Why You Need A "Singer Survival Technique"

“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).

The face of a woman doing everything she can not to freak out

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.

The end.

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."

That's it.

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.

xo Fel

AUTHOR

Felicia Ricci

All stories by: Felicia Ricci
21 comments
  • John Fragola
    REPLY

    ThankYou.
    Am continuing slowly onward with Singing Tranformation and also have your
    Lazy warmup site. I'm sure at some point the performance aspects will be useful.
    Thank You for sharing your insights and wonderfully educational products with the rest of us.
    Presently I'm continuing to work on breath control additionally since losing my reserve before finishing
    phrases our lacking power to sustain my high notes is an issue.But your solutions to the multitude of issues
    facing singers have become absolute necessities.
    Respectfully,

    John Fragola

    • Nandita Suri Sharma
      REPLY

      OMG Fel I was supposed to sing at my nephews wedding in SFO last wknd and I just faced this issue. It was a huge gathering and while I was all ready, I though, I was not ready for this kinda polished, out of this world crowd. Mostly all physicians. The gathering was much bigger than I thought. I am a good singer and I got so tense...I lost my voice. I think I sing this song better than many but I was nervous to my core and had no way out. I did sing...people still appreciated but I sang 1/8 th of what I usually sing.
      Your article is just in time for me. I'll use it to my best. Thank you for posting it. I am so thankful. I'll chk out ur lazy singers warmups and will practice every day too.

  • Michael Kenny
    REPLY

    Hiya Felicia. Is this a personal email or am I on emailing list? The reason why I asked you is I,m going on stage on Britain's got talent. Not just the audience but the whole British and the world online. Tell me is this more terrifyiny! Lol

  • Donna Angotti
    REPLY

    Love your emails.
    I just did an improve thing. I am not professional and I just do it for a side thing and that takes the pressure off me so I can relax. I will use your suggestions next time.

  • Balogh David
    REPLY

    Wow, that was really a scared felling... For me when I fell like everything is going to hell, behind all my mind stands an image about a water falling down, just like the rain does, that keeps me to stay right and relaxing my body.

    Thank you for sharing this moment of your life with us, you are such an amazing person, and the best teacher I've ever meet.

    Rspectfully:

    Balogh David.

  • Dave Chaffe
    REPLY

    Hi Fel, I've watched quite a few of your you tube lessons and I think that the techniques are having a positive effect. I also play guitar and I find a lot of the performance issues and practices are transferrable. The email I received today was the first that made reference to your courses and I've been looking forward to checking them out.
    I was listening to John Tesh today and he said studies show that renaming "nervousness" as "excitement" and some positive self talk along those lines actually helps as well. 🙂

    Thanks and good luck with your musical improv. In Canada we have a comedy improv show on TV called "Who's Line is It?" it sounds like the comical version of what you're doing. Very courageous of you!

    Dave

  • Jason Vang
    REPLY

    I don't really know, If the performance isn't as important i won't stress out about it but still do my best. But if its an important performace i usually start to sweat and my face usually shows it. I try to act as if I'm in a TV show and sing my heart out like no one is there

  • Dana McKinney
    REPLY

    What you said makes perfect sense! I am excited to develop a Singing Survival Technique! I'm predicting that mine will be something along the lines...remember to breath from diaphram (360 degree breathing) and RELAX!!! DON'T REACH!!!!

  • Susy
    REPLY

    Hey Fel
    So im new to this whole online "self teaching" (not really because im relying on your advise but you arent physically here with me) singing bit.... im insecure but love to sing and this tid bit of info boosts my confidence in that the tools are there but i still have the "monkey tinkering with humans tools trying to figure out how they work" feeling as i read your emails and get through your first video in the webinar series that just pasted. So the info is great and makes sense and you do a fantasticc job at mainstreaming and simplyfing complex ideas for proper singing im still trying to catch up. But its just where I am at not a reflection of your instruction. You are a fantastic teacher. I wish i had access to your clone LOL

    Susy

  • Craig
    REPLY

    My broad stroke is all about voice placement in the front of my face. I have a hand gesture to go with it (open fingers towards my mouth and pulling the sound out - kind of like blowing a kiss but with my hand shaped like holding a small ball). I'm not sure it's the best option long term but today, when I am very inexperienced and very nervous, it helps. No way I can keep my voice quiet / hidden in the back of my mouth with this cue. From practice I also I tend to sing more open when I think forward.

    Thanks for sharing your cue and story,
    Craig

  • randy
    REPLY

    hey fel we done alot of stump the band songs over the years and are rule is if we cant play it the band has to buy you a drink.and trust me they will try will stump you. so the way we do it is/ say the the song is ( he has to go) the word go is very easy to rhyme.so we pick a song we do know , play that so the band can stay in time , and make up lines that end with the word go or rhyme with go that way the singer who picks the next verse is ready , ahd it works pretty good. well sometimes its good sometimes it stinks but at the end of the song we buy the drinks. and yes i have sung that line before. just rember that when your on stage, you do have something to lean on., your bandmates or your group,learn to work as a team so when you screwup and we all do. help is all around you. ps i think one hour of stage time is worth forty hours of practice.time because in a live band singing is what you do while you wait for a piece of your equipment break down in middle of a gig, that my friends is when you really learn to improvise fast. thanks fel.

  • Sneha
    REPLY

    Hey Fel!
    Thanks a lot for the survival cue. I'm gonna try it out. It sounds promising and looks like I could definitely use it in my performances. Keep up the good work and all the best! ????

  • Oliver
    REPLY

    Mine is thinking to relaxed and remain calm, keeping ribs open and breath rooted, and that my vocal folds are protecting me because they are balanced and compressed while saying to myself that my singing sounds beautiful in this moment.

  • Evelyn
    REPLY

    Great article! So I'm not the only one doing this!? After all of my weird warm ups and noises every day during the week and in the comfort of home, when it comes time to sing 'for real' in public and the nerves hit, my singer's survival technique is - "focus - on breath, on the words, and on a gentle flow" - that's it, and I use images of calm water, floating clouds, and a single flowing line to keep me steady and focussed. I also use the down arrow into the belly, back, butt. Basically when the nerves hit, technique tends to go out the window (or at least takes a back seat so it becomes automatic) and I just focus on breath as above. It really takes the pressure off yourself to just think of one or two key cues.

    Would you kindly do a video on this to demonstrate it? And your top SST recommendations?

    Fel, you are wonderful to share this with us - thank you.

  • Juliet Varnedoe
    REPLY

    As always Fel, you offer such great and candid insight. I'm going on stage this Friday and Saturday. This performance thing is relatively new to me, so I could surely use this advice. BTW, I practice your warm up essentials everyday.

  • Violet
    REPLY

    Heeey Felicia...wooooooow..you are a greater teacher..I had a problem with pitch but now am getting better day by day after receiving your videos.. Now I know the secret..it's all about breathe.will surely do my best .Thaankss Fel

  • Ben meg
    REPLY

    Sorry Felicia, for the late comment we were away from home, but I have various time my voice freeze up, and later it comes back again.
    I enjoy your tips and lesson.
    Cheers.
    Ben. meg

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