Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: 10 Steps for Phrasing a Song

CCM Bannder no dates


lion-lessonsThis blog typically discusses the technical aspects of singing, however the artistic side of performance is just as important. It is not unusual for a student who is struggling with technical issues to have a major breakthrough by focusing on telling the story behind the lyrics. Today’s post will explore ten steps for analyzing a new song based on Singing for Musicals: A Practical Guide by Millie Taylor. These steps will not only improve the delivery of the song, but may also help your student break smash through a plateau and discover new possibilities.

  1. Before learning the melody, speak through the lyrics with the student and explore the meaning and colors of the words, phrases, and sentences. Discuss potential interpretations during this step, but do not commit yet.
  2. Next have the student learn the melody without the text. The student can hum the pitches, use straw phonation, or sing them on a comfortable vowel. This step allows the student and teacher to first address technical difficulties, while also playing close attention to the shape of the melody and the overall emotional atmosphere of the vocal line.
  3. Now it is time to put the melody and words together and explore possibilities for phrasing. In this step, focus primarily on the words and how they relate to the shape of the melody. What does the melody tell you about the importance of certain words? Why are some words sustained while others are delivered conversationally?
  4. In this step have the student is going to focus on the accompaniment of the song. Ask them to first listen to the rhythm of the accompaniment. As they listen, ask them to decide whether the rhythm drives the song or rests beneath the vocal line as a support mechanism. Then ask them to decide whether the accompaniment or the vocal line is the primary driving force of the song. Are there sections where the accompaniment follows the singer? Are their sections where the singer must follow the accompaniment? Is the interplay between accompaniment and singer constant or are their variations? What does that consistency and/or variation tell you about the song?
  5. Listen to the accompaniment again, but this time think about the atmosphere that it creates. How does the accompaniment inform acting choices? Do the melody and words align or do they tell different stories?
  6. Now that you have examined the rhythm, it is time to evaluate the harmonic structure. Help the student look for interesting and/or unexpected harmonies. When you find spots of interest, help the student decide how the harmonic structure should influence the interpretation. What was the composer trying to say by placing an altered chord on a particular word?
  7. Next you are going to examine the dynamic shape of a song. First analyze the overall structure. Is the song through composed? ABA, ABACA, etc.? Are there one or more climaxes? Draw a graph like the one below on a blank sheet of paper.

    This example is based on “Mama who bore me” from Spring Awakening


  8. Using the graph above, make decisions about the dynamic development of the song. Take note of where the climax is and make sure that the dynamic markings build to that point and resolve afterwards (if applicable). See the example below. While this step could be done in the music itself, creating a separate graph helps the student visualize the piece as a whole and consider the big picture before getting more detailed in the next step.

    This example is based on “Mama who bore me” from Spring Awakening


  9. Now transfer those markings to the score (pp, mf, f, etc.) and look for smaller dynamic changes in each section (crescendos, decrescendos, etc.). After adding the marks to the music, go through the song to see if you have created any technical challenges that may cause difficulty. Help the student look for appropriate places to breathe (based on punctuation marks) and use a colored pen or pencil to clearly mark those places in the music.
  10. Finally it is time to look for moments where you can alter the colors of your voice to add variety and effect. Ultimately it is ideal for a singer to make these decisions based on acting choices. When the singer is in the automatic stage of learning, vocal colors will often come naturally. However, for beginning and intermediate singers, this step is often necessary. Our brains have been trained to associate specific tone qualities with specific emotions. If the song is sad, our brains will be thrown off if the tone is bright and ringing. If the singer is angry, our brain may be confused if the voice is dark and breathy. You have to be careful to not allow the performer to play the emotion in this step. Rather as you listen to the student sing the song, examine whether or not the tonal colors of the voice coincide with the actions they have selected as an actor. If they do not, help them make more appropriate choices.

There are of course other considerations, but this is a good starting place for most students. I have slightly altered the steps in Taylor’s book for this post for clarity and to provide a step-by-step process that students can apply on their own with guidance of the teacher. To see the exact description of Taylor’s process, check out pages 80-88 in her book, Singing for Musicals: A Practical Guide.

If you are not yet following the blog, please sign-up on the bottom right side of this page to receive an email update when there is a new posting. As always, thank you for reading and if you have additional thoughts or comments, please leave them below. Have a great week! ~Matt


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This entry was posted on October 24, 2016 by in Misc. Thoughts.

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