Performance-planning the musical way

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There’s a lot of advice out and around about how to make interpretive decisions based on the idea of coming up with a plan. This is clearly a useful method for a lot of ensembles, as it gives them tools to perform with some unity of purpose and a common rationale.

However, I’m struck by how verbal the planning process often seems to be. It could just be that the verbal – written and oral - media for communicating these ideas encourages people to focus on this dimension. But it seems to result in interpretive decisions based primarily in the lyrics of a song: you analyse the lyrics to infer the story behind the song, then use the understanding of this story to drive decisions about delivery.

Now, I’m not trying to pretend that narrative and character aren’t important, as anyone who has seen me coach will know. But I think it is worth experimenting with turning this method inside out, for three reasons:

  • Many songs, especially of the tin-pan-alley era, were written music first. So, the lyricist would be presented with a tune and its harmonies, and have to work out what kind of story would fit it. Following in the tracks of this creative process can be an illuminating way to reach your understanding of the song.
  • You often hear performers trying to colour particular words with vocal effects without noticing that the composer or arranger has already coloured them with a striking harmonic choice. The performers are making an astute decision about the shape of the lyric, but articulating that decision in ways that obscures expressive elements supplied by the music’s writers.
  • You know me - I enjoy turning things inside out to see what new insights you get

So, I’d like to propose an interpretive method that starts by taking the words out, and working out what we can infer about the expressive world of the song from all the other elements. Are there style references that put us in a certain time or place (Charleston feel, swing, rock ‘n’ roll)? What emotional tone does the melody suggest, and where are its main focal points? What do the harmonic choices and voicings suggest about tempo and rhythm? (Thursday's post gives a lot of suggestions about how to read this kind of clue from a chart.) If you were a string quartet, or a brass band instead of singers, how would you play it?

Once you’ve thought through all those details is the time to turn to the lyrics. Turn to the poetry first, not the narrative. Pretend you don’t understand the language, but are trying to make music out of the word sounds. Where are the rhymes? Are there expressive assonances and alliterations? How do they interact with the shape of the melody? Which vowels appear at melodic focal points? What do they suggest about how you should judge dynamic level?

Only now are you ready to re-enter the verbal part of your brain, and meet the song’s character in person. It will be both a revelation and deeply familiar. You know the inside of their heart, the way their feelings move, the colour of their thoughts very well by now, and suddenly you get the explanation of why they’re like that. Your exploration of lyrical story will be infinitely richer and intimate as a result of taking your time to learn their musical persona rather than rushing in to sniff out all the gory details of their life from the get-go.

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