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Phiguring Out Phrasing

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When listeners say that they absolutely love the way so-and-so phrases a song: What exactly do they mean? In order to tackle the subject, let's first define what a phrase is, and then we can figure out what we can do with it. Think of a phrase as a grouping of lyrics and notes. The grouping might be as long as a sentence, or a partial sentence. Phrases are often separated by rests, or moments of silence, but sometimes shorter phrases can be connected together into a longer section, like Lego blocks.There are a number of ways you can manipulate these blocks or perhaps I should say shape these phrases. In fact, when I make phrasing decisions, I feel like an architect creating a sonic structure, where all my choices result in emotional consequences. Here are some ways to define and master phrasing:

  1. Breath Choice: breathing should not be accidental. And you don't always have to breathe when you stop singing between phrases. You can do a pause, no breath sometimes and create a bit of excitement. When you breathe, you can make sound or not  your choice.
  2. Word Rhythm: you can sing a word one of three ways: before the beat (rushing), on the beat (in the pocket) or after the beat (dragging). Mix them up within a song- though you should always be well aware of where the beat is at all times. It's only your relationship to the beat that can change.
  3. Dynamics: This refers to louds and softs. Music that is only at one volume can be boring, so choosing how to build your overall song to a climax and resolution or climax through the fade is important. Our brains are wired to notice change and to ignore sameness. That's why dynamic change is so important to grabbing and keeping the listeners attention.
  4. Word Stress: Certain words, like nouns and verbs are more important than prepositions (to, at in), articles (the, an) or conjunctions (and, so). Think of how you would naturally stress a phrase in speech and play with singing it like you speak it. That way the meaning comes out more clearly. The great pop singers of the 40's and 50's knew this trick. It's like Frank Sinatra is singing right to me!
  5. Smooth vs. Choppy: The longer you hold the vowel, the more legato or connected the words sound: "Suh>>>>>mwhe>>>>>roh>>>>>ver>>>>>thu>>>>>rai>>>>>nboh>>>>>". This smooth delivery is good for a dreamy ballad or a jazzy sound. The opposite approach is what I call 'choppy' phrasing, with pauses in between each of the syllables. A great example is 'You've/got/to/ac/cen/tu/ate/the/po/si/tive'. This halting delivery is surprisingly effective in getting the words across.

Is that all there is to phrasing? If we include song interpretation into the purview of phrasing then there's a lot more! To the four categories above, we can add some elements that affect the acting of a song. These elements are the vocal colors which add to the overall feeling, such as resonance choices (degrees of brightness, nasality, ring, the height of your voice box), how closed or open your vocal folds are (breathy, blowy, clean or hard closure) Let's take an example of a famous phrase and see what kind of choices we can make with it. Somewhere over the rainbow can be sung as one phrase, two phrases somewhere...over the rainbow or even three phrases some...where...over the rainbow. Try saying it these three ways and notice how the feeling changes. In the one phrase model, you may feel more in control, optimistic that eventually everything will turn out all right. In the two-phrase model, there's more of a questioning feeling as if you're looking towards the horizon, hopeful that somewhere, oh yeah, I see the rainbow now, maybe over there, everything will be OK. And in the three-phrase model, you can sound like you're holding back tears and about to break down. What if we add one more ingredient, such as singing somewhere late? How does that change the feeling? Now try making the syllable some louder, then float the where softly. Notice how the word sounds more natural? Let's try one more trick in the phrasing library: try sliding up in pitch from the some to the where. How did it sound? If your volume stayed consistent from your low note to your high note, you probably sounded cheesy. Try doing a slide where you leave out some notes on the ascent. Just dropping some notes out can make the slide sound elegant. What a difference changing volume and leaving a few notes out can make! There's no real mystery to phrasing. The ingredients can be learned by listening, then analyzing, then imitating and finally by recombining these elements into a personal style which relays emotional truth and sincerity. This essay first published February 25, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.


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