On the 'Thought Point'

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This is another of those posts bringing together bits and bobs from coaching reports about an idea (such as here and here) into one place so I can point to it and say: there, that's where I explain what this is.

The 'thought point' is a concept I have been playing with for a number of years, ever since I first came across David McNeill's concept of 'growth point' - the moment when a thought starts to occur to us. In real-life conversation, you have an inkling first, a motivation, a sense of instability that demands expression. If someone interrupts you before you get to express the idea, you may find it disappears entirely - it is not yet a fully-fledged thought, only the potential for one.

But if the growth point matures into expression, it emerges in two dimensions - a gesture that captures the thought holistically, and a sentence made up from a sequence of words that articulate the idea analytically. The end of a sentence marks the place where the thought is complete.

In practical terms, your need to communicate bubbles up in your mind and erupts as a gesture towards the door and the words, 'Shall we go for a beer?'

The point for performers is this: everything you say is preceded by the need to say it. Thus, within a song, the moment you draw breath is not - from an expressive point of view - to fuel your lungs to sustain the coming phrase, it is to decide that you need to sing what comes next. From an artistic perspective, the fact that singers need air is irrelevant - what matters is that at this point of the song's narrative, the persona has this idea they need to express. Hence replacing the idea of 'breath point' with 'thought point'.

This is an easy enough concept to explain, but actually doing it demands a significant increase of imaginative commitment from the singer. Because what it does is promote continuity of characterisation. The breaths are no longer 'breathers' - tiny moments of time off from the song. The breaths are now the key moments in the story, the places where the song's persona makes the key decisions or discoveries that motivate the next phrase.

To sing like this, you have to get your brain out ahead of your voice, you have to create a sense of purpose. You can't just sing along with your memory of what you've sung before.

There are three main symptoms that alert me to the need to turn breath points into thought points:

  • Noisy breaths - not every quiet breath is an expressive breath, but the audible sucking in of air is sure sign that people aren't listening to the breath points as musical events
  • Habitual breath-point gestures (e.g. ‘resets’)- not all phrase-breaks have the same expressive purpose, so if they are all performed with the same shape, that chops up the meaning of the song into separate units rather than a connected narrative
  • Dropped engagement in the eyes - the eyes light up when you hatch an idea, but go blank when you have a routine breath-point

There are several techniques I have found that help people work with this idea.

  • Think of the thought-points as conjunctions: and, but, therefore, and so, however. This makes people think about the narrative, and how the next phrase changes what has gone before. It brings emotional point to the phrase-breaks, as they become narrative pivots
  • Contra-factuals - i.e. think what else could possibly complete the sentence. The thought-points are where the persona decides what to say, and so imagining what else the character could say brings the decision-point into relief.
  • Make the song into a dialogue. As you sing, see in your mind's eye the person who is being addressed. Their response to what you just sang is what will motivate your next phrase

I think the biggest challenge this technique presents isn't doing it in the first place - any human being with a heart and a brain can grasp it and achieve it quite readily. The challenge is doing it as part of your regular craft of vocal performance, rather than a special effect you achieve occasionally in rehearsal.

It's hard because it requires a much deeper level of imaginative engagement than most of us bother to bring to rehearsal. This is partly a matter of mental stamina - practise it and it will improve - but it is also a matter of attitude. Artistry is rare not because it is difficult to achieve, but because it is demanding to maintain.

Very nice concept!!

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