The MetroStar Competition…object lessons
by Roy Sander
I’m honored to have been asked to be one of the permanent judges at the MetroStar Talent Challenge at the Metropolitan Room each year since the inception of the competition. .This is always an exceptionally gratifying experience, and I’ve witnessed a lot of very fine work. However, over the course of the competitions, a number of performer errors have been made—some by several contestants, others by only a few, but all I believe are worth discussing.
Oh, dear, what a revoltin’ development this is—surely one of the most insidious malaises to have afflicted popular music in the past two decades. My dictionary defines melisma as “an ornamental phrase of several notes sung to one syllable of text.” It has become all but ubiquitous—and, regrettably, immensely popular with uncritical audiences, who greet this silliness with cheers, whistles, and applause; the longer and more irrelevant the frills and furbelows, the more enthusiastic the audience’s response.
Years ago, I heard someone try to legitimize melisma by characterizing it as the contemporary equivalent of fioritura, a vocal technique employed in 18th and early 19thCentury opera. While there are similarities between the two, there is a crucial difference. Soprano arias of the period were written for that aesthetic; one would not hear a soprano superimpose those embellishments on, say, Wagner or Pucchini. Similarly, I do not have an argument with a singer’s employing melisma when performing a contemporary song that was written in that idiom; however, all too many of today’s popular singers think nothing of willy-nilly subjecting songs written with an entirely different sensibility to the unwelcome assault of melisma. There are two serious problems with this approach: (1) it mars the melodic line, and (2) it shifts our attention from the singer’s interpretation of the song—i.e., of its meaning—to his or her vocal prowess.
I’ve seen “American Idol” only once, and then for only about ten minutes. The singer performed a Rodgers & Hammerstein anthem (as I recall, it was “You’ll Never Walk Alone”) with an obscene helping of melisma. It was unspeakably awful. The judges to a man had nothing but praise for the singer. Richard Rodgers’s music does not need improving, and I don’t need to watch “American Idol” ever again. The use of melisma in the MetroStar competition has generally not been nearly so offensive. However, more than one singer, in the midst of perfectly straightforward, intelligent interpretations of a classic song, subjected one or two syllables to it, probably unthinkingly; the effect was jarring.
Lack of center
To command the audience’s attention, the singer’s performance needs to be centered in the song, free of distracting elements. For most songs, especially ballads, this will mean either staying in one spot or moving only selectively and purposefully. Note that this absence of motion will not make your performance static; rather, it will make the energy that comes from your interpretation more likely to hit its mark, namely, the audience. In the competitions, several singers compromised their effectiveness by moving about, so that our attention kept following their physical motion rather than the message they were trying to communicate.
This issue is a bit difficult to explain, because there are times when moving is quite appropriate—for example, in novelty or broadly comic numbers. Similarly, swaying or otherwise responding physically to the rhythm can be counter-interpretive—except with a song you wish to communicate predominantly through the music and rhythm, rather than through the lyric. In general, the extent to which your objective is communicating the meaning of a lyric is the extent to which you should stay relatively still.
Trying to play to all sides of the house
As many of you know, the audience in the Metropolitan Room is seated everywhere but directly behind the singer. In an understandable attempt to play to the entire room, singers frequently have made the regrettable choice of rotating in a wide semi-circle, like an oscillating fan, thereby seeming uncentered and diffusing focus.
How should you deal with this issue? In up numbers, comedy numbers, and most patter, you can feel free to face all parts of the audience—indeed, it is desirable that you do. But even then, do not rotate indiscriminately; rather, face each area purposefully. In ballads, you should be much more spare and selective in your movement, changing the direction of your face, though not necessarily of your body, only when dramatically apt. In general, with ballads you should trust the audience to come to you, rather than you to them; of course, your interpretation needs to merit their attention.
To whom are you singing?
In Commentary #1, I talk about the error of singing a ballad or a serious song to a single person in the audience. The same holds true with comic numbers. One evening, a singer sang a very funny song to one person in the audience; it shifted attention to that person and made one wonder who he was and whether he had a particular relationship with the singer—all of which undermined the very good job the singer was otherwise doing.
This is a very specific problem. But there is a more fundamental question that you need to answer for every song: to whom are you singing it? Is it an introspective song, in which case you are not singing it to anyone? Are you singing it to the world at large, because you have something to say? Are you addressing one particular person? The answer will guide the choices you make in how you approach the song physically: where you position yourself on the stage, how you relate to the audience, and where you aim your gaze.
While some songs seem to dictate the answer, you still have some latitude here. For example, the song “It Might As Well Be Spring” is, understandably, generally given an introspective interpretation. However, some years ago I saw a singer address the song to the audience, in effect telling us about himself. It’s the only time I’ve seen that approach taken with that song, and it worked wonderfully.
