Being present while performing and practicing is, I believe, the most profound and important aspect of all your music making – being able to freely access this state of mind will improve your gigs, your songwriting and your improvising instantly.
I’ll break this blog entry down into a couple of different parts – What is being present? – What does it look like? – How does it work? – Exercises to experience it – Exercises to integrate it – When you can expect it to work and (finally) Where to use it.
WHAT IS BEING PRESENT?
“Being present” is the best way that I have to describe the feeling of deep, soft focus that all great creative people can access at will.
It’s a place inside you where time and all the niggles of the world don’t exist, it’s a place of flow and authentic creation and it can be invigorating and exhausting. Les Murray, one of the world’s greatest living poets (and an Aussie!) puts it beautifully
“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again… You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it… Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form.”
When you play music from this place you don’t spend the whole time thinking “oh I gotta get this note” or “I hope the drummer comes in at same time as me”. Instead it feels more like you are listening to yourself play, like you’re outside of yourself and playing at the same time.
When you are truly present you will connect better with audiences and other musicians as well as always performing at your very best.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
If you’ve ever been to a concert and you’ve felt the artist on stage change the “feeling” of the room dramatically – you have experienced a performer who was being present.
Jeff Buckley was a good example of someone who was truly present while he performed. Also Tori Amos, Miles Davis, Ian Kenny from Karnivool, Thom Yorke from Radiohead, KD Lang, Katie Noonan, Bruce Springsteen, Antony (from Antony And The Johnsons), Jan Garbarek, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Mogwai. When these artists play they hold the audience in the palm of their hand. When they sing or play very quietly it’s like they’re casting a spell. When you see a great musician like that you feel transported, transformed – witnessing that sort of performance is something you might talk about for the rest of your life.
Even great performers don’t do it every time they perform though. Some nights you will see these artists and they will be in the zone for the whole gig, sometimes just for a few songs or even just for a part of a song. When they talk between songs you might notice that they have a completely different feeling from when they are playing.
Frank Zappa is a good example of a musician who goes there sometimes – often when he is singing or talking in the microphone he is more like a circus ringleader – just like a funny guy on stage – but then when he solos on the guitar, he’s gone, musical ideas just keep flowing effortlessly as he goes somewhere else for those few minutes of soloing.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
I don’t think anyone knows exactly how it works. But the good news is that it doesn’t matter how it works. If you have experienced it as an audience member or a performer you know that it’s real. The best news is that it’s something that you can learn how to do and it’s something that you can practice and get better at.
EXERCISES TO EXPERIENCE BEING PRESENT
Here is one of the easiest ways to experience being present.
1. Pick a really simple, repetitive task that involves just a little bit of attention and where your mind normally wanders away. (Like washing the dishes or painting a wall or washing your car).
2. While you perform the activity – let’s say washing the dishes – really pay attention to what it feels like to wash the dishes. Notice the sensation of the sponge in your hand and how it scrapes away the food or grease. As you turn the plate over feel the weight of the plate and it’s point of balance. Be aware of the sound of the water dripping back into the sink. Who knew that washing up could be so engrossing!
3. When your brain wanders way from doing the dishes (as it will), don’t fight it. Instead, notice what it is that you’re now thinking about and say these exact words to yourself. “Hey brain, thanks for bringing that to my attention but right now I’m just washing up.” Do this as often as you need to so that you can eventually be present for the whole task.
That exercise just starts you flexing your focus muscles – here’s an exercise that you can apply right now to your playing.
1. Blow, pluck, strike or sing a note.
2. Listen to the note – like, really listen to it. Hear how it fades away to nothing or how it’s texture and timbre changes over time.
3. Repeat this and explore how much information, how much there is to listen to, in just a single note.
4. Do this maybe in a scale or over a tricky passage that you are working on – don’t play it fast or in rhythm – notice how your fingers shift and how the note changes as your fingers shift – notice the quality of the note and how the instrument resonates differently for each note that you play.
