Make sure you're always on song

Jun 27 2008 by Janet Howd Print This Article

My first brush with the world of management and employees came when, as a young teenager, I was booked to sing in a car factory canteen during the lunch break.

Post war production was huge. The car industry was just getting into its stride. Senior management had decided hard work needed light relief - and my job was to provide it.

Plates, forks and spoons, clattered and chairs scraped as people went about getting food. I had been singing in front of audiences since I was a small child, but until that day they had always chosen to come to hear me.

But in this place the atmosphere was hectic and totally devoid of anticipation. The only way to call attention to myself was to open my mouth and sing!

Attention was immediate, applause unequivocal. My first attempt at making sure I could gain and hold an audience of unintentional listeners had worked.

But to the shouts of "more," after my allotted quarter hour was up I did not respond. Better in these circumstances, I thought, to leave on a high.

But why had it gone so well? Answer - Preparation!

I'd had selected materials that I thought would be appropriate for the audience I was to work for and had sent in the programme for approval, well in advance.

I'd had learned my stuff carefully and rehearsed over and over so that fluffs would not occur.

I had stood long in front of a mirror practising a stance that would exude confidence and attract attention.

To give myself the best chance of success from the start and make sure that everyone could hear me loud and clear, I chose an opening number with just enough piano introduction to point up the fact that something was about to happen. I then pitched straight in with a clear resonance that differentiated the words I was singing from the general hubbub around me.

I had steeled myself in advance to accept that if they didn't want to hear me they didn't have too listen to me. But to try to avoid that happening I prepared other material that I could use a different style of delivery on if necessary.

Most importantly, I had communicated all this well in advance to the accompanist who was going to share the occasion and its sound waves with me.

To work with a good accompanist seems to me to be analogous to working with well chosen visual aids. Both are vital to the success of a performance and ideally should be in there right from the start of the planning stage assisting to create coherence out the disparate words and tunes of a programme.

Decisions about whether they make stand-alone statements or simply balance and compliment the shape of the performance have to be made for every page turn and every slide change. Neither visual aids nor accompanists should ever be thought of solely as reiterative vehicles.

Of course, performers who are suddenly at a loss for words can turn to the accompanist or visual aid to get cued in again - but no amount of slick finger work at the piano can replace the meaning a singer's words are supposed to convey - and no screen gimmickry in darkened rooms during a product launch can stop the brand from being contaminated by a solo presenter who is off message.

Performance requires its practitioners to know their stuff; pull out all the stops; bring up all the lights, make meaningful contact with anyone watching and listening and quit while the going is good.

more articles

About The Author

Janet Howd
Janet Howd

Janet Howd is a voice coach who works with corporate, academic, legal, theatrical and private clients in the UK, North America, Australia and Europe.