Tips for Singing on Stage
You are getting your chance to perform! The longed for, but perhaps dreaded, recital, open-mic night, concert, or musical is just around the corner. Are you ready?
Live performances differ from the music videos you see. In a music video the performers may have been taped 50 or more times to try to get it right. Then the sound engineer and video editor will have taken everything that was shot and cut, splice, and massage the raw footage into a performance that looks and sounds perfect. Real life isn't like that. In live performances things go wrong. Somebody plays a wrong note, starts in the wrong key, trips over one of the wires snaking across the stage, or stumbles into a prop and knocks it over. The microphone might emit that piercing sound it makes as a result of feedback. The amplifier for the bass may trip an electrical circuit and things go dark. Whatever the situation, you must do the best you can to continue. The show goes on.
Every performer, even singers who have been performing for years, gets nervous before a performance. Your goal is to take that nervous energy and transform it into a clean, on point rendition of what you have been practicing. You can do it. Follow these tips to give your best performance.
In the Weeks Before the Performance:
1. Practice right. You want to be able to sing your piece flawlessly. This is hard to do under the pressure of performing in front of an audience. So like a fireman, policeman, or soldier, you need to practice the action you need to take until it becomes automatic. You are developing muscle memory. Start practicing your piece below tempo to make sure you have the timing and pitches correct. If you find yourself struggling with a particular passage, slow it down even more and go through that passage several times by itself until you can do it smoothly without errors. Once you have been able to sing the passage correctly at least 5 times, then try singing the entire piece.
2. Memorize the words by singing through the piece with the sheet music, reading from the music. This creates a "print" in your mind of the musical score. Next, write out the words at least 3 times by hand. The process of writing the lyrics by hand helps your brain build another pathway for remembering the words. If you find yourself fumbling a phrase, go through just that phrase several times. After you have completed these steps, then start to practice without looking at the sheet music. Start to run through the lyrics when you are waiting in line, doing the dishes, or making your bed. You don't need to sing loudly for these lyric run-throughs.
3. Choose your outfit or costume for the performance. Wear something that allows you to breathe and move easily. Choosing clothes that restrict either your ability to take deep breaths or to move around the stage easily will make performing difficult. You need your breath support even more when you are in front of an audience. And you need to be able to walk, move your arms up and down, curtsy or bow. Choose low heels with a wide base. In the first place, most people don't walk well in high heels and look awkward. In the second place, thin high heels are prone to breaking at the most inopportune times (like right before you walk on stage). They also catch in the gratings of steps, cracks in the flooring, and any other irregularities in the floor and you end up on the floor. When it comes to your clothing, shy away from things that become see-through under spotlights, are too tight, are so long that they drag the floor or catch on your shoes (this is a recipe for a pratfall which I bet you weren't intending), are so short that you cannot bend over without revealing more of you than you should, or too loose in the neckline so that when you curtsy or bow people get an eye full of your chest. Too embarrassing for you and the audience!
4. If possible, visit the stage where the recital will be held. Find the restroom, the changing room, and the stage entrance and exits. Will you need to climb stairs? Is it a simple raised platform? How big is the hall? Will there be a microphone? Is it stationary (this is often the case for recitals)? Where will your accompanist be located in relation to you? Familiarizing yourself with your performance venue provides a level of comfort as more aspects of the performance become known quantities.
5. Vocal performers are athletes. The vocal cords are muscles. The vocal exercises your voice teacher gives you to do are designed to strengthen your vocal cords and develop vocal agility. Vocal agility is being able to move between notes easily and accurately. In addition to the vocal cords, your mouth, tongue, lips, and lungs are important for creating a pleasing sound. Pay attention to the shape of your lips and the placement of your tongue. Have your voice teacher show you the lip shape you should strive to make for each of the vowel sounds. Some vocal exercises are specifically designed to move your lips back and forth between particular vowel sounds so this becomes second nature and you can do it quickly. Where you place your tongue makes a difference too. In many instances, it should be touching the bottom of your bottom row of teeth. Ask your teacher where your tongue should be if you are not sure. Singers need lots of air. Developing lung capacity is critical to becoming a successful singer. You will want to do some form of regular exercise that makes you breathe hard (running, swimming, dancing, tennis, brisk walking) to develop your lung capacity. During your voice lessons, your teacher will add exercises over time which are longer phrases. Additionally, vocal exercises which change in volume are another way of developing breath control. Be sure to control your air with your diaphragm, not your throat. Your throat should be relaxed at all times. If you feel tension, STOP what you are doing. You can damage your vocal cords permanently. Get advice from your teacher on how to avoid straining your vocal cords.
