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BWW Blog: Bob Marks - Examine Song Lyrics

Have you ever heard the expression, "nice house, nobody home?" Often, we use that phrase as a way to describe singers who make pretty sounds, but fail to capture our imagination on the stage. To be a singer in the theater, it's a very rare performer who can communicate to an audience and make them feel something; however, it is the most essential quality a performer can possess to work in this business.

With a new song in-hand, I know it's very tempting to jump in singing both the lyrics and music simultaneously. However, I suggest that in the beginning you start by studying the lyrics separately from the music. Although it might take a bit of discipline, this indispensible step allows you to discover important truths about the character you are taking on. In this process, you will learn that the ideas and discoveries you glean from the words alone are the essential to connect with your audience in an authentic, sincere, organic fashion.

You must know the literal meaning of every single word of the lyric, otherwise known as what the words are discussing on an "explicit" level. This allows you to know the realities of the character's situation, such as:

  1. What has just happened to propel you into song?
  2. Who are you singing to?
  3. What is your relationship with that person?
  4. What reactions are you getting to your words?

Don't hesitate to look up unfamiliar words, because you must know the meaning of every word you sing. This is especially important with words of a foreign language, idioms, expressions, historical and artistic references, etc. that are written into the lyric. Really try to immerse yourself in the text, and endeavor to have as first-hand knowledge of every reference as if the words came from your own diary.

At this stage, you might ask yourself if communicating the written text truthfully requires experiences that you have not or could not have had yet in your life. For example, a child should probably not sing a song about the experience of having aged past her glorious prime, like in the song "Memory" from Cats. However, a song bursting with curiosity about what it might be like to fall in love for the first time, like "It Might As Well Be Spring" might be very appropriate for a tween or teenager to perform.

Finally, you want to examine the lyrics at an "implicit" level, which involves exploring what actors call "subtext"-the murky feelings which reside below the text, and may or may not be fully known to the character (there are some instances in which the actor needs to know more than the character does). Although we are often physically alone on stage, and are almost always singing solo in audition situations, musical theatre songs always define a specific kind of relationship either on both an explicit or implicit level. Is the other person in the scene or the subject of the song your best friend that you've known for thirty years, or a new acquaintance that intimidates you? Both are "friends," which is the explicit relationship, but you can see how examining the "implicit" truth can paint a much more interesting story.

At all stages of the process, ask yourself, "do these words make sense coming out of my mouth?" Don't get too frustrated if the answer is "no," and you are sent back to the drawing board a few times. Continued close examination of new material will help you to know yourself better as a singer, and help you to determine what types of songs are relevant to your current life. Think of the "Hot/Cold" game we all played as kids; misses can be just as productive as hits if they help you pivot towards the right direction.

I am frequently asked if in an audition situation you are bound by the original context and circumstances the song came from. I advise that for the most part you are free to create your own meanings and situations that suit you. The exception is that if you're auditioning for a specific role in a show, and are asked to sing that character's song, you should portray that character.

For the most part, I find it very handy to have students think of all songs as being somewhat autobiographical. The auditors are interested in your unique experiences and insights, which you want to be at the core of your connection to a new song. Just continue to use good judgment; if you are being true to yourself, you will probably be the first to know if you are singing an inappropriate selection, or working on a piece that belongs in the "storage" binder for the time being.

Noted vocal coach Bob Marks specializes in helping singers showcase their talents to their best possible advantage. He is in the process of writing a new book (with Elizabeth Gerbi) about auditioning for musical theatre. Until the book is published, is pleased to offer weekly bits of audition advice. Please feel free to submit any specific questions you'd like to have answered in these blogs.

Bob Marks maintains a busy vocal studio in New York City, working with performers of all ages and levels of experience. He also teaches performance workshops throughout the US and Europe. He was a pianist with the original Broadway production of Annie, and spent two seasons as the Associate Conductor of the St. Louis Muny Opera. For several years, he was the host and musical director of the acclaimed Youngstars performances of professional children in New York City. His well-known clients have included cast members of almost every current musical on Broadway, and stars such as Ariana Grande, Lea Michele, Natalie Portman, Laura Bell Bundy, Constantine Maroules, Britney Spears, Ashley Tisdale, Debbie Gibson, and Sarah Jessica Parker. He holds a degree in speech pathology, and has taught at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, the Professional Development Program for the New York Singing Teachers' Association, and at Nashville's Belmont University as a special guest artist. As a vocal coach, his clientele ranges from beginners to Broadway cast members, as well as singers of cabaret and pop music. He is an expert in helping performers present themselves to their best advantage in auditions and onstage.

Elizabeth Gerbi, currently a Visiting Lecturer of Music Theater at American University in Washington D.C., is well known across the Northeast as a singing teacher, voice coach, choral conductor, and music director/pianist (150+ productions). As a singer-actor, she has appeared in regional productions ranging from Annie Get Your Gun to I Pagliacci to The Kenny Rogers Christmas Tour. Recent projects include musical directing The Chris Betz Show at Rose's Turn and The Sage Theatre in NYC, Side Show and Tommy at Westchester Broadway Theatre, The Sound of Music at the Wagon Wheel Theatre of Warsaw, Indiana, conducting Dreamgirls and Seussical at Debaun Auditorium in Hoboken, NJ, adapting Starmites 2000 with Broadway composer Barry Keating, and accompanying master classes for Broadway veterans Ken Jennings, Lindsay Mendez, and Lisa Howard. She is also a former consultant for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Music Library, and currently serves as a both New York State School Music Association Solo Adjudicator and a respondent for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. She attended Ithaca College (Bachelor's of Music in Voice Performance and Music Education) is a Level-III graduate in Somatic Voicework: The LoVetri Methodô, and completed a Master's in Music Education from Boston University.

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