EXPRESSION, EXPRESSION, EXPRESSION
Most students come to me to learn vocal technique, but I always have to point out the importance of expression (which is, after all, technique anyway). I have found over the years that the ability to convey meaning and expression seems to come naturally in some and is completely missing in others! I have also found that it’s surprisingly difficult to teach. You can get someone who speaks expressively, but as soon as you give them a song to sing, that same expression is just not there.
Obviously I take into account things like nerves and the concentration required for learning vocal technique (which demands enormous focus just like when you’re learning to drive a car), but even when students are really comfortable with me and their technique is bedding in, some will still not be able to convey the emotion and meaning of a song well.
I’ve thought about this a lot on and off over the years and have come to the conclusion that it’s much the same as singing different musical styles – some people can just hear that something needs to be sung in a lazy, laconic way, whilst something else needs to sound urgent, almost angry. It’s pretty much the same thing going on inside the brain as enables me to turn my natural/classical “voices” on and off. For me, there’s nothing worse than hearing a classical singing voice singing a contemporary song – it’s just wrong (I’m sure some of you will disagree but I can’t stand cheesiness!) Similarly, it’s never going to work singing an aria in a “Coldplay” voice (luckily the calibre of singers singing Coldplay or Ed Sheeran aren’t going to cope with any arias as this takes years and years of vocal development and practice!). Style and expression, therefore, seem to be governed by the same style ability switch in the brain – that is, whether a person can hear the style change.
I try to help students to think more carefully about how they approach a song, in order to help them overcome this and for some, they do get it. The most important thing of course is to read the lyrics – yes, I did say that – read the lyrics! I really don’t think a lot of people do this these days (no doubt why Sia has managed to become popular!! – see my blog post number 11) with the result that they have absolutely no idea what they’re singing about and of course this really doesn’t help them to convey the meaning and emotion of those same words. Students are often really surprised when I ask them to read the lyrics in a spoken voice first as they then engage (often for the first time) with the meaning of a song they’ve been singing for ages. The next thing I ask students to do is to listen to the accompaniment (if there is one) as this will give the singer a lot of clues as to how to sing a song. If the music is loud, you need to be loud too, if the music is quiet, you need to sing quietly, and so on. There are other clues within the lyrics as well though. For example, if the lyrics say something like:
“Now I shout it from the highest hills”…..the word “shout” is clearly telling you to sing louder! (from “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane, in case you’re wondering!).
Folk music (or for that matter any repetitive song with little structure other than loads of verses) requires a lot of thought as, if you’ve got thirteen verses to sing with no choruses or bridges etc to break things up a bit, you’ve got to be creative about how you sing the song otherwise your audience will just fall asleep….
Vary the rhythms within the song for more interest, put stresses on certain words, vary the melody for more interest and of course think about the dynamics in the song (as mentioned above), that is, where you need to sing loudly or quietly eg:
“Last night she came to me, my dear love came in So softly she came that her feet made no din…” (from the traditional Irish folk song “She Moved through the Fair”)
Again here, the clues are in the lyrics – you’re not going to be singing loudly when the lyrics are telling you that the character you’re singing about made no sound when she came in!
Jazz is also a wonderful musical style for experimenting and working on expression, which is why I love singing it. You do need a certain amount of creativity to be able to sing jazz well as improvisation is key (that is, varying the melody quite a way beyond the written melody) but it can mean that the song ends up being better than the way it was originally set). I always look at a contemporary score and then think about what I can do with it. I’m looking at the song melody as a guide basically and then making the song my own, which is a lot of fun, taking into account the steps I’ve mentioned above. It's also much better than singing a song exactly the way another singer sings it - that's just karaoke and won't help you to develop as a singer.
Anyway, I hope that’s helpful! To end this post, and to rest my case as it were, I want to give you a very clear example of what not to do with a song! Most people will have heard of the song “The first time ever I saw your face” (made famous by Roberta Flack in the 1970s and used in the brilliant thriller “Play Misty for Me” with Clint Eastwood in the lead role). Have a listen to a recorded version of Roberta singing this song - she makes a beautiful job of it and it's very hard not to get emotional when you listen to it – she brings the emotion in the song alive.
What few people will realise, however, is that this song wasn’t written by Roberta Flack but by a folk singer called Ewan McColl (as pointed out to me by one of my students last week). He actually wrote the song for his lover, another folk singer by the name of Peggy Seeger. The way in which she ruins the song is, therefore, more bewildering as it's about her – but really, it’s quite appalling! Enjoy!