On Singing by Karen Kohler

I desire to express in my songs all that I have found lovely, bittersweet, ugly, desperate, burdened, riveting, inscrutable, and all too human in my time. "Kleinkunst" (small or intimate art) and "Kabarett" (cabaret) are my favorite mediums, for though performing in larger halls with a cabaret ensemble or a big band can be thrilling, the larger the space, the less I feel the audience. My audience is a part of what identifies me as a singer. I like to think that as a chanteuse, one is not so much before an audience as in it, exchanging experiences, emotions, laughter and "Blickgeplänkel" (eye play). This is what it's all about for me. I hope that when people leave my shows, they'll go make love, or plans, or chocolate mousse.

As Artist
My art is an art of nuance. I use my body to channel air through space, my intelligence to communicate what someone has composed lyrically and musically, and my spirit to set it free. I like to chuckle, choke, whisper, sigh, growl, breathe and moan. I like to sit, stand, bend, twist, and face the audience with my back.

I am a painter, a scene-maker. I want my audience to see a scene unfold through me. I use tools I've brought from vocal studies and theater, using a singing voice as well as a "Sprechstimme," (speaking voice) to turn songs into "un drame condense," a mini-drama. Going first by words and then by melody, and using a broad palette of expressions, I seek to bring color to my songs and thereby to illuminate my subject, the atmosphere, and the age.

I am a choreographer. I use gesture to accentuate an idea, a line or a word. My sensuality is expressed gesturally. I am a masquerader. I love to dress the part. I am also an exhibitionist; the most essential Karen Kohler exists before a receptive and open audience.

I am a thief. I don't borrow something; I steal it and put my own signature on it. There will only ever be one Lotte Lenya, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but I leave it to the men, the male impersonators, to transform themselves into these ladies. I prefer to call myself an evoker and honor those who have come before by giving myself fully to what I appropriate. The mentors and muses whom I've heard and watched, from whom I've stolen and whose humanity and style have influenced my own are, most notably: Lenya, Dietrich, Connee Boswell, Jo Stafford, Elis Regina, Eva Cassidy, Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Among the living, KD Lang and Lyle Lovett inspire in equal measure. If Yvette Guilbert is the long-gone mother of my song, Leonard Cohen is its our pater familias (hearing him live is like being in church). And Tom? Tom Waits just makes me grin into my gin.

I am a preservationist. From the moment I came upon the songs of early 20th century Europe — inventive, fresh, daring, lyrical, ironic, dark, sexy — I was hooked. I became committed to the preservation of this music, to the authentic re-interpretation of these lyrics, in my own time. Toward that end, I am a passionate singer.

I am a bridge. Born in Germany, raised in the U.S. and now a dual citizen, I know that I am uniquely suited to this art form. I have made my own journey across time and place, as have my songs.

Words & Diction
Singing is minimally about technique and tone. For some it is very much about text. Every word has its own life, form, line, color, sound, body and soul. Words are something like directions in a song that point to the meaning. I frequently sing in languages foreign to my listeners, so I must use my body, face, mouth, and gesture to contour the mass of meaningless utterances and make something useful and real for the listener. Of course, knowing French may be helpful to one's experience of "Je ne t'aime pas," but if the singer is doing her part, it's utterly unnecessary. Doing my part requires believing in words, committing to them, opening them up at the core and revealing their emotional essence, the kind that knows no language and binds every man together. The truth can always be conveyed without words.

Before I take on a new work, I have to accept what the text and the tune propose, and to accept the proposal, I have to have an unconditionally strong feeling for it. There are songs I don't sing, perhaps because I haven't yet experienced their meaning, or because I cannot bring anything new to them. The songs I sing are the ones that mesh with my outlook and understanding of things, and with my experiences, and I believe it is important to continually broaden these in order to accommodate more text and song.

The enjoyment I get from producing sound, using vowels and consonants, is the motivation behind my diction. To have great articulation, one has to feel how words glow, know how to extinguish them by dipping them in light and shadow, how they like to be nuzzled or bitten, accentuated or concealed. One has to understand how to give everything verbal life, color and strength, and then how to let these things die. Diction is all about beginnings and endings of words, and truly majestic tones are born healthy, live strong, and have dignified deaths.

