Acting the Song – Circumstances

In my work as Vocal Coach with My College Audition, I help singers from all over the country to prepare for their college auditions for music theater programs.

Many of these wonderful young students have never been introduced to the process of organizing the song into manageable musical and acting structures, and building their performances from a place grounded in musical and dramatic pedagogy.

This first post in a series on ‘Acting the Song’ will hopefully serve as inspiration for how to start breaking out a song into manageable parts and suffusing it with the ‘arc’ or ‘journey’, no matter what the piece is.

Every song ever written has a purpose, and it is the job of the singer to express that purpose, otherwise the song would not exist. This is the overall Super-Objective of the song.

Obviously there are many acting and performance texts out there for the singer interested in learning about the creative process. I will suggest and link several of my favorites in this series from time to time. There are, of course, many ways to tackle these issues, and this is just ONE way to begin thinking about the process. The student singing actor should take an approach that moves from the MACRO to the micro.

My first recommended read is the seminal text from Uta Hagen “A Challenge for the Actor,” published by Scribner.  This is one of my favorites to begin understanding the techniques of acting, drawn from the experience and life’s work of actress and teacher Uta Hagen.

I hope that these suggestions will be of use to you!


Circumstances are the realities of the song. What is actually going on in the song at this moment. Where are we? What time is it? What day is it? What season it is? What is happening here? What has just happened? The singer should ask themselves these questions all the time. (I recommend all my students keep an actor’s notebook of these questions – the book becomes an actor’s personal exploration and workshop on the role and song.)

Sit down with your song and list the circumstances. What is going on here? If you don’t know, visit a library or go online and check the vocal score or libretto for clues. You must be as specific as you possibly can: human beings don’t exist ‘in general.’ Ask questions from the text taken from the circumstances. It says that you breakup at the end of the song: what influenced this choice? Why are you breaking up? To break open a single nugget like this may take thirty minutes to an hour – do the work. This is crucial. You must understand WHAT is going on in the song that you are singing if you want to convince me as an audience that you know what you are singing ABOUT.

If you don’t understand the circumstances you have no way of creating the song or role based on the FACTS of the piece. You will not understand the ‘game’ or ‘rules’ as laid down by the librettist and composer. Acting serves the text and the music, and it gives you wonderful boundaries to play within. The circumstances should be seen as the song’s “RULES.” Every song has them.

It’s up to you to break them apart and ask the important questions.

Spend time breaking out your circumstances and ask the questions. Without them, your performance is muddied and vague.