ICVT Conference: Day Two – Investigating the Text

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com


This morning I’m preparing to present my first paper at the International Congress of Voice Teachers.  The paper is entitled, “Investigating The Text: Teaching Young Singers How to Find Meaning in a Song.”  For those of you who can’t make the jaunt to Australia, I hope you find the following a useful tool in helping your young singers bring all of themselves to a song.


How many times has this happened to you? A student begins to sing a song you’ve assigned them and you instantly realize what’s coming out of their mouth is not their own voice. In fact, your student has assumed another vocal identity altogether, perhaps without even knowing it. Who do they sound like? Is that Elly Ameling? Matthias Goerne? Audra McDonald? Matthew Morrison? Kelly Clarkson, Justin Bieber (God help us!!)?

Chances are, your student has gotten the sheet music for the song you assigned and swiftly headed to YouTube, which I like to call the hell mouth to bad music-making. Your student has listened to the song you assigned multiple times and not only sounds like someone else, but has incorrectly learned the notes, rhythms and, in some cases, the words (or at least their correct pronunciations).

Let me emphatically state I am not a fan of American Idol, but when I heard about Harry Connick Jr. appearing as a guest judge on their American Songbook week, I was curious to see what he’d say.  Below is a clip of him working with one of the singers.  You need only watch the first minute to sum up what most of us regularly experience in our private studios:

Ring any bells??

One of my biggest challenges as a teacher is helping students break bad technical and musical habits formed by poorly learning a piece of music. As Stravinsky once noted, “The sin against the spirit of the work always begins with a sin against its letter.”  So, today I want to share with you the six steps I give my students to investigate the text, which I find makes them stronger technicians and communicators.

The first thing the singer must do is separate the text from the music.  Many students are reluctant to do this, or see the value in it. As voice teachers, we understand that studying the text separate from the music is important because:

  • Most obviously, that’s where the composer started (libretto, book scene, poem, etc..).
  • The word itself is a musical sound.  This is a point brought to us both by Pierre Bernac and celebrated poet Maya Angelou; and,
  • Every decision the composer makes is based on the text their setting.

As a composer, I feel it’s my duty to serve the text I’m setting, whether it be an art song or musical theatre scene.  Otherwise, why am I setting it?  Generally, composers aren’t interested in painting over a text with their music, but rather illuminating it.

In his book, “Singing in French: A Manual of French Diction and French Vocal Repertoire”, Thomas Grubb describes the importance of this process: “The singer is always working through a text that in some way or another inspired the vocal line and its texture.”

So, what are the actual steps in helping our students investigate the text?

STEP 1: Research the song

Regardless of the genre, the singer must be armed with as much information as can be found about the piece they’re going to sing. Knowing something about the song’s genesis will enable them to make specific, educated decisions about how they’ll approach it.

If it’s an art song, the student should read the poet and composer’s biography, find out roughly when the poet wrote the text and the composer set it, why and for whom. Was there a love interest? A dying relative? The music nerd in me finds this kind of research lots of fun.

If the student is learning a piece from an opera or musical, they should, at the minimum, read the scene in which the aria or song appears.  More thorough students will read the entire libretto so they can get a good sense of the character’s dramatic arch.  It’s also smart to look at any source material the student can find.  For instance, reading some of the stories of Sholem Aleichem would further illuminate the preparation of a song from Fiddler on the Roof – that’s where Bock & Harnick started.

STEP 2: Write the text out on a separate piece of paper

We don’t write much by hand anymore, which I find to be very sad.  Something happens when we put pen to paper.  Even if we’re simply copying something out, we become more intentional. Without even knowing it, your students begin developing a relationship with the text by where they put the line breaks and how it looks on the page. I also find it helps me memorize the words.

STEP 3: Recite the text as a monologue.

Singers must, above all, communicate the words.  If we’re not communicating the text, why are we singing? In reciting the text, the singer begins to honor the craft with which the poet or lyricist wrote the words.  We can never underestimate the hours upon hours it takes for a creative artist to find the right word, to create the proper image. I find having the student recite the text starts getting them on their breath and helps them understand the similarities between speaking and singing.

I sometimes have students recite the text with what I call “Shakespearean intent,” so they are fully on their instrument and in their resonance. Carol Kimball, in her recent NATS Articled entitled “Making Poems Sing,” talks about tasting the words. I love that image.  To me, that’s another way of speaking with “Shakespearean intent.”

Ask the student to make a mental note of where they naturally breathe as they recite the text and how they experience the pace of the poem separate from the music. Ask them to recite the poem at differing speeds and see how they respond to it, both emotionally and physically.  This will be useful information as they consider shaping phrases.

Everything I just mentioned mirrors the steps I take when writing an art song.  As a composer, I want to know all the nooks and crannies of my chosen text.  I want to pay attention to any alliteration the poet has created, any perceived rhythmic pulse, beyond an obvious meter.  Does the poem ever buck a reigning rhythm?  If so, why?  What images come to mind – either through the eyes of the poet or my own – as I read the text?

We have to help our students realize our job as singers is to pick up the similar tracks composers found through the text before us.

Step 4: Learn the notes and rhythms separate from the words

After a student has recited the text for me, I will often ask them to intone the text in rhythm, following the general contour of the phrase while marking their breaths as they go.  I define intoning as singing without actual pitch.  Students hate making this sound, but I find it gets them on their breath and keeps the language forward.

