More nuts and bolts, in this post and the next. Here are two techniques I use often: the Speak-thru (for singers) and the Paraphrase (for actors and presenters).
Both techniques help to break students out of stiff, lifeless or artificial performances, but more importantly, they help them make their performance more authentically THEIRS.
Both techniques use a substitution, whereby we move the text from a more removed, formal, or unnatural area of thinking, into a more natural mode of communication. Then we use what we learned to move back into the more formal mode, but with a greater sense of individuality and direct communicative power.
Speak Thru (for singers)
Sometimes I hear a student sing in a way that feels fake or empty. OR the student may be technically out-of-sync with his lyrics, e.g. running out of breath or forgetting lyrics he should know.
I ask the student to speak the lyrics, somewhat in tempo but not strictly so, as I play the accompaniment. If the student doesn’t understand, I play them some Rex Harrison. (For some more examples and an interesting side discussion, try this NPR article.)
I ask them to keep trying it until it sounds like a true spoken phrase, with no “ta-tum ti-tum” meter, no feeling of recitation or reading, and no weird Shatner-izing.
The idea is to click into the brain regions we normally use for our direct spoken communications, the way we talk to real people, when it’s the first and only time they’ll hear what we’re saying. When we do that, we temporarily turn off our preconceptions about singing technique, or the limiting conventions of the musical genre.
Instead, we primarily want to be understood.
Once the student is giving a naturalistic (but still vaguely in tempo) speak-thru, we look at the technical differences between their spoken and sung interpretations. When they use their normal speech function, how do they vary their execution? We look at:
Inflection Dynamic (volume)
Gesture General pitch rang (aka tessitura)
Then we consider how we might import some of these differences back into the sung version. The result is more individual, but also dramatically increases the communicative value of the content. That is, the audience focuses on the message more easily.
For example, when students do their spoken versions, they typically don’t hang on to a word’s final syllable past its sensible length. In most musical genres, this is a great choice for the sung version, too. Here’s why:
Audiences don’t “digest” a word until we stop saying it, because that last syllable might be important.
Improv singing this line:
“Look out! He’s got a guuuuuuuu —- vernment job.”
Cut offs are crucial for meaning. This is a technical reality that we automatically use in our speaking, but we forget it when we think it’s time to “sing”. We prioritize the critique of our singing ability over the meaning of the lyric.
When we speak for communication, we don’t hang on to syllables unless there’s an emotional, emphatic reason. So if as interpretive artists, we ARE holding out a note, we need to know that reason, and mean it, or don’t hold the note.
Another example: the spoken versions often include interesting back-phrasing, rhythmic anticipations, even some improvised repetitions. If the musical genre allows, these may be incorporated into the sung version. This is how jazz singers and musical theatre artists create signature versions of standard songs.
Often the spoken version also eliminates overly affected pronunciation quirks that some students pick up from pop genres, but which aren’t really authentic to their real communication style, like the excessively dropped R’s or ‘mah’ for ‘my’.
The most interesting and consistent change between spoken and sung passes is that students never wonder where to breathe when they do their spoken version. This is a major revelation.
One of my early voice teachers, Judith Shahn, said that in natural speech, we inhale when we have the thought to communicate. We don’t decide to inhale, we simply do it as a result of having the thought to communicate. She went further, saying that the size and speed of this natural, thought-spurred inhale perfectly matches the size of our emotion, and the strength of our desire to communicate.
So when my students speak their lyric, we find out how they really feel about the text, and what level of emotional commitment they think the text really deserves. Once we see that, we can argue the point if need be. This is especially important when working with stricter genres of music, where we don’t get the option to change timing.
For these exact genres, we come at the problem from the other end, and answer a question like: under what real-person circumstances would we take a full 8 beats to say the word ‘love’?
What kinds of things can slow down a person’s speech, alter normal scansion, or force spoken pitch or dynamic into those areas the composer dictates? Could the character be experiencing difficulty getting the words out, hesitancy? Or maybe it’s emphasis, or playfulness? Maybe it’s something mechanical, like the act of calling to someone far away? Consider lyrics like these:
Loooooove for sale!
…Papa, watch me flyyyyyyyyy!
…for Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glooooory… for ehhhhhhhhhver…. ahhhhhhhhhhhh-mehhhhhhhhhhn!
Here’s yet another example of an interesting difference in spoken vs. sung execution: often in a spoken version, the student chooses a pitch tessitura (aka general pitch range) that is much lower than the song, and requires much less physical engagement of the breathing muscles than their sung version requires. I ask them under what circumstances they would actually speak in that much higher range, and use their breathing muscles that actively. Often the answer is “if I was desperate, or really committed.”
So what happens when you “act” the spoken lyrics with that high level of commitment?
The answer: your body gets more involved. The stakes of the moment go up, and it becomes a much more interesting piece, communicating much more than “see how well I can sing this song?”
Some singers become embarrassed when they speak the lyric. They’re happy committing to a note, using approved musical techniques, for which they may have been rewarded in the past. But the spoken version feels more naked. For these singers, their technique is a mask they feel safe hiding behind.
But in the arts, safety is an illusion, a dead end, a trap.
The Speak-thru often strips off the illusion, and challenges the performer to become more authentic, more direct, and more naked. Naked singing is SO much more fun.
See the next post for discussion of Paraphrase, a similar exercise for speakers and actors.