6. Stay healthy. There's nothing worse than missing a performance or not being able to perform at your best because you've caught a cold. Keep your immune system strong by eating properly and regularly, be sure to get your sleep, drink plenty of water (no, not sodas), and gargle daily with salt water. Yes, gargle daily. It keeps your vocal cords lubricated and helps prevent germs from lodging in your throat. Also, keep your throat warm. Wear a scarf or turtleneck when the air temperature cools down. You want your throat to stay open and relaxed at all times. Chilling your neck causes everything there to tighten and constrict. Don't smoke. Smoking reduces lung capacity and roughens the vocal cords by drying them. You need the maximum lung capacity you can develop and your vocal cords must remain soft and pliable.
7. Practice motions to accompany your singing. Try adding simple things at first. Think of the song as a conversation you are having with the audience. Try speaking the verses as if you were talking to your best friend. Watch yourself in the mirror. What movements are you making to emphasize your points? Do you lift an eyebrow at this word? Does a smile briefly traverse your lips as you say this other word? Practice incorporating some of these motions and gestures into your singing performance. You can also study singers you admire and copy the moves they make. Watch music videos to get ideas. Remember a live performance is 55% about the visual, not just the music. Lots of singers say they think the music speaks for itself. That's true for recorded music that has no visual. But in stage or video performances the visual component is extremely important. It must complement the music in both style and mood. Also practice your "thank you" to the audience at the end of the performance. For a school recital, a simple curtsy or bow is appropriate. For the end of a longer set, a musical, or operatic performances, more elaborate thanks should be rendered. Try big, sweeping bows or curtsies. Raising your arms to embrace the audience, bringing your finger tips to your lips, and then blowing the audience a kiss while spreading your arms wide again. Bow and say thank you.
The Day of the Performance:
8. You will probably get nervous. Nerves can cause you to breathe more shallowly and have difficulty completing your normal phrasing. Your hands might shake, maybe your stomach gets butterflies, your mouth goes dry and your lips stick to your teeth. All of these reactions are typical of the "Fight or Flight" response our bodies unleash when faced with a scary situation. There are ways to help the body through these reactions and allow you to turn that energy into a performance your audience will enjoy. The next several tips have to do with managing this nervous energy.
9. The day of the performance do something active; go for a run or a long walk, swim, bike, or dance. The activity helps you burn off some of the nervous tension and also helps you maintain lung capacity. A singer's whole body is their instrument, not just the voice box. You need large quantities of air to sustain notes. You should be physically active to build your lung capacity and the action of your diaphragm to control the air flow. So the activity you do on the day of the performance should be part of your normal routine. However, you are going to make a concerted effort to fit it into your schedule on the day of the performance because it will help relieve some of the reaction.
10. Drink tepid water throughout the day. You want your vocal cords and body to be hydrated. Cold water causes the vocal cords to constrict and tighten. So keep your water at room temperature. You can try tea or maybe a cup of black coffee, but you don't want to over-do these drinks because the caffeine will dehydrate you and cause you to need to pee at the most inconvenient times. Don't put any dairy in the tea or coffee and limit the sugar as they cause mucous production and coat the throat.
11. Pack any gear you need to take with you. Plan to take a bottle of water, lip balm, Kleenex, a brush or comb, a couple of safety pins for any last minute costume repairs, your sheet music (just in case your accompanist forget their copy - you've got it memorized, of course), extra panty hose, and an extra outfit (in case the stage hand spills his coffee over you or your beautiful long skirt gets caught in the car door and ripped. These things happen and you can handle these minor incidents with aplomb.). If you will be wearing make-up, bring a small make-up kit with an easily carried lighted mirror. About 30 minutes before the performance apply your makeup and check your hair. Spray your hair with a firm hold hair spray to keep it in place.
12. Do not eat a big meal before the performance, you will reduce your air and, because of the type of breathing you do to sing, you are more likely to burp. Not desireable! Instead eat a light, sustaining meal about 3 to 4 hours prior to the performance. You don't want to pass out due to lack of fuel. The meal should include protein and foods that do NOT cause mucous to form in your throat or cause your mouth to feel sticky. Avoid dairy, wheat, beans, red meat, and fried foods for this particular meal. Dairy tends to coat your throat, wheat tends to produce mucous, beans (well, you know what they tend to do!), and red meat and fried foods make your body put its energy into their digestion and you will feel heavy and lack lung capacity. Try chicken or fish and a salad or a hearty vegetable soup with ½ a sandwich. Half an apple or orange will help cleanse the palate.
13. Plan to arrive at the performance venue at least a half-an-hour to an hour early. The closer to the hour early you can arrive, the better. You do not want to feel rushed when you are doing your final preparations. It makes you breathless and ups your anxiety level. Do a sound check with the sound engineers and your accompanying instruments and singers so that the sound engineers know what settings to use for your performance and any accompanying instruments can set their volume controls. Amplified instruments can easily drown a voice, so make sure you can be heard.
14. Use the bathroom about a half-an-hour before the performance is scheduled. You know why.
15. In the half an hour before the performance starts, warm up your voice. Do easy exercises. Concentrate on breath control and fluidity. Sip water to maintain lubrication of the vocal cords and mouth. Some singers suck on a hard candy before the show to create saliva and avoid a dry mouth. Get rid of the candy before you go on stage. For others, the sugar in the candy leaves a film in the mouth which feels odd. Do what works for you.
