As a vocal instructor I have the pleasure of working with many new students who have never studied voice before, and sometimes have never studied instrumental music either. One of the comments I consistently hear from them is, “wow! I never realized how many things singers are doing all at once, while they’re performing!” Indeed. Singing is a very complex art, but our job as performers is to make it look easy and natural. It appears we are succeeding, as most amateur singers are surprised by how much is demanded of them when they start taking their songs to the next level.
For those unaware of the nuances happening behind the scenes during a vocal performance, or for those of us who are aware and just want to be appreciated for our capacity to handle so many elements simultaneously, here is a list of what singers normally do during a performance:
First and foremost, trained singers manage the mechanics of their tone. These elements include basics such as jaw placement, mouth shaping, tongue and lip precision for clear pronunciation, breathing deeply and effectively, tone placement into front and/or back resonating spaces, and vibrato, just to name a few. These are all physical adjustments that singers need to remember and execute with precision, in order to maximize the beauty of their sound.
Beyond mechanics, singers are thinking about the musicality of their piece. They need to have all lyrics and melodies memorized. They need to have decided all the places they plan to breathe, and memorize those too. They need to emphasize dynamics and phrasing so that their tone has contrast and stays interesting to listen to.
Wait, there’s more! After all the above has been memorized and mastered, singers create an experience for the listener by telling the story of their song. They need to manage how their face and body looks while they sing, they need to manage their eyes (where they are looking while performing) as to not distract themselves away from singing, and they need to show emotion and basic acting techniques that look natural and not forced. If the singer is performing jazz or a genre that requires improvisation, they’ll need to spontaneously come up with riffs, unique lyrics or other small changes to the piece that add interest and uniqueness.
Putting it all together
Overwhelmed yet? If you’re like many beginning vocalists, you are probably thinking, wow, there’s a lot more to this than I imagined. You’re in good company! Singing is a complex and fascinating process that requires skill in many areas and uses many parts of your brain all at once. It is extremely rewarding to give a great performance, one in which you nailed most of the mechanical, musical and artistic elements of your piece.
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