Singing performers have an incredibly difficult task when you consider that, in an ideal world, their singing and acting would both be at the same high level of excellence. The reality seems to be that singing performers seem to come to the art of performance from two different starting points. The first group starts with acting training that then leads to singing as an additional skill to fill out what they have to offer. When push comes to shove acting and text intelligibility takes priority. The second group starts with voice training being the primary focus and acting being viewed as an additional skill they have to acquire.
For the first group preparing a dramatic monologue and monologuing a song should be relatively familiar. For the second group, in my experience, spoken dialogue can be the most difficult to learn and deliver naturally. This section is meant as a tool to help those whose primary performance skill set is rooted in musicianship. For those who started as an actor, this will be useful to think about in reverse. It will reveal to you what the composer was thinking and why they made the decisions they did. It will also help you become more sensitive to what the music is calling for.
THE KEY CONCEPT TO UNDERSTANDING LANGUAGE AND MUSIC.
As long as we are talking about western music (not country music – but music that originated from European Musical Traditions) we can view music and spoken dialogue as a process of building tension and releasing tension. Another way to think about this is a series of accented or stressed syllables and words for spoken text or notes for music. Good composers match the tensions and release as well as the accented and unaccented text with the music so they match phrase by phrase.
If we understand how music and text stress a note or syllable we can then better understand why a composer did what they did and also use our musical understanding and training to help us prepare for strictly spoken text.
How to stress a note or syllable?
- Pitch. The important word or syllable is the word that is in greatest contrast pitch-wise to the rest of the phrase. So if all the notes are spoken in a higher register we can accent the word by dropping to a lower pitch. This isn’t usually the case. Generally, if it is more important the pitch is higher.
- Duration. There are exceptions to the rule just as there are in pitch but usually the longer we hold a syllable or word the more important it is. There are exceptions just like pitch.
- Dynamic. There are exceptions to the rule just as there are in pitch and duration but usually the louder the syllable or word the more important it is.
- Clarity. If it is more important we can also accent it by being crisper with our diction. The more we separate words or syllables and the more articulated the consonants and vowels the more attention we are drawn to that moment.
Music is the same as in spoken text except in how it accents important notes, words or syllables as speaking. The difference is that the pitches, duration, and dynamics are dictated by the composer to various degrees. There are additional ways to accent notes or words unique to music.
- The Beat. 4/4 measures usually are thought of as having beat 1 as the strongest beat followed by 3, 2, 4 in order. Therefore, by placing a note, word, or syllable on a downbeat or beat 3 it will naturally sound more accented to the audience’s ears. For more on this check out this link: http://hubguitar.com/music-theory/rhythmic-and-melodic-stress
- Composers Markings. The composer can draw and accent over a specific note that is their way of making sure you don’t miss that they want you to make that note accented.
- Texture change – If there is a sudden change in musical texture it will draw attention to the following note or syllable.
When we talk about stress and accenting words most performers attempt to accomplish this by making the more important words even louder. The reality is that accenting is so much about making the important words louder but making much less of the unimportant words. If we have a phrase that is mezzo-forte that doesn’t mean all the important words need to be forte. It usually just means the unimportant syllables are mezzo-piano or piano. It is a slight change in paradigm that can make a huge difference in how we approach singing a phrase.
How to prepare monologues or any spoken dialogue for performance – A Musician’s Guide.
Step 1: Find the text you are trying to prepare. This can be what you have chosen as a text for the song you are monologuing, dialogue from a show, or a traditional dramatic monologue.
Step 2: Identify the most important word of each phrase. If you choose wisely you should be able to just read each of the keywords you chose and still get the gist of what is being communicated. Usually, verbs and adjectives are strong choices and pronouns and articles are not.
Step 3: Identify the other accented words or syllables. Try out different emphasis on different words and notice how it changes the meaning. Explore until you feel like you are emphasizing the more important words of the phrase. If it is a multi-syllable word you will have to choose which syllables are accented or unaccented.
Step 4: Mark in your breaths and moments where you pause without talking to let your character think or process.
Step 5: Write in the relative pitch, duration, and dynamic in music terms. Explore each accented syllable to see which tool of stress you can use to best effect. Use them in as many different ways as possible. Variety is your friend.
Here’s an example of what it could look like :
Here is the Original Monologue Unmarked: https://www.ace-your-audition.com/support-files/son.pdf
Note: This is probably more marked up then I would usually use. I wanted to hopefully give you more ideas to work with on your own. You want this tool to be useful but not so much information that it is overwhelming. Remember, the goal isn’t to try to do everything you wrote perfectly but to use this as a tool to focus your mind on making specific actionable decisions.
Step 6: Find the Climax. Where is the most intense moment of the entire piece you are working on? Sometimes the easiest way to find it is by going to the end and working backward.
Step 7: Preach it. Try doing the lines in an overly dramatic TV evangelist type delivery. This is a halfway point between singing and speaking that allows you to put in as much contrast as you possibly can while speaking. It will break you out from just delivering lines to trying to communicate something.
Step 8: Now pull it back a step until there is still as much contrast as possible but is also believable given your context.
Step 9: If you are monologuing a song go back to the music and compare what you chose as accented and unaccented matched what the composer wrote.
Tell me what you think about this and what you want to hear next!