Scoring Points

Picture this production of Romeo and Juliet:

Juliet, played by Heidi Klum, (which is OK in this production because she doesn’t have anything to say) stands on her balcony. Romeo, played by your choice of the robot on Lost in Space, a Dalek from Doctor Who or Hal from 2001, enters. He sees her and says:

But… soft… what… light… through… yonder… window… breaks…

I would also speak like that gazing up at Heidi Klum, but you get the idea. The monotone ain’t gonna cut it for delivering the message of Romeo’s awestruck love.


Hey! Pay attention or I’m changing Juliet to the Cafeteria lady with hair net and moustache.

What I’m trying to say here is words are just words. It is up to you to invest meaning and emotion. When your band mates have basic mastery of a song they start to add the little touches that make it their own. The hammer-on here, a little arpeggio before the chorus, distortion on or off, chorus effect here but not there, maybe reverb at three instead of two. Should I add the 7th to that chord? They make a number of choices to affect the phrasing and tone of every song.

As the lead singer, you have an obligation to do the same thing. Make the song yours. If you don’t, you might as well get Robbie the Robot to take your place.

“But I can’t do that.” You say. Why not? Most people are afraid to make these choices because they lack confidence. Why would you lack confidence?

Imagine this:

“Come on Honey, get the kids. We’re going on vacation.”

“Where, Dear? I didn’t take any time off from work. The kids are still in school. We haven’t booked a hotel, cancelled the paper or called someone to feed the dogs.”

You can’t feel really confident this vacation is going to go off without a hitch, now can you?

Shift that into the music world:

“Come on guys. I’m gonna sing a song in front of a bunch of complete strangers without any preparation.”

“Dude, what you been smokin’?”

As the saying goes, if you don’t know your destination, you will never get there.

When I was an actor, I used to be plagued by the actor’s nightmare. It goes like this: you are out on stage in front of a large audience and you have no idea what your lines are. It still gives me the willies to think about it. It’s terrifying.

If you don’t know what you are going to do with every word you are about to sing, you are about to have a real life version of that nightmare. That will shake anyone’s confidence. It’s a Catch-22. If you don’t have the confidence, you can’t make the plan. If you can’t make the plan, you won’t get the confidence.

I’ve got a real life example for you. During the NFL pro-bowl several years ago, Hershey’s had a half-time promotion: if you could kick a 35-yard field goal from a tee, you’d get $1,000,000. Just you, the ball and tee, and 12 million people watching you. They had a drawing several months earlier and selected one guy to make the attempt.

You know what he did? He quit his job. Hired an ex-professional place kicker as a coach and practiced every day. He learned every nuance of placekicking. During half-time at the pro-bowl he became a millionaire.

Your situation is similar here. You get one shot with this audience and this song. You need to be so practiced, so familiar with what it is you have to do, that the pressure isn’t going to shake you.

If you do what I’m about to suggest, I guarantee your vocal performances and confidence will improve by 100% or your money back. If you act now, as an added bonus I’ll throw in a 100% better connection with your audience.

This lesson is going to teach you how to mark your lyrics for singing.

But first a little history lesson.

You know around the turn of the century there was no such thing as a microphone? (No, I don’t know this from personal experience. You guys think you are soooo funny.)

Where was I? Right, no microphones. So how did they record? Well, picture a large, “his master’s voice” style funnel that has a glass sphere attached to the narrow end. On the side of the glass sphere opposite the funnel was a needle; beneath the needle was a platter of wax. So the sound waves go into the funnel where they are amplified, down to the glass sphere, which vibrates and moves the needle, which etches the wax. Cool, huh?

There were some major drawbacks to this setup. First, there was only one take; everybody played at the same time in the same studio. Second, there were only two volume choices, loud and louder.

The volume issue led to some interesting early musical choices. The guitar was just too quiet, but banjo cut through. No way could you hear string bass over trumpets, so early bands opted for tubas. Try to picture Metallica with this setup.

Another problem is that the instruments had to be arranged by volume and proximity to the funnel. You can see some pictures of early recording sessions with some instruments gathered closely to the wall with the funnel, some people on barstools up high, some down low, and some against the back wall. Rumor has it that Louis Armstrong played so loud they had him stand in the hallway outside the studio.

But in the 1920s the microphone came along. Its effect was dramatic; the sound was much clearer. If you’ve ever heard a 78 rpm platter and compared it to the LP, that is about the same degree of difference in quality. Now volume choices could be made. Singers could suddenly sing directly to you, with feeling and intimacy, instead of competing to be heard over all the other instruments.

If you’d like to read more about this, check out this excellent series on recording and technology on the NPR website.

Now that you have a microphone, everyone can hear you. You have the opportunity to connect on a very personal level with every member of the audience.

How do you do it?