5. Maintain this awareness as you add rhythm and increase speed.
6. Observe your playing/singing as if you were a listener and not the performer.
7. Try this for improvising as well!
There’s a fantastic book by Pat Pattison called Writing Better Lyrics. Chapter 1 – Object Writing outlines an excellent exercise that will teach you to be present while writing lyrics or poetry. I highly recommend it and teach it to all my writing students.
WHEN CAN I EXPECT BEING PRESENT TO WORK FOR ME?
Like anything, being present is something that requires regular experiencing (I’m going to say “experiencing” rather than “practicing”).
When you are nervous or underprepared it can be very elusive. For me nowadays, a successful performance is when I get to that place at least once and a fantastic performance is when I maintain being in that place for a long period of time.
Start by strengthening your mental muscles with the first exercise above – do that exercise as many times a day as you can. Bring it to your regular playing sessions (I don’t like the word practice) with the second exercise and be patient and kind with yourself as it becomes a permanent part of your playing.
Being able to stand on a stage and go to that place will happen, but it will only happen with experience and time. Seek opportunities where you can perform and try things out and it doesn’t matter if you screw up. Jam sessions are great – particularly jam sessions that don’t have a lot of chord changes (there’s a reason that Miles Davis wrote Kind Of Blue the way that he did).
WHERE ELSE CAN I TRY BEING PRESENT?
You can be present everywhere! Try it at work (I’ve been practicing it as I write this blog). Try it walking through a park. Definitely try it with your other creative outlets – remember that you’re probably creative all the time at work – putting together a great power point presentation or diagnosing then repairing a fault in an engine or playing a sport are creative acts too.
Know that every time you practice being present you are strengthening your “being present” muscles and your music making will only improve as a result.
Seamus is a writer, performer, educator and co-director at Independent Music Academy. He has been playing music for 34 years and teaching for 25. You can hear/read his work at www.kingcolossus.com
The sooner you start the sooner you’ve be up and playing.
If you’ve had singing lessons before you probably know a stack of exercises – like exercises for your breath – some that help you get high notes – some to increase stamina and flexibility.
The effectiveness of all of those exercises can be improved by using one simple (and rarely taught) concept.
It’s called Kinesthetic Awareness (or body awareness or proprioception).
It’s been a critical part of my teaching for the last 15 years and I’m really excited to share it with you today.
I’d like to talk to you first about how NOT to practice – then how to practice – a quick explanation of kinesthetic awareness – and then how to integrate kinesthetic awareness into your singing TODAY.
HOW NOT TO PRACTICE
1. Set up your practice area.
2. Run through your exercises. Just do them once or twice each then move on as quickly as possible.
3. Sing some of your songs.
To be honest, this kind of practice is better than nothing. But only just.
If I had a client who was practicing like that I would suggest to them that they just sing some songs instead. Be engaged and enjoy singing. Have some fun. The angst that that they are getting from doing exercises is not worth the limited benefits they’re getting from forcing themselves.
WHY EXERCISES ARE IMPORTANT AND BEING PRESENT WHEN YOU PRACTICE
Singing involves very specific control of mostly small muscles. You can’t see these muscles and in everyday life you don’t have to control them that carefully either.
When you do a singing exercise (which could be a silly noise or a particular way of breathing) you are isolating those muscles and learning to control them more accurately – in ways that will benefit your singing voice.
Like developing any skill – you need to pay careful attention to how you develop your vocal skills too. Imagine an archer trying to improve by just shooting arrows off into the air? Of course she doesn’t! She stands in front of the target, breathes deeply, then is completely focussed when she fires of the arrow. And because of this she improves.
Exercises are exactly the same. They need to be approached in a relaxed way, with good breathing and focus, and you need to be present (not thinking about other things, not racing through them) as you do them.
WHAT IS KINESTHETIC AWARENESS?
