Some songs fit us to a T, while others feel like the scratchy sweater mom made us wear at Christmas.
Have you ever found a song where the music was great, but the lyrics didn’t ring true? Or maybe everything suits you, only the song was meant to be sung by the opposite gender.
Heck, you may get invited to sing a religious song that is beautiful, but that does not reflect your personal beliefs.
What should a singer do with these songs? Should you avoid them like the plague or risk coming off as inauthentic?
Before you write off a song that doesn’t seem to suit you, listen to what New York singing teacher Tom Burke says on how to connect outside the box:
Circuit Breaker Brain
Imagine a circuit breaker. As babies we have all our circuits on. All possibilities of who we might be or what we might do are open to us. Anything is possible.
Then as we grow up we learn about language, culture, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. This learning starts to turn off certain ‘fuses.’
Before I explain how this relates to singing, let me explain the concept a little more.
All babies can differentiate all the sounds of all human languages, but at 9 months their brain begins to pare off the sounds that are not relevant.
A German baby can hear the difference between /v/ and /w/ but after 9 months stops hearing it, since the sound /v/ isn’t as clearly distinct from /f/ or /w/ as it is in other languages like English.
A person who grew up speaking German can wake up that ability again and start to recognize the w sound.
In other words, the line between who I am and who I might have been in another culture can be blurred.
When you do those songs that are outside of your personal sphere of reference, you must try to turn on those ‘fuses’ that have been shut off.
These fuses are available to all of us.
Instead of thinking of the song as something that you can’t relate to, try to imagine who you might have been had you grown up in the time, place or context of that song.
Take It To The Stage?
When should you perform a song that is outside the box for you?
There is a distinction between personal development, process and product. We should always be in process.
For the purpose of personal development, I believe we should explore all of those songs that take us out of our comfort zone.
However, I also understand we live in the real world – which means that we won’t always take a new song to the stage.
Clarify Your Product
Not only do we need to make sure our product is always the best it can be, but it is very important in the real world of singing that we clarify our product and explore being really good at one thing.
You don’t want to confuse your market.
This is an ongoing discussion many performers have with their managers and agents.
Think of stars we love.
Sometimes they go from being a generalist or being pigeonholed and then break out into something more unique.
You can argue that Johnny Depp had to be the young cool kid in the show, 21 Jumpstreet before he could do Edward Scissorhands – not many people go directly from college to Edward Scissorhands.
Your audience can get confused if you do not send out a clear idea of who you are as an artist.
Imagine if you were talking to someone who kept switching language and changing his or her outfit every day.
We enjoy talking to people a lot more if what we see is what we get.
After an identity is established, we love to see artists try something outside their box – but give me something I can hold onto first.
Madonna does it every few years.
If you look at her career, you can see she has changed several times, but there are clear time periods you can hold onto.
Take an Opportunity to Try It
If you are asked to sing a 1930s love song, but don’t connect to its values, I would suggest you start by considering your audience.
What is your intention for your audience?
Is it to bring new life to an old song, or to transport us back to a particular time?
It can be cool to hear an old song done either way.
What could you learn from this?
What might it feel like to step back into the 1930s?
Once you’ve decided on these things, then get to work with turning on those fuses that will help you approach the song as the person you might have been, had you been born in that time.
Then you must decide if the whole process was just a learning exercise or worthy of the stage.
Either way, pat yourself on the back for stepping outside the box!
Tom Burke, MS CCC SLP, provides voice training and rehabilitation services to professional singers and actors. www.tomburkevoice.com His work has been featured on MTV, The Oprah Winfrey Network and HBO. Based in New York City, he is a certified course instructor of Estill Voice Training and trained in several voice and bodywork traditions including Alexander Technique. He also coaches for Google as a “Story Doctor” working with several teams and executives at large events such as Google’s Executive Partner Summit.