How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 3)


In this series of blog posts we are examining some tools that will help you create a concrete structure for working on song interpretation. The title of the blog derives from my fascination with the connection between interpretation work and relieving performance anxiety.

Today we will create characters (a Sender and a Receiver) for your story, and talk about how using characters can help you relieve performance anxiety.



Photo credit: Postaletrice via Photopin

WHO is singing?

Who is the Sender?

You can sing the song ‘being yourself’. Or you can create yourself a character. This can be especially helpful if you have to sing a song that feels difficult to relate to, or if ‘singing as yourself’ feels to vulnerable for you.

When you’re creating your character, you could even think of details such as:

  • Where does the character come from?
  • How old is s/he?
  • What does s/he do for a living?
  • …and so on.

You get the picture. This is like creating a ‘passport’ or a life story for the character.

Obviously, there will always be a part of you in the character, because you are using your own life experience when you create and play the character.


To WHOM are you singing?

Who is the Receiver?

Who are you communicating with?

In my work with singers, I have found this a helpful tool for many that are suffering from performance anxiety. Having an imaginary Receiver gives you someone/something outside of yourself to focus on while you are singing. Focusing on communicating with the Receiver feels safer for most people than having to focus on the whole audience.

The Receiver can be a character you invent, or a real-life person that you don’t know (some people use historical characters, movie stars or film characters as the Receiver). You can use people from your own life too, but be aware that you don’t cross the ‘emotional safety line’ doing this. It is, for example, not advisable to choose a real-life person with whom you are having an open conflict as your Receiver.

If it feels emotionally safe for you to use people from your own life, go ahead and do so. If it does not feel safe, invent a character that you are singing to. The Receiver is your own secret. You do not have to the audience about your Receiver or about the situation you picture. Remember, these are just tools you use to make your interpretation better, and/or to relieve your performance anxiety.


Can’t I just sing the song to myself?

Singing the song to yourself is not necessarily the best option, because this might result in an introvert performance. Introvert can work well in a recording situation, but does not work on stage. So think of another person, or something else outside of yourself  (for example God), to use as your target.

Singing the song to a Receiver will also help you keep the song interesting. Remember the Kenny Werner quote about music being communication? Well, that’s what we want to achieve. The communication (drama) will also be useful in other ways. It will help you remember the lyrics better, and it will help you stay focused on the story. We will talk about creating drama in tomorrow’s blog post.

An exercise

Listen to these two different versions of the jazz standard ‘You’ve Changed’. What kind of character do you imagine is telling the story? What is the difference between the first character (song version #1 performed by Billie Holiday) and the second character (song version #2 performed by Sarah Vaughan)?

1. ‘You’ve Changed’ performed by Billie Holiday

2. ‘You’ve Changed’ performed by Sarah Vaughan


©2012 Katja Maria Slotte


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?


Photo credit: Daniele Zanni via

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.


Photo credits: Saint Huck via

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

On thoughts and fears and practicing

Today, in one of my vocal coaching sessions, I worked with a classical singer who is preparing for a series of concerts. One of the songs she is singing is Norma’s aria Casta Diva (by Bellini).

We had been working on fine-tuning some technical aspects of the song already before Christmas break. She is a trained singer and technically skilled. Still, she felt that some of the passages were heavy to sing and some of the high notes felt, in her own words, like she “didn’t own them”.

We had worked on economizing her breath support, as she had been using active breath support in parts of the song where she did not need to support. She had discovered the twang to be a very useful tool for her. By twanging (more) she could access the center of the mode with more ease. The notes became crystal clear, her pitching was wonderful and it seemed all so much easier.

In today’s session things were going much better thanks to her previous work. The singer was very happy about her progress. Her sound was better. The higher notes were flying out with more ease than before. But everything was not easy all the time. I asked her what it felt like. “It’s so much work!”

The problem was not that she wasn’t working enough. The problem was that she was working too much. Perhaps not even physically. But mentally. I had looked at her face while she was singing. I could see the technical concentration on her face. Not only her facial muscles, but her whole body was ‘seriously singing’. This was beautiful music. But was she enjoying herself? A thought came into my head. Maybe it was all too serious? “Smile!” I said.



Smiling is one of the tricks to access the (necessary) twang we need in order to sing the notes in the center of the mode and with more ease. She needed to be reminded of the tool she had discovered in our last session, because the technique had not become part of her muscle memory yet. But there’s more to smiling than just technical benefits. I believe smiling has a huge impact on the psychology of singing – both as a physical tool to access the twang, as well as a thought, a mental picture or state of mind.

