The Singer's Dilemma


Listening to music can be like opening an emotional vein. When listening to music we have access to memories and emotions that otherwise simmer in the background unnoticed and unacknowledged. Music brings these memories and emotions from a simmer to a boil until they spill over to the surface. 

Many of us spend our lives in pursuit of mastery of our instruments and our technique, spending thousands of hours alone in the practice room and in rehearsal with our colleagues refining, tweaking, analysing, drilling, and discussing every aspect of the music. All of this work takes place in order to cultivate technical freedom, a unique and identifiable sound and interpretative artistry. This kind of work requires a level of focus, tenacity, devotion, and sacrifice that can often be interpreted but others as selfish and anti-social. It's definitely not for everyone and it's really no surprise to discover that many of the most respected and revered performers are naturally quite introverted and socially awkward... 

But when it's all said and done it all comes back to opening that vein and the performer is the blade that opens that vein... It's a great responsibility, not to be taken lightly or overlooked. 

Musicians, regardless of the instrument are responsible for communicating meaning through music, but the singer is the only instrument able and required to perform music and lyrics. It is important to study all the musical, technical and stylistic demands of the song and make sure that we can negotiate all that is required. We have to think about where to breath and find the musical cues in the accompaniment to assist us with 'finding the note' and 'when to come in'... We have to 'pre-hear' our pitch and learn not to listen to ourselves, but rather to what's happening around us. And somehow we have to make it all look and sound effortless while finding meaning in the music and telling the story. 

So how do we sing 'meaning' while maintaining musicality and great sound? Have you ever tried to speak or sing while being overcome with emotion? Do you know that feeling when you can feel tears welling up and an uncomfortable ache developing in your throat as you hold back those tears... sometimes known as feeling 'choked up'. You try to hold it together in front of your boss or your colleagues or even a friend but your voice betrays you... 

Check out Kelly Clarkson's emotional performance on American Idol. She's singing an incredibly personal lyric while also being heavily pregnant so undoubtedly tired and dealing with all the crazy pregnancy hormones. She battles on regardless and manages to keep her audience engaged and on her side but there is no mistaking the difficulty she is experiencing with phonation, breath, pitch and tone: 

In this next clip Adele encourages her audience to sing along with her to help cover the difficulty she experiences with singing while overcome with emotion: 

I've had the very difficult, sombre privilege of singing at more than a few funerals in my time. I learnt very quickly that I had to find a way of controlling my own emotional response to the situation and the emotion drawn out by the music. This is one performance situation that really has nothing at all to do with me or my feelings. More on that later... 

How about feeling vulnerability, anguish and maybe a touch of resentment... 

Check out Miley Cyrus kind of losing it and baring it all: 

What about being overcome with laughter, otherwise known as a 'fit-of-the-giggles' or 'corpsing'... 

Check out this amazing clip from the extras of the program 'Extras' 

Now while this is not singing, it's still a perfect example of how impossible it is to carry on unaffected once you've let the emotion take over. 

I have fallen victim to 'corpsing' while singing on more occasions than I care to admit. I work with some of the most talented and hilarious musos around and they often take advantage of my Achilles' heel by whispering a highly inappropriate alternative song title or lyric just loud enough for me to hear, right when I'm opening my mouth to sing... sometimes I manage to internalise my giggle but sometimes it gets the better of me. Most of the time I can still kind of sing but my voice is definitely compromised and I'm sure it would be obvious to everyone that I'm holding back a laugh! 

I love this quote from Ricky Gervais, which I think applies beautifully to any form of performance, singing included and is certainly not exclusively synonymous with 'corpsing'... 

"When you're acting [insert SINGING] , you're not caught up in the moment... anything can put you off. You're never not aware of your surroundings..." 

I can confidently say that when you're singing you definitely can't be caught up in the moment. You're aware of your audience, your band, the light shining in your eyes, your technique, the lyrics you have to remember, that tricky bar in the second verse, that note right on your break in the chorus, etc etc etc... And yes, you can be put off my a cough in the crowd, the pained expression of the guy in the front row (which probably has nothing to do with you but you can't help but think that they're judging you), an accidental wrong note in your intro, that annoying hum in your fold back monitor and that little voice in your head that's giving you a running commentary of your performance, pointing out all your shortcomings, undermining you and pulling your focus from the task at hand. It's a wonder we can sing at all, let alone deliver a genuine and moving performance that connects with our audience and leads them on their own individual emotional journey. 

These things become manageable with time, knowledge, experience and good technique. Focussing on my technique has enabled me to access greater vocal and creative freedom, the net result of which has been an increase in my expressive and artistic options. I've never felt held back or stifled creatively by improving my technique. The more prepared I am, the more confident I am and the more in control I am of the volume of that running commentary. I can turn that annoying voice down and turn my focus to the music, the story and my audience because I know I can rely on certain things happening automatically. I have developed a muscle memory for breathing and postural alignment, and although I continue to include breath management in my practice routine this is not something I am consciously monitoring the entire time I'm performing. 

