Out of all the stage presence and performance tips for singers, there’s one surprise element that many vocalists forget about. Learn what it is — and how to improve your own performance — in this guest post by Davis, CA teacher Steve G…
Some people are born with perfect pitch, others with great ability to control the volume and character of their voice, and still others with a natural ebullience and a knack for the spotlight.
Each of these attributes can contribute positively to a vocal performance, as can learned traits such as proper breathing, a relaxed stance, and keen knowledge of the stylistic idioms of each genre. But these technical aspects and these decorative flourishes are each secondary to the true goal of singing a song: conveying a message to the audience.
The Most Important Performance Tip for Singers
Whether a singer has written the lyrics to the song him or herself or is singing a cover of someone else’s lyrics, the audience should always feel as though the singer is communicating the words for the first time, from his/her own imagination directly to the ears of the listener. Songwriting is storytelling, regardless of whether the story is told in an ornate fashion (Mariah Carey), a rich one (Josh Groban), an unpolished one (Joe Strummer), or a simple one (Paul Simon). It is often satisfying if the audience is impressed with a singer’s technical ability, range, or “flavor.” But if the audience responds to the message of the music, the performance has been a successful one.
Developing Stage Presence by Emphasizing Particular Words or Phrases
Given this dynamic, a singer can enhance his or her performance in a number of ways. A particular word or phrase might be emphasized with more volume or ornamentation (or conversely, as a contrast to the bombast around it) if the word or phrase is of particular importance to the message. When I perform “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” (my version is closest to Neil Diamond’s version), I always put extra focus on the words “Why not share?” just before the song’s climax. Listen here:
This crystallizes the meaning of the song into a single, simple phrase, and I sing it as though my obligation to the audience is to have them internalize just these three words if they take anything from my performance.
In other cases, words may be sung with a particular inflection of strain or of release, as per the singer’s vision of the song’s message. I put an extra level of strained intensity into the line “Stop this heartbreak overload” in John Waite’s “Missing You” in order to show that the narrator has reached the limits of his emotional angst and thus must cry out in fury:
Meanwhile, I sing the line “Take away all my sadness” in the song “Have I Told You Lately” (my version is closest to Rod Stewart’s version) with exceeding calm and relief, expressing that although the tone of the song is rather sad, the narrator is reassured into solace by his lover.
Developing Stage Presence Through Body Language
Body language can also be an important element in conveying a story to an audience, even if one’s body is partially occupied by playing an instrument while singing. An audience will always respond to conviction and comfort, and these can be displayed not only through a singer’s familiarity with the song at hand, but also through confident posture and the willingness to connect both with individual listeners and with a crowd in general.
Some artists accomplish this through their banter between songs, or their willingness to perform a cover of a well-known song to which the audience already may have a strong nostalgic attachment. Others draw from techniques employed by dancers (purposeful movements, exuberant energy), actors (poignant facial expressions), speech-givers (different rhythmic cadences to emphasize key thematic concepts), or folk-tale narrators (a tangible sense of wondrous exploration in each new piece that is sung).
Perhaps the most universal connection between singer and audience can be achieved through strategic use of eye contact. Eye contact need not (and perhaps should not) occur for every moment of a song — a singer may look above the audience’s head, look down, and/or close his or her eyes for certain lines in a song, and often these moments not only infuse an enhanced urgency or poignancy into a line that is sufficiently powerful to compel such a change, but can continually renew an audience’s interest every time that eye contact is re-established.
As an example, take a look at this performance of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” by Cassandra Wilson:
You’ll notice she switches about evenly between making eye contact and closing her eyes. Her eyes are always closed when singing the most introspective, evocative line of the song (“Cause all I ever have, redemption songs”), but are often open when the lyrics “instruct” the audience on what to feel (“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery”). In this way, she is able to distinguish the communal from the personal, and thus give an added dimension to the story she is telling.
When I teach voice lessons, it is sometimes necessary to work on things such as intonation, situational breathing, projection, eye contact, vowel sounds, and other tools. These instructions help develop the basic parameters of a capable singer. But I always strive to gear these devices toward helping the student achieve a unique interpretation of each song he or she works on. Keep these performance tips for singers in mind . The real magic occurs beyond the physical framework of the notes; it occurs in the message that is communicated.
Steve G. teaches singing, piano and music theory lessons in Davis, CA. He earned his PhD in music theory and composition from the University of California Davis and also tutors math and writing. Learn more about Steve here!
Photo by Barry Lenard