One by one, each Class 3 student walked to the front of the room and told the class her name, age, favorite food and something she fears. At the end of the exercise, the audience (including this writer) and participants learned that everyone is either 8 or 9 years old, pizza and sushi are beloved dishes and many are afraid of spiders. They also learned about something called stage presence.
“Who has an idea of what we mean when we say ‘stage presence’?” Eliza, one of the workshops’ presenters, asked the students.
“Opening presents on stage?” one girl offered with a smile.
“When you do something really good on stage?” another suggested.
“Being confident?” a third volunteered.
“Today we are going to talk about small and big stage presence,” explained Eliza’s colleague, Therese. The two women, alumnae of The Juilliard School, were at Chapin to help Class 3 students succeed both on and off stage. All three sections participated in the workshops that took place in their Homerooms one recent afternoon.
After observing the students’ introductions, Eliza and Therese asked them to share their observations, which they wrote on a white board. They noted that some girls spoke very softly, almost too quietly to hear. They reported that a number of students had looked around nervously and fidgeted with their hands, their hair and the hems of their jumpers. Others, they said, swayed back and forth and rolled on their feet.
These were examples of “small” stage presence, the Class 3 students soon discovered.
“It’s like we weren’t paying attention,” a student ventured, when asked what she thought small stage presence might suggest.
By contrast, “big” stage presence, they learned, encapsulates purposeful movements, strong voices, consistent eye contact and controlled breathing.
“We don’t always pay attention to our breath even though it’s the most important thing,” Therese remarked before leading the girls in an activity that helped them direct their breathing to calm nerves and to project poise and authority. The women also demonstrated a few important tricks to help transition from small to big stage presence.
For starters, feet should set a small distance apart, about the width of two fists. Standing in a circle, the students adjusted their sneaker-clad feet into a sturdy foundation and tried to stand tall. “Keep a slight bend in your knees,” Therese told them. The students looked more confident already.
“Now everybody, pull your shoulders up by your ears,” she instructed. The students lifted their shoulders, laughing at how silly they all looked. After three counts, they released them with an energetic sigh. Neck stretches followed with the girls turning their heads up and down and all around to relax tight muscles. Next, they practiced keeping their bodies still while holding their hands gently by their sides and making soft eye contact with others.
It was time to put their new skills to the test. “I want you to introduce yourselves again,” instructed Eliza. And this time, they knew to aim for big, bold stage presence. Again, each student walked to the front and said her name, age, favorite food and something she fears. The difference between the first and second exercises was striking. Most of the students improved considerably.
No longer glancing around, playing with their clothing or whispering their words, these students were simply captivating. Eliza and Therese gave kind feedback to each one (“Good improvement!” “Nice adjustment!” “Remember your eye contact!”) and asked a few to try one more time, which resulted in wide smiles and near-perfect performances.
Whether performing in a school play, expressing an opinion or speaking up for others, these Class 3 students — with help from the talented Juilliard alumnae — are learning to fine-tune their voices.
Browse photos from the workshop below: