I find the connection between working on song interpretation and relieving performance anxiety very fascinating. The coming week, over a series of blog posts, I will contemplate on how working on your song interpretation can save you from your nerves. Here is some background information.
Singing is expression and communication
One of the reasons to why some singers experience performance anxiety is they feel uncomfortable being put in the spotlight. They feel uncomfortable feeling expectations from the audience, afraid to be judged in their performance. You might become nervous about performing because you’re making the performance about yourself instead of making the whole thing about the music that flows through you, the song that is being sung and the story that is being told.
In his book ‘Effortless Mastery’ Kenny Werner quotes Keith Jarrett (from an article in the New York Times):
Try to imagine the first musician. He was not playing for an audience, or a market, or working on his next recording, or touring with his show, or working on his image. He was playing out of need, out of his need for the music.
…in the beginning, music was our sole means of communication.
The question is:
How can we train the Ego to get out of the way and focus on the expression (the music, the story) and communicating our story to the audience, instead of focusing on ourselves – which leads to performance anxiety?
Shifting the focus
Interpretation tools are used to help us express ourselves while singing. Expressing yourself means connecting to your emotions and feelings. Some might experience this as scary, and think “if it feels scary, how can it help me with my nerves?”
I’ll tell you why. I have this idea, that when we are working on song interpretation, we can learn to shift the focus from the performance situation being about us (‘I am singing this song to the audience’) to it being about the story we tell. That way, we can learn to allow the music and the story to flow through us, instead of becoming self-conscious and eventually nervous.
I have worked on song interpretation with a lot of singers suffering from performance anxiety, and found it very helpful.
Interpretation does not equal an analysis!
Please note that when working with interpretation, the point is not to come up with an analysis of what the songwriter or lyricist has meant the song to be about. Sometimes people get stuck on these kind of details. If you are not the songwriter or the lyricist, then you cannot know what they were thinking about when they wrote the song!
I work a lot with singer-songwriters too, and sometimes it can be quite interesting to notice that the songwriter wants to express one thing, but the singer feels something else – even when they are represented by the same person! But more about that another time.
The point is also not to start arguing whose interpretation is right or wrong (the singer’s or some other person’s: e.g. the teacher, another singer). That does not help you at all.
The whole point is to create a story that the singer can relate to and work with to help their performance.
Trust your own feelings
When we work with interpretation, we make use of our own (life) experience. Like Alfred Hitchcock said:
Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.
And as a note to teachers and coaches working on interpretation with singers: let the singers use their own feelings, experiences and pictures. The song might mean something different to them than it does to you.
The song (and the interpretation of it) will anyway mean different things to different people in the audience. We can involve the audience in the song/story by creating pictures, feelings, awaken memories and so on. But we cannot control what each individual in the audience will feel like when they hear the song or our interpretation! So focus on the things that are in your control: interpreting the story / singing the song the way you feel works the best for you.
Work with concrete tools
Sometimes song interpretation work has the tendency to become wishy-washy. It can be difficult to give our emotions a concrete form, and to give the process of interpretation work a clear structure.
Being concrete is important whenever we work on something (or teach, for that matter). The same goes for working on song interpretation.
The interpretation tools I like to work with are originally found in Constantin Stanislavski’s work, and were developed further in the US by teachers like Sanford Meisner. They are also found in the acting techniques taught by Broadway coach and teacher David Brunetti. Other tools come from the improvisation work developed by Keith Johnstone. I’d like to thank some of the wonderful teachers I’ve had, including Søren Møller and Ole Rasmus Møller, for teaching me how to work with these tools.
I hope that got you interested! Tomorrow I will post about the first tool.
©2012 Katja Maria Slotte
Originally published in the katjamariamusic blog in March 2012