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Feeling Deeply in Performance: The Gift of Emotional Granularity

Contributed by Adam White

“I don’t know what is better than the work that is given to the actor–to teach the human heart the knowledge of itself.” - Sir Laurence Olivier

Recently, the MiM crew went to happy hour after one of our in-person Friday classes and began talking about what we’ve been told throughout our training in regards to feeling deeply when singing. From the lessons of our teachers to the beliefs of our fellow students, we agreed that it seems to be a highly contentious topic in the worlds of voice, acting, and performance.

Of course, emotion and the voice are inextricably linked to one another. The voice is arguably the strongest instrument for the expression of self. But what is so polarizing about allowing ourselves to feel deeply during performance? It begs to ask the questions:

What benefits can we find from actually feeling deeply during performance?

And how can artists gain greater access to feeling deeply when performing?

Many of us have been taught that feeling deeply during performance can be a mistake–that it causes a lack of control over our instrument, a lack of control over our art, and can lead us down a path of creating unsafe environments for both ourselves and our partners.

Emotion is an inextricable part of what we do as artists but the role that emotion takes in our work is often policed by several perspectives.

  • Some view feeling deeply as an almost Method approach to acting, in which we purposely conjure up difficult emotion in order to really “go there.”

  • In opera, bringing emotion into the voice can be seen as putting the singer at risk for vocal imperfections that aren’t often received well by patrons and teachers.

  • In Musical Theatre, especially in academic settings, we are sometimes taught that bringing real emotion into performance can be an unsafe place to go as an actor or cause a performer to become too “self-indulgent.”

How strange that we work in an artistic industry structured around a goal of eliciting emotion and empathy for audiences through storytelling, and yet the consensus on how deeply we are allowed to feel as performers is something decided upon by metrics of vocal perfection, audience perception, or adhering to what is considered proper or correct technique-wise.

At Meisner in Music, we believe that in order to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances (and create free expression in music-making), we must allow ourselves to feel deeply and encourage a free, uncontrolled, and nonjudgmental flowing of our emotions. This is not to say that we purposely conjure up or allow unsafe emotions to run rampant. However, we are open to the possibilities that feeling deeply can bring to our performances.

For those who have spent years in environments focused on people-pleasing and maintaining palatable or pleasing expressions of our emotions, feeling deeply during performance can feel nearly impossible.

Growing up, many of us were told stories about how certain emotions and experiences like

sadness or embarrassment are weak and

anger or pride are strong.

These learned perceptions greatly damage our ability to feel our emotions without judgment and can actually alter the way we allow ourselves to feel.

Harmful socialization (such as the teaching that women should never be angry) or emotional trauma (like having to manage an emotionally reactive teacher, director, or parent) can train us out of the ability to identify exactly what it is we are feeling and cause us to feel our emotions as oceanic, murky experiences.

At MiM, we are HUGE fans of Dr. Brené Brown and her team’s research on emotion. In her most recent publication, Atlas of the Heart, Dr. Brown writes about the importance of language in the shaping and processing of our emotional experiences.

In a recent study of over 7,000 participants, Dr. Brown and her team discovered that most people could only name and identify the feeling of three emotional experiences–happy, sad, and mad. She calls this the glad-sad-mad triad. As artists, we know that the range of our emotional experience is infinitely more expansive than the glad-sad-mad triad. So how interesting is it that most people can only identify these three experiences?

The process of identifying more than just the glad-sad-mad triad begins with the language we use to describe our experiences.

Dr. Brown describes the emotional language we use like mixing bowls–the words we choose flavor, shape, and contextualize our emotional experiences. Within the same study, Dr. Brown discovered that, without access to the language needed to describe an emotional experience accurately, many people could not fully process their emotional experiences.

The limits of our emotional language actually create the limits of our ability to understand and feel our emotional experiences.

Again, how interesting is that? This is why access to a wide vocabulary of emotional language is crucial to our work as performers. Without access to the language we need to describe our emotional experiences, how can we accurately and specifically understand the emotional experiences of our characters and what they mean to us? Language creates understanding and understanding aids processing.

One key aspect of having access to this emotional language and freedom is called Emotional Granularity.

Emotional granularity is when we use accurate and specific labels to describe how we are feeling. When we get granular with our emotional language,

“we are able to transform what often feels like an oceanic, murky experience into something with boundaries and a name.”

(This comes from the expert on emotional granularity, Dr. Susan David. Be sure to look at the resources on her site about umbrella terms and granular language.)

These boundaries don’t limit our emotional experiences, but show us the detailed and fine lines that exist where frustration ends and resentment begins, when awe takes us from feelings of insignificance to the emotion of wonder where we develop an insatiable curiosity about the world around us.

