How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 5)


We have arrived at the last post in this series, inspired by my interest in song interpretation work and my fascination in how it can relieve performance anxiety. In the previous four posts we have gone through some of the tools I like to use when working on interpretation with singers. It’s time for a little wrap-up, in the form of three pieces advise for your interpretation work.



Photo credit: Tal Bright via

Be in the moment 

Know your story, your Sender, Receiver, goal, and so on. But allow the story to unfold itself in the moment.

Try to not fix an ending to your story, that would only make your performance boring. Keep it open. Play with it.

In real life, do we ever know exactly what is going to happen next? No we don’t. So go from moment to moment, just as you would in a real-life situation.


Don’t try to ‘get it right’

When you work on interpretation, don’t focus on the performance. Don’t focus on ‘getting it right’. Focus on the story. The moment you try to ‘get it right’, it becomes difficult.

And needless to say, all the voices in your head saying “I wonder what they think of me” have to be turned off!


Forget about technique

Yes, I wrote that!

It is important that you remember singing technique is something we practice in order to become free to sing whatever we want to express. When we work on song interpretation (and when we perform), the story is important. Not technique.

If technical issues are hindering you from giving your story or performance the expression you would like to have, then of course you need to work on those. Technique needs to be practiced into a habit, so that we can use it while we perform. But that’s another story.

Singing technique is just a tool to help you express what you want, and to keep you healthy while singing.

Singing technique can help you express whatever you want. But if there is no expression in the first place, there is no singing technique in the whole world that can help you!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 4)


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 examine how to make the song interesting by adding some interaction and drama to it. We will also talk about how creating an imaginary setting for the song can help us feel more focused and less nervous in the performance situation.


Image by Alfred Schmidt (1958-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

WHY are you singing the song?

What is your goal? What do you want to achieve? What do you wish the outcome to be?

This is an essential aspect of song interpretation. Knowing what the song is about and to whom you are singing is not enough. We need to have a reason to sing the song. The reason is somehow connected to the Receiver.

Here are some examples of objectives:

  • Comfort someone.
  • Convince someone they should stay with us.
  • Tell someone they should reconsider their decision, because they might end up getting hurt.

Photo credit: Emagic via Photopin

Using interpretation tools to create a safe performance setting

Remember the singer I told you about in blog post #2 of this series? She was working on ‘Help Me’ by Joni Mitchell. This singer was used to perform with a loud rock band. Now she was making the shift to acoustic repertoire. She loved singing her new repertoire, but the smaller setting made her very nervous. She felt vulnerable, like ‘there was nowhere to hide’. We needed to create an imaginative song setting that felt safe for her.

She had concluded the song was full of emotions you feel when you are having a crazy romance. When choosing a Receiver, she could have chosen to sing the song to the (imaginary) character she / her song character fell in love with. But she had concluded the romance didn’t only feel wonderful, but also scary and not that stable. So it felt better for her to choose a Receiver she felt very safe about.

To whom are you singing and why?

I am telling this to my best friend, because I know she will understand me, she has been there herself. 

In this case the reason for singing the song is: singer is looking for comfort, understanding, sympathy, perhaps even good advise. Or, like we put it in the session: “It’s girl’s talk that we are having over a glass of Cava.” Which brings us to the next point.

WHERE are you?

Where is the story taking place? What happened just before you start singing?

Creating a setting for your story will help you stay in the story from beginning to end. Some singers do not know ‘what they should do’ during an instrumental interlude. This makes them often feel nervous. Watching others perform, you can clearly see that they have trouble ‘getting into the song’. In both cases, you could solve the problem by making sure there is a clear objective, and by focusing on the Receiver and the setting.


Photo credit: Stefelix via

Communication is a two-way thing

While communicating, we are always looking to evoke some kind of response (or feedback). Feedback is an essential part of the communication process, and included in most communication models.

The Sender and the Receiver in the story need to communicate too, in order for the story to remain interesting. When you sing your song, imagine how your Receiver would react to the things you say. You can imagine verbal reactions, and also actions, like turning away, standing up and walking towards the door, and so on.

Focusing on the Receiver and the goal can save you from your nerves

If you have a clear picture of what you are singing, to whom, and why, it helps you take your focus away from external things such as worrying about what the audience thinks about you. When you are completely in the story, the music can flow through you.

If we return to the singer working on ‘Help Me’, she found focusing on the interaction between her and her (imaginary) Receiver a very helpful tool. Whenever she felt she got ‘out of  the story’, she could imagine a reaction or response from her Receiver. This would help her continue. Having a Receiver to focus on made her feel calmer and more more centered in her performance.

