How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 2)

This blog post is #2 in the series ‘How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves’. Here you can read the previous post.

Today we will have a look at the first tool to help you create a concrete structure for your interpretation work:

Define WHAT the song is about

Ideally, this definition would consist of one sentence: a headline that sums up the story (or the drama in the song).

Think about how you would explain someone what the song is about. Or, as one of the teachers I worked with said, think of having to defend your song to the producer who wants to cut it out of the show. You have to be very clear when you explain the essence of the song to the producer, so you can justify why this song should stay in the show.

Remembering vs knowing the lyrics

I would like to encourage all singers to go through their songs and read the lyrics, so you know what your songs are about. Knowing what the songs are about seems so obvious. After all, we have to learn and know lyrics by heart all the time.

But have you ever thought about this: there is a difference between remembering the lyrics and knowing the lyrics.

  • Remembering the lyrics means remembering the words and sentences.
  • Knowing the lyrics means knowing the story.
  • Knowing the lyrics helps you relate the story to your own experiences, feelings, memories, images, and so on.
  • Knowing the lyrics is essential for song interpretation.

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Photo credit: Dyanna Hyde via Photopin

Some time back, I was rehearsing together with pianist Thomas Böttcher preparing our duo repertoire. One of the songs, ‘Take It With Me’ by Tom Waits, is a song I have been singing quite often. I knew the lyrics by heart, and in general, I thought I ‘knew’ the song pretty well. However, one part of the song somehow didn’t make sense to us. We felt unsatisfied about that part. First, we tried to approach the ‘problem’ from a musical (or ‘intellectual’) point of view: let’s phrase the sentence with this rhythm, let’s put the emphasis here, let’s do that part a bit louder, and so on. That didn’t really help. When Thomas asked me to read the lyrics of that part out loud, it struck me: until then I had been singing the lyrics of that part, but not really knowing them.

We need to know the lyrics so that we can relate to the story. It is not always necessary to have experienced everything yourself. You can relate to stories in many ways. The important thing is that you can relate to them, otherwise you are just singing words.

So, go through your lyrics, folks. And know them.

Knowing the lyrics can save you from your nerves

When you know the lyrics, you are singing a story: one sentence leads to another, it is all connected. You are always thinking about the next image.

When you have a clear image of the story, it helps you remember the lyrics better.

If forgetting the lyrics makes you feel nervous, there is only one thing you can do: learn them! There are no excuses. “I am bad with lyrics” is just an excuse for “I will not take the time to learn the lyrics and know them”.

It is your own responsibility as a singer to know the lyrics. Nobody will do the work for you.

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Photo credit: Ildalina via Photopin

Headline

Let’s get back to creating your headline to sum up the drama in the song.

I’ll use one of the singers I worked with last week as an example. She was working on the song ‘Help Me‘ by Joni Mitchell. Please read the previous blog post in this series, and remember song interpretation is not the same as song analysis. The singer I worked with made up a rather long headline, of two sentences:

It’s about feeling butterflies in your stomach, completely falling for someone, it’s wonderful and scary at the same time. You wanna go for that person completely, but at the same time you want to be free, committing yourself to someone feels scary.

We could for example sum it up to: “This song is about a crazy romance.”

As you can see, the 2-sentence “headline” is full of words that can be turned into actions. For example: feeling butterflies, falling for, feeling scared, etc). These action words are important and useful tools for our interpretation. We will talk about that in one of the upcoming posts in this series.

In tomorrow’s post we will start creating characters.

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

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How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 1)

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.

So you see, if there is no audience there is nobody we need to try to impress. Without an audience, there are no expectations. So the conclusion is: if there is no audience, there is no need to feel nervous. In essence, we do not sing out of a need to perform. We sing out of need for expression.
Now, let’s return to Effortless Mastery, where Werner reminds us of the following:

…in the beginning, music was our sole means of communication.

But without an audience that listens to our story, there is no communication. So we need the audience.

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?

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Photo credit: Daniele Zanni via Photopin.com

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.

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Photo credits: Saint Huck via Photopin.com

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

Music Marketing – Do What You Enjoy And Be Unique

This is a post in the series of special guests sharing their Lessons From The Road: things they have learned and experiences they have had in their music (or teaching) careers. The guest is a singer, songwriter, musician or teacher whose work inspires me in some way, or whose work I think deserves special attention. I think these ‘lessons’ can be an inspiration to many of us!

Through my workshops I have had the pleasure to meet and coach Inge, a talented aspiring singer-songwriter. I think Inge’s projects deserve some attention because the story of how her first album came to be is an inspiring lesson in persistence!

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Inge’s first album “I See You” was completely funded by her fans on Sellaband. By active self-promotion and connecting with her fans, Inge reached her target of 50.000 dollars, and was able to go into the studio to record. She wanted it to be a special album, with all the songs that matter to her and that she has written over the years. Together with producers Coen Molenaar and Jeroen Molenaar, and co-producer Angela Groothuizen, it turned out to be a very unique album.

Inge’s Lessons from The Road:

To get your own songs on a professional album, you could try to raise money through crowdfunding like Sellaband, Akamusic or similar. Remember this takes a lot of your time and energy because you have to continuously keep promoting yourself in order to get more fans and investors.

Don’t focus on becoming famous. Just enjoy what you do and do what you enjoy. And be yourself!