So our archer (let’s stay with her because she is so excellent at practicing) has some advantages over us. For one thing she knows when she succeeds because she hits the target. She can work on her technique by adjusting her stance or lifting her arm differently. Then as she adjusts her stance or lifts her arm it has an immediate impact on her success. She misses the target and she is inspired to try a new technique or carefully adjust what she just practiced or she hits the target and is pleased with herself and that makes her want to hit the target again.
She has it so easy compared to us.
We make silly noises and we’re not sure exactly why we’re doing them (because there is no target to hit) and we can’t see our singing muscles (so it’s very difficult to make slight adjustments and measure how they impact on the outcome that we’re confused about anyway).
So we stand in our practice room and go over and over our exercises in a way that is like firing random arrows off into the air and if we improve it’s really more dumb luck than anything skilled or clever and if we don’t improve it’s because we’re just “not destined to be a singer”.
But here comes kinesthetic awareness to the rescue!
I did a quick google and found kinesthetic awareness defined as “awareness of body parts and the relationship of those parts to one another and the environment”. That’s a pretty good definition. So basically kinesthetic awareness is the awareness of where your body is in space and how the different parts of your body are interacting with each other. Athletes and musicians, surgeons and martial artists have excellent kinesthetic awareness. The martial artist knows exactly where every part of his body is at every moment. The surgeon knows exactly where her hand is relative to the scalpel at every moment.
KINESTHETIC AWARENESS AND YOU (THE SINGER)
As singers we want to develop kinesthetic awareness of our singing instrument. This means that as we go for that high note we can feel the tongue or throat tensing and relax it. We can feel that we need to engage more support or that we’re bringing our head forward or sticking our jaw out (we don’t want either of those things!)
Also, when you have great kinesthetic awareness you can notice how it feels when you’re singing AMAZINGLY. The you can replicate that function tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. (This is one of the coolest things about having great kinesthetic awareness).
And finally, focussing on kinesthetic awareness makes exercises way more interesting.
DEVELOPING KINESTHETIC AWARENESS
The first part of developing your kinesthetic awareness is to realise that it exists! Accept that in the same way you can get more skillful with your hands by being aware of your hand’s muscles and paying attention to how you use them, in the same way you can also greatly increase the skill of how you use your voice.
There are some great exercises that help you to develop your kinesthetic awareness but the first thing that you can do (all by yourself) is simply notice where you physically feel your voice. As you sing a high note do you feel it more behind your nose or in your chest or throat. Then notice the muscles that surround that sensation. Does your throat get tight as you get higher? Can you go all the way to the top of your range with it staying soft and unflexed? What’s your tongue up to? If you work your support muscles does it make it smoother? What happens if you go slow? Fast? Curly?
Suddenly, if you looking at it through the lens of kinesthetic awareness, a simple siren cam become the most interesting exercise in the world.
I like to say that “Learning to sing is like learning to play the guitar – except the guitar is in pieces, you’re in a pitch black room and you don’t know what a guitar looks like.” Simple exercises, performed in a present, focussed way is where we singers begin to assemble our instruments. So many of the answers that we seek – how to be more in tune – how to sing louder – longer – higher – lie in kinesthetic awareness.
The sooner you start the sooner you’ll be singing.
You may be aware that in late November Stavulous, B105’s morning crew in rock band mode, reformed to raise money for The Royal Brisbane Children’s Hospital.
They raised 1.4 million dollars (which was pretty amazing) and we helped by training Stavulous, nearly drowning at Stavulous’ cyclone ravaged live to air broadcast and heading in at 2am to the B105 studios to offer our support as < did a mammoth 27 hours straight live to air…
Listen here to Stavulous, Andrew, Silas and Seamus and their 2 am madness. It does have adult themes, so you may want to listen before the kids do…
If you are offended by country music or polka, I strongly recommend you avoid it altogether!
A brief comment on where I left off at the end of part 1.
Let’s talk for a quick second about working hard. We’re not talking about 6 hours practice everyday or anything like that (though Labrat did go pretty hard early on).
