There are lots of common-sense things you should do as a vocalist to keep your instrument in top shape to perform, and as performance opportunities will be returning soon, it’s worth reminding ourselves of some of the basics.
There are many things that go into a great vocal performance, and they don’t all require being the most technically gifted singer with a five-octave range. Confidence, charisma, and the right repertoire are among the many subjective elements that go into any great performance – live or when recording vocals in a studio – in addition to having chops as a singer.
“‘Synthesis’ is this fancy word we throw around in our college,” says Daniel Ebbers, Professor of Voice and Chair of Music Performance at the University of the Pacific, “and I do think it’s an important thing. We study all these things individually, but it’s the synthesis, a command of your vocal instrument, a command of the stage, a command of the language, and the language you use – all these things synthesized together make a great vocal performance.”
Of course, much of what helps a performer reach the point where all these elements come together is preparation, practice, and experience. A good vocal warm-up, general vocal care, and protecting your voice leading up to a performance or rehearsal can help ensure you perform at your peak when the time comes.
Vocal performance preparation
When preparing for a vocal performance or studio date, “the obvious thing to do is rest,” recommends Ebbers. “But there are environmental things you might not be aware of or consider an issue, like being in a place where the decibel level is much higher than you think it is. In order to compete with the sound, you have to strain your voice to speak louder to be heard or understood. Many times, people are unaware that they’re in such an environment, because there are so many noisy places in our world, and we’ve come to accept them and adjust. But when you’re a singer, you have to be more aware of these environmental conditions.”
As the prospect of playing club dates, bars, and parties starts to be a possibility in the coming months, the quality of your performance and your vocal health can be severely impacted in the hours leading up to your set by talking and socializing before you get on stage. “Don’t go shouting to your neighbor across the street or unduly tax your voice before a performance or session, even if it’s a week away,” says vocalist, studio owner, and producer Jon Marc Weiss. “That can take its toll on your throat and vocal cords and can really mess you up. Keep in mind that you need to keep your voice in tip-top shape so that when you’re called on, you can perform.”
But it’s not just the days and hours leading up to a given night’s performance that you need to consider, especially if you are singing in a stage production or any performance ensemble that requires nightly or continuous performances. In “normal” times, “very often, after a performance there’s a party, a reception, or something,” cautions Ebbers, “and many famous singers will say, ‘I’d love to come, but I can’t, it’s not possible.’ It’s all common-sense stuff that revolves around rest and awareness of your instrument.”
“All instruments are subject to environmental conditions – humidity, heat, all sorts of things. But other instrumentalists get to put their instrument in a case and walk away, or put it in a room that’s ideally suited to make it sound good. As vocalists, we have to take our instrument everywhere, and there’s this intersection of our lives and this instrument. So there are all sorts of things you need to pay attention to that other instrumentalists don’t have to. But good health is good singing, and whatever you can do to keep yourself healthy is important. Every person is different, and every voice has its own limitations and set of things it can tolerate.”
Care and maintenance of your voice
You know how your guitarist always wipes down his strings and instrument after rehearsal and packs it in a case with a dehumidifier? Have you ever seen how a classical musician babies and cares for his/her instrument? Become as fanatical about your instrument as other musicians are about theirs. Treat your voice in a way that maintains it from show to show. Try not to talk too much during the day. You may have interviews to do or have a day job that has you on the phone or in meetings, but try to stay quiet as much as you can. Practice vocal warm-ups every day, whether you’re rehearsing/performing or not. And get in the habit of doing cool-down exercises after rehearsals or performances to help ensure your vocal cords aren’t as stiff the next day.
And, above all, don’t yell before, during, or after a performance.
When you yell, you’re closing your windpipe while pushing air as hard as you can to get sound out. Your vocal cords are being blasted by air pressure and are resisting it — fighting against it. That puts a lot of wear-and-tear on your vocal cords. As a singer, and certainly as a performing singer, you need to have stamina, and stamina comes from taking good care of your vocal cords. You can’t continue to put pressure on them over and over without you losing your voice.
Establish a warm-up routine
A few years ago, professor Ebbers recorded some warm-up routines for us, and they are worth sharing again. Enjoy, and take care of your voice!
Getting a great vocal take in the studio
Vocal exercises – Vocal warm ups for your upper register
Add natural vocal effects to your songs
Falsetto, vibrato, and other natural vocal effects you should master
What do you want from a vocal coach?