by Suzann Kale
A big part of singing, whether it’s your own song or someone else’s, is the way you interpret the song emotionally. And the emotional elements of song interpretation include rhythmic decisions.
There are different ways to play with rhythm. When you’re composing and writing your lead sheets for your singers and/or backup musicians, you notate rhythmic nuances on paper. Rubato sections, fermatas, changes in tempo and accents – these are rhythmic decisions that are part of the composition. A good singer will follow these notations just as carefully as he or she follows the composer’s melody.
Within this structure, though, there’s a HUGE amount of room for singers to add their own stylings and emotional interpretations. And much of that has to do with rhythm. Will you hold that note at the end of the key phrase just a little longer than listeners might expect? Will you add a little syncopation to part of the song to indicate a playfulness? Will you “anticipate” a note (jump on the note a fraction of an instant early) in order to add excitement? These are important choices that will affect the overall mood of the song.
Now let’s get into nano-details.
Within each beat of a song resides a universe of possible interpretations. Think Paul Simon’s song Ace in the Hole, 3rd verse, where he says,
“You can sit on the top of the beat
You can lean on the side of the beat
You can hang from the bottom of the beat…”
It’s true – within the space of one beat, there’s room for all kinds of marvelous mischief! As a singer, you can learn a lot about manipulating time within one beat, by listening to drummers.
Some of the edgiest, most exciting jazz groups have drummers who hit the very beginning of each beat. Or, you might hear R & B singers who like to “croon” – and they’ll typically hit the ends of each beat, almost as if they’re lagging behind the drummer. Rock and country drummers generally stress the very middle of each beat. There’s no right or wrong – it’s all how you decide to interpret your music. You do want to be consistent, though. I would avoid mixing “beat interpretations” in one song.
The key for the singer, is to be in total control of your voice and your song. You have to practice rhythmic articulation every day. It doesn’t need to be huge production – 5 to 10 minutes a day of rhythmic practice is fine.
Vocal Exercises for Rhythmic Precision
Exercises for rhythmic precision and control are easy to find, and fun to do. Start with your metronome, set it at a slow pace, and work (singing scales or even just clapping) with the different ways you can hit a beat. Then work with syncopation – singing on your scale BETWEEN the beats.
Another idea: work with triplets, both eighth note triplets, which are used a lot and are fairly easy – and quarter note triplets, which are more difficult. Use your creativity and your songwriting skills to find and practice any possible rhythmic twist you can think of. All of this will help you gain vocal control, so you can style your song exactly the way you want it to sound. And you can extract from your listeners exactly the emotions you want them to feel.
I used to sit on the subway in New York City, coming home from my voice lessons, with a copy of Pasquale Bona’s Rhythmical Articulation and the eraser end of a pencil which I’d tap on my notebook. I highly recommend this book, because it covers everything, and it starts with easy exercises and progresses to very difficult ones.
The key to getting through this book (or any rhythmic practice you do) is to start slowly. I can’t emphasize that enough. If you find yourself making mistakes or getting sloppy, you’re going too fast and you’ve got to slow down. You won’t learn anything by trying to move ahead too quickly. Why? Because in rhythmic articulation, precision is essential. If you’re not exactly where you intend to be within the beat, you’ll simply sound sloppy.
Here are more exercises, from my book Vocal Vibrance:
• Using your metronome, sing a scale in 3, with the metronome on all beats, but accenting beat one in each measure. Then, without touching the metronome or skipping a beat, change to 4, putting the accents on beats one and three.
• With the metronome as in 4, practice your eighth notes, dotted eighths, and sixteenths. Practice half notes. Practice unusual patterns, like those found in sambas and hip hop.
With practice comes precision. And with rhythmic surprises you can grab your listeners and bring them into your music.
Suzann Kale is the author of Vocal Vibrance, available at most online booksellers.
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