On Over-articulation 2: the Musical Approach

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Last time I looked at this subject, I was considering the vocal issues that need addressing to smooth out a choppy line – namely continuity of airflow and getting the vowels in line. But I’ve also been thinking that an overly wordy delivery is also a symptom of an overly wordy way of thinking about music.

Maybe I should put that more positively. When you see a performance that you could criticise as choppy or over-articulated, you can usually also congratulate it for its energetic commitment to the message in the lyric. You never doubt that the singers know what the song means, and you can tell very clearly which bits they like best. They have nailed comprehensibility and communication – though seemingly at the expense of choral tone.

It seems that a focus on words can break up the line because we are aware subliminally that words are separate things. They are analytical. You need a bunch of them lined up to generate meaning, but you can take individual ones out of context and replace them. Language is a modular system.

My friend Jay Krumbholz has a technique to help get people to stop experiencing word sounds as separate entities. He asks them to say the following words:

dromedary
supercallifragilisticexpialidocious
Wewerealoneinthemoonlightthereintheshadowsbelow

So, they notice first that joining up the syllables that belong together in the same word comes naturally, then they apply that same experience to joining word sounds that sit adjacent to each other in a sung lyric. Jean Sutton refers to this kind of thing as ‘singing English as a foreign language’ – i.e. not letting your knowledge of meaning get in the way of the voice.

Another way to help draw people’s attention away from the separate words is simply to leave them out. This was also one of the techniques for focusing on continuity of breath of course – singing without the consonants, or in a bubble allows you to hear whether and where you stop the voice. But it also has the musical benefit of making you think about the musical shape independently of its verbal content.

We’re getting in territories here that I have written about before – about approaching interpretation through the musical elements rather than the words in the first instance, and about musical approaches to bring mechanical performances to life.

We’re also revisiting a theme that will be familiar to regular readers – that addressing only the physical technique or the imaginative habits in isolation is the slow way to go about things. If you change what people do, they will in time change how they think about it, but the old mental habits will act as a brake on the acquisition of new technique. Likewise, old physical habits make it harder to grasp new ways of thinking about music. Work on both ends at once and everything is suddenly much easier than you expected.

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