The spectacle of a circus! Bright lights and colorful costumes! Beautiful people mixed with freaks of nature. Daring performers that amaze us with their abilities, and an army of clowns to keep things entertaining.


Hey, that’s a perfect description of the music business, right down to the poor guy who follows the elephant with a shovel. It’s interesting to ask people which circus character best describes their stage persona. Some view the stage as a tightrope: they see themselves high above the crowd without a net. Others know they are clowns and aren’t the least bit embarrassed to say so. Along with the persona, though, are the physical skills required to sing. Here’s where each one of us must deal with the same issues, and the circus character that best represents the act of singing is the juggler.


Play Ball

Imagine a musical pitch as a red rubber ball. Now picture volume as a blue one and the tone of your voice as a yellow ball. Just as a juggler must keep three balls in the air, performing a song also requires the simultaneous management of multiple elements. Too often, pitch becomes an all-consuming concern. It’s not that you shouldn’t worry about singing in tune, it’s that it shouldn’t come at the expense of dynamics and tone. To capture the heart of a listener requires a command of at least these three elements.

For most people, juggling seems difficult. The problem stems from a desire to watch each individual ball as it is tossed in the air. Since it’s impossible to focus on three things at once, the arms tighten in a response to the loss of control. Vocally, we often stiffen up when feeling overwhelmed. If this is true for you, it’s time to change your definition of control.


If someone can balance a ball on the end of a finger, we say that person has great ball control. It’s really the other way around. The ball is in control of the person. In order for anything to stay atop your finger, or your nose if you’re in the circus, you’ve got to dance with it. Wherever the ball goes you’ve got to follow with tiny reflexive moves too small and fast to anticipate. Lag behind in your reactions and the ball heads for the floor every time. Ironically, what slows our reflexes is the desire to control the event.


It’s natural to overreact physically when singing a new song. In time, though, as we become more familiar with a song we automatically involve less muscle. Control is the result of the minimum amount of effort needed, an important point to remember when you want to sing well in a hurry. A free mind and loose muscles are all it takes.


A Juggling Act

In order to juggle or sing, no one aspect can be attended to for more than a split second. Focus on one ball too long and you’ll drop the other two. Jugglers and singers alike must place the conscious mind in overview mode. This means you stay aware of everything that’s happening but don’t get involved in micro-managing muscles. Jugglers look straight ahead and see the balls in peripheral vision, reacting reflexively with small hand adjustments to keep the flow. Once the movements become automatic, a juggler can then make a conscious decision to depart from the rhythm for a moment. Throwing a single ball higher and catching it behind the back would be the equivalent of ad-libbing a riff of high notes in a song. A solid trust in reflexes is what gives both jugglers and singers the freedom to explore new tricks.


Train for Success

The difference between singing in the shower and belting out a tune for millions live on TV is all in the mind. It’s dark inside your throat, and the larynx doesn’t know where you are. Professionals keep their nerves from infecting their reflexes by constantly reinforcing a loose feel. To train for a high-wire act, all circus stunts are first rehearsed on the ground. Once the moves are choreographed, the routine is attempted on a wire just one foot off the ground. Without the threat of injury, the mind stays relaxed. The next stage is on the high wire but with a net. Only after countless successful rehearsals is the net removed. At this point, the only thing the acrobat concentrates on is how loose the body felt when the wire was a foot off the ground.


Preparing a song for a live performance should follow the same approach. Where singers tend to fall short is in the basic skills. You can’t give a relaxed performance if the physical requirements for singing have yet to become reflexive. This foundational behavior is honed by consistent repetition (translation: practice). However, mindlessly running through vocal drills is not enough to set you free. Use your practice time to focus on your mechanics. When vocalizing, in direct contrast to singing for an audience, you should be aware of every detail. Make sure volume stays the same as you change pitch. Select a tone and stick with it. Don’t let your muscles be governed by pitch alone-no matter how bad you sound at first.


Surrendering two out of three characteristics of singing will leave you with just one colored ball to play with on stage. So you’ll end up playing catch with yourself instead of offering something more interesting. Attending to the details when practicing is the safety net for singers, leaving your mind free to play when performing. Unfortunately, most jugglers use this freedom to hop on a unicycle and tell bad jokes. Hopefully, you’ll use your vocal reflexes in a more compelling way. If practicing feels like an unnecessary chore, but you still want to be in the music business, the guy following the elephant would be happy to hand you his shovel.


Originally posted 2009-01-17 05:17:06.