I went on stage. Today was my record release concert, at the Frannz Club in Berlin. I had rehearsed a lot with my band Red On Blue in preparation for the big day, but I still had stage fright. During the last sound check, I had draped the lyrics of a few of my songs on the stage, near my microphone. Just in case.
Now, when I came on stage, I saw that the lyrics were all gone. My support band had packed them away. Sh ... But the moment of shock was only short. The band played, the music took its course and the words came as if by themselves at the right moment. How good that I had rehearsed so much!
Today, this is called "procedural memory". The knowledge of sequences of actions that can be recalled quasi automatically - like riding a bike, dancing or singing a song. Even people with dementia often still have this for a long time: they can no longer speak coherent words, nor the lyrics of a song, but when the music starts, they can sing it, from beginning to end.
Text dropout: What to do?
Despite the best preparation, it happens that you are suddenly blocked. Even experienced stars can fall out of the process of their performance, in a song they have already sung countless times. Blank-out, sudden emptiness, all gone. Here are a few examples:
It can happen to anyone and everyone. What matters is how you deal with the lapse. As you can see in the video, there are many possibilities: disarming openness, letting the audience sing or simply singing around it with other text modules, in other words: "faking". There is no one right solution here, at best the recommendation is to take the text failure with humour and involve the audience. Every performance on stage is ultimately entertainment. If you succeed in entertaining the audience, they will forgive many mistakes.
Band plays wrong key, wrong tempo
You can experience completely different mishaps as a guest star. That has also happened to me: After the announcement you come on stage, the band starts with the agreed song after a short coordination. Everything is fine until you start to play the first note and realise that the musicians are playing the song in a different key, for example in F instead of C. Then you are spoilt for choice. Then you are spoilt for choice and have to decide immediately:
(a) sing everything four notes higher - and then sing the highest parts with a head voice instead of a powerful full voice ("belten"), or (b) sing the melody five notes lower - and then sing the low parts with a weak, low-sounding voice (without any kick). Or (c) a mix of the two, octave up and down to suit your voice.
The distress is even greater when the band plays the song in double time. This is not uncommon in the jazz milieu. It's only bad when the guest vocalist is surprised by it. Having to sing the lyrics and melody twice as fast at the first go can be a tongue twister or an unfortunate vocal acrobatics. You can get an idea of what a vocal challenge this is when you see Ella Fitzgerald, who is still considered the "Queen of Jazz" by many people, in the following video. In her version of the jazz standard "How High The Moon", the change to double time comes in the middle of the song, but: of course, this is agreed upon beforehand and well rehearsed. She uses "scat" singing, which allows her to improvise fast sequences of notes free of text articulation.
Try out and discover new things
Nevertheless, as a singer you can also prepare yourself for mishaps such as songs in inappropriate keys or the wrong tempo, at least to a certain extent. Practise your song in different keys. It can be fun and you will learn something.
For example, how to change your voice leading in the chest and head voice so that the melody and lyrics retain a convincing, expressive line in different pitches. You might even discover a new way of interpreting the song. A light, heady voice in an unusually high register or a full-sounding voice in a register that was previously too high for it - this can change the accents, the build-up of tension and even the character of your song.
Or practice your song with a drum machine at a different tempo or rhythm. Feel how your body picks up the new rhythm and let it guide your singing. If the rhythm is faster, you may have to change your melody line, some notes or words you can only hint at or even skip. In rock singing, casually throwing away notes in lyric-heavy uptempo songs is an important skill ("throwaway notes").
Try it out, preferably with one of your favourite songs that you like to sing in front of an audience. Rehearsing different keys, rhythms or tempos helps you to be flexible in case the band on stage wants something different from you.
Among the many breakdown scenarios a singer can experience on stage, one is among the most feared: Power failure, the whole technique breaks down. In smaller clubs, for example, this can happen, as it did to me once in a trendy club in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Luckily, my musicians had acoustic instruments and could continue playing without power. I sang over the band without a microphone, thanks to my singing technique I could fill the whole club room with my voice.
Finally, let's take a look back at what we can do in case of bad luck and mishaps on stage. Of course, we cannot protect ourselves against all eventualities. But we are not powerless either, we can do more than many people think about in their practice routine. This includes:
- rehearse the songs over and over again, for textual confidence
- Singing in different keys, rhythms and tempos, for more vocal flexibility and exploring scope for expressive voice leading / song interpretation.
- A well-trained voice to be able to fill a larger space with one's own singing, even without amplification.
Talking about a well-trained voice: In my online singing courses you will learn good exercises to build up your voice. Have a look under: Online singing courses