There’s a great scene in the Eddie Murphy Dr Dolittle movie where his dog companion has his head out the car window – looking down at the road – and keeps saying ‘line’ ‘line’ ‘line’… When the dog complains of feeling ill, Eddie Murphy tells him to look at the tree line instead – and then hears the dog saying ‘tree’ ‘tree’ ‘tree’……
When I hear a choir singing syllabically, I’m always reminded of this scene and wish that they’d start singing me the forest, instead of counting off the individual trees.
The best way I know to train the mind to think about lyrics in terms of phrases and sentences is just to speak them out loud. Not necessarily in the rhythm that’s on the page – but naturally – as if you were saying the words yourself. If the songwriter is good at what he or she does, this will still flow well when the pitches are added.
Once choir members are actually thinking about communicating each phrase as they’re singing it, the director can then shape that communication so that every singer knows the plan. Sorry folks – even in the most democratic choirs, this is ultimately the director’s choice. But the director is powerless to do wonderful interpretive things until every singer has a burning desire to communicate the lyrics.
This principle is true no matter what the pace of the music is, and no matter how often the lyrics are repeated. Even if the lyrics consist of only one word – like Alleluia – the choir needs to have a willingness to communicate the text.
Part of the adrenaline rush in music listening is being swept along in anticipation of where it’s all going. If the singers don’t know, and don’t show the audience that they know, the anticipation is gone and the effect becomes just ‘note’ ‘note’ ‘note’………