Beyond Belting It Out

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.

Useful Links

Dan’s New Book – Auditions Undressed

Look here for more videos of Dan Bowling giving professional advice!

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.

  • stephenvincentezell

    Excellent article Dan, and a divulgence of the crucial missing link in today's desensitized sea of mediocrity (speaking particularly from the hard-rock/metal end of the spectrum).

    I'm not pro, more like an aspirant.. and I gotta say you hit the nail on the head. It's this specific emotional value that I gravitate to in my favorite vocalists, and it's what I strive to hone that has already set me apart as an amateur. What bothers me is that a lot of rock/metal vocalists write a bunch of typical b.s. fluff lyrics that are too detached from genuine expression, it appalls me that they wrote their own lyrics but can't seem to even feel it out on a personal level cuz they're too busy trying to grimace and play the part. Early in my development, listeners have been appreciating my insightful lyrics and genuine execution of narrative, and this recognition has reinforced my emphasis on it as a strength.. the practice is in letting it course through you as a true element.

  • antoniavox

    Terrific article. Just reinforces my own voice teaching philosophies. Thank you.

  • anvier

    Greate !!
    Very important for all singer, i think these is the most important part of singing:

  • garymckinney

    Sadly, many of the audiences today, don't seem to have the intelligence to care about the lyrics conveyed to them. They want to sit back and be shredded by mind-numbing sensory overload. It's a role-playing exercise in which everyone plays “Let's Be Stupid”. The artist must make a choice — dumb down his performance to their standards or be true to his own conscience. Socrates said it — To thine ownself be true — and it's as valid today as it was then. And every once in a while, the artist performing to his own high standards, brings a revelation to the crowd, indeed sometimes an awakening in them of an appreciation for excellence. Let's face it, nobody wants to play “Let's Be Stupid” forever.