Becoming too absorbed in your own experiences can be a bit, excuse the expression, masturbatory –says Tom Burke.
When a song expresses pain, anger, or some other strong emotion, it is easy for singers to make the performance all about their own personal pain – especially if they feel a strong connection to the lyrics.
It may feel authentic, but reliving your personal experiences in a performance is not always an effective way to deliver a song – for the singer or the audience.
Too Much To Manage
Imagine a stage performer who must perform a scene where he stands at the deathbed of his father.
Now imagine that the actor’s father had died in real life. It would simply be too painful to relive his personal tragedy on the stage each night.
There would be no way he could manage the emotional strain eight shows a week!
Your own personal experience in life should act as a springboard or a reference point, but you don’t need to bring your personal traumas with you on stage.
In fact, becoming too absorbed in your own experiences can be a bit – excuse the expression — masturbatory.
An Exercise to Achieve Emotional Impact
When you are preparing a song to which you feel a strong personal connection, you may be tempted to be overly absorbed in your own experiences.
As an exercise to find balance, I tell singers to sing “we” instead of “I” and “us” instead of “me.”
If you apply this process to “Defying Gravity,” the lyrics would be, “Something has changed within us, something is not the same, we are through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game.”
This way, you could be singing the song on behalf of that girl in the back row who feels out of sorts at school and who no one cares about.
With these small changes to the lyrics, you still experience the authentic emotion in the song, but you take the emphasis off yourself.
Stay in the Flow
Another reason why you don’t want to focus on one specific, personal experience, is that it can make you feel blocked and prevent you from being “in the flow” as a performer.
Every person responds differently to trauma. Some people laugh at funerals while others are stoic.
As a performer, it is best if you are open to these various human responses. Whether it’s anger or sadness, that intense moment on stage should be alive, and may even change with each performance.
I like to think of emotion in performance as an energy that enters you then exits you – it is something that flows through your body’s emotional “channels.”
What this means, is that you can feel real feelings on stage, but you don’t have to relive your own suffering over and over again just to deliver a song authentically.
My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry
Kenneth Johnson - Aftermath
Hi Kenneth, I appreciated the consistency of resonance and ease across the range. From a songwriting perspective, I’d like to hear clearer distinction between verse and chorus. Narrow your visual focus during the song and focus on the emotional intention of the words.
Tom Burke is a speech-pathologist and voice coach for Broadway, Film, TV and Google. He developed the world’s first online vocal conservatory, Broadway VoiceBox with members in over 19 countries and growing fast. Find out more about his work here: