You’ve learned your song, memorized it, planned your breath marks, and refined your vocal tone quality. When you sing it, your song sounds just amazing. Does that mean you are you ready to perform it?
Live vocal performances aren’t complete until you’ve added the visual element - how you look while you’re singing. Most audiences get just as much out of watching a singer as they do listening, which is why live concerts continue to be popular even though we’ve had the technology to record music for a very long time. The visual elements of a performance, known as stage presence, are a critical part of what takes a singer from good to great.
Telling the story
Stage presence is all about taking your audience on a journey with you. You’re not just singing notes, but those notes have words attached to them and those words collectively make up a story. Your song is telling a story, and you are the storyteller. Your body, face, eyes, movement and attitude all need to demonstrate the message. Make sure you fully understand the lyrics of your song and know what story you are telling. If lyrics are in foreign languages, look them up and translate. Sometimes the meaning of lyrics are symbolic or vague. In those cases, make it personal. Make decisions as to what the lyrics mean specifically to you, and weave some of your own ideas into the story.
Once you understand your song’s story, you need to be completely engaged in that story so the audience will follow. When they look at you, you are so compelling that the audience can’t help but go along on the journey with you. Clear your mind of other thoughts and focus completely on your role as the storyteller. As you prepare to go onstage, start thinking of thoughts or memories that remind you of the emotion you are about to show while you sing. This is why it’s so critical to have completely memorized your material, because there’s usually not enough mental space for both remembering lyrics and breath markings, and showing a completely engaged emotion. You’ll need to leave your left brain behind for a few moments while you perform, and reside in your feeling-centered right brain. Find a few key memorization tips here. For help getting your mind clear of distractions, see our Meditation for Performers ebook.
Relaxed body and appropriate posture
Stage presence is the art of taking an idea, a story, and physicalizing it into your body and the space around you. You’ll be using your body as a tool to tell the story, so you need to be relaxed and move easily. Start with the right posture, which is described in detail in the post on “singers stance,” the ready-position posture that you’ll want to adopt for all vocal practice and performance sessions. From there, work on relaxing your body enough that you can flow freely while you sing, and avoid tension or awkward, jerky movements. For resources on muscle tension, see our posts on removing tension and progressive muscle relaxation.
Using your face
Your face is the ultimate tool for expressing the emotions that accompany your lyrics. Your face, and particularly your eyes, will show the subtext of the song. Subtext refers to implied meaning or underlying messages that may not be explicitly described within the lyrics. For example, when singing “America the Beautiful,” the lyrics are describing a stunning landscape, but the singer’s face will often show a subtext of pride, happiness, wonder and love for the country. Those words are not lyrics of the song, but we know those are the messages we are supposed to communicate to the audience by using with our eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and body language.
Sit down with your song and analyze it on paper. Look for areas where the emotion/message/subtext changes, and make sure you show those changes on your face at the appropriate times, as the contrast is what keeps audiences engaged and magnetized to you. Although it is unusual, occasionally a piece will be written with just one emotion throughout the entire song. In those cases, make an effort to show changes within that one feeling. For example, if a song expresses only happiness, try to show different and nuanced types of happiness such as relaxed contentment, giddy excitement, or humorous happiness.
Eye and head movement
Beyond the expression you are showing with your face and eyes, there’s also the issue of where and when to move your eyes and head through the audience, to different parts of the room. A performer who stares in one direction during their entire song will look tense, frozen, and not authentic. Performers who do this are usually under-prepared and focusing most of their mental energy on remembering lyrics and melodies, or are nervous and restricted. On the other end of the spectrum, looking all over the place and moving your eyes and head constantly will appear distracting and is also usually a consequence of anxiety. For resources on how to reduce performance anxiety, check out our eBook written specifically for this topic.
As for eye movement, it’s recommended that you look in about 3-4 places during the course of a song. This strikes a happy medium between a frozen stare and chaotic glancing. Your shoulders, neck and head will follow where your eyes are looking, so by taking turns focusing your gaze on different parts of the room, you’ll be sure that all audience members are able to see your upper body at some point regardless at what angle they are sitting.
Move your eyes (and upper body) at places in the song where significant changes happen, such as a change in melody or tempo, a change in emotion, or a major pivot point of the storyline. These moments will always coincide with the beginning of a new musical phrase, which is important. Generally, you don’t want to make major movements or shifts during the middle of a musical phrase because it distracts the audience from fully hearing that particular part of the message.
For beginning singers it’s best to plan these shifts of gaze in advance, write them into your music, memorize them along with the song, and perform them the same every time so you form an automatic habit. Although this may seem scripted and not spontaneous, as you are still gaining experience as a performer it’s much easier to make habits so that more of your mental energy can be spent creating optimal vocal tone and acting expression, rather than worrying about where you’re going to move your eyes. As you become a seasoned singer this won’t be as necessary.
It is recommended that performers don’t directly lock eyes with audience members, as it tends to be very intimate and distracting to the singer. Instead, keep your gaze just above their heads, and from far away it will look like you are gazing eye level. This strategy keeps your eyes safely contained so you can be 100% focused on your performance.
Using movement and gesture
Not knowing what to do with their hands is a common complaint of beginning singers; they feel awkward doing a bunch of forced arm gestures, but they don’t want to stand with their arms glued to their sides either. As we stated above in regards to eye movement, you’ll want to strike a happy medium between frozen and too much movement, with simple gestures that look natural and flow easily.
Since most people gesticulate with their hands to some degree while they speak in normal conversation, great way to find your own natural rhythm of movement is to tell the story of your song as though you were chatting with a friend. Video yourself while you stand and summarize the story of your song, using your hands to emphasize points as you normally would in conversation. When you review the video you’ll probably see yourself making hand gestures at key moments in the story, your face and eyes lighting up at the exciting parts, and your weight and feet shifting naturally to different angles. These small movements are exactly what you want to replicate while singing the song, carefully matching the movements to the corresponding parts in the lyrics and musical phrases.
Movement within the space
As far as moving around the room is concerned, picking up your feet and moving to a new position is not generally recommended, unless you are in a theatrical setting and are being directed to move extensively. You can certainly shift your weight from foot to foot, and take small steps here and there, but keep it within a small range.
As a final step, once you’ve incorporated all the techniques above, gather a small audience of friends or family and give a mock performance. Ask them what emotions they saw you convey, and what movements they liked or disliked. Outside feedback is critical, as our inner perceptions of how we look are rarely accurate! If you can’t gather a live audience, video on your phone is a good option. Additionally, if you’d like professional feedback, invest in a coaching session in person or via skype.
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