By Lis Lewis
A singer has an intense job. No matter what your mood, or how difficult your day, you need to be able to jump up in front of the audience and do a great performance. This means being able to sing the energized uptempo numbers as well as the blues ballads even if your day was right out of a soap opera. You must make a shift from your daily life into a state of mind that transcends the ordinary.
This state of mind is something you need to build. You probably already know what it feels like. It?s similar to how you feel when you are writing a song and the next thing you know, hours have gone by. Or, in performance, when you feel so connected to the material that it’s effortless. If only we could have that connection whenever we wanted. Every song we write would be stunning, every performance exciting. Without this feeling of connection – to the material, to the moment, to the audience – you can’t make the leap to being an ‘artist’. During your best performances, you will almost feel that the song travels through you if you just get out of its way. When you realize that your job is to move over and let it work, then you will have a great performance.
Soap Opera Day
But back to the soap opera day. Let’s say that your mother called and told you she wouldn’t pay for your voice lessons anymore and asked why you don’t get a real job. Your significant other is having a temper tantrum because you are gone all the time. Your manager called to say that none of those important people you were counting on can come to the show tonight. What happens to the connection? How can you get into the altered state that gives you the freedom you need on stage, when you are so bogged down in the mire of the soap opera?
You need a process that removes you from your everyday concerns and allows you to remember why you felt connected to those songs in the first place. That connection is what brings you into the present, into being in this moment, with this song and this audience. Being present in this way allows you to be creative and intuitive.
Over many years of performing and in working with my clients, I have developed a process to get from daily life into the mindset needed on stage. It takes getting focused, not being distracted by everyday events or even by the worries of making the performance work. It takes pulling your attention down to the quietest, most centered spot inside you where you know how to find the truth in your performance, where you are sure and confident and, therefore, free. I call this process a ‘pre-performance ritual’.
Creating A Ritual
A ritual is something that is done over and over in the same way. It is an ordered sequence of events that helps draw the participant further toward the desired conclusion through repetition. Anything can be a ritual. You come home from work, kiss your mate hello, sit in front of the TV to watch the news and start to relax. Just picturing yourself sitting in your living room can help you start to relax while you’re driving home.
Think of a wedding. There are certain things that happen every time. The bride walks down the aisle, usually in white. Certain words are always said, ‘Do you take this man…’ ‘I now pronounce you…’ The fact that we have heard these words before in this same situation and that we know they are coming give them more power than if we were hearing them for the first time. The symbolism of the events and their familiarity make the meaning of the ceremony more vivid. It connects us emotionally to other weddings that we have experienced.
The process I’ve created for moving from daily life to performance is a ritual made up of activities that draw me closer to my stage self. Your ritual will probably be different but the idea will be the same. It takes me a little over an hour to do mine but yours can be any length that works. Once I start it, I won’t do anything that would draw me out of it, like answer the phone. (That would be like stopping the wedding!)
When you’ve created a ritual that works for you, you will find that just the act of starting it will bring you closer to a performance state. You know from the beginning that you will end up on stage and each part of it draws you further in. That is how rituals work.
Turn Your Attention To Yourself
Create your own ritual. You might like long hot baths with candles and incense. If you have a lot of nervous energy before a show, jog around the block. The basic premise is to turn your attention to yourself. See how you are feeling; tune up your body and your mind just as you would an instrument.
You will need a quiet, private space. Set aside enough time, turn on the answering machine, close the door to your room. As far as everyone in your house is concerned, you’re not home. First do something physical. I love stretching and usually do a 15-minute routine. It’s great to engage your body and watch it move, see how it feels today, get out of your mind for a while. Your body, after all, is your instrument and your major means of expression. You should be connected to it. If you like to swim or run, this is the time. If you don’t do anything physical, you’d better start. If you are ever in a touring road show or have to tour in support of your record, you will need some kind of exercise to keep your mental health as well as your physical stamina.
After stretching, do some kind of meditation. If you have just worked up a sweat, you might not want to do this right now, so play with the order of things. Maybe put it after your shower. Some form of meditation is essential; it quiets your mind, relaxes your body and turns you inward. If you have one you like, use it. If not there are books and classes on meditation. It’s important to find a meditation you can actually accomplish. It should be simple and easy to do. Remember that the basic idea is to work from the outside world to an inside reality and order your ritual accordingly.
I am including a simple meditation here which is in two parts. The first part is the quiet meditation and the second is a creative visualization. Since we don’t have many opportunities in daily life to practice creativity, we need to invent some, especially before a performance when spontaneity is so important. Practicing creativity as a part of your pre-performance ritual opens up the creative pathways in the brain so your performances will be more creative.
Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the ground and your hands in your lap. Close your eyes. Relax your body. You can think about each body part one at a time, relaxing from the toes up. Concentrate on your breathing and try to clear your mind. When you notice your mind wandering bring it back to the breathing again. Think of it as a child you are holding by the hand as you walk through the park. Your objective is to get to the other side of the park but the child keeps running off, fascinated by some new thing. Each time she runs away you gently take her by the hand again and lead her through the park. Your mind is playful and wants to be entertained. Keep bringing her back to the breathing. When you feel centered and relaxed, go on to the next part – the creative visualization.
This is where you practice creativity. You can do it anytime, not just before a show. The purpose of it is to spend some relaxed time inside your mind. Create whatever you would like to; let your mind wander. Don’t feel that you have to force anything to come to you. Your mind has a million images waiting, but you have to relax to get them. Sometimes that means going into the visualization and seeing nothing for a while. But, whatever you see, accept it and let it lead you. There are no right or wrong images; only your images.
The Creative Visualization
After you’ve quieted your mind, remain in the comfortable relaxed position with your eyes closed. Imagine that you are on a lovely path near the ocean. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is warm and the sky is blue and you feel very good. As you walk along you see the ocean and the waves gently gliding into the sand. You walk barefooted on the warm sand down toward the water. You can smell the salt in the air and feel the sun on your back. You feel comfortable and at peace. As you walk along the shoreline you see many small shells in the sand and one in particular that is very beautiful. As you walk up to this shell, you grow smaller and smaller, until you are small enough to go inside it. First you walk around the outside and see it’s delicate colors and feel the sand where it clings to the shell. You walk around to the front of the shell and stop outside. When you are ready, you will go inside the shell and inside you will find anything you can imagine. It will be completely safe and within your control because everything you find will have been created by you. When you are ready, go inside. Take as long as you like exploring the inside and come back out when you are done.
You step back onto the sand; the sun is warm and there are birds flying overhead. You feel very good. As you walk away from the shell you grow larger and larger until you are back to your normal size. You walk down the shoreline to the path you came on feeling at peace with yourself. You know you will always be able to come back to your shell whenever you want to.
The first time you do this you might find only the inside of a shell. But as you practice it more and more, you will discover worlds inside your shell. Be patient. And on the days when you don’t find anything interesting, don’t push your mind for images. Relax and float.
All The Rest
After the visualization, lay out your stage clothes. Keep them separate from the clothes you wear everyday. This gives them a certain power when you pull them out of your closet. It means it’s almost time. And if your clothes express your stage persona, then when you look at them you should get a good hit of what that persona feels like.
Take a bath or a shower, Use candles, incense – whatever appeals to you. The idea is to treat yourself well, to prepare your body for a special event and to focus on the preparations. Next, look at your face in a mirror. Really look. Most of the time when we look in a mirror, we pose to try to look good. But that’s not what other people see. All of your character, the weaknesses and the strengths, can be seen in your face. I put on make-up and watch my face and talk to myself. Crazy? Maybe. But it works. I start to see how others see me. I watch the transformation from my regular face to my made-up one. It always amazes me. This is also when I vocalize (warm up my voice). I take lots of time with this step. I’m not done until my voice feels good and my face looks right. Then I get dressed.
After this point, the rest of the world starts to get involved. While driving to the show, listen to a compilation that you’ve made of your currently favorite great performances. As other people start to interfere with your nicely-built calm, you will find that it deteriorates a little. You get to the club or the theater and find you have no dressing room or the booker has changed your performance time. You can’t just ignore it all, but if you find yourself unraveling a little you can get reconnected. Fifteen minutes before you go on, go into a cubicle in the bathroom and do a short, but focused, version of your meditation. The feeling of calm will come back and you will be centered again.
Keep At It
You might find the first few times you do this, it doesn’t work as well as I’m telling you it will. That’s because it takes time and repetition for it to gain strength. You also may find it’s hard to want to slow down and turn inward. Performing is a very out-going experience. At the theater or the club all your friends will want to say hello and talk to you about things that are unrelated to your gig. You get caught up in the excitement of the moment – although you shouldn’t be shouting over the loud music anyway. You may feel that all your adrenaline will be lost if you focus inward. But in reality, the opposite will happen. The adrenaline stays but it’s channeled, not scattered. It comes out as powerful, focused personality, as conviction and charisma which is just what you want.
Lis Lewis is a voice teacher and performance coach in Los Angeles, CA. She has been training recording artists for over 30 years. Learn more about her private voice lessons. Lis is the author of the books The Singers First Aid Kit and The Pop Singers Warm-Up Kit both published by Hal Leonard. In addition to private coaching, she has worked in collaboration with managers, record labels, producers, bands and songwriters in the recording and rehearsal studio to get the best performances from their artists.