A Rhythm and Pulse exercise for cool, swinging singing
By Jeremy Fisher
You don’t have to sing louder or higher to make the music swing – it’s all in the beat. Here’s a story of a coaching session I gave in Stockholm recently where I used the Rhythm and Pulse exercise to help a singer give a much cooler, stronger performance.
During a musical theatre class, one singer arrived with the piece “What’s the Buzz” from Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical. He was performing it well, but his whole body was involved with the (very fast) pulse inherent in the song. He was bouncing with every eighth note and was displaying a highly tensioned body which was detracting from his performance, both vocally and as an actor.
In the song, the ensemble sings “what’s the buzz, tell me what’s a happenin'” repeatedly, with high energy. His character then has to interrupt them, stop them chattering and calm them down in a very short space of time. He starts with three quarter notes (crotchets) beginning on a high F, which should silence them immediately. Because he was using the same frenetic pulse as the ensemble, his entry was having little impact, and the feel of his performance was not strong enough. Rather than getting him to sing stronger or higher, I took him through the following exercise for finding a different pulse.
1. This involves using your body, so standing is best. Sing the first few phrases of an up-tempo song, such as What’s the Buzz. Find the fast energy of the piece and move to it, using your foot, leg, body or clicking your fingers. What’s the Buzz has four quarter notes to each bar, but for this exercise I’d like you to move on the eighth notes (quavers). So for example your foot taps on the beat and your fingers click on the offbeat. The important thing is to have some part of your body moving on every eighth note.
2. Now we’re going to change the pulse while keeping the “speed” the same. Begin to indicate only the quarter notes – you are now moving in “half time”. Keep the energy high, but move only on the quarter notes. Again, you can either move your body to each quarter note, or divide the quarter notes between foot and hand. The speed of the piece stays the same, but the pulse has now changed to a less frantic one.
3. Now begin to indicate only the half notes (minims). Again, keep the speed of the piece the same, and keep the energy high. Now you are only marking two pulses per measure instead of the four or eight previously. The speed of the piece has stayed the same, but the feel is now different, with a bigger scope, somehow funkier.
You can continue with this exercise, using one pulse per measure, or even one pulse per two measures.
In the case of the singer in the masterclass, the use of a different pulse was electrifying. By using a different, slower pulse (the halfnote or minim rhythm) against the rhythm of the chorus around him (eighth note or quaver rhythm) he was able to differentiate himself from them, and stop their beat in its tracks. This easily marked out his character (Jesus) as a man to be listened to, who did not march to the beat of the people around him. By following this exercise, the singer was able to convey that effortlessly.
I have used this exercise in many different genres of music, including opera arias (O Zittre Nicht, Questa O Quella), German lieder (Gretchen am Spinnrade), music by contemporary singers such as Duffy or Christina Aguilera, and of course musical theatre pieces from West Side Story to Spring Awakening. Try it for yourself!
Jeremy Fisher trains singers and performers to find and maintain their best. He’s the author of Successful Singing Auditions, and creator of the Voicebox Videos – featured on the BBC and broadcast to 44,000,000 people. He was commissioned by the DANA Centre at London’s Science Museum to create a video on singing with a camera down his throat. Jeremy is fascinated by bringing technology and innate skill together. http://www.vocalprocess.co.uk