Tag Archives: singing

Improvisation: Language Beyond Words

Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, show me!
~ from My Fair Lady (lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner)

Think about the last time you played with a baby.

How enthralled you were. Hypnotized by its cooing, humming and buzzing. By its direct gaze and private language that needed not one iota of your attention and yet held you spellbound.

Baby talk is a vast arena of exploration, curiosity and delight. A universe of tools of engagement – splendid, pure and free. Babies vocalize in volumes, effortlessly sliding scales with their tiny instruments, bending notes up and down, articulating every impulse and sensation as it comes to them. Pure, abandoned, nonsensical gibberish. With no self-consciousness, hence no self-censorship. All this is who we were and what we had at our tongue and fingertips before the first grown-up came along and said: “Ma-ma”, “Pa-pa”.

Can we return to this magical garden?
We can.
We can improvise.

Singer Bobby McFerrin built a career around the use of nonsensical sounds to evoke his thoughts and feelings. His language is beyond words. In a 2012 interview with Omega Institute founder Elizabeth Lesser, he said this when asked if it was his conscious choice not to use words: “When I was figuring out how to perform solo, I wanted to move back and forth between bass riffs, melody, and harmony, so I often used sounds instead of—or alongside—the words of a song. I found that if I sang a line using the consonants, vowels, shadings, and inflection we recognize as human language sounds, people responded as if I were talking to them. There is a human connection even though there are no words. If I sing “you broke my heart, you left me flat,” everyone knows exactly what that means—they know the story. But if I sing a line that’s plaintive or wailing, people can experience their own set of emotions and their own story. Each of us might give that phrase a different meaning. It’s open to interpretation, and one song becomes a thousand songs.”

The word improvise comes from the Latin improvisus (not foreseen, unexpected) and providere (to make preparation for). Improvisation is on-the-spot performance, in-the- moment self-expression. Our improvisers in jazz are like our street and subway musicians the world over. They noodle around a theme or phrase, dig into, dip and bend their melodies in a way that sounds like they’re talking. And they are. Words are superfluous. What matters is feeling. One smile of recognition becomes a thousand smiles of recognition. We all know it when we see it, when we hear it. We’re spellbound.

In my Story Chord workshops, I use improvisation tools to loosen the story from the lips of us storytellers. Okay, minus the baby drool. For a few minutes at a time, we release the limits we’ve placed on our expressions and drop into the wordless realm that we, as master improvisers, have known since birth. Alone in a monologue, in dialogue with a partner, or in a playful call and response with another instrument (like drums, accordion, harmonica), this kind of toying brings a fresh focus to our truth-telling.

Freed from finding the right words, our minds make other parts of us move. We gesture more clearly and boldly. Our posture changes. Some of us uncurl as if from a shell, unwind like a spring, or uncork with a burst. Others find the missing puzzle piece that gives new expression to an old idea, or the permission to say something for the very first time. This nonsensical, sing-songy, grunty babble opens a portal in the brain through which thought and feeling flow first. Words and language come later.

Improvisation uncovers the fears in our hiding and holding back. There’s no right or wrong way to do it; no being good or bad at it. In a flash one impulse is gone and another is at hand. The experience of making something up on the spot, something silly or outrageous, something risky or dirty, is liberating. When did making a fool of ourselves become such a bad thing?

It was German-born jazz pianist and composer, Uli Geissendoerfer, who got me improvising around my songs and creativity. He was my first partner in my cabaret act honoring Marlene Dietrich, an homage for which I had a very particular vision, an exact sense of how to enact each song and awareness behind my gesture. It was all well and good until I’d get myself hung up on an idea, or stuck in a corner of the stage, frozen. Uli would stop and have us improvise the tune. Playing around with melody, harmony and storyline without actually singing words was liberating. I found out quickly that I’m lousy at scat singing. But I could open easily into this abandoned sense of play and call forth my inner goofball. We’d improvise until I could detach from what was sticky and not working, make new choices and re-establish my ground.

This tool has stayed with me all these years, releasing me time and again from the trap of self-consciousness and crafting my work too carefully, too mentally. It’s a powerful instrument in our tool chest as creatives. And, might I say, it comes in handy for living life too. Life itself is one long improvisation. Every moment of every day is unscripted and delivers itself to us while we’re there trying to control events and interactions.

In my book, the tool of improvisation is key to authentic storytelling and stagecraft. It knocks out the finite shoulds and brings in the infinite coulds. Nothing has to happen and so anything can. We can follow this impulse and that one, reach out and catch a notion, let an idea simmer or send it scuttling to the sewer. We can stand in silence, we can lay out loud. We can wait. We can go. We can stay. We can flow.

We can trust that the instant we drop the mask, a clear path emerges that teases forth our intuition, vulnerability, resourcefulness and charm. Our one-of-a kind essence that never really left.

It’s amazing to see the transformation sometimes and the fine focus and emotional resonance that emerges after a session of improv. All at once the truth inscribes itself on a singer’s song, a speaker’s script, or an author’s written word. It’s this element of surprise that opens into recognition.

We see ourselves again.
We see and are seen by others again.
We’re back in the crib, giggling, gurgling, gazing. Bound to enthrall.
Bound to connect.



Drawing Blanks

The other night I was on stage with my singing partner, leaning back on a chair as her next song began. Only it didn’t begin. The pianist played the intro, but when it was time for her to sing, no words came out.