16. A note on the use of drugs like Valium or alcohol to deal with nerves. You might feel better for a few moments, but your performance and your instrument will suffer. Drugs and alcohol reduce your ability to clearly enunciate your words and hear notes accurately. Additionally, alcohol affects your vocal quality over time. It toughens the vocal cords making them more rigid and less pliable. The alcohol constricts the vocal cords and dilates the blood vessels. It also leads to excessive dryness. Dryness in the throat reduces your vocal range and ability to control volume. Perhaps counter intuitively, drinking alcohol causes the body to up its production of mucous which reduces vocal cord agility and causes you to repeatedly clear your throat. The numbness you might be seeking for your nerves will also affect your vocal cords and not in a good way. First of all, it lessens your throats ability to make the tiny adjustment needed to maintain pitch. It also deadens your ability to judge when you are over-singing and damaging your precious cords. Not worth it! Both alcohol and drugs affect your coordination and muscle control leading to stumbles or falls. And, if all that isn't enough, it makes it more likely you will forget the lyrics.
17. Shortly before you go on, take a few deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose for four counts and then out slowly for 8 counts. Do this two or three times. This will steady you. Then stretch your arms above your head and reach for the sky. Next wrap your arms around you and squeeze tight. Then wriggle your whole body for a few seconds. Finally, lift each foot and rotate your ankle for a few seconds then shake that leg. These movements release the tension that will have built up as you get closer to the performance. You are now ready!
During the performance:
17. When you are announced, walk out on stage confidently. Hold your head up, shoulders back, chest lifted. Turn to your audience and smile. Place yourself in front of the microphone. Plant your feet comfortably. You may nod to your accompanist when you are ready or wait until they start the music.
18. While you are singing, look at your audience. Chose at least three people in the audience. One at your right, one in the middle, and one on the left. Sing a line to the one on your right, then move your head to the person in the middle and sing a line or two, then do the same with the person you've picked out on the left. Try to look the person in the eyes and connect with them. Interestingly when you do this, you will connect with all the people in that section. Continue to move your gaze around your audience connecting with them.
19. Avoid closing your eyes for the entire song, looking up toward heaven for help, or staring down at your shoes. Closing your eyes briefly to express poignancy is fine, but keeping your eyes closed the entire time signals to the audience you don't want to be there and makes them uncomfortable. Staring at the ceiling has the same message. Keep your audience with you by looking at them.
20. Remember to move your body while you sing in the motions that you practiced. Standing rigidly still makes everybody nervous, so relax into the sound of the music. Let your whole body tell the story of the song.
21. Smile!! People listen to music because it makes them feel good. Your smile helps that feeling. On a practical note, sometimes your lips stick to your teeth because they get dry. Don't forget to sip water during any off-stage intervals or, if you are doing a set at a club, have your water there to sip between songs. A trick models use is to put a light coat of petroleum jelly either on their teeth or the back of their top lip.
22. If something goes awry, remember to carry on if it all possible. If you must stop, perhaps somebody tripped over a cord and pulled out the plug to the sound system, simply say to the audience something like: "Well, that wasn't in the program! We're going to try that again!" Start over. If it is a minor mistake, just continue on. Remember live shows are unpredictable. Keep your sense of humor and fun and the audience will love you for it.
23. If this is a club performance or live concert, some stage banter or patter may be necessary. Usually it is the lead vocalist who does this. People have come to hear the music, so you don't want to talk much. However, there are times when it is needed. There may be short lags in the performance as musicians trade out instruments, modify their set up, or even exit or come onto the stage. Vocalists can provide a smooth transition by filling in the audience on what is happening. Introduce a new musician - "Vince is going to join us on this next song. He'll be playing the baritone saxophone." Or tell a brief story about the next tune - "This next song was written by Hoagy Carmichael. A graduate of Indiana University, he went on to write many hit tunes and perform on stage and in the movies. You might remember his tunes "Stardust", "Georgia on my Mind" or "Heart and Soul". We'll be doing a tune he wrote in collaboration with Johnnie Mercer titled "Skylark"."
24. When you finish, remember to thank your audience as you practiced. Exit the stage to return to your seat if it is a recital or open-mic night performance. If the performance was a concert or musical, a single arm wave to the audience as you exit to back stage is a nice touch. Hold yourself erect. Walk with assurance, don't slouch or slink off. You are performing every moment you are on that stage.
After the Performance:
25. Afterward, be sure to thank your accompanist or musicians. They worked as hard as you on getting this performance right. If there was a stage crew, tell them how much you appreciate their part in making the performance a success.
26. If the venue is such that audience members will see you after the performance, they will often make comments about what they heard. A simple "thank you" or "I'm glad you enjoyed it" is appropriate.
You will give your best performance if you practice thoroughly beforehand and then relax and share your joy of music with your audience. Now go out there and let the show begin!