret fund-raiser for the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. In that same time as well, I’ve seen shows featuring friends of mine, many of whom I’ve sung with elsewhere.

But I never made a routine of performing in cabaret open-mic nights or developing shows of my own or appearing in others’ shows. And as much as I appreciated being a part of something meaningful, I seemed to remain in the shadow of the “confusing sub-culture of the arts” rather than seeing clearly in its light. I used to ask myself why these singers went to such lengths to slow down lines the way they did, speak words instead of sing them, and go on with such… drama.

Then those words came to me … and stuck. “Don’t you sing that note!” In fact, they came from Lina herself. They came as I struggled to maintain my pitch and preserve my dignity on stage while tears stung my eyes and my voice broke. I was trying to sing when singing was not what I meant. Afraid that I’d seem rough and unentertaining, and horrendously uncomfortable at feeling emotionally exposed in front of other people in such an intimate setting, I learned that the emotions I fought desperately to contain were the very thing Lina (figuratively) reached inside me to pull out for the audience to see. And feel.

Cabaret is scary. And exhilarating. And a triumph!

A week ago today, 20 students, including three of us from the DC area, entered into Davenport’s Piano Bar in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago to begin three days of intensive training … or as some in the class debated early on, intense training. We participated in the fourth annual Midwest Cabaret Conference. Co-founders Lina Koutrakos and Rick Jensen, both New Yorkers, were joined by Chicagoan Beckie Menzie and the legendary actress, songwriter and cabaret star Amanda McBroom, who came to Chicago from California. The students came from as far as Palm Springs and New York City and joined several Chicago-based cabaret performers. We brought songs. We told stories. The master teachers gave us feedback, encouragement, critique, and pressure.

They also gave us the gift of their own talents. Our first night together, we were treated to two full-on cabaret shows, first the formidable Lina with Rick, then the divine Amanda with Beckie. For someone who had lived so long in the shadow of this “confusing sub-culture of the arts,” finally I could see and hear exactly what each of these gifted and longtime entertainers brought to the stage.

As a first-timer, I marveled at each master teacher’s ability to deconstruct each song and each performer, even if the song was obscure or unknown or if, like me, they hadn’t worked with the singer before. During sessions, each student had the opportunity to perform a song of his or her choosing once all the way through. Then the teachers would take each part of the song and not necessarily just tell the student how to handle it. They would ask the student constantly about their motivations and their feelings. “Who are you singing this song to?” they’d ask. “What has just happened as you begin this song?” The underlying meaning for the singer didn’t have to be literal or closely connected to the song’s content. It had to connect with the spirit of the song. If it was a song about seduction, who was your target? If it was about loss, who (or what) did you lose? If it was defiance, who was that person from whom you were wresting back control of yourself and your destiny? In the end, it was about how the song translates to the audience by way of your interpretation.

Not a single student was spared a moment of clarity and feeling, from the beginners like me to those with years of experience behind them. I kept hearing things like “don’t fade on me” (i.e., don’t become an actor behind a mask in this song) or “don’t you sing precious here” (i.e., whispery, with no diaphragm support). In my case, it was Lina’s words: “Don’t you sing that note!”

I realized it right away. Don’t take a line that has a deep meaning, maybe even an important turn in the song’s lyrical path, and make it “pretty,” as if the magma underneath it doesn’t matter or needs to be smoothed over in order to please the audience or prove what a good, disciplined singer you are. If that line is authentic to you and if singing seems trite or just untenable, say the line. More importantly, feel the line. Don’t sacrifice your feelings so that what you’re singing loses its power. Your song means something specific, even if your connection to it isn’t literal. Bring out that meaning. Bring out the emotion. Your audience will pay attention to you, and the more of your inner self those people get, the more they will love what you’ve given them.

As I think on it, I realize now that it’s similar to a friendship or a romance. Ideally, you’re not being embraced simply because you look good or sound good or say (or sing) all the right things. You’re embraced because you are the unique, feeling person you are. Your life experience and the art that inspires you don’t have to be the same as those of your audience members, fellow singers or anyone else. You bring yourself to this game, and that’s your strongest asset, with or without the vocal coaching, the voice major or the degree (or resumé) in musical theatre. Not only is this a beautiful thought. It makes for beautiful moments, many of which I saw all weekend long.

