If you’ve taken more than a few singing lessons, you’re probably familiar with the concept of vocal expression.
When you perform a piece, there are a few ways in which you can project emotions: it can be in the lyrics, the melody, the harmony (major or minor chords? Or maybe some dissonant chords?), and it can be in the way you use your voice. Vocal expression is a way to project and ignite certain thoughts, feelings, and emotions in your audience through the use of your voice. Think of the intimacy of a soft, low-pitched voice, almost whispering into the mic. Then think of the rough, angry energy in screams and growls. You can have Sinead O’Connor and Alissa White-Gluz singing the same song, each in her respective signature style – the feeling evoked in the listener will be very different.
I’ve heard a lot about vocal expression from former voice teachers, although to be honest, when performing, I don’t have the bandwidth to think about my artistic expression. I’m mainly trying to not screw things up.
When you are a very technical singer (I’m not), you need to put thought into your expression so your performance doesn’t come off as a “textbook” performance. If you are like me, and can hardly call yourself a singer, the natural vocal failures that occur and the vocal inconsistency between different parts of the song, for better or worse, already give you some built-in vocal expression.
Nonetheless, it is worth watching videos of your performance or asking a trusted friend for feedback to see if your performance is too dull or monotonous (as far as singing can be monotonous). If that’s the case, you should consider looking into improving your vocal expression – even if you are not a technical singer.
The Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) method which I mention in my book in depth (maybe will do a blog post about it too) addresses vocal expression, and here are a few things they suggest.
Understand the story in the song
First, dive into the text. Make sure you understand the lyrics, and even if abstract, that you have your own interpretation of the text. Then, listen to the melody – does it match the mood of the lyrics? If not, is there an intentional dissonance, for example, a singer trying to fake happiness through her lyrics, while the sad melody gives her true feelings away?
Try to learn the “song’s story”. You can try to find details about the song such as the song’s background and inspiration. For many songs, this information is available online through interviews with the artists or through lyrics aggregator sites. One such site is SongMeanings.com.
Some songs appear senseless – they sound like a random bunch of words linked by a melody or groove (ever tried to understand Red Hot Chili Peppers songs?), so you can invent your own story about the song in order to connect with it on a deeper level.
Create a character
While this is hard for me, I think that if you truly get into it, it can be a lot of fun. If you are good at acting, you can imagine you are an actor in a musical or a rock opera. Create your character with as much detail as you can: gender, age, look, style, clothing, background, name, job, preferences, and more. Perhaps you can even go to a stock image website and try to look for an image that can fit your character, especially if you find it hard to imagine the character out of the blank.
CVT advises to never use yourself as the character, as “…it can be very tough and unhealthy for your physical well-being to relive drastic or traumatic situations from your own life night after night.”
I haven’t yet experienced reliving drastic and traumatic experiences from my personal life night after night, as I do not perform that often, so I’m not sure what I think about the statement above. I do think that singing about yourself can bring raw power to a performance; often these songs, which are the most personal, authentic, and revealing, are the ones that touch the hearts of the audience most.
Once you have a character in mind, decide what the character is doing in the song: are they talking, thinking, shouting, screaming, dancing? This will influence your choice of vocal expression (and more specifically in CVT – choices such as mode and sound color).
Who is the character addressing? Are they present?
When I was taking singing classes and preparing to perform a couple of covers in an open mic session, my vocal coach asked me to think of who I was singing a certain song to. It was a cover that I was planning to perform simply because it was super cool, but she asked me to look at the crowd and find someone in the audience to sing to, or to imagine that there is someone in the crowd that I would sing to (for example, if you are singing Alanis’ Ought to Know, Imaging your horrible ex in the audience).
What is the character trying to convey?
Think of the purpose of the song. Why are the words being sung? Is it an argument? Is the singer seeking comfort? Is it an apology? And where is the character when things are being said?
All of these questions will help you bring the song to life inside of you, which will help you bring it to life on stage.
Pirate or rocker?
I will add a disclaimer – while some songs I like have deep/emotional/thought-provoking lyrics, many of the songs I like make zero sense to me, and I simply connect to them because I like the groove and the energy of the song.
A good example is Whiskey in the Jar, an old Irish tune that has many covers, including one by Metallica. I love that cover, and I performed it a couple of times on stage. Back then I was taking voice lessons, and had worked on it with a vocal coach. We read the lyrics of Whiskey in the Jar and she wanted me to analyze who was singing the song, to who, why, when, etc. Analyzing the lyrics, we got to the conclusion that the singer was sort of a pirate. She wanted me to imagine myself as a pirate, and not just any pirate, but a drunk, confused, criminal pirate walking the streets of Cork in Ireland.
Well, I tried, but it didn’t click. I think it is because for me the song was less about feeling like a pirate, and more about feeling cool like James Hatfield, standing on a stage and playing powerful, distorted guitar chords.
Changing your expression throughout the song
Another input commonly raised is changing your vocal expression as the song progresses. According to the vocal coach I worked with, no two parts of the song should sound the same vocally.
Some songs go through a natural progression – they are like a story. Whiskey in the Jar is a great example of such progression – it is an old Irish song with no known writer, and is actually a story, with each verse taking you one step further in the storyline. There are a few versions with different stories, here is Metallica’s: the song starts when our main character (the pirate?) runs into Captain Farrell who is counting his money. He then robs Captain Farrell and brings the money to Molly (his loved one). But, turns out that Molly betrays him with Captain Farrell (- how much drama in one song! It’s almost like a soap opera!). Our pirate is then surprised at Molly’s place by Captain Farrell and shoots him, ending up in jail. Quite a journey for one song! Some points in the song’s plot remain open and you can choose your own interpretation of them if you want. For example: does Molly have a thing with Captain Farrell, or did she just denounce the robbery? Did the pirate plan to kill Captain Farrell, or did he shoot because Captain Farrell surprised him? And then again, there are other versions of the song that take the story to other places, and even add verses with more details.
With such a story in front of you, you can use your vocal technique to express the changes in the mood of the main character. You can start by being joyful and cocky about stealing the money. The next verse in which Captain Farrell surprises you, you can add some surprise to your voice (but don’t animate it too much, unless you are singing in a musical). The last verse, in which our character is singing from jail, can be sung in a more low-key, depressed feel, or perhaps with acceptance (and remorse?), as you know that you will spend the rest of your life in jail, away from the woman that you love and betrayed you.
Once you have the story and character mood for each one of the parts, it’s time to bring it back to the technique. Which type of voice should you use for each part of the song? Where would you use a gentle voice, perhaps a whisper, and where would you give your voice more of a shouting character?
So, if you have a song that renders itself well to vocal expression like Whiskey in the Jar does, have a go at playing with your expression, but like I said earlier – don’t sweat it too much, especially if you are like me – not a technical performer. I normally make my choice of vocal style, if at all, based on what sounds good with the given pitch, and less on trying to convey a certain feeling.