Phrasing Choices for a Powerful Performance

A singer making phrasing choices is like an architect of sonic structures -says Lisa Popeil

This is an excerpt from Lisa Popeil’s new book: Sing at the Top of Your Game. Lisa is one of the most respected and accomplished vocal coaches in the world. In her book she shares her wisdom on singing technique and making it in the Music Industry.

There are many ways to deliver a lyric, to make it sound like you’re singing directly into the ear and heart of your audience.

Think of a phrase as a grouping of lyrics and notes. Each grouping might be as long as a sentence or as short as a couple of words. Phrases are often separated by rests or moments of silence, but sometimes shorter phrases can be connected together into longer sections, like Lego blocks. 

There are a number of ways you can manipulate these blocks, or perhaps I should say ‘shape’ these phrases. In fact, when I make phrasing decisions, I feel like an architect, creating a sonic structure where all my choices result in emotional consequences.

Here are some ways to get the most out of phrasing choices:

1) Breath Choice

Where you breathe should not be an accident. Plan where you’re going to breathe or where you’re going to keep singing. And you don’t always have to breathe between phrases. Try a ‘pause, no breath’ sometimes which will create a bit of excitement. When you do take a breath, you can make an audible sound or not – your choice.

2) Word Rhythm

You can sing a word one of three ways in relationship to “THE BEAT”: a) before the beat (rushing), b) on the beat (in the pocket) or c) after the beat (dragging). Especially in ballads, if you vary your relationship to the beat within a song- (rushing, dragging and in the pocket), you’ll create a more fresh, personal expression of the meaning of your lyrics. Keep in mind, if you DO play around, that you should always be well aware of where the beat is at all times. It’s only your relationship to the beat which can change. 

3) Dynamics

In music, this term is used to mean volume levels. Music that is only at one volume for some time can become boring,  so choosing how to build your overall song to a climax and resolution is important. This is because our brains are wired to notice change and to ignore sameness. Therefore, dynamic change is very important in grabbing and keeping the listeners’ attention.

4) Word Stress

Certain words, like nouns and verbs, are more important than prepositions (to, at, in), articles (the, an) or conjunctions (and, so). Think of how you would naturally stress words in a spoken phrase, then try singing the phrase like you speak it. That way the meaning of the lyrics comes out more clearly. The great pop singers of the 40s and 50s knew this trick. “It’s like Frank Sinatra is singing right to me!”

5) Smooth vs. Choppy

The longer you hold the vowel, the more legato or connected the words sound. Here’s an example of how you can sing this phrase from “My Heart Will Go On” in a legato way: 


(That’s “Love can touch us one time”)

This smooth delivery is good for a dreamy ballad or a jazzy sound. The opposite approach is what I call ‘choppy’ phrasing, with subtle pauses in between each of the syllables. A great example is ‘You’ve/got/to/ac/cen/tu/ate/the/po/si/tive’. This halting delivery is surprisingly effective in getting the words across.

6) Register Choices

To refresh, we use two main vocal registers in singing. One sounds like speaking or yelling (“chest voice”) and the other doesn’t sound like speaking or yelling, but more like a flute or an owl (“head voice”). Each sound can be produced by the vocal folds across most or all of a singer’s range. Though the vocal tract changes shape in both registers up and down the range, it’s convenient to think of vocal registers as “vocal fold vibrational patterns” in which chest voice is more of a “clapping” motion in the vocal folds, with usually a thicker vocal fold edge vibrating, and head voice being more of a “sea creature” motion with usually a thinner vocal fold edge vibrating. (I say usually, because we can make a very soft, thin chest voice sound and a very loud, thick head voice sound, but that’s another book…)

Making creative choices with your registers, such as going into “head voice” on a certain note for effect, is the highest use of your vocal registers. By this I mean that you should make register choices ideally based on the stylistic or emotional effect you’re looking for, rather than “that’s the only way I can sing that note!”.  

Look for places in your songs, particularly in sweet love songs, where you can shift registers to add spice to the overall color palette.

7) Notes Between the Notes

There are numerous ways to move between the notes. You can simply sing the notes as is. But, for expressive purposes, you might want to slide the pitch from one note to the next. The slide doesn’t have to be loud and obnoxious. Try a soft slide.  You can also do “slide-ups” which are a little slide from below getting to the next note. What about “fall-offs”? At the ends of phrases, you might want to drop the pitch. Be careful with this one since it can make you sound like a “lounge lizard” singer.  

8) Resonance Shifts

Remember our friends, Nasality, Ring and Brightness? By shifting these sounds (always in a tasteful manner, of course), we can build excitement from the beginning of the song to the end. The most expressive singers tend to vary not only their dynamics (louds and softs) but their resonance as well. So, you might be duller (less ring) on a verse, then add ring to your chorus.  You can even go for the “triple whammy” on your choruses for real punch and drama. The triple whammy is a combination of 1) more ring, 2) louder, and 3) higher pitch. This combo is a secret of diva singers everywhere. It can create an electric feeling in the listener, even throwing them back into their seats when you get the chorus!

9) Airflow Shifts

There are three safe ways to close your vocal folds when singing, each producing a unique sound. There’s BREATHY, with the folds hardly touching with quite a bit of air seeping through. There’s BLOWY, with the folds barely touching, which does NOT sound breathy but instead sounds warm, creamy, heart-felt and emotional. Then there’s CLEAN closure. This produces a more intense buzzy sound in the vocal folds and is good when singing in a direct way (emotionally speaking, not from the heart, but rather from the mind) and also good when singing powerfully. This is another shift you can add to increase the expressiveness of your vocal performances.

10) Never Forget the Melody

There’s a tendency for contemporary pop and R&B singers to show off by doing vocal gymnastics (called riffing, running, or doing licks) and losing the melody completely. Yes, this can be very impressive, but losing the melody for the purposes of vocal pyrotechnics can alienate the audience. It can make the listener feel like you’re singing AT them, rather than TO them. Being good at vocal ornamentation is fantastic – just always remember that it is meant to ornament the spine of the song, the melody, not replace it.

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