VoiceCouncil will no longer be updated. Articles will still be available for some time.

How Dynamic is Your Phrasing?

Ron working with GRAMMY winning blues artist, Keb’ Mo on phrasing.

The lyric of a song provides a dramatic plot, like a movie; it builds up to a climax and resolves – says Ron Browning.

The singer’s job is to phrase the song so they spotlight drama as it rises and falls. This is achieved with bold, creative phrasing.

Phrasing refers to the way a singer chooses to divide the lyric into groups of words to allow for clarity of the storyline, efficient breathing, and dramatic effect.

Most singers are content to use generic phrasing, dictated by the punctuation that the songwriter placed in the text.  Although accurate, such phrasing often leads to predictable and emotionless singing.

The professional singer might overlook the suggested markings and add special effects and different vocal colors to keywords, making them leap out of the vocal line demanding attention.

This allows the singer to superimpose their personal point of view onto the story. The audience hears the songwriter’s story while the subtext shows the artist’s take on it.

Levels of phrasing

Level 1 phrasing: obligatory

This assures a clear story provided by the songwriter, line by line as written. It leaves both the melody and lyrics intact and follows the writer’s suggested notation for breaths.

Level 2 phrasing: personal

This is a bolder type of phrasing. The singer shifts words around, rhythmically, to create smaller groupings of words that catch the ear. Keywords are accentuated and become the stars of the story. The extra “stops” and stressed words show an underlying point of view of the singer.

Level 3 phrasing: artist

This singer will include all that’s in level 2, but they will also include various special effects and vocal colors, such as creak, growl, shifts in vocal modes, various types of vibrato, and more. Body gestures become an extension of the voice and true expression. The singer appears to create from a divinely inspired moment. The artist’s point of view becomes of prime importance. This is the star level!

Are you stuck at level 1?

Most singers are stuck at level 1. Perhaps they don’t realize, that level 2 is an option.  And excellent singers (with great voices and technique) get hung up on level 2, afraid to move on to the next level. Yet level 3 is the home base for the champion singer.

Expressing your point of view is easy

Two of the easiest phrasing tools to use are stresses and dramatic breaks. These two devices alone can create some really exciting phrasing. Everyone uses these in daily conversation.

One might say, “well, I will certainly never do this again!”  We hear the story clearly.  We get the point.

But now, let’s spotlight some drama.

“Well, I will…CERTAINLY…never do this…again!” 

When the silence in a dramatic break is abrupt (…), it will always create a cliffhanger.  Cliffhangers force the listener onto the edge of the seat in anticipation.

The word “certainly”, if given a bigger volume with a sudden, sharp attack, would signal that the speaker has made a definite decision. Also, the listener picks up on the speaker’s frustration.

The underlined words could play out like three equally stressed drumbeats, making the speaker more emphatic.

This type of word play makes the text seem more emotional, and certainly more fun to listen to. The text becomes more alive and passionate.

Sing a simple stress

It’s amazing what a simple stress can do to show the speaker’s point of view. The stressed word creates subtext which adds more information to the lyric.

Watch how the subtext changes with these phrases:

I…am going to the park”

The text reveals the plot, but the stress reveals my point of view.  When “I” is stressed, it implies that “you” are not going.  The attention is on my doing something and being emphatic about it.

“I AM going to the park”

Now it sounds like we might have had some doubt about whether or not I am going and I have finally put my foot down. I am being very insistent.

“I am GOING to the park”

This might imply that I’m getting a move on it right now, this minute. There is movement here.  Something is in motion.

“I am going to the PARK!” 

In other words, “not the store” and “not the laundry mat.”  This implies there might have been some confusion about where I was going.  So, I stressed “park” for clarification.

Take command of your phrasing

Stressed words can easily be colored with vocal effects and attitudes. This rhythmic word play creates fun and memorable ear candy which seduces the listener. It certainly puts the personality of the singer in full command.

This must become second nature for any competitive vocalist.

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Sharmi Chakraborty Sharmi Chakraborty - (Where do I begin?) Love Story

You have a lovely voice with beautiful classical tone. We especially get to hear it on the last line “and she’ll be there.” Overall, the text needs more articulation. Also, your approach is a little too vowel oriented with not enough consonants dancing through the vocal line. Hence, the intelligibility of the details tends to come and go. Work on your phrasing so your passion flows throughout this beautiful story. I do hear your connection to some phrases like “special things” so I know it’s in you to spoon-feed us keywords. You need to do that more. Do some vocal exercises that will bring the voice more to the front, getting it up and out of the throat. You might want to practice the entire melody using different syllables that will allow frontal placement automatically, such as Nay, Yum, or even a cat Meow. The text, melody, and chords are already extremely tender, so avoid prettying up your voice to express more tenderness. You can also get by with less vibrato. A great start on instrumentation. You guys just need more rehearsal and better-tuned instruments. Lock into a nice rhythmic grid and allow yourselves to have fun! Keep it up!

Ron Browning is internationally known as the “Voice Coach to the Stars.” Alison Krauss, the most celebrated Grammy Award winner (27 wins), recently praised him in The New York Times, USA Today, BBC News, the Tennessean, and The Sun in London, where she called him “a genius.”  Ron has been seen and heard on Entertainment Tonight, The Voice, Oprah Network, and BBC’s Simply Classics, to name a few.  His clients include all levels of singers from beginners to award-winning celebrities in all genres of music. Ron works with major record labels producing vocals and preparing artists for radio, concert tours, and special television appearances. He is a voting member of the Grammy Foundation and the CMA Awards. He is a successful songwriter, jazz pianist, painter, and is currently writing a series of voice and performance manuals, which will include interviews with many of his students and celebrated clientele. His solo jazz piano CD, In a Sentimental Mood, is available on iTunes and CD Baby. Website | CD Baby