Singers have a very different performance challenge than all other musicians. Pianists, instrumentalists and percussionists all use their bodies for performing, but have an external object, the instrument, with which to interact. That object often offers a calming influence in performing situations, helping habits perfected during long hours of practice kick in, so that the performer can remain composed despite stage fright and adrenaline and still manage do his or her very best. Singers, however, do not have the luxury of an external instrument with which to react. They only have their own malleable bodies, which can be affected by stressful situations. When adrenaline is pumping and the stomach is aflutter, it is difficult for a singer to tune in to those extremely fine motor skills routined over and over in the practice room. What happens under these circumstances is that many singers can’t trust on a very basic level that their body coordination for singing will be enough. Because of that, they subconsciously start doing a little extra and end up pushing their voices in performance.
Pushing is the number one enemy of good singing! That is because pushing in singing doesn’t have any positive effects. Good singing is based on a free, easy and low inhalation and energizing the lower body to create breath resistance to control the airflow out during singing/exhalation. Everything else is simply as expanded and free as possible. Pushing interferes in a variety of ways, including altering the breath resistance, pressing subglottal air pressure against the vocal cords, tightening the throat, making the tongue tense, raising the larynx, closing down resonance space, etc., etc. Any combination of several of these symptoms of pushing can dramatically diminishes any voice’s beauty, color and size, because they work in direct opposition of good vocal technique.
It is absolutely critical that singers learn how to trust their techniques in stressful performance situations. I have seen many singers who sing beautifully in rehearsals, but always end up pushing and working too hard in the heat of performance. Singing should feel easy and integrated in the body without one part doing too much work and absolutely effortless from the vocal cords up. In other words, singers have to do the exact opposite of pushing by staying relaxed, open and trusting that their vocal technique is more than enough.
Singers also have to manage their emotional reactions more carefully than pianists, instrumentalists and percussionists, as well. Other than in the torso, the sets of muscles and ligaments involved in singing are quite small in comparison to fingers, arms, lips, etc., are definitely harder to control and are more easily affected by the emotions. Singers can’t afford the luxury of singing with unbridled passion and still automatically assume that they are maintaining a good vocal technique. Passion very easily turns into pushing. A fine line has to be walked of emotional involvement in the text and ensuring the best technique for singing. The singer’s mind always has to go back and forth between the two to monitor. This combination of circumstances is the performance paradox for singers – the need to be relaxed, emotionally controlled and still sing easily in a performance situation that encourages singers to become tense, push and swept away in the feelings.
So, how does a singer learn to find a way to cope with the singer’s performance paradox? Each singer has to find his or her own way to the requisite balance, but below are some suggestions to help you solve the singer’s performance paradox.
Practicing your vocal technique consistently and ensuring that your body will still do its normal coordination under stress is key. If you are inconsistent and uncertain about your technique, you will be more likely to push in performance. Get feedback from trusted ears to reassure you that the sound produced by a healthy, relaxed technique is enough. You will never be able to hear yourself as others do. Once you get reliable feedback, trust it.
One of the best ways to get used to the stresses of performance situations is to perform as often as possible. The performances don’t have to be major concerts. Even just singing for a few friends, doing a master class, or setting up a music evening with colleagues will give you the chance to feel performance pressure and be able to get past it to sing your best anyway. The more you sing in front of others, the more confident you will be when it comes to more important performances.
The Alexander Technique has a unique effect on the nervous system, calming it considerably and bringing about a feeling of well-being and serenity. This is first brought about by the teacher’s touch and later learned by the student as a skill, so that it can be implemented at will. This is a fabulous tool for singers to have, especially those with the tendency to push or abandon vocal technique in performance situations.
Decried for years as New Age nonsense, meditation has now being accepted in the West as a healthy way to calm and control the mind. It can help greatly with performance anxiety, allowing the body to remain more relaxed under stress. Meditation requires practice and discipline, but can be an effective aid to singers and give them more mental and physical control under stress.
There are a number of physical practices that include a meditative element – Tai Chi, yoga, Qi Gong, etc. If sitting and watching your thoughts doesn’t sound appealing, doing meditation in movement could be more appropriate for you. These can have a similar effect to regular meditation, but since the meditative effect is more indirect, it can require significant experience before the effects transfer over to performance situations.
A more radical method is to desensitize yourself to performance situations completely. This can be done by intentionally creating “performance” experiences that are far more intense and uncomfortable that the realexperience. These can range from staring directly into someone’s eyes the whole time while singing, having someone make unexpected loud noises, having someone move around and talk, hearing a baby crying, sudden changes in lighting, etc. Enlist your colleagues and spend some time taking turns performing and trying to keep your composure and technique in tact while you are uncomfortable. With some practice, this desensitization process will make any regular performance seem significantly easier and allow you to maintain your vocal technique under stress.
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