Eight Steps to the Stage

Whether it’s your first time in the limelight or gig number 1,052, the steps you take in preparation of a show determine its outcome. There’s enough that can go wrong in a live performance without stacking the odds against you due to neglect. Use this guide to ensure you’ve done everything possible for a great performance. Say the following sentence as a mantra, changing the ending each time you’ve completed a step.

 “A great performance begins with a singer that is . . .”

“Well rested.” By far, this is the hardest step to accomplish. Nerves and schedules have a tendency to rob us of valuable sleep before a show. However, nothing is more important for singing than proper rest. If it’s absolutely impossible to get six to eight hours of shut-eye, then learn the art of power napping. Think of these short siestas as pit stops you take anytime you feel run down. Be careful not to nap longer than twenty minutes, though, or you’ll wake up groggy.

“Well rehearsed or very skilled.” Nothing settles the mind like preparation. Remember how good you felt walking into school when all your homework was finished? The same confident stride can be yours as you approach the stage if you are well rehearsed. Veterans can draw from years of experience when dealing with the unexpected. Beginners, though, should drill songs until they can be sung on autopilot. Either way, the goal is to be mindless when on stage. The rule is: the less you think, the more you’ll feel.

“Warmed up.” All too often singers forgo a warm up routine because they’re either embarrassed, running late or don’t know what to do. The irony is that there’s no way to avoid warming up. It’s either going to happen before, or during the performance. The disadvantage of warming up on stage is that you will rush the process. Some days we need more time to get loose. The only way to allow for this is to start four hours prior to singing. If there are stubborn tensions, you’ll need time to address them. If you’re feeling good, you can relax and re-warm the voice one ½ hour before singing. In general, the length of a warm up should be in opposite proportion to the performance. If you’re going to be singing all night, a quick check of your instrument will do. Usually, singers are still warming up during the first couple songs of a set. But if you’re only up there for a song or two, the stage is no place to deal with stiff muscles. Short performances require lengthy warm ups. That way, you’ll be loosened up and in control when it’s time to sing.

“In control of breathing, not nerves.” Contrary to popular opinion, stage fright is not a problem; it means you care about the performance. That’s a good thing! The symptoms, however, are what compromise singers. Nerves send the body into a shallow breathing pattern. If you’re just experiencing a few butterflies, place a hand on your belly button and focus on breathing long and slow. Inhale to the count of ten. Then, hold the breath for ten counts. Finally, exhale on a third count of ten. However, if an upcoming performance has you down right petrified, get moving. A quick jog around the block or a five-minute session with a jump rope is usually enough to unlock frozen lungs. The point is to get your breathing responding to activities rather than fears. Just make sure you allow enough time to calm down your heart before singing.

“Feeling normal.” Many people will use a pending gig to clean up their act. This is fine as long as you allow enough time to adjust to the changes. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that a single day of good behavior will erase years of abuse. To avoid unexpected reactions, maintain a normal routine on performance day. Taking the day off from work, especially if you’re nervous, often backfires. The extra time to dwell on things will only fan the flames of worry. If you’re a smoker, don’t quit. If you have a lousy diet, don’t become a vegetarian. If you know your diet and vices are bad for singing, deal with them as far in advance of a performance as possible – like today.

“Hydrated.” This is the only exception to the step above. If you are not already in a good routine, start with sixteen ounces of room temperature water fifteen minutes before the show. It will make a difference. Hydration is vital to all aspects of singing. Don’t reserve this routine only for shows, though it’s best to gradually increase your water intake until you reach 1.5 liters a day. Flooding yourself on gig day will make you have to pee very badly when on stage. Trust me, I learned this the hard way.

“Lubricated.” This is not the same as hydrated. Another disruptive symptom of stage fright is dry mouth. Ironically, water is not a cure. Anxiety turns off the digestive system and restricts saliva ducts, which means the saline that lubricates the larynx stops flowing. Water, or anything we swallow, never touches the vocal folds. To get things wet down there you’ll have to suck on something to turn the digestive system on again. A sugar-free lozenge just before singing is an old trick but I have been caught too many times with a half finished cough drop in my mouth when called to the stage. The options of swallowing it, with the risk of choking, or spitting it out can be a pain to deal with. So, I simply place a finger in my mouth if I’m feeling anxious.

“Courageous.” This is important to say to yourself over and over again. You don’t have to be the greatest singer in the world. You don’t have to hit all the pitches. You don’t even need to remember all the words. All you need to be is brave. Stepping on the stage does not mean you claim to be better than everyone else; it means you are willing to rise to your potential. That alone is worth the price of a ticket. This applies to all of us, but not in the same way. What is courageous for a ten year old to do on stage is not the same as a seasoned pro. Singing is not a competitive sport. We tend to think of the audiences as judges when it is usually our inner voice that is most judgmental. Do not assume you know what the audience is thinking because, in truth, you do not. Reinforce your purpose for singing just before stepping on stage. Not everyone sings because they have a beautiful voice. Some are drawn to perform because they feel strongly about their songs. Others just love the spotlight and so they sing to bask in it. Whatever your reason, you will always be a better performer tomorrow. That is, if you get your feet up on stage tonight. Remember, you are only eight steps away from a great performance.