Your badger has broken my new phone.
How does your brain imagine the word broken? Where do you put the stress: broken or broken? Is the e like the e of egg or the e in the? Do you roll your r? Is your o like the o in alone or like the o in orchestra? Your personal version of broken is your brain’s blueprint for the word.
The blueprint tells you what sound to imagine every time you read the word broken. It shapes your mouth and instructs your muscles to produce that sound whenever you speak or sing.
Listen to the way Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) sang broken. Is his version of the word the same as your brain’s broken blueprint?:
His unusual pronunciation draws the listener’s attention to broken and identifies it as an Important Word. He sings broken to sound more evenly balanced than usual – with stress on both syllables. The diphthong is more lengthened and rounded than usual. The second syllable – ken is pronounced to rhyme with Ben. That’s unusual too.
Broken in this song didn’t sound like your blueprint for the word, did it? If English is your native language, you’ve probably never heard the word broken said like that. If English isn’t your native language, you didn’t learn the word broken like that.
Your job as a singer? In Morning has Broken you need to bypass your brain’s standard blueprint for the word. If you want to follow Cat Stevens, sing the word broken with its full diphthong, its unusual balance and its unusual -ken. Or would you rather follow Dianne Reeves’ jazz version? Make a choice. Don’t forget to let your brain know your choice of broken for this song. Otherwise your brain will revert to its standard default blueprint of broken while you’re singing. And you won’t notice. But your audience will.
Give your brain a good reason to remember the version of broken that you need for this song. Otherwise you’ll make this mistake. It’s easily done. It’s often done.
In English song and speech, all words bend and stretch as necessary for meaning. As a singer you need to review your blueprints and make sure that you mould your words into the best possible shape for the music. Don’t expect your brain to automatically adjust its blueprint to the needs of the music. Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t. You need to check.
If you’re thinking ‘I’m never going to sing Morning has Broken, so why does it matter?’ It matters if you want to sing anything in English. Listen to Billie Holiday singing one variety of broken at .20 here. Listen to Leonard Cohen singing another variety of broken at 1.50 here. You’ll find a plenty of varieties of broken sprinkled throughout music. You need to be ready to get any and all of them right.
Here’s Jeff Buckley singing Lover You Should Have Come Over. You’ll hear him sing broken just after 2.10. Does it sound like Cat Steven’s broken? Or Billie Holiday’s? Does it sound like your brain’s broken blueprint?:
Always be ready to sing a word as the music requires, not as your brain desires. Don’t fight your brain’s blueprint – you’ll sound stressed if you do. Don’t be trapped by the blueprint either.
Think before you sing. Do whatever is necessary to re-educate your brain – as I had to do here with mine. Brains are infinitely flexible. Give them a good reason to relax their blueprint, and they will. It’s up to you.
Think back to the lady ringing the handbells to play Bunessan/Morning Has Broken here. She moved and stopped each bell carefully, so that each bell could make its perfect sound. Whenever you sing, your words should do the same.
By the way: if you’d like to dig deeper into the way the mind builds its own image of words it reads or hears – Cognitive Poetics – there’s a wonderful free University of Nottingham MOOC course here. I recommend it. It’s available to you wherever you are in the world.
© Sing Better English, 2014