Interpretation In Singing

What is interpretation?

Interpretation consists of emotional and intellectual commitment to the text of a piece of music. This is the aspect which makes every singer’s performance uniquely their own, and indeed, an audience will overlook many a technical imperfection if this part of the singer’s performance is convincing, and satisfying. Conversely, a technically perfect performance can be quite uninteresting in the absence of personal involvement.

How do I teach interpretation?

I have two favourite ways of approaching interpretation, and often use both on the same piece. The first is to treat the text of the piece as a monologue. Just as in an acting class, the singer must reach decisions regarding the “who, what, when, where, why and to whom” in order to perform the text as a speech. There are no right or wrong answers here, merely stronger or weaker choices. When the text makes perfect sense to the singer, and that sense is being communicated clearly, the task is done, and when the text is once again used in song, the performance has usually been transformed.

A second method is that of physicalization, used by a number of teachers but demonstrated very effectively at a workshop here in Toronto in 1998 by Clayton Garrison. Here the text is translated into physical movement, which can range from simple imaginary staging to a complex dance-like choreography, all designed to clarify the meaning of the text for the student. The ‘choreography’ is a rehearsal device, not intended for performance. Physicalization can also have application to technical problems, particularly those involving inadequate (or excessive) support.

Interpretation is a challenging area for a teacher, involving as it does the exploration of the inner feelings and associations of the singer regarding the text. Yet it is also highly rewarding. A great deal of trust is necessary in order for two people to work comfortably together on this aspect of performance.

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