Thursday, September 8, 2016

More Tips on Performing

    This last August I played several shows in California. Some of my friends are touring singer-songwriters who regularly do shows, but I’m not one of them; sometimes many months can go by in-between shows. Occasional performers like me can be more prone to stage fright. One show was in my hometown of Berkeley and looked to have friends in the audience I’d known as far back as first grade. I knew I’d be nervous, and I hadn’t performed in a year, and that made me more nervous. I had to prepare for possible performance anxiety in as many ways as I could. So while rehearsing I used every trick I already knew about preparing for a show: those methods are all listed here and detailed further in my book Singing Live. If nerves hit me onstage I can usually sing through it, but I make stupid guitar mistakes and get distracted, and I don’t give my best possible performance.
    The first show of the tour was good, not great: I played and sang decently and connected with the audience, but there was definitely room for improvement on all fronts. The rest of the shows were better, but I continued to learn (or re-learn!) ways to improve. So here are a few more things about performing that I remembered on this last tour, which included shows at clubs, house concerts, and coffeehouses:

Don’t schedule the hometown show first
    It’s common at smaller shows to meet and chat with audience members beforehand, but this particular show was packed with people I hadn’t seen in twenty years, along with friends I’ve known since childhood. It was a “Susan this is your life” crazy party and I was rushing around saying hello right up to walking on stage. Not a great way to get centered before performing, and I felt a bit scattered.

Wear layers to take off (or put on) if necessary

    This first show was in a venue with no ventilation or AC, it was sold-out, and it was 90 degrees onstage. Enough said!

Keep warming up before each and every show

    You’d think I’d know this one. I’m good about warming up regularly at home, but travel during the tour made this hard to do. We raced into town right before our last show. I thought after warming up and performing throughout the tour that I could get away with not warming up just one time, and I paid the price: on three different high notes that are usually easy for me my voice simply wouldn’t do what it usually can do, and cracked. In retrospect I realize my voice was fairly tired by the end of the tour, and I should have warmed up and babied it a whole lot more for that last show. Here’s what fatigued my voice the most:

Avoid noisy restaurants and parties in-between shows

    A student’s friend recently had dinner with Paul Simon, so I told her to ask Paul how he kept his voice in shape on tour. Among Paul Simon’s tricks: he gets 10+ hours of sleep a night, he drinks very little alcohol, and he avoids loud restaurants and dinner parties while on tour.
    I was meeting a lot of friends for meals in-between shows, and more than one time I requested that we switch to a less noisy restaurant. Talking loudly in noisy places can wipe out your voice. Even though I was careful I could still feel the fatigue from so much visiting. If your voice is tiring during visits, ask questions and let your friends do most of the talking.

Don’t start with a slow song

    I always like to start with an up-tempo, higher energy song--it gets the ball rolling, and I can channel any nerves into singing it. I save slower songs that require more vocal control for later. But a friend did a set before mine at one show, and she asked me to sing a duet with her during her set. As a result the first thing I sang onstage that evening was a slow ballad, and it took a lot of concentration to pull it off.

Don’t start with a low song

    Many singers notice that their vocal range shifts up in performance, due to adrenaline: high notes are much easier, low notes are harder. I’ve known this about myself for years, but I ignored it when planning my set! The first song of my set started with some very low notes that were a breeze to sing at rehearsal, but difficult to sing in performance: this didn’t make for a strong start. I should have put that song later in the set when I was more relaxed. I raised the key of another song for the same reason and it was much easier to sing.

Be willing to move or dump songs

    I like to build a set of songs carefully so that the pacing is good. Then I tend to stick with the same set throughout a tour. But I noticed during the first two shows that the audience was not connecting with one particular song, so I dropped it from the set and inserted another one. The result was a much stronger set.

    I hope these tips are helpful. If you are currently preparing for a show or tour: rehearse more than you think you should, avoid noisy restaurants, get as much sleep as possible, and break a leg!

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