channeling emotions

Channeling emotions: how to play it when you’re not feeling it

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Just as actors channel emotions and use what they are feeling to enhance and inform their acting choices, you can do the same to enhance your musical performances on stage and in the studio.

I took a single class in method acting during college and remember one technique more than anything else: whatever you, as the actor, are feeling when you step on stage, loop that feeling into the scene and give the character you’re portraying the same, real intensity of emotion.

This doesn’t mean a literal transfer. If an actor is upset because her car got towed or her dog got sick, that does not mean the character she’s depicting on stage should be internally upset about the exact same things — or even upset at all. Rather, a skilled actor can capture the intensity and realness of his or her personal emotions, whatever they may be, and translate them into something that the character on stage could realistically be feeling, given the context of the scene being performed.

Why do I bring this up in a music blog? Because the same principle can apply to making music.

When you play, write, sing, or produce, you’re trying to communicate something through music — and sometimes the emotions you’re trying to communicate will align perfectly with what you are actually feeling at the exact moment you record, write, or perform. It’s great when this happens, and chances are your music will be stronger and more electrifying because of it.

Other times, your personal emotions and the emotions your music needs to convey won’t line up. How do you sing super-happy pop if you just found out about a death in the family? Or how do you perform an energetic club banger when you feel emotionally exhausted and would rather take a nap or read a book than rock a dance floor? It’s during times like these that it can help for a musician to loop whatever he or she is feeling — no matter what it is — into the music to make it come alive.

I recently had a situation where I put this principle into practice. I was playing an early morning solo recording session and a number of circumstances were not ideal; I was getting over being sick, hadn’t had adequate rest the night before, and there were significant events happening in life and business that had the potential to be quite distracting. While all of this could have derailed my ability to focus on the session and play the music I wanted to, I remembered the looping techniques I’d practiced in that acting class. When it was time to improvise a new section of music in the session, I tried to loop in the negative emotions I was feeling at the time, even though the song had an upbeat, happy vibe. I did the same when playing pre-written melodies, comping parts, and more.

The key was that I didn’t try to make my playing itself sound weary or negative in any way — I just used the intensity of emotion I was feeling to add the right level of intensity and life to the music I was making.

I was mildly afraid that, on playback, my performances might sound too angsty, given what I had been focusing on, but I’m proud to say this wasn’t the case. The resulting sound was vibrant and alive with no hints of melancholy.

This session was a good reminder that when you’re performing, writing, or recording, your listeners have no idea what’s going on inside your head — and you can use this to your advantage. Channeling the disappointment of getting a D-minus on a test while playing a happy and uplifting melody might actually give your soaring ballad the energy, authenticity, and nuance it needs to move an audience. Or if you’re overjoyed at just having become engaged, that intensity can still power your angriest metal anthem.

Even if this sounds abstract or metaphysical, I encourage you to give it a try and see what happens. Speaking for myself, this way of thinking and playing has helped me in any number of live and studio situations. In your own experimentation, remember that what’s in your head and heart can be very different from what’s coming out of your mouth or fingers, but it can still help you create something powerful and successful, regardless of genre or context. Don’t hesitate to try looping your own emotions, whatever they may be, back into your performance and see what works for you and your music.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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