Performing with a busy brain is exhausting. Performing with worry or anxiety is, really, not performing at all. What kind of performance can an artist give if they’re stressing out whether the microphone will cut out or a wardrobe malfunction is about to happen or a set piece is about to fall over?
Problem is, much of the aforementioned is out of your control anyway, so you have to trust the others who actually control those aspects to do their jobs. And they will because they are almost as exposed in their job as you are in yours.
What you CAN control is much more important and the reason for everybody gathering together in the first place.
You are in control of the energy.
What you deliver is energy. Focused energy.
A busy, unfocused mind in performance is a torturous thing to watch.
How do we unbusy the mind?
“Energy, Attention, Awareness”
That is our performance mantra and it is fundamental to our work.
If you’re nervous before a performance, join the club, but why focus on nerves when you have a job to do (that you love)?
Focus on Energy, Attention, Awareness.
Take time to figure out what each of these words means to you before and during your performance and utilize these fundamental ideas to unbusy your mind and clarify your focus.
Pre-recorded vocals on TV have fooled audiences for decades now. It’s really too bad because developing singers have lost out on witnessing (and emulating) that edge-of-your-seat/risk-it-all energy required to deliver a stunning live vocal…like Barbra Streisand’s knockout punch with Evergreen at The 1976 Academy Awards. No pre-recorded safety vocal on display here. This was live TV, broadcast to millions of viewers worldwide. Her voice was in beautiful shape (awe-inspiring, really) and fully under her command. She may have made it look easy, but the amount of preparation and hours/weeks/months of work that probably went into delivering this one performance would make an American Idol contestant quit and go into construction. Her fundamental technique is great. Watch how she pulls the corners of her mouth, presses the jaw down and then bites to create that seamless and glorious high belt. Then, because she completely trusts her instrument, the artist takes over and this is the gift we get. A legendary artist giving a master class on art, love and communication in motion. And, moment to moment, it sweeps you away. A vocal performance that clearly stands the test of time.
Linda Ronstadt’s belting instincts were spot on.
Here is an example of me singing “Musical Theatre Legit” style:
Words and Music by Geoff Levin & Chris Many
And here’s an example of me singing in more of a pop style:
From Musical Beans: Animal Songs For Children
In both instances, these were three to four hour recording sessions. Actually, for “Follow The Dream,” I really didn’t like my vocal performance from the first session, so I called Geoff and offered to come back to get it right the next day. That took another couple of hours, but we all were much happier about the result.
Bottom line is, recording sessions can take hours, days, weeks, months. Whether you choose to sing in a big belt, legit or pop style is up to you, your instrument (meaning your entire body) and your artistic inclination. However, if the vocal instrument breaks down, the session ends right there. You don’t finish because the vocal sound is different than the sound you started with. In other words, you don’t want to start off with a clean sound only to end up all scratchy-sounding.
In both tracks, I sang with the exact same technique because as singers, we need to make sure we last for the entire session, whether it’s four minutes or four hours. The only thing I changed was the quality of sound I was going for. “Follow The Dream” required a much more Josh Grobin-type approach. With “I Wish We Didn’t Have To Say Goodnight,” I was the voice of a Teddy Bear.
Great performers are like race car drivers; the idea being that, in order to win the race, one needs to stay in the moment, assume a calculated amount of risk and operate instinctively and creatively when the opportunity arises.
The simple goal of a pro race car driver is to win the race.
What are some of the “simple” goals of a singer in a performance?
Get all the words right?
Sing all the notes right?
Make a beautiful sound?
Truth is, those are the initial rehearsal goals achieved with hours of practice. “Getting the song into your body.” While these goals provide the basis of performance, if that is all you intend to give your audience, it’s definitely time to upgrade your approach.
Performance Goal: Creative Open Space In Your Brain
Basic: Be able to say the lyrics as fast as you can say the ABC’s – without thinking about the order of the letters and without singing the song. Say them in a monotone very quickly, do not accent or stretch out the words. Move your lips and mouth in an animated/exaggerated way. Be able to plunk out the melody – one note at a time – on a keyboard. Be able to use the same vocal tone (dark, warm, brassy, bright, light, etc.) throughout the entirety of the song. If you have to change your tonal quality to hit a high note or rumble a lower note, chances are you need to find a more suitable key for your song.
Advanced: Having set the muscle memory (remember, race car drivers drive in a circle for hours), now we let go of the worry and practice creative risk. Creative risk involves letting go of anxiousness, trusting that you have drilled the basics and are ready to live in the moment on stage. Thoughts and thought impulses beget words (for some, it’s the other way around, but we call those folks thoughtless anway). Your goal now is to live within the thoughts of the lyric and having/experiencing/expressing each thought before actually singing the lyric. Now your brain is full again, but it is focused and there is no room for anxiety. It takes energy, concentration and a whole lot of pretending to stay there, but by upgrading your performance approach, you can enjoy sharing a song as much as your audience can enjoy receiving it.
