It might surprise you to learn that my first love was not singing but acting. I started theatre lessons at the tender age of seven and continued with drama until I was sixteen. By then, I’d started singing and discovered my love of music.
However, it was not wasted time!
My acting background constantly helps me with my teaching, especially when it comes to preparing songs for performance. There’s an old adage in the musical theatre world:
We sing because we can’t speak anymore, and when we can’t sing anymore we dance.
All songs tell a story, just as a play script does (yes, ok, some songs have a very, uh, simple story…!). Words are our unique superpower in the world of music. Instruments can explore pitch, rhythm, tone and even sounds, but singers get to have words.
So why not learn from our siblings over in the world of theatre?
In the same way that singing technique manuals and music theory books have a long history, acting also has a rich history of educators, academics and thinkers who have written about different approaches to performing words on stage.
Here are three theatre techniques that I use regularly to help me and my students explore lyrics and develop a moving performance.
Use your memories
We’ve all heard of Method Acting from the extreme examples – actors who put them through the experiences of their characters in real life so as to give a more realistic performance, or actors who never break character. Doesn’t seem that useful for singing, right?
Wrong! Method Acting is an idea developed by one of the great names in acting techniques: Stanislavski. Konstantin Stanislavski favoured an attempt to create as realistic and convincing performance as possible – for the audience to really believe that an actor had become his character. He developed a whole system for actors to achieve this, of which method acting is just one part.
Here’s where it helps us as singers: the heart of Method Acting is about using your own experiences to bring yourself closer to that of the character. If you’re singing about a character who is in love, you can bring your own experiences of being in love, or feeling great joy or excitement to mind to trigger that emotion again as you sing. Or the same if your character is sad or grieving – we’ve all experienced loss in some way.
Try it out
Let’s take a simple example: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (bear with me!). Sing it through. Now, think of a time when you looked up at the stars and felt wonder or awe. Or if not the starts, have you felt wonder or awe at something else? Now sing the song again, focusing on those feelings. Hopefully, you’ll have sung it differently, and with more conviction.
Now, try a different take – it’s a lullaby, right? So think of a time when you sang to a child (or anyone, really) that you care about. Or a time when someone was distressed and you did something to soothe them. Now hold those memories and feelings in your mind as you sing. Different again!
It’s easier to start with a song that comes from an opera or show, or has a really clear story, but this does work with more poetic art songs too.
Using our own memories and experiences can open up a deeper connection with the music and lyrics that makes our singing more powerful.
Lyrics, music, action!
Personal memories might not work in every context. Perhaps it’s just something you’ve never experienced or you can’t really hit the mark. Step in, actioning.
Actioning is a great technique for both bringing a more convincing performance and for breaking down the journey within a song. It can be used alongside the Method Acting idea of personal experience.
An action verb is one that fits the structure I _______ you. For example:
- I persuade you
- I criticise you
- I yearn for you
- I love you
- I need you
- I want you
I can go on, but you get the idea.
Actioning helps to explore the motivation of a character, and works especially well when the song moves from internal thought or conversation to a big audience-focussed showstopper!
Have a go, have a row
Let’s explore this idea with another nursery rhyme: Row Row Row Your Boat.
What might this song be about?
- Perhaps I’m pleading with you to row the boat – “please! row faster!”
- Maybe I’m persuading you to take me out in your boat – “oh, won’t you please row me? please?”
- What if I dismiss you – “all you do is row, row, row your boat…”
- Or it could be that I love you – “oh row, row, row your boat, because I love to watch you”
Try it out – can you sing the same song exploring each of these ideas? Probably going to sound really different each time!
When you’re applying this into a song, start by asking what is the character saying at the beginning of the song, and then look for the places where that changes. You might hear the change in the music, or see it in the lyrics. You can change the word as often as needed for the song.
If you need more ideas, you can get a great little dictionary of action words to give you more ideas.
Pay attention to your circle
A newer idea to me, but one theatre technique I’ve been enjoying playing with is “circles of attention”. This is another Stanislavski idea, and a really helpful one for developing a performance.
There are three circles of attention:
The closest circle is the one where you’re talking to yourself. It’s close and intimate, comprising essentially of your own body, and the things you are immediately touching. Your focus, body language and speech would be quite containd.
The next circle is big enough to have a conversation with someone, or perhaps two people. It’s still close, but intimacy is shared now. This is a space where you’re starting to engage with the person near you, so it’s more animated.
3 The World
Then there’s the whole world. This circle is the one where you might be speaking to a large group, or even the audience. Energy is at it’s highest, and focus is broad.
Throughout the day, you will move through these circles of attention constantly. Many musical theatre songs move through from speaking to yourself or another character to a grand proclamation to the audience. When you begin to work on a song for performance, look at which circles the song starts in and moves through, and use this to tell you where to put your own attention as you sing.
Moving in circles
Our last nursery rhyme to try is Old MacDonald had a Farm.
Try singing it to yourself. You might be wistful or dreamy. Or you might be like me and seem slightly unhinged!
What if it’s part of a conversation this time. Tell your friend about the farm. Maybe you’re excited about it, or perhaps you’re telling them about the farm Old MacDonald once had and lost. Whatever mood you’re playing with, it will feel different to sing it to a companion than to yourself.
Now try singing it to everyone. You’ll probably be louder, and use a fuller voice. It might feel more declarative or stirring. Or excitable!
When you work on your song, think about who the character is speaking to – themselves, a friend or the world. Explore how the music is expressed differently when you change who it is.
Pick and choose
This is just three small examples from a whole world of theatre technique. If you enjoyed these, there is so much more out there to explore.
You might want to consider taking acting classes, reading up on theatre techniques, or finding a vocal coach/ singing teacher who can work with you using acting exercises as well as musical ones (like me!).