To simplify what’s going on between your breathing and vocal muscles, you’ve got to simplify what’s going on in your mind. Phrases like, “sing from the diaphragm” and “support the tone” get thrown around a lot by singers. They make it seem like there some special behavior we should be concentrating on. I often get comments from beginners like, “Where should I breathe?” or, “I don’t know how to breathe.” Which sound kind of silly when you think about it. Of course you know how to breathe; you wouldn’t be alive if you didn’t! Listen, the diaphragm and other breathing muscles are certainly involved when we sing, but they need to make so many tiny adjustments every second we sing that you can’t possibly guide them consciously. Thank goodness we don’t have to.
Here’s the deal. For most of us, the best damn breathing we ever did was on the day we were born. That’s right! You and I were brand-spanking-new breathing machines. At one day old, your breathing adjusted perfectly to support all your needs. Pressure was created to cry out, breath-flow was stopped to swallow or burp and big yawns were created to clean the lungs of carbon dioxide. It was nothing short of a miracle. Unfortunately, since that day we’ve been messing with it. Now, what we think of as normal breathing isn’t always very natural. Emotions, physical conditions and personality traits can easily take over. As an extension of this, your voice will sound weak and shaky if your breathing has become shallow or restricted over the years. Or your voice may be blaring loud and blow out often if you’re the kind of person that takes huge breaths and then drives your voice every time you speak. Balance is the key to controlling any physical event. And with singing, that means balancing every sound with just the right amount of air.
Just think of your legs and feet. All day long they “support” your body. Does that mean they are always tight? Locked up and rigid? Of course not. What they do is shift around a lot. Even when standing military straight, your feet are still making minute adjustments. Stand on one leg and you’ll really notice a lot of adjusting. So who’s telling your foot to make all those little moves in order to keep you upright? Well, you are. And all you have to do is give it a single command. That same kind of single thought is all that’s necessary when you sing – if you trust your reflexes. Breathing and vocal muscles will all respond in coordination to make whatever sound you want. All you have to do is get out of your own way. That’s the difference between those who sing so easily and naturally and those that struggle. All training does is set you up with reflexes that are trustworthy. That’s what practicing is all about. And you’ll get more out of each exercise if you stay focused on the sound that’s coming out of your mouth.
After countless hours of lessons and faithfully running drills, does your singing seem to be on a plateau? Are you still searching for that special something that will make your performances memorable? Worse yet, do people complement you by saying you have a “nice” voice? While that may be far better then what they used to say about your singing, you didn’t dive head first into music to get a pat on the head. Like me, I’ll bet you dream about controlling the very pulse of your listener. First suspending the heart mid-beat as you fly through an acrobatic vocal run and then making it pound into a gallop as your performance reaches its climax. You want fainting and screaming and standing ovations! Hey, who doesn’t? But that kind of unbridled listener reaction doesn’t come easily. It requires you muster up some courage and sing outside your comfort zone. Lessons and exercises can turn anyone who practices into a good singer, but the extra edge only comes if you dare to be great.
Learning to sing is a lot like strapping on a pair of ice skates for the first time. Some people are fearless, or maybe reckless is a better word, and fly off with little regard to the laws of gravity. They immediately fall flat on their ass, laugh, and get right back up to try again. Most people, though, would rather not spend the day bouncing on the ice. These folks approach the challenge with one agenda: do not fall. This mind set dominates their muscles. As soon as they are hoisted onto their blades, they forget to bend. They shuffle along stiff-legged, clinging desperately to the sides of the ice rink or any person within reach. The irony is that these people constantly fall. The rigid body, which reflects their fear of falling, causes their lose of balance. Their inability to loosen up also prevents them from developing a feel for shifting body weight from skate to skate. So at the end of the day, both personality types have sore butts, but the carefree people have at least learned how to skate.
We often brace in anticipation of singing a bad note as if it will hurt our bodies or the performance. It won’t. A bruise to the ego and a bruise to the vocal folds are completely different things. Like fearful skaters, it’s the singers who fear sounding bad that cause themselves the most problems. They call attention to their flaws. Perfectionists, introverts and people who pride themselves on having good pitch are usually the worst offenders. Ironically, tone, pitch, emotion and longevity all suffer due to the over involvement of protective muscles like the tongue, jaw and neck. A cautious attitude doesn’t even insure that you will avoid vocal strain. Like falling, stiffening your muscles because you fear injury often causes more damage than if the body was loose.
Singing is a balancing act. The expectation that notes should always roll perfectly out of our mouths, especially when we’re just learning, is absurd. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re finding it difficult to let go. It’s not your fault. Pressure is placed on us the moment we start to explore our voices. For some reason, children are allowed to be clueless on every instrument except the voice. Nobody rips the violin out of little Suzy’s hands as she saws her way through, “Three Blind Mice,” but heaven forbid if she’s out of tune when she sings the same song. Kids that struggle with singing in grade school are usually detoured into sports programs or given a tambourine. Wouldn’t it have been great if they did that with math? Later in life, the stigma of falling off pitch or hitting a crack silences many would-be singers.