These guys were just too busy. But we’re talking about a few weeks of focused daily work. That’s all. More than a lot of people with goals to play in successful bands do – and look at what Stavulous achieved in three weeks!
While this was all going on, Stavulous explored some of the more disreputable sides of rock stardom – fake tattoos, hotel room trashing, cross dressing, underwear as outerwear and big, big hair. But they were achieving quite a bit where it was really going to count
We had some proper loud band rehearsals and apart from how amusing it was to see that group dynamics between the members of a morning crew are much the same as they are between the members of a rock band (except wittier and with less swearing) they actually did quite well.
Labrat’s right foot technique was pummellingly violent to say the least, and at least one kick drum pedal couldn’t stand the pressure and shattered, but I think his mentor Matthew had taken the sensible attitude of – the performance is in one week and it’s vaguely in time – WELL DONE!
Camilla was calmed after another session or two with Silas and could begin practising her pumping rock moves (there’s not a lot to do with your left hand when you play keyboard in a rock band).
Tash had reconciled her relationship with her Violin teacher which had soured somewhat after Labrat smashed her Violin on air, demoting her to Bass and her little solo bit before the Chorus was all sounding good.
And Stav was sounding like a singer! Which was very exciting for all of us (and thank God really).
On their very last rehearsal the day before the Ekka performance, they were doing ok and I wisely said “OK. Now on the actual day you will be coming in cold so you should take a ten minute break and then come back and practice playing it with no warm up.”
They took this very wise advice and came back after their break and managed to not play the song through once successfully. Not once. Five starts, five Labrat breakdowns. How very very exciting at this late stage…. They sensibly called it quits and invoked the famous “It will be right on the night, uh, day” attitude that has sustained many shaky stage performances in the past and off they went.
The setup on the day of the gig was the usual “Where is it meant to be?” “Bugger I forgot the X, do you have any?” “No, we’re allowed in there, truly” and “Can I have more of me in the foldback?”.
The morning crew were doing a live cross from the Ekka, and various fans arrived and received Stavulous t-shirts and autographs. Stavulous had a quick soundcheck and played through the song… and didn’t collapse in a heap (phew). The crowd warm up man did his “Now when I say the name Stavulous we’re all going to cheer… are you ready….”. And the tension built…. I’m pretty confident that it was brown trousers time for Stavulous, it must have been terrifying but they were busy working (which must have been a welcome distraction from the far more serious business of rock).
At lunchtime the IMA crew all wandered back to the B105 stage, one final check of guitar tuning… and it was time! They were announced, and the crowd cheered (it was the best attended outside broadcast they had ever done apparently), and they played and…
It was ok!
It was only ever going to be to a certain standard, but they sounded like a capable garage band.
After 3 and a half weeks of music lessons. Unbelievable.
The mix that went to air was not particularly sympathetic (which I knew it wouldn’t be… sigh…) but they sounded pretty good. Labrat played drum fills that were actually rhythmic for the first time ever, Stav loosened up in moments and sounded like a proper rock singer and no one fell over, broke a string, forgot their part or froze and it was actually pretty good.
The second time they played as an outro to their morning show was actually pretty bad… but it didn’t matter. They had proven to themselves (and to us) that with some motivation, ANYONE can play music. And play it in a very short amount of time. We were immensely excited about that and were very pleased to have been involved in a project proving it to be true. Anyone can play!
Later that month we received a slightly panicked call from Andy at B105 (he said that if I could hear ANY panic in his voice, we must be in real trouble) – Stavulous were doing a world tour of Brisbane. It had originally been conceived that Stavulous could play every hour, on the hour for 24 hours, but cooler heads prevailed (though that would have been kinda interesting and very amusing sleep deprivation wise).
