Understanding Your Song's Text
Post by: Peter Bosgraaf
What do we work on with our students when the fundamentals of a song are good to go? This is the perfect time to have them dive into the meaning behind the text. Coming from a strong musical theatre background, I have found that students spend most of their time concentrating on the notes and rhythms of a song in their voice lessons. However, when it comes to understanding the meaning of the words, the story as a whole, and the context behind that story, students can often be a little lost. So where do we begin with this exploration? First, you need to know whether the words fall under the category of lyrics or are they based on a poem.
Most classical music is based on poetry written by contemporaries of the composer. They deal with relationships, political ideas, or even the love of nature. Is it possible to take these words that were meant to be read and create an atmosphere for the listener that is both interesting and engaging? That can be a difficult task when most classical music is in a language that is foreign to us. I have found that the easiest way to bring those words to life is through translating the poetry and then reading the text aloud. Use the text like a theatrical monologue that you are performing for an audience. Then read the text in front of people and see if you are capturing the essence behind the text. An audience will tell you if you are connecting with them. The most difficult hurdle is to then perform that piece in the original language and still get the meaning across. That is when a little acting and facial expressions can go a long way. Here is a wonderful article on how to turn your lyrics or song text into a monologue: Exploring Characters Through Songalogues.
It is a little easier for the person singing musical theatre. They have a text in English and a story that is already established. However, we have all seen a show where we did not believe the actor as a character. It really is our job as performers to not just entertain an audience, but to make them feel something. The most memorable performances are the ones where we are emotionally moved by the character and story. We need to be able to create a beautiful sound AND touch a person’s heart. Following the same formula as above, the actor can break apart the text of the song and analyze the words, character, and intention. For a more in-depth method of accomplishing this, please visit this wonderful article from Theatrefolk: Song Analysis and Singing in Character.
As good voice teachers, we want students to learn the notes, rhythms, and understand the theory behind the song. But as performers, we need to remember that we have an audience. They are the most important part of our performance. That audience is there to support us in our work, and all they ask is to be provided a moment, a laugh, a tear, heartache, joy, or excitement. Will you take the time to go beyond the notes on the page and create that moment for your audience? Or will you ignore the performance possibilities and continue with the status quo? The choice is yours; however, as I have always told my students: you can do just about anything with an audience except bore them. We only remember the best and the worst performances. Which one will you choose to be?