“We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” --Archilochos
Last month I began performing onstage with my musical improv group Thank You, Places: An Improvised Musical at the Philly Improv Theater. Every other Friday we make up a one-hour musical, on the spot!
If you're thinking: That sounds hard, Fel is so BRAVE! -- well, I have news for you:
It freaking ter-ri-fies me.
Seriously. I think I was more nervous on February 17, 2017, our opening night, than I was when I first went on for Elphaba in Wicked (and that's not a joke).
Why was performing made-up songs so psychologically stressful for me? You already know the answer, I'm sure:
No preparation means you have nothing to hold onto, no rules to follow, and no way to anticipate the challenging parts of a song.
In contrast, if you want me to do "regular" musical stuff, I will jump at the chance. Give me a score or a script to study, and I'm golden. I can rehearse and plan, I can get the feelings of the songs in my body, mind, and voice. I can deliver what I've practiced with consistency. This is my bread and butter.
But making up lines and songs on the spot -- all while maintaining good breath support, vocal control, solid singing technique -- this was another challenge ENTIRELY.
But, as the cliché goes: the Show Must Go On. So here's what I did.
I developed a "Singer Survival Technique."
Before I explain what this is, I want to point out that even if you're not performing in an improvised musical troupe like me, having a Singer Survival Technique is crucial.
As a singer, you're not always going to be able to rehearse everything. Being able to be spontaneous while singing, deal with the unknown, and find your way back after an unexpected mistake or change in a song is an essential skill.
(Examples: You're asked to throw together a quick act when an unexpected opportunity comes up. Or you decide to make up a riff or alternate melody, mid-performance. Or you're invited onstage without notice. Or you and your band change something about a song a couple minutes before you perform it. These things happen all the time.)
So it's time to arm yourself with something that will help you, no matter what.
Here it is:
THE SINGER SURVIVAL TECHNIQUE
Pick one, almighty, broad-strokes cue. Then, while performing, do that cue.
Now. This technique may sound overly simple and, of course, there's more to it. Namely, it only works in the clutch after lots of thought and preparation.
So what are the steps to prepare? To explain, I'm going to tell you:
(1) What exactly a broad-strokes cue is,
(2) How to pick this almighty cue,
(3) What you need to do *everyday* to ensure this Singer Survival Technique works when you need it most,
(4) What you need to do *right before a performance* to ensure this Singer Survival Technique works.
1. What is a "broad-strokes cue"?
A broad-strokes cue is basically a big, general movement that involves a big, general image. In times of stress, humans lose fine motor skills (tiny movements) but we retain broad/gross motor patterns (big movements).
In the army, soldiers are taught to rack the slides of their pistols with a broad movement of their palm, rather than with individual fingertips. Likewise, martial arts like Krav Maga reject overly detailed movements in favor of simple strikes that are easy to execute.
Relying on broad movements increases the likelihood of a successful performance in moments of confusion, chaos, danger, and stress.
Singing is the same, especially improvised singing. With no rehearsal, or even any preconceived idea of where the song is going, all you have to rely on is your skill in the big stuff -- the basics. For most singers, this is breath support, alignment, and relaxation.
If you make those things as automatic as possible, or use a broad-strokes cue to help you remember, you can use the rest of your brain to think about the other, less broad stuff (face shape, vowel modification, interpretation).
2. How do I pick this cue?
This is where your singing Practice Log becomes crucial.
I encourage all singers always to track their singing practice and determine which singing cues work best for them. (You can download my free Practice Log here.)
As you practice, keep track of the cues that are most effective for YOU.
Which images or prompts are the most "magical" for achieving a desired result? If you practice regularly, you will become quite familiar with these.
To develop your own personalized Singer Survival Technique, take your favorite cue or set of cues and combine them into one almighty broad-strokes cue.
Here's my own, personal example:
When I sing, I am absolutely lost if I am not 1) breathing from my diaphragm/lower body, (2) fully aligned without a "chicken neck."
So what is my Singer Survival Technique?
"Butt clench with arrow down."
For me, it works. (Without getting too much into the nitty gritty, the butt clench helps me to activate my breath, reduce tension in my neck and face, and stay vertically aligned, while the down arrow keep my energy grounded and my larynx relaxed.)
While I was performing onstage with Thank You, Places, I was thinking about lyrics, melody, character -- all that juicy stuff -- but always, ALWAYS, in the back of my mind -- and sometimes quite actively -- I thought:
"Butt clench with arrow down."
And whattaya know? My voice didn't bail on me. It was there. And I was able to sing freely with good supported technique, even when I didn't know what the heck was going to happen.
3. What do I need to do *before a performance* to ensure my Singer Survival Technique works?
In order for your Singer Survival Technique to work, you have to get the juices flowing before your performance with a basic warmup set.
Take particular care to stretch, breathe, and relax your ribcage, back, face, jaw, and tongue. Busting tension is one of the most crucial parts of maintaining good technique. This is a whole other topic in and of itself, but just know that a warmup is essential.
Equally essential: as you warmup, visually reinforce your Broad Strokes Cue, picturing the image or thought as you work through your warmup set.
4. What do I need to do *everyday* to ensure my Singer Survival Technique works?
The answer is simple and un-sexy: practice, practice practice.
Practice your skills daily, with extra emphasis on the basics, and log your findings in your Practice Log. Your basics are the meat and potatoes of your singing technique. They will ultimately compromise your Broad Strokes Cue.
In the words of Bruce Lee: "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."
Breath. Relaxation. Busting tension. These are the essentials, and more important that any "fine motor adjustment" could ever be.
Brick by brick, you are laying a solid singing foundation for yourself.
(If you're confused about what to practice, and you want a quick 'n' dirty solution that will help you bust tension, open up your voice, and build solid technique without wasting time, you might want to check out my Lazy Singer's Warmups. These will help with both numbers 3 and 4 -- warming up before a performance, and warming up daily.)
(If you want a more in-depth, holistic look at singing technique and building a solid foundation from the ground up, check out my comprehensive course Singing Transformation: 360 Degrees of Vocal Training.)
Whoa, that was a long post! But I wanted to share this because it has been illuminating to find myself totally terrified and in a new singing situation. It really puts things in perspective -- and hopefully lets you see that even people who have been singing for 25+ years (like me) need to take proactive steps to maintain good technique.
What do you think? Are you excited to develop a Singing Survival Technique? What are some ideas for your Broad Strokes Cue? Share below in the comments! I'll be sure to check them all out.