I have been a singer for many years, and I want to share the stories and lessons I have learned through the thousands of songs that I have performed.
I have been thinking about this idea for a blog series for some time. I guess there’s no better time to start than straight after a gig. Hence, I present to you Tales From the Mic Stand.
On Sunday night, I sang at Broadway Sessions, a wonderfully curated open-mic night of musical theatre held in Adelaide. I performed a duet with the beautiful and talented Casmira Hambledon, and she requested that we sing a song from Miss Saigon. I hadn’t performed anything from this musical in public since 2008, but I trusted that Kim was still alive in me somewhere.
We sang ‘I Still Believe’, a duet between the ill-fated Kim and Ellen. The characters are unaware of one another’s unconditional love for the same man, Chris, and they sing the same song from different sides of the world (it’s amazing how they know the same lyrics without having met, the magic of musical theatre is marvellous). All the songs from this musical move me, and it will remain in my heart as one of the most significant chapters in my life.
I was asked a very interesting question at this gig: “how do you turn on the tears when you sing?” At the time I laughed it off and responded sarcastically, “I’m just a sad soul”, but I feel I need to clarify this in case others are wondering the same thing. Tears aren’t something that I turn on with some invisible switch. This notion implies that I summon the tears at will. But the experience of it is very different, and I hope to make sense of it here.
How to evoke emotion when singing
In a state of utmost vulnerability and presence on stage, one can undergo the most wonderful transformations and embody any character for the duration of the music.
Exploring the human condition through performing arts is something that I have been drawn to most of my life. I strive to find truth in my performances by surrendering completely to the character of each piece of music that I perform. When it comes to a song, particularly from a musical, I consider the tonality, mood, plot, context, and lyrics.
I firmly believe that every singer is an actor with a responsibility to tell a character’s story with commitment and integrity. With this mindset, I allow whatever emotion to come to the surface and flow. Sometimes it’s tears, other times it’s laughter, anger, joy, and a range of endless feelings. It’s never black-and-white, and it’s ever-evolving; that is its beauty. The best advice a director ever gave me was ‘Just be’, I wrote a blog entry about it in January. It is the motto that I live by, and it inspired the resolutions that I created at the start of 2017.
The value of vocal training
There are many singers who don’t focus on good intonation through ear training, and many singers mimic a voice quality that is unnatural. Don’t be a screamer. Loud singing, or yelling, is not good singing and it is not safe. Yelling is not belting either.
It is a worthwhile investment to undergo vocal training if you are passionate about singing. Vocal technique is paramount, and finding a singing teacher who can demonstrate how to breathe, warm up, cool down, and sing safely will ensure the longevity of your instrument. Vocal acrobatics (a la Mariah Carey) are not achieved through hit-and-miss tactics.
Learn your scales and intervals, and train your ear. Learn to sight-sing, and join a vocal ensemble to practise maintaining a harmony part against other voices, listening, and blending. The more familiar you are with your instrument, the better your repertoire selections will be. Then you can take calculated risks.
I can discuss this further in another episode of this blog series. For now, I will make a final comment on artistry. Two very important skills need to be practised regularly when singing: empathy and curiosity. Empathy allows you to see things from another perspective, and curiosity means that you never tire of exploring, discovering, and learning.
Next time you sing a song, analyse it first by finding the motivation of that character. Explore their feelings, objectives, and obstacles, then embrace them as your own. Live and breathe them throughout the song. Try this, and you may begin to discover a deeper truth in your performances.