A lot of thoughts can cross our mind while we sing a (challenging) piece of music.“There’s that high note again! That tiring passage. That place where I feel like I almost run out of breath every time I sing it. That rhythm that doesn’t just ‘sit’ quite right. And of course: I should have learned it by now!! How can I be that stupid and untalented that I’m till struggling with this…”

Have you ever caught yourself thinking or saying these kind of things to yourself while singing or practicing? I have. God knows how many times. That’s not exactly kind talk towards yourself!


Your thoughts matter!

I am not suggesting that we can magically solve technical difficulties by ‘thinking happy thoughts’. Naturally, we need to work on the correct technique. I will write more about technique in future blog posts. But for now, let’s say we have been practicing on the technical aspects like the singer I worked with today. It’s getting better and we are noticing results, and that way, we know we are doing the right things and we are on the right path. But it is still difficult.

Here are two things worth while checking:

1) Ask yourself, hand on your heart, how do I practice?

Are you experiencing difficulty because the (new) technique has not become part of your muscle memory yet? If you are practicing the right things but not noticing results, you might be rushing through the exercises.

Kenny Werner writes in his book “Effortless Mastery” about Fear-based practicing. Fear can ruin our practicing by

…rushing you through the material, rendering you unable to absorb anything. You try to cover too much ground every time you practice, barely skimming the surface of each item, then moving on. You ignore the fact that you can barely execute the material, because you have no time to notice that. After all, there’s so much to practice and so little time!

Allow yourself time to grow. (Re)-building muscle memory does not happen overnight. Yes, when performed correctly, a technique should have the desired effect right away, that way we know we are doing the right things. But it takes time to work a (new) technique into a habit.

Fear-based practicing can sabotage not only technique practice, but all other kinds of practice as well. We might rush through our runs, not being quite sure about every note we have to sing. So that one particular run will always feel a bit difficult. Or we might be rushing through rhythmically difficult passages. Every time we have to sing that specific rhythm it’s not quite right, because we have not worked it into a habit. And every time we experience the difficulty again, we end up sabotaging ourselves with more negative thoughts.




2) Are you making it (more) difficult because you think it (has to be) difficult?

Like I mentioned earlier, sometimes we are ‘beating ourselves up’ as we sing, constantly internally commenting on the things we do (technically, sound-wise, and so on). This is self-sabotage and not leading us anywhere (except to frustration).

Some singers I have worked with are beating themselves up already before they even make a sound. They imagine what the sound should come out like, and by doing this they create pressure on ‘sounding perfect’. Even if it’s just an exercise they are singing! I used to be like that myself. For every ‘not perfect sound’ that came out of my mouth, I was internally beating my head against the wall like Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter. Did that for instance make it easier to give the exercise another shot? No.

So be kind to yourself! Learn to say and think “This is unfamiliar – not difficult”. And so what if you miss a note, or if the sound that comes out of your mouth is not perfect. It’s just a note! You are still alive and well. Try to be a bit kinder towards yourself when you make ‘mistakes’, and you might find that learning becomes easier.

I’ll quote Kenny Werner again:

Mastery is available to everyone.
It’s true that it comes to some people more easily, but mastery comes to all who wait for it. The ego may taunt you with thoughts like, “You should have learned that by now”, or “You should be playing better by now”, but focused work habits, determination, and a positive outlook will compensate for talent to a surprising degree.

I can sing sounds that my Ego finds beautiful, or I can produce sounds that it’s not satisfied with. By no means am I an enlightened singer who is never tormented by negative self-talk. But I am learning one thing. The kinder I am to myself, the easier it seems to get.

Let’s return to the singer from today’s session. What happened when she smiled?

Suddenly the problems were gone. The smile might have added that necessary twang to her singing. But one thing was for sure. When she started smiling and thought about the beautiful music and lyrics she was singing, she was enjoying herself. Out went the difficult thoughts, and perhaps they were replaced by the joy of making music and some kindness towards herself. She could feel the difference, and I could both see it and hear it.




What are your experiences on these things? How important do you think the role of ‘positive thoughts’ is to practicing or performing music? Have you experienced getting stuck in fear-based practicing? Have you been sabotaging yourself with negative thoughts? What helped you get on another track?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte


This article was originally published in my blog katjamariamusic in January 2012


Photo credits: DarkB4Dawn, WFilmLiquidnight via Photopin