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

THIS BLOG POST IS #3 IN THE SERIES ‘HOW SONG INTERPRETATION CAN SAVE YOU FROM YOUR NERVES’. HERE YOU CAN READ THE PREVIOUS POST.

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.

 

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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

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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