Music is about sounds put together in pretty or ugly or thrilling or puzzling or a hundred other ways. But song – singing with words – is about telling each other things that we know about being human. Song is about sharing our human experience. This does not mean that singers are doing something more important with their music than instrumentalists. Instrumentalists are also telling us about their humanity. It is just that the way we singers do it is a little different because we have an extra tool. Words.
From Henry Purcell’s The Indian Queen: Composed 1695
“I attempt from love’s sickness to fly, for I am myself my own fever and pain.”
From Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme: (my translation from Italian) Composed 1895
“Who am I? I am a poet. And what do I do? I write. And how do I live? I just live.”
From Franz Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade: (my translation from German, poem by Goethe – 1814)
“When I am not with him, for me it is death. The whole world is torn apart.”
From Claude Debussy’s, En Sourdine, 1891 Translation provided by lieder.net
Calm in the half-light
That the high branches make,
Let us penetrate our love
With this profound silence.
Let us melt our souls together,
our hearts and our ecstatic senses…
And on and on and on, these four off the top of my head, randomly chosen. Suffering and comfort, pleasure and pain, sarcasm and irony, stupidity and brilliance, love and hate, all expressed in song. Can musical instruments express these emotions? Yes, but even so we have words at our disposal. When you put in the words, there is no doubt.
“I just a poor, wayfaring stranger travelin’ through this world of woe,
There is no sickness, toil, or danger in that fair land to which I go.”
(Traditional American Folksong)
Anybody have doubt about what the wayfaring stranger is saying?
So, singing is unique. We can read the poetry with great effectiveness. We can sing a lovely or happy or sad tune with no words at all, just singing on a vowel, and it will affect our emotions. (Great composers have written such songs for singers – no words.) But when you put them together, music and words, the result is irresistible. And that’s why everybody sings. They may not have worked it all out in their minds, but they just know they enjoy singing. Or, alternatively, they would enjoy singing if they didn’t think they sounded so damn bad.
So what to do about that? The obvious answer is, “Find a singing teacher!” Oh boy, that can be complicated. Hang in for some help with that.