- Expect to work hard
- Research the song’s context
- A song is a dramatic monologue
- Fit the time limit (possibly 1-2 mins)
- Musical considerations
- Work the words
To sing an unaccompanied song in character using physical and vocal expression: In other words, play a character who is singing their thoughts and feelings, instead of speaking them. NB This is about your acting ability, not the quality of your singing.
2. Expect to work hard
Don’t worry if it takes a really long time to prepare your song. It should do! A professional actor should do a lot of preparation to perform a 14-line Shakespearean sonnet. This is no different. And you’re not just preparing a text. You’re preparing a tune as well. And … you’re working out how to combine the music and words in a way that makes it seem that you are not singing, but thinking and feeling spontaneously in character.
3. Research the song’s context
Who wrote it? Find out who wrote the music, and who wrote the lyrics. If the song has a famous modern performer, bear in mind that performer may not be the songwriter.
Beware ‘anon’: Some songs are wrongly attributed as ‘trad/traditional’ or ‘folk’ when they were written by someone. Sometimes the tune is of unknown origin (‘anon’, or anonymous), but the words were written by a specific person.
Origins: If it is a folk song, find out what you can about its (geographical, social, political) origins.
4. A song is a dramatic monologue
Dig deep: Prepare the song as thoroughly, in the same way that you would prepare a spoken monologue.
A song is a whole play: The lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II advised his pupil Stephen Sondheim to think of a song as a play. Sondheim extended this idea to consider what the different parts of a song might be: a verse could be a whole act, a line could be a whole scene, and a half line or a single word could represent a whole speech. Just like in real life, there can be more than one emotion in a single line of a song – find details and contrasts!
Know the context: If the song is from a show or play, know the full context – the synopsis, where the song comes in the story, who sings it, and what is its dramatic function at that point in the story, or in the character’s journey (e.g. consider objectives and obstacles of the character(s)).
Use your whole self: Never just ‘sing’ the song.
Speak a ‘stage’ version first – as if in live theatre, rather than acting to camera. The college wants to know if you can anchor your voice physically, and also whether you can hold a stage. It is always easier to reduce the size of performance that is too big, than to try and enlarge a version that is too small or unengaged.
You can use facial expression, and physical movement to fully embody the song, emotions and characters. In fact, your voice will only come alive when you fully live the life of the character.
When learning the song, work out the thought process, the emotional steps taken through the song, and the physical feeling of each new moment. This will help you live the song anew when you perform it.
Be a voice actor: Don’t let the movement be a substitute for doing anything interesting with your voice. A good test is to be able to sing the song without the listener being able to see you. They must be able to hear the whole emotional journey of the story in just your voice.
Make it ‘new’ each time: Don’t get patterned. Learn to do the song in more than one way – because, (although this is unlikely) the panel may direct you to try it another way. Remember so much of good dramatic skill is about make appropriate choices, in the moment. (And an audition panel may direct you to sing it differently in some way.)
Begin at the heart of things: A monologue or song begins before you speak or sing the first word. Go to the emotional-psychological heart of the piece, and let the first words in your arise from that place. Make sure you can pull the listener immediately.
5. Fit the time limit (possibly 1-2 mins)
Know the whole song well, even though you will almost certainly have to perform a cut version.
Making cuts: If the song is a Verse/Chorus type of song, colleges often ask for one verse and one chorus. Make sure the verse gives you something to work with dramatically. Is the 1st verse interesting enough? If not, sing a different verse, or choose a different song. You need to draw people into character, situation and story within the first few seconds.
6. Musical considerations
Finding the best key for you: You can sing the song in any key, starting at a pitch that makes the whole tune work for your voice. So you can sing it higher or lower than the recorded (or sheet music) version that you know. If necessary, get help to find out what are the best key and starting note for you.
Finding your note: Practise starting the song (ie finding the pitch of the first notes), and performing it through without having just listened to a recording. Remember, you won’t have that help in the audition. You need to be able to start the song without any pitching help. It might be worth getting a small, cheap pitch pipe that guitarists use for tuning their instrument – so you can give yourself your start note.
Make the song musically yours: If you have a recording, and need to learn the tune this way, once you have learned it, stop listening to the MP3. Otherwise, you will internalise somebody else’s version, which is not authentic to you. It is much better to record yourself doing it, even if it’s imperfect, so that you are memorising your personal interpretation.
Vary the music: You can develop your own musical version, varying rhythms, speed, and even the pitch shapes of the original tune. Musical variations must serve the dramatic purpose.
Avoid musical gaps – make silences dramatic: If the recorded song has long gaps between sung phrases where there are instrumentals, remember that the audience cannot hear any instruments (even if you can in your head!). These become odd and awkward silences. Any silences between sung phrases must be for dramatic reasons, and not because you’re listening to music in your imagination! (Except … the character might be hearing music in their head ….)
Don’t be a ‘singer’: In my view, a song performance has fallen short if the audience notices the singer (ie performer) rather than the character, the tune rather than being pulled into the words and story, and the quality of the voice (however beautiful or idiosyncratic) rather than being touched by emotional truth.
7. Work the words
Practice your song as a spoken monologue – Do this first! You can only sing a song in a way that is dramatically convincing if you can first speak it convincingly.
Complete! As always, make sure the audience can hear, and understand, every word clearly. Pronounce middle and final consonants fully, as you would need to as an actor on stage, or in an outdoor performance.
Find your own spoken rhythms: Song lyrics often fit a poetic form, and can have regular stresses, rhythms and rhymes. Be informed by these – but not trapped by them. The lines must become emotionally true for you and the listener – and create the illusion that they are natural and spontaneous.
Find clues in the musical setting of the words: Changes of pitch (going up/down, going very high/low) can be emotional clues for interpreting lines or individual words. Rhythms and speed (long notes? quick notes?) are also emotional and psychological clues.
‘Coat-hanger’ words: In a verbal phrase or group of words, find the word that might hold important emotional information. This is the ‘coat-hanger’ word that the rest of the phrase ‘hangs’ on; it might give a clue to how to deliver that group of words.
Speak the words fairly closely to the song rhythms: Remember, this is not the first You need to have found your own personal meanings and rhythms first. Only then should you try to map them onto the rhythmic flow of the song. And it must still come across as naturally as possible to the listener. This can take a lot of work, even for very experienced actors and singers.
Speak, then sing straight after: Speak one line, in character, and then sing the same line straight away, running along the same emotional-psychological track.
Aim to make the sung line feel – and the emotional colouring of the sung words – as similar as possible to the spoken version.
Do one line (or even part of a line) at a time. Otherwise, when you start singing, you may fall into the trap of not spontaneously unfolding thoughts & feelings in the way you would (should) in a spoken monologue.
Then try two lines at a time. Again, don’t fall back into just ‘singing the tune’, rather than owning the words.
Sing objectives, not emotions:
Don’t play emotions: But performances of songs can end up conveying just a generic emotion, maintaining one mood throughout with maybe one emotional switch when you get to a chorus. This is boring for the listener, and unconvincing dramatically. We end up noticing the music, and maybe the singer, but we’re not drawn into any story, and there is no believable character for us to engage with or identify with.
Don’t let the music ‘carry’ you. Music carries emotional information. It’s easy to piggy-back on the tune, and the ‘groove’ or mood of the music. But listeners very quickly tune out, and simply don’t notice the words.
Add information: Both music and words provide important clues. But it’s not enough just to sing the tune and the words. You have to live the constant, subtle, changing inner life of the person delivering the words. If you do, we will hear it in your voice, as well as see it in your body.