Has your voice teacher or vocal coach ever discussed “phrasing” with you during a session? Still not sure what it actually means? Let’s start by answering what a phrase actually is.
Simply put, a phrase is a sentence or part of a sentence. According to dictionary.com, it is “two or more words that express an idea and are a part of a sentence,” or “a small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit, typically forming a component of a clause.” What does this have to do with the concept of phrasing in singing?
Have you ever noticed that when a great singer is delivering a song, it sounds like they are simply speaking the words? It sounds effortless like they are saying the words for the first time. In learning to be an artist, it’s essential to understand how to phrase and develop your own interpretations. Phrasing is the technical foundation for bringing emotion to the song.
Why Phrasing is Important
Start by speaking the words!
When learning a new song, I tell my students to start by continuously speaking the words. Speak them as if you’re doing a cold reading of a script, noticing accented syllables and flow of the language. Since many young students don’t understand the concept of a syllable or accents, I explain that accented means louder, stressed, or emphasized. If we didn’t accent our words when speaking, instead saying everything at the same monotone level, we would sound like robots. Everything would be monochromatic with no variations in intensity, making it difficult to understand the sentence and completely removing any emotion.
How to Phrase a Song
How can we overcome this issue and learn to phrase beautifully?
Again, speak the words! On the working copy of your music that you use to write notations and reminders, make personal notes to quickly memorize your adjustments. Underline the accented syllables. “Lean” or “cry” into the accented words with slightly elongated vowels and emotion.
Composers often place the emotional words on downbeats or the first beat of each measure, so pay attention to those. Circle consonants you want to emphasize. Put a little break sign or a backward “L” before the “vowel-initiated words” (words that start with a vowel) you want to glottal. Put a little connector sign between vowel-initiated words you want to make legato or smooth.
A true glottal is an onset of tone, slamming the vocal cords. We never want to do that! The opposite is a breathy tone where the cords are not touching or approximating totally. A perfect onset is right in the middle—your voice teacher can help with that. But when a musical director asks for “a little glottal,” they want you to pause the air slightly before saying the vowel-initiated word.
Note the flow of the language when you speak: There is an impetus, a momentum, force, drive, or movement toward the next word, toward the next concept or the end of the sentence.
Note your diction: Is the diction thought out but sounds spontaneous?
Notice your consonants: Are you enunciating them with thought? Are you making them hard or soft? Percussive or gentle? Quick or drawn out? How are you using your lips, tongue, and jaw to articulate your enunciation?
Notice your vowels: How are you pronouncing them? Are you holding your notes with a pure, conscious vowel? Are you paying attention to your diphthongs or one vowel with two sounds? I like to hold notes on the first vowel of the diphthong and quickly modify the second vowel at the last second for a beautifully held sound. For example, when singing the word “made,” notice that the “a” is actually made up of two vowels sounds, “eh” and “ee.” Modify the “ee” to an “ih” or “eh” keep the larynx from squeezing up and to maintain the purity of the vowel. The held note will give the audience a chill!
Consonants and vowels: Plan the length and whether each one is hard or soft. Is the phrasing authentic and fluid? Finesse each phrase from beginning to end using your acting chops to make them fluid and authentic.
Intention: What story do you want to tell? What is the emotion behind the intention? The story? Write down any subtexts—thoughts the character may have—above the actual words.
Finally, combine the concepts of the spoken word with the music! Make it your own. Take chances and let go. You will see how authentic the song sounds with your unique, realistic, spontaneous phrasing.
Say the words over and over, noting accented syllables. Say them over and over again, noting the pronunciation of consonants and vowels, then the flow of the language. Speak the words like a cold reading for a monologue. Say the words with different subtexts to let interpretative ideas flow. Speak the works communicating your intention. Combine with the music and tell the story. Add the music and sing it the way you worked it. Check for resonance, registration, line, and support. See what magic you can make!
*This post was originally published on Sept. 14, 2018. It has since been updated.
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