Singing is a way to communicate a story to your audience through music. And any good story connects with its audience on an emotional level.
To sing without emotion robs your audience of a vital component of your story. Even if you nail all the notes and recite every word of the lyrics perfectly, your audience will not get into your performance if it lacks emotion.
You need to learn to sing with emotion or you will never succeed as a professional singer. Even if you only sing for fun at home or at karaoke, singing with emotion will make your singing much better and much more enjoyable for you as well.
But it’s not easy, especially if you also play an instrument. Singing with emotion takes practice and if done wrong, it can actually hurt your performance as well as your voice itself. Follow the tips and exercises below and you will soon be able to imbue your performances with the emotion needed to captivate any audience.
1. Choose An Easy Song
By ‘easy song’, I mean two things. First, you want a song that is not challenging. That way you don’t have to divert any of your focus to the mechanics of singing. All of your concentration can go toward expressing the correct emotions in your voice.
Second, you want a song whose topic and central emotion is one with which you are familiar. It is much easier to add the appropriate emotion to your singing, if you have experienced firsthand what the song is talking about.
Even when you are performing in front of an audience and not just practicing, you should always try to choose songs that speak of experiences you have personally had. That just makes it much easier to channel the correct emotions.
2 .Analyze the Song
The first thing you want to do is listen carefully to the song you’ve chosen and figure out what the main underlying emotion is. Is it sadness, anger, hurt, happiness, etc? This is the mood you then want to channel when singing, to infuse your performance with natural emotion.
A large part of grasping a song’s emotion is really understanding the lyrics. Listen to the words carefully and figure out what they mean. Not every song is straightforward, so you interpretation might differ from a different singer’s. That is fine. You should always stay true to yourself and go with your own take on a song, not someone else’s.
If you followed my advice and picked a song you can relate to, then the emotion underlying the song and the meaning of the lyrics both describe a situation with which you are familiar. This will make it much easier to interpret the song.
If you chose a song that describes a situation and/or emotion that is new to you, transmitting the feeling of the song becomes more difficult. It is not impossible, but why make things harder? If at all possible, choose a song to which you can relate.
3. Sing With Emotion
Before we get into this, there is something I want to clarify. You’ll find a lot of advice that tells you to feel the emotion of a song as you are singing it. This is fine when you are practicing at home, but not a good idea during a performance. And even while practicing, it is something you should only do in the beginning and get away from as quickly as possible.
The problem is that strong emotions can cause your throat to close up. When professional singers get emotional during a performance, they are almost always acting. They are not actually feeling those emotions, but channeling them like a good actor would. They want to make you feel the emotions and demonstrate that they understand what you are going through, but they can’t afford to actually feel the emotions themselves.
You need to learn to sing as if you are experiencing the emotion, all the while never letting it overwhelm you. This is the only way to truly connect with the audience, without hampering your performance, especially if you have to perform night after night.
Here is how you can practice this (you might want to practice this alone, since it involves a lot of talking out loud to an imaginary friend).
- Analyze the song and understand the main emotion (we’ve covered this in the previous section).
- Pretend you are talking to a friend as if you are currently feeling that emotion. Talk out loud and describe to your friend how you are feeling.
- Take note of your voice. What tone does it adopt? Is it loud? Are you speaking faster? Slower? Higher? Lower? Remember the feeling and sound of the emotion.
- Choose one phrase from your song and make that phrase sound happy. Get yourself in the right mindset first. Be happy and think happy. Then sound happy, but try to do so without actually feeling the emotion. Remember how you achieved this.
- Repeat the previous exercise, but switch emotions. This time try to sound hurt. Again, make sure to take note of what you did to get it right.
- Repeat with as many emotions as you can think of. You can practice more by putting all the emotions on little cards and choosing one at random. Then try singing a song using that emotion, even if the actual emotion of the song is something completely different.
If you can’t get it at first, keep at it. This method works. You basically start by feeling the emotion and noting what it does to your voice. Then you reproduce the effects of the emotion while you are singing, so that you are “acting” the emotion, without actually feeling it.
Here are some tips to keep in mind
- Sing in your own voice: A lot of beginners try to imitate their favorite singers or they sing how they think they should sound. This ends up sounding unnatural and also strains your voice unnecessarily.
- Choose your songs wisely: We’ve already covered this. Choose songs you like, that are within your range and that mean something to you.
- Sing to your audience: Make eye contact and sing like you are telling the audience a story, complete with facial expressions, gestures, word stress, etc.
- Get out of your head: This is much easier said than done. Most of us think too much while performing (or doing anything really). We worry about looking right, all the technicalities of singing (posture, breathing, etc.), not forgetting the lyrics and so many more distracting thoughts. The only way to get past this is to practice and practice and practice, until your muscle memory is able to handle all the technicalities. Then you are free to worry about the emotion.
- Record yourself: Try shooting video of yourself as you practice. It helps immensely to see yourself from the perspective of an audience member. It will show you how effectively you are conveying emotion and what you need to work on. If you do not have the ability to make a video recording, an audio recording is the next best thing.
- Practice in front of a mirror: This is not as effective as video, but it does allow you to make small changes in real-time. If possible, do all of your practicing in front of a mirror.
- Remember the fundamentals: Focusing on reproducing emotion takes a lot of your concentration. Don’t ignore the fundamentals of singing like posture, breathing, etc. as a result.
- Watch singing shows: TV shows like American Idol and The Voice are great, because the judges often give insightful advice when it comes to the emotion of a song. Try to evaluate performances as the judges would and see how your impression differs from theirs.
Here is a good video for those that prefer to learn by watching.
Once More With Feeling – Singing and Emotion: by Jeremy Fisher on Vocal Process