In this section you will learn about stagecraft: how to sing with a band, how to memorise lyrics, how to combat stagefright. The key throughout is to remember why you started in the first place: because you love singing. While there are many different tricks and techniques, there are few hard-and-fast rules. So once you have an understanding of the technical side of performing, it’s imperative you watch others perform, noting which elements you like and which you dislike. You can then try some of those things out in the company of friends and family.
Singing on stage
When you’re singing on stage, you’re not only combining language and music – you’ve also got to deal with spatial awareness and be aware of the people around you. There’s a lot going on, so watch the conductor if there is one. Enjoy the feeling of being on stage, look around you in rehearsals to get used to the size of the performance space and think how much energy you will need to fill that space. Ensure that the energy of a song is conveyed in your singing and not just in your dancing; thinking that the vigour of your movements will carry a song is a common trap to fall into.
People are sometimes frightened of overpreparing because they think the material will somehow get stale. But that shouldn’t be a worry. Every time you perform, it changes: the atmosphere in the room is different, the people watching you aren’t the same. By preparing as much as possible, you’ll have the ability to deal with anything that happens, you’ll have more confidence and you’ll enjoy it more. Being in a show is an exhilarating experience but it’s also a big responsibility: you want to feel reliable. On the other hand, overpractising, for instance singing the one note you’re worried about 30 times before you go on stage, is to be avoided; you’ll only wear yourself out. Instead, you should just slide through your range once, with that note included, to reassure yourself that you can do it.
To get the right sense of spontaneity to your performance, you have to be thinking of the next line at just the right moment. This thought about the next line is key; it should show you or your character having a new idea and, because of that, it is central to the way you’ll end up delivering the line. To see if you are thinking of the next line soon enough, walk around a room while singing, and change direction every time you have a new thought. If, by the time you’re changing direction, you’re already singing the line that made you change, you’re too late.
When a dancer is about to do a turn on stage, they do something called spotting: they will fix their eye on a spot so that they don’t get giddy. It’s an invisible part of their technique; you wouldn’t notice it from the audience. Similarly, you should identify the precise moments in a performance that you find difficult and focus on working out some specific techniques to overcome them. This will do wonders for your sense of security; you’ll walk out on stage and know you’ll be safe. For example, if you’re in a particularly strenuous scene, such as Kim and Ellen’s confrontation in Miss Saigon with its high-energy singing and belting, is it possible to lean against some part of the set, to help you to be aware of how you are using your back muscles?
Or, if you’re performing a Gilbert and Sullivan number or a big Frank Sinatra song and there’s a particular note that’s been worrying you, will holding the preceding vowel or emphasising a certain consonant help you through? You can leave these techniques behind when your confidence has improved and you’ve performed the piece a few times.
Singing in character
Your route into a character or song can come from many different sources – there’s no one right way. Imagine, for example, playing Little Red Riding Hood’s wolfish stalker in the musical Into the Woods. For inspiration, some actors would take a trip to the zoo, to find out how wolves behave. Others, who work from external factors, would need to find the very shoes or clothes that make the character real – the top hat, perhaps. Others like to work from the text itself, taking not only what the character says, but what others say about them, and deciding which parts speak truly. Of course, the music itself also tells you a huge amount about the character and the emotional path of the story.
When singing in musicals, you have to perform in a heightened manner in order to be able to launch from speech into song. You can’t speak at your normal level and then jump into song and expect it to be credible. In rehearsal, try muttering to yourself before your lines come up, so as to build up your energy levels before it’s time to speak. Then speak with more energy as you come up to a song. You’ll probably be speaking over a musical introduction, which will demand this energy anyway.
The old cliche is that you sing when speech isn’t enough, and on stage we have to believe that there’s a need, at a certain moment, to sing. Take the line from the musical Anyone Can Whistle: “Everybody says don’t walk on the grass/ Don’t disturb the peace/ Don’t skate on the ice/ But I say do.” What the character J Bowden Hapgood is singing is essentially “break the rules”. But, behind that sentiment, the actor should have a whole internal list of reasons for why he is singing this: because he’s lived life as a political dissident, because he sees the woman he’s singing to as stuck in her ways, because he fancies her too, because he genuinely wants this for her and because she probably could achieve it. All of that personal history and information about a character’s intentions should be in the performer’s head before singing the line “But I say do”.
The musical theatre actor should always ask six questions about their character:
• Where has this character been?
• What are they doing now?
• Where are they going?
• Are they working through a problem in the song?
• Do they come to any decisions?
• Who are they talking to – who is the song for?
• How do they physically reflect their state of mind?
When the actor can answer all of these questions, they will know why they’re saying every line. This “why” is the first step to embodying a character.
Remembering your lyrics
Remembering lyrics can be hard work, and each person responds to things differently, so it really depends on what works for you. Start by reading the lyrics out loud to yourself and then consider them both by themselves and with the music. In order to make them stick, you have to make your own detailed analysis of what the words mean. Avoid trying to memorise too much in one go; concentrate on one page at a time.
When you know the lyrics a bit better, a good idea is to walk around singing them so fast that you’ve got no time to think, so they become an automatic response. The music won’t let you stop and think while you’re performing, and there will be a whole lot of other things happening on stage that can make you forget what you’re doing. So repeat the lyrics while doing something else, such as throwing and catching a ball, walking round the supermarket, cooking or doing the dusting.
