Saturday, 27 April 2013


One of the things that we are asked to do as singers is to tell a story using both words and music. The ancient tradition of ballad-singing is essentially storytelling: a ballad in the traditional sense is a story, usually with a sad ending and often intended to reinforce cultural values or beliefs. We have come now to regard a "ballad" as a slow song on a sad subject, but that's not its original meaning.

This week, I worked with a young singer on the ballad "The Banks of Allan Water". This is a harrowing tale of love, betrayal, grief and suicide, set within the context of the four seasons of the year. As it is not very long, I reproduce the words here in full (note the traditional use of the word "gay" to mean "happy"):

On the banks of Allan Water, when the sweet springtime did fall,
Was the miller's lovely daughter, fairest of them all.
For his bride a soldier sought her, and a winning tongue had he;
On the banks of Allan Water, none was gay as she.

On the banks of Allan Water, when brown autumn spreads its store,
There I saw the miller's daughter, but she smiled no more.
For the summer grief had brought her, and the soldier false was he;
On the banks of Allan Water, none was sad as she.

On the banks of Allan Water, when the winter snow fell fast,
Still was seen the miller's daughter; chilling blew the blast.
But the miller's lovely daughter both from cold and care was free;
On the banks of Allan Water, there a corpse lay she.

I've written before about expressing grief in song. But here we are not asked to express grief.  We are the onlooker - the reporter, the journalist - describing what we see. And it is our OWN emotional response to such a horrible story that we should be expressing.

So my young singer sang the first two verses of this song - which is all she is asked to do for an Associated Board Grade III exam. I asked her to use dynamics and tone colour to make a clear emotional difference between the joy of the first verse and the sorrow of the second. This should not be particularly difficult for a singer of her standard, and as I expected she did indeed make a distinction. But towards the end of the second verse there was a burst of anger that surprised both me and her. She had allowed her own feelings of outrage at the soldier's behaviour towards his beautiful wife to influence the way she sang the song. And it transformed it. Suddenly this was not simply a neutral observer. This was an angry young woman involving herself in the awful fate of another young woman, with whom she clearly identified.

This is the job of the ballad singer. We are not asked to be neutral observers. We are to be emotionally involved in songs where we are the storyteller just as much as those in which we are playing a role. The difference is that when we are playing a role, it is the emotions of the character we are playing that we need to feel: for me that is best done by stepping into the skin of the character we are playing - for the three minutes of the song, becoming someone else, feeling what they feel and doing what they do. But when we are the storyteller, it is our own natural emotional response to the story we are telling that brings it to life.

My young singer's anger was entirely natural and appropriate. I hope she sings it that way in her forthcoming exam. Of such exceptional expression are distinctions made.....

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