Vocal Technique and Artistry in Performance
In this episode, we discuss how to be present in during performance and navigate challenging technical moments, doubts, and distractions without pulling your focus away from communicating with the audience.
As performing vocalists, our goal is to give powerful, compelling performances. During a performance, we have great intentions to give 100% of ourselves to the moment, but that doesn’t seem to stop all the thoughts racing around our heads. We might be worrying about the next high note, or obsessing over what an audition panel is thinking as they stare blankly at the sheet in front of them. Whether we are auditioning for a gig, or performing for any size venue, it is easy to get distracted. This episode is about letting go of doubt and distractions through vocal technique and artistry.
The Relationship Between Vocal Technique and Artistry
What are the roles of artistry and vocal technique? Vocal technique is about increasing your ability to make a variety of choices as a performer, and artistry is making the right choice at the right moment. A strong vocal technique allows a performer to do 8 shows on Broadway week after week, while artistry allows that performer to captivate and move the audience. Technique can be impressive, but without artistry it cannot be expressive.
During performance, there has to be a healthy relationship between vocal technique and artistry. Most would agree that the ideal performance situation is when singers have worked on their vocal technique to the point where they no longer have to think about it during performance. However, in practice that is easier said than done.
To talk about this, we invited our guest Dr. Diane Reich from Brigham Young University to the show. She was absolutely wonderful, be sure to check out her interview in this week’s episode!
Dr. Reich suggests that you think about the relationship of vocal technique and artistry as a Skype or Facetime call.
The big window of the person you are calling represents artistry, or interpretation; the little window, yourself, represents technique. Most of the focus in performance should be dedicated to making artistic choices, with less focus on what technique needs to be implemented in order to make a choice. The singer should be able to check in on the little window for technically challenging areas. I think this is a great way to think about technique during performance!
Surprisingly, the analogy doesn’t stop there. There’s a reason in these video conference calls that the person you are talking to is the large image, and you are the smaller image. The call should be about them, not about you! The same goes for performance. We run into trouble when we focus the performance inward, instead of focusing outside ourselves and communicating with our audience. This will be a larger point later in the blog, but focusing on communicating with the audience is much more effective during performance than worrying about everything you are doing as a performer.
MYTH: Vocal Training Kills Artistry
Before we move on, I want to make something clear: vocal technique and your unique voice as an artist should not be viewed as competing factors. It is not a balancing act. Making artistic choices often has a positive effect on vocal technique. Have you tried vocal exercises without putting in any emotional expression? It’s BORING! And, in my opinion, unhelpful. Technique and artistry have a symbiotic relationship. Vocal training will help you be a better artist.
“Well, obviously!” most of you say, but I guarantee some of our listeners worry about consequences that may come from taking voice lessons- especially for the first time- so bear with me!
People that think vocal training will somehow lessen their ability to be raw and authentic are usually very gifted storytellers and may have a natural talent for singing. However, the idea that training the voice will somehow make you lose authenticity or make you lose your unique sound is a MYTH. You will only lose these qualities if you surrender all interpretation and stylistic choices to your voice teacher. If you lose the ability to express and tell the story because you expect your teacher to do it for you, you will lose authenticity.
You are in control of your voice. Teachers are your resource for gaining a strong, healthy vocal technique that will allow you more stamina, and more control over your instrument- not less. If a teacher insists on you singing in a way that you don’t like, or insists on specific stylistic choices that leave you no room to be an artist, find another teacher.
Focus on Story
The “Skype call” approach to artistry and technique in performance sounds good in theory, but how do you put it into practice? How do you stop those nagging thoughts about all of your imperfections during performance?
The best way I have found is to focus on story. What are you communicating in the song? Why are you singing? There has to be a reason, and it is up to you to figure out what that reason is prior to performance.
In meditation, you are often told to focus on your breathing. I don’t do a lot of meditation, but I really liked the analogy I heard on the meditation app “Headspace” of your thoughts being like cars on a highway. What you want to do in meditation is allow the thoughts that pull your focus away from your breath to come and go, without getting frustrated and running into the highway with them. Let your thoughts be present, and when you notice them, carefully redirect your focus back to the breath.
In performance, think of telling the story as your breath in a meditation exercise. When the demon on your shoulder starts jabbering, let it talk! Don’t obsess over the thoughts; just redirect your focus back to the story.
A large part of why we sing is because words often fall short. Music fills the gap and helps us communicate on a deep level with our audience. It is such a powerful tool, and all we have to do is get out of our own way during performance. As the wise Slim Shady once mused, “you better lose yourself in the moment!”
Tell the story! Performing is WAY more fun this way. It’s easy to get stuck thinking about technical problems, but during performance the time to fix those trouble spots with technique has past! The only effective thing you can do come performance time is to keep telling the story, regardless of whether or not your technique has been adequately prepared.
What helps you focus during performance?
We would love to hear from all of you about your performance experiences. Tell us about a time when you were completely in the moment. What lead you to those circumstances? What strategies do you use to let go of your fear, anxiety, and self-doubt during performance? Share this post with your singer friends and comment below!
By: Jordan Reynolds, The Holistic Voice: Navigating Your Career as a Vocalist
 Watch starting at 2:58 to see this in action! This is Cynthia Erivo performing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple at the Tony Awards https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3k2xzQyT2bk
 Dr. Reich holds master and doctoral degrees from Indiana University, and has performed internationally as a classical soprano. She is currently serving as head of the vocal department at Brigham Young University. https://music.byu.edu/team/diane-reich/
 Check out the app at https://www.headspace.com/
 Eminem. Lyrics to “Lose Yourself.” 2001