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?
References: Hamady, Jennifer (2009). The Art of Singing. Hal Leonard.