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Adding Life To The Music

As someone who teaches sight singing, a question I get asked a lot is how do you add life to the music, how do you turn static notes on a piece of music into a performance?

I deal with this a lot on Sing By Sight (, always reminding students to sing with feel and be musical, and on higher levels of the course I talk about working with lyrics both as a soloist and as a backing vocalist.

In this blog however, I'm going to look at the really important issue of how a soloist would deal with adding life to a piece of music they are sight singing.

Picture the scenario: you’ve been booked as a solo singer for a sight singing job, you’ve turned up, you’ve been handed the music, you’ve skimmed through it to check for any nasty surprises, then you’ve sang it.

What more is there to do?

  • How about adding life to the music?

  • How about adding energy and passion to the piece?

  • How about adding personality and character to the lyrics?

  • How about giving a performance!!

Just reading the notes on your part is a big mistake - yes, a singer should always aim to read a part accurately, but they also need to be ready to go deeper into that part and search out the character.

One of the trickiest issues a singer can have when sight singing is getting into the music as quickly as possible, seeing beyond the rhythms and notes, bringing what’s written on the page to life, and finding that character.

When you’re sight singing music it can be difficult to take what is static on a page and add your own personality to it, especially when it's a brand new piece of music, you have no previous track for reference or inspiration, and you’re reading a solo line with no guidance as regards interpretation.

In the real world sometimes there will be the composer, or the client, or the producer (or all of them) on the session giving you guidance, tips, and pointers, but sometimes there's no one there to guide you, or even if people are there, they are actually looking to you to create the performance!! This is where you need to know what to do with the sheet music, and how to come up with ideas for a performance that will hit the spot for the composer/client/producer.

So how do you add life to the music?

1. Understand the story of the song

As a sight singer, once you've read through your part and are comfortable with the rhythms and notes, you need to move on to looking at the lyrics. Straight away you need to find the story in the song, figuring out what the song means and where it goes emotionally.

Finding the story in the song is really important - you have to understand the story of every song so you can then sell it. If you don't know what you're singing about, then the audience won't know what you're singing about!!

2. Interpret the lyrics

Once you're happy you understand the story in the song you need to interpret that into your vocal performance. This means:

  • finding the right emotions throughout the song and delivering them - am I angry at this point or am I pleading?

  • understanding what the character is saying at each point in the song - is that particular line a question or is a statement?

  • supporting the story and character with appropriate vocal qualities - do I want to sing this line with a breathy voice or does it need more energy behind it?

3. Adding life and energy

This point follows on closely from the previous point. When you're interpreting the lyrics and delivering your vocal performance, you need to be thinking of elements such as:

  • diction - bright, American, British, regional accents etc.

  • vocal qualities - breathy, twang, belt etc.

  • articulation - staccato, smooth phrases etc.

  • dynamics - loud, soft, getting louder etc.

These points above are the ones that will really add life to the music, and to your performance.

4. Listen to the accompaniment

Generally the accompaniment you work with will guide you for certain elements (eg dynamics), and sometimes it will give you clues to elements such as phrasing, but the accompaniment can't add the performance for you, you still have to produce that yourself. However, it's still really important to listen to the accompaniment for any guidance it can give you, for example:

  • the song may begin small and intimate - think about matching that vocally with maybe a breathy quality to your voice

  • the bridge may be a build section - think about bringing the dynamic down at the beginning of the bridge so you can build throughout the section and have somewhere to go

  • the song fades at the end - think about adding a diminuendo to bring the song to a soft finish

  • the song finishes with a key change and a big build - think about pacing the whole performance vocally and dynamically so you have something left at the end - giving that little bit extra at the end of a song can really sell it

When you’re new to sight singing it can take a while to get to this level of confidence - you may be more anxious about singing the part note perfect and forego the interpretation element, but even if you're singing a simple piece of music, performance should be one of the points at the front of your mind at all times.

Try not to be so busy hanging on to the sheet music that you deliver a fairly robotic performance - a singer should always aim to add emotion, belief, intensity and conviction to their performance, whether they're reading a new piece of music or not.

For more industry insights into sight singing check out for my fantastic sight singing course, Sing By Sight, written specifically for Contemporary Commercial Music singers, with amazing, high quality practice material to help you become a strong and confident sight singer, capable of delivering a dynamic and captivating performance every time you pick up a piece of music!!!!

Thank you to Joshua Hanson on for the photo.

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