It is vital that you allow yourself to sound bad as you work to improve your singing and performing. Find a private place where no one can hear you; it’s hard enough to tune out your internal critic let alone opinionated roommates and family members. Your goal when vocalizing is to minimize muscle involvement — no matter how bad it sounds at first. For this reason, it is important to distinguish the difference between sound and feel. We often say a note feels bad when it actually just sounds bad. Sounding bad is okay, feeling bad is not. Some people will put up with tremendous discomfort in order to make something sound better. The truth is; many little imperfections will go completely unnoticed by listeners unless you call attention to them by straining. So it’s just as important to practice not reacting to every little vocal problem and stay focused on the sentiment of the lyrics.
Singing should feel like nothing, like gliding over a smooth patch of ice. Correct notes are just as easy to sing as incorrect notes, so don’t add any effort when you want to sing something better. Vocal cracks are simply a momentary loss of balance. They do not hurt you physically, so try not to wince if one zings out unexpectedly. To gain control of your voice, you need to learn to release your face, jaw, tongue and neck. Just like relaxing your arms and legs when skating, this usually creates a short term loss of control. Re-visit this slippery feeling until it’s trusted and you will be rewarded with effortless singing – but not necessarily a standing ovation.
Audience reaction is based on a performer’s risk – not skill. Lot’s of people can skate. Beginners, though, are not held to the same standard as those who can perform a triple Lutz. So an audience may erupt with applause as an amateur skater attempts a basic move yet be bored with a pro who presents a difficult yet “safe” routine. With singing it’s an internal challenge. Every performance provides an opportunity to sing with more conviction. This doesn’t always mean you should sing harder. It’s a tired cliché to expect an audience to respond emotionally to shear physical force – especially if it’s easy for you to scream. If you’re a loud mouth the personal challenge would be restraint. If you’re an introvert the challenge would be to come out of that shell. Both goals place the singer in a vulnerable place; neither requires the singer to be perfect.
It’s important to remember that singing, unlike skating, is an art. There are no judges and no set standards to uphold. There are only potential admirers. Performers are only expected to sing within their means – but to do so in an honest and inspiring way. Unless you’re involved in a vocal competition, every singer can be a winner. The only challenge is to shake up your status quo; to explore uncharted emotional territory. Use your vocal exercises to build a solid foundation of reflex behavior. Then trust that behavior and start provoking you and your audience to consider the emotion of a song. They’ll thank you for the nudge and refer to you as a great singer because of the way you made them feel. So put aside your fears of sounding bad and sing into that great unknown. I dare you!
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.
One, two, three strikes you’re out! Now that the country’s favorite pastime is in “full swing” (by that I mean watching the drama between the Yankee’s and Sox), it occurred to me how many singers approach the stage as if it were home plate in a play-off game. Standing there like a kid donning an over-size batting helmet, they often squeeze their eyes and lock their muscles in anticipation of tough pitches. It’s a self-defeating stance. Once the body becomes rigid, it’s almost impossible to make the minute adjustments required to connect on target. When the inevitable misses start adding up, suggestions from coaches like “relax” and “breathe” are wiped out by panic.
The downward spiral continues as all attempts at maintaining a balanced form are abandoned in favor of a full-out attack at each pitch. While poor mechanics are certainly an issue, the mind is far more at fault in these situations. Singing is mostly reflex activity, which means the muscles are in reaction. However, where the mind goes the muscles will follow. Ironically, if you want to sing in tune, stop thinking about the pitch.
We tend to forget that there’s more to singing, and baseball for that matter, then hitting pitches. Dynamics, tone, duration, note placement and interpretation of lyrics all play a vital role in music just as fielding skills do in baseball. What great singers and players do is focus on a bigger picture.
When performing, the mind-set of a singer should be on the sentiment of the song. What do you want to express to your audience? What do you want them to feel? Are you in the song? Is your head in the game? These questions are the ones to address when you feel you’re losing control. Taking the focus off the physical aspect of singing not only provides a better environment for your reflexes, it also allows the audience to stay with their emotions. Unlike baseball, singing is an art. No one is counting the misses unless the singer draws attention to the problem. Remember, where your mind goes the audience will follow.
There are steps you can take to prevent the distraction of an occasional foul note. A good warm up is essential. Your muscles respond much better when activated slowly. Cold muscles are rigid and require more energy, which throws off the delicate balance needed to be in tune. Another way to promote accuracy is to vocalize every day. The best hitters in major league baseball never miss batting practice. They do this so they can concentrate on where to hit the ball during a game, not how. Vocalizing gives you this same opportunity to focus on technique in order to free your mind during a performance.
The goal is to simplify things so there’s less to deal with when under pressure. On stage, while we tend to work extremely hard when singing high notes, in reality, the muscles responsible are as small as those which move your eyes. It is impossible to feel the vocal folds stretching for a note — any note. When you practice, work on reducing the physical effort associated with pitch, no matter how inaccurate it makes you at first. Allowing yourself to sing out of tune is vital when exploring how little it takes to be on pitch. Obviously, this is easier to do in private than on stage.
What you can do when performing is dig deeply into the lyrics. Even if no one can understand a thing you’re saying, let the words move you. If something unintentional slips out, keep in mind that the audience has no idea what you intended to sing. Own the blunder if it worked. Have you ever seen a baseball player not take a base because he didn’t mean to hit the ball to right field? It’s just as important to learn to get over a missed pitch. You don’t need to bat a thousand to get into the World Series.