In all of these years of teaching song interpretation, with countless students of varying degrees of talent, I find myself repeatedly in the same situation. I have to “endure” a version of a song for three minutes (or longer) that has nothing to do with the performer or his abilities, but simply with what the student thinks he “has to” do to succeed. Due to the endless watching of videos on Youtube and thinking, “If only I sing like x, it will definitely work”, it has escalated far beyond any bearable point over the course of the past few years.
No use in listing endless examples of what not to do. My intention here is to point you into a direction that might help you avoid such encounters.
What? What is so important? Why should I listen to you? WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
My students can tell endless stories of me pestering them with the questions above. However, they can also tell you stories on how they succeeded once being able to answer these questions.
Musical Theater, in the traditional sense, let’s the actor break into song to continue the momentum and to raise emotional intensity. It is either used as a continuous monologue or dialogue of the character(s) or the inner turmoil that continues. The emotion continues. Even when taken out of context in a concert format, the first few notes open a window into an existing emotion.
That is the key to the success of the song.
What happened? Why do I have to sing now?
The answer to this question should be one word, three at the most. In a perfect world, this answer consists of an emotion. One word – any long explanation is not communicable.
Find the emotional journey your character is experiencing. From A-Z. Even detours. But – One emotion at a time. Write the lyrics out in a letter form and find out when the emotions change. At times you will find lyrics and musical breaks don’t coincide, that usually is intentional. (Having said that, there is, however, a lot of bad material out there, in which you have to work very hard to make it work.)
When taken out of context the song will still have its journey. Note: Only Life and Death are important. Everything else is superfluous. Would you listen to a 3-minute song about the technique of hanging up the laundry?
After the initial: What? we arrive at Why? Why should I listen to you? What’s so important? Even if the lyrics and/or the music seem superficial, find a reason to fight. For anything. If there is none, make one up. No one knows what you’re thinking. But you’re fighting for something, that is what the listener will notice. That is the key.
If it is a matter of life or death to you at that moment, the listener will experience that and join you in your plight. And will listen.
Copyright of headshot of Annika Bruhns lies with Karim Khawatmi.