When I coach students, I find a great deal of my effort goes into getting them to recognize the opportunities that each individual phrase of the song offers. But why aren’t those opportunities more readily apparent? Why don’t singers recognize those chances until they’ve been pointed out? I think one major reason is that singers tend to be swept along by the flow of the song. Once a musical composition begins, the composer has taken control of the flow of time, and the thoughts and emotions of the song are swept along by its flow like a rushing river. When you’re singing, you can be swept along to the next moment before you’ve fully lived in the present moment.
Many of the exercises and strategies I use in my studio are designed to disrupt that flow. Analysis helps to focus the singer’s attention on each individual phrase, one at a time, so that the specific content becomes clear and the nature of the opportunities that phrase affords become more evident. Phrases are copied onto individual cards to make their separate-ness more tangible, and the individual cards are styled and annotated in ways that highlight the distinct qualities of each phrase.
Of course, awareness and insight are just the first step. The singing actor must cultivate a technique that enables them to behaviorally manifest that variety, to communicate the dramatic event as it changes phrase by phrase. This requires a kind of alertness and ease in the mind and body during performance that can be elusive at first. The task of singing is often accompanied by physical tension that is the result of anxiety or excitement, which causes the singer to brace up physically. It’s an intuitive “fight-or-flight” response, the way our bodies are instinctively conditioned to respond to stressful situations. With mindful practice, it is possible to de-stress the act of singing and unbrace the body and mind during performance. Only then is the singer physically capable of communicating the unique impulses that accompany the onset of each individual phrase.
Thoughtful analysis and mindful conditioning are both important to successful singing acting, but there’s a third component that’s equally valuable: practice. Like an instrumentalist tackling a complex passage, the singing actor needs to learn to practice slowly with attention to coordination and detail. Phrases should be practiced individually to cultivate their unique characteristics, then executed in sequence, taking pains not to sacrifice the specific qualities of each phrase for the sake of the “flow” of the music.
Awareness. Analysis. Alertness. Ease. Practice. Coordination. All of these are crucial to successful singing acting. Applied patiently and persistently, they will help you live in the moment and not get swept mindlessly along by the torrential flow of the music.