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There's singing... and then there's making music...


Ok, so you've studied voice with the best teachers you can find. You can name all of the parts of the laryngeal anatomy. You've marked your score with all of the dynamics, breath marks, technique reminders. You've practiced the song hundreds of times and know all of the tricky spots, when to use head voice, when to mix and when to belt your face off. In other words, you know this piece of music better than Macklemore knows what sound a fox makes. (Oh. By the way. Foxes don't actually make the sound he says they do. He's been lying to us.) And after all the lessons, prep, and practice, your song is just kind of...limp. It's missing something. You know in those old movies when the producer with the mid-Atlantic accent meets the naïve young woman just off the bus in Hollywood and tells her "You're gonna be a STAR! You've got IT, kid!" Yeah, your song doesn't have IT.


"But why, Steve?" you ask. "Why don't my vocals pop?" And the answer is: you're not being vulnerable. You've pored over the map, you've packed all your belongings, you've got your hiking boots on... but you haven't gone on the quest.


I always ask my students what the ultimate purpose of music is. Like, why do we do it? Why do we love it so much? And we usually discuss things like beat, melody, chord progression. Those are the engines that run the music, but they aren't the PURPOSE of music. The contemporary purpose of music (it hasn't always been this way) is to move people. It's to give them permission to feel the things they need to feel.


Think about a genre of music that you're maybe not that into. Let's pick something that has a comparatively small following. Let's say... Swedish Death Metal. You might listen to that music and think to yourself "I don't understand this at all. This just sounds like noise. Scary, evil, noise." And that's ok. But if you were to attend a performance of a band like Amon Amarth, you would see hundreds or maybe thousands of people being clearly moved by the performance. And the vast majority of those people, and the band themselves, are good, kind, loving people. But the music allows them, gives them permission, to feel things and express things that they couldn't otherwise do. It lets them explore emotions and ideas that maybe aren't mainstream, but which that particular crowd enjoy exploring. And when they're done exploring, they go home to their families and their jobs and live their lives as good, normal people.


Or, think about the polar opposite of Swedish Death Metal, the Broadway musical Cats. The song Memory became a spectacular hit and has been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Dutch symphonic-metal band Epica. I'm almost one-hundred percent sure that no one reading this has ever been an elderly homeless cat, outcast from cat society, pleading their case to be taken to cat heaven. But that song has moved millions of people and it is well-loved and highly regarded by a huge swath humanity, because it gives them permission to feel something that they might not otherwise feel, but which they long to explore. Or maybe that they DO feel, but for whatever reason can't let those feelings bubble to the surface. So they listen to that song, and they feel what they need to feel and they love that song to the core of their being.


So... what does this have to do with you not having IT when you sing? In order for you to move people with your singing, in order to open up your audience and let them feel, you yourself have to be moved. I would say that it's more important to be moved than it is to nail the high note perfectly. "But Steve" you say. "I can't just walk out on stage and instantly feel like a homeless cat." That's exactly right. You can't. But you CAN look at those lyrics and study them and find SOMETHING in them that you can relate to. Maybe they spark a memory or feeling that, while not exactly the same as those intended by the lyric, at least is in the ballpark. And then you sing to THAT experience. "But Steve," you say, "how do I do that? The song I'm working on goes to a sad, or angry, or dark place and I'm not a sad, angry, dark person." Of course you're not! But it's your responsibility (yes RESPONSIBILITY) as a musician to sing the song in a way that facilitates moving the audience. You might think back on a time when you felt sad or angry, and delve into that experience when you sing. And when I say delve, I mean recreate every detail of that experience in your mind. See the person you experienced that event with. What does the room look like, what does it smell like? How do your clothes feel? What are you hearing? And when you've got every little detail in mind, keep them there, and sing the song. "But Steve" you say. "That hurts! I can't go there in front of an audience! I'll get too emotional! I'll feel like I'm baring my soul to them! It will feel like I'm standing naked in front of them!" To which I say "Yes. Exactly. You will feel like that. And that audience will go right there with you. And the vulnerability you feel in that moment will let that audience join right in with you in all those feels. And the room will absolutely vibrate with the communal experience of a shared, real, emotional moment. And that audience will fall in love with you."


It doesn't matter what the emotion of the song is. You have a responsibility to feel it when you sing. And not pretending to feel it. Not acting. Really feeling. Really digging deep for your audience. It's at least as important, if not more important that good technique. If you actually react emotionally on stage, so much the better! It's what they want. They want to feel. Let them feel. Be vulnerable. Bare your soul. Sing that song.

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