Tips: Sing With Emotion, Never While Emotional
I once had a teacher tell me to sing with emotion, but never while emotional. She had lots of exercises and techniques to help me with this. I never really understood. I'm not sure what was inhibiting me (probably fear) and it took several years after the fact for me to really "get it." Years later, having finally accomplished this feat, I'm passing the good advice on. The one variable that makes vocal music different from instrumental music is the emotional impact of lyrics. Even people who don't consider themselves to be "music people" will tell you they relate to one song or another. (You ever wonder why country music is so popular?) The singer's job is to create emotion in their singing so the listener will have an emotional response to the song. The first step for the singer is triggering an emotional response within themselves to the piece of music. So how do you accomplish this?
I would love to tell you to begin with choosing songs with which you relate. If you are a pop singer (or country, blues, jazz, etc) this is really the best first step. The problem in the musical theatre or operatic world is that you don't always have that choice. I doubt most people performing in Miss Saigon have killed someone (or themselves). In this case, find something within your character with which you can relate. Sick mom? Dumb boyfriend? You get the idea.
Next I like to find recordings (not video, just sound) of other singers performing the role. Why no video? Because most audience members are not going to be able to get all of the emotion from your face. They are sitting too far back or at the wrong angle or whatever. They may only be able to have emotional responses from the music. So by listening to several recordings of the music you will be singing, you will be able to have those emotional responses triggered within yourself. Now, write it down. What moments did you feel something? Did you shiver? Cry? Laugh? Which parts were moving and which weren't? Write them down. Make notes for yourself. These will help you to make creative choices in your versions of the songs. (As a side note, I do eventually watch video recordings. But be careful not to unintentionally copy the performance you're watching. Make each performance your own.)
Next, take your script (or if you don't have a script, use the lyrics to make one up) and do a soap opera scene with yourself and the mirror. Yes, I'm serious. Stop laughing!! You've seen a soap opera once right? Even if it was a bad one, they probably cried at least once during the show. Start with making this scene you have created into something very real for you. Keep building it up. Look into your own eyes. Use your body. Keeping doing this until you have triggered an unscripted emotional response within yourself.
Great-now you have created emotion! Now, step back. Why? Because while you need to create the emotion within yourself to trigger the response in someone else, you cannot sing while you are so emotional. Have you ever tried singing while you were break-down, sobbing, snotty nosed, need my mommy sort of crying? I have, and it was AWFUL. While it is important to be emotionally connected to the character you are creating, you cannot use your instrument effectively if you have impaired it by becoming too physically emotional. So what can you do? Here are some tricks.
During your soap opera scene practicing, set up your video recorder to record your facial and body movements. When you review the recording, write down particular moments in your music where you really like what you've done with your body physically. Do this when you are singing the music as well. When you listen to the recording, pay attention to any specific word or color treatments that created a response. Memorize these and add them to your practicing. Memorizing facial features, bodily responses, etc, helps to take away the unexpected physical emotions while keeping you connected mentally.
A final thought. Why is this so important? I sincerely believe that no musical performance, whether its a full scale musical production, concert, recital or backyard barbecue should have meaningless music. And I also don't want singers to hurt themselves vocally by being too involved emotionally. As with most things in life, singing and believing should be a perfect blend.