Note that an introspective interpretation doesn’t mean that you mustn’t move and must look straight ahead or down. While that might be appropriate in some instances, more frequently, it can seem unnatural. In real life, when you are thinking to yourself, do you not sometimes move your head or shift position? Just make these movements dramatically valid. Similarly, addressing a song to one person doesn’t require you to look in only one direction. When speaking to someone, if you were to look fixedly at him for a long period of time, it could seem creepy. Further, in a dialogue with someone, frequently one or both of you will shift position, making it natural for you, the singer, to change direction.
Pauses and shrugs
I’ve seen a number of singers occasionally insert a very slight pause before a word. This always calls attention to the word. If the singer’s objective is to highlight the importance of the word, the pause might be a valid technique—though there are typically better ways to accomplish this objective. However, even when this method is justified, it should be employed very infrequently, otherwise it can come across as a gimmick.
Most pauses I’ve seen have been ill-advised. In general, you should not interrupt a single thought with a pause. During the competition, in the song “Sing Happy,” a singer inserted a pause before the word gold in the lyric “Sing me a sonnet all about rolling in gold.” This did not make sense. If a pause is to be inserted anywhere in that line, it should be before rolling, since what must have been in the mind of the person expressing the thought at that moment would have been the complete phrase rolling in gold. He would not say rolling and then have to think, “rolling in what?” When you use a pause unwisely, you convey the impression that you have not thought through your interpretation.
I witnessed a worse example more recently. In an otherwise superb rendition of “Gigi,” a singer paused for what seemed like an eternity, but must have been about five seconds, between “have I been standing up too close” and “or back too far?” What on earth could the person expressing the thought have been pausing for? Would he have been trying to think of the apt alternative to standing up too close—say, were my glasses smudged? or do I have to reduce my medication? Nonsense!; He would not have begun the first thought without knowing the alternative. Or perhaps he was meant to be lost in a reverie of suddenly realized love. Whatever, although the singer tried to fill the pause with bits of acting, it did not wash.
I have frequently seen pauses accompanied by a shrug. This almost always conveys the impression that you are tentative, unsure—that you have not yet decided what position to take with that particular lyric. What’s more, a pause-shrug combination diminishes the importance, the weight, of what you are saying at that moment. .In rare instances, a shrug can be an appropriate gesture, but it must be specifically right for the moment and needs to be expressed with purpose and conviction. Similarly, holding your arms limply outstretched with your palms up, even without a pause, generally weakens the persuasiveness of your interpretation. Such a stance can be taken, but only when done purposefully and emphatically.
Happily this has not been a very common problem during the competition, and I don’t see it all that often in performances, but it’s a point worth making. Certainly you wish to make your song renditions distinctive. There are many ways to accomplish this. For example, you could bring to your interpretation an uncommonly perceptive exploration of the lyric. Your musical director might arrange an untraditional but nonetheless supportive instrumental underpinning to your vocal, thereby giving the piece an interesting flavor. Or you might opt for a totally new vocal arrangement. This last option can be very effective, provided the arrangement is consistent with the lyrics.
One singer in the competition superimposed a wildly energetic arrangement and sexually charged performance upon “Embraceable You,” one of the most tender and romantic songs ever written. Yes, there is a sexual dimension to the song, but the strongest expression of it is the lyric “you and you alone bring out the gypsy in me,” which is a discreetly oblique reference. Treating the song as though a tigress were trying to snare her prey for a carnal romp is a disservice to the song and fits it ill.
Honoring the lyrics of a song still gives you a fair degree of latitude. For example, a competitor gave the pop hit “Stop in the Name of Love” a slow, serious, and heartfelt interpretation, thereby imbuing the song with a depth the traditional pop treatment fails to do. Even so extreme a variation as Barbra Streisand’s now-classic rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again”—slow, even doleful, instead of up and exuberant—can be successful. While Jack Yellen’s lyrics sing of a bright future, they do so in the context of a darker recent past; Streisand’s interpretation can be viewed as the expression of someone who, though pleased that things will be getting better, is also tired and worn down from the difficulties she’s had to endure. It was startling when we first heard it, but it is valid.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should
From time to time I come across singers blessed with strong (and sometimes also beautiful) voices who, justifiably proud of the power of their voice, tend to sing the better part of many of their songs at full power. However impressive this may be aurally (provided it isn’t downright piercing), it deprives the song of nuanced and, therefore, more interesting and emotionally rewarding interpretations.
A while back, I saw a singer who took this approach throughout her show; it became quite tiresome. Pity, because I believe her to be capable of far better than that. In the competition, quite a few people have been guilty of this error, though to nowhere near the same degree. One in particular was doing a very lovely, touching job on a classic ballad, when she chose to let her voice swell. She has a beautiful voice, so the sound was gorgeous; however, her rendition lost what I call the “ahhh” quality. Fortunately, she had occasion to do the song again later in the competition, and the second time round she forewent trying to impress us with her voice, and, instead, wowed us with the exquisiteness of her interpretation.
So, if you are fortunate enough to have a big, beautiful voice, use it to good advantage—which means using it judiciously.