vocal performance

The past few events I’ve been getting back into solo vocal performance – a lot of the music I have been doing recently has been instrumental and/or broken consort or at minimum two voices in harmony.  And don’t get me wrong, I love all that stuff; it’s challenging and interesting in a way that solo vocal stuff isn’t for me; however, it also takes more practice, prep and setup.  Solo vocal performance takes… me.  And possibly some written words as reminders, but mostly it takes me.

To that end, I’ve spent the past few days writing down a lot of ‘good songs for Rhi to sing as solos’ down in a cute little book from paperblanks (specifically the Lindau mini, if you are into such things, and wow do they have a lot of pretty books!). Yesterday, I added the lyrics to There Dwelt a Man in Babylon, a 16th c. broadside ballad which tells the story of Susannah from the biblical apocrypha.  It’s a tune and a story which I have always liked, but it’s also reeeeally long and obviously a bit archaic in its language and phraseology.

So the question – how do I take that song and, using nothing but me and the song, convey the power and drama of that story to a modern audience?


6 responses to “vocal performance

  1. I’m not familiar with the piece, but here’s some general advice:

    option 1: Find an audience that actually wants to listen to a 13 minute long song in archaic english. Believe it or not, they exist. If it’s really long (like 30 min) you might arrange for a special performance of it and invite people who are into that sort of thing. The Benjamin Bagby peformance of teh first 1,000 lines of Beowulf in Olde Englishe is a good example of this.

    option 1a: perform the piece for yourself when you’re sitting in a corner of the hall, or wherever. Many people may not listen to the whole piece, but they certainly enjoy the ambiance – especially children.

    option 2: Abridge the piece and modernize the language. Period audiences had much longer attention spans, and more vivid imaginations than we do. Modern folk just want the basics. Hit the highlights. Give us a good beat and a singable chorus. 🙂
    M. Roz’s song of Roland, or Ken & Lisa Theriot’s Band of Brothers are two fine examples of good re-writes. Some of Conn MacNeil’s pieces are very long, but have a rousing chorus that keeps people engaged. Heather Dale has a 7 minute long Tristan & Isolt piece, but it’s broken up with some nice instrumental bits.

    Option 3: Find some good breaks in the piece and perform them in 3-4 minute chunks. Think of it as turning one long piece into a song cycle. That way, at a normal bardic circle you can perform parts 1, 2 & 3 with other stuff in between without monopolizing the scene or boring people who have shorter attention spans.

    • well, it’s not a 13 minute piece – I timed myself, it takes about 6 and a half minutes. I cut a lot of the verses, so it has been abridged. 🙂 Option 2 I have to say doesn’t appeal to me; the whole point in this case is ‘hey, period music, and it’s period.’ but splitting it is an interesting idea, I will think about that – thank you!

  2. ummm…

    Option 1 as presented by Scott is your best bet.

    Will there be any instruments involved? Can they play a solo to break it up a little? I know…this makes an already 13 min song even longer, but it also gives the listener’s ear a break. (Not that you have a bad voice, but any sound can become monotonous after 5-7 minutes or so.

    Also, is there room for ornamentation? And can you vary it from stanza to stanza?

    • Not sure where 13 min came from – maybe scott – but it’s only 6 min 30 sec, if that helps.

      Instruments – ehhh. I could. I played with doing a bit on citole yesterday and it doesn’t sound right (probably b/c the citole is approx 400 years earlier). i could add some harp. but part of what i’m aiming for is stuff that’s easy to pull out and just SING, that doesn’t need additional bits.

      there’s definitely some room for ornamentation, imma think about that too.

      so, do you think my only options are changing up the piece, or is there a way for me to make this accessible via how I emote during the piece? If so, any specific techniques? I don’t feel very confident about that, I always feel stilted and fake. 😦

  3. My experience with modern audiences is that for most songs they’ll generally listen for about 3 to 4 verses up to maybe 6 max depending on verse length. Popular music has conditioned them to unconsciously expect this length. Most hit songs these days have a quite boringly regular structure.

    I have, however, found an exception to this, and that is narrative ballads, which is what your piece is, yes? You can go on for quite a long time as long as the story is a compelling one. That’s how you keep your audience. You aren’t singing a song, you’re telling a story that happens to be sung. It’s a very different focus.

    How do you do this specifically? Try using some storytellers’ techniques. Ignore the music for a while and work outward from the words. In fact, ignore the words for a bit and work out from story. Look at the overall narrative arc, figure out the natural divisions of the story, where does the story build to, the resting points, etc. as presented in the ballad. Briefly sketch an outline. From the outline, paraphrase and tell the story to yourself and/or a trusted collaborator in your own words. Note what points you choose to emphasize, the flow of emotions, what and where they occur. Always keep in mind what you want your listener to understand about what you’re saying at the moment. Do this a few times. In retrospect (not while you’re doing it, you’ll trip yourself) think about the kind of breath flow and body stance you used for the different emotions.

    Now take the original words to the ballad and match them up with your story outline above. Speak the original verses aloud – don’t use music, yet – and tell the story using those words but try to use the same feelings, breath, and emotional flow that you did when you used your own words. At this point let the ballad’s words find whatever rhythm and tempo works with the story. Switch back and forth until you’re comfortable with this. Then speak the words in the correct rhythm and see if you can still tell the story.

    Now you can add music. Sing the ballad’s correct notes and rhythms, letting the story dictate your breath feed, dynamic, etc. If you find a particular emotion or story action makes singing difficult, pull out that bit and figure out technically what you need to do to make it work, get that worked into your body and then put it back into the context of the ballad and sing it over a bit until the new way sticks.

    Even though you are singing archaic words and a tune that’s a bit strange, if you have a mental subtext of your paraphrased story running beneath them, it should come through. After all, mime artists tell their stories with even less. If there are any archaic words that are really different, you may wish to translate those that have disappeared or changed meaning over time before you start in order to help your audience out. But other than that, if you concentrate on telling the story rather than singing the song, they will listen.

    I’ve taught singing as one of my careers, can you tell? Except I talk too much. My OFF switch is wonky. 😀

    Email me if you have any more question.

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