If your voice is feeling the strain from back to back gigs, a few small changes can make all the difference. Seasoned singer Stephen Steinhaus from Function Central shares his top tips to help you punch above your weight.
How do you make sure you hit the right note time after time? How do you give yourself the best chance at nailing your set? How do vocalists deal with changes in music style, venue, event type, sound system, gig location and – most importantly – the volume of the band?
The advice in this blog comes from hard graft and some targeted expert advice in a vocal career spanning everything from metal and punk to jazz. If you want classical training or are interested in musical theory, I’m probably not the right man. But if you’re looking to keep yourself in good shape vocally for regular gigs or for a run, this is definitely a good place to start.
I don’t proclaim to be an expert or even a trained singer: these tips are based on my own experience, what works for me and what I have seen and learned from other singers, teachers and performers over fifteen years in the business. I’ve tried to make the most of my voice simply by not taking it for granted. There is a big difference between singing and being a gigging singer able to replicate a performance – including all the high notes, screams, and growls – night after night.
As a vocalist/frontman, there are so many things to think about that the role is not just that of a singer: it’s more like being an athlete. Of course, if you want to be an athlete, you have to prepare like one.
From Frank Sinatra building lung capacity by swimming full laps underwater in his pool to the Maroon 5 frontman sitting in on Madonna’s yoga classes, the best vocalists work hard at training themselves, their voices and their bodies. It doesn’t matter what sort of music it is: if you are a gigging vocalist you have to invest in your voice and do the work.
An opera singer once told me that our voice and our range reverts back to default if we don’t focus on vocal care at least every four days. You can’t just hit it hard for a couple of back-to-back shows at the weekend and pick it up again the following Friday. It’s only with good vocal care and attention that you can expect to progress and be at your best.
I focus on four areas to keep myself and my pipes ready to roll:
1. Airways. Keep the mechanism clear through tapping, clearing routines and a clean diet.
2. Breathing. Breathe to a count, focus on capacity work (like Sinatra), and panting.
3. Relaxation and flexibility. Make sure you do physical and vocal warm ups, stretching routines, yoga.
4. Technique work. Scales and articulation exercises are as important as specific song practice.
Once you get to the gig, the goal is to create the performance you want and hit the notes needed while keeping your voice protected so you can hit it again at that level the next time. If you are building up the profile of your act, this means moving from support slots of 30-40 minutes to headline slots of an hour or more. Two or three set performances each gig means more singing and more of a demand on your voice. So, before each gig (and each band practice/rehearsal), you’d better warm up your voice.
Start with breathing and then move on to scales
Do a physical warm-up to get your body ready and relaxed
Run scales from low to high rather than high to low so you’re not pushing it too early at the top of your range
You Are What You Eat
There are singers out there who can eat, drink and smoke whatever they want whenever they want and still hit every note they like. Don’t you just loathe those guys? For us mere mortals, avoid dairy (to limit mucous), ice-cold beverages (so you don’t tighten the vocal mechanism), and carbonated drinks (especially beer/lager to prevent heartburn/reflux) when you are gigging. Stay hydrated – you should be upping your fluid intake on gig days, but room temperature water is and should be good enough.
If you are struggling with your voice, try room temperature or warm apple juice, hot water and honey. For recovery, sip hot water, honey and a pinch of salt. And if, for whatever reason, you have to drink alcohol at a gig, bourbon is best for the throat (not simply to appear rock-and-roll!) Remember, these are only my opinions/suggestions, so don’t blame me for your Jack Daniels obsession!
When organising the set, you need to remember that nobody else is going to worry about your voice. Write a set that allows you to recover between more punishing tunes. Mix in easier songs or instrumental breaks to give you a rest, and save any real shredders (at the very top of your range and/or requiring harsh/dirty/shouty vocals) for the end of your set.
For live sound, be on your game during sound check (regardless of whether it is an in-house sound guy, an external crew or a DIY affair), to make sure you can hear what you are singing. Only doing a line check or a half-serious sound check while you are otherwise engaged doesn’t ensure you have the fall back you need and, as with the demands of the set list, nobody else is going to worry about it.
A lot of people have asked me about supplements I use to keep my voice sharp. For me, Lockets Honey and Lemon lozenges are the best lozenges I’ve found for use during a gig. If you are really struggling, try Sanderson’s throat cure mixture as a rinse/gargle during a show (use the pastilles for recovery afterwards or during a run of performances). In fifteen years I haven’t discovered anything better.
If your voice is a bit beat-up between gigs, I suggest VocalZone lozenges (but don’t use them during a gig). Put them aside before you warm-up, and make sure you are drinking more than enough water.
These are just a few tips to get you started and keep you rocking as the work starts to come in. As I said, your guitar player won’t expect you to look after his/her axe, and nobody else is going to look after your voice for you. As the singer, you need to take charge, and hopefully this brief bit of advice will help you take better care of your instrument. Good luck and good gigging!