A few months back, I set up a little enterprise called the Motif Song Club. I designed it to help singers get closer to both the music and the lyrics of the song and to do so, I invited fellow singers to get together to discover and discuss aspects of performance in song by uncovering the interaction between the lyrics and the music as written. I really wanted the group to start thinking about the character and emotion of their own singing by examining how different singers approached the same song.

The inspiration for the idea came from a few places. Last summer, I read Alan Rusbridger’s autobiography ‘Play it Again’ where he talks about his experiences of re-learning how to play the piano in adulthood. He talked about visiting piano clubs, where he and fellow amateur pianists got together to give each other the chance to play in a formal but friendly setting. Rusbridger talked about how this gave them all something to focus on in terms of their learning, practise and improvement. Of course, singers, particularly those who sing in a group or choir will often find ways of performing their songs to others in rehearsal, competition or concert settings so the need to find an outlet for our labours isn’t quite as tricky as it might be for pianists. However, singers often learn in an auditory fashion. We might be able to read music and know what all the time signatures, white and black dots, etc may mean but we can’t ‘hear’ or play the dots in the same way that a musician who uses their fingers and an instrument to create the sound!

For singers who can’t read music, listening and learning is fundamental to being able to perform. Barbershop choruses, for example, will often use teach tracks to aid song learning. Unfortunately, there may be unintended outcomes in this approach! The singer can often begin to sound like the teach track and if a track is digitally produced, some strange live vocal performances can be rendered. Minor thirds get converted to majors, notes get stretched when they sound good or shortened as breaths are taken – either the ear hears what it wants to hear, or the brain fills in notes it prefers. And learning music by rote often leads to the meaning of the song is often getting lost because the colour and character of the song is missing in the recording. Does a song engage with its audience if the singer doesn’t convey some sort of idea, intention or emotion in its performance?

So at Song Club, we go back to the basics of a song by looking at how the composer constructed the song in the dots on the page (using, where possible, a ‘good’ copy of the music). We look in detail at the phrasing, the meter and time signature, tempo and keys. And I choose three live performances by different singers (using one as the benchmark performance) to see how singers have approached the same song. By seeing and hearing these different live approaches, its possible to understand how the character of a song might be conveyed in a more authentic way rather than simply through a straightforward vocalisation of the dots and the words.

In analysing the music and the way that performers approach song, we’re really interested in our own emotional response – how we feel on hearing a singer’s rendition and why we might feel that way. What is in the performance of the song that invokes a response? How do vocal embellishments and phrasing provide character and depth to the performance? Who is the singer and does their age and gender give a different interpretation of the same words and music? We look too at the more physical aspects of the performance – do, for example, the staging or the arrangement and accompaniment provide something that the singer alone can’t give? And we also have a look at the circumstances surrounding the song’s lyrics and the specific aspects of how a singer creates the drama in their performance.

We’ve studied Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, Frank Sinatra’s version of ‘One for My Baby’ and Dame Judi Dench’s performance of ‘Send in the Clowns’. There has been lots of debate and discussion along the way and hopefully, a new way of approaching song learning, self expression and interpretation.

Debbie, Notes from Last Night

About Debbie Nichol: A lifelong lover of music of all types, Debbie Nichol has  an MA in Music (OU) focussing on music repertoires, performance and reception, and social histories. By trade she’s a marketing and training specialist and when not studying or working, spends time singing with a Barbershop Chorus (www.bristol-fashion.org), running the Motif Song Club and writing this music blog: www.notesfromlastnight.co.uk