How to discover your “X Factor”?
And no I don’t mean the British Television show. When I say the “X Factor” I mean that “star presence”, “special something”, “can’t take your eyes off them”, “hard-to-put-your-finger-on-exactly” but always recognizable quality that the great performers (perhaps we might say true “Artists” with a capital “A”) have.
I define these “Artists” with a capital “A” as opposed to lower-case “artists” as people who transcend the nuts and bolts of their art form and tap into something much greater than it, or than they themselves, and in so doing bring lucky audience members along for the ride as well.
And to be sure, there are “Artists” with a capital “A” in every profession, not just the traditional “arts”. From singers to pianists to teachers to bankers to store clerks to stay-at-home moms to lawyers (yes even lawyers), we’ve all met these “Artists” of their profession or way of life, these people who have an “X Factor”, who somehow seem to transcend their activities and bring everyone who comes into contact with them a little bit of that “X Factor”, call it joy, presence, or a moment of respite in a hectic day, whatever you may call it, you know it when you encounter it!
I find that this “X Factor” is perhaps the most important quality in a performer or a performance (or a human being!). I might even go as far as to say it is the ONLY important quality. Sure, technique is wonderful, and so is smart programming, a great story, and on and on, but how many great artists and legendary performers didn’t have half of the technique or brilliant programming of other performers, and yet managed to deliver performances that changed the lives of their fans forever? And personally, it’s that moment when my conscious brain shuts off in the experience of the X Factor of an artist that makes me come back for more, in the hope that I’ll get another one of those experiences that make the daily drudgery worth it all.
For the past three years at SongFest at Colburn, I’ve taught an intensive performance workshop course called “Discovery” where the end goal was to discover the inner “X Factor” of every performer. It’s been a communal process, more often about setting up the circumstances for the performer to make their own discovery than about beating my own discovery into their head, and I have been honored to witness and sometimes guide the findings of our extraordinary young artists. In this three part series “How to discover your X Factor”, I invite you to go on this journey to discover your own inner X Factor. In chapter one, we’ll address why the X Factor is important and why it isn’t being taught. In chapter two, with your help and help from artists in the industry, we’ll develop the best definition of the X Factor that we can. Finally, in chapter three, we’ll try to create a step-by-step guide for how you can discover your own X Factor.
How to discover your “X Factor”
7 reasons why the X Factor remains elusive
If we’re going to create a step-by-step guide to acquire something, first we have to define what that thing is, but before we can do that, we need to establish why this is so important and why it hasn’t been done before. i.e. if this “X Factor” is so important, why is it not a serious part of most curriculums or taught in any structured course? A few reasons:
1. Indefinable can’t be defined… - by definition…but I just did. Aka we know it by what it’s NOT more often than by what it IS. It’s difficult to write about something “indefinable” or “hard-to-put-your-finger-on” so a lot of people don’t try. We all have different ways of experiencing it or talking about it, and we often just know when someone or something doesn’t have it, but we can’t say WHAT it is.
2. It ain’t a quick fix. - Most people want quick fixes and concrete realities for training, (i.e. teach me how to be an amazing singer in one lesson, don’t give me the tools that I then need to practice daily for years and apply my own growing ownership of my craft and vocalism to…boring!). Teachers and the general populous often quote the old axiom “You can’t teach presence” or something along those lines, and it’s a self-created prophecy, because you of course can’t teach something you assign to chance or excuse for being so indefinable and hard to teach that you don’t try to figure out how to teach at all!
3. Don’t scare away the venture capitalists! - Teachers and students of the performing arts have enough problems competing with the all important “bottom line” of capitalistic modern society, so we avoid ruining the situation any further by involving any “hokey dokey” “spirit within” voodoo magic. In large part, it has to do with our hesitance to talk about anything “fluffy-duffy” or emotional, or psychological in our training rather than just the hard facts of an A Major Scale or rhythmic accents. Puritan habits die hard (devil music!), and we are fighting a very real battle in today’s economy to continue to champion not only the relevance of the arts, but the importance of the arts in education and society at large.
4. Things are rare for a reason. - Things are often special because they’re rare: diamonds, love, good in-laws. If everyone had the X factor, we could call it the A-Z factor. The more rare something is, the fewer the people who could possibly be experts on it, because the fewer the people who could have had close experience with it.
5. Where are the teachers? - How many buddhist monks are there vs how many Buddhas? How many great singers are there vs how many great singing teachers? Like teaching singing, where you have to be extremely sensitive to “bad production” in order to be able to teach someone to notice it in themselves and fix it, with the X factor, you have to be extremely sensitive to it and when people are getting closer to it and when certain actions are pulling them further away. Often, people just aren’t sensitive at all, let alone to the X Factor, and no teachers = no students.
6. Developing the X Factor is confusing because it’s about HOW you develop rather than WHAT, since the WHAT is indefinable, but the HOW is not. - Developing any skill can lead to developing the X Factor, it just relies on HOW you develop the skill, which eventually influences WHY you are developing the skill, but never matters WHAT the skill is. This is confusing. We want one cause and effect. I do X, I get Z. But you can do the whole alphabet of skills and not ever move an inch towards developing the X Factor, or you can do just one letter your whole life and go the whole way towards developing your X Factor and being an indescribably transcendent artist. i.e. some Artists can achieve their great artistry simply through thinking about breath, another artist has to think about breath, placement, connection to the text, and Alexander Technique, another artist may find their artistry in being with their family and working on a farm and somehow that translates to a riveting performance. There are a million paths to achieve great artistry, “X Factor”, but only ONE way how to walk that path.
7. This one way is REALLY HARD. - What’s that one way? What all these Artists have in common no matter what their art form or their concentration, is that they say things from the deepest part of themselves, with their whole mind, body, and soul and don’t mess with it much as it comes out from them and into the world. This is hard. It’s easier to say “Hi” and not mess with it too much on the way out than it is to perform a monologue about losing a loved one and not mess with it on the way out. Another way to say this that is more common is that the artist is a “vessel”. We’re also saying that the deeper the vessel and the more it doesn’t leak, the more useful and powerful the vessel, the more useful and powerful the artist.
For now, I’d love to open up the conversation. How do YOU define X Factor for a performing artist? Please send in your best two sentence definition.
I’ll be compiling different answers and polling major talents in the industry who I believe have that “special something” about what they think it takes to have the X Factor, and I hope together we can come a few steps closer as a community to defining that quality that is so important to the future of our industry and yet so elusive.
Check back soon for chapter two of “How to discover your X Factor”, which will share the community’s definitions of the X Factor and speak more about why it is so important. Finally, chapter three will provide a step-by-step pedagogical guide for how to develop your own X Factor, a product of several years of teaching, research, and discovery with incredible students at SongFest at Colburn.