“I’m always terrible starting a song,” an adult student who takes singing lessons with me in Marin said to me recently. And she said she didn’t know why.
Whether it’s beginning a song or a whole concert, it’s very natural to have a bumpy start. And I can think of three factors that affect our singing right out of the gate: nerves and the mind, the effect of nerves on breath and preparation (or lack thereof).
Let’s look at each one. First, everyone handles fear differently. For me, just the thought of singing in front of people gets the adrenalin flowing. I can have a performance at 4 p.m. and I’m already nervous when I wake up in the morning. Other people can be cool as cucumbers right up to and through the performance. I encourage every singer to get to know the effect of nerves on his or her body. My heart rate speeds up, my mouth gets dry and I feel like my breath is very shallow. Others may feel their throat tighten and I’ve heard of a few singers who actually throw up, it’s so bad! But all is not lost. There are many techniques we can learn to help the parasympathetic nervous system kick in, that lovely part of us that calms the body and counteracts the fight-or-flight response. I practice the Alexander Technique because it teaches us to become aware of our whole self in the moment. It keeps us paying attention to our body/bones in space so that the mind, which might have been going “oh, my God, oh, my God” and creating a scary mental ruckus, has some place to alight and quiet. Then I begin to feel my inhales and can encourage them to deepen.
Your inner dialogue can have a tremendous effect on the beginning of your song. Being afraid of being judged (even in a voice lesson), feeling nervous about who’s in the audience, feeling you aren’t good enough to be up on stage, not being well-prepared with your song – these can all trigger the fight-or-flight reflex. So, be wise. Choose a song you’re comfortable with. I never start a concert with a song that’s too slow and lyric because I know my breath will be fast and jumpy. I may pick something fun, so I can get my breath “under me.”
I remember one of my first teachers would say that when you hear the introduction to a song, that’s when all the preparation starts. I actually think preparation happens before the pianist – or you – start to play. The moment I step on stage, I am with my breath and body and not the audience. In classical music, we get in place and then nod to the pianist to start the song. When I was less experienced, I would nod right away. Now, I take a moment to release my abdominal muscles and pelvis – that’s what I grip when I’m scared, which doesn’t allow the diaphragm its full descent. I also like to let my jaw and tongue soften. It doesn’t take a long time – the audience can’t tell – but it may FEEL like a long time. Take the time to relax your body and to tune into your breath. It makes a world of difference.
In addition, one of the keys to a successful start is not just how to breathe but when. I find that many singers breathe too late, a gaspy breath right before the phrase. Good timing helps you get a deep, reflexive inhale, helps you engage your support without fighting excess tension and brings the cords together like you want them. A tad earlier inhale can do wonders for the phrase. And it can be calming. We each have a breathing “rhythm,” how long it takes to freely get a good, deep breath. Get to know it when you have time to take it. Then, get to know it when you have to take it quickly. I believe that the closer you are to that natural “rhythm,” the more prepared you’ll feel for what you want to do with a phrase.
Another factor that interferes with a good start is listening too much. We are “creators.” We think ahead to what we want to “say,” allowing the body to respond to those thoughts with strength and energy. If we are constantly listening to ourselves, we are “back there” with what was just sounded, and we aren’t in the moment. (Check out the acoustical science behind it – how sound waves bounce back to the ear.) “Listening” can interfere with the flow of breath and lead to jaw and tongue tension. I rely greatly on “the feeling” of the voice, its resonance. It’s a far better feedback tool for me.
And to reframe our anxieties, what feels like fear may also be excitement. It’s not everyone who can get up on stage and share his or her musical gifts. It’s very fun. Thinking of the sensations as excitement helps put a positive spin on them.
It’s not unusual for our first song to be less magnificent than the ones that come after. But then, when we get going and we judge that all is well, we really kick in. I feel that’s pretty normal. But since our psyche can literally set the stage for what comes after, why not be mindful? If you are taking voice lessons and love to perform, open your awareness to what’s happening “before” you sing. Cultivating calming, efficient habits then can help your singing shine – from the get-go!