Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
In conversational speech we emphasize specific words to help add clarity to what we are saying. For instance let’s use the phrase “I like green peppers.” This could be used in multiple situations. For instance, if a friend is ordering pizza and asks “What toppings should we order?” You could say “I like green peppers” (the bold and underline indicates the word you would emphasize). If a child is refusing to eat the green peppers on his plate, you could say “I like green peppers” as you try to take one in an effort to coerce him to eat his dinner (note: speaking from experience with my four year old, this tactic loses its efficacy after repeated use). If someone asks “do you like peppers?” you may respond “I like green peppers,” clearly leaving red and yellow off limits. Finally let’s say a friend points out that you don’t like green vegetables, to which you could reply “I like green peppers.” If interchanged, the inflection may not be appropriate. For instance, responding to the child with “I like green peppers,” doesn’t have the same affect as putting the emphasis on “like.” Donna Soto-Morettini author of Popular Singing and Style, 2nd ed. calls this “phrases weighting” (p. 101-102).
When working on a song, it is important to help students find the appropriate phrase weighting to energize and accurately communicate the meaning of the text. Not only does phrase weighting improve delivery of the lyrics, it also improves musicality.
First have the student read each phrase without inflection; do this two to three times. Then ask her which words are important. Ask: “what is the composer/lyricist trying to say?” “As an actor what are you trying to do? Are you trying to make the other person leave, stay, apologize, etc.?”. If the student needs help, ask her to read the phrase while placing the emphasis on different words each time. As she does this, the best choice for phrase weighting should become apparent. Finally, underline each word that should be weighted and have the student sing through the song. As you coach the piece, use the underlined words as a guide to help her make strong artistic choices.
Do you have an exercise for helping students shape their songs? If you do, please leave a comment below. If you are not already following the blog, please sign-up on the bottom right hand side of the page to receive an email whenever there is a new post. Thanks for reading! ~Matt