This is the nightmare! The singer’s, actor’s, speaker’s nightmare: Forgetting. Drawing Blanks.

It happens to all of us. No matter how much or little stage experience we have, no matter if we’re just starting out, or seasoned for decades, it happens that we come to a place and forget entirely where we are. And it never ceases to be frightening. The very thought of it, the anticipation that it could occur and does occur is probably what keeps most people off the stage and out of the public light. And yet…what actually happens? What do we perceive versus what’s going on? How much of our fear is real and how much is imagined?

What happens to time? Time – ha! Time does us the honor of stretching itself to both ends of eternity. Things that once felt like seconds are stretched into hours. Or so it seems.

And in those hours, what happens to the brain? The brain – ha! The brain goes into overdrive – reaching, searching, darting, probing. Is it this? Is it that? What word is first? What line? And we stumble along in the dark recesses of our minds. Blank.

What happens to the body? The body….well…the heart rate quickens, we begin to perspire. We lose the color in our cheeks or suddenly gain it on our neck, on our chest. Our temples throb. Our breathing sputters. Send in the paramedic – we’re heading into cardiac arrest! I’m dramatizing for effect. On the outside, most of this is invisible, but inside the body is on high alert. Somebody might as well be holding a gun to our back. We want to shout. We open our mouth yet no sound comes out.

And is it ever lonely! We can be solo on stage or in a crowd. The moment we draw a blank, everything recedes leaving us out there exposed. We turn to our fellow actors, singers, musicians for help, for comfort.

Such was the momentary plea in my partner’s eyes….what is it? Fill in this blank. As the seconds stretched into minutes, I searched my own brain for the word. I knew the song, knew her line. I couldn’t retrieve it either. If I had, how would I have communicated it to her? Speaking it aloud may only have drawn more attention to its absence, to its masquerade as a mistake. I could have been clever about it and offered it to her completely in character. But what did it matter. I drew the very same blank.

I shared her pain – I’ve been there. Soon my own palms would begin sweating, my fingers tighten around the microphone I held ready for my turn. God, why do we do this? Why do we risk it? What kind of masochists are we?

I could not help her with words, but I could help hold the frame. I straightened up in my chair and strengthened my intention. I kept a cool gaze. Behind it my eyes blazed with belief and support…”You’ve got it,” they beamed. I flooded the stage with power. I stayed in character. Soon enough she had turned back to face her audience, centered herself and a second later was off and singing. Our pianist did not miss a beat – he stayed glued to her throughout the 30 tiny seconds that felt like 30 minutes.

And what did the audience do? They waited. For all they knew there was nothing the matter. This was exactly what was intended. And yet they did know. Deep down they sensed that something was off, that before them stood a singer and human being momentarily out of phase. They felt her struggle, drew in their breath and held up their own part of the theatrical frame. As the words came to her and she took back her song, they enveloped her there and then in their loving applause.

These events are what humanize us stage artists. They are what make live performance so thrilling and daring. The recognition. The seeing ourselves in each other. We think there’s a judge, an us and a them. Performance shows us time and again that we are all in this together, and that sometimes just holding space for someone to falter and catch themselves is the only thing there is to do.

Because it’s happened to us all.

The Breath

Singing is placing music on the breath.

Breathing is a matter of never-ending visualization, exercise and practice. We practice by alternating between taking in air slowly and quickly, holding it as long as possible, and regulating its rapid or gradual release. Breathing should not draw attention to itself but be relaxed and effortless. Deep breathing is by nature relaxing to the body. Shallow and quick breathing is invigorating and energizing.

A teacher of mine once suggested that the ultimate goal is to sing through 24 measures on a single breath. Learning how best to breathe is the challenge that every song provides.

Knowing where to breathe is easy when one is singing for words, for then the natural breaks reveal themselves automatically in the cadence of the language. To help me identify the best places to breathe inside a song, I speak the text aloud as I am learning it. As much as skiing is just another way of walking, singing is just another way of talking.

All the air we need to sing with is there. It exists in abundance in the space around our heads, our bodies. And all the time we need for getting the right amount of air is always there as well. Trusting in this comes simply with experience.


For me, singing and acting are minimally about technique and tone and fundamentally about words and feeling. Before I take on a new work, I have to accept what the text and the tune propose, and to accept the proposal, I must have an unconditionally strong feeling for it. Words are the means through which that feeling is expressed.

Every word has its own life. Every word has its unique form, line, color, sound, body and soul.

I frequently sing in languages foreign to my listeners, so I must use my body, face, mouth, and gesture to contour the mass of meaningless utterances and make something useful and real for the listener. Of course, knowing French may be helpful to one’s experience of “Je ne t’aime pas” but if I as singer am doing my part, it’s utterly unnecessary that you know French. Doing my part requires believing in words, committing to them, opening them up at the core and revealing their emotional essence, the kind that knows no language and binds every man together. The truth can always be conveyed without words.

There are songs I don’t sing because I haven’t yet experienced their meaning, or because I cannot bring anything new to them.

There are songs that are mysterious to me and to which I am powerfully drawn. Songs that beckon me to follow them into new territory and discoveries about myself. Songs that invite me to learn yet another language in which to communicate. Committing to words has required me to become multi-lingual. So far the songs that have found me have come in German, English, Spanish, French, Flemish, Portuguese, Yiddish and Latin.

I sing songs whose words mesh with my experiences and understanding of life, of love, and I believe it’s vitally important to continually broaden these in order to accommodate ever more text and more songs.

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