Instead of asking yourself, ‘What will sound good?’ ask yourself, ‘What serves the story?’ -says Tom Burke.
Why do so many people love Beyoncé’s music?
Because we always know who she’s flirting with or who she’s mad at – says New York City Speech-Language Pathologist and Singing Teacher, Tom Burke.
In fact, we are often rooting for Beyoncé against some jerk. We can root for a woman who’s telling off someone who hurt her.
We cannot, however, root for random riffing.
This insight, says Burke, puts us on the road to determining how to best approach our own musical decisions.
Making Your Musical Decisions
Eavesdrop on any music rehearsal, and you will hear discussions about song arrangements: “Let’s start soft and build it up.”
But how do you, as a singer make these musical decisions? How do you know what is right for your song?
Burke helps everyone from Broadway performers to business leaders make an impact.
He does it by helping them ask the right questions.
The No. 1 Question
“Instead of asking yourself, ‘What will sound good?’ ask yourself, ‘What serves the story?’” says Burke.
He says that having a clear idea of the story makes everything else easier — from conveying emotion to decisions about arrangements.
“If you lead with your vocals, then we are aware of your voice. If you lead with a story, then we are aware of who you are. We connect with you because we are rooting for you.”
As singers, we all know how important it is to bring authentic emotion into your singing. “No one wants to hear someone making noise that isn’t connected to emotion” says Burke, “but the emotion feels false if it is not connected to a story.”
How to Develop the Story
Pop and rock songs don’t tell a linear story in the same way musical theater songs do. “They are often more of a feeling fest, but they still follow an arc. There is still a beginning, middle and end,” says Burke.
He says you can try out a musical idea, that helps form the story, or you may try on different stories and see how they play out musically.
Let’s use “Let it Be” as an example. “The story could be that your mother sang you that song to try to help you when you were anxious, but it always felt like bullshit.”
He refers to the age-old formula for a great story that centers on a hero facing an obstacle.
In this story, you are the ‘hero,’ the ‘obstacle’ is the angst you feel. The thing you want is peace. The tactic you are employing is singing this song like a mantra.
Musically, you might start the song with a more aggressive feel, because, as the hero, you are trying to force the angst away.
You don’t reach peace however, until the mantra becomes more like a whisper, and so you might end up pianissimo (soft) by the end of the song.
In the 2007 film, “Across the Universe,” the arrangement for “Let it Be” does the opposite.
“It begins quietly as a comfort to a local community in mourning. Then the song builds, and becomes a way of rallying the community to carry on amidst a tumultuous time in American history,” says Burke.
Have you figured out the story behind your song? Check by answering these questions: Who am I? Who are you(in other words, who am I singing to)? What just happened between us? What do I want? What is in my way? What did I learn?
The lyrics may spell out the story for you, or they may only give you vague hints and feelings. Either way, the story must be concrete in your mind as the singer.
Singers can apply this insight to any kind of song – and when they do, says Burke, people will root for their performance.
Tom Burke, MS CCC SLP, provides voice training and rehabilitation services to professional singers and actors. http://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.