Know Thy Text

Too often text is a secondary consideration when working a new piece into one’s repertoire. To be truly genuine as a performer, however, vocalists should devote the same rigor to text analysis as they do in building their instrument.

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ne of the fundamental responsibilities we undertake as singing artists is to communicate clearly with our audiences. Beyond the diction work and technical mastery inherent in becoming great communicators, artistic communication depends upon the singing artist knowing a composition’s text well beyond the point of mere memorization. Singers that know their texts intimately are more apt to fully express the nuances of a well written lyric. The poets of yesteryear whose works we still sing every day (Goethe, Verlaine, and Dickinson, for instance) gave us phenomenal material to explore and share with our audiences. 

Diving deeply into the texts we sing reveals a treasure trove of expressive potential that expands our minds and hearts in ways we might not expect. As a lover of the well written word, I challenge myself and my fellow singers to commit to a diligent depth plumbing that these masterworks demand. Furthermore, even for those song texts that are more “mundane” than “great,” it behooves us as artists to bring whatever light we can to an authentic, clear rendering of the text, rich with expression appropriate to the author’s intent. 

The Native Tongue 

Thorough text preparation for songs in one’s native language is often underestimated by student singers. Studying song lyrics remains a valuable way to grow knowledge and nuance of language. Dialect study (Old English, for example) constitutes an important tool for a singer to procure. 

If you do not know the precise meaning of a word in your text, look it up. That single word could change the meaning of an entire phrase or even a song if not fully understood within the intended context. Keep looking until you find an answer that fits the context. 

Consider Context 

Completing background research represents time well spent in bringing a song to life. Crafting a deep understanding about the context in which both text and music were written represents a crucial priority for the singer, regardless of genre. 

Does the song or aria come from a larger work (an epic poem, opera, song cycle, or historical event)? If so, familiarize yourself with it. In what year was it written? What was occurring in the poet’s country and/or life that may have impacted their writing of this work? 

Research these questions for both poet and composer. Singers may be surprised by how richly rewarding these questions become—they serve to make singers relative experts on the songs they perform. 

Becoming a song expert is ultimately necessary for gaining credibility with an audience. Singers should be able to converse intelligently with audiences, and certainly with their teachers, about the background of each song in their repertoire. When singers understand the historical context during which the German Romantic poets were writing, for example, they more fully appreciate and appropriately sing works composed to poems from that genre. Diving into the history behind a song enables the singer to effectively communicate the intentions of both poet and composer, which are the utmost responsibilities of every singer. 

Musical Setting 

Next, consider the song’s musical analysis. Whatever your level of music theory training may be, apply what you know about key and key centers (where do they change?), time signatures, tempos, rhythm and feel, harmony, melodic phrase contour, motives, ornaments, dynamics, articulation, tessitura, and form. Marking each of these on the score copy in different colored pencils helps a singer distinguish dynamic changes from formal delineations and other song aspects. For example, I use blue pencil to highlight dynamics, red pencil for form (marking different sections A, B, C, etc., for easier visualization of the song’s framework and emboldened red bar lines to show where a new section begins), and other colors for other aspects of the score. 

Then I go through the score visually, one aspect at a time, to see patterns within each aspect and consider how the text may have played into the composer’s decisions about how to shape the dynamics, articulation, key changes, tempo changes, etc. I repeat this process for each aspect until I have approached the score using seven or eight different paradigms, each time looking at only one color/aspect and asking myself how this aspect of the music supports the text. This type of work represents a real-world application of theory knowledge! 

Too many singers (and some instrumentalists) incorrectly assume that their music theory study provides little relevance to their performance goals. On the contrary, theory skills inform a singer’s full understanding of a song or aria, and a song’s text requires a complete understanding of the music for a compelling, intelligent, expressive performance to ensue. The finest song interpreters possess impressive knowledge about their songs’ musical construction, regardless of genre. 

Understanding Language 

Formal study of a nonnative language remains the best way to truly absorb the sound of that language into one’s ear and voice, to build the necessary vocabulary to perform in that language, and to accumulate cultural and historical knowledge that informs a singer’s performance of a piece. Singer’s diction courses in one’s native language as well as in the other languages one sings also play important roles in the training of the successful singer. Diction study increases singers’ awareness of pronunciation rules that help them become independent musicians—not dependent on teachers or coaches to adjust imperfect pronunciation. 

When language study and diction study meet, the singer begins to fully grasp how to communicate effectively in that language. Excellent language preparation affords the artist a measure of authenticity worth pursuing. Audiences recognize when a singer performs authentically in a given language, so one should always perform as though the audience fluently speaks the language being sung—which is the case more often than singers might imagine! 

