Tag Archives: music

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.


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!

Emptiness and Origin

Emptiness is the void. Silence is the void. The place of origin from which all comes and to which all returns. Silence is key. Without it there is no music. Debussy said, “Music is the silence between the notes.” Think about that. Music is the silence between the notes.

Silence is space, space is physical – the earth, the chair, the wall. Space is air – the atmosphere. Space is resonance. If singing the notes of a song is music, the silence that follows is divinity. It is where the inscrutable is felt and heard.

The call to art emerges from that void. The courage to heed the call, to undertake the study, to find the teachers and read the books. The impulse to explore, to discover, to drop what we are doing and sing, to throw on a CD and dance, to immerse ourselves

in the rhythm of music, to play, to turn a new page. It all comes from the emptiness. The determination to practice. The fear. The doubt. The voices in the head. Ours, theirs. The persistent tuning into what begins to move within us, to uncoil itself and express itself. That bone-level feeling of destiny. The inspiration for the first step and then all subsequent steps that begin to be felt, to be known as the career that slowly begins to unfold. It all comes from the emptiness. All utterances, tones, expressions, exhalations, intentions. And into the emptiness they return.


The silence following a song can be deafening, can it not? That moment that hangs heavy in the air just before the first sound breaks in – a sigh, a gasp, a chuckle, applause. That silence, still pregnant with the sweet echo of purposefulness and connection. Of origin.

We must cultivate the silence in our work. Learn to empty ourselves again and again – between phrases, between songs, between acts, between performances, between days, between seasons. We must learn to trust the silence. Learn to move within it, shape it, harness it, use it, speak with it. So that we continually resemble that from which we came and which is continually seeking to express itself through us.

What is emptiness to you?

%d bloggers like this: