Songs Without Words
As pianists, we are all familiar with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words”. They are beautiful lyric pieces that convey a range of emotions and feelings, but without words, they can never truly convey a specific thought.
I have been rereading Glenda Maurice’s book called “Finding Vocal Artistry”. She has so many inspiring and thought provoking things to say. Even the foreword inspires me!
Today I have been ruminating on her thoughts in the foreword which deal with words. “Success with vocal music begins with the words we are given to work with in the text of the piece. They must be utterly comprehended by the performer before he or she can even think of performing.”
I know this of course….we all do. It’s something we work with exclusively as vocal coaches. We are concerned with pronunciation, with meaning, with intention, with context, but are we really clear about just how important words are? Do we utterly comprehend the words both personally and with our vocalist?
Vocal musicians are set apart from all other musicians because, through words, they can express specific thoughts and images. No other musician can do that. As pianists we can express a feeling or a sentiment or a mood, but only when we collaborate with a singer can we express something specific. We must comprehend the text just as deeply as they do.
“If we can take the stage with an idea, a truth, a passion or a mission, we cannot afford to leave our audience unaffected by our message.” This is profound to me because it takes the idea of “collaboration” to a whole new level. We must learn to express a specific truth together with them. How they articulate a phrase is supported by how we support them at the piano. How they speak a word can be mimicked in our part. How the entire thought is conveyed is only enhanced by how we relate to the singer and the words, and collaborate with them both.
“Words are the first tool we learn to use, but words alone never assure understanding. They need inflection, attitude, color, texture, flow, proper pronunciation, confident and articulate enunciation, phrasing of an idea, rhythm of delivery and the sustaining of sound to the very end.”
Inflection, attitude, color, texture, flow, phrasing…..these are all a part of our tools as collaborative pianists. We must work together with our vocalists to make their words come alive by ferreting out these types of things in our performing.
Sure we might be able to play the piano well, but that doesn’t convey much without using the words as our focus. Maybe that’s why I love vocal work so much…it just adds a whole other dimension to my playing.
It’s the collaboration with the words and how to portray them that makes our job unique, and the best collaborators are the ones who spend much time and effort getting this part right. These are the ones who do not leave their audiences unaffected. These are the ones who communicate songs with words.