Every student transformed in front of my eyes, their performances growing a little more biting, a little more sorrowful, a little more joyous, a little deeper below the surface.

There were other lessons, such as adaptability when working with a music director, considering different tempos, styles and even key signatures when working on a new song. Beckie Menzie, an accomplished songwriter, accompanist and cabaret singer, prides herself on “bastardizing the Great American Songbook,” taking a standard and switching the dial perhaps just a hair off your familiar level, in turn making it something that feels new. She can take a song like the Arlen-Gershwin-Harburg number “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block,” which I performed fairly faithfully in the DCCN Membership Showcase last March, and make it pensive, minor-driven, even melancholic, or she can make it insistent or subversive.

Rick Jensen taught me — showed me, really — the charged moments on stage, when there’s an electricity bridging the accompanist and the singer, even to the point of improvisation, when a song becomes just a little more than what the singer thought it had become already. I did Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” another one I’d sung during March’s showcase, and it went from the contemplative, quietly desperate pleading of a man at the tail-end of his youth to the woman he loves — at least as it felt in March — to a powerful crescendo of emotion, the wail of a man perhaps not so desperate, but determined, confident and yearning to free that woman from her own placid life. Rick brought out more of the rock and roll that Springsteen infused so naturally into the song, and that in turn generated electricity throughout the room. In the past 12 years I’ve sung in choruses and chamber ensembles, including very solid, emotive solos, and even with some very nice moments in cabaret already, I never felt so profoundly connected to a song as I did singing “Thunder Road” in front of those students…

…then in front of an audience. Each student performed a single song for a showcase last Sunday night for Chicago’s cabaret community. If I thought my own experience was powerful, I almost can’t find the words to tell you how it felt to see so many of these people I had only a few days to get to know transform from tentative singers, as this workshop launched, to the poised, confident entertainers they became. As I was told would be the case, it turns out I learned more from watching them than I did from experiencing it myself. From comedy to seduction to inspiration to desperation, from Broadway to jazz to country to rock, that audience experienced a wide spectrum of music, all brought into the realm of the “confusing sub-culture of the arts,” this thing called cabaret.

Of course, all this that I’m saying many of you know and have known for years. You’ve dedicated more of your life to this art form than I have. What purpose, then, is there in trying to create new tread over well-laid tracks? All I can tell you is that, the way it looked to me, even the most experienced singers had breakthroughs, eyes reddening as the song’s lyrical power finally enveloped them, paces and tempos varying as these singers ever more clearly saw the people and circumstances bringing them to these lyrics, and special places in their voices flexing, places that at first they weren’t sure they could reach. Many of us will travel and participate in these workshops repeatedly or find new teachers or have intensive (or intense) sessions with music directors to dig through to the emotional core of a song. And yet perhaps a workshop newcomer’s perspective can remind us of how it was to experience it the first time, to be the one no one knew, to take that uncomfortable journey and to come to one’s power — even if just a brush against it — and make an audience feel something profound for a few minutes, to be told by a master teacher that that song you just did was yours now.

I’ll never have that experience again. I have many to thank, and now I am even more excited about my journey. It may be similar to yours, and maybe you will have wisdom you can share with me once our paths cross. You’ll see me make rookie mistakes or make decisions you wouldn’t. But that will be fine for me. If nothing else, at least now I know that the best part of any show I create in the future will be that which is mine uniquely, the same as it has been and will continue to be for you. And I will learn from what I see you do, and I will love every mile along this long road.

And when the moment’s there, I promise: I won’t sing that note.

Guest blogger Andrew Harmon is a former chorus singer turned nomadic entertainer living in the District of Columbia. He welcomes any and all opportunities to learn, grow and perform.


