Singing a Text

The last few posts have focused on approaches to the text, with Intoning, and Whispering. Today, we’ll go even further with exploring a text, by using improvising a melody to go along with the words of your text.[I certainly never made up this exercise, and though I’ve done things like this with Patsy Rodenberg and Cis Berry and Andrew Wade, I’m certain that they never invented it either. Perhaps someone was the first to publish it in a book, but again, I feel certain that person didn’t invent the exercise either.]

Girl on a bike
Photo by anyjazz65

I think that this always works best when you know the text quite well. My wife and I often joke about “riding my bike up and down the driveway,” a time when we both would spend inordinate amounts of time making up (really bad) songs about nothing. I think that many people have had this experience. As a child, you were bored, and so you made up songs about the mundane stuff around you.

“I’m walking down the street,And there are clouds in the sky.
My Mom is waving to me,
And I just squished a bug.”

That kind of thing. I’m sure you did it, too.
So here’s the exercise.

  1. Speak your text to yourself aloud once to get it into your head.
  2. Sing your text, giving yourself permission to explore the language of the text through the melody that you create. There is no pressure here to be good, to sing in a certain style, or to perform. The idea is to explore the text, through the melody. Let the text guide the tune, not the other way around! The idea is not to set your words to someone else’s song.
  3. As you sing, feel free to repeat any word, phrase, line, idea, image or syllable that you want. You can make a “chorus” out of a passage if it seems to be something that is at the heart of your text. Usually I can’t remember what I’ve sung, so I can’t recreate a chorus after I’ve sung it once. Doesn’t matter—make up a new melody for your chorus.
  4. If you find that you’ve been singing in a musical style (such as folk, musical theatre, rock, opera, etc.), don’t be afraid of that. Don’t worry if you find yourself switching into many different musical styles. (Also, it’s no big deal if it doesn’t sound like any musical style you’ve ever heard. You just created your own style!)
  5. Once you’ve sung the text through, switch back to speaking the text immediately. Allow what you discovered through your singing experience to affect your speaking so that it is transformed by the singing experience.

This exercise is a lot of fun. I love it—it’s one of my favourite things to do, and I love watching/hearing people do it as much as I love doing it. It always reveals something new about the text that I never knew was there, and opens my eyes to the potential of the text. Also, as someone who has sung a lot throughout my life, my singing skill crosses over into my speaking voice, so that my sound become richer, more expansive, with a larger range, all without even trying.

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.