Then my students learn the actual melody using a series of exercises, including: lip trills, ‘shz’ (a combination of ‘sh’ and ‘z’ I find helps them activate their breath) or ‘ni.’ Then I’ll ask them to switch up the order of those four exercises over the course of the song and see which ones are most helpful to them at particular times.  Does a lip trill keep them more engaged on their breath on a higher section?  Does the ‘ni’ keep them more present in their mask in the low? etc…

Once the students have accurately learned the notes and rhythms, I then ask them to IPA the text and sing only the vowels, or n + the vowel, which I find helps keep the vowels forward.

Students are always very reluctant to take these steps over the course of a week between lessons, but I have found they make a significant difference in technically starting a piece on the right foot.

Step 5: Translate the text (in your own words)

When I say translate the text, I don’t refer to translating something from a foreign language, though it’s important the student do that as well.  I’m talking about having the student translate the text into their own words.

This spring we interviewed Kimberly Vaughn, a well-known Broadway performance coach, about how she prepares her clients for auditions and call-backs.  Here’s one of the most important ideas I took from that interview: Ask the student to translate the text into their own words, so they fully internalize the meaning of the heightened language.  For more information on this, please visit Kimberly’s website and keep an eye out for her forthcoming book.

I take this a step further by making my students translate the lyric on the spot while singing. For example, if I were singing the first phrases of “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along.  The original lyric is:

Not a day goes by,
Not a blessed day.
But you’re somewhere a part of my life
And it looks like you’ll stay.

And my personal translation might be:

Every waking hour,
I keep thinking of you.
I can’t stop remembering all that we had.
You’re too hard to forget.

When I make my students do this exercise, they really begin to fire on all cylinders.  I find they immediately begin supporting a clear tone because they’re making on-the-spot decisions that require them to stay engaged.

Translating the text allows students to find their own voice in a song and see where it either coincides or rubs up against what the music suggests.  This kind of work also naturally opens the door to conversations we need to have with our students about why the text is set in a particular way, or if and how the accompaniment is acting as the character’s subconscious or inner emotional life.  We need to look no further then Gretchen am Spinnrade to know many times it is.

These kinds of discussions are the nourishment that help students flourish into singing artists.

Step 6: Mark the high point of each phrase in the score

For the last 12 years I’ve sung in the professional sanctuary choir at Marble Collegiate Church in New York – its one of the best music ministries in the city.  Ken Dake, our choir director, is fond of saying, “In a phrase, you’re either heading to the high point or coming back from it.”  To me, what that means is the singer must always be in motion, never checking out of their sound.

By this point, if the student has done their work, they know their new song like the back of their hand.  So, making decisions on where they’re heading to or from should be relatively easy for them.  However, many students will immediately assume the highest note is the most important part of the phrase.  We know that sometimes this isn’t true – often times, the high note sets up the high point of the phrase.  So, it’s important to help students make that distinction.

When students realize where they’re heading in a phrase, they often begin to manage their breath better and make less of a big deal of what they perceive to be “the high notes.”

It’s also interesting to note here that, as we make these decisions about the high point of the phrase, our ideas of where to breathe may change and therefore, the meaning too can become slightly altered.


At no point during this process should the student listen to a recording of the piece they’re working on.  They need to find their own authentic voice in the song, and the only way to do that is by completely taking apart the piece and then asking one essential question: What of myself can I offer in service of this song?

It won’t shock you when I say we are in a very selfish age, especially when it comes to singing.  Looking at TV shows like American Idol or The Voice, it’s clear to me many young singers are making the songs about themselves.  And the sad part is, the audiences fall for it, not knowing they’re being utterly robbed of developing any sort of personal experience with the song because of the singer’s ignorance or ego.

While working on my Masters degree in Vocal Performance at Boston University, I took a performance class with Shiela Kibbe, who is the Chair of Collaborative Piano there.  One week my pianist Min Sun Park and I brought in “Die Meinacht.”  I got up, knowing my word-for-word translation and ready to communicate the shmerz out of that song.  Oh, I rolled around in it, sopping every note in a healthy dose of anguish with a tinge of hope.

I finished the piece and Professor Kibbe sat in silence for a moment.  And then, in what would become one of my most painful memories as a musician, she said, “That was lovely, David.  Now why don’t you share that experience with the rest of us.”  And after I removed the sizable dagger from my heart, I did.  She was right, though.  She caught me wallowing in my own “stuff,” which made it impossible for me to think about serving the song.

If we can help our singers to think about how they can surrender to a song and let it sing through them, they will begin to understand the true gift of building a bridge between themselves and the audience.  This likewise allows the audience to bring their full selves to the song and take from it what sustenance they need at that particular moment.

Based on my experience, when we convince this instantaneous gratification generation to take these necessary steps in learning a new song, several things happen:

  •  The singer has the chance to bring a healthier technical approach to the song.  Just as we remind our students they must warm-up before they sing their repertoire, we must remind them they must study a piece of music before they attempt communicate it.
  • They develop a clear communication of the text and its meaning. As Pierre Bernac reminds us, “This is a matter of elementary politeness to the listener, and of fundamental honesty to the poet.”
  • Students find a more organic connection to the text and music, and as a result…
  • They have a better chance at letting the music flow through them, and allowing the audience to bring to the song their own experience.


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