This is where specificity of impulses comes from–our ability to understand how these experiences uniquely impact us. When we use umbrella terms for our emotional experiences, we cannot navigate the emotion, or altogether, cannot realize what it is we are experiencing which sometimes manifests as a feeling of “nothingness.”

So when you’re feeling “nothing”, it’s often an experience that you haven’t found the specificity of language to name.

Performance settings greatly complicate our ability to experience emotions. When our nervous systems become overwhelmed by the multitude of stressors in performance–stress and tension in the voice and body, self-consciousness, inner and outer judgment of our emotional state–we begin to feel a sensation of “nothingness.” However, these tools of emotional literacy can help us to move beyond these stressors and begin to feel more deeply during performance.

Sometimes, a resistance to emotional granularity can be a self-protective measure called forced false positivity, or the tyranny of positivity. This idea also comes from Dr. Susan David. It’s a mindset of “my comfort is more important than my reality.” It represents a valuing of positivity over our reality and truth. It’s also a function of lubricating conversation and everyday social interaction.

A great example of this is when we’re asked “How are you?” and our immediate answer is almost always “I’m fine” or “I’m good.”

MiM teacher Sakile Camara recently said that after taking Meisner, she could no longer answer the question “How are you?” dishonestly. Meisner, through its primary exercise of repetition, helps us to break this “tyranny of positivity” because it puts us so much more deeply in touch with what we are truly feeling and teaches us the importance of being present with our current reality as it is, not how we want it to be.

It is crucial for actors to embrace the fullness of our emotional experiences, painful or not. So often, we are trained to ignore or actively reduce “negative” feelings like anxiety, grief, and sadness. Suppressing these “negative” emotions and pushing down reality can actually create incredible roadblocks in our performance. Allowing ourselves to be present with these feelings, even with the discomfort they can create (like breath stacking, shakiness, and awkwardness), is so much more freeing for us and our bodies in performance. Trauma teaches us that these emotions are not safe to explore, but in our work, leaning into “negative” emotions, just like we do with “positive” emotions, creates a far more free, expansive, and fulfilling experience for us.

There really is beauty in every emotional experience, and it’s important that we recognize and embrace the full nature of our inner emotional life as artists.

Though granular emotional language is crucial to our ability to feel, understand, and process our emotions, there is a greater emotional intelligence that many of us are even more out of touch with. Dr. Kristen A. Lindquist, a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, tells us that there are two ingredients of an emotional experience:

(1) the bodily sensations or actual feeling of the emotion and

(2) the language we use to name the experience.

In order to fully process our experience, we have to be present with the bodily sensations being elicited by the emotion and find granular language to describe the emotion.

The process of being present with bodily sensation is known as interoception. Interoception is our sixth sense, the intuition that lives in our bodies and the sensations through which our bodies communicate with us. So, from a neuroscientific perspective, the process of repetition–which includes sitting with the physical awareness of our bodies and naming what we are feeling–is the perfect way to deeply experience and understand our emotions. Not to mention, focusing on the bodily sensations of emotions helps us cultivate a deeper allowance and non-judgment about what it is we are feeling.

Getting specific with what we are feeling isn’t about searching for more detailed or complex language, it’s about becoming present with what is most accurate and truthful for us in the moment.

At MiM, we often ask students to take their song phrase-by-phrase, stopping at the end of each phrase to become aware of what they are feeling, and then moving onto the next phrase bringing that emotional awareness with them. The next time you sing, see how specific you can be with your emotions moment-to-moment, and notice how your voice reacts.

Specificity in our emotional language and bodily awareness allows us the freedom to explore and play while singing rather than staying confined to what we think we should be feeling and engages us with the uniquely emotional instruments that are our bodies and voices.

It is the portal through which we gain deeper embodiment, richer connection with our audiences, and quicker processing that reduces tension, frustration, and feelings of insignificance during and after a performance. When we find the language that truthfully describes our specific emotional experiences, even ones we might’ve been taught were negative or inappropriate, our bodies and voices can release themselves freely into the experience of making music, bringing life to our performances and voices.

And as Sir Lawrence Olivier is quoted saying above, one of the greatest lessons we can learn as performers is to teach the human heart the knowledge of itself. We are simply learning the tools to navigate the great knowledge and gifts that live in our hearts, our bodies, and in our expansive emotional selves.


Atlas of the Heart - Dr. Brene Brown

Dr. Kristin Lindquist, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina

Dr. Susan David, Psychology at Harvard Medical School, Author of Emotional Agility

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