This was inspired by my piano-playing buddy over at yoderpianist. He was chronicling his musical journey and development, and mentioned interpretation.

In my own observation and personal experience (with vocal music), we who were raised conservative Mennonites have somewhat of a handicap when it comes to musical interpretation and feeling.

Verbalized or not (and probably not), we were taught to be very proper and dignified and humble in any public display. “Performing” was a prideful no-no, and whatever you do don’t show emotion! Just stand still and sing with a straight face.

Maybe that’s a little overstated. But I think we really struggle with musicality, with taking a song and making music from it! It doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We think that if we sing the notes reasonably in tune and get the words right, then we’ve done it about as good as we can.

The whole concept of interpretation and communication was quite the revelation to me in my musical development, and was a huge, huge struggle to grasp and implement. To this day it’s something that I really have to work at.

Music is so much more than correct notes and timings and proper pronunciations. You have to make it your own, it has to come from (sorry so trite) the heart. Gotta feel it! You must make it come alive.

But how? That’s the tough question. And the answer can’t be neatly summed up in a set of precise instructions or a paint-by-numbers formula, at least not by me.

For myself, the key has just been to be genuine, identify with the lyric on some level, feel it, communicate it, try to express the song’s sentiment through the music as if you didn’t have the lyrics. Make it real.

My voice teacher Roger was the first musical influence that made me start to realize there was a whole lot more to singing than just squarely vocalizing note after note. Then the catalyst that really made me change my ways was my buddy Coby and my first barbershop quartet, the Allnighters.

We were learning a ballad, “When I Fall in Love.” Our buddy Martin was coaching us (incidentally, Martin did all the artwork on Lookin’ Up and Purpose), and they would absolutely NOT let me keep singing like a robot. It was a love song, it had to be all gooey and full of feeling.

I remember being so frustrated. I’d sing certain lines over and over again and they wouldn’t be satisfied. I didn’t know how to sing them any different! But they kept trying to get the concept of communicating the feeling and emotion of the song through my head and eventually I began to get it. Those guys helped and encouraged me a ton, I owe them a lot.

I’ve hardly scratched the surface, this is such a vital part of music. Without emotion, music is dead. If I had only one word to use in explaining this whole concept (and how to implement it) to a singer/musician, it would be “genuine.”

Make it real.