As featured in The Harmonizer.
Learn to tell a story
In almost 40 years of being a Barbershopper I’ve seen countless directors, coaches and judges ask performers, “What is the story behind this song?” Until recently, I accepted this as a helpful question. However, as a performer, coach, judge, and audience member, I was rarely captivated by being sucked into a song’s storyline. I really didn’t know why I rarely saw a story told effectively.
This is odd because most of us, actually, are great story tellers in regular life. Through osmosis we have learned the construct of story-telling and follow it:
A beginning (“Once upon a time …”)
Who we are, where we are, when is it, other people involved, and the basic problem at hand (lonely, breaking up, running late, unemployed, etc.)
A middle (“One day …”)
What is at risk if things don’t go your way (stakes)?
An ending (“... and they lived happily ever-after”)
Actions culminate in a climactic moment that resolves the problem, leading to consequences (we marry our true love, she doesn’t come back, we end up getting the job, etc.)
From the moment we are born we are told stories. They captivate our minds and our attention. Our parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches tell us stories at every opportunity. Why is that? Because story-telling is the most effective form of communication that exists. It is non-judgmental. It teaches us lessons. It teaches us history. It shares values. We see genuine emotion, making the story-teller more human. Mythologies and religions are full of parables and stories to communicate history, lessons and values.
We learn and understand more quickly and effectively through stories. Think about teachers who were most impactful on your life. Did they recite facts or did they tell stories that changed the way you thought and as a result made you more receptive of the information? You want to change someone’s belief system? Tell them a story. As we grow and interact with others, we quickly learn that we can command others’ attention by telling our own stories. Through our constant interaction with other story-tellers, in turn we become great storytellers.
As Barbershoppers, we are blessed to perform music that has lyrics. The storylines provided by these lyrics can be a ballad of lost love or a rollicking uptune that encourages us to see the parade or join in dancing. Every song has a story behind it.
Songwriters don’t write about ordinary events. They write about extraordinary events. Think about the time that someone told a lame story: “Wow, you went to the grocery store and bought groceries. Great story—thanks for sharing!” Now, if they met the love of their life there it gets more interesting and more compelling.
Our barbershop heritage started off as harmonic exploration. It didn’t really concern itself with the presentation of lyrical content but more with the enjoyment of lock and ring. Usually we are so focused on musical precision that we forget we are rendering lyrics. We generally leave it to the audience to understand the language we’re singing to get the composer’s storyline and hope that does the trick. We’re not focused on telling a story.
Telling a backstory does not equal telling a story.
In the early 1980’s, Barbershopper Eric Jackson started us down the storytelling road. Using “Heart of my Heart” (Story of the Rose) as a backdrop, we would use different settings to generate different approaches. “Sing it to your newborn daughter.” “Sing it to your grandmother as she lies on her deathbed.” “Sing it to your new fiance.’” Each has a different delivery.
Throughout my judging and coaching career, I would ask performers to tell me their story associated with a song. Invariably they would give me a few more details than in the previous paragraph, but usually it was surrounding who they were, where they were, and what had gotten them here.
Such a backstory is the beginning of the story—it is not a story. It won’t capture my attention. Imagine this story: “My girlfriend and I had dated for a couple of years and then eventually we decided we would separate. I’m not sure I ever got over her. I hadn’t seen her in two years. Today I was walking down the street and there she was.” You’ve now picqued my interest, but that by itself is not a story. It’s the beginning. What happens now? You aren’t engaged in this story because it isn’t a story. All this did was color your voice. And as the song develops you forget less and less about the mood and focus more and more on executing the music. There’s nothing on which to focus.
Don’t try to tell someone else’s story—tell yours
What would happen if you actually told a real story while you were singing the music? Tell me a story about when you had an ex-girlfriend and you bumped into her on the street. Tell me the entire story. You would talk about the encounter in detail. Recall that songs are about epic moments in your life. This is an epic moment for you. Tell me your story. Did you kiss? Is she gone for good? Was it awkward? Did you eventually get married? What happened? And how does it all end?
Every member of the quartet or chorus has some similar story, but certainly not the same story. Here’s where we go wrong. Imagine telling a 16 year old in your chorus to imagine the feelings of what it is to be married for 50 years, now standing over her grave, and sing “Dear Old Girl” Hello? He can’t do what you’re asking. But ask him about losing his pet dog or his beloved grandpa when he was 10 years old and he can generate every genuine moment you require about significant, heartfelt loss.
What to do? Rather than imposing the story on every member of the quartet or chorus, take a step back. What is the over-riding theme? Love found? Love lost? Forgive me because I screwed up? Let’s go to the parade and tear up the town? Then ask each member for a time where that happened in their own lives.
Tell your own story. Not a scenario, but the actual story itself. Now after you tell me your own story, sing the song and meanwhile tell me your story while you are singing. It doesn’t matter if your story perfectly aligns with the lyrics of the song. No one will know! But as the song evolves your story will adapt appropriately to match the emotion and intensity of the song.
Having your own story is critical. Very few people can manage to effectively tell other peoples’ stories. A great example of one who can is Garrison Keillor (Prairie Home Companion). But all of us can tell our own stories. We lived it and it had a profound impact on us. We remember these stories the rest of our lives. Telling your story is always better than telling someone else’s story.
Understand what’s at stake in the story
One of the great “aha” moments I had about storytelling and music was the idea of “stakes.” What’s at risk if things go wrong? Many times there are no stakes in the stories we construct for our music. If there’s nothing at stake, then there is no drama and without that there is no compelling story. Just because we know the outcome doesn’t mean there aren’t stakes.
Imagine grandkids gathered around Grandpa. “Grandpa, tell us about the time you were in the war.” Well, guess what? Every grandkid knows Grandpa survives, but within that story there is the possibility that Grandpa doesn’t survive. Therein lies the drama and suspense. How an impossible situation becomes possible and we want to hear it over and over again.
How does story-telling help us with the music? If your group is like many choruses and quartets, you rehearse that song over and over and over and over again. Pretty soon you’ve long since lost any mood generation. But if you tell your story, you can pick it up where you left off. Think about our grandpa telling about the war, getting distracted and then having to pick up where he was. “Little Johnny, where was I?” Johnny reminds him and immediately Grandpa is right there with the right intensity for the story. Same with music. If you are truly telling a story, every phrase is a passage of your story. Start at measure 33? Great—you know exactly where you are in your story and you pick it up. For all my singing career, I couldn’t stay in the game when drilling music. Start to finish of a song? Sure, but drilling music? No. Then of course I get an earful about not being emotionally engaged. Is it a wonder why? I employed these concepts to our 2016 Ambassadors of Harmony contest ballad (“Something Good”) which is over five minutes long. No matter where Jim Henry started us in the song, I immediately knew where in my story I was and could find that emotional state every time. Every phrase, every time, for six months. It really works. Sing your story!
-Kevin Keller is a 39-year Barbershopper from St. Charles, Mo. and member of the Ambassadors of Harmony. A frequent Harmony U instructor, he is a coach, arranger, teacher and judge. He is a past Music Category Specialist and former Chair of the Society Contest & Judging Committee.