When you hear a great singer, from any genre, you know within the first word or so who is singing. Think of Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Dolly Parton, Cecilia Bartoli, Richard Tucker, etc. Great singers always sing very honestly. This is the case in popular music as well as in classical. Sometimes when I hear a singer with good technique but nothing else, I think, “hmm, they probably should find work doing back up singing, or commercials.” This is because they sound like a dime a dozen well-trained vocalists. Technique is very important; it allows a singer to have full access to their instrument, give the proper treatment to any melody and to sing in ways that are healthy and insure a long career. But technique alone is not singing.
Great songwriters, lyricists, librettists and composers know that in vocal music, melodies are written to give expression to the text. The melody must make sense and never try to overshadow the text. If the lyrics are not well-written a good melody can’t do much to save the song. The singer’s main job is to convey the ideas of the text to a listener through the medium of the melody. The singer’s technical ability will allow for them to do this job in a skillful manner.
Many singers who fail to understand their job think that they are supposed to focus on their own voice, or on themselves during a performance. These singers will never give a great performance until they re-prioritize. In order to really move an audience, the singer must realize that they are there as an artistic translator of sorts. They are to be as honest as they can be so as to give life to the great text and melodies that they have been entrusted with singing. The instant that the performance becomes about themselves, or their voice, they have lost their way and also lost their audience. This is true even when they also happen to be singing material that they have written themselves.
Regardless of whether it’s pop, opera, musical theater or any genre, once the technique has been thoroughly worked and the song or aria is “in the voice,” I teach my students to take time with the text and find their “purpose” in the piece. I have them speak each line of text as if it were a conversation they are having. They must understand where the natural phrasing of the text occurs and apply that phrasing to the melody. I ask them to think in terms of Who, What, Where, Why, How and When. Who are they talking to? Where is it happening? When is it happening? Why are they there? How did they get there? What is happening in the song? They need to continue to ask questions like these on every line through the entirety of the text in order to understand it properly. They must take the text personally and make it personal. If the text is not in their native language, this must be done using a word-by-word translation, rather than only an idiomatic translation.
Once the text is fully understood, it is then time for the painstaking job of joining technique with purpose. This is a lot of time consuming work. It should be a lot of work; but it’s enjoyable and rewarding work. A singer has been given a very important job, and fine songs and arias are not to be taken for granted. What happens as a result of working deeply with the text in this manner is that the material being sung is given new life, and the singer is actually singing, not just vocalizing or imitating. This not only builds the framework for great performances, but it also gives the singer an opportunity to grow profoundly as an artist with each and every song they learn.
Great performances don’t just happen. They, like everything worthwhile in life, come with a glorious price.