Making an Emotional Impact as a Performer: Part 1

Having been immersed in the wonderful world of singer-songwriters during my time at Song Talk Radio, I’ve attended quite a number of gigs and open mics over the past year.

Everyone I’ve seen perform has great talent in singing, playing an instrument and writing music.

However, I find there’s a lot of variation in a performer’s ability to make an emotional impact on me as an audience member.

A singer may have an amazing voice, but if every song in their set (or even a single song) is delivered in the exact same way and with little variation in emotional expression, I might leave thinking: “That was a good show”, but not feeling that my mind was blown or heart inspired.

So, I’d like to share an exercise – the Song Interpretation Exercise, to be exact – that may help in taking your performance up a notch in the mind-blowing, heart-inspiring department.

What is the Song Interpretation Exercise?

Imagine an actor (or actress) sitting alone in his room, rehearsing his lines for a play.

He comes to the following line in the script and reads it aloud: “How could you leave me after I saved your life?”

Hmm, how can I sound more convincing? he wonders.

He thinks for a moment about how his character must be feeling, then shouts angrily: “How could you LEAVE me after I saved your LIFE?!?!”

But then he pauses once more. The line is at the beginning of a 3-minute conversation with his character’s departing lover. The scene continues with him reminding her about the time he literally took a bullet for her. Halfway through, she confesses that it’s too late – she’s fallen in love with another man.

The actor decides to tone down his first line and save the enraged outburst for after his lover’s confession of infidelity when he’d be feeling the most explosive.

In a shaky, somewhat shocked voice, he repeats in almost a whisper: “How could you leave me after I saved your life?”

Okay, now let’s bring it back to the song interpretation exercise. You can basically think of the exercise as a line-by-line analysis of your song. Similar to how the actor prepares his lines for the big show, the song interpretation exercise helps you to intentionally and thoughtfully choose how you will deliver each line of the song you’ll be performing.

Which words in a phrase should get the most emphasis? Will you sing a particular line (or word) quietly or loudly? With what kind of emotion does it make sense to express that line?

And how will you create progression within the entire performance so that you’re not just, for example, singing a sad song in a “sad voice” the whole way through? Instead, how can you create a nuanced performance to keep the audience guessing and wanting more from start to finish?

These are questions you’ll be asking yourself as you work through the song interpretation exercise.

How Can the Song Interpretation Exercise Help You?

I have found the Song Interpretation Exercise to be immensely helpful in three ways:

1) Delivering a more emotionally impactful performance;
2) Reducing stage fright; and
3) Ensuring there is lyrical progression in a new song I’m writing.

I’ll explain #3 later on in this three-part article. You’ve already gotten a hint of how #1 can be achieved through this exercise, and it will become even more apparent as we go along.

With respect to #2: Part of the fear in stage fright comes from worrying that once you open your mouth, your audience will decide that your vocal chops aren’t worthy of the stage.

So, what ends up happening when you perform a song live? You probably tend to focus much of your attention on “sounding good” (whatever that means to you).

When you’re approaching a big note in the song, you might start thinking: Oh crap, gotta hit that sucker! Maybe you glance around at people’s faces and think: Okay, I think they’re into it! Ooh, wait – *cringe* – that guy looks kinda bored.

Well, from experience, I know that this internal dialogue can quickly escalate to full out jitters.

But if you’ve rehearsed your song with the approach that you are a story teller, and the purpose of you performing your song is to communicate a story or message that the audience needs to hear, then your focus will be on telling that story and in the most effective way possible. Period.

Yes, although performers may (understandably) have a lot of ego on the line, it ain’t all about us. Actually, it’s not about us at all.

But First, Hear the Difference …

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how to do the Song Interpretation Exercise, I want you to first listen to the same song being sung by three different singers. I’ll break down my impressions on each performance with respect to the emotional impact I feel they delivered.

We’re going to try this out with “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Ready? Play!

1) Random YouTube cover:

Technically, her performance is fine. She stays on pitch, has a good range, and I’m sure lots of people tell her she has nice voice. Once in a while you hear some genuine hint of emotion in her performance, but overall, it feels flat. The sense I get is that she’s more focused on hitting notes and “sounding good” than communicating a story. Her facial expressions, or lack thereof, for most of the performance is a dead giveaway of that. It’s all just … okay. But who wants to be just okay? #noone

2) Christina Aguilera:

So, obviously Christina has a serious set of pipes that require some R-E-S-P-E-C-T. But honestly, halfway through her performance I feel bored and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure I even know what she’s singing when she’s throwing a run on every other word. The story soon gets lost. The surprises get lost too when she gives away all the goods right from the start. A song should progress both lyrically and vocally throughout, so that the audience always stays interested.

This performance also illustrates that just because you sing in an emotional way, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have the strongest emotional impact you have the potential to impress upon your listeners. #sometimeslessismore

3) James Brown:

Damn. Mr. Brown had me glued to the screen from beginning to end. First of all, I paid attention to every word he sang – one, because he didn’t overdo it with the vocal gymnastics and I could actually hear what he was singing, and two, because he chose all the right words to emphasize.

Did you hear all of the nuances and dynamics in his vocal delivery that brought the words and story to life? When I listen to him sing, I pay attention to the song’s message, and I feel the emotions he’s conveying. And it doesn’t mean he can’t throw in some impressive vocal frills himself. He just picked the right moments to do it that made them special. #bowdown

The point of listening to these three versions of the same song is to demonstrate that how you choose to interpret and deliver a song can make a huge difference in the emotional impact on your audience.

Think back to our dear actor for a moment. You can imagine that if you had watched him deliver all his lines in the 3-minute break-up scene with very little emotional expression, you’d get bored pretty quickly. You also wouldn’t get the true sense of what the story’s about, since the actor would have failed to communicate the shock, hurt, bitterness and anger embedded within his lines.

You can also imagine that if the actor had yelled his way through the entire 3 minutes from beginning to end, it would have gotten tiring to the ear in a different way. There was a progression of events happening even within the one scene; that means, there should be progression – some kind of change or variation in dynamics – in the reactions and emotional expression of the actor.

The Song Interpretation Exercise

So, get to it already!, you say? How do I do this Song Interpretation Exercise?

If you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and dig in, jump over to Part 2 of this article!


  1. Nico says:

    Thanks Janice, but to be honest in the James Brown’s version my attention was mostly grabbed by the weird steps of the 3 men on the left hand corner… 🙂


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