The plan was Stavulous were going to do a world tour of shopping centres throughout Brisbane, playing their one song and would we like to be involved? We were happy to once again, while the promotional side of the project was doubtful in it’s impact for us, we thought it was a great social experiment and the B105 cast and crew were just fun to work with. And it was a good thing that we were involved as no one at B105 had any idea of how to run a rock band! So we helped them to organise a PA and an engineer (and thanks to Billy Hyde for sending along John as a drum tech who was a machine and a very very good drummer) then the next Friday we followed them around as Stavulous rocked the four corners of Brisbane one song at a time…
It was a very successful day, plenty of fans turned out to watch them play (just one song!) and the band had reached the stage by half way through the day where they could recover from disasters mid song (small things like Labrat forgetting how to play drums for half a verse…).
It was fascinating to watch how their playing improved as the day wore on. By the end of the day they were listening to each other – holding pauses for slightly longer than was metric (not ideal) but then crashing into the next bar very together (which sounded great!). Every time they played again they became a better band and better musicians. More and more proof that
everyone can play music.
We were VERY pleased when the day was finished but it had been fun. The whole project had been very encouraging to us as mentors, a ratings success for B105 and actually enjoyable too!
I think I should take this chance to thank everyone who was involved in the project – Andrew, Silas and Matthew from IMA, Donna, Andy, Dan and the technical crew, street crew and support staff from B105, Kevin, John and Gareth from Billy Hyde, Danny for FOH on the tour and Stavulous for not letting us down and proving us right…
The B105 (a local Brisbane radio station) morning crew decided that they would form a rock band and perform at the Royal Brisbane Agricultural show, the Ekka.
Now that would seem quite reasonable except…
Stav (vocals and guitar) had played guitar for 18 months and had sung on stage once or twice (but no way that he could sing and play at the same time), Camilla (keyboards) had piano lessons up until the age of 5, Tash (bass guitar) had recently begun to play the violin (she had been playing for three months) and Labrat (drums) had never touched a musical instrument in his whole life…. never ever.
So, really pretty much complete beginners. But that’s ok because everyone can play music yeah? But the Ekka was only 4 weeks away….
4 weeks to prove that EVERYONE can play music. What an outstanding opportunity for us to walk the walk and prove that it is true what we believe – everyone CAN play music.
Now it was not an ordinary situation. Labrat, Camilla, Stav and Tash are overachievers and pretty determined individuals… that is how they have reached the level of career success that they have. They also know how to work hard. And they had great potential for utter public humiliation looming very fast indeed.
Ideal music students!
So here’s the story proper.
We received a call from one of our staff (thankyou Anthony). He had heard on the radio that the B105 breakfast crew were forming a band. They were looking for music teachers to help them to learn to play.
We got on the phone, then sent an email introducing ourselves and pointing to our youtube links so they could see that we could really play. We let them know that we were very excited about this as we could prove publicly what we believe very strongly – everyone can play music! And we could handle all of it for them – drums, violin (early on Tash was going to play violin), guitar, keyboard and voice – we could handle it
I should point out at this stage that things at B105 happen sometimes very quickly… They have hours of chatty time to fill every morning and when you have hours of time to fill daily you have a brilliant idea… and you go for it! This can mean that sometimes the people behind the scenes (hello Andy and Donna) suddenly have HUGE and alien tasks that they have to complete… “We need thousands of rubber ducks for a rubber duck race this friday…”. You get the idea…
They called back (possibly relieved) that they had found one place where they could have all the music lessons that they needed. Seamus did a live to air offering his services and made some lame jokes but was at least able to finish with “Yes indeed, everyone can play music – even the B105 breakfast crew!”
We had a first production meeting, where we delicately discussed things like – when on earth was this actually going to happen, could Tash play bass guitar instead, did they understand that the instruments so graciously donated by B105 listeners possibly weren’t up to the standard of instrument that they would require to play in public and did they understand that if they were doing it live to air they couldn’t rely on looking funny – they actually had to play half decent cause otherwise it was going to seriously suck. Be scared Stavulous… be very scared.