Movies in Our Minds

By Matt Howe

Matt Howe

Guest Blogger

I’ve returned from The Eighth Annual International Cabaret Conference at Yale University, which was held July 23—August 1, 2010.  It was a 9-day immersion in the art of cabaret performing.  Working alongside cabaret professionals from New York and Los Angeles, I took in so much information that I am still processing it all!  I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in studying the craft of cabaret performing in a practical setting should check out http://www.thecabaretconferenceatyale.com for more information.

There’s one concept that was driven home for me at the conference that I wanted to share with the D.C. Cabaret Network community.

As cabaret performers we are called to be a specialized hybrid of actor and singer.  There was no escaping this reality during the conference. Time and time again very good singers were challenged to dig deeper and stop singing so prettily! The faculty didn’t care about long-held notes.  They wanted to know what the singer felt about the words they were singing.

They wanted to see “the movie in the singer’s mind” playing out in front of the audience.

Let me try to explain.

It became very apparent to me at Yale that I must approach a song as a “scene” and answer very specific questions.  Why?  Because this helps me create that “movie” that my Yale teachers kept talking about.

So … whom am I singing the song to?  Where am I?  What did the person I’m singing to just say to me that made me start singing?

Let’s take a small snippet of a lyric from “Weekend in New England” as an example.

Time in New England took me away / To long rocky beaches / and you, by the bay …”

What do “rocky beaches” look like?  Was it cold outside?  Warm? Who is “you”?  And what does “you by the bay” look like?  What was he/she wearing?  Was her dress billowing in the wind? Was she/he crying? Laughing? Furrowing his brow?

By creating the specifics and drawing deeply from your own experiences, you start building a movie inside your head that you “run” when you sing the song.  And, yes, by being that specific it really comes across! As long as you are truthful and not “schmacting” (i.e. hammy acting), the audience will respond.

Here’s the magic though … the more specific your movie is, the more permission you give to your audience to run their own movies in their heads!  And that’s the magic.  Then we all connect to each other through a song.  And the strange thing is that it’s universal, despite the specificity.

I saw examples of this all week at Yale.  Several singers got up to sing with a very general attitude toward the song and we were bored! As soon as they dug deeper and brought in their own humor, anger, or attitude then we connected.

I also saw how singing could get in the way of running that movie inside my head.  In fact, one thing that the Yale faculty kept saying over and over was to CUT THE NOTES SHORT!  DON’T SING SO MUCH!  (I can still see faculty member Sharon McNight and her fingers making “cutting scissors” motions).

Other terms that supported this “movie in your mind” concept include “coin the phrases” and “pretend like you’re making it up”.  In other words, don’t recite your lyrics like a poem.  And don’t get stuck being sing-songy with the words.  If you have juicy Alan and Marilyn Bergman lyrics to sing, then pretend like you thought them up yourself!

I want to see your face in every kind of light

In fields of dawn and forests of the night

And when you stand before the candles on a cake

Oh, let me be the one to hear the silent wish you make …”

It’s funny to think that I spent lots of years studying acting in my 20s.  I took many classes about how to read a script, how to analyze what the words mean, how to justify why my character moved across the room … and what did Shakespeare mean when he added a semi-colon to a sentence? How do you act a semi-colon?

After the Yale Cabaret Conference I feel I’ve come full circle.  I’m back to acting!  I just do it with songs now.

A song is a scene set to music.

When I work on a new song now, I am going back to “acting class mode.”  I’m going to write my lyrics out onto a clean sheet of paper.  I’m not going to break the sentences into musical phrases. I’m going to look at the lyric like a monologue.  And I’m going to ask specific questions, dig deep, and personalize the lyric.  And soon I’ll be running that movie in my mind … and hope you’ll be running yours, too.

A Survey of the D.C. Cabaret Scene, 2010

by Matt Howe, Guest Blogger

The other day I went through all of my cabaret programs and also searched through Michael Miyazaki’s cabaret blog.

I compiled a list of every local cabaret show presented in the area since 2007.  I did this because I was curious about how much work we cabaret performers actually do in this town.

I was pleasantly surprised.

In the last quarter of 2007, we performed about 16 different shows (including shows by Deborah Davidson, Sally Martin, Beverly Cosham, Joe Peck, Doug Bowles, Michael Miyazaki, and Joanne Schmoll, among others).

