This Article Originally Published in 1990
by Lis Lewis
The front person of a band has an intense job to do. No matter what your mood, or how difficult you 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. There needs to be 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 effortlessmore than that, it flows. Flow is really what I'm talking about. If only we could have it whenever we want it. Every song we wrote would be stunning, every performance exciting.
A lot of skill goes into the craft of singing, into the craft of performing. No amount of flow will make up for a lack of skill. But without this feeling of connectionto the material, to the moment, to the audienceyou 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. My voice teacher used to tell me, "You have to treat your voice like a honored guest." Take care of it, feed it, house it. You are lucky to have it. When you realize that your job is to move over and let it work, then you won't take it so personally. Then you can start to remove the fears of expectations that get in the way of a flowing performance.
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 and your manager called to say that none of the A&R people can come to the show tonight. What happens to the flow? 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 reality?
Over many (many) years of performing and in my work 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 scattered 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 my pre-performance 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 conclusion through repetition. Thank of a wedding. There are certain things that happen every time. The bride walks down the aisle, usually in white. The father steps back and the groom comes forward. 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 that I created for moving from reality to stage is a ritual made up of activities that draw me closer to my stage self. Yours will probably be different but the idea will be the same. It takes me a little over an hour to do 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!)
The first step is closing the door which emotionally closes out everything else. Then I 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 ever have to tour in support of your record, you will need some kind of exercise to keep you mental health as well as your physical stamina.
After stretching, I do a form 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. Remember that the basic idea is to work from the outside world to an inside reality and order your ritual accordingly. Some form of meditation is essential. It quiets your mind, relaxes your body and turns you inward. Mine is called grounding and second half of it 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. There are books and classes on both meditation and creative visualization if you would like to find one for yourself. In the near future, I will be putting out a tape of my version available through The Lis Lewis Singers' Workshop.
Next, I pick the clothing I am going to wear that night and lay it out to look at. I don't wear my stage clothes in my daily life. They have more power for me if I only use them on stage. Then I take a bath with candles and some good-smelling bath oil. Again, this might not work for everyone, but find something that has meaning for 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 good and the bad, 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. I load up the car with equipment and, while driving to the gig, I listen to a compilation tape that I've made of my current 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 and find you have no sound check or the booker has changed your performance time. These things will be a little easier to deal with; stay connected to the center of yourself and you will have a great performance. 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. 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 for it to gain strength. Remember, a ritual has to be repeated for it to work. Also, you may find it's hard to want to slow down and turn inward. Performing is a very out-going experience. Especially at the club where all your friends want to say hello and talk to you about things that are totally unrelated to your gig (not to mention how terrible it is for your voice to shout over the loud music and all the other noise). You may feel that all that adrenaline will be lost if you focus in. 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. I'm assuming that's what you want.
It's essential that you invent your own ritual, one that helps you center yourself and prepare for your performance. Write to me at email@example.com and tell me what you create. Good luck!
Lis Lewis has been training singers for the music profession for over twenty years. Her clients include artists on all major record labels as well as independents. The Lis Lewis Singers' Workshop offers lessons and workshops in every aspect of singing from vocal technique to music business to performance. Lewis is the author of a book called The Singer's First Aid Kit, which includes The Vocal Warm-up Tape, a sixty minute tape designed to pop in your car stereo on your way to a rehearsal or gig. For further information.