As I stood and fidgeted in a small, enclosed space with dim lighting and sang melodies into a big, silver microphone yesterday, I was reminded that recording music is a very funny business. It takes hours to set up what you're trying to record and it takes even more hours to get the right take. On top of that, there's no real audience present for the recording, despite the fact that you are recording music for an eventual audience. It's just you, the other musicians, the sound engineer and/or producer, and maybe one or two supportive friends who are there to experience the recording process (and maybe snap a photo or two).
Yet music is an inherently performative thing; something meant to be presented to an audience of people who can not only hear your instruments but see you and experience your physical reactions to the sounds that you are sharing with the audience. That is, our non-verbal performances are just as important as our musical performances in a live setting. For example, a singer can add more drama to his melody simply by raising a hand during a chorus or tapping his foot during a verse in such a way as to communicate passion; a guitar player can swing his arm around in an epic windmill — like Pete Townsend — to create mesmerizing displays of enthusiasms.
But what happens when the audience you're singing to or playing music for can't experience the non-verbals that they do in a live setting — such as when they're listening to a recording of your performance? Where do they find the passion, the emotion, the drama? I was reminded of the answer to this question after listening to the playbacks of my first few vocal takes. For some reason, they felt flat to me. They didn't have the punch that I thought they would when I was singing them, and I realized it was because I was singing the melodies and delivering the words in the exact same ways as I do when I perform them live. In the live context, I'm playing guitar while singing, and, I tend to get physically animated when I get caught up in the music. But in the recording context, I don't have that to fall back on. I just have my voice being recorded and that makes me less inclined to be swept up in the music and get, well, dramatic.
So, I had to ask: where's the drama? And I had to answer: it has to be in my voice so that people can feel the passion as they listen to the recording. So I went back into the small space and did more vocals takes until I got in a zone where I was comfortable enough to let me vocals be more dramatic than I usually dare to let them be. The results were telling. Each successive take became thicker, richer, and more compelling. I didn't feel awkward listening to the playbacks, but actually leaned in to hear the texture of the song. All because I realized that the context of my performance had a significant influence on the content of my performance; that I have to concentrate the drama and the vitality of my art into certain places at certain times, depending one where I am and how the media I am using affects my delivery and performance.
All of us have be sensitive to the fact that content is affected by context when we're sharing art. You may not be recording your vocals or instruments in your art, but I'm sure that whatever kind of work you are producing and sharing, the environment you share it in will require you to ask: where's the drama in all of this, and how do I focus it into the key places?