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Singers are Storytellers

Occasionally, while working on one type of article for this blog, I’ll make some comment or point that I realize is such an important one, that it warrants more attention...and it prompts me to write a whole new article to explore it. Below is just such a passage, from my earlier article, UNDERSTANDING THE LYRICS: How Singers Can Improve Their Diction, and Why They Should, that I felt really deserved further scrutiny: “As singers, we aren’t just musical instruments with mouths; we are storytellers. We’re not just up on stage singing a bunch of “oo’s” and “ah’s”. The lyrics we sing are written to express an idea, a feeling, and are often based on specific challenges and circumstances that impacted the songwriter when he/she either experienced them directly, or was exposed to them peripherally. Either way, songs come from stories and feelings, born from human experience. As singers and performers, our jobs are to use our voices to relay those stories, express those feelings; to move the audience with these plights and ideas that they themselves can relate to, whether the sentiment is “I’m so lonesome, I could cry”, or “I want to rock and roll all night, and party every day”. Even when the meaning of the song is not clear and is open for interpretation (“I am the Eggman, they are the Eggmen, I am the Walrus, goo-goo-g’joob”), the words themselves paint a picture, set a mood, and contribute indelibly to the emotional landscape of the song itself.” I often lecture my students on the importance of knowing what you’re singing about, and why you’re singing it. The question “what is this song about” almost inevitably elicits the response, “Well, it’s about how this girl/guy had this or that thing happen to her/him, and she/he is feeling this way or that way as a result, so they are singing about it.” My first critique when I hear this type of response (which is often) is: “Stop playing the pronoun game. Who is singing this song? It’s not ‘some girl’ or ‘some guy’’s you. Your audience is not listening to some stranger, here...they are listening to you; they want to know what happened to YOU, what YOU are singing about, and WHY you’re singing about it. Sure, you may not have personally had the exact specific experience that the character in the song has, but like a good actor should, you’re connecting to and empathizing with the emotions that go along with the story and character the song is written around, and making them your own. Happy, sad, angry, or apathetic, the story becomes YOUR story...and the audience can tell.” I’ve had this dialogue with hundreds of students over the years, and almost every time I do, something wonderful happens: their entire performance of the song transforms. Just the simple process of personalizing it...saying “I’m singing this song, because this or that happened to me, and it made me feel like this or that” creates a much stronger sense of commitment, and the performance tends to become much more moving, engaging, and impactful to the listener as a result. And singers themselves report that they feel more connected to the song, and feel as though they’ve shared something more intimate of themselves as a result. Quick story: I had a student...we’ll call him “Buddy”. Buddy was a singer/guitarist, and we were working at the time on his acoustic guitar rendition of the song <a href="" target="_blank">“Glycerine” by the band Bush</a>. Buddy’s pitch, timing, diction, and technique all sounded good...and yet, besides a nice sounding voice, there wasn’t anything overly poignant or meaningful coming out of the performance of a song that sounded like it really should have been relaying something more heartfelt. After a few run-throughs, I asked Buddy what the song was about, and sure enough, he was a little taken aback and admitted he wasn’t really sure. The meaning of the lyrics, he said, wasn’t really very clear; they sounded like they were trying to say something personal, but at the same time, were kind of talking in circles. I pressed him, saying that it didn’t matter what Gavin Rossdale (the singer from Bush) meant when he wrote the song; Gavin Rossdale wasn’t in the room with us. There was nothing but Buddy, his voice, his guitar, and his audience (which at that moment happened to be me). He insisted he had no idea what the song was about, and I pushed him further, telling him to just start talking about the song, even if what came out of his mouth was gibberish; just move his mouth, and let words roll out. “Who are you? Why are you singing this song? Who are you singing this song to? What are you feeling at this very moment that’s making you want to sing this song right now?” Under pressure and beginning to get emotional, he blurted out that he was a guy who was full of regret, singing to the girl who he let slip through his fingers. She loved him, but he was emotionally unavailable to her, and now she’s gone, and there’s nothing he can do about it. I asked him where he was while singing the song --- he answered that he was sitting alone in his room, missing her, singing the song into the thin air, hoping that somehow, somewhere, some way, she could hear him, and know that he’s sorry; that he hopes she’s okay, and that she’s happy. His words came out at first in a stammer, but eventually flew out of his mouth like they’d been waiting patiently to do so for ages. He finished speaking, and we sat there in my studio, deadly silent for a few moments. I nodded to him and said, “Okay. Now do the song again.” was like something had switched a light on inside of Buddy as he sang the song again. The experience of hearing him at that moment was that I don’t even feel like spending much effort putting into words. I’ll simply say that everything he had just blurted out in that previous moment came together in the words of the song, and in his approach to singing them. I was genuinely moved to hear him. It was a true birthday moment for Buddy, and it was wonderful to see it happen. It was the moment when this guitarist who was learning to improve his voice actually became a singer: someone who had something to say, and was moved to say it. His approach to what he sang and how he sang it, in the weeks and months that succeeded this particular lesson, were fundamentally changed. The above story may sound a touch dramatic and flowery, but you have my word, it happened, beat-by-beat, as I’ve told it. If we strive to be more than just instruments with mouths, we should all take a page from Buddy’s book. Doing what he was able to do is what separates a person who sings from someone who is a SINGER. An artist knows what they are saying, and why they are saying it, and so should we. I urge anyone reading these words now to consider this simple idea. Read the lyrics to whatever song you choose to sing, and decide how they appeal to your own personal emotional landscape. Even if the words don’t seem to make sense initially (“I am the Eggman, they are the Eggmen, I am the Walrus, goo-goo-g’joob”), give it some thought, and find how those words paint a picture, set a mood, or resonate thematically or viscerally inside of you. Making a habit of doing so will bring you systematically closer to becoming the singer and artist you dream of being.

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