As a teacher I generally see two kind of students; a) those that are naturally very musical and have free and easy access to their emotions and therefore an innate ability to connect with any lyric they sing, and b) those that are technically adept and clever but find it difficult to sing expressively and find that emotional connection to the song, the lyric, the story. In my experience this is not necessarily a matter of age or maturity level. It seems to be more of a personality type. Having said that, I have definitely learnt to be more open as a performer with age, life experience and performance experience. I remember a time when I took a 'park and bark' approach to performing (I'm not sure that I've ever really been a 'barker' per say, but I certainly went through a phase where I just let my voice do the talking). I think I felt I was being more outwardly expressive than I really was, but I was mildly crippled but what I thought others would think of me so I never really took any big risks. The turning point for me was working with a director who was a lecturer at NIDA. He took me under his wing while directing a production of HMS Pinafore and I'll never forget the advice he gave me that changed my approach to performing from that point on. He told me that when you stand on stage in front of an audience you have to be prepared to be vulnerable and not be ashamed of it. One must face the audience and say "this is how I am when I'm sad, this is how I am when I'm happy, this is how I am when I'm in love, this is how I am when I'm in mourning, this is how I am when I'm angry... and I'm ok with you seeing that". This was very difficult for me at first because we're rarely ok with people seeing or knowing how we are when we're feeling these things. In fact, I'd also argue that as a rule we don't really want to know or see what people are really like when they're experiencing a lot of these feelings. Society has conditioned us to filter ourselves to make others more comfortable. But when performing certain things have to be larger than life if they're going to carry through to the audience. Of course there is also context to consider... a music theatre singer, an opera singer, a jazz singer, or a rock singer are going to have different ways of expressing emotion. Immersing oneself in the genre is required to ensure that the stylistic elements of that genre are met, both musically and in terms of performance style (I say this while also acknowledging that there are no real rules, just certain conventions and expectations that are common to certain styles. One should always aim to discover and develop a genuine and unique performance style/persona). Anyway, those words (along with a few other 24 carat gold nuggets that I may reveal at another time) have always stuck with me and served me well. 

So now it’s time to boil down ‘The Singer’s Dilemma’. How do we open that emotional vein for our audience and deliver a convincing, genuine and moving performance without succumbing to the physical effects of fully experiencing these emotions first hand and therefore compromising our vocal function? 

You simply can’t feel all the feelings when you’re singing. You must become a prism through which the emotion can freely flow and refract outwards for others to experience. You have been blessed to be the only instrument on the stage that can deliver text as well as music. I find that lyrics coupled with the human voice equips the music super-powers. I like to call this super-power ‘the Intravenous Effect’. It’s as though we gain direct access to the veins of the audience because there’s nothing more relatable than a fellow human being communicating (albeit through the medium of song) in a language that we can easily understand (sometimes, not always, wordless/singerless music can be less accessible). How often have you fallen in love with a song because the story resonated so perfectly with a personal experience or because the songwriter somehow managed to precisely articulate how you're feeling? Super-power!!! Am I right??? And you know what they say about super-powers… great responsibility and all that… 

So, as the performer you can’t feel all the feelings! It’s your job, nay, your responsibility to take the listener on a journey and allow them to feel all the feelings. You have to leave space in your interpretation and performance for the audience to have their own individual experience. If the performer’s emotions take over, not only will the vocal performance be somewhat compromised (breath, pitch, articulation etc) but the whole experience and focus becomes wrapped up in the singer and the song may be less open to the individual listener’s interpretation. Now this is not always a bad thing of course, but I think in general we singers should be striving to serve the music and the listener. 

This is perhaps easier said than done, especially if you happen to fall into the category of singer I referred to earlier: a) those that are naturally very musical and have free and easy access to their emotions and therefore an innate ability to connect with any lyric they sing. One of my favourite, most enthusiastic and naturally curious students recently commented that he could live with being imperfect as a singer, but would hate it if people thought he was a boring performer. I 100% endorse this sentiment. An audience will always forgive a few pitchy notes here and there if you’ve delivered an engaging performance. I also think that when it comes to the performance we have to leave behind the practice room and move our focus from technical mastery and freedom to expression and artistry. We have to trust that we’ve done the work and the muscle memory will kick in. I explained to my student that he shouldn’t mistake our current technical focus in lessons with a desire on my part for him to become a technically perfect singer. I explained that he already has perfect and natural access to the emotions in the lyric as well as the subtext. He is a deep and analytic thinker with the ability to demonstrate a range of emotions when he sings. However, sometimes he is so caught up in this aspect of the music that there is little evidence of technical awareness. The breath becomes high and inefficient, the intonation becomes unreliable and the foot tapping is increasingly out of time with the underlying pulse of the song. So I reassured him that he couldn’t be boring if he tried and we would get around to working on this aspect of performance eventually… In my humble opinion it’s important to build a healthy and solid foundation of fundamental technical and musical awareness while putting ‘feeling’ on hold momentarily. During our conversation I compared this to icing a cake while it’s still in the oven. If we put the icing on at this stage it’s just going to melt and slide right off the cake and cause all manner of other culinary deficits. However, if we patiently wait for the oven timer to beep, allow the cake to cool and then smear our beautifully rich and creamy icing on top everyone will be dying for a slice and undoubtedly return for seconds! Cake with no icing is quite nice (aka singing with great technique but lacking the emotional connection) but lashings of buttercream, chocolate ganache or cream cheese icing is so much better! 

For specific tips on how to ‘sing with feeling’  while not ‘feeling all the feelings’ stay tuned for the next blog post!

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