An exercise

We will end today’s blog post with an exercise.

Read the lyrics of the song All Of Me. Read them out loud.

(Yeah, I was referring to the Jazz standard. And there is another song called All Of Me, written by John Legend. You can use those lyrics too.)

Then, try to answer the questions we have gone through until now:

  • What is the song about?
  • Who is the Sender?
  • Who is the Receiver?
  • Where are they? What has lead to this moment?
  • Why is the Sender singing? What is his/her goal?
  • How could the Receiver react?

Post your answers here, so we can get inspired and learn from each other!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

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 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.


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.


Photo credit: Ildalina via Photopin


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

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

Being A Diva In Your Own Garden

Last week I received a message from a singer I have been coaching:

Hi Katja, I just wanted to let you know that my last rehearsal went much better. Being in ‘my own garden’ helped me a lot.

In our session, we had been working on how to deal with nerves and staying centered. This singer is soon going to perform as a solist with a big choir and band, and one of her problems was that she did not get along with the conductor very well. She felt he was rushing her, and the negative, impatient vibes made her feel it was difficult to stay centered while singing. Her solo included some technically challenging passages, that we had been working on in the sessions. After two sessions focusing completely on technique things were going smoother, but in her rehearsal the situation with the conductor made her became nervous again and she couldn’t perform optimally.


We talked about how to feel grounded, and put some extra attention to balance.

Imagine there are magnets under your feet pulling you towards the ground, keeping you attached to the ground no matter how you change your balance, sway from side to side, and so on. Another image that works for some singers is imagining having roots under your feet. Mind you, however, that ‘having magnets or roots under your feet’ does not mean you have to stand in a rigid position while singing. We tried out the effect our knees have on our balance, and experimented with the difference between the knees being locked and unlocked. Locked knees will also lock your energy and will get you off balance faster.

It is also not important what picture or mental image you use, what is important is that it helps you achieve the desired thing: being balanced and centered. Other balancing exercises I like to do with singers are the yoga mountain pose (tadasana) and tree pose (vrksasana).


Photo credit: Gulfu via Photopin

Not letting yourself be influenced by external factors

For singers, in order to be able to deliver a performance, it is important to learn how to create your ‘own space’ that allows you to block out external factors, such as negative vibes and stressful energy from other band members, conductors you work with, and so on. There are many techniques you can apply, I will share one exercise we did with this singer in question.

Imagine yourself being surrounded by a protective shield / wrapped up in a protective bubble, from your head to toes. This shield bounces off any negative or stressful energy that you might feel coming from people around you. I asked the singer if this image made any sense to her. If she would have answered no, we would have set out looking for another way. The shield did make sense to her, however, and she remembered having done a similar exercise before. In the lesson, she literally drew this shield around herself.

After this, we tried out another variation of the ‘protective shield’ exercise.

In order to be able to communicate with band members and conductors, we cannot block out all energy but do have to stay partly open. Also, I believe all people working together in a music performance share the same positive wish of making the performance as good as possible. Most of the time people transmit negative energy and stress not because they intentionally want to sabotage your performance, but because they are nervous or insecure themselves. If we can connect to the positive wish and focus on the positive energy, instead of the negative, we are far better off.If the shield exercise feels like you are blocking out all energy, you might want to try out the following:

Imagine yourself standing in a little garden. Into this garden, you want to invite good friends (the good / positive energy coming from people you work with). You want to keep out all that is not good for your garden (the negative and stressful energy). When you feel bad energy around yourself, instead of blocking all incoming ‘energy streams’ completely, imagine yourself surrounded by a big bunch of flowers. In this way, you don’t allow the negative energy to come to you, but you do send positive energy to the outside. That positive energy will invite the positive energy in others to enter ‘your garden’.

The singer I worked with liked this idea a lot. She said it felt good to think “You can look at these flowers, but as long as you behave like an ***hole you’re not allowed inside my garden.”

If imagining flowers and gardens don’t make any sense to you, you’re welcome to invent a variation that suits you better. Please do share your suggestions and experiences by commenting on this blog, I’d love to hear from you!


Photo credit: Alex Gooi via Photopin

Connect to your inner Diva / Divo

It might help to imagine protective shields and bunches of flowers, but let’s face it – we are human and if we feel frustrated about something that frustration can sabotage all our attempts in being all ‘zen’ about the situation. The last thing we talked about with the singer was how to turn the frustration she felt into power she could use in her interpretation, and even physically for singing the technically demanding phrases. This requires something I like to refer to as ‘diva behavior’.

