Over the past 40 years of live performance, I have had the opportunity to watch and perform with many different artists, including Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett, Dr. John, Arlo Guthrie, Yvonne Elliman, The Byrds, Janis Joplin, Donna Summer, and many others. That experience has allowed me to offer you three useful tips on how to maximize your chances of staying in tune and staying in harmony at a live show:
If you are doing a gig with monitors, the question that you need to ask yourself is: What am I going to need to hear when this room is full of people? Sound quality always changes when the room is filled, so listen for your voice to be out front in the monitors followed closely by any background vocals, then the other instruments, and finally the drums.
If you are the lead singer, to be able to sing well and on pitch, you need to be able to hear yourself in relation to the harmony singers and the band, with the room packed. There’s nothing wrong with asking for a change in the level of some element from the stage during a show. Or, if the amp controlling the sound is onstage and you’re doing your own sound, you can adjust levels as necessary between songs during the show. Similarly, harmony singers have to be able to hear the lead singer and hear each other in relation to the other instruments in the band in order to do their job well. Sometimes you can get away with fairly subtle hand signals to the sound guy or gal if you let them know in advance.
Assuming you have the best monitor mix possible, when everything is happening it may seem that you can’t hear very well. It can be confusing to figure out what’s going on when you are singing and everyone else around you is singing and playing too. As a result, you may have a tendency to sing louder to try to compensate for the rising volumes you hear. Instead, make an agreement before the show with your singing partners to all sing softer and to listen louder. This requires all the singers involved working together as a team to create a good sound.
Don’t be afraid of silence on stage. Give yourselves the time and space to pay attention to each other and listen well. In fact, you will find that silence before a song draws all of the audience’s attention into it. It’s a great way to focus the energy of the audience and yourselves before you start the song. In addition, you can try putting an earplug into one ear as a way of balancing the relative volume of your voice and the voices and instruments you are trying to hear.
Make A Still Place
In 1979, I was touring with a heavy metal band and a great singer named Suzi Quatro (aka Leather Tuscadaro on Happy Days). Suzie was married to the lead guitarist, and the whole band was from Scotland. They performed in tiny clubs every night with a wall of Marshall amps on stage behind the band. Our job as the background singers was to look good in black leather, jump up and down in place, shake our heads back and forth and to sing harmony on Suzi’s songs, in tune.? The whole show was so loud you couldn’t hear the person next to you sing or talk. At one point I thought to myself, I can’t do this! I can’t hear anything! It was in the middle of a show and I just had to calm down, and I found that if I shut up inside my head and was very still and quiet in my mind, that even with such chaos going on, I could pick out what everyone was doing and sing along at a normal vocal level. After that, I started wearing earplugs to the gigs and found that I could hear even better with them in. But the key to being able to hear was being quiet inside myself. It’s where your attention is focused that makes the difference, not the volume.
My final piece of advice is to rehearse thoroughly so that you know what parts you are supposed to be singing. That will cut down on your anxiety level and make it easier for you to calm down and listen while you are singing in harmony.
Originally posted 2009-07-23 20:31:47.