Every song needs something driving it forward – something to make the audience want to keep listening, preferably breathlessly.
Here are 7 of the things that help us to gather up more and more excitement as we move through the song.
1. The first thing is that the quality of the actual singing needs to be good – tuning, placement, balance, blend. (The odd wonky chord won’t make me walk out of a performance, but consistently out of tune singing will make me want to hum little songs to myself till the listening ordeal is over.)
2. I know this seems obvious – but the song should be known so well that technical things (like right notes) no longer have to be foremost in the singers’ minds.
3. Have a dynamic plan (louds and softs, crescendos and diminuendos) that match both the music and the emotion of the words.
4. Long sustained notes always always always need to be going somewhere – intensifying, or softening. (The only exception to this – yeah, I know I said ‘always’ – would be with a piece that is depicting utter stillness or timelessness)
5. Fast breaths, in time, between the phrases unless the plan calls for a poignant silent moment. I ask my singers to convince themselves that the breath actually belongs to the beginning of the next phrase.
6. Telegraphing the emotion of the next phrase at the very end of the one you’re singing. The breath, facial expression and body language should be in the character of the emotion of the upcoming phrase. Silent breathing is good – but sometimes the next emotion actually calls for a slight gasp.
7. All singers need to be aware of the story/emotion arch of the song. As a director, during a performance I sometimes feel a part of a song a little differently and perhaps more intensely, and when I show this to my singers, they follow me. But if there’s no plan set in place, everything about the performance rests on my shoulders. So if I’m having an off night the song can fall well short of its potential. When the singers know the plan, they take on the responsibility for making it work, and I can just remind them of details.
Regardless of volume or style or tempo, driving a song forward and making it exciting for an audience requires great physical, mental and emotional intensity. By the time you get to the final chord, it can feel like an Olympic triumph.