In 2008, over 35 cabaret shows were produced in the D.C. area. Surprisingly, one could see a cabaret almost every month of the year in 2008.  Michael Sazonov, Ron Squeri, Maris Wicker, Dean Reichard and me, Katherine McCann and ongoing shows like CHAWbaret and Maggie’s Cabaret presented singers that year.

2009 was similar:  over 35 cabarets were performed almost every month of the year.  Lonny Smith, Terri Allen, Justin Ritchie, Elizabeth Keyes, Alicia Steffman, Marianne Glass-Miller, and Emily Everson were busy in 2009 (and others I did not mention because of space limitations).

In January 2010 you could have seen Joe Peck or Sally Martin sing.  In February, the Bethesda Theater sponsored a Valentine’s cabaret and Beverly Cosham sang in Reston.  And in March, Maris Wicker and myself presented solo shows; Capitol Hill Arts Workshop presented its seventh CHAWbaret; and group shows were presented at Atlas Performing Arts Center and The Arts Club.

After I surveyed my list, I was proud of us.  Way to go D.C. cabaret artists!!

I noticed a few things, too, after compiling my list.

Excluding the now-defunct Indigo room, Cabaret artists producing their own shows in D.C. seem to utilize these venues:  Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, The Arts Club, Playbill Café, The Corner Store, and Sitar Arts Center.  If you want to perform in a “group setting”, then there’s Artomatic and the D.C. Fringe Festival.

Germano’s (bless them!) in Baltimore is the only local venue consistently presenting cabaret artists.  The D.C. Cabaret Network hosts the only strictly cabaret open mic in town.

Otherwise, there are no venues in Washington, D.C. where fully produced cabaret shows are regularly presented.
It’s unfortunate that D.C. does not have a good cabaret venue.

The Indigo Room, housed upstairs at Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street Northeast, no longer exists as a cabaret space (although I have recently spoken to Atlas about renting the space out for a solo show).  It’s too bad Indigo is gone.  It started off so well!  It had proper cabaret tables and drink service; the folks who ran it had just put in some lighting; and, despite the far-off location, it was kind of fun to spend an evening in that nicely-sized room.

I’ve had my eye opened lately as I cruise around town … is there a restaurant, art gallery, or back room that might host cabaret shows?

And – most importantly – do these untapped venues have a PIANO?! Lights, microphones, etc. can all be added later.  But if you’re going to perform a cabaret, you need a piano!

My cabaret buddy, Paul Pompeo, just checked out a new space I found called Black Fox Lounge at 1723 Connecticut Avenue. It sounded promising for a potential cabaret space.  Paul tells me that the piano room seats only about 25 people – which might be challenging for cabaret economics.

Still, I am curious to know what back rooms are sitting around unused in D.C. with an untuned piano needing attention?

Another aspect about the current state of cabaret in D.C. is the difficulty in self-producing shows.  For instance, Maris Wicker and I had to purchase an insurance rider for the two nights we performed at our venue.  That cost us about $350.  (I’m glad no audience members got hurt, though!)  Certainly the venues we rent from (especially the theaters!) should cover this sort of cost? We split the cost between us, but could a solo performer have afforded to rent the space, get the insurance, and pay for everything else?

Over at Michael Miyazaki’s blog, I posted about publicity and how D.C. newspapers infrequently list local cabaret shows.  I can’t tell you my frustration with this!

And yet, using my list of local shows as evidence, the newspapers could have listed up to five of our local cabaret shows EVERY MONTH over the last few years and steered potential cabaret audiences toward LOCAL talent.

The local D.C. cabaret scene (as I have said before) is small but vibrant.  There’s true talent here.  I salute all of you who have tackled producing your own show in this town – and commend any of you who are planning to do it.

Let’s keep thinking outside the box about how to make things better.

In my opinion, finding someone or somewhere to host a cabaret performance is key!

