One of the main reasons to listen to music, and especially good vocalists, is to feel an emotion.

Being able to deliver strong (and honest) emotions in your singing is extremely important.

Acting your song is not just for musical theatre or opera.  You can use these techniques to up your performances of any style.

In this episode John shares some of his favorite techniques to emotionally connect with your music, including some of what he learned from a legendary Hollywood Acting Coach.

If you have trouble communicating what you truly want to say when singing, this episode is for you.

Episode Transcript

Episode 28 – Acting Your Song

Hey there! This is John Henny. Welcome to another edition of the Intelligent Vocalist.

You know, this is kind of a big day for me because I got on my little website that shows the traffic for the podcast, and last month it doubled. The downloads actually doubled. I mean, this is pretty dramatic growth. And I want to thank all of you who listen and who share it on Facebook and different social media, and recommend it to their colleagues and friends. I so so appreciate this. This kind of started out as me rambling in my spare time about different voice things, almost a way for me to kind of think out and hash out what’s going on in my head and my own teaching. And I really really appreciate all the support.

Now, another exciting thing that is happening is it is butterfly season. My wife and I, we raise monarch butterflies. We actually go out and get the eggs off of the milk weed leaves and we set them up in little special Tupperware that we have as incubators, and they grow into little caterpillars. And then we have different containers they go into, and ultimately large cages where they go and hang at the top and turn into chrysalis. Then they become monarch butterflies, which we release. And as of today we’ve released over two hundred. We’re really only a month or so into the true season so this is very very exciting.

These butterflies are amazing creatures, they actually will migrate. The eastern monarchs in the Eastern US migrate from Canada to Mexico. I mean, it’s a trip of over a thousand miles. These things can fly 35 miles an hour, couple hundred miles a day. They’re absolutely remarkable, and they are endangered. So if you live in a place that has the butterfly – North America, South America, Canada – and I think they even snuck into New Zealand and Australia.

The monarch butterfly plants some milk weed where they lay their seeds, and that’s the only food that the caterpillar eats. The adult butterflies will eat other nectar plants. And in doing so, they become pollinators, much like the bees, so they’re absolutely wonderful creatures. Their numbers in the US at least are down 90% from 20 years ago just because their habitats are being eradicated, and the milk weed is being eradicated, and just clearing from all types of growth and things. But these creatures are being forgotten.
I know it’s not the biggest problem in the world but it’s something that’s important to me. And if you love butterflies and you love to see them in your yard, trust me, plant some milk weed and they will find you.

Now, today, that’s my politics for the day, I want to talk about acting your song – not even necessarily acting in terms of musical theatre, but giving an emotional performance. Very often, a singer will ask me how do I connect emotionally to a song. You’re often performing songs that you did not write and you simply need to find some way to have them connect with you, and then connect with the audience. I often say to students that the work that we do together, all these technical training and balancing of the voice, and extending range, is not the highest level of singing. The highest level of singing is communication. It’s you have a feeling, you have something you want to say, and singing becomes the vehicle to express that to a listener. And if you can connect and engage with that listener on a deep emotional level, they will become a fan. They will be moved by what you are doing, and they will want more. That’s what we want. We just want to connect emotionally. Music and singing in particular, is so very very powerful. It’s just an amazing way to do that.

So my story is, because I had some difficulty with this, I went to a teacher here in Los Angeles named Carole D’Andrea. She actually was featured in the Broadway production of West Side Story and one of only, I believe, forty people who also did the movie West Side Story. She’s worked with a number of famous people including Tom Cruise. And the first day I went into the class Marisa Tomei was sitting there so it was a little intimidating. But what she does in Los Angeles is she teaches a class on Acting A Song. She’s not a voice teacher. So I went in as a voice teacher and I kind of went in with my voice teacher head. Some would get up and would do a song, and I start to get on my head all the technical fixes that I would do. Then I watched in amazement as she would make emotional adjustments and choice adjustments, and get the singer connected with the material. And then they’d sing it again. Not only was it more impactful and moving, but man, they got technically better. I mean, they didn’t become brilliantly technical singers but they improved. And they improved in that instantaneous moment. That emotional connection helped them breakthrough certain technical things that were happening, whether it was tension or not breathing enough, or all these other things that we voice teachers worry about. The emotion fixed it in a rather remarkable degree. I was actually quite stunned.