All this was quite easily sorted (thankyou Donna), Seamus showed Labrat a VERY basic drumbeat (he had been randomly bashing the kit and swearing for the last 3 days… he SERIOUSLY could not play…) and Stav possibly also had his first singing lesson that day but it is all a bit blurry 7 weeks after the fact…
And so it all began.
We contacted Billy Hyde Brisbane and asked them if they could provide some instruments for Stavulous to practise and perform on (they didn’t even have instruments… thankyou Kevin and Gareth for getting us out of that one).
Listeners were asked to choose a song and a band name. Within about week and a half the performance date was announced.
So Stavulous (very cute) were going to perform Green Day’s “When I Come Around” in 3 weeks time at the Ekka.
We started by seriously simplifying the song. Green Day can really play. There was no way Stavulous were going to be able to do an exact cover in three weeks. Labrat had a lesson pretty much every day for the first week. Camilla and Tash both had first lessons as did Stav.
And they worked very hard.
Camilla was a bit panicked, as she couldn’t have a second lesson for a week and a bit as her mentor Silas was away touring in West Australia with Women In Docs, but she was always going to be fine (she’s impressive under pressure).
Tash’s part was simplified so that she didn’t have to panic (and she picked up on it REALLY quick).
Stav is such a stage lover that he was going to pull it off just fine – he just had to learn some truths about rock’n’roll. Stuff like, “Rock musicians make it look like it’s a big effort to play – but the truth is that it’s very relaxed and easy”. He was truly shocked.
Matthew (Labrat’s drum teacher) had some very fascinating and expletive filled lessons with Labrat…
We were all a bit worried about Labrat. A rock band lives and dies based on the quality of it’s singer and it’s drummer. Stav would have a vocal mic so even if he totally sucked he could say something clever and possibly escape relatively unscathed… but Labrat only had the drums. And if he got confused and stopped in the middle of everything… well it would be dead air and a LOT of red faces for everyone.
And they worked very hard.
They broadcast their first band rehearsal one morning and heard themselves as a band for the first time.
And then they worked very very very hard indeed…
It did all end up happily – including a world tour of Brisbane a few weeks later but our next blog will fill you in on the gory details…
In the meantime – you can play music too! We’ve proved it now. Head over to our contacts page and leave your details. Look forward to seeing you soon!
Hello again everyone, just to recap, this is part two of the question…
Q. I sing in a band and I find that at the end of a gig I’ve got
no voice left and if I have to do two or three gigs in a row I’m really
in the shit. We’re touring soon and I’m worried.
A. We broke the answer down into four sections…
1. Be particular.
2. Be a diva.
3. Get equipped.
Now that we can be particular, let’s…
2. Be a diva.
It’s easy for singers to get a bad rap, because sometimes you
need to be fussy and demanding. Your voice needs to be protected or you
can’t sustain a tour, or sometimes even a whole gig. Protecting your
voice can require behaviour that may be irritating for those around
You have to fight for foldback onstage. Amongst all the
musicians on stage, your foldback requirements are critical. Guitarists
can turn up their amps, drummers can hit harder and while it may
fatigue (and potentially injure them), they can’t do the same damage to
themselves in 30 minutes that you can do in 30 seconds if you can’t
hear yourself properly. Try to be nice about it, but fight tooth and
nail for your foldback.
Smoke machines and air conditioning dry out your voice and are
your enemy. You might ask (politely) to have them turned off. Try using
a humidifier in hotel rooms and dressing rooms where the aircon has to
If the people around you really care about the band and how you
present to the public, having audible vocals on stage, being a bit hot
in the car and not having the smoke machine on are pretty small
sacrifices to make for a great sounding show.
3. Get equipped.
Having your own quality microphone is very important.
Everyone else in the band pays a fortune for their gear, so
shelling out for a decent mic so you sound fantastic seems fair if
you’re going to be such a diva.
Go into music stores and try different mics. Compare handling
noise and choose one best suited to your voice (they’re all different).
Prices start at $400.
Consider wireless to allow yourself the freedom to really move.
