How to perform on stage (real great tips)

Mind, body and soul

It’s one thing having a great set of pipes, but learning how to perform on stage or in a recording studio requires a whole new skill set. Mary Hammond, Karen Rabinowitz and Dominic Alldis explain how it’s done

Musical theatre class at the Royal Academy of Music

Musical theatre class at the Royal Academy of Music Photograph: Anna Gordon/Anna Gordon

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.

Overcoming stagefright

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.

How to Perform Well On Stage

1. Study the Space in Rehearsals as you Improve Singing – Before you actually get
on the stage, you should have time to review the space and
get to know it. The last thing you want is to trip over a
wire or collapse on stairs because you’re not certain what it
looks like.

2. Practice Incessantly – This goes without saying, but
you should be very organized with the material that you
could sing it in your sleep. There is no such thing as
over preparing when it bears on a live show.

3. Arrive Early and Map out Any Changes – If you were
on stage three days ago but haven’t witnessed the space since
then, get in there and review what to assume at show time.
Sometimes, chair placements, stage setups, or curtain
arrangements can change at the last minute.

4. Relax in Peace before the Performance – Locate the
green room and relax. If there is no green room, hide in
your car for a handful of minutes. Complete silence and time to
evaluate your space is highly recommended if you want to be
ready for what comes next.

5. Communicate with the Audience – When you get on stage,
the audience should be the central focus of everything you
do. Don’t go over their heads unless it’s the only thing
keeping you upright. Make eye contact, smile at them, and
feed off that energy.

6. Get along with Positive Energy in the Room – There will
always be a vibe during your performance. It’s tricky to
explain, but when you get on stage, you’ll feel it. When
things not work out, look for one person having a good time.
Give attention on that one positive point and feed off that energy.

7. Be Yourself – Finally, be yourself. This is the
end result of everything you’ve worked for. Don’t feel
like you should adjust your mannerisms or style to fit the
audience. Demonstrate them who you are and be certainty in your
abilities. Actual inner sureness will have a profound
impact on everyone listening.

Singing Tip #1: Breathing Correctly

Singing Tip BreathingBreathing for singing receives some serious debate among vocal trainers. Some vocal trainers treat breathing like rocket science while some vocal trainers keep it simple (like it should be). Yes, breathing is important for singing. However, breathing for singing should always remain simple.

Perform this quick test to see if you are breathing correctly:

Place your hand on your stomach and breathe. Do you feel your stomach move outwards? If your stomach moves outwards then this is good news; this is what people mean when they say “breathe from your diaphragm.” If your shoulders are rising up when you breathe in then that is a sign of poor breathing technique. your shoulders should NOT rise up when you breathe in. Your stomach SHOULD move outwards when you breathe in.

In summary:

Stomach moving outwards when you breathe in = GOOD
Shoulders rising up when you breathe in = BAD

View more information about breathing for singing.

Breathing is important

but should always be simple!

Singing Tip #2: Eliminate a High Larynx

Eliminate High Larynx Singing TipPlace a finger on your larynx (the Adam’s Apple which sticks out as a lump in your throat). Now swallow. As you swallow, you can feel your larynx shoot upwards while the muscles in your neck and under your chin tense up, correct? While this is a good mechanism for swallowing, it is NOT beneficial for singing. These muscles constrict your voice and result in a strained vocal tone. Now sing a song with your finger on your larynx. Does your larynx rise up when you sing? Do you feel the outer muscles of your neck and the muscles under your chin tense up as you sing? If you answered yes to either of those two questions then you are singing with incorrect vocal technique.

How to fix a high larynx:

To eliminate a high larynx and sing with a free and natural tone you must practice with exercises that work to disengage the outer muscles of the larynx as well as the muscles under the chin that are responsible for a strained vocal tone.

Learn how to eliminate strain and how to improve vocal tone quality.

A high larynx

causes vocal strain.

Singing Tip #3: The Secret “Ng”

One of the most effective vocal exercises!

Watch Jesse Nemitz of Singing Success explain how to perform this vocal exercise correctly to improve your singing voice. When performed correctly, the secret “ng” sound helps to prevent pulling up chest voice and shouting due to altered resonance patterns.

Singing Tip #4: Shift Vocal Registers
Singing Tip Shift Vocal RegistersThe key to vocal range increase is to learn how to shift through your vocal registers just like you would shift gears in your car. If you take your chest voice (lower range) too high then you will start to experience strain and you will “max out” before reaching the ceiling in your small vocal range as a result of incorrect vocal technique. That is why you must learn to shift into head voice to allow for a much easier transition into your upper range. When performed correctly, this shift in vocal registers will allow for an explosive vocal range increase, and best of all… effortless vocal range increase!