Translations 

A word-by-word translation of any text not in the singer’s first language represents a nonnegotiable prerequisite for performing any piece in public. Singers ought to invest in translating dictionaries (books—not just online resources) because one learns much about the rules of a language and other related words by physically paging through a dictionary in search of the meaning of a word. Verb conjugations, masculine and feminine endings, pronouns, and other pertinent information that improves language comprehension can be found in a really good translating dictionary. I recommend purchasing one for each language in which you sing, and I also recommend translating the piece yourself rather than relying upon someone else’s translation. 

An important step toward learning a nonnative language text includes finding each word’s definition and writing it in the score in pencil above the music’s text. This activity helps the burgeoning singer build a vocabulary, ascertain context and sentence structure, and begin to think in that language—all important aspects of linguistic mastery. 

I recommend that you first obtain a legal copy of the song (to be marked up and used strictly for learning purposes). Your word-by-word translation and extra explanations of unclear words, along with color-coded music analysis and background information about the song, poet, and composer can all be included on this copy and ultimately archived in a journal. 

Consider the Marriage of Music and Lyrics 

Singers must study how a song’s music supports the text. Does the composer paint the meaning of the words somehow in their choice of musical setting? Does the harmony somehow evoke a particular mood appropriate to the lyrical content? 

Does the musical phrase structure mirror meanings in the text or group poetic ideas logically? Do the time signature or rhythmic patterns provide clues about a song’s context or meaning? Great songs generally meld music and lyrics in a way that appropriately tells a story or reflects an impression the writing team set out to evoke. 

Write and Speak the Text 

Writing one’s text as a monologue represents a key activity that supports memorization and a more expressive performance. A song text may need to be handwritten repeatedly several times before true memorization is achieved. Typing does not yield similar results. The act of writing or printing a song’s complete text with pen or pencil in hand engraves the words into a singer’s brain. 

Practice speaking the lyrics smoothly, as though they comprise a monologue that could be recited at a poetry reading or in a play. Be sure to allow yourself to sense where the natural pauses occur in speech. Notice where the pauses line up (or fail to line up) in the musical setting and seek to find a sense of flow as you speak the words fluently. 

After the music is correctly memorized (which often occurs before the words are completely learned), I suggest singing the song while looking only at your handwritten lyrics. Practice this way until words become fully memorized and you no longer need the lyric cues. Looking away from the sheet music represents an important step that reinforces musical memory. 

Using a journal for this purpose provides you with a tool you can always reuse. A few years hence, when programming a recital, you may find that the journal yields a great deal of repertoire information you can return to briefly in order to refresh your memory. It also provides a repository of information about background, theoretical understanding, and analysis of your work that you may find invaluable when searching for appropriate repertoire on short notice. 

Compare and Contrast 

When learning a poem set by multiple composers (like Goethe’s “Mignons Lied” set by Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Beethoven, and Liszt, among others), an interesting comparative study involves a side-by-side look at two or more composers’ settings. What elements of the text did each composer reflect similarly in their settings, and what elements were treated differently? Did one composer emphasize particular words or phrases that the others did not? Did the different settings suggest the same outcomes or did one pursue a different path? How does the setting reflect the time period and conventions used during that period? 

Answering these questions and allowing more questions to arise (from a deep research dive) provides the singer with a heightened awareness of various treatments of a particular text as well as a clue about the value attributed to a poem set to music by multiple composers. 

The Song Stylist 

Whenever presenting songs to the public, conscientious singers accept the exciting preparatory work of diving deeply into song texts. Expressing the text with sincere authenticity requires the same disciplined practice, time, and acute awareness that maintaining excellent vocal technique requires. 

For an accomplished song stylist, the need to possess an expert knowledge of a poem or set of lyrics is equal to the responsibility of singing the music technically well. Greater confidence onstage and ease with one’s repertoire results from this deep dive, allowing the singer to gain a more artistic expressive compass. 

Generously sharing a thoroughly researched, well expressed song with an appreciative audience yields its own reward, constituting one of the highest joys of the singing art. 

Tish Oney

Tish Oney has taught vocal music at eight universities plus several more as a visiting artist. Specializing in multi-genre singing, she maintains an international performance career as a symphony pops soloist, jazz singer, lyric soprano, composer, arranger, musicologist, and voice pedagogue. She is writing Jazz Voice: A Guide to Singing Pedagogy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and teaches professional and preprofessional singers in her virtual studio. To learn more, visit tishoney.com.