* Please note that my list of D.C. cabaret does not include professional or national theaters in town like the Kennedy Center or Signature Theater.  They book talent from out-of-town and their budgets and subscription base take care of audience attendance for their shows. My list covers 100% local D.C. cabaret talent!

“Failing” at Open Mic

by Matt Howe, Guest Blogger

I’ve noticed a pattern that I tend to follow when I learn a new song. 

After getting the sheet music, transposing it, and rehearsing it, there comes a point when I take the song to one of the DC Cabaret Network’s open mic nights and I sing it for the first time in front of real, live people.

And I usually suck.

And then I usually feel ineffective, untalented, and frustrated.

Until lately.

I’ve come to realize that part of my process of getting a song up on its feet and “performance ready” is also sucking at singing it once or twice.  There’s nothing like forgetting your lyrics or mangling a note in front of your cabaret peers.  Once I’ve done that, then the worst possible thing that could have happened to me on stage has happened.  And I can then move on and work on the song smarter and better.

I went through this process recently with “Losing My Mind” by Stephen Sondheim.  I performed it in my cabaret, HAPPY ENDINGS, and I suspected right up until opening night that I should have cut it from the show and not performed it.  For some reason, I could not get a “handle” on it.  And I still have the recording I made at January’s Open Mic when I choked on the big note and when I sang the lyrics incorrectly (“spend sleepless nights AND think about you” instead of the correct lyric, which is “spend sleepless nights TO think about you” – very different meanings!)

I’m not 100% sure how I finally got “Losing My Mind” to click. 

One thing that helped is that I wrote new patter to introduce the song.  (Originally, I started singing it in the show without any introduction).  The new patter really helped set up the “story” of the song for me.  Also, Alex Tang (my music director) seamlessly connected “Losing My Mind” with “Isn’t This Better?” which gave me a nice transition between the two songs – and which also helped inform my singing of “Losing My Mind” because now it was followed with a more “serene” song.

Also, at some point before opening night, Alex stopped playing the “big piano” version of “Losing My Mind.”  I remember turning to him after a rehearsal and saying, “Alex, can you give me more piano?  I feel a little naked out here.”  My director Judy Simmons and Alex both said:  “It’s better this way.  It sounds more like your version of the song, rather than someone else’s.”

So to sum this all up, in my experience I’ve got to get up and suck at singing a song before I can be good at singing the same song.  It’s a “journey” to get a song to resonate – trying out different patter, staging, and pairing it with another song – before it works.

Practice, Practice, Practice

by Matt Howe, Guest Blogger

Hello, DCCN peeps!  I’m thrilled and delighted to be this month’s guest blogger.  Since I just finished premiering my solo cabaret show HAPPY ENDINGS, which I performed March 19-20 at Sitar Arts Center, I’ve got cabaret-on-the-brain, so I’m hoping my blogs here at SongSpeak will spread the cabaret-joy I’m currently feeling.

So, there’s that old show biz quote:  “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  And the answer is, “practice, practice, practice…”

I’m a practicer when it comes to cabaret.  For me, I like to practice my patter and movements on the stage so that I’m 100% certain of them – then I feel free to throw it all out when I get onstage in front of a LIVE AUDIENCE!

What I found myself practicing the most—in preparation for my solo show—was microphone and stool placement.  If you watch the cabaret pros, they never make an issue about their mic stands or stools.  They don’t apologize when they can’t make the darn mic stand work.  They just make it work.  You don’t notice that they rearranged their stool and mic because it happened in front of you so seamlessly that it didn’t draw attention to itself.

So—aspiring to those high mic and stool standards—I ran through my show several times, simply rehearsing when and where I moved them.  I like rehearsing this way because it’s like finding the “traffic patterns” of my show.  I don’t want any collisions while I’m on stage!  For instance, during rehearsal I would discover: “Oh, I can’t put the stool behind me during that song, because in the next song I’m going to be in the piano crook, and right now the stool is there, so I’m about to have a ‘traffic accident’ on the stage!”

The same goes for the microphone stand.  Oh, the microphone stand!