Here are a few terms you’ll see on sheet music that may have some relevance to us:

ACCELERANDO: get faster
ALLEGRO: a lively tempo that also reflects in your style
ALLEGRO VIVACE : even more lively
ANDANTE: a medium tempo
CRESCENDO: get louder gradually
DECRESCENDO: get softer gradually
FORTE: loud. The first of three loud dynamics, notated as “f.” on sheet music
FORTISSIMO: pretty darn loud, notated as “ff.” on sheet music
TRIPLE FORTE: Spinal Tap volume controls to 11
LEGATO: smoothly joined notes
PIANO: softly
PIANISSIMO: twice as soft as piano
LENTO: slow
PRESTO: fast
STACCATO: the opposite of legato

Do you need to know those terms? Yes. Well, it depends.

You absolutely need to be familiar with them if you want to communicate with other musicians. These terms have been around for a thousand years or so and they are the basis for marking our own lyrics. From a personal perspective you can use plain old English if you wish.

If we look at the list we can make three categories:

Three categories

If we go a bit further and translate into English:

In plain English

Hold on there, partner. I know what you’re thinking. You don’t need me anymore. But wait, there’s more.

You need to think about two more things before you put pencil to paper:

  1. What is the story of the lyric? Or what is the point of the song?
  2. What is the mood you are trying to convey?

Okay. On to the business of marking it up.

First, print out your lyrics double-spaced. You need plenty of room to write here. Put two sections at the top: “Mood I want to convey,” and “Point I want to get across.”

Let’s mark up a selection from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Before we go any further:

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

I’m going to let you answer questions 1 and 2 for this one and move right into marking the lyrics. I handwrite my markings, so they appear here in red italics for clarity.

Start very personal, almost speaking, at moderate speed.
I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me

Faster, hard and loud, church choir style, slightly mocking, staccato, without feeling
He’s just a poor boy from a poor family
Spare him his life from this monstrosity

Little build from the original volume, very personal, almost speaking, ask the question
Easy come easy go – will you let me go

Faster, hard and loud rock, Devils choir VS Angels Choir, staccato
Bismillah! No – we will not let you go – let him go
Bismillah! We will not let you go – let him go
Bismillah! We will not let you go – let me go
Will not let you go – —————let me go (never)

This must keep the argument feel of above, Staccato
Never let you go – let me go
Never let me go – ooo

Loud, short sharp, increase volume on each “no” to very loud
No, no, no, no, no, no, no –

Drop only halfway back to personal volume, with some desperation
Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia let me go

Increase volume dramatically here soft to loud throughout the phrase
Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me
for me
for me

Faster, hard driving rock, slightly staccato, metal, defiant
So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye
So you think you can love me and leave me to die
Oh baby – can’t do this to me baby
Just gotta get out – just gotta get right outta here

Back down to the initial tempo, tone and volume
Nothing really matters, anyone can see

Slight pause, Very smooth and connected to end
Nothing really matters
Slight pause
nothing really matters
Slight pause
to me

Anyway the wind blows…

But you already knew that one. How about one you don’t know?

Taking one verse, the bridge and the chorus out of one of the songs I wrote in the Sunday Songwriters Club exercises, here is an example:

But first my disclaimer:
This file is actually my work and I have my permission to use it here. So there.

Mood I want to convey:

Kind of Hitchcock, eerie, even a little Exorcist, chilling, lonely

Point I want to get across:

You better make sure you kissed the wife and kids this morning. Are you putting off something for tomorrow?…don’t.

A jagged loud whisper
heart pounding

Normal voice to start
I pull my jacket to fight

Speed up slightly here all the way to the end of this verse
the bite of the air

Get louder through “glare” and back off on “street lights”
ducking the glare of streetlights

Big breath here to last all the way through “face”
Back to original speed, smoothly flowing, connect the lines
did I drift into the line of fire?

Build tension, faster, louder
did I happen to pick the wrong time?

more tension Faster, louder
did I wander into the wrong place?

Release the tension, drop volume to a sad, soft wondering voice, original speed
Will I ever see my daughter’s face?

My son? My wife?

angry, but soft
If I win this twisted lottery,

Brief pause then almost a whisper again
send them my love.

Almost sing-songy, like a child’s jump-rope cadence through “in your head”
No scary monster hides under your bed
No evil creature lurks in your closet
when the lights go on that’s just in your head

Pause-Metallica whisper/roar
but this beast is real.

No music, no emotion here
The unseen, unknown loner
just drove in from Tacoma.

You may notice that I didn’t use all of the words in the English list and that I added some of my own. What matters is that you put down on paper a way for you to remember exactly how you want to sing. Practice it that way. Get to the point where you don’t have to look at the paper any more.

If you do this, you’ll connect with your audience in a wonderful new way. You will bridge the gap from wax recording to CD quality.

Then each person in the audience will think you are singing to him or her personally, not at him or her.