Try in ear monitoring. It can dramatically improve control and
minimise damage, simply because you’ll hear yourself properly (maybe
for the first time ever).
Bite the bullet and try singing lessons. You won’t lose your
unique voice. A good teacher coaches technique, which you integrate
into your existing sound.
Your teacher can help you sing with your whole body and access individual muscle groups for effect (like distortion).
Be patient and prepared to work because if you want to use
distortion night after night you must have a good technique
(sustainable) mixed with a tiny bit of relaxed and carefully monitored
“bad technique” (for rock).
Finally, the best thing to help sustain your voice onstage is to relax and enjoy yourself… (God forbid!).
This was the first of a series of columns that we wrote for Rave, a local Brisbane music magazine. There is a bit of repetition with some of the other entries in our blog, but I thought that it was worth including.
As this is our first column and we don’t have any real questions
yet, let’s pretend that a singer has asked me how to maintain their
Q. I sing in a band and and I find that at the end of a gig
I’ve got no voice left and if I have to do two or three gigs in a row
I’m really in the shit. We’re touring soon and I’m worried.
A. You are the singer. You are the primary focus at the front
of the rock behemoth. The reputation of your band can live or die
relative to your performance. You must be good and you must be
consistent. My number one recommendation (unsurprisingly) is to find a
good singing teacher… but here’s some stuff to consider….
We’ll break this down into four sections.
1. Be particular.
2. Be a diva.
3. Get equipped.
1. Be particular.
Remember, singing is very serious stuff. Live or die stuff for your band…
Your body is your instrument.
So… eat well. Lots of wholemeal stuff and greens. No chilli
(sigh), no dairy and check that you are aware of any allergies that you
may have – maybe you feel like crap all the time because you can’t eat
wheat (or whatever).
Drink well. Lots of room temperature water (no ice – your voice
hates it). No diuretics (drinks that dry you out – think coffee, soft
drink, alcohol – even fruit juice can be suspect – water all the way).
Drugs are horrendous for your body and pot is the worst for
your voice – you can’t cool it and it rips the crap out of your voice –
you’re not Bob Marley either, so don’t use him as an excuse.
Get fit. If you can’t run for about forty minutes without
getting puffed, you’re not ready to really front the band. Mick Jagger
and Steven Tylers fitness is an embarrassment to everyone under the age
of 50. I also heartily recommend Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Gung as great
Don’t talk over ambient noise (touring vans, loud music etc).
This is really tiring for your voice. Send the rest of the band out to
talk to punters after the gig if you’re touring, or minimise your
involvement (difficult for Indie bands I know, but you’re the singer –
you’re particular and a diva – it’s in your job description).
Get plenty of sleep! Your voice and body must have time to recuperate (tough on tour but it’s sleep or sing…).
And finally, do some simple, relaxing vocal exercises so that you know where your
voice is at before you hit the stage, warming down is also a good idea.
Next month I’ll give you some diva instruction, help you spend
money at your local music store (just like a guitarist) and point you
in some learning directions.
Secret number 1 – a lot of Singers have no idea what they’re doing.
There. I’ve said it. Speaking as a Singer myself, I can quite confidently say that we can be a pretty ignorant bunch.
Guitarists can talk for hours about modes, amplifiers and the relative merits of two seemingly identical brands of guitar string but if you ask a Singer about their craft – their instrument, tone production, equipment choice, practice regimes… well they might have a vocal exercise or two they picked up from a friend who “had a couple of lessons with this old lady who made him sing Andrew Lloyd Weber songs” and they will probably sing happily through whatever evil smelling microphone they are given at the gig… and that’s it.
It’s quite an extraordinary situation that we’re so ignorant, because onstage, Singers are the most important member of the band. We are the focus for all the energy (positive or otherwise) of the seething masses.
If we get a sore throat, the gig can be canceled, if we decide to croak our way through the set anyway (or worse, blow out on the third song), people demand their money back.
The audience copes if they don’t hear a Guitar solo all night, but they won’t listen to 45 minutes of instrumentals.
