Singing Performance: Exploring Story and Physicality Part 1

If I’ve heard this once I’ve heard it a thousand times. I’ve said it myself and I don’t think there’s a singer out there who hasn’t. What’s with this odd and disturbing phenomenon?

Let’s see if we can put a face on the mystery. Your voice is the result of the coordination of hundreds of muscles; muscles of the larynx, throat, and also those involved in breathing, resonation, and articulation. They must all do the right thing at the right time for the desired sound to occur. If they don’t – kaboom! So what happens on stage? Why was “it” so much better at home, in the shower, at aunt Zelda’s?

When a human being is under stress heart rate increases, breath becomes shallow, muscles tense. The vocal cords and their attending muscle groups find it more challenging to perform the same gymnastic stunts that were easy in a less stressful environment. You may not feel or sound the same as you did under your ideal circumstances. You sense this immediately. You try to fix it, usually by pushing or increasing tension making the problem worse, and a vicious cycle begins.

However we all have moments when we’re “in the zone” and everything works. What takes us out of the zone? Put simply, distractions. These distractions come in many forms and our clever minds are always attempting to create new ones. We must familiarize ourselves with these distractions so we can remove the obstacles to that wonderful euphoric experience we’re all addicted to. Some distractions can be handled technically, others through growing awareness and mental discipline.

Know the song

When the smallest fraction of doubt can have an impact on your voice, don’t’ let there be unnecessary doubt… handle it! A song has many components, lyrics, melody, harmony, structure, rhythm. These are all things that can be perfected. However, effective rehearsal process is usually lacking. In rehearsal people tend to repeat the whole song again and again, wasting time and vocal endurance. Instead, focus on the one word, interval, or rhythm that is causing trouble. Don’t ignore it and assume that through repetition you’ll eventually stumble onto getting it right. I’ve seen a performance jump up 10 levels when that one problem spot is concentrated on and solved. Most performers are unaware of how much one slight distraction can dull everything else. With the problem gone the lights shine. “Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.”

The Mind

Your mind is working on many levels at the same time. You are only conscious of certain amounts of that activity. To grow stronger as an artist, develop your awareness of the nuances of thought that affect your feelings and through them your body and voice.

There is one game our minds plays that most of us experience but are unaware of. When we’re not in the zone, nervous, tense, we’re certain that everyone in the audience knows it and is secretly either feeling pity, laughing at us, or wondering what the hell we’re doing up there when there are so many wonderful performers in the world. We desperately wish someone would get the hook and end our pain. But wait! What if they didn’t know? What if no one was privy to your private hell of shakes, how bad your voice sounds, and how stiff you are on stage? What if that was your own little secret?

The truth of the matter is that what you experience and what the audience experiences are not necessarily the same thing! One of the reasons performance workshops are so great is that you can stop making up stories about yourself and get some real feedback. Countless times I’ve seen someone finish a song and report how nervous they were, or how they knew that all the afflictions they felt showed all over their faces and bodies. However when the audience is asked if they could tell, the answer is usually “NO”. More often than not the audience had no idea and thought the performance was great. That’s not to say you’re crazy and can’t feel better and have an even greater performance. But with the false belief that you’re transparent and that audiences can see every imperfection or “wrong” move, another damaging feeling enters in: shame. Now you’re not only nervous, but also ashamed about being nervous which of course makes you more nervous which makes you more ashamed, etc… Vicious cycle. More tension. More problems.

We are always looking for mental space, breathing room. When you get nervous, if you practice knowing that, for the most part, your nerves cannot be seen, you don’t have to add embarrassment to your troubles. You can relax a little and, with increased confidence, you can get back to the business of creating.

Additional suggestions:

Study relaxation and physical warm-up techniques.

Prepare relentlessly, practice effectively; you don’t want to be thinking about it while you’re doing it.

Read “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner

Make a commitment to yourself beforehand that you are going to leave the gig feeling good about yourself no matter what happens.

Know that you are there to make music, to communicate something, to tell a story, that some people are going to like it, some aren’t no matter how great you are, and that’s their business – not yours!