For many years, I’ve had a running joke with my kids. At random inopportune moments I would ask them, “Hey, would you like a free song? I’m a professional singer. No charge.”
To which they’d respond, “No, Dad, I don’t want a song right now.”
“But it’s a really good song and I’m a great singer. And it’s free.”
“No. Go away.”
“It’s FREE – other people would have to pay to hear me sing. This won’t cost you a dime! This is a great offer!”
But, feeling generous, I’d usually launch into a song anyway. Typically, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” a terrifically catchy song in my opinion, and they’d keep playing their video game…Win/Win.
Here’s the thing: Singers Are Their Own CEOs.
As a singer, you are your own Chief Executive Officer from the very start. If you’re “hired” by a theme park, cruise line, restaurant, Broadway show or tour, record label, video game company, animation house, Film/TV production house, chances are that even if you deliver a great/fantastic/amazing job as a singer, you won’t end up being named the president of that theme park, cruise line, restaurant, record label, etc. Corporate upward mobility is not a thing for singers. We create our business. We drive our business. We are the CEOs of Singing, Inc.
Basic (Paying/Post-Covid) Jobs For Singers: Church gigs (include weddings and funerals), theme parks, cruises, live corporate industrials, restaurants/karaoke bars, rest homes, Christmas caroling groups
In-Between: Produce music, play music, write/compose music, read music, record music and appreciate ALL music. And while you’re adding these skills to your toolkit, practice singing, stay in shape and never turn down an opportunity to sing, even for no money. Get the work in until the day arrives when you don’t need the work.
Advanced (Better Paying/Post-Covid) Jobs For Singers: Recording (anything and everything including Voiceover work), Anything contracted via SAG/AFTRA/Equity/Musician’s Union, Animation, Film/TV, Broadway and tours, video games.
Summary: Writers write. Dancers dance. Singers sing.
Ah, 2020…a pandemic, social injustice, a recession, climate change, a divisive fool in the White House, no live music or performance since mid-March and now the West Coast is on fire. I hesitate to ask what else could be thrown our way in case a meteor is currently considering the Los Angeles Basin a fun landing spot in the next few months. Don’t wanna jinx anything.
Heavenly bodies aside, let’s discuss toxic air and how to deal with it as a singer.
Basic: When faced with smoke and air pollution, your body will create all kinds of defenses, but our immune systems can only do so much, so stay out of it. If you don’t need to go outside, don’t go outside. Get an air purifier with a decent filter. Fires aren’t just burning trees in the forest, they’re burning cars, buildings – anything that will feed the flame. Dioxins – the byproduct of these fires – are incredibly dangerous to our lungs, hearts and overall health. However, indoor pollution from these fires is just as bad – if not worse – so make sure the air conditioner in your apartment or house has a clean filter and that the windows and doors in your place are properly sealed. Your pets will thank you, too.
Advanced: Once in your lungs, PM10 and PM2.5 (microscopic particulate matter sizes) remain resident. You can’t cough them out. N95 and N99 masks have proven helpful in the reduction of particulate matter taken into the body via mouth and nose, but remember that your skin – your largest organ – can also absorb pollutants, so, along with your mask, cover up with long sleeves, pants, etc. There’s no such thing as healthy smoke. Be aware that hanging around the barbecue on the weekends ain’t doing you any favors, either.
Summary: As singers, our performance spaces can be hot, cold, dusty, moldy, dry, damp, odd places. There’s no need to act like a germophobe, but we have plenty of reasons to reduce the risk of bacterial infections, lowered immunity by being proactive. After all, we are living instruments.
Truth is; not much. Hands are great for puppets, sign language and clapping, but those things at the ends of your arms aren’t really that helpful in communicating a lyric. Frankly, overusing your hands in a song could pretty much sabotage what you’re trying to do on stage – which is connect with your audience.
Okay, so I’ll grant that “waving” at the audience is a fine way to connect, but after they wave back, ya still got nothin’…
Basic: My favorite guiding principle of hands is “keep them below your waist.” If you don’t know what to do with your hands, don’t do anything. If you feel like moving your hands, move them one at a time — below the waist. Stay away from emphasizing with both hands at once (parallel motion) or you’ll risk looking like a spokesperson for an infomercial.
Advanced: Moving a hand above your waist requires finding the best time to also bring it back down below your waist. If you absolutely must move a hand, move it during the last word of a sung phrase and then re-move it on the last word of the next sung phrase. Subtle – not slashing – motion required.
Summary: When singing a song, what’s going on in your eyes is far more important that what’s going on with your hands…