A person wishing to become a chanteuse must study the voice. But to be able to color a song requires not one but many voices, perhaps many registers in a single song! For that, theatrical training is helpful. A chanteuse who both sings and speaks her songs is continually in danger of damaging or even losing her voice if it does not rest on a solid foundation of technical training. It is, however, possible to over-train the voice. The principle behind most vocal regimes is to identify the singer's voice and focus it, thereby whittling down to one the many voices we start with. Singers can in a way become more limited through study than expanded by it. The antithesis of disciplined training is instinct — easily as valuable as training and perhaps more so. Unlike a trained voice, good instincts cannot be taught, but only acquired with life experience, mostly in the form of painful mistakes. If one has instincts about singing, they have likely come at a price. To allow instinct to be trained away is to squander good artistic investment.

Breathing is a matter of never-ending visualization, exercise and practice, and still challenges me. One must learn to suck in air slowly, hold it as long as possible, and regulate its release. Swimming helps, as does yoga. A teacher once suggested that the ultimate goal is to sing through 24 measures on a single breath. Knowing how best to breathe can be diffiicult. Knowing where to breathe can be easier. The natural breaks reveal themselves automatically when one sings for words and speaks the text aloud as one is learning it.

Carriage & Silhouette
From her first appearance on stage, before an artist has done anything to prove her talent, her posture will inform the audience. Even the grandest of introductions from a master of ceremony will be compromised if she walks on slouching. A singer must know how to move on stage, how to hold the head, the shoulders, the hands, where to place the feet. This isn't always taught in voice classes, but it is taught in the theater. And one can study it in the mirror. It is said that a singer is ready for the stage when she is able to sing in front of a mirror naked.

How to hold oneself upright and what to do with the body, ought to be partly rehearsed and partly left to the moment. Being comfortable on stage, in one's silhouette or costume, and feeling relaxed and in one's power is what creates natural movement. Nervousness is expressed through awkward movements, fidgeting and lack of intent. Nervousness is normal — it is the respect we pay our audience. We must simply learn to flow with it.

Sometimes a gesture or some patter will emerge from the creative flow and feel completely wrong. One should commit it to memory as a thing not to be repeated. Sometimes a gesture or patter happens that feels completely right. It should go into the reference manual in one's mind, ready to be accessed again. If something really unique and sublime happens, it should be taken home and rehearsed until it is natural. Grace is a thing you can learn if you aren't born with it.

As important as carriage is the silhouette: how a singer looks, what she embodies, her physical style, her costume. I found my silhouette among the characters and the era of my songs. I love details and the era provides an abundance of them. Since my repertoire is diverse and rangy, I must choose an ensemble that will suit the many songs in the program. It is important that one's silhouette reveal something of what one feels inside. Clothes can be worn or they can be expressed.

The Face
A singer's face is a map. When the audience closes its eyes, her face should burn through their eyelids. I love faces. All my life I've studied them. Staring is a tool of the trade. The face relays the health of the body and the soul. A doctor always knows when we have a fever, and an audience always knows when we are lying. Watching a singer sing one song and express another is distressing. The muscles of the face, the eyes, the mouth, all convey the depth of one's inner commitment, or lack thereof.

The eyes that sing… they greet us or reject us, they are cool, confused, accusing, defending, stroking, killing. The eyes that ask and answer, that open and close, that look out through wide orbs or narrow slants… they glow and throw sparks. What an excellent instrument we performers have who know how to use them.

And the mouth — especially the mouth of a woman! It is the top of the instrument, the keyhole, the promise. What opportunities lie therein! What bewitching expressions, coyness, humor, spirit, tenderness, lust, mystery, excitement! And pride, arrogance, greed, revenge… all played out on two bands of red flesh. It is the mouth of a lover, a mother, a muse. An incredible instrument that one can lighten or darken through the precise showing of teeth, pretty teeth or deadly teeth, whose gleam can seduce. The audience loves a good mouth, especially on a singer. If you sing with a mic, beware of holding it in front of your face and covering your good mouth.

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.

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 at 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. That said, the limb should not be so relaxed as to flop around. You must still give your limbs weight and move them with intent. Intent is the key behind my gesture. I may make it look spontaneous, and sometimes it is that, but usually there is forethought and intent 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 and people will attend concerts for that 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, heart and intelligence.

What is charm? It is a magnet, a thing that attracts. It is “personality” and self-knowledge. Yet how many performers take to the stage lacking in personality and charm. Why? Perhaps because they have as yet little self-knowledge or soul-consciousness. They have little connection to the thing that binds all of their spiritual riches and their understanding of the heart, the head, the flesh, of art and life. An artist requires multiple heads and hearts for her journey, and a little charm. Charm is another of those magical traits that need not be in-born, just practiced.

Listening is a talent — being able to really concentrate on somebody else. Watching other artists perform is an invaluable part of one's craft. It is the way we learn what works and what doesn't work for us. Listening to other artists, especially intrumentalists, is how I came to understand silence in music.

