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How to Sing Live Performances, Part 1

Bassnectar Live at Coachella Wknd 2.jpg, by Drew Ressler, under Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

You’re in a live performance. Congratulations! Either you’re past the audition process, or else you’ve taken the initiative to find a venue to perform at. Either way, it sounds like you’re getting more serious about taking your singing to the next level. Hopefully by this point you have at least a little vocal technique under your belt, but how do you get better at performing live?

Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast set of rules I can give you about how to sing live performances. Every genre, sub-genre, and performance venue has its own unique set of rules, and even these rules are malleable. In a coffee house setting, where performers sing along with their acoustic guitars, for example, you won’t sing with nearly the same larger-than-life intensity that you would need for a rock concert or for the musical A Chorus Line. But there are some strategies that can help improve all of your performances, regardless of genre. Here are some pointers to get you started, but know that learning to perform well will require flexibility, field research, and a whole lot of practice.

1. Watch Lots of Live Performances, Especially Ones in Your Genre

Trust me. There’s no such thing as getting up there and “just being yourself.” Sure, you don’t want to directly mimic someone–that would make you derivative–but every great performer builds off of things they loved about someone else’s performances. So if you want to be in musicals, watch as many musicals as you can. If you want to be a pop singer, go to as many pop concerts as possible. Go to plenty of shows outside of your genre too, so that you can incorporate a little more flavor into your performance. If you don’t have access to very many shows, take advantage of platforms like YouTube. Figure out what you love about these performances and what you don’t love so much, and borrow what you love for your own performances. At first, it may feel like mimicry, but after a while you’ll feel like you own those moves and that the performers you admired throughout your life have become a part of you.

2. Know What You’re Singing About

Know what the lyrics are about, and find a way to relate to them. This doesn’t mean you have to bury your son alive in order to effectively sing “Your Daddy’s Hands,” from the musical Ragtime. But it does mean you’ll have to dig through your own life to try to understand the kind of pain and loss Sarah must be experiencing when she sings that song. If you have no idea what you’re singing about, it’ll probably come through on stage, no matter how rehearsed you are.

3. Rehearse the Way You’ll Perform

Not every time, but enough of the time that no part of your performance feels entirely new when you get on stage. If your performance will take place seated at the piano with a microphone in front of your face, make sure you’ve rehearsed seated at a piano with a microphone in front of your face. If you’ll be performing in an opera house without a microphone, it goes without saying that you should practice without amplification so that you know how much your voice will need to carry. I made the mistake for years of going through every voice lesson using a microphone. When I showed up at auditions, I was shocked by how quiet my voice was compared to the way it sounded when I practiced, and my confidence was frequently shattered. I make sure to mic my students when they’ll be performing with a mic and have them sing unamplified if they won’t be using one. Learning the basics of microphone technique before a performance with a mic is, of course, a very good idea.

4. Practice to Exhaustion, but Don’t Wear Your Voice Out

If you can’t do it in practice, chances are you won’t be able to do it in performance. There are, of course, some rare performers who can just “turn it on” in front of an audience but who don’t practice that way. To be on the safe side, just assume you aren’t one of those performers. If you’re forgetting a line every time you practice it, there’s a fantastic shot that you’ll forget it when you’re up on stage. Sing the song until you don’t miss the line, and then sing it 100 more times. If you plan to belt the song but just can’t belt that one note, either plan to not belt that one note on stage, or find a way to belt it in practice. Of course, this is a balancing act. You don’t want to wear your voice out before a performance, so sing the song full out some of the time, and mark it the rest of the time in order to run it for lyrics and movement. If you feel your concentration slipping, take a break and come back to it later. Just make sure you come back to it.

5. Video Yourself In Practice

If you aren’t happy with the way you look performing on camera, you probably won’t be happy with what you look like performing live. Figure out what it is you don’t like, and tweak it. Video yourself until you’re happy with your performance and comfortable that that’s likely what you’ll look and sound like performing live.

Because this is such an involved post, I’ll break it into two parts. Look out for a Part 2 in the next month.

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