Since beginning singing lessons again in the last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about emotion. Specifically, how to convey emotion through song when performing, even if you can’t draw on that feeling from your own personal experience.
I’m the first to admit that my understanding of the ‘L’ word is limited. I’m 99% sure I was in love once, when I was about 21, but I felt very strongly that my feelings were unrequited and so I never mentioned it to anyone. It took me by surprise, and quite honestly I had a dissertation to write. I’ve been carrying that awareness around with me for the last six years, and it’s come in useful as my voice developed and I sang stock mezzo songs from the likes of Cherubino and Eponine. On my own, pretending he’s beside me… all alone… *indistinct weeping*
I’ve been learning ‘Your Daddy’s Son’ from the musical ‘Ragtime’, a song performed by Sarah, a young African American woman living in New York around the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a beautifully written song full of emotion, despair and loss. Audra McDonald won a Tony award after originating the role on Broadway in the nineties, her voice continuing to be one of the best and most-lauded in the theatre world. I’m not going to pretend it’s okay for me to take ownership of a song like this, but as a standalone piece, it’s a great one to learn in order to think about the placement of emotion in song, and how to push the voice to almost ugliness at the song’s climax. In my recording, there are a few blips that I would normally record over, considering them flaws, but in a live performance of a song like this one, those cracks and croaks are almost a positive embellishment.
I now have to count on two hands the number of times some trash guy in their twenties has made me feel like crap in order to make themselves feel like the bigger person. As the late Carrie Fisher said, “take your broken heart and turn it into art” – but at what point does all that pent-up rage and disappointment start impeding your ability to perform? When do the negatives connected to your own emotional experiences start to outweigh the positives?
Maybe they don’t. Maybe Carrie is right, as a performer you just need to keep topping up your ‘feelings bank’ and burn them like fuel whenever the role requires it. I can’t imagine losing a child, like Sarah in ‘Ragtime’, but I have felt grief. Perhaps this is enough.
Truthfully, I am a very traditional gal. I grew up with the idea that there is one ideal person for everyone, both in the domestic and figurative sense (Disney Renaissance, hello). The older I get, the less I think that this is the case for my generation, which sucks because we all watched those princess movies. Acknowledging that I might not meet someone who accepts me for who I am has been tough, but made significantly easier by the fact I have performing and writing to keep my creative neurones whizzing around my brain. In a strange way, it’s quite freeing; not dating is going to save me a heck of a lot of time and money that I can otherwise spend on stuff that I know makes me happy. What I’m really looking for is the Bobby Willis to my Cilla Black. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to find my Bobby one day.