Silence creates a distance to time and place, therefore most people avoid it. It makes us uneasy. As actors, we work on tightening beats, avoiding the silence that sucks life out of a scene. As musicians, we adapt to the loud drone of electrified instruments, amplifiers and fans. As people, we escape into the harried world of sound and sight bites and the ever-present background noise. Silence has become a very precious commodity. My songs and the era from which they are drawn are inherently more silent. The mere fact that they are performed in a room where people can actually listen already sets this kind of music apart. Gradually, as people become tired of being assaulted, they are returning to the listening rooms and the salons where music played for centuries.

I use “Kunstpausen” (artistic pauses) to frame my songs, create mystery and maintain my power. Simply put, I draw whatever energy there is in a song out beyond its boundaries. I insert them at the beginning of songs so I can focus and gather myself into character. I pause within the song if I wish to emphasize something or be playful with the text. At the end of many songs, I maintain my character for seconds before acknowledging my audience — my aim being to allow the scene to drift away rather than be jerked away by a habitual "thank you," or a change in my expression and focus. I am quite aware of the effect this has on my audience. They want to linger in the moment with me, relish the space, their thoughts and their mood. To achieve the best results, be sure that your lighting technician is your partner here and times his fades and blackouts according to your wishes for the song.

How does one create atmosphere? By employing all the tools of one's physical presence, one's artistic palette and the music, and allowing the singing and speaking voices to blend them into a mood. In every song there are a hundred opportunities to paint atmosphere. Words and music can stimulate the imagination from moment to moment.

The scene begins when I look slowly into the audience and let my eyes say these words: I am Master of you and of all I survey. Now you shall hear what I have to say! And then I begin to sing…

The Reality of the Theater
What is real and what is fantasy is open to personal interpretation. I recently heard this in the film, Being Julia with Annette Bening (and I am paraphrasing): “The real world is nothing but fantasy. The theater is the only reality. Don’t let the world outside cheapen your gifts.”

To become great, an artist cannot imitate, cannot be a carbon copy of someone else. The artist who does not continue growing falls backwards. The power of observation rests in seeing with an artistic eye, judging and drawing conclusions.

A good singer builds herself a mental reference book. She excels in the art of seeing into someone else's eye to glimpse the truth or a lie, or of hearing into someone else's voice. Every artist can be inspired by another person, another artist. Every interpreter can have her models, but in the end our own signature must go on the work. We must become Creator and use everything that exists to make something new and to reveal a soul, an original soul. Can one learn to be observant if one hasn't always possessed this quality? Very definitely, yes! One can learn anything one wants to learn. One can become anything one wants to become.

There is no real art without understanding. It is our responsibility as artists to combine sensitivity with intelligence. Sensitivity enables us to beautify our work, but that can only happen if it is supported by knowledge. It is the job of the actor to present human truths artistically, but not in some kind of precise and mechanical mirroring process. If he shows an ugliness, he must show the beauty in that ugliness too. I am reminded of what the actor Bruno Ganz said in an interview for the movie, Downfall, in which he portrays Hitler (and I’m again paraphrasing here). “As a man I feel hate for Hitler. But I cannot just hate him, or else I cannot play him.”

The actor is not a photographer but a painter and must derive his inspiration from the myriad sources around him. So it is for the singer, who paints a picture with each tone, word, and gesture.

Every person is born with a gift for success and a particular talent. It is up to us to discover that for ourselves. Countless people born as musicians, painters and sculptors become lawyers, doctors and accountants. Why? Perhaps this is what their parents did or wanted for them. Or the material rewards appeared to be greater. Regardless of the reason, their artistic gifts often go unused. Is it true that only very few people hear the inner voice and are in a position to grasp its meaning? It isn't important when we follow that voice, but that we follow it… wherever it leads us. And that journey is uniquely our own. I can only say that I spent years in lucrative, powerful and rewarding situations outside of music, and that none of those years fulfilled me as much as does each day that I spend making art. The soul, once awakened to its own true power will make its needs known. Trusting ourselves, increasingly, is what much of this game is all about.

The fight of anyone who strives for something great is tough. There's bad luck and bad timing, the headtrips that others give us and the ones we give ourselves. But the truth cannot be denied and the world will reward us for our courage and take care of us. The true artist, who feels the fire of passion and purposefulness in her belly, will not be stopped by failure or criticism, bright will be her radiance, and magically, she will draw everything and everyone she needs to her, each and every day. I tell myself: Sing as though your life depended on it!

Because it does.


  news calendar about gallery shows recordings teaching company contact press kit