Day after day, Daniel Bowling has to decide which vocalists will be chosen for the privilege of singing for the audiences of major London shows such as Phantom of the Opera. He knows exactly what he’s looking for—and shares it with VoiceCouncil.
Think of your favorite vocalists. I can guarantee that what makes them stand apart from the crowd is their connection to the thoughts behind the lyrics. In other words, they have gone beyond merely singing a pretty melody; they’ve connected emotionally with the narrative of the song. This act has made a conscious or unconscious impact on their audience—on you.
I see many singers who get carried away with the power of the music without ever making an intelligent connection with the words they are singing. In my business, I see many singers who can belt out show-stopping notes, but not everyone can display that unique connection with the narrative of the song which makes for a memorable performance.
I’m going to share with you now the principles I teach to vocalists who are competing to get into the highest-quality Broadway productions. If you follow these principles, you will find yourself moving into new areas of artistic expression—into performances your audiences will remember.
1. Get Away from the Music
Many vocalists never step back from the music to find a connection with the words of the song. Why is this? Life is busy! We get thrown a new song to perform, we have to rush to a rehearsal, or there’s too little time between the end of performances and having to pack up to move to the next venue. So, we learn the music but we don’t take that important extra step of connecting emotionally to the words themselves.
This way of rehearing is a false economy because if you skip the step of connecting with the words themselves, your audience will recognize (consciously or unconsciously) that your performance is missing a certain quality.
What we can end up with is impressive musicality which lacks the “extra” touch which really makes the difference.
The very first step the vocalist needs to take may feel counterintuitive: to get away from the music. Our natural instinct is to allow the melody to dictate to us what the rhythm of the words should be and consequently the melodic “flow” becomes all-important. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you don’t address the words themselves, then you’re missing a big part of the equation.
So, you need to step back from the melody and the musical rhythm and attend to the internal rhythm of the words. This will give your performance an intelligence of thought that sets you apart. But how do you find an emotional connection to the words? Read on…
2. Make a Date with the Words of Your Song.
The vocalist should consider one half of their preparation to be the discovery of the message and tempo of the words themselves.
Here are some ideas: you can print the words out and take them to a quiet place. Ask yourself questions: what is the emotional centre of the narrative? What are the turning points in the story? Or, you could try learning your song as a poem.
Your goal is to discover the emphases in the narrative. Again, we are not talking about the musical emphases but the narrative emphases—the emphases that the words have apart from melody. As you focus on the words of your song, you might discover, for example, a central emotional turning point in the narrative. Alternatively, you might discover a few key turning points. You are finding an intuitive connection with the words.
This discovery should be half of your practice.
So, take the time to think through the language, the text of words outside of the melody. This is key if you want to sing intelligently.
3. Reconnect the Words to the Music
Now it is time to connect what you’ve learned from the words, back to the music. Expect to play around now—the rhythms you’ve learned with the words, those internal rhythms you now have intuited with the narrative, may not immediately snap into place with the melody and the rhythms of the musical notation.
I advise vocalists to play around. Try singing the song with the opposite emotions to those you’ve already used. You might try singing it in a quiet, contemplative sitting position and then while standing on a chair. Try comical; try melodramatic. You are finding a new equilibrium between the music and the words.
Remember, it’s a fine line between self-indulgence and emotional connection. Just as many singers can get caught up solely in the music and belt notes out without any accompanying connection with those words, some singers can equally get caught up in the emotions to such a degree that their audience is wondering whether they are going to break down in tears—excessive emotion detracts from the music.
What you are looking for is a balance between the music and your connection with the words and you need to give yourself some time to find this. Sing your song for friends; try out some different perspectives. You’ll know when you have it.
4. Lips, Teeth and Tongue
Remember, singing is a physical act. If you want to communicate a song to an audience, you’ve got to work your whole body. Spit it out; ensure that the words have clarity, edge and precision.
If you don’t take care to exercise your lips, teeth and tongue, then you won’t project your thoughts beyond the first three rows of the venue and you’ll miss the opportunity to communicate the music and the emotion you’ve worked so hard on. Articulate the words and make each word significant.
Remember Your Purpose
Remember that it’s about having a purpose and a clear direction with a song. I ask singers fundamental questions all the time: “What are you trying to say with this song?” Singers may impress me with their show-stopping notes but I can always tell if they haven’t really thought about what it is that they want to express.
You can’t be vague. Audiences intuitively pick up on this; they need to feel the core or the focus of what it is you want to express.
Great singers are always connected to the thought behind the music. This greatness can be yours as long as you remember to connect to the words as well as to the music.
About Daniel Bowling…
Daniel Bowling has been a music supervisor and music director for Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. for the last dozen years and during that time has contributed to many of the CML stable of London-based and Touring Productions including The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Cats, Mary Poppins, and Avenue Q. He has had a long association with Cats worldwide and has launched productions from Moscow to Madrid. Following on from the BBC television series Any Dream Will Do, he is currently music director for the hugely successful London production of Joseph.
Daniel graduated from The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and continued his studies at the Jullard School and St. Louis Conservatory of Music. His conducting teachers include Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson-Thomas, Sergio Celibidache, Charles Bruck and Max Rudolph.