It’s a dangerous feeling having a Singer out the front who isn’t sure that their voice is going to make it through the show….
But Singers who are having trouble with making it through gigs or who can’t hit the notes they want aren’t alone. It’s practically an epidemic.
The cure is embarrassingly simple.
Treat your voice like an instrument. If you’re a Singer, get some lessons. If you’re an Instrumentalist, force your Singer to get some lessons, and if they won’t… have some lessons yourself (Singers hate that!).
If you can’t get lessons, look for help with the technical aspects of singing wherever you can. This can include YouTube, blogs and forums online and there are also some good books, CDs and DVDs available.
A good hint for what to look for in lessons (whether in person or on video etc) is to look for teachers who stress posture, breath, relaxation and sensation.
Posture is important as it takes stress off singing muscles, improves resonance and makes it easier to breathe.
Breath is important as that’s what makes your voice work! Breath is also the secret to getting high notes…
Relaxation is important as relaxed muscles are powerful muscles and relaxed singing is sustainable (gig after gig after gig).
And Sensation is how we learn to sing – we can’t see our instrument so we have to feel it instead.
Secret number 2 – Singers aren’t born (no matter what they say on Idol…) they are made, and anyone can be a Singer.
As always, if you have any questions, email us on email@example.com or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.
My “Get Low, Get Loud” technique discussed previously is a simple way to gain clarity in the band room. If you’re unsure about gear, tone and the sympathy of your bandmates/sound engineer, it’s a great place to begin developing clarity.
There are more sophisticated methods available – here’s three.
1. Experiment with a pick.
Playing with a pick causes the string to vibrate differently when struck. It can give your bass consistency and clarity in attack and tone that your fingers may lack (I personally prefer fingers though).
2. Modify band arrangements.
Les Claypool from Primus and Flea from the Chili Peppers are two bass players that you never have trouble hearing. Why? One clue is their guitarists. John Frusciante from the Chili Peppers might put down a lot of guitar tracks, but they are often texturally thin and rhythmically functional. Very few big strummy chords or monster multi-tracked riffs from John Frusciante, and the parts are considerate of vocals, drums and bass.
Primus is the opposite of a guitar heavy band. Imagine if guitarist Larry Lalonde or drummers Brain or Tim Alexander tried to compete with Les Claypool? It would just be a big unlistenable mess, where you couldn’t distinguish any instrument, let alone bass. Instead, the drummer keeps out of the way, Larry Lalonde might make a thin skronk noise every other bar,
and Les Claypool takes up all the room in the arrangement.
Consider your band’s arrangements.
Does each instrument have room (even if some instruments take up more room than others)? Does your keyboard player need their left hand strapped down? Or are you looking at making the next …And Justice For All… (is there a bass player on that album)?
3. Work with your sound engineer.
Beyond controlling foldback, your engineer impacts hugely on your clarity.
I saw Midnight Oil play The Woodford Folk Festival years ago, it was a great gig and eye opening from a live sound perspective.
I generally discourage bass players from using distortion. Poorly applied distortion steals your (sub) bottom end and presets and pedals are generally designed to sound impressive in the store, but the scooped mid-frequencies result in a bass sound that disappears once the guitars start.
Midnight Oil’s gig was impressive because all guitars on stage were distorted, bass included. What should have been a mess was entirely under control from the mixing desk. If one guitar had a bassier distortion, than the other guitars distortions might have more presence in different areas of the mids – each guitar had a distinct sonic footprint where it was distorted and loud, but didn’t sonically interfere with the other guitar’s sound.
You should get a regular engineer for your band (it really helps). Talk to them about where your bass fits in the mix. Work with them to develop a quality bass sound that fits sonically with the rest of the band.
For a good example of what we’ve talked about above check out At The Drive-In’s Relationship Of Command album and always make sure that you trust your own ears first!
As always, if you have any questions, email us on firstname.lastname@example.org or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.