How I Prepare a Song: 6 Steps

Step 1. Whether I find them or they find me, my songs move me musically and lyrically. Sometimes the melody hooks me first, sometimes the lyric. If a song appeals to me musically but not lyrically, I won’t sing it. I’ll give it to the band to play. Lyrics are key. I can’t sing a song I haven’t lived. I can vocalize it, but I can’t really sing it. I have to be able to bring something to it from my own life experience. Indeed, there are many beautiful songs I have not taken into my body. Beautiful, as sung by others.

Photo: rand alhadeff

Photo: rand alhadeff

Step 2. I check the song’s vital signs:  title, composers, year, language, dominant emotion, secondary emotion, texture and rhythm. I ask myself “who am I here?” (me or a character?), and “who am I singing to?” (myself, another person, the audience directly). Does the song take place now, in the past or in the future? Is it a recollection, or a wish?

Step 3. Next I feel my way into the song’s “gender” and “color.” Some songs feel masculine to me, some feminine, and some neutral/neuter. The texture is variably coarse or soft, assertive or yielding, gritty or buttery. You might say that my “signature” songs all have a complex mixture of textures, making them compelling to me and worth every effort. From texture I get a sense of color so that when I structure a setlist, I can sort out the red songs from the pink, the black ones from the blues, the oranges from the yellows. Voila! – this is also how I get the color I will take to my lighting technician for that song. And decide on costume. The colors that my songs wear help me choose my dress color for the night.

Step 4. Depending on the nature of the gig, I may really dig into the song’s history. When was it written and why and for whom? If it’s not a contemporary piece, I ask – “What was the world like then?” I may decide to use this in my patter (what I say between songs or song sections), or keep it to myself. Either way, doing some homework gives me a deeper connection to my message and a sense of authority with a song. Both will come through in my interpretation.

Step 5. I memorize it. Word after word, repetition after repetition until I know it by….head. I was going to say “heart” but in the first several outings with a new song, it’s still mostly a heady thing for me. It takes time for me to know the song by heart. Like any love affair.

Step 6. I play with my songs forever. They are among the best investments I make in life and their return is priceless. Through my many moods and circumstances and years, my songs grow with me and change according to who accompanies them and who hears them. The musicians come up with their own ideas; the audience leaves its own signature on the table. When my songs have run their course, I let them go. Ah, were it possible to give up anything as easily as I give up a song when I know the time has come.

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For us stage artists who use words – singers, actors, poets, comedians and clowns – we sure have our fun with words! Words beg to be nuzzled, caressed, floated, struck, oozed, dribbled, slapped around, spit out, swallowed whole, taken by vowel, taken by consonant, taken high, taken low and every place in between. And they don’t mind being left out.

Words and silence need each other like hot needs cold, day needs night, sun needs moon, freckles need skin, and this sentence needs a period.

Note to actors, voice-over artists, public speakers and others: If you have a script, you can follow these steps as well. Have fun!

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About Karen Kohler

Born in Frankfurt and raised in New York, Karen began her professional music career in Austin. Since returning to NYC in 2001, she has been a leading exponent of the cabaret arts as performer, director, producer and historian. Her performances blend multiple genres - classical, cabaret, jazz, blues and folk-rock - in six languages. She is founder of the award-winning ensemble, Kabarett Kollektif, and producer of Kabarett Fete, a celebrated international cabaret festival. Karen gives private lessons and conducts master classes in stagecraft, the art of public speaking and creativity coaching. View all posts by Karen Kohler

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