Why storytelling is a singer’s best weapon

There’s more to singing than just nailing a melody. Top vocal coach KEITH MERRILL explains why singers shouldn’t overlook the importance of storytelling.

What do musical theatre tunes, pop songs and classical arias have in common? They are all stories set to music. Without the story, without the lyric, song is just a shadow of itself – no matter how supreme the melody.

It’s one thing to sing a song beautifully, but if you’re not conveying the lyric to your audience, they won’t fully feel the beauty of what you’re singing. In an art form where words are just as relevant as the music, why do those words often play second fiddle to the melody?

Think of Judi Dench: an incredible actress who, with all due respect, can barely sing. But have you seen her rendition of Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns? It’s so sincere and the story is so clear and personal that it’s mesmerising, touching and renders her lack of voice unimportant.

Imagine if we could give our audience both – the story and the voice quality. We’d be a force to be reckoned with.

I have been on both sides of this fence: acting in “straight” or “legit” theatre and acting in Musical Theatre, pop and classical music. One of the main reasons I left classical training was because of the poor quality of acting coaching within the course. In truth, on most MT courses the acting training isn’t much better and on pop, jazz, soul, country or R&B courses it’s almost non-existent.

This is a real missed opportunity. As an audience member, I would kill to witness a Dame Judi or a Sir Ian finesse a song with the lung power of Montserrat Caballé or Whitney Houston. Is that possible, you might ask? I say – “Yes! Yes, it is possible.” With good coaching singers can learn to make creative, interesting, true and innovative choices that will make any conductor or director sigh with relief and leave an audience feeling something real and beautiful.

This is as true in opera and MT as it is in pop. The more specific and personal our story is and the more varied our choices, the more interesting the performance will be to the audience. The more effect we have on our audience the more they’ll want to listen to our work, and the better our careers. Simple.

Think of the great pop singers and their music videos (and some live stage shows – especially GaGa and Madonna’s). More often than not, they’re telling stories through their song and staging. It’s those stories that totally draw us in and fascinate us.

Do you want to be generic or a fully-rounded artist who can wrap your audience around your little finger? Think of the power that comes with that!

So, go. Research. Find some coaches who can offer this vital, valuable tool and learn how to act through song. It will change your life and open more doors than you ever imagined. A great singer may be in demand, but a great actor/singer is pure gold dust. Times are changing, and demands are different – be someone with an edge. Be the full package! Be one of the great storytellers and empower your career.


Keith Merrill is a London based singing and acting teacher. He's worked as an actor and singer internationally, having trained at The Guildhall and Post Grad at The Royal Academy of Music. He currently gives vocal masterclasses for The Actors’ Guild and works with The Duchess of Kent and her children's music charity. He recently released on iTunes, Songs from Sunset Boulevard as Joe alongside Kim Criswell and Laura Pitt-Pulford.