Stages of Grief (5? 7?) and Interpreting a Sad Song

I find that a lot of my students, both past and present, love to sing sad, heart-breaking songs of woe and loss. It goes with the emo-ness of youth, I think.

Personally, I gravitate toward funny (some might say nigh-ridiculous) songs, especially in programming. People say comedy is hard. I think tragedy is hard. At least, tragedy that isn’t just superficial. 

Which is often the problem with interpreting sad songs. They’re just sad sad sad from beginning to end. Come on! “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables starts out with “I dreamed a dream in time gone by – when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die. I dreamed that God would be forgiving…” Nowhere in there is the word, “DAMMIT.” The first time we get the sense that things didn’t pan out the way she wanted is at “But the tigers come at night with their voices soft as thunder – as they tear your hopes apart, as they turn your dreams to shame.” 
And even then, “He slept a summer by my side – he filled my days with endless wonder.” This is a fond memory, at least until: “Then he was gone when autumn came.” That’s where sadness comes to stay for the rest of the piece. Not earlier. But if you see the movie, the song pretty much slams you in the face with a shovel of sadness all the way through. (Which I don’t blame Anne Hathaway for – I blame the director.)

A few years ago, I asked a student to think about applying Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief to a song.  These are

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
Not all of these stages may be present, and not all in equal amounts. I’ve used this device a lot and it seems to be helpful.

The five stages of grief have since been updated to seven in today’s psychological circles (and some say they’re completely invalid in the first place). The current stages are:

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Pain and guilt 
  3. Anger and bargaining
  4. Depression (reflection/loneliness)
  5. Upward turn
  6. Reconstruction/working through (in another site, it was called “testing”)
  7. Acceptance and hope
Clearly, these have been fleshed out a bit more. Depending on what you’re working on, the basic five may be enough for you to apply.  You might want to pick from the seven – does your song involve survivor’s guilt (“Empty chairs at empty tables”)? Shock and denial (“I’m still hurting”)? Making a choice to change your life and move on (“Astonishing”)?

If you’re singing a song of woe, especially one that is really well-known and overdone, how can you apply contrasts using these ideas? And how will you implement those contrasts? With dynamics? With a change in registration? With a change in tempo? A physical change? Where do you wail? Where are you curled up in a vocal fetal position? Where might you sing through clenched teeth (without hurting yourself, of course)?

What can you do to give life and depth to a song that might otherwise be on the “Do not sing” list? 

If you feel stuck, go through the song and see where these steps could apply.

Voice Teacher vs. Voice Coach – Can they co-exist in the same person?

Years ago, I had a young student who walked into her half-hour lesson one day and announced, “Today I want to sing three songs and I don’t want to waste any time.” I said, “Okay.” We skipped the stretching and obligatory how-was-your-week discussion during same and launched into vocalises. She rolled her eyes and sighed heavily as I moved from lip trills to resonance exercises, and from articulation vocalises to scales. We started her first song. She made a mistake in the second line. I stopped to correct the error. We restarted the song. She made it again. We stopped. We started again and got to the same spot and she made the same mistake. I stopped and she snapped her fingers in my face and said, “Let’s keep moving! Time is wasting!”


I stopped and said to her, “If you want someone to play happy little songs while you sing without any correction, then you need someone who plays piano a lot better than I do. If you want to sing those happy little songs and know that they will be RIGHT every time you sing them, that’s what I’m here for.”

I am a voice teacher. I am here to help you develop vocal technique that you can establish so that you can have consistency in every song you sing. I assign you vocalises and songs that will help you develop that technique. I have taken courses in vocal pedagogy for both classical and contemporary commercial music. I specialize in classical and musical theater. I know both golden age musical theater and contemporary shows – the latter not quite as well as the former because, well, I’m old. Ish. But I’m constantly learning about new shows.

A vocal coach is usually a pianist who specializes on working with singers. Sometimes their focus is on diction, especially in classical music, where they need to know a variety of language rules. Sometimes they are a répétiteur (literally, “repeater”), which means that they are teaching you the notes and rhythms of a song. A good vocal coach will help you find expression in a song, nuance in the text, and explore different possibilities in interpretation. This is a great article about the differences between the voice teacher and the vocal coach.

When you are a professional performer, you may or may not continue to take lessons, depending on where you are in your vocal development. You may hire a coach to accompany you, to help you take your audition or performance repertoire to a new level. When you are a student, particularly a high school student, your teacher often wears both hats. We teach you songs, and we help you develop your technique, and we explore all the elements of the song besides the notes.

I do that. I’m a teacher, first and foremost. I select music for you that will help you grow and develop. In my studio policies, I outline this:
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  • I will trust Christine’s choice of repertoire assignments for at least 3 weeks. If, after 3 weeks, I don’t like a song, we can discuss a replacement.

The crucial word here, which I have bolded, is trust. I’m not here to teach you songs just for the sake of songs. I’m here to help you on your vocal journey so that you can sing what you want, when you want. But especially when we’re first beginning that journey, you need to trust my judgment. I’m not saying we won’t work on songs that you want to work on! But they have to be right for you.

Just don’t snap your fingers in my face. Please.

A critic and a performer can’t live in the same body (at least not at the same time)

Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time

John Cage pointed out they’re different processes. Doing one will interfere with the other.
What will you create today? You can analyze it tomorrow.
Years ago, I took a writing workshop that said, “You can’t be a writer and an editor at the same time.” I applied that to music as well, and went home and put a picture of the then-Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel music critic, Tom Strini, on my music stand …. with an X through his face.
This wasn’t because I disliked Tom Strini. On the contrary, I liked him quite well. He was always good to me, even on one or two occasions where I didn’t deserve it. And he had been my downstairs neighbor for a time. 
The point was – you can’t be a performer and a music critic at the same time. You’ll never get anything done if, in the moment, you are analyzing, criticizing, evaluating, and self-shaming. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t evaluate your performance. That’s what practice is for. That’s what building technique is for. That’s what your lessons are for – and in your lessons, I’m the one who is analyzing and evaluating so that you can take the feedback with you to work on further improvement.

But when it comes time to perform, you have to do it. You have to create, express, and just be. Put the editor, critic, and analyst aside. For that moment, anyway.