I’ve been designing a course on interpretation and expression with my colleague recently. While planning the course I have thought of my own experiences on learning those subjects. I have attended several courses, read literature and tried out all kinds of methods and exercises. I touched upon this subject even in my Master's thesis. While it was more about artistic thinking my interviewees still talked about expression and song interpretation from different angles.
Learning interpretation and expression can be roughly divided into lyrics- and music-based methods. Lyrics-based method seems to be much more common. I haven’t seen other teachers working in the other way that much. I think the reason for it might be that finding less ambiguous meanings in lyrics is easier than finding them in music. That’s why I often start with the lyrics-based method even myself. So this post will be about that. I’ll write about music-based exercises and mindful listening sometime later in order not to make this post too long.
Some years ago I got to watch several teachers teaching the same student after each other when they applied for singing teacher job at a university. Almost everyone approached the song the student sang in a similar way. First they reflected on what the lyrics were about. After that they asked the student to read out loud the lyrics. Then the song was sung. I’m familiar with this approach myself. My former teachers used it too. I was surprised that there hadn't been much development. I agree that it is useful to understand what the lyrics are about and also to read them out loud. However, if you just jump straight from that to singing the song most of the expression that was achieved in speech often disappears.
Jennifer Hamady (2009) has written about the subject in her book The Art of Singing. Inspired by her I have re-evaluated my own practice when teaching interpretation. When the singer has understood the meanings of the lyrics and is capable of speaking them in a believable manner it is essential to get this carry over to singing. Instead of jumping straight to singing I find it more useful to speak the lyrics on different pitches. It’s important that the singer thinks that they are speaking instead of singing during these exercises. This exercise also shows what kind of intensity is necessary in the song. Sometimes the singer has to choose whether they are willing to express themselves as intensively as the sound they aim for implies. It’s helpful to listen to other singers in a similar way. How would the singer sound if they spoke with the same voice quality as they sing with?
After single pitches you can move on to a simple melody, for example going up and down the scale a third. Still, one should use the rhythm and sound of the speech. You can try this also on different pitches. When it’s easy on the whole range of the song you can move on to the actual melody and rhythm. Even now, it’s useful to think that you are speaking instead of singing. If a certain phase of the exercise feels difficult you should go back to the previous one and try again.
So why do we want to think that we speak? It is supposed to help bypass the mental image that we are singing as well as mannerisms that might be associated to that image. Often when we start singing we kind of set up ourselves for it. That setting might not always be suitable for the song we are singing.
Here is the exercise in short:
1. Speak the lyrics
2. Speak the lyrics on single pitch, change that single pitch
3. Speak the lyrics with a simple melody keeping the rhythm of speech
4. Sing the original melody and rhythm but think that you’re still speaking
Just by adding a couple of phases between speaking and singing the lyrics will usually result into a more authentic performance, one that also feels more meaningful to the singer themselves. This exercise is usually the easier the more speech-like the lyrics are. It might be more challenging to find speech-like rhythm and expression with very poetic lyrics. That often requires more experience and effort. Another kind of an approach might also work better. I recommend trying out different approaches for interpretation and expression. When you are not tied to only one way of interpretation it is possible to leave some options open and be more present and creative while performing.
What are your favourite approaches for interpretation and expression in singing?
Hamady, Jennifer (2009). The Art of Singing. Hal Leonard.
First, it’s good to understand how little we understand and that there are no simple answers. Ingo Titze’s Principles of Voice Production book has proven this to me several times. Before I thought that Bernoulli effect explains the vocal fold vibration. However, Titze (2000, 88-89) writes that it cannot explain the vibration by itself. A small thing like vocal folds and their function are such complicated subjects that their proper understanding requires a lot of study. I have to read same chapters again and again. Every time I understand a little bit more. Does it help me to sing better? Not at all! How about teaching? Perhaps. It’s useful to know how things work. Broader understanding feeds creativity and development of new teaching methods. However, you won’t find straightforward answers in books. Or if you do they are usually half truths or speculations.
Vocal production can be divided into three parts. Lungs (power), vocal folds (source) and vocal tract (filter). Air flowing out of the lungs makes the vocal folds vibrate which creates sound. Vocal tract amplifies and filters that sound. However, the process is not quite linear. All parts of the system have an effect on other parts. For example, the vocal tract can affect the vocal folds' function and the phonation threshold pressure (Titze & Verdolini Abbott 2012, 286-310).
So what should you know about the vocal folds? I think it’s useful to understand at least that the faster the vocal folds vibrate the higher the pitch. It’s good to know something about the structure of the folds and know they attach to cartilages that move in various ways. I think it’s not that essential to remember which muscle moves which part of the larynx. It’s quite enough if you understand that these parts need to be able to move into different positions. One setting or muscle tension can work for one pitch or sound quality and yet it can be totally wrong and unhealthy for another. There might very well be individual variations and different strategies to produce similar sound qualities.
Many might have heard about CT (cricothyroid) and TA (thyroarytenoid) dominance when talking about registers. To put it simple the idea is that head voice/falsetto/M2 is CT dominant and chest voice/M1 is TA dominant. In order to change smoothly between registers we should increase the activity of one and decrease the activity of the other. Does this help with singing or teaching? I don’t think so. Furthermore it’s wrong! The activity of CT seems to be dependent on the pitch not the register (see Kochis-Jennings 2008 & Hull 2013).
How about muscles of breathing? It could be useful to have a look at the anatomy book in order to get an idea what kind of muscles there are in the torso. Many singers have an incorrect idea about diaphragm so I guess it’s good to know where it is and where it’s attached. It’s more essential to understand how breathing works and what kind of role the diaphragm plays in it. It doesn’t help the singer to sing any better if they know all the latin names of those muscles. And instead of muscles teacher should know the meaning of pressure differences in breathing.
Knowing how the tongue and the jaw move can be helpful in understanding the acoustics of the vocal tract. Personally I don’t remember that many names of the muscles but I know how different parts move. I also know what kind of shapes it is possible to make with the vocal tract. Anyway, concentrating on how a single muscle works is a bad practice strategy. Or have you heard that anyone would have learnt to walk by focusing on their thigh muscles? It’s more important to have an understanding of the acoustics of the vocal tract. You should know the basics of overtones, formants and resonances and understand their function in singing.
Overall, when it comes to details of how our body works I think it’s important to remember what is their function in voice production. The whole is more important than the details. In my earlier blog post I wrote about breathing. It doesn’t matter much how you produce an even sublottic pressure as long as you do it. Of course, in teaching we are usually looking for the least effortful way. I guess the main point of my writing(s) is that there is a lot of information out there and very few things are straightforward. There are conflicting views so the more you read the more you learn to be critical. Eventually that will prove to be useful for both teaching and singing.
Hull, Darcey Marie (2013). Thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscular activity in vocal register control. University of Iowa.
Kochis-Jennings, Karen Ann (2008). Intrinsic laryngeal muscle activity and vocal fold adduction patterns in female vocal registers: chest, chestmix, and headmix. University of Iowa.
Titze, Ingo (2000). Principles of Voice Production. Iowa City: National Center for Voice and Speech.
Titze, Ingo & Verdolini Abbott, Katherine (2012). Vocology - The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation. Iowa City: National Center for Voice and Speech