Sometimes I hear singers say “I want people to feel comfortable when they work together with me. I definitely don’t want them to think of me as some kind of a diva.” Actually, I have thought like that myself. At some point I started thinking about how all things come with a positive and a negative meaning. I realized that I had been focusing on the negative meaning of the word ‘diva’. I associated this word with behavior such as taking up all the space, being ‘sharp-elbowed’, making a big scene about minor issues, ‘being difficult’, and so on.

But when I looked at the positive characters of the word ‘diva’, I found out that it included aspects like:

  • knowing what you want
  • self-confident
  • being clear about your boundaries and what you don’t want
  • taking the space or time you need in order to feel comfortable

By the way, did you know that the basic sense of the term ‘diva’ is goddess? There’s nothing negative about that, I’d say.

The ‘diva behavior’ also means you look for solutions instead of surrendering to things that don’t feel good to you. Does ‘making people feel comfortable around you’ mean you allow them to treat you without respect or push your boundaries?  Sometimes a good ‘I’ll show you what I’ve got’ attitude can help us a long way. Don’t be afraid to show some ‘diva behavior’, take your space, and speak out if you have to. Think about the origin of the term ‘diva’ and become a god(dess) who knows what s/he wants, is clear about his/her boundaries, and spreads only positive energy around yourself. Then, go out there and shine!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

Originally published in my blog katjamariamusic in March 2012

Preparation is Everything – performance tips from Izaline Calister

In some of my Newsletters, a special guest shares their ‘lessons from the road’: things they have learned and experiences they have had in their music careers. The guest is a singer, songwriter, musician or teacher whose work inspires me in some way, or I think deserves special attention. I think these ‘lessons’ can be an inspiration to many of us, so I thought I would share them here on my blog too. Let’s start with some Lessons from my archives! In this blog you will find the ‘Lessons from the Road’ from the guest in my December 2011 newsletter.

Composer and lyricist Izaline Calister inspires me because of her ability to have remained true to her musical roots while she has developed her own distinctive personal musical style. Her work also proves how important it is for a singer to first and foremost express themselves through their music. Even if it means you will end up singing in a language that most of the people in the world don’t understand! Izaline discovered that the language in which she could express herself the best was her own mother tongue, Papiamentu.

Now Izaline can even be considered an ambassador for the Papiamentu language, as she has brought this widely unknown language to the world in her music that weaves together Afro-Antillean and Caribbean music with Jazz. Everything that she does has a connection to her cultural heritage and her musical roots. Izaline is a charismatic performer and her songs have reached the hearts of audiences around the world.



Izaline’s Lessons From The Road:

“I meet a lot of singers during concerts, coaching, and so on. Singers often ask me how to deal with stage fright. I don’t have an immediate remedy (I don’t think that exists) but I know some things that might help”:

“My experience with jogging is that when you jog regularly (I guess any kind of tiring sport will do) your body releases endorphins that make you able to handle stress much better. It worked great for me during my final exams at the conservatory 🙂 However, please don’t start jogging for the first time ever on the day of an important gig…”

Know your stuff:
“I meet a lot of singers that get very nervous before their gigs. And then I find out it’s because they are insecure about the lyrics, the form or the melody of a song. These insecurities make them more nervous than they would normally be. So guys…prepare your stuff in advance. If you know you are not good with lyrics…don’t wait till the last minute to learn them. Start weeks in advance and know them so well they’ll be there even if you’re nervous!”

Surround yourself with musicians that give you confidence:
“If you are really nervous about performing, it does not exactly help if the musicians you play with become more nervous than you. Make sure you band consists of people that are better, more confident and experienced than you. You’ll learn a lot, be confident and know they will save your ass when push comes to shove….”

Take time to create the best circumstances for your best achievement.
“Make sure you have the time and opportunity to soundcheck. It really helps your performance if you feel good about the sound. Aim for the best location, the best schedule, take time to work on the best setlist you can think of, and keep trying to perfect that setlist-making skill for future gigs.”

Last but not least, prepare yourself mentally right before the gig.
“If that means you have to be alone in a closet for 5 minutes, just do it! Get on that stage as the focused, well prepared, confident and fabulous singer you are! And go get them!!!”


Visit Izaline’s website to read more about her projects and stay updated on her tour schedule:

TIP: Izaline and I teach a special workshop & masterclass on vocal technique and interpretation together. The workshop can be booked for singers and students at music schools and conservatories. Get in touch for more information!