You ultimately want to own a song. For it to be something that no one can imagine hearing any other way. So here are some deeper, more intimate techniques of attaching yourself to your song using visualization and sense memory.
This is more acting craftwork. Sometimes it will be unnecessary for certain types of songs where it is more about the music than the character or the story being told. Nonetheless, it is great to have these tools to use when the song calls for it.
The first thing to do is notice what images the words and the music evoke for you when you think about the song and also when you sing it. If you are singing Gershwin’s “Summertime” and you are visualizing a ski lodge, you might want to switch the imagery going on in your head. What does summertime evoke for you? Are you sitting on a cool shady porch, sipping ice cold lemonade, wiping little trails of sweat off your forehead, letting your body relax to the smell of barbecue, the sound of crickets and the sight of little kids running to the ice cream truck passing by?
Notice I am using descriptive words and all of the senses to conjure this image. The more you can taste that lemonade, or feel that lazy, contented body, the more you can give to the lyric. Actually imagine yourself singing from that place. Then just to prove this point, go to that ski lodge. Imagine the freezing crystals on your nose that haven’t melted yet as you desperately attempt to warm up by the blazing fire. Feel the prickly tingling in your body as it begins to thaw out. Now try to sing about summertime. A bit different, yes?
Whenever you sing a song without having done this homework, chances are you are putting incorrect or at least un-thought out images into your song. These sense memory exercises can be done in either of two ways. You can go back into your personal memories and find detailed aspects from your own experience. Or you can let your imagination go wild and cook up something very juicy and provocative. The whole point is to get your blood flowing and for these sensual images to move you. So whatever works, I say use it!
Keep in mind, you could have an automatic response to a song or to a lyric. If that is the case, your innate creativity has already done the job for you and you don’t have to push it.
It also is useful to imagine someone specific to whom you are singing. Sometimes it’s fine to simply sing to the audience in general, but there are many instances, especially in love songs, where picking an actual person makes a huge difference. Imagine singing the same love song to all of the people in your life. Notice how different it is singing to a lover versus a parent. Singing to a child versus an adult. Singing to your favorite plant versus a really cute pet. Singing to Antonio Banderas or Halle Berry versus your dentist or grocer. Each object of your affection causes different interpretations for you. Also where you physically place them makes a big difference. Many singers put them in front of their sightline, usually out towards the audience. That works. Try one where he or she is standing behind you and imagine their arms wrapped around your body as you sing. Hmm…Yummy.
The same is true for songs of anger or sadness or any other emotion that would be really energized by singing it specifically to the person who most annoys you. It can be quite cathartic and the audience ALWAYS feels the specificity even if you never reveal whom it was you were using. Remember this is a private decision. I don’t find it useful to ever share who I am singing to which gives me the freedom to really go deep, dark and personal without ever worrying over the ramifications.
The other thing to think about is what is your overall intention in singing the song? What are you trying to convey? And then imagine what that could look and feel like. Do you want to be a crumpled exhausted heap by the end of the song? Do you want to feel soaring and triumphant having overcome an extreme obstacle? Do you want to be on the verge of laughing hysterically? Make sure you find the journey that suits your plans. If you want to show triumph, make sure you plant the seeds at the beginning of the song that there is something to triumph over. Are you nervous that what you are singing about can’t happen? Add doses of drama to the song. If you pose a question at the beginning, really discover the answer by the end. And bring the audience into the same relief you are feeling by its completion.
Whether I am scoring a character’s journey throughout a play or simply a phase of the journey through a song, I want to make sure that the person I am at the end of the song is not the same person I was at the beginning. I am taking the audience and myself on an adventure. And together we share the transformation.
Of Course You Can Sing! is an entertaining new book devoted to helping undo years of unsupportive thoughts focusing on the fact that, no matter what anyone has ever told you, you can sing. From beginner orientation to professional advice, this book shows how to overcome shyness and get rid of the negative voices as well as how to nail an audition from someone who has been both on stage and behind the scenes.
Michelle Cohen is a professional actress and singer (member of Actor’s Equity) with an extensive background in musical theatre, and a highly sought after producer/director/coach having produced the Off-Broadway musical hit Schoolhouse Rock Live! She trained both in the US (graduating from Sarah Lawrence College) and in London (The British American Drama Academy). She has taught singing privately for over ten years and at several acting schools, including NYU.