What does it mean to color a song? Basically, it means using elements of your voice to tell a story. These elements can include dynamics, breathiness, inflection, style and numerous other features of the human voice. When I was young, I grew up in the church. Every service, someone would get up to sing a song. Most of the performances were the same. Each singer would work to memorize words and music, fight through their fears and nervousness, and try to reach high notes in the song. While learning these skills is an important first step in performing a song, they are just that—a first step. Singing a song is so much more than words and music. You must tell a story!
Many students that come to me for the first time have difficulty with singing songs because they try to imitate others singers. If they sing a Mariah Carey song, they attempt to sing it like Mariah Carey. It usually ends with a lot of straining and yelling and rightfully so as matching her range and volume takes years of training to develop those types of skill. What they are trying to do is add style to their voice.
Style is a part of coloring a song but it is the last thing the singer should focus on. The first thing a beginner vocalist needs to work on is technique. It is the singer’s core strength. Breathing, space, ease of sound are all a part of technique and it should be the main focus. You can master these skills in lessons and personal practice, analysing every difficulty and correcting through repetitions and muscle memory. The more work you put in, the more you will be able to trust the voice and make it happen. However when you step on stage, technique is the last thing you should worry about. That is where color comes in.
How do we color a song? There are so many weapons that a singer has in their arsenal to bring the song to life and engage their audience. When singing the blues, a singer might bend certain notes like a guitar player would bend a string. When singing Rock, maybe a growl in the voice is a good way to inspire your audience.
I have a 16 year old student that is currently singing a Taylor Swift cover. Some of the lyrics are “Lord, save me. My drug is my baby. I’ll be using for the rest of my life.” This lyric equates love with drug use. As a teacher, I can’t tell a 16 year old to understand the habits of a drug addict. I did, however, tell her to be an actor, to look inside the lyrics and become a character that is different from herself. After that, she brought the song to life, adding breathiness to certain words and using dynamics to tell the story. This is pure color. Putting yourself into the story and telling it with the song. Here are just some tools you can use to tell YOUR story:
Dynamics- This is volume control. Whether swelling the volume of one descriptive word or crescendoing to a high note, dynamics will send the emotion of the song right to the heart of the audience.
Breathiness- Adding a whispery sound to phrases or words to convey an attitude or emotion.
Descriptive Words- Using the teeth, tongue and lips to spit out certain words (i.e. turn, skin, light) and drive the point home.
Melodic Sound- Singing the phrase beautifully, connecting the vowels of each word and not letting the consonants “chop up” the sound.
Head Voice- Lightening the production of your sound to the head voice, rather than a full chest or mix voice,for a word or phrase.
Lilt- Slightly lifting the dynamic for a note, followed by a short silence. This can leave an audience in suspense.
Grand Pause- Some of the best parts of music are in the silence. Don’t be afraid to let the audience hang for a while.
These are just a few elements you can throw into your song to bring it to life. There are hundreds of ways to tell your story. Don’t be afraid to go farther out on the branch. Your audience will thank you for it.
Be Dedicated to the Process
It is so important to remember that technique is the first priority. Don’t let acting and color be the only thing that carries you through. Color without technique is chaos. Take the time to figure out exactly how your voice works and how to properly work the muscles that have the most difficulty. When you’re confident in your abilities, then take the time to up your game. Add color to your song. Become an actor and find the inner emotion of the song. Tell the story!