At first thought, this question may seem far too simple or far too philosophical for a conversation about improving one’s performance. I assure you, it is neither. As evident in my prior articles, I have gone to great detail to ensure that my writings have avoided the archaically vague and over burdensome trite. So, I can begin by admitting that I feared in discussing this question, it may appear as both! In truth, this may be the most important question we must ask ourselves when approaching a song as a vocalist.
Perhaps a better way to phrase this question is as comparison. Why do we sing instead of speak? Behind every song, there is an emotional meaning stronger than typical speech. Were common speech or conversation possible to express our feelings at the moment of song, music would not be necessary at that time. Embracing this fundamental fact is the joy of singing; having control and understanding of it is the challenge of all vocalists.
What is it about what you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing, what you’re seeing that must be sung? Getting specific and detailed with this question in every moment of a song is sure to bring out the clarity in one’s performance like no other point of analysis can. Close friends of mine who have performed on Broadway have shared that, due to the size of the houses they perform in front of, details like these are essential to communicating the intimate details and 11-o’clock-esque realizations alike to their fullest potential. However, it wasn’t the idea of the Broadway stage that brought this question to my immediate attention.
The example that came to inspire this article is the art-form of Cabaret. Currently music directing and co-creating a Cabaret with an experienced performer, this question became the focal-point of every musical choice made. Once the storyline for the show was established, choosing which songs were incorporated, the song’s key, the arrangement, and nearly every vocal choice were faced with this question. Cabaret is commonly recognized as a casual or even paired down medium for Musical Theatre, Jazz, Art-Song, and Pop music. The intimate audience and minimal production values often make answering the question “Why do we sing?” appear unnecessary. That is the trap. When singing becomes lazy, when vocals don’t appear motivated, when catchy riffs or embellished arrangements dominate a song above its message to the audience, a medium like Cabaret (intimate and exposed, much like the audition room) becomes a burdensome thing to watch.
I have often preached that “The devil is in the details” and the same could be said for the message of this article. However, there is also the finer point that the basic questions require answering as well. The demand for your listeners’ attention is immediately great. A simple understanding of “This is why I sing,” “This is what this means,” “These are more than only words or only notes,” elevates the meaning of a song. With all of the time and effort we put into preparing a song for any occasion, what is it about that song that demands it be sung? Shouldn’t that be the most important idea conveyed to your listener? Not to mention: don’t you want to know?