If you find that you’re forgetting certain parts of a song, work out which lines you tend to forget and look for some kind of pattern. It can be as simple as an alliteration, such as the two Ws in the line “When I am with you”, or a pattern of ideas, such as the similar sentiment of “on my own” and “all alone” in On My Own from Les Misérables: “On my own, pretending he’s beside me/ All alone I walk with him ’til morning.”
When people forget lyrics, the problem is nearly always that they haven’t been clear in their mind about the story they’re trying to tell. By making sure you know exactly what story you’re getting across, you can solve this problem. On stage you can also use your location as a physical prompt: when practising Joe Gillis’s song in Sunset Boulevard, the cast found it useful to have a different physical position on stage for each phrase, so the song was ingrained in their muscle memory and they could remember where they were.
Even once you’ve learned the lyrics and have been singing them over and over again, try to return to them from time to time to refresh your understanding of what they mean.
Stagefright is not something that only happens to beginners; it can and does happen to anyone, including some of the most experienced performers. For years they’ll happily perform in front of thousands of people, and then, one night, they’ll go out on stage and think to themselves: what am I doing here?
There are several techniques that can be used to combat stagefright, but most of them focus solely on getting through that very first line. Once that’s out of the way, everything tends to fall into place, so giving yourself something specific to do before singing your first note can work wonders.
Stress is often relieved by physical exercise, so stretch and run on the spot before you perform. If you suffer from a dry throat, which is a classic symptom of nerves, try gently biting your tongue to increase your saliva flow. Also, stagefright is a great hunger killer, but it is important to eat: go for complex, easily digestible carbohydrates such as rice or pasta.
If you’re singing a song by yourself, a good ploy is to use the opening line to raise a series of questions that will help distract you from the task at hand. So, using the Beatles’ A Day in the Life as an example, which begins with the line “I read the news today, oh boy”, imagine somebody asking you a question such as: “What did you do when you woke up this morning?” Now you’re answering a simple question, rather than singing an opening line, which should take away most of your nerves.
Remind yourself why you perform in the first place. Think about how good you can be, about how much pleasure you could be giving to others. Try to remember times when you received compliments for a performance that you gave. And of course there’s the old cliche of closing your eyes and imagining the audience in their underwear – it really can work!
If these techniques don’t work, you may consider visiting a hypnotherapist or psychotherapist, who are trained to deal with mental blockages. Stagefright is usually triggered by something we are able to control, but it can sometimes take a trained expert to identify what might have caused our uncertainty.
Singing with a band
There is nothing quite like singing with a band or orchestra. After having spent some time rehearsing with accompaniment, look for opportunities to meet other aspiring singers and band musicians. A good place to do this is at an open-mic session.
When singing with a band, you will have a wealth of musical activity going on around you, and you will have to communicate with all of the band members. The pianist’s attention will now be divided between supporting you and leading the band, but if you are lucky enough to perform with experienced players you should find them extremely adept at supporting your performance.
If you come in at the wrong place, your best bet is to keep singing and let the band find you. If you come in on the wrong note, you will have to make a quick decision whether to find your key or abort. Either way, trust in the band and take comfort in the fact that they will follow you. When you’re nervous, it’s easy to set a tempo that is too fast and you are then stuck with it for the rest of the song. Remember to take your time and only indicate your chosen tempo to the band when you’re ready.
If you accidentally drop the microphone, get feedback from the PA or your music crashes to the floor, don’t panic. Any experienced band will simply slip into solo mode, and give you a cue when to come back in.
If you’re singing with a jazz band, remember that each band member should be encouraged to take a solo from time to time. When they do this, step aside but maintain eye contact and listen attentively to whoever is taking a solo. Remember that even when you are not singing, you are still part of the show.
Endings are tricky, though any experienced band will find a convincing way to end a song, even if you do not! One familiar ending is called a “turnaround”. This means the last phrase is repeated three times to signify the end of the song.
If you are lucky enough to sing with an orchestra or big band, this new sound may be overwhelming. Your own performance may not be very different to singing with a small band, but be aware that the orchestra has very specific parts and the conductor will set the tempo and indicate when you should come in. When singing with an orchestra or jazz band behind you it will be especially important to get the volume levels correct during rehearsal so that you can hear yourself clearly while singing. It is extremely important that you can hear all the instruments that are accompanying you, particularly the rhythm section – piano, bass and drums.
Singing in a studio
Before you go into a studio, make sure you know exactly what you’re going to do. Studio time is expensive, so preparation is essential. If you do have to make a decision on the day, make it quickly – if it turns out to be wrong, so be it. The worst thing you can do is stand around dithering.
When doing a live recording you have to intensify everything. People won’t be able to see your face, so everything you’re communicating needs to come across in the sound. Flaws are exacerbated. Before your session, practise singing your material into any recording equipment you can get your hands on – you’ll be able hear if there’s a difference between what you think you’re singing and what you’re really singing. If there are flaws you can then identify them and take steps to correct them.
A common mistake, especially when people are singing with a group, is to hang around for too long in the studio before actually getting to the vocal part, by which time the singer might be hungry, tired or have a dry throat. On the day of recording, try to avoid tea and coffee, as these will dehydrate you. Give yourself breaks; if you’ve been standing around all day and you’re just about to record, go for a walk or a gentle jog round the block. You need to get your whole body going – not just your voice. You should do a physical warm-up just as you would if you were singing live.
There’s usually very little resonance in the studio; it can be a pretty dead sound. Even if you’re singing something that really matters to you, it can be hard to stir the emotions when there’s nobody around. To counter this, imagine that you’re not confined to the booth, that you’re singing in front of an audience – and try to remember what the material means to you.