This article gives 10 steps to finding your own authenticity in singing songs, arias and roles. While this was written with classical singers in mind, the steps can be used by musical theatre singers too.
Tl;Dr? How to be you, singing any piece.
What is Authenticity?
“Authenticity” is drummed into singers. But whose authenticity are we talking about?
Let’s start with “being true to the composer”.
What has the composer given you?
- Time signature
- Note lengths (rhythm).
- Perhaps a tempo or volume indication
- Maybe the occasional mood instruction during the piece.
- Sometimes phrase or articulation marks.
- Usually words (from the lyricist).
What else does authenticity in singing need?
Context is EVERYTHING.
Apart from time signature, note lengths, pitches…
But seriously, context is EVERYTHING
You have the context of the piece itself, does it form part of a larger work? (eg opera, musical) Does the character have other pieces they sing (eg song cycle, collection, cabaret)? Or is it a standalone piece?
Then there’s the historical context. What era is it written in? Is there a music style context (late 19th century oratorio, 18th century court music, 1930s Tin Pan Alley etc). Are there mores and invention of that period that you need to know about?And if there ARE known conventions, do you follow them or break them?
Take the single instruction ”Largo”. Rousseau defines it as the slowest of all tempi. But the Italian word simply means ”broad”. And in Purcell’s world Largo is only just short of andante. Who’s correct? Is Largo a tempo or a mood or both?
Then there’s the contemporary context. In what year/decade are YOU performing the piece? What do your audience, your teachers, the critics EXPECT to hear from this piece, your vocal timbre, your technique?
Finally we come to beliefs. About singing, about performing, about human behaviour. How would this person behave in this situation with this personal history? How would they feel, sound, act, react?
And if we include stage works, what does the director’s vision insist on (contemporary Cosi in head-to-toe Givenchy, Das Rheingold in space, gender-swapped Company?).
For authenticity to be complete, the singer researches all of these things and then runs it through the filter called “my own life experience”. How would I feel, sound, act, react? What can I bring from my own life story that matches or reflects what is going on for this character. And once I’ve identified that, how can I reproduce those emotions, thoughts, actions without actually going through them every night on stage? Because I have to sing with control, finesse, precision?
These last two points (finding real self in the situation then faking it on stage) are what makes an observable truthful performance. Miss these out and everything you do becomes hit-and-miss or a copy of someone else’s performance desires – your teacher’s, your favourite singing icon’s, your mother’s…
10 steps to finding authenticity in singing
So here’s a ticklist for classical singers with any new piece to learn.
- Read the music, note by note, rhythm by rhythm, REST BY REST (I put that last one in capitals because DON’T SING THROUGH RESTS – the composer wrote them too). Be accurate.
- Read the words.
- Read the words again and this time put them into the context of the period. Do they mean what they say or do they have hidden meaning?
- Look for the wider context of the piece / is it part of a larger work, is it the climactic point or ”on the slopes”.
- Look for the character and their back story. Do they have one? If yes, decide how it engenders the words they say. If no, can you create one to inform your performing decisions?
- Research the historical context. If the composer is alive, ask them (or find interviews online/written). If dead, read about them and their contemporaries, study their social life (friends, travel, where they lived, where their money came from, who was influential in their lives and did they have to “behave” in a certain way to be paid?). Then decide whether you’re going to follow those ideas or follow a different path.
- View AT LEAST five different performances of the piece, from different decades if possible. Pay most attention to videos of the last 5 years to get ideas for contemporary expectations, but pay attention to the styles and decisions of singers from 20 or 50 years ago who had more time to make music and performance decisions. Then stop watching them to find your own version.
- Speak the lyrics out loud. If they are not in your mother tongue, speak them in their written language. Then translate them and (this is important for every singer) reword them in 21st century jargon. Say the meaning of each sentence exactly how you would talk to your best friend. Write your own modern script. It’s the quickest way to find your own way into the character’s situation, emotions and signature sound palette.
- Sing the melody on a vowel. Then sing it again investing the emotions you’ve discovered in the previous steps but still using one vowel. We should be able to tell at every second what you’re feeling.
- Add the words back in and notice if there are any consonants that prevent you from portraying the emotions, and any that you can actively use to increase the emotions.
- Record yourself on video singing the piece. Play it back WITH NO SOUND. Watch your body language. Do you embody the story, emotions and physical style of the character. If not, repeat steps 7-9 then re-record.
Congratulations, you’re well on your way to finding your own personal authenticity in your singing performance. Now put it on its feet in front of other people and discover how much of this sticks!
PS I can walk you through any or all of these steps. I’m working with singers right now online.