My director Judy Simmons educated me about this tall, lean, metallic pole that is omnipresent on most every cabaret stage.  When I first started in cabaret, the mic stand was the least of my worries.  It held the mic up, right?  And I could grasp it when I was nervous and it would hold me up.  However, if I had to move it in any fashion – watch out!

Now Judy has alerted me that the mic stand can be an audience-blocker!  So, if I’m not using it, I should move it to the side so the audience can see everything on the stage clearly.  (I used to move it in front of the pianist.  Not good.  That blocks the audience’s view of the pianist as well.)

This sounds ridiculous of course, because there’s no way a skinny metal pole can hide a person or a piano from plain view, right?

Well, I started watching other cabarets.  And Judy’s right: it is distracting when that mic stand is just hanging out for no good reason all by its lonesome self. It’s almost like there’s a third “person” on stage with you and the pianist.

So, I practiced clearing the microphone stand.  And I can tell you, it’s very easy.  It’s very light.  And with just a few steps, I could actually get it far left (or right).  And – even more amazing – I could do that while speaking!

The stool is a security blanket for me.  When I was rehearsing my show, I realized that in the span of three songs I was sitting, standing, and then sitting again.  That meant that I was moving the stool out, then back, and then out again.  I thought, “Jeez, I’m like a Jack-in-the-Box!  Simplify!”

I started exploring JUST STANDING THERE and singing a song instead of sitting on my comfy stool.  And this was not as bad as I thought it would be.

When I’ve watched cabaret (and when I’ve rehearsed my own show) I have discovered that the audience actually enjoys seeing us performers move around the stage.  They like to see us set up the song in our cabaret space, move the stool, and take our time to physically orient ourselves.

But why??

I think the more we interact (with command) with all the elements on stage, then the more we appear relaxed and at home in front of our audience.

How about an analogy?  It’s like the audience came over to have dinner at our house.  We’re hanging out in the kitchen. I’m busy cooking and entertaining my guests, and they’re sitting at the counter watching my preparations.  They’re listening to what I’m saying—but they’re also fascinated by all the activity going on.

So that’s why I like to rehearse where my microphone stand goes and what position my stool sits in.  It helps make my show seamless and entertaining – because I’m in control of my stage environment as opposed to being thrown by it.

Welcome Matt Howe, Guest Blogger for April 2010

Matt Howe

We’re happy to announce that Matt Howe will be our guest blogger for the month of April 2010.

Matt has been performing in D.C.-area cabarets since 2006. As an actor, he’s also appeared on stage in plays at Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, Washington Shakespeare, and Source Theater.

As a cabaret performer, Matt has appeared in several of the CHAWbaret fundraisers at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. (Matt also directed as well as performed in “CHAWbaret 4: CABARET CONNECTIONS”).

In 2008, Matt performed a two man cabaret, DOUBLE ENTENDRE, with Dean Reichard. Matt debuted his solo cabaret, HAPPY ENDINGS, in March 2010 to enthusiastic audiences at the Sitar Arts Center. Matt has regularly appeared in the D.C. Cabaret Network’s Members Showcases at The Arts Club. He has studied with Amanda McBroom, Lina Koutrakas and Rick Jensen, Wendy Lane Bailey and Laurel Massé. Matt is a member of the D.C. Cabaret Network.

Matt will make his Chicago cabaret debut in April at Three Cat Media’s third annual Barbra Streisand celebration: BABFAB.  Matt will attend the Eighth Annual International Cabaret Conference at Yale University July 2010.

Be sure to check SongSpeak throughout the month of April for Matt’s musings, insights, and ponderings into and about the world of cabaret. Welcome Matt!

Member recommendation: a great rehearsal tool

from Emily Leatha Everson Gleichenhaus

I’m putting together my one-woman-show “It’s a Jungle Out There” and a program called “SING BOOKS” (instead of reading, I SING picture books made from the text of songs to kids at schools, libraries and bookstores).  To work on these projects, I’ve needed new keys written for many songs, some music transcription and accompaniment tracks for rehearsal.  I stumbled on a terrific resource!  MyRehearsalPianist.com. Beautifully written key changes in PDF files and MP3 rehearsal tracks arrive in email at reasonable prices.