Try to be unique – in your music and/or in the way you present yourself. Find out what makes you different from others and emphasize that.

 

When this blog was originally posted in katjamariamusic in March 2012, Inge was fundraising for her second full length album. “Heaven Knows” was released in 2013 and can be bought on iTunes, CD Baby and through Inge’s website

Saying Yes Or No To Practice

Here are some thoughts on how to make sure you get the most out of your practice session by becoming clear about your intentions and what it is that you want: practice or make music? Satisfy your inner ‘technician’ or your inner ‘singer/artist’?

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Photo credit: Konrad Foerstner via Photopin.com

Vary practice sessions with making music

This is how I like to think about it: singers have a split personality of some sorts!

There is a singer or an ‘artist’ in us, that wants to sing and make music because we have something to express, because it makes us feel good, because we love music, and so on. There is also another part in us – let’s call it the ‘technician’. The technician wants to practice, learn new skills and develop. It is focused on details like technique, sound, timing, intonation, and so on. These two parts need to co-exist, but they cannot be equally present all the time. Can you identify yourself in the “split personality description” of inner artist versus inner technician?

We need to make sure to satisfy the needs of both the inner ‘artist’ and the inner ‘technician’. This is why I find it important to vary practice sessions with making music.

Do you want to practice or make music?

A common reason for ineffective practice, next to not having clear enough goals, is mixing the desire to practice with the desire to make music.

It might help to make a deal with yourself, and choose to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to practice. Being focused when you practice means saying ‘yes’ to practice, and telling the ‘singer inside ourselves’ that it needs to step aside and allow the ‘technician’ to operate for a while.

On the other hand, give yourself permission to sometimes say a clear ‘no’ to practice. Saying ‘no’ to practice means you allow yourself to sing and make music without focusing on technique or other details. It means singing songs because you feel like singing, singing for the sake of expression. Saying ‘no’ to practice means telling the ‘technician’ inside ourselves that it has to step to the side for a while.

Yes? No? …Maybe??

Also, be aware that you sometimes might actually be saying ‘maybe’ to practice. It might happen more often than you think. ‘Maybe’ is when you are not quite clear about our intentions. It is an in-between state where a part of you ‘just wants to sing’, and a part of you wants to practice. ‘Maybe’ results in an unhappy singer, an unhappy ‘technician’, and ineffective practice.

So satisfy your inner ‘technician’ with focused practice, and make your inner singer happy by making music and regularly singing your heart out!

 

 ©2012 Katja Maria Slotte
Originally published in Vocal Blog as a part of the article: How do you practice? 

Giving an A

Recently I started re-reading ‘The Art Of Possibility‘ by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. It is one of those books I would recommend everyone to read: teachers and students, bosses and employees, leaders and members of an organization, choir conductors and singers, band leaders and musicians…

Rather than living in a world of measurement, where we know things by comparing and contrasting them, the Zanders invite us to step into a “universe of possibility”. The book presents twelve practices that will shift our view of life, and open up new possibilities and opportunities where we thought there were none.

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Photo credit: Denise Carbonell via Photopin.com

The challenge of ‘giving an A’

One of the practices in the book, and the one I would like to challenge you to try out this coming week (or month), is the practice of ‘Giving an A’.

When you give an A, you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves. Your eye is on the statue within the roughness of the uncut stone. This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.

In essence, the practice of ‘Giving an A’ means the following: when we assume that people will do well, and teach them how they can do this, they will. The Zanders remind us that practicing “giving an A” will not only transform the person receiving the figurative or literal A, it will transform the person giving the A as well.

Possibilities to live into. Reading these words made me think about how much faster people learn in a positive learning environment. And about how important it is to ‘reset’ and have a ‘clean slate’ every time we go into a teaching situation, and not to bring in any expectations or judgements based on previous experiences or on what we have read or heard about someone.

To whom could you give an A today?

10 Thoughts For Teachers

Today, I wanted to share these 10 thoughts with you.

I received them years ago, at the end of my specialization course in Music and Movement (Orff-Schulwerk) during my Music Education studies at the Sibelius Academy from our teacher Soili Perkiö.

I think these 10 thoughts are important for teachers and educators in all areas of specialization, and on all levels.

1. Your personality is your most important tool.

2. Make your views come true.

3. Always respect people.

4. Recognize your own limitations.

5. Be consistent and reliable.

6. Develop a sensitivity to experience things from the perspective of those you teach.

7. Be ready for self-criticism, yet without abandoning your Self.

8. Make sure you provide those you teach with space – and with space to make mistakes.

9. Do not break the agreements and promises that you have made.

10. Cherish your inner freedom, which is your most precious capital.

By Martti Lindqvist

 

Translated from Finnish by Katja Maria Slotte

A New Way To Think About Creativity

This is one of my favorite TED talks. Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) talks about creativity and creative genius. She reminds us of the many impossible things we expect from artists.

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not believe creativity came from human beings. Creativity was considered something spiritual, and creative ideas came to human beings through divine attendant spirits. But the times changed. And so did people’s views on creativity. Instead of believing in all of us “having” a genius, we adopted the idea of a (rare) person “being” a creative genius.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

– Elizabeth Gilbert in her TED talk on creativity

 

 

Gilbert’s talk is funny and inspiring, and it reminds us about the importance of showing up at the page and doing our creative work no matter what. Because then at least you did your part of the job.