The Text Is the Heart of the Song
A singer is unique from every other musician in that they perform in words. A well-written song has a melody line which supports the text, and not the other way around. A master composer or songwriter uses melody to produce the maximum impact of the text being sung. I often think of a well written vocal melody as being an exaggerated speech pattern, or series of speech inflections.
A singer’s responsibility is in delivering the lyrics of a song in such a way that they are allowing for the text to be best communicated to the audience. A singer’s job isn’t to call attention to themselves, or to show off what a great voice they have; rather, it is to be a vehicle by which the composer or songwriter communicates intimately with the listener. This is true even if the performer is also the songwriter themselves.
Occasionally, there are times when it is appropriate and necessary for a singer to use riffs, or embellishments in order to demonstrate their virtuosity as a singer; yet, those devices are to be used in the service of the song or aria itself. The mindless riffing of each and every phrase of music is an unfortunate practice that has become somewhat mainstream in popular music over the past few decades. Excessive riffing can be a very egotistical way of performing. It seems to tell the audience, “listen to what I can do!” “This is all about me!” “I could be singing the phone book, so who cares about the song?” Yet, a master artist always remembers that improvisations, riffs, coloratura, and embellishments are strictly for the purpose of supporting the message of the music, and not merely for calling attention to themselves.
There are some pieces or sections of vocal music that do not have any text at all. These are commonly called “vocalises.” During the singing of a textless piece of music, the singer is still required to do their best to understand the intentions of the composer or songwriter, and to remember that their job is to be the messenger, not the message.
So many singers come to my studio for a lesson with a song or aria in a language which they do not speak. The diction has often been well coached and is quite clear; yet, it is obvious that the singer has no idea what they are singing about. Once we go through the piece word-by-word, and understand what is actually being sung, the performance becomes a grand new experience for all concerned.
Similarly, there are many times a singer comes in with a song that they have learned from a recording of another artist. Even when it is a song in the singer’s own language, it is obvious that they are singing it “by rote.” The stylistic choices are exactly those of the artist they have listened to, and there is often little to no understanding of the character back of the song itself.
Regardless of the style of music or the language of a song, it is imperative that as a singer, you have an intimate relationship with the text you are singing. Ask yourself some very important questions like, “Who is the character who is singing these words?” “Are they alone, or with someone?” “Where are they?” “Why are they singing these words?” “What happened to bring them to this time and place?” “What time of day is it?” “How long have they been thinking these thoughts?” “What emotions are they feeling?” “Where are they going from here?” etc.
As you go through the text, try speaking it as an actual piece of conversation from the various points of view you determined by asking the questions above. Notice if there are any arcs in the text. Do these arcs relate to musical arcs as well?
Try speaking the text in different ways, whisper it, cry it, laugh it, make it sarcastic, serious, funny, sad. Regardless of what you think the song means, by deconstructing the text in this manner you can mine some true gold from the depths of the words on the page.
As you become clearer in your understanding of the text and the ideas behind it, you can understand more clearly the melodic choices of the composer. You can choose to phrase how you sing the lines in ways that breathe life into the words. You can understand dynamic markings better, or choose your own dynamics if they have not been given to you. You are able to know when to lean into the sound and when to pull back, not because you heard someone else do it that way, but because that’s what the song itself is telling you to do.
The listener needs to connect with the text through you, the singer. Avoid singing anything by rote. Give life and energy into each and every word. Understand what you are singing and why you are singing it. Even when you are rehearsing, and not singing “full out,” keep your character fresh by connecting with the energy, emotion, story and motives which are driving the text. Avoid simply singing a series of notes with vowels and consonants attached to it. Each time you sing the song, challenge yourself to find a deeper connection with it than you did the last time you sang it. Singing with this much commitment and mindfulness can be mentally and emotionally exhausting, but this is as it should be.
The text is the heart of every song or aria that you sing, and as Emily Dickinson wrote, The heart wants what the heart wants.