“Learning how to make the delivery of every song full of detail and excitement is vital if you want to consistently capture your audience’s attention.”
Welcome to a blog that is chock-full of practical ideas for you to test-drive in your mindful practice and performance spaces!
Whether you are singing pop, folk, country, jazz, blues, rock or indie….it can be easy to push the importance of storytelling to the side and focus on the way you sound. But powerfully conveying a story is not solely the job of musical theatre performers. It is the job of every singer to drill down into the lyrics of a song to understand the story and why it was written with that music so you can connect with an audience – an audience who is eager to hear your heart and soul coming through in your voice.
It is your job to:
- Understand what the composer wrote lyrically and musically
- Explore the instinctive story your voice interprets, and how the song pours out of you on different days
- Choose how you want to shape it
- Make the delivery of every song as mindful and present as possible
DISCOVER THE STORY
The following ideas are drawn from the video and books in the Source list. It is not necessary to complete every suggestion for every song you learn. Read through them and try those that make sense to you. If you’re curious about them all, try them over a period of time and throughout several songs. You will start to notice that some processes resonate with you more than others. And some will resonate with certain types of songs more than others. At some point in your entire singing life, you may find them all useful. And you will definitely add ideas of your own.
“The way a song is expressed depends on the composer’s intention, the character of the song and the way you choose to perform it.”
Daniel Zangger Borch
Before you start experimenting…it is recommended that you start with an A4 copy of the lyrics, sans musical notation. See the tip sheet How to create a lyric sheet for ideas. Do not copy and paste the text from a website. At the very least, you should type out the lyrics yourself, including all punctuation, and clearly differentiating the song’s sections. Writing it out by hand is even better – trust me and try it!
- Understand the words
- Make sure you know the meaning of every word in the lyric. Use a dictionary if necessary and note the definition on your lyric sheet.
- If the lyrics are nonsensical, emphasise the musical interpretation.
- Lyrics containing double meanings give the singer a certain freedom of interpretation.
- Is there any ambiguity in the meaning of the lyrics? You may need to choose what you think it means.
- Speak the words aloud
- Make sure you can pronounce all of the words.
- Read them conversationally and do not use the rhythm of the song.
- Take note of words, emotions and story elements that strike you more strongly than they did before.
- Now speak the lyrics in the rhythm of the music and aim to retain those striking elements in your mind.
- Create a Mental Picture of the Environment
- Surroundings – where does the plot unfold?
- Indoors or outdoors?Day or night?
- Raining or sunny?What season?
- In town or in the country?
- Historical period – What did things look like at the time the song’s story takes place?
- Who are you?
- Are you the narrator or the main character? Male or female?
- Where do you come from?
- How educated are you and what do you do for a living?
- What sensory experiences do you have in the story?
- What do you see, hear, smell and taste? What are the dominant colours?
- How do you feel?What do you dream about?
- Draw the Story
- Take a blank piece of paper and sketch images that depict elements of the song.Imagine walking through the sketch. Notice the time of day. Is it light or dark? Cold or warm? Above or below? What are the surrounds? Are other people there? Is it oppressive or inviting? Do you want to be there?
- Write a short narrative of your answers.
- Get Specific
- Who are you talking to? Define who that person is. Use their name. Sometimes we sing songs to ourselves. If that is the case, decide if you are talking to your current self, a better version of you, or a lesser version of you.
- Why do you need to sing this song? Try completing this statement: “I need to….”
- What is your goal in singing this song? Try completing this statement: “I want to….”
- How will you know if you succeed?
- Imagine the Video Clip
- Think about the music video you would direct – not what someone else has already produced.
- Dr Dan’s Subtext Exercise
- Subtext = “the underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation”
- Print out your double-spaced lyric sheet. Make sure you type it yourself, don’t cut and paste.
- Think about one or two emotive words that describe this lyric. Think beyond simple words like “sad” or “happy” and use more nuanced words. Then follow these steps:
- Surroundings – where does the plot unfold?
- Write an emotive word next to each section of the song. Be sure not to repeat words…this is a journey.
- Sing the song through using only open vowels, no words. Connect to the emotive words you’ve chosen.
- Handwrite a simple screenplay for a video clip, in between the lines.
- Sing the lyric of the song, eyes closed, imagining the video clip as you sing, using all of your emotions. Notice where you felt connected and which ones where you didn’t.
- If necessary, rework the emotional narrative and subtext to achieve a more consistent connection.
- Active Verbs
- This is a gesture word that will help you get what you want out of this song.It can often be found in a desire to do a physical action.
- There are 5 basic gestures: PUSH, PULL, THROW, LIFT, CRUSH.
- Take your first line of lyrical text and say it several times with each of the 5 actions. Which action seems to work best for you? Choose an action that you think is the best fit for the situation and the text and repeat it several times. Then drop the gesture and speak the text. Then sing the lyric and notice the difference in your expression.
- Repeat this with every line of your song. Write the action verbs on your lyric sheet. Sing the song while doing the actions several times until you have memorized the actions along with the words.
- Allow any emotions that naturally occur as a result of the movement to become integrated into your work. Finally, drop the movements and sing the song. If you’ve spent enough time actually doing the action, you will notice a natural inclination to physically move in a manner that is appropriate to what you are saying.
“Text drives emotion. Emotion drives performance. If words don’t matter, your song would be an instrumental.”
- Create a Cover
- Instead of performing a song exactly like the original artist, create your own version!
- Speed – try slowing it down and speeding it up
- Expression – light and airy, or big and belty
- Vocal improvisation – tone colour, onsets, vibrato, melodic variations (see tipsheet Styles and Effects)
- Rhythm – straight or swung, triple or quadruple time
- Instrumentation – vary the accompanying instrument
- Genre – rockabilly, folk, hard rock, pop, heavy metal, reggae, indie country, punk, jazz, blues, RnB…
- Create a Character
- Most solo artists are part of the songwriting process – either singing their own life experience or something they relate to or something that is deeply personal.
- It is rare for musical theatre performers to be part of the writing process, therefore they learn processes to help them personalise the character someone else has conceived.
- Answer Uta Hagen’s character questions in as much detail as possible to flesh out your character (see the tipsheet for more prompts)
- Who are you and what are your circumstances?
- What are your relationships?
- What do you want?
- What is your obstacle?
- What do you do to get what you want?
- How can you see this song story through the eyes of this character?
“Every song has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a story; a plot which should engage my liveliest curiosity, tug at my emotions and have me intrigued, wondering “What will happen next? How’s it going to finish?”…As story-teller, it’s your job to make me believe that story and care about its outcome…to communicate as best you can the nuances of both story and music which have been entrusted to you. It’s sort of a contract.”
HOW DOES THE MUSIC SUPPORT THE STORY?
After you have discovered the story through the text, it is time to look at the effect the music has on that text. Do any of the following considerations influence your conclusions?
- Melody and harmony
- Notice the way the size and direction of an interval impacts the words, emotions and actions of your song.g. a large ascending interval might add emphasis to the syllable or word on the higher note.
- Is the modality major or minor?How does this influence the story?
- Does the song modulate (change key) part way through the song?At what point? What impact does this create?
- Check out the harmonic (chord) progression…are there some unexpected changes away from simple or predictable chord changes?Where to they occur in the text and the story?
- The time signature will play a role in the story telling.Where do the beat accents fall in the lyrics? How does this add or remove emphasis? Does the time signature change during the song? Why do you think the composer wrote it that way?
- The length of each note will impose a feeling on the story. How will you interpret that?
- Speed variations are another element of the music that coincides with lyrics…where does your song speed up or slow down?Is it a straight rhythm or swung? Factors like these are powerful in your story telling.
- Silence is golden. Rests are very important in music. They create interest and momentum and are a fascinating aspect of the story. Where are the rests in relation to your lyrics? You may want to draw them into your lyric sheet. How do they impact the words/emotions before and after them?
- Structure and form – why do you think the sections are arranged in the order they’re in?
REHEARSE THE STORY
- Experiment until you discover which of the tools above suit you and your song.
- Create as many notes and cues as you need to start refining the choices these tools led you to.
- Some choices will be fresh each day, but others will remain part of the song as you memorise it.
- Create a new lyric sheet with a simple set of cues that reliably lead you into the story.
- For example:
- An image or taste or smell that reminds you of the song’s setting and circumstances
- A sketch, image or video clip that you can focus on as you sing
- For example:
RECORD THE STORY
- Audio-only recordings are useful to reflect on the subtle differences found in each of the tools above.
- At the start of each recording, describe the tool you are trialling so that you have a reference point while listening later on.It is probably a good idea to record several scenarios one after the other and then listen back to them all in sequence. Try not to be judgmental of yourself. Instead, listen for colours and expression that you like and that reveals elements of the story you are aiming to reveal.
- When your rehearsal process has advanced into more settled choices, try adding in video recordings to observe how the story is coming across. If you have trouble being objective about the results, ask someone you trust to watch it and give you feedback.
PERFORM THE STORY
The best way to ripen storytelling is to share it with others. Big or small, face-to-face or online, learning to enter the world of the story through performance will get easier with frequent repetition. Where possible, record and review these performances.
RINSE AND REPEAT
Review your performance video/audio files with as much of a growth mindset as possible. You will always find things to improve. But make it your objective to find things that you like and want to keep developing. This is where the gold is.
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Edwards, M. (ed.) (2018). So You Want to Sing CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music): A Guide for Performers. A project of NATS. Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland
Edwards, M. (2014). So You Want to Sing Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Guide for Professionals. A project of NATS. Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland.
Robinson, D. K. (2015). How To Sing with More Emotion: Communicate the Subtext. YouTube clip: https://youtu.be/W7PbliDFeA8
Wilson, P. H. (2001). The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual. (2nd edition). Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney.
Zangger Borch, D. (2005). Ultimate Vocal Voyage. Notfabriken Music Publishing, Sweden.