Critical Thoughts: Words Matter—Diction, Phrasing, and Understanding Help Tell the Story

January 23, 2022 | By

When you are singing a song, you are telling a story. You may be narrating the story to the audience, you may be a participant in the story, or simply observing or perhaps reacting to the story, but in each case, the words matter.  The more connected to the song you are, the more personal you can make your storytelling, and the better an audience can place themselves in the story with you and through you. So, in picking a song you should always choose one to which you have a connection, a song which says something that you want to say.

When I teach a class, it ends in a show in which each student sings two songs.  When one of those students brings in a song, say “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” as one of their choices I never understand it.  Why, if you have just two songs to present yourself to an audience, would you squander the precious time trying to impersonate Eva Perón.  Perhaps a singer who is actually from Argentina, or who is a descendant of Ms. Perón, or who starred in the show on Broadway, but other than that, what possible connection could they have. When queried the student inevitably answers, “I love so and so’s version of the song” or “It’s one of my favorite songs!” While these are perfectly acceptable reasons to listen to it, they are not reasons to sing it.  

Once you have chosen a song and learned it, no longer refer to the sheet music.  It will limit your interpretation to tie yourself to what the songwriters have put down on paper.  Pay no attention to whether it’s a whole note, a half note, or whatever.  Then, once you’ve learned the melody, it is your interpretation of the lyrics that matters. You will determine (with your accompanist) the delivery of the piece.  One helpful way to tell the story in the best possible way is to write out the lyrics longhand (in paragraph form) with no consideration of rhyme, melody, or rhythm. Then say them aloud like a monologue.  See what the important words are, where you pause, where you connect, where you speed up, where you slow down. 

Pay attention to punctuation. Would a particular sentence/phrase end with a comma, a period, an exclamation point, or a question mark? The better the song, the easier it is to incorporate what you discover into your singing.  If it’s a song by Sondheim, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, or Jimmy Webb,  then the songwriters have already done a lot of this work for you.  If it’s a song by Adele, or Lady Gaga, or even Stevie Wonder, there may be some work involved to make your delivery as natural as you can; songwriters, especially contemporary songwriters, can be lazy or sloppy when pairing words and melody and let the latter take precedence without giving thought to how natural (or unnatural) the writing may be.   

One helpful way to tell the story in the best possible way is to write out the lyrics longhand (in paragraph form) with no consideration of rhyme, melody, or rhythm.

Since the best singing is conversational and individual, diction is also important.  I have rarely heard a performance or recording of that famous Dolly Parton song that doesn’t start, “An…die will always love you” which diminishes the sentiment of the line.  It should be “And I will always love you,” which makes the meaning stronger and more romantic.  If particularly daring, you could completely re-think the song and eliminate the yodeling aspect of the delivery—but that ‘s a topic for another article.

A line in the Billy Strayhorn classic, “Lush Life,” provides a double lesson in song preparation:

      “The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces

        With distingué traces that you could see there….”

The operative word is “distingué” (dis-tain-gay). A lot of singers and students will sing “distant gay” instead, especially if they are aware of Strayhorn’s orientation. And even those that sing the right word, will sing “di-stingay,” and even when they get it right a large percentage of them cannot give me a meaning for the word when I ask. Never, ever, ever sing a song unless you know the meaning of every word you are singing. Do some homework and investigate meaning, social context, and anything else that might serve you in achieving the best possible performance. I once had a student introduce her choice for class as, “…this is Din-dee by Joe-bim.”

I recently worked with a singer on “Moon River” (Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer) and discovered that Mercer grew up next to an actual “Moon River.”  Knowing that the river existed, that Mercer, in his youth, would gaze out on it and dream of moving beyond a real bend, deepens and enriches the poetry and gives the song another level to explore. 

It is beneficial to not get too hung up on hitting rhymes, particularly when they are internal.  In the Gershwins’ masterpiece, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” there is the following line:

“Although he may not be the man some girls think of as handsome to my heart, he carries the key.”

This serves as a minefield for a distressing number of singers as they sing:

“Although he may not be the man some (pause)

Girls think of as handsome…” 

When the natural phrasing would be:

“While he may not be the man

Some girls think of as handsome”

allowing the internal rhyme to resonate on its own.

One last suggestion for now. In the past, especially in the Great American Songbook, songs had a “verse” to introduce them.  The words are set to a different melody and usually set up the subsequent lyric in a more specific way.  It is great to hear an audience sigh an ‘ahhhh’ as the song proper begins after having experienced the introduction. Many singers just skip the verse but keep in mind that they can be an added treasure to be mined. It is especially rewarding to hear from someone after a performance that they had never heard or thought of that song (no matter how familiar) in quite that way before.  Often, the verse benefits from being done rubato (or adlib or freely). You would set the time and feel of the delivery and the accompanist follows your lead.  This can be scary at first but once you have mastered it, it is an invaluable tool in your performing arsenal.  

So, to all you singers out there— the next time I see you I hope to be surprised and intrigued and captivated by the stories you have to tell me.  That is one of the great pleasures of being an enthusiastic audience member which, above all else, is what I am. 

P.S. Distingué means having a distinguished manner or appearance.

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Category: News / Reviews / Commentary

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

Comments (3)

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  1. john meyer says:

    Gerry, what a wonderful piece on how to investigate lyrics. Should be in every performer’s handbook.
    I once heard a vocalist sing “Don’t change your hair for me/Not if you care for me”.
    She would have benefited from your advice.
    Fine work! Keep it up.
    Love, John.

  2. Margo McKee says:

    It’s difficult to capture in a relatively limited space what makes Gerry such an outstanding talent. But this profile does an admirable job. Thanks for posting this. Gerry is truly distingue!

  3. … and the one that keeps poor Ira in a perpetual state of grave-spinning: “‘S wonderful. ‘S marvelous, et al,” sung “It’s wonderful. It’s marvelous.” Reverse alchemy — turning gold into lead!