Performance Blues

First, the most important question: Do you still love to sing?

I know it sounds obvious, strange, etc. to ask this – but it comes from my own experience; I went back to a coach after a year, and her comment to me after our session together was “It’s obvious you really enjoy singing now – that you couldn’t live without doing it. A year ago, I wouldn’t have said that – a year ago it seemed like it was WORK for you, and that you didn’t particularly like doing it.” That doesn’t mean I DIDN’T do it when it seemed like work – or that I didn’t keep doing it, because obviously I must have to get from that point to the point where it’s now obvious to lots of people (my voice teacher commented on it just this week) that I LOVE singing, and even during my worst crises in vocal confidence (like one I’m experiencing at the moment) I still love singing – I just don’t necessarily love the way I sing.

If you still love to sing, then ask yourself do you love what you’re singing? Sometimes I’ll get so fed up with a piece of music, it will be torture to have to practise it even one more time.

Again, you’ve made a commitment to sing certain repertoire for this recital. If there are one or two pieces you really can’t stomach any longer, is it possible for you to make substitutions – and do you have any other pieces that are in good enough shape for you to substitute? If you can’t change the programme, you’ll have to change your mindset – which is tough, I know.

If you really can’t honestly say you still love to sing, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sing. It just means that you’ll have to work around that problem too. Ask yourself WHY you don’t love to sing – is it the act of singing you dislike, or is it your voice at this stage in your vocal technique, or is it the repertoire you’ve been working on for too long? If you can honestly say it’s the very act of singing you’re tired of, then getting through this recital should be a piece of cake. You’ll have decided that you don’t care about the outcome because you don’t mean to continue being a singer – so who cares how well you sing those recital pieces. They will be your swan song in this area, so you might as well go out with a whimper as a bang.

Somehow I don’t think this is the case, however. So what you probably really don’t want to do is (1) sing the music you’ve got to sing – or (2) work as hard as you think you have to to sing as well as you want to. Here are some ideas for psyching yourself back to a level of excitement that can carry you through:

1. It’s not an academic recital or an exam. It’s a performance. It’s meant to entertain the listeners. As for any other considerations, screw them. Think of this as a Carnegie Hall gig, not an academic requirement. The fact that a by-product reward will be an academic credit is totally irrelevant. You are a PERFORMER not an academic – act and think like one.

2. Let the PERFORMER in you take over. Think about each of the pieces you are performing – not in terms of what aspect of technique or musicianship you chose them for to impress your professor and get a good grade. Think about each of the pieces in terms of its entertainment value. Are the words interesting? If so, work more with the text – think about its meaning and how you will get it across to the audience. Think about the few but critical physical gestures or facial expressions that the words suggest to you that you will use to help convey your meaning to the audience. If there are some dazzling musical moments, have fun with them – if there’s a killer of a run that you have flogged yourself to death to be able to negotiate, now’s the time to really SHOW OFF – have fun with it. Wow the listeners! If there’s a stratospheric high note, MILK IT! Don’t approach these pieces strictly academically – ENJOY the show-off stuff, just the way you would do if you were being paid to sing it at the Met or Carnegie Hall for an audience of devoted fans.

3. Experiment with new ideas as you sing through the pieces. Have you tried taking things faster/slower? Have you thought about different ways of phrasing – emphasizing different words, or putting commas in different places – obviously where it makes sense, but usually there are five different ways to say a sentence, each of which will have a subtly different meaning. Work with the text in this way, and by changing little emphases in the text, you’ll find you change little emphases in the music. Tape record yourself as you play with this and see what might work even better than the way you’ve been doing it a thousand times already.

4. Work on the least secure pieces the most. These are the ones that worry you the most, but also the ones that will seem the least stale, and the ones where you will feel a greater sense of accomplishment as your efforts improve them between now and performance time. This may seem like obvious advice, but there really is no reason to sing through the pieces you already have down pat and perfected to the best of your current abilities more than two or three times between now and the performance.

5. Think about the THEME of your recital – is there some unifying idea you’re getting across? Be creative – think about the message you’re trying to convey with your selections. If nothing obvious comes to mind, Be imaginative. This will get you thinking in new ways about stale old pieces.

6. Start planning for all the new music you’ll start working on the minute this recital is over. This recital is a beginning not an ending – a stepping off point for your next phase of musical and vocal development. Don’t think you don’t have the luxury to put a little mental energy in what comes next – if you can get excited about the five arias you’ve been wanting to start work on as soon as this bloody recital was over, you can use that excitement to propel you through the recital towards that reward. Hell, even sing through a few new pieces – ONCE – just to see how wonderful they feel in your mouth and body. A kind of preview of things to come.

7. Decide what you’re going to do with the recital pieces once you’ve done the recital. Do you like any of them enough to keep them in your repertoire? As audition pieces? If so, you might want to start thinking about the next time and the context in which you will perform them. Maybe the programme of this recital was dictated by academic exigency. But if there are three songs on the programme that you can imagine doing again, Think about the recital programme you’d LIKE to include them on – something with a theme that means something to you, or focussing on a composer/group of composers you really love – and PLAN to do that recital – a recital purely for the joy of performing. Again, having a goal BEYOND the current recital is a really good way to keep the energy flowing.

8. Don’t forget to invite your friends to hear your academic recital. An audience who you know is predisposed to love you will applaud a lot and give you all the strokes you may not feel you’re getting from that poker-faced academic committee who sit in the back taking notes. Forget about that bunch – they aren’t having any fun…which is no reason why you shouldn’t. Indeed, it’s all the more reason to have fun – because if you just get up there and sing for the joy of it, I guarantee you’ll sing better than if you worry yourself to death over how you’re doing.

Hope some of these ideas help.
Written by Karen Mercedes