Feeling the emotion when you sing…

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I thought I’d talk a little about feeling emotionally connected to a song – about the impact of the lyrics, but more importantly, how they impact the singer.

I’ve talked about this kind of thing with some of my singer friends previously, and a former classmate of mine wrote about it on her blog a few years ago.  But it’s something that bears revisiting.

Okay – think about a favorite song.  Pick one that really moves you.  Listening to it touches you in a truly emotional way – whether it be joy, sadness, nostalgia, excitement, longing, love.  I would venture to say that we all have a number of songs that every time we hear them, they just GET us right where it counts.

Why is that?  Why do these songs touch us so?  Usually they can be traced to either an emotion we felt when we first heard the song, or the lyrics of the song speak to something in our lives that’s personal or dear to us.  I’ve made no secret about how the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” hits me every time.  It instantly takes me back to when I was a little girl on her first Disney trip – the feeling of intense wonderment at being in this amazing place, while getting reinforcement from the lyrics that my dreams really could come true.  The emotional impact I felt during that moment – as my nine year old self listened to that song, standing next to Cinderella Castle watching the fireworks… well, it’s simply immeasurable.  And those feelings are stirred back up in me every time I hear that song.

I use that example because it is so clearly linked to a time and a place for me.  It’s real and concrete.  There’s no mistaking why I feel the way I do about that song.

But there are other songs that also hit me just as strongly for different reasons.  Heck, how many times do we have those moments of listening to a random song on the radio and we just start crying because the lyrics speak so personally to our own life situations?  Or the melody is just so heart-achingly beautiful, or the performance is just so touching…  (I don’t think this is just me… right? 🙂 )

Now imagine that the piece of music that is touching you emotionally is one you will be performing.  Added is a completely new angle to the equation.  You might be emotionally moved and touched by the lyrics of your song or aria, BUT you have to carefully walk that performance tight-rope so you don’t go over the edge and become so emotional that you can’t perform.

For example, one of the pieces I’ll be performing on the recital on October 28th is “Laurie’s Song” from The Tender Land.  The opera by Aaron Copland is not frequently performed, but this aria from it is such a special gem.   Let me share the lyrics with you so you have a sense of what the aria is about.  (The character of Laurie is about to graduate from high school.)

“Laurie’s Song” from The Tender Land by Aaron Copland

Once I thought I’d never grow tall as this fence.

Time dragged heavy and slow.

But April came and August went

before I knew just what they meant,

And little by little I grew

And as I grew I came to know

How fast the time could go.

Once I thought I’d never go

Outside this fence.

This space was plenty for me.

But I walked down that road one day,

and just what happened I can’t say.

But little by little it came to be

That line between the earth and sky came beckoning to me.

Now the time has grown so short;

The world has grown so wide.

I’ll be graduated soon.

Why am I strange in side?

What makes me think I’d like to try

to go down all those roads beyond that line above the earth and ‘neath the sky?

Tomorrow when I sit upon that graduation platform stand,

I know my hand will shake when I reach out to take that paper with the ribboned band.

Now that all the learning’s done,

Oh who knows what will now begin?

Oh it’s so strange, I’m strange inside.

The time has grown so short, the world so wide.

Okay, so here’s where we get into something we call subtext.  Subtext is something that performers use – we find something to relate to in our own lives that gives us the same emotions that the character is going through.  I may not be a girl graduating from high school (that was a long time ago,) but I can find things in my own life that give me the same emotions that the character Laurie is feeling.

And now for a bit of a personal look into my own singer soul.  Not all singers share their subtext, but I thought I’d talk a little bit about mine when it comes to this aria.

I think many people know that for most of my life, I was kind of a home-body.  Even when I went to college and grad school, no matter what, I just couldn’t wait to get home.  I knew I’d miss my friends, but ultimately, I just wanted to get back home.  And don’t get me wrong, I loved to go visit places and explore, but in the end, there was always only one home for me.

But things are different now.  I’ve gone through huge life changes in the last year and a half.  One of those big turning points was going off to Europe for two months on my own earlier this year to audition and pursue my career overseas.  I had been to Vienna and other places in Europe before, but not for such an extended period.  And here’s the thing that was truly shocking to me…. when I was there, I didn’t have that same old homesickness that had always struck me in times past.  In fact, it felt like Europe was more “home” than my actual home was.  This feeling was strange and new to me.  Just like in the lines of the aria where she says, “but I walked down that road one day, and just what happened I can’t say, but little by little it came to be, that line between the earth and sky came beckoning to me.”  While I was away I truly went down a new road, following a new horizon…. and I was  never going to be the same.  So effected was I, that I made the decision to move long term to Europe in the beginning of 2013.

So my own personal subtext takes lyrics that are talking about graduating from high school, and makes them about going through a transition in life that is so significant, so pivotal, that my existence will never be the same.  And I realize that maybe I’ve come to this place of discovery a bit later, as I’m no twenty year old wide-eyed youngin’ anymore.  I didn’t experience this kind of big epiphany in college – the time when many others first get a taste of the great wide world calling for them.  But I DID hear the call, and I’m listening to it.

When I sing this aria, all of these emotions having to do with my subtext come rushing at me.  Sometimes when I’m practicing, they help me to deliver a fabulous kick-ass performance.  But sometimes they hit me so damn hard that I start crying in the middle of a phrase.  As a singer, I have to work on finding that fine line – delivering the sentiment without fully succumbing to it.   I WANT my audience to get my pure raw emotion so that they can be truly moved by my interpretation, but at the same time, if I go too far and let myself get carried away, I’ll lose control and won’t be able to sing anymore.  (And that’ll kind of put an abrupt end to the piece!)

I’m still working on honing  my ability to walk my own singer tight rope, and I suspect that in the end, I’ll make it happen.  But for those who can come to the recital, you’ll know what I’m feeling when I’m up there singing for you… my dreams of far off horizons, and the adventures that beckon from their distant shores.  I will always love my home here in Quakertown, but now I feel even more so that there are bigger dreams to follow – that the time has grown so short, the world so wiiiiiiiiiiide.

Recital Info:

“From Bach to Bernstein” – Concert/Recital
Jennifer Graf, Soprano
Daniel Pantano, Baritone
Kat Bownman, Piano
October 28, 2012   //  3:00-4:30pm

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

84 E. Oakland Ave.

Doylestown, PA

Jennifer Graf, Soprano
Photo of author
Jennifer was initially drawn to Europe for two reasons: music and love.  She lived in Vienna for four years, and now calls Croatia home for much of each year, as she married a native Croatian. Since 2015, Jennifer has worked as a tour director and cruise director on European river cruises for a major American travel company, and has become an expert in all of the cities along her routes on the Danube, Rhine, and Main Rivers. She also has traveled to Disney World almost every year since 1985, and knows Disney World inside and out. As a travel agent, Disney World is her primary specialty, and she has helped many Disney newbies and veterans have amazing trips with her insider information.

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