So my experience is I got up and went to do my piece and I’m thinking “Okay I’m going to perform”. I did a lot of gesturing and the whole thing. What Carole did is she kind of got me quiet and she used some techniques to help me connect to the material. Then I did it again. It was an experience unlike any that I ever had singing.

If you are ever in Los Angeles, you need to take this class. Her name is Carole D’Andrea, If you just reach out to the email and number there, one of her assistants will deal with you. If you let her know that you are recommended by me, that will help you get in the door a little quicker, I will tell you that. She’s a good friend and a great mentor. I highly highly recommend the class.

So what did Carole do? Well I can’t recreate her decades of knowledge here in this short little podcast. But what I can do is give you the basics of what it is that she did. It’s funny, I took this class and I actually became a pretty good actor with music. But man, I was still just a crap actor just doing dialogues. It’s funny – melody and chords, and orchestration and all of those things, the arrangement, help me know what I needed to do emotionally, in just texts really doesn’t. So I don’t consider myself an actor. But acting through song, I can do okay.

And what she did is she taught me about intentions. Intentions are basically taking an action word, a verb if you will, and putting an intention over the line. Let’s say I’m going to sing something “No more talk of darkness” from Phantom of the Opera, and I can have different intentions over that piece. For example, if my intention I choose to warn – and what you do is you would go “My intention is to ___.” and put an action word. My intention is to warn. My intention is to comfort. My intention is to rebuke. Yeah, okay, I’m being a little cheesy here trying to make disctinctions. But you get the sense that, as you choose intentions, and if you create very very strong intentions, literally it gives your brain something to do. If you tell your brain “I want to do X” your brain starts to react on that. And what this does is it stops you from taking a song and going “Okay, I’m going to be sad in this song. I’m going to be happy in this song”. It stops that bland monochrome approach to singing.

The intentions give you very deliberate choices, very deliberate intentions as to what it is you want to accomplish. And then as you get a little deeper, you can start connecting these to things that you felt in your own life, connecting it to people that you know, etc. But the simple act of choosing an intention is very very strong. The other fun thing is you can change intention from line to line. You can even go crazy and do it word to word, but you can do it from line to line or section to section, or you can have a single intention for the entire song.

But let’s take this again. So if my first intention “No more talk of darkness” is to warn, then “forget these wide-eyed fears” is to comfort, it would be something like (refer to audio). You see I suddenly have contrasting emotion. And the other thing that Carole told me that was so powerful – she said a lot of things in the class. It’s funny, any of us can go to a class or work the teacher, and it ends the same session, but different things will impact us differently. The thing that Carole said is “If you think it, the audience will get it”.

Now they don’t have to get it i the exact way that you’re thinking. When you do this your goal is to not have them think “Hey, right now I’m warning, and now I’m comforting. Now I’m trying to seduce. Or now I’m trying to celebrate.” No. It’s when you have that emotion.

As human beings we have emotional antenna. When we pick up on these subtle beautiful human emotions that the performance is giving us, it will then filter to our life experience, through what we’re going through right now. We will take that in and personalized it. And it just becomes a magical bond that you have with the performer. And it’s so funny, when you go see someone perform and you’ve paid money to watch them and they’re the one onstage, but what it really becomes about is yourself. It’s your connection with the performer. It’s what you get out of it. That’s what’s most important. That is yours and yours alone. It’s an amazing beautiful thing. But as a performer, you can spark that connection by having these really really strong intentions, these really really strong choices.

So here’s a way to practice this –
Take a piece of music, maybe just a verse chorus. Maybe try something musical theatre because it has a little bit more contrast emotional content. But not always. You can take a Pop song, you can take a ballad. Just take the verse in the chorus, and start with breaking out the lines and choosing an intention for that line. Again, you’re going to use very very strong verbs – to warn, to celebrate, to comfort, to love, to rebuke, to do all these different things. See if you can get some contrasting content emotions. And have some fun. Go ahead and put an intention online that doesn’t necessarily reflects what the line is saying.

