The windup and the pitch
October 17, 2005 9:36 AM   Subscribe

Tips for tightening up my live vocal performance?

I play guitar and sing the songs I write, which are in the indie-pop vein, comparable to The Decemberists or The Magnetic Fields. I perform in local coffee shops and indie-rock venues, and at some point I plan on touring.

My question isn't "how do I sing better?" but "how can I more consistently sing my best when I'm performing for people?" I'm pretty happy with my vocal ability, but I often play shows and feel afterwards like the performance I gave wasn't as musical as what I know I'm capable of. I'd like to be more consistent.

It's not that I get onstage and totally screw up; I sometimes get recordings of shows, and I'm often very pleased with how I sound, but I'm a real perfectionist, and I agonize over every sloppy pitch that I hear in the recording or that I realize I missed onstage.

I've had private voice lessons before, but it's been awhile since I've had them. I study music composition in college, and I sing in choir here as well. I already know the importance of doing vocal warm ups and staying hydrated, though specific pointers in this area could still be helpful.

The way I see it, my problems stem from a couple of things:

1) Nerves. Despite having years of theater experience before I took up music and having played many shows at many venues, I still sometimes get really nervous about playing. I think it's because it feels like there's more at stake now -- it's me up there, my words, my songs, and I've got to sell it. Although there are other times when I'm totally relaxed onstage, and it seems like I can't tell when it's going to happen. I've also been performing mostly by myself, which of course makes me feel rather exposed.

2) Sound. I don't have nearly as much of a problem when I just sit in a room and play and sing as when I'm working with a mic and a PA. It's still sometimes difficult for me to be in tune and sing the way I want to when I'm hearing myself and my guitar coming at me from monitors (or not) and in abnormal proportions. Most of the shows I play are small places with several bands on the bill, so I rarely get to do a proper sound check. It also seems like having nothing but my guitar to listen for and tune with makes things more difficult than they would be if I had a band. I'll leave out the explanation of my bandmate difficulties, but I've decided to start programming backing tracks in Reason and accompany myself with those, which I think will do my songs more justice and will hopefully help me in this area.

Any advice on working with these two issues specifically or any other live performance tips would be appreciated.
posted by ludwig_van to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Although there are other times when I'm totally relaxed onstage
Just curious... Do you have recordings of those occasions? I wonder if you do perform better then or you're just assuming. Being too nervous can detract from your performance, but so can a lack of nervousness. A little anxiety keeps you focused on performing well.

Regarding monitors, with only voice and guitar, I wonder if there's some sort of simple and inexpensive monitor set-up of your own that you could bring -- then you could choose your own settings and know what to expect.
posted by winston at 9:47 AM on October 17, 2005

Here's my advice (which has worked wonders for me - God knows I need all the help I can get on stage or off!) - when you are at home practising, practise how you would play live - mic your guitar (or amp) and your voice, at the levels you would be playing on stage. If this isn't feasible for your living arrangement, rent a practise space and do it there.

I used to have the exact same problem, but when we started practising with a PA it made a world of difference.
posted by Quartermass at 9:52 AM on October 17, 2005

I'll just add (as an aside) that your tunes are awesome (I just checked the linked page from your profile).

We need someone to curate a Metafilter compilation, as there are a number of people making great independent music here.
posted by Quartermass at 9:57 AM on October 17, 2005

As for monitor problems, try wearing earplugs and learning to monitor through bone conduction. This may be more applicable in a full band situation with all the attendant volume issues, but it helps me when I sing back-up vox.

As for nerves and the effect on musicality, all I can say is do it lots and lots and lots. It gets easier.
posted by stet at 10:50 AM on October 17, 2005

I've been a vocalist for 30 years; the one thing I'd recommend the most is practice-practice-practice. Just like any other physical activity, the more you train, the better your muscles will respond. Part of being a great vocalist is knowing your instrument intimately and being very confident in it.

Practice in the same way your perform, like Quartermass suggested, and also practice stuff that is difficult - above and below your range, loooong notes, short notes, intervals.

Tori Amos practices while working out on a rowing machine before she goes on tour. You don't have to go that far, but take yourself seriously to get and stay in top form.

Good luck!
posted by chocolatepeanutbuttercup at 10:51 AM on October 17, 2005

Now... indie singing is a subject I'm qualified to talk about!

Getting continuous vocal coaching is definitely going to help you, no matter what genre you sing in. The fact that you are at college and in choir is very helpful. Do you have access to a vocal coach at college? And seeing as you know about warming up, presumably you know stuff about not eating before a show, particularly not dairy products? Being hydrated is good, but I was told that room temperature water is better than cold water.

Next piece of advice: enjoy the live show. Consider stopping listening to the recordings. The live show is all about the here and now. All that counts - at least at this point in your career - is putting the best show on for the audience which is there in the room while you perform. The great thing about a live show is that the mistakes are gone tomorrow. You shouldn't analyse it too much because the audience won't be going home listening to recordings and analysing. Until such time as you're doing live albums, this is not a recording! Stop treating it as such. Your inter-song banter, your attitude and even the way you look... all these things count for more than whether you were slightly out of tune in the middle eight.

Nerves. Try your best to rid yourself of attitudes like "there's more at stake now" - because for the audience, all that's at stake is a good night of entertainment. YOU ARE THERE TO ENTERTAIN THE AUDIENCE. Until such time as the room's full of fanatics obsessing about what colour your toothbrush is, the audience doesn't really care that they're your songs and your words. All they want is a memorable performance - be it exuberant, mystical, funny, erudite or whatever. This is your thing - hence you must do and be your thing to the power of ten. If being yourself is a problem, invent an alternative persona and be that instead. But try to shake off your nerves - the audience can smell it a mile off, and they rarely enjoy it.

As for sound, let's face it: sound in indie venues is usually awful. Until you're regularly headlining, you may as well forget about having soundchecks. If the venue's empty, the monitors may squeal; if it's full, you won't be able to hear yourself. Getting your own sound engineer will help, because he and she will get to know your own quirks, what you like and the best settings - EQ, reverb etc - for you. But somehow, the indie bands that succeed manage to do so even with the appalling sound in the useless venues.

So at the end of the day, it is your responsibility to find a way of putting in the best performance even in spite of bad sound. Maybe working to a backing track in Reason is your solution, though arguably playing to backing tracks introduces a whole series of new pitfalls. If you happened to be working with a band, I'd recommend that you work with them to change the arrangements, because great arrangements help a band - and particularly a singer - to thrive even when a venue's sound is diabolical.
posted by skylar at 10:57 AM on October 17, 2005

I'm with Quartermass, your stuff is good. If it's simple re-assurement that you're after (sometimes it helps!) then count me in. Keep up the good work.
posted by purephase at 12:32 PM on October 17, 2005

Two approaches:
1) Raise the level at which you tread water. Practice practice practice. When you're nervous or distracted or the sound system sucks or the drunk nazi bikers are throwing chairs at you, you may have to settle for whatever is second nature. The better second nature is, the better you'll sound.

2) Acclimate yourself to inhospitable performance environments. As mentioned above, duplicate sub-optimal micing conditions at home, and consider practicing against white noise, talk radio, daytime tv, etc.

Also, keep in mind that only you have the platonic form of your song in your head. We can't compare what you're actually doing to what you're shooting for. We may well be inclined to focus on things that are special about you that you take for granted.
posted by Eothele at 3:11 PM on October 17, 2005

Try wearing earplugs. The sound reverberates back through the bone structure, giving you a better idea of how you're sounding (pitch-wise).
posted by mr.dan at 2:12 AM on October 18, 2005

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