When David Bowie and Prince died earlier this year, music fans around the world mourned the loss of two great icons, but we lose performers every year, so what was it about these stars that prompted such a massive outpouring of grief? The answer is that they were inherently unique and set apart by their possession of the indefinable qualities of charisma and extraordinary talent.
Now, you may be thinking, “It‘s not fair! These people have a natural gift that I don‘t.” That may be true, but let me tell you something else: they worked hard to hone, shape and transform their “natural gift” into something that knocked the socks off people. Bowie consistently reinvented himself, studying not only music but avant-garde theatre, Commedia dell’arte and all forms of dance. Prince’s innovations grew out of constant experimentation and a commitment to trailblazing and exploration.
The discovery of what makes a performer stand out is not an exclusive club: it is something anyone can determine through trial and error. So, how do you begin?
First of all, be really honest with yourself. The more you are willing to look frankly at who you are and what you can do, the more you will stand out. Many new artists walk away from their true nature and try to imitate someone who is already successful. Take a moment to look squarely at the parts of you that are trying to be like someone else or something you think everyone wants. To truly be one-of-a-kind, you need to excavate what you have to offer and understand that no one else but you has that gift. Think Star Trek: boldly go where no one else has gone before.
Spend time pondering what makes you special. What is distinct in your sound or gestures or ability to communicate? What is your signature? How do you make and leave a lasting impression? If you figure that out, others may try to mimic you down the line, but ultimately they will only be a shadow of your unmatched brilliance. There is only one Elvis Presley, one Barbra Streisand and one Lady Gaga, despite all of the impersonators.
If you are stuck, listen to singers you love. What makes them stand out for you? Is it the way they ease through a lyric like Tony Bennett or Sarah McLaughlan? Is it how they feel everyone’s pain like Janis Joplin or Willie Nelson? Is it how they electrify when they take over the stage like Melissa Etheridge or Sting? Do they dance as well as sing like Shakira or Beyonce? Or do they wield their power behind an instrument like Lenny Kravitz or Tori Amos? All of these individuals found their sound, their movement, their presence and their style. Note them and then go on to find yours. Listen to the greats in whatever genre of music interests you: they have tapped into something universal and long-lasting. Study what they are doing that is so appealing and then discover what that is for you.
The next thing to consider is how deep you are prepared to go. The most compelling aspect of any performer is the layer of authenticity he or she is willing to expose. The more you are prepared to share, the more your audience will respond to your daring spirit and complete sincerity.
So, how do you get in there and uncover these aspects of yourself? Record yourself and learn how to listen critically. Ask a safe, wise friend to listen with you and point out what is working and what is fantastically different: sometimes you might take for granted something that others think is truly special. Gently go over what you thought might be a hit but actually is not. Video yourself, too: what you are visualising when you perform may not be what others see. It is important to take the time and really notice your habits and your presence. Build on that which you think is eclectic or shows who you are. Rework that which you suddenly discover does you no favours.
Channel your thoughts and feelings on being a unique individual. Often, people discover parts of themselves that have been buried and have gone unnoticed for years. There may be aspects you are reluctant to share with the world, but this is a great time to let out your secret.
Visualise yourself on stage or in a recording studio performing at your best. Play with the image you see. Add in aspects of yourself that are a bit outrageous, then add parts that are more understated. Keep playing with what turns you on and understand that it will probably turn others on as well. Get really intimate with your instincts. Your gut will always show you the way and is your best friend in this process. Our bodies don’t lie. If you are so nervous about a performance that you feel ill, then there is probably something in your choices that has not yet aligned. If you are feeling great and people are reacting with incredible enthusiasm, you know you are onto something. If you are unsure how to trust your instincts, sit silently and do what you can to relax, then gently ask yourself a simple question about your unique talents. Notice what comes up: words, an image, a feeling, a new awareness. This is your body and soul responding to you.
Self-awareness is key and the more you develop a relationship with your instincts, the further you will go towards establishing and presenting the most incredible, fascinating, awe-inspiring performer you can be. Remember, you are the only one who can be you. Don’t deprive the world of the gift you have to share: we can’t wait to see and hear it! We are waiting for you.