The Great Debate

Growing up a saxophone-playing band geek, I witnessed first hand the instrumentalist versus vocalist warfare from the front lines…and at times participated myself! Even though I have sung my whole life, I first joined a choir my sophomore year of college and it was love at first sing! I forever hushed myself to any such cut-downs because I too am now a choir nerd and vocalist. Many of the stigmas against vocalists are often related to a less-than-ideal mental situation on the part of that singer. Bluntly, vocalists are dumb and can’t read music; so they sing.

Of course I do not find this to be true. I understand the difficulty of being a performer and interpreter of complex musics. Unfortunately, some of the musical world still does not share this view. So, I hope to demystify this subject and hopefully reveal how difficult it is to be a singer – more so from a composer’s point of view.

Tame the Text

What is one of the main differences in performance for a vocalist than for an instrumentalist? Text. Unless they are singing a vocalise, vocalists must clearly relay words to the audience in order to articulate meaning intended by the composer/poet/librettist. To do justice to a work, the text must be researched, understood, and internalized to best convey the message of the music. As a composer, I find this step of the preparation incredibly important. So often as performers we just think about the music but not as much about the words that inspired it. We as composers write what we do for a reason – whether we reveal our intentions or not, each piece has a personal meaning for us. It is therefore the job of the vocalist to take what we have written and find a story behind it; whether it is our story or a story that the performer finds meaningful.

In studying Libby Larsen’s “Cowboy Songs,” specifically the first song, Lift Me Into Heaven Slowly, I found that the poet of the text, Robert Creeley, had nothing to do with cowboys and lived mostly on the East Coast (for a short while he was a chicken farmer). Larsen’s songs are from a female’s point of view about her relations with a certain cowboy.

Lift me into heaven slowly,

cause my back’s sore

and my mind’s thoughtful

and I’m not even sure

I want to go.

Creely, widely known as one of the Black Mountain Poets (educated at Black Mountain College – an experimental institution that educated in visual, literary and performing arts), was a master of free verse. The original title of the poem from which this text is taken, “Sufi Sam Christian,” explores religious views of geocentricity and the difference between Christian and Sufi belief systems. In his poem, Creeley reinterprets that geocentric, progressive road to heaven through Sufism – the lifting slowly – a combination of the Christian going to heaven and the Sufi being heaven. Sufism, considered the mystical part of Islam, has a focus on purifying one’s self and traveling into the presence of the divine (www.ias.org). Despite the poem not having an immediate connection to the cowboy lifestyle, Larsen connected this idea of lifting to possible sexual desires and uncertainty of trust and letting oneself be taken away by another – mirroring Creeley’s feeling of straddling two religious experiences. Larsen uses another American idiom, jazz/blues in her setting using flatted thirds and an adaptation of the 12-bar blues form to give this song a sexy, bluesy feel – important in the execution and interpretation of the music!

Whew! Seems like a lot of work but well worth the effort! Because of this research, the performer is now more informed about the origin of the text, why the composer may have chosen the text, and how the music used is influenced by the text.

Respond to your Research!

From here, the vocalist must take the information he/she has learned, and create personal meaning and construct his/her physical presentation! One must think about an experience in his/her life that is similar or to which he/she can connect with the text. Remembering the emotions that were felt during this experience, body position, gestures, facial expressions, and awareness of tension that may affect movement are vital to an effective performance. One must portray this emotion and embody the physical character while still using healthy vocal technique. This will not only help to immerse oneself in the story but also convey a clearer message of the piece to the listener/audience.

Necessitate Nuance

It is now time to make specific musical decisions that will best convey the meaning one has found in the piece. Referencing Larsen’s piece, lifting or sliding motions with the voice may be fitting for both the text and the jazz/blues-influenced lines. Choosing vocal techniques that aid in text painting and phrasing that adheres closely to that in the original text allows the performer to truly embody the music and make it an original and communicative performance.

Salute the Singer

The life of a singer is not an easy one. I have great respect for these brilliant performers who prepare extensively to give life to a vocal composition. For those of us involved in the great instrumentalist versus vocalist debate, may we exit the trenches of our orchestra pit and salute the singers for their duty to composers and listeners – conveying music with words while we instrumentalists remain speechless.