Learn more about shifting vocal registers to increase vocal range.
Improve Your Singing Voice
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Singing Tip #5: Always Warm Up
Vocal Warm Up Singing TipWarming up your voice is one of the most overlooked singing tips. You can get so much more out of your vocal practice sessions if you warm up your voice. Warming up your voice allows you to ease your way into a vocal workout instead of just jumping straight into action. By starting light and right, a proper warm up session will also help you find your sweet spot before you begin your training for the day which is crucial!

Some recommended vocal warm ups include humming on a scale, lip rolls on a scale, and tongue trills on a scale. You are always told to warm up or stretch before engaging in any physical activities, and it should be the same for singing. Ease your way into your practice sessions.
Warm up your voice

to get the most out of practice.
Singing Tip #6: Learn To Use Vocal Resonance
Vocal Resonance Singing TipSo many unsuccessful singers believe that more muscle equals more power, and that is why they sing with such strain and constriction in their voice. More power comes from vocal resonance.

Vocal resonance is the amplification of the sound produced by your vocal cords. Properly used vocal resonance is what results in that powerful booming voice you hear from professional singers that can sing so powerfully but without any strain!

Being aware of resonance and using your knowledge of resonators to your advantage can result in beautiful vocal tone qualities such as the much desired commercial sounding mix voice.

Learn more about vocal resonance.
Using vocal resonance

will give you a bigger voice.
Singing Tip #7: Don’t Sing… Vocalize!
Tools to Build Your Voice
Vocalizing ToolsVocalizing is the idea of training your voice using exercises without actually singing a real song.

Most beginners want to immediately start singing their favorite songs, but you have to learn about your voice and how it works before you start singing songs. Vocalizing allows you to become familiar with your voice and acquire the tools necessary to put together a song for you to sing.

You have to learn how to use your voice before you sing, just like you have to learn how to use tools before you build a house, correct? Vocalizing will teach you how to use your voice just like you would learn how to use a tool. Before you build an entire house on your own, you must first learn how to swing a hammer, turn a wrench, use a saw, etc. Before you go and try to sing an artistically advanced song, you must first vocalize in order to learn the basic sounds, sensations, and coordinations of your voice that are used for singing with correct vocal technique.

You will get there soon, but be patient or else you will discourage yourself and cheat yourself out of something that you can learn how to do if you put your heart into it.

Vocalizing allows you to practice individual parts of your voice and then piece them all together to form a new singing voice.

Learn more about how vocalizing will make you a better singer.
Develop each part of your voice

before trying to sing songs.
Singing Tip #8: Record Yourself
Singing Tip Record YourselfThis is one of the easiest vocal tips because all you have to do is push a button on a personal recorder and record yourself singing. The advantage of recording yourself singing is the fact that sometimes it can be MUCH easier for you to hear what you are doing wrong when you listen to a recording of your voice being played back to you. It can be much harder to tell what you are doing wrong as you are singing since you are sometimes thrown off by the way you sound to yourself inside your head.

You can also listen to yourself over and over again which allows you to really focus on what you are doing incorrectly. This can be a major advantage in diagnosing your problems, so get an inexpensive handheld personal recorder and listen to yourself the way others hear you. This will be a huge help!
Singing Tip #9: Start Light and Right
sing light vocal tipStart light and right, then add power later.

ATTENTION: If you try to sing with power right off the bat then you are more likely to NEVER learn how to sing without strain!

I can’t stress this point enough. I never saw much improvement in my own voice until I toned things down a couple notches and sang lightly. Singing lightly allowed me to be more aware of the precise and delicate coordinations used for singing. By trying to sing powerfully at first I was just repeating the same bad habits over and over again and my strain was not going away. Then when I started light and right, I was able to start adding in the power later. You absolutely must learn the foundation of proper vocal technique before you start trying to sing with power. Starting light and right will help you discover correct vocal technique.

It worked for me, it can work for you too!
Start light and right

then add power later!
Singing Tip #10: Absolutely NEVER Give Up!
never stop singing tipI was so frustrated with my “bad voice” that I almost gave up before I discovered my true and natural singing voice. I can personally guarantee you that all of the hard work and potential frustration will be well worth the time spent once you finally discover what your voice is capable of sounding like. I started to believe that singing just wasn’t for me and I was ready to give up, but luckily I kept trying and eventually I did it… I went from bad-to-good!

A bad singer can become a good singer!
Singing is a skill that can be developed!

Anybody can learn how to sing good, so don’t you dare give up. You just need to learn the correct vocal coordinations and then master them. It is like learning how to play a new instrument.