You know, this was a device used brilliantly all through out drama and musical theatre and opera, in particular, Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner. What he does is he uses his musical motifs and these little melody fragments. The melody fragments represent characters or things, or even emotions. There’s a particular, the characters are talking about how they don’t particularly like each other, or singing it. Yet the love motif starts to worm its way into the orchestration. So you know that the character is lying, that the character is actually expressing that they love the other character but they’re not willing to accept it. So have fun in like contrasting intentions and just see where that sparks you. See where that starts to move you. See if suddenly the approach to that piece of music is not different.

Now, if you hit technical difficulties, it becomes a little bit harder. So what I would do is I wouldn’t take a piece of music that you’re struggling with, the range is really hard, or it has sustains you can’t quite get – get it, get up, easier piece to sing. That was something I was careful to do in Carole’s classes. Most often but not always. I would still chance myself, I would bring a music that kind of sat in my wheel house, that wasn’t that difficult for me to sing. That way I could just really focus on the connection, the emotion, and the intention. Once you start getting that going then you can start applying it to more and more difficult pieces.

But I will tell you, as a plug for studying voice, you want to remove any difficulties that you have in music. The reason that I teach voice, the reason that people study with me is so we can clear the deck. We can remove these technical difficulties that will eat up your attention, that will remove you from communicating, that will stop you from focusing on whatever intention that you have, whatever magic of emotional flow that you’ve been able to find. You’ll be pulled out of that if suddenly you’re sweating the high note. We just want to take that away. So that’s one of the key reasons to study singing. It’s to remove those barriers.

But in the meantime, get a song that’s not that hard to sing and experiment with these intentions. Have fun with it. Lock yourself away. Let yourself get emotional. Let yourself cry. Let yourself burst out laughing as you sing. Begin to feel everything that we feel as a human, and allow that to come into music. That’s why we listen to singers.

Listen, I love amazing singers. But there are so many vocal performances that I adore that are so important to me, that really aren’t that technically great at all. But man, they touch something in me emotionally, they have hit a cord, there are something in my life experience that I have gone through. Some of it may have been buried that I don’t remember or want to remember. I don’t want to get too crazy deep here. I’m not crazy, at least I don’t remember if I’m ever crazy, but maybe I am. It maybe awakens that crazy part of me just a little bit. But, oh my goodness, that is the magic of music. And I want you to be able to impart that magic.

You don’t have to be a great singer to impart that. You just have to be a human being. And you have to be a human being that’s open and available and willing to take those risks. As they say, acting is being private in public. You can expose your private inner most thoughts and worries, and all of the garbage and the joy, the sorrow and the pain, and the elation that we have inside of us. You get to express that. And you know what’s wonderful? Because we have the safety net of art, we got to express that, expose it. And it’s okay, it’s socially okay. You can’t do that in your public life.

Let’s say you’re a waiter at a restaurant, don’t do that at your job. I don’t want that from my waiter or waitress, or someone who’s a surgeon who’s working on me. No, don’t expose that. Keep all that stuff bottled up. But man, with art, you get to let it out. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s exhilarating. Go ahead, play with it, experience it, and have fun.

Hey, if you liked the podcast please go to iTunes, give it a quick review. It does people find it. As I have been finding out the podcast is growing. It’s just absolutely wonderful. And you can always go to my website If you’re interested in studying with me or getting consultation on your teaching business – whatever it is. I also have podcast episodes there and blogs, etc. You can just go ahead and search. See if there’s anything that interests you.

And I will tell you, I’m going to have a new podcast coming out, completely different subject matter, that’s going to be a business podcast for music teachers. If you teach privately or you own a music academy, or if you’re a person that’s kind of in charge of having a music academy – this is going to be the podcast you’re going to want to listen to. I’m going to really lay out all the things that I’ve done to help grow my music academy, the trials and tribulations I went through, and how I came out on the other side. Also I’m planning on bringing in some experts and some different people that can help you double your teaching business, whether it’s double your student enrollment, or even better, double your profits. So you can make a nice living doing what you love. Who doesn’t want that?

Thank you so much for listening. Until next time, to better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.