Once More With Feeling – Singing and Emotion
By Jeremy Fisher
Let’s talk singing and emotion. There are three major elements that make most people chose their favourite singer or recording artist:
1. the sound
2. the song hook (the catchy bit, often the chorus)
3. the emotional level of the performance.
And of course you couldn’t really call it singing if it didn’t have emotion. So how do you perform with the same singing and emotion as your favourite artist?
First, let’s separate out a couple of things. If you want to sing for yourself, it’s perfectly ok to feel the emotion and get really tied up in it (sometimes we just need to do that to help us feel better). However, if you want to sing for other people (and particularly if you want to sing professionally), getting tied up in the emotion of the song is just not going to work long-term. The problem with feeling strong emotions is that they can cause your throat to close up. The result? Singing and emotion can be a bit of a problem for a singer!
Here’s a secret that not many people know. When your favourite singer is suffering through their song, he or she is not necessarily feeling those emotions. Part of the job is to help you to feel them, to show that they understand what you are going through, that they’ve been through it themselves. So you can really identify with them and their pain (and of course buy their album).
So the “trick” is to sing like you are feeling the emotion without letting it overwhelm you. That way you can make everyone believe you are going through something huge, but you can carry on doing the gig, and repeat it night after night without becoming a vocal wreck.
Here’s an exercise I use in my vocal studio to help my singers discover how to get singing and emotion working together. You might want to do this by yourself (when no-one else is home).
First, listen to the song you like and decide what the main emotion is – sadness, anger, hurt, happiness. Really listen to how the singer tells you what emotion it is, not with the words they use but with the sound of their voice.
Now talk out loud as if you have that emotion too – if it’s happiness, tell an imaginary friend how happy you are. If it’s anger, act out shouting at the dog. Notice what your voice does, what sounds you make, what tone of voice you use, how fast or slow you speak, whether you speak high or low, and even whether you stay speaking high (or low) or move around with lots of different pitches. (At this point, don’t worry what your body is doing).
Happiness will often have the sound of an inner smile or a “bubble” going on behind it. Hurt will sometimes be slow-moving or have a “crying” sound behind it. Anger might sound sharp and hard. Remember each feeling/sound.
Now take a phrase from your chosen song and make it sound happy. Start by “being” happy or “thinking” happy, and move on to sounding happy without feeling the emotion. What do you have to do?
Now sing it again and make it sound hurt. What do you have to do? It might be the same as what you do to portray “happy”, it might be different.
Go through as many “emotions” as you can, and discover what you have to do for each one.
This is a very powerful way to discover how singing and emotion work together for you – you start by feeling the emotion itself, then you notice what that emotion does to your voice, then you reproduce the effects of the emotion in your singing, so you “portray” that emotion without feeling it. Believe me, as a professional performer myself, it’s not cheating! If I really felt angry or hurt or deeply sad when I performed, I wouldn’t perform well – I’d be too wrapped up in the emotion to be able to sing at all.
So now you can put everything you’ve learned together. You will be surprised how much adding singing and emotion to your performing will improve your communication skills. And I’m sure it’s given you a greater understanding of how skilled your chosen singer really is.
© 2014 Jeremy Fisher