I was recently asked to judge a singer songwriter contest at a local coffee shop. Solo acts only, one singer/songwriter with one guitar. Skill levels varied greatly as did styles. According to the judges sheet I was to rate each performer on Originality/Creativity, Performance, and Songwriting. For 12 of the 18 contestants one aspect of their performance almost nullified any chance they had at demonstrating their genius in the other two categories; they mumbled.
I KNOW I’m an old choir director and prone to fuss about Proper Diction as if it were sacred creed, but the first time anybody hears your original song they need to hear the lyrics to understand it in all it’s original wonderfulness. If you want you could pass out a lyric sheet with poetic analysis but that kind of defeats the purpose of performing it in the first place (unless you do some kind of cool multimedia show with pop-up books, chocolate truffles and a fog machine, but I digress). If you write a song exposing the secret of the universe making use of poignantly clever but accessible poetic imagery backed by the tastiest most appropriate riffs and chord patterns but don’t actually SAY the words, at the end the audience goes “pretty, but what was it about?” Beauty and Truth cannot overcome a lack of communication caused by bad diction.
I’m well aware that there are Big Artists with huge hits in which the lyrics are easily misunderstood, or downright unintelligible. Heck, Louie Louie is one of my all time favs, and just try to transcribe those lyrics! Apples and oranges; we’re not talking recordings for repeated play but rather about YOU connecting with a crowd of people in a meaningful fashion. Under those circumstances you have to give it to them in the first try; sincerely, with feeling and intelligible lyrics!
It starts with the consonants; are you making them all? Dropped consonants at the end of phrases are the hallmark of an amateur singer. Record yourself singing your song. Listen to it while following the lyric sheet with a pen. Mark every consonant you can’t hear distinctly. Rerecord and OVER enunciate, really work your lips, teeth and tongue. Make it sound stupid clear with no regard for style. Listen and see what you missed. Repeat. Once you’ve got them all, back off the harsh consonants until your singing style comes through but your words are understandable.
Every performance might be the first time some one hears your song. Don’t blow the chance to impress them maybe even (dare I say it?) MOVE them emotionally by being too lazy to move your mouth. Pronounce the words!