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Comedy & Tragedy
Image by Cayusa via Flickr

Last weekend I was invited to coach a group of  student singers and play for them in recital.  The program included classical and pop music as well as Broadway show tunes.

From the viewpoint of a vocal coach, these styles have many similarities.  Yes, the requirements of vocal production are widely different.  But what do they have in common?

There was one issue consistent among the singers:  the words!

Expressing the words

What does it take?  What do we need to look at?  What kinds of decisions do we need to make?

1.  Do your own translation. Every singer must know which word is which!  One singer I was coaching didn’t know which words were the most expressive, because she had only a general idea of what they meant.  The publisher had provided a translation next to the original text.  Looking up just a few words would have made a huge difference.

The word order changes from language to language, folks.

2.  Know where each sentence begins and ends.

Not every group of words you sing is a complete sentence!  Look at the printed text. When you come to a rest with a piano interlude, do you see a comma?  A semicolon?  If you don’t see a period, the sentence continues.

3.  Perform the words, spoken aloud, first in English and then in the language of the song.  Declaim them.

This step is crucial.  There are no shortcuts.

You will sound like you are in a fog if you blow this off.  You’ll just be singing gibberish.  You are telling a story!

4.  Find the most important words. Then be expressive on the stressed syllables of those words.  (BLEI-ben, VEIL-chen, VA-ter, etc.  Same approach in English.  French, an unstressed language, is an exception.)  “The,” “a,” ‘”and,” and “or” are unimportant.  They can almost be passed over, singing shorter notes.  (There are occasional exceptions, of course.)

This applies even when the notation indicates an entire measure of quarters or eighths. When we speak, syllables require varying amounts of time to verbalize.  We just talk without realizing that.  In singing, notation sometimes gets in the way of expression.  Declaiming the words away from the music is so important!

Example of stressed syllables:
“We’re OFF to see the WIzard,
the WONderful WIzard of OZ.”

4.  Connect sentences with your thought. Your intention to convey a sentence matters.

“… sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…”

“… the happy ones, again unite
amidst this sun-breathing earth, …”

from “Morgen!” by Richard Strauss
text by John Henry Mackay

In this song, the thought continues between “einen” and “inmitten,” although there is a piano interlude (so the singer can breathe!).

How would you finesse that?  How could you connect the 2 lines to make a sentence while breathing in between?

How about breathing immediately upon the release of  “einen,” with the intention of conveying the connection? In other situations, you might take care not to drop the end of the syllable preceding the break.  In fact, a crescendo preceding a break creates a wonderful illusion of continuity.

5.  Know the mood of your character. The intensity changes during almost all songs.  Is your character wistful?  Triumphant?  Still hopeful?  Resigned?  Your vocal production, facial expression, gesture, and volume must change accordingly.

When you sing the same words more than once, each statement is different. Are you becoming more emphatic or resigning yourself to the reality of the situation?  You can sing louder or softer to match the mood.

Example: “I love you, I love you, I love you!”  You sing it 3 times because you mean it!  Don’t let it be just a bunch of words.

No matter how long you’ve studied or in which genre you are singing